What’s in a Name? Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, 20 November, 1998
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. 1 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.” 2 [End Page 1]
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. 3 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. 4
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 [End Page 2] 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 Put African American Studies at the Center?” 5 In particular, I want to take to heart the caveat Washington provided in her recommendation of John Sayles’s film, Lone Star, as a prophetic allegory about how to change the field of American studies. In recommending Lone Star’s particular depiction of what she called “cultural menudo,” Mary Helen Washington observed that in Sayles’s film, “the resolution of disputes is not as important as the freer play of long-silenced voices.” She continued:
In Lone Star, cultural traditions and styles more often collide rather than intersect and interweave; and what I love about Sayles’s depiction of this process is that he doesn’t allow differences of language, politics, historical vision, etc. to dissolve in a soothing movement toward consensus; he presents the multicultural moment as one of tension, struggle, discomfort and disagreement.(16)
The question I aim to pose tonight is what the association can do at this particular moment, on the brink of a new century, and at the edge of the so-called “American” continent, to ensure that its very name does not enforce the achievement of premature closure through an implicit, tacit search for the distinctively American “common ground.” 6 With this aim in mind, I want to note here that in response to Mary Helen Washington’s caveat, I have deliberately sought to avoid using the pronoun “we” throughout this address as a way of refusing the presumptive and coercive enclosure it usually enacts when used in institutional situations of this kind. I have resisted the comforting assumption that there is an unproblematic “we” as a way of recognizing that the many who associate their work with American studies often have distinctly different interests, agendas, and concerns.
Carl Bode’s mention of the naming of the American Studies Association is very brief. He first notes that a small group of literary scholars, historians, and non-academics met on March 22, 1951 in response to his efforts to organize a society that “would help to define American [End Page 3] civilization”(347). He hoped that its stress on synthesis would counter the increasing emphasis on “specialism.” In this account, Professor Bode further reports that “business went briskly” and then he observes, “We argued about naming the society—American Civilization Society vs. American Studies Association—but few other things caused any debate.” His reference to an argument about the worth of highlighting “civilization” rather than “studies” is tantalizing here. One wonders what the arguments were. I have not been able to recover the details of the discussion but it does seem plausible given what I know about the debates of the time that disagreement might have centered on the validity of highlighting the unity of American society, on the question of whether that society actually had developed anything so coherent as a civilization, on whether it might be better to feature the looser, more contingent idea of multiple “studies” in the organization’s title rather than assuming from the outset that those studies would amount to the history of an organic whole. 7
It is interesting to juxtapose the final choice of “studies” rather than “civilization” with what apparently didn’t cause any debate at this first organizational meeting, that is, the question of whether or not to use the word, “American.” If, as his omission of any reference to this point suggests, Bode and his colleagues did not debate the use of the term “American,” their application of it to quite diverse studies of the history and culture of the United States might be seen as a function of the precise historical context within which they worked. As many have observed, the American Studies Association was a product of a Cold War context that produced a desire to delineate what was exceptional about U.S. culture at a time when public debate was structured by the perceived opposition between the aggressive empire of the Soviet Union and the supposedly disinterested, democratic republic of the United States. It was this interest in American exceptionalism, really, that led to the desire for an interdisciplinary method that would be equal to the notion of American culture conceived as a unified whole, a whole that manifested itself as a distinctive set of properties and themes in all things American, whether individuals, institutions, or cultural products.
The point I am trying to make here is that, from the beginning, there has been a highly productive tension in both the field and the association, a tension exemplified by conflicting impulses embedded in the name. On the one hand, there is a strong tradition in American studies of asserting the exceptionalism of American society and of [End Page 4] delimiting the extent of that exceptionalism geographically. Gene Wise summarized what he called this first “substantive consensus on the nature of the American experience” in his important article, “Paradigm Dramas.” 8 It was dominated, he suggested by the assumption that “There is an ‘American Mind.’ That mind is more or less homogenous. Though it may prove to be complex and constructed of many different layers, it is in fact a single entity.” He continued, “What distinguishes the American Mind (in this view) is its location in the ‘New’ world.” Wise suggested further that the consensus assumed that the American mind could theoretically be found in any American, but it presumed further that that Mind “comes to most coherent expression in the country’s leading thinkers—Williams, Edwards, Franklin, Cooper, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Twain, Dewey, Niebuhr, et. al.” The “al.,” of course, was still white, straight, middle-class, and male. 9
On the other hand, there has been an alternative tradition to this late 1940s and 1950s consensus, a tradition that Linda Kerber, Allen Davis, Martha Banta, Alice Kessler-Harris, Elaine Tyler May, and Patricia Nelson Limerick explored in their presidential addresses, a tradition that as Michael Denning has recently shown, was present in the earliest stirrings of what would become the American studies movement. 10 In his important book, The Cultural Front, Denning has performed the immense service of telling another origin story about the development of the American studies field, a story that places the origins of the field not in the Cold War decades but much earlier in the decades of the thirties and the forties. As George Lipsitz has pointed out, Denning recovers the diverse radical roots of the first practitioners of American studies and shows how those practitioners sought to understand the U.S. precisely so as to critique its racism, classism, sexism, and xenophobia. 11 Denning demonstrates persuasively that cultural critique was not a new impulse in American studies when it began to dominate the field in the 1970s and 1980s. Rather, he suggests, some students of American history have always attempted to counter the notion of American exceptionalism both by pursuing the question of the place of the United States in an international context and by suggesting that the apparent democratic consensus in fact excluded many from participating in defining it or from enjoying its supposed benefits. 12 This tradition has focused on what I like to call, after Stuart Hall, “the popular,” that is, the everyday lives, political activities, and cultural [End Page 5] productions of the subordinated populations of the United States. 13 It has tended to focus on practices and structures of feeling that bind people to communities that are larger or smaller than the American nation, communities that have sometimes been international in scope, sometimes more locally based, and sometimes bound more to political goals than to space or territory. 14 This work has been enabled and encouraged, I want to suggest, by the founders’ judicious decision to highlight the possibility of multiple, different “studies” of things diversely American.
Despite the richness of this alternative American studies tradition, it was not until very recently that it managed to bring to awareness another piece of the disciplinary unconscious embedded in the choice of the word “American” to describe the association and the field it was meant to foster. Indeed it has been less frequently remarked upon in the accounts of the Cold War origins of American studies that, in addition to underwriting the notion of American exceptionalism, the early consensus in the field tended to elide the idea of the “American” with the culture of the United States. 15 In so doing, it unconsciously erased the fact that other nations, groups, and territories had already staked their own quite distinctive claim to the concept and name, “American.” Indeed there would be no mention in the American Quarterly for decades of the earlier, alternative account of the concept of American culture articulated by José Martí in his important essay, “Nuestra America,” published almost simultaneously in January 1891 in Mexico City and in New York. 16 The pronominal “Nuestra,” the “Our” in Martí’s title, referred not to the American culture of those born within the borders of the United States, but to a different America, the America of those who claimed South and Central America, the America of the Caribbean basin, as their home. As Martí makes clear, that America included both Haiti and Cuba, the sites of important revolutionary movements opposing European and United States imperialism.
In settling on the term “American” to delimit their area of study, then, the founders of this association, no doubt without intending to, compounded earlier imperial gestures. In naming the society in this way, they repeated a particular nation-state’s claim to the powerful historical concept of “America.” Thus they repeated the usurpation by the United States of the right to employ a word that had originally been mobilized by Europeans to name geographically dispersed lands which they themselves had imperially expropriated for their own use from [End Page 6] indigenous peoples who named the locales they occupied in their own diverse and distinct languages. The apparent lack of self-consciousness about this gesture was almost certainly a function of the raw economic and political power wielded by the United States which enabled it to obliterate by inattention other nations’ or groups’ claims to the term.
The elision of American culture with the United States and the consequent backgrounding of U.S. imperialism that it produced has now been placed on the agenda of this association by scholars and intellectuals building explicitly on the alternative traditions of American studies as well as on earlier critiques of imperialism produced by people like Martí, José Rizal, W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, Franz Fanon, and others. They have taken to heart the fluidity embedded in that word, “studies,” that was highlighted in the field’s title and then read that fluidity back into the once reified concept of an organic “America” assumed to be congruent with the borders of the United States. This new work made a particularly prominent intervention in the field of American studies with the appearance of the volume Cultures of United States Imperialism, edited by Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease. That volume provided the inspiration for this conference in Seattle and suggested its theme, “American Studies and the Question of Empire.” 17
I want to call attention to this rich body of work tonight and to acknowledge the significance of the contributions made to it by the members of this conference’s program committee as well as by many of you seated in the audience. I won’t be able to mention all of you this evening. Nor will it be possible to acknowledge the many ways in which your work has prompted the thoughts that follow. Still, I would like to sketch out very briefly my own sense of how this very important body of work has developed at the intersection between American studies’ alternative traditions and certain strains in critical race theory, Black Atlantic studies, women’s studies, post-colonial theory, subaltern studies, and transnational feminist and queer studies, to name only a few of the influences here. I would then like to explain why I think this turn to the question of American imperialism, both domestically and internationally realized, is not only important but potentially transformative of the field of American studies itself.
I want to suggest, in fact, that this new work fundamentally challenges certain deeply embedded assumptions about the concepts of identity and culture that, despite an increasingly prominent critique of them, still tend to enclose and contain the effects of difference within [End Page 7] American studies often through the structuring principles of syllabi, anthologies, and even conference programs and panels. 18 I hope to suggest finally that the complex, increasingly elaborated and refined discussion of the social, political, cultural, and intellectual consequences of both internal and external forms of U.S. imperialism has begun to demand new ways of thinking the relationship among geography, culture, and identity. I believe that this work of reconceptualization should now be placed at the heart of the field’s agenda and that the association should itself seek ways to foster it through every means possible. The ultimate question I want to pose tonight is whether this can be adequately done in the current historical context, dominated as it is by a rapidly advancing global neo-colonialism that specifically benefits the United States, by an association whose very name still so powerfully evokes the ghostly presence of a phantasmatic, intensely longed-for, unitary “American” culture. 19
Time will not permit a full-scale intellectual history of American studies’ radical traditions nor even of the field’s now extensive engagement with the question of difference. In fact, as I have already noted, virtually every recent president of this association has recounted some aspect of this history. I only want to note here that some of the earliest scholarship on questions of gender, race, ethnicity, and class, and to a certain extent on sexuality, did find a hospitable space within American studies, a place where the challenges this work posed to familiar canons and dominant traditions could be formally delivered. Indeed, many scholars working on these questions presented their work at previous American studies conferences. They were able to do so because committed individuals connected with the association have always worked diligently to open the conference proceedings, the organization itself, and the pages of the journal to new modes of thought.
Although the resulting work has varied widely and was differently inflected in order to advance diverse agendas, it seems clear to me that its collective force challenged the earlier consensus view, the notion that the American democratic idea uniformly included within its purview all those who inhabited the United States. By noting the ways in which certain populations were not only excluded from the so-called American experiment but also included within other communities [End Page 8] defined not by national belonging but by gender, race, class, or ethnic affiliation, this scholarship early on centered upon questions of subjectivity—in the parlance of the time, on questions of identity.
The term “identity politics” of course has a complex history, and it has been used both approvingly to delineate various forms of political opposition to an unexamined nationalism and disparagingly as an epithet aimed at questioning the value of so-called “minority” identifications. 20 Within American studies, it seems to me, the causes of identity politics have generally been taken very seriously. Scholars within the field have conscientiously attempted to respond to demands that they examine something more than the activities of educated, middle-class, straight, white men. Important work has been done as a result. In the past, however, these forms of non-national identification sometimes were essentialized and rendered as secondary qualifications to others deemed overarching or primary. What this often amounted to was an additive intellectual politics, a politics of inclusion, a move that left intact the assumed privilege of territorial paradigms and the priority of the nationalist community. So-called “minority” identities and projects were construed as having come, not from the core or center, but from the periphery. Since difference thus conceived was assumed to be divisive, a constant reiteration of the need to seek common ground developed in response. American studies was concomitantly envisioned as a more capacious umbrella containing more multitudes than it had been able to encompass before. I take this idea of America as “a stable container of social antagonisms” to be the subject of Nikhil Pal Singh’s bracing critique, just published in American Quarterly, of both past and recent defenses of American liberalism which have sought to justify the idea of common ground against the supposedly divisive claims of multicultural difference. 21
The liberal solution to the question of difference has increasingly been made untenable, however, by new work on race especially, but also by work on sexuality, ethnicity, gender, and class. Much of this work has made a critical theoretical break with earlier formulations of identity. Sometimes (but not always) informed by post-structuralist understandings of the ways in which subjectivities are constructed, this work has detached the question of difference from various bodily, cultural, and geographic essentialisms and has begun to explore the complex, intersecting ways in which people are embedded within multiple, conflicted discourses, practices, and institutions. Within [End Page 9] American studies, this break appeared particularly acute when work on difference explicitly began to engage the question of how American nationalism was actively constructed at specific moments, at specific sites, and through specific practices.
I am thinking here of work like that done by Amy Kaplan, by Lauren Berlant, Lisa Lowe, George Sanchez, Hazel Carby, Wahneema Lubiano, Vicki Ruiz, Eric Sundquist, David Roediger, Carolyn Porter, José Saldívar, Eric Cheyfitz, George Lipsitz, Robyn Weigman, Lisa Duggan, Betsy Erkkila, Gary Okihiro, Robin Kelley, Nancy Hewitt, Dana Nelson, Chandra Mohanty, George Chauncey, and so many others. Although this work is not uniform and is, in fact, animated by quite different theoretical commitments—indeed some of this work is not explicitly post-structuralist—I do think it collectively poses the question of how American national identity has been produced precisely in opposition to, and therefore in relationship with, that which it excludes or subordinates. This work has begun to show that American nationalism is neither autonomously defined—which is to say, exceptional—nor is it internally homogenous. Rather, it is relationally defined and historically and situationally variable because it is dependent upon and therefore intertwined with those affiliations, identities, and communities it must actively subordinate in order to press the privileged claims of the nation upon individuals and groups. 22
I believe that this work calls for a new way of formulating the “objects” of American studies. 23 Instead of a form of attention that tends to isolate and reify those things that are the focal point of concern, whether a culture, an event, a political subject, or an institution, this new work demands an attention to relationships of connection and dependence, relationships I like to characterize generally as “intricate interdependencies.” I use the term “intricate interdependencies” somewhat loosely here to describe a range of radically intertwined relationships that have been brought to the fore in recent attempts to rethink nationalism, race, culture, ethnicity, identity, sex, and gender. Time won’t permit a full discussion of the many kinds of intricate interdependencies that have been explored of late, but I would like to point to two sites where the effort to explore the consequences of imperial power relations has foregrounded the need for relational thinking and highlighted the importance of intertwined, material and conceptual dependencies. This work bears portentous implications for the way American studies might be practiced in the future. [End Page 10]
There is a large body of work on the social and cultural formation of the subject which attempts to dislodge the question of identity from its attachment to some form of biology. Indeed this desire sits at the heart of a good deal of feminist work on gender, queer work on sex, and anti-racist work on the category of “race.” In the interests of time, I have decided only to say a few things about the work on race here as a way of drawing attention to the larger effort to displace essentially defined bodies for complex social subjects produced at the intersection of a number of discourses, practices, and institutions. 24 Some of the key features of this work can be found, I think, in an essay by Wahneema Lubiano entitled “Like Being Mugged by a Metaphor,” as well as by the volume she recently edited, The House that Race Built. 25
Neither Lubiano’s essay nor the larger volume itself is designed simply to question race as a function of biology or to argue merely that “race” is a socially constructed category. Rather, they aim to argue more radically that the state and the political economy of the United States are themselves entirely dependent on the internal, imperial racialization of the population. What this means is that the American national subject is produced as white and that the process of production takes place in overdetermined fashion through the knotted, inextricably intertwined relationship between practices of symbolic representation and specific economic, educational, and political policies that simultaneously name and subordinate black populations. As Lubiano puts it,
the constructions of our various beings as a group are both material and cultural. The material and the cultural are neither completely separate nor do they operate autonomously. The idea “Black people” is a social reality. Black people are a dominated group politically and economically, even if every member is not always dominated under all circumstances.(73)
The U.S. is thus utterly dependent on its obsession with “blackness.” In fact, that obsession is constitutive of the state and the way it functions on behalf of some. The U.S. is intricately intertwined as a national and state entity with those it must dominate in order to establish, in however illusory a fashion, the conceptual stability of, and material security for, a particular ruling group. George Lipsitz has documented in excruciating detail how this is actually managed in his most recent book, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. 26
The point I am trying to make here is that American national identity is constructed in and through relations of difference. As a conceptual [End Page 11] entity, it is intricately intertwined with certain alterities which diacritically define it as something that is supposedly normative, normal, and central. As a material and social entity, it is brought into being through relations of dominance and oppression, through processes of super- and subordination. To take the measure of this national entity, it is necessary, then, to focus on these constitutive relationships, these intricate interdependencies, which are figured ironically as deep fissures and fractures in the national body. America is not an organically unified, homogeneous thing. Nor should it be isolated for simple veneration, as an object in a museum. This, it seems to me is Wahneema Lubiano’s important point when she says that the myth of America must be de-aestheticized.
I should point out here that in this article, Lubiano is also raising troubling questions about the political work of intellectuals and university based scholars. She suggests, in fact, that a conceptual instrument like multiculturalism, which she ultimately supports, might function as just another technology for racializing the world if it is used by intellectuals to construct and study blackness without also tracing out how that blackness is wholly functional for the state. This may also be true of the notion of the “American” in American studies. If intellectual practice in the field does not examine the ways in which the construction of a national subject works to the economic and political advantage of some and precisely against the interests of others, then American studies runs the risk of functioning as just another technology of nationalism, a way of ritually repeating the claims of nationalism by assuming it as an autonomous given inevitably worthy of scholarly study. 27
There is another large body of work on the social and cultural formation of the subject which extends the critique of an aestheticized America by pursuing another set of intricate interdependencies. This work attempts to dislodge the question of identity from its attachment to essentialized notions of culture and geography. Much of this work has been done as part of the examination of the effects of U.S. imperialism around the globe. Because of limited time, I can only comment briefly on the work that has been done in two areas. I would like to acknowledge the important contributions of Chicana/Chicano studies and point as well to the contributions of recent work on the effects of the U.S. presence in the Pacific Rim, especially in Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines. The nature of these contributions is laid out with exceptional clarity in two essays in the Kaplan-Pease volume, [End Page 12] José Saldívar’s “Américo Paredes and Decolonization,” and Vicente Diaz’s “Pious Sites: Chamorro Culture Between Spanish Catholicism and American Liberal Individualism.” 28 Both of these essays, it seems to me, strain after a new understanding of the concept of culture by seeking to de-reify it. That is, they abandon the conceptualization of culture as an organic, homogeneous thing which is bound to a fixed territory and attempt to reconceptualize it as the result of complex social processes deeply bound up with the exercise of power at specific, concrete sites.
José Saldívar aims to criticize what he calls the “spatial materialism and the politics of cultural identity” that have grounded traditional American studies. He does so by analyzing the influential and generative work of Américo Paredes, whom he characterizes as a “border intellectual.” Noting that the Texas-based Paredes refused to be identified as a Mexican immigrant to the United States, Saldívar suggests that Paredes’s “antidisciplinary border project” grew out of his desire to acknowledge the fact of U.S. military aggression against the land of his ancestors. In Saldívar’s view, Paredes sought to trace out the ways in which the imposition of an Anglocentric economic and cultural hegemony upon the land appropriated from Mexico failed to produce the desired Americanization of the people living there. In his important book on the corrido, “With His Pistol in His Hand,” and in his novel, George Washington Gómez: A Mexicotexan Novel, Paredes documented the complex ways in which border dwellers produced their own distinctive world and a point of view that acknowledged that they were neither simply Mexican nor American, nor even some third, homogenous cultural identity. 29 Rather they were deeply and continuously affected by the clash of cultures at a site characterized by a “serious contest of codes and representations.” The point of view that this social situation generated, and which Saldívar characterizes as “inbetweenness,” was not equivalent to the simple physical oscillation between two homogeneous and autonomous cultures. Rather, it generated an ambivalent subject, a subject produced not by the simple contiguity of cultures, but by mutual contestation of social histories and habits—by the interleaving and interweaving of cultural practices—a situation achieved through the complex processes of migration, appropriation, domination, and subordination and by the sense of loss, active remembrance, adaptation and borrowing that they produced. 30
Culture, in this view, is not something one “has” as the consequence of being situated at a particular geographic location. Rather it is a [End Page 13] meaning effect produced by hierarchical relationships established between different spaces and the communities that give them significance. Culture becomes remarkable because a sense of alterity is produced through the social confrontations and interdependencies that result from these interconnections. 31 Hence, for Paredes, as Saldívar suggests, “the consensus rhetoric of American studies with its emphasis upon the motto, ‘e pluribus unum’ had to be negated and supplemented with a more sophisticated sense of ‘culture,’ as a site of social struggle”(295). This is as true for culture within the boundaries of the U.S. as it is for culture in the borderlands and beyond. The very notion of “the American” is intricately entwined with those “others” produced internally as different and externally as alien through practices of imperial domination and incorporation.
Like Saldívar and Paredes, Vicente Diaz also seeks to “trouble national and cultural boundaries” by examining the complexities of Chamorro cultural history in Guam. He does so by tracing the successive ways in which local histories and practices in the Marianas were deeply affected by the social transactions promoted by the global economic and political policies of imperial states. Thus, he traces the ways in which Chamorro traditions and self-understandings have been transformed by their encounters with Spanish Catholic and U.S. state imperialism. He does this by disentangling the histories embedded in the architectural melange of the capital city, Agana, and by exploring what he calls “the troubled entanglements among indigenous and exogenous ideas and practices” in two nearly contemporaneous events in 1990, the suicide of former governor, Ricardo Bordallo, and the passage of an anti-abortion law by the Guam legislature. What Diaz is able to show is how both places and events in Guam are deeply affected by cultural histories that are neither finished nor past but actively engaged and demonstrably effective in the present through the persistence of memories, dreams, desires, and even spirits.
Through a careful analysis of the intertwined practices and rhetorics that comprised the suicide and the passage of the abortion law, Diaz demonstrates that in both events, indigenous Chamorro, Spanish Catholic, and American liberal beliefs and practices contest each other in ways that act to blur the distinctions among them. Diaz suggests that Chomorro culture has not simply been superseded by Spanish Catholic culture, nor has the latter been displaced by American liberalism. Rather, the practices and representations of which all three are constituted [End Page 14] intersect, interweave and are transformed as a result. He suggests that, because of this it is essential to see “how Chamorro cultural continuity makes a home within intrusive foreign systems. . .that sought to reconsolidate themselves in imperial and evangelical imperatives among people. . . who also sought to reconsolidate their own notions of self and society”(334). Chamorro, Spanish, and American cultures are thus intricately intertwined and dependent upon each other for their mutual self-definition through confrontation and exchange.
The point I am trying to make here in discussing the articles of José Saldívar and Vicente Diaz is that much of the work on borderland culture and on the cultural complexities of the Pacific Rim challenges the idea that culture can be adequately conceived as a unitary, uniform thing, as the simple function of a fixed, isolated, and easily mapped territory. Similarly, they suggest that cultural identity can no longer be conceptualized as a naturalized essence or property that thoroughly saturates an individual because of his or her socialization within a particular locale. Instead, identity must be conceptualized as a specific, always changing relationship to multiple, shifting, imagined communities, communities which, despite the fact that they are always imagined, are situated in specific places at particular moments and amidst particular geographies.
This work does not, therefore, diminish the importance of place or geography in the effort to understand societies and culture. Rather, it demands a reconceptualization of both as socially produced through relations of dependence and mutual implication, through relationships established socially and hierarchically between the near and far, the local and the distant. It suggests that far from being conceived on the model of a container—that is, as a particular kind of hollowed out object with evident edges or skin enclosing certain organically uniform contents—territories and geographies need to be reconceived as spatially-situated and intricately intertwined networks of social relationships that tie specific locales to particular histories. The feminist geographer, Doreen Massey, conceptualizes this interweaving of locale and history as a particular “space,” that is, as “the sphere of the meeting-up (or not) of multiple trajectories, the sphere where they coexist, affect each other, maybe come into conflict. It is the sphere both of their independence (or) co-existence and of their interrelation.” Subjects and objects, she adds, “are constructed through the space of those interrelations....”32 [End Page 15]
It seems to me that new work on cultural borderlands and hybridities challenges the claims to intellectual validity of fields that unwittingly continue to perpetuate a set of assumptions criticized recently by Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, assumptions that bounded territories are naturally disconnected, that cultures are isomorphically tied to those spaces, and that identities follow necessarily and unitarily from them. 33 This work suggests instead that territories and geographies need to be understood as always hierarchically interconnected, which is tantamount to saying, in the words of Gupta and Ferguson, that “spaces are always related to each other through the social relations that control them.” 34 Culture needs to be reconceived as a site of perpetual social struggle, as the location where particular forms of power produce opposition and contestation in the very act of trying to control it. Culture is not a matter of coherence and consensus. Rather, it is the always shifting terrain upon which multiple social groups form, actively solicit the identification of some, hinder that of others, and ignore the counterclaims made by still others. Identity is never unitarily achieved, as a result, not even by the claims of nationalism. As David Lloyd points out,
it is a paradox of nationalism that though it may often summon into being a ‘people’ that is to form and subtend the nation-state, it is always confronted with that people as a potentially disruptive excess over the nation and its state—if nationalism calls forth a people for the nation-state, its mode of subjectification still cannot exhaust the identifications available to the individuals thus summoned. 35
From this perspective, ethnic, queer, feminist, or working-class identities cannot be conceived as separate essences sheltered within a more capacious, ontologically prior American identity. Rather, they must be seen as cross-cutting, insurgent, oftentimes oppositional identifications. 36 Sometimes those identifications are with sub-national communities; at other times, they are with trans- or international communities. In either case, they pose a profound challenge to the integrity of the very idea of an American whose identity is fully accounted for by residence in the territory of the United States.
What does all this mean for American studies at this particular historical moment? If the notion of a bounded national territory and a [End Page 16] concomitant national identity deriving isomorphically from it are called into question, why perpetuate a specifically “American” studies? Has enough work been done at this point to complicate and fracture the very idea of an “American” nation, culture, and subject, such that its continued presence in the name of the field and in that of the association no longer functions as a form of premature closure or as an imperial gesture erasing the claims of others to use of the name? In order to promote work that would further reconceptualize the American as always relationally defined and therefore as intricately dependent upon “others” that are used both materially and conceptually to mark its boundaries, would it make sense to think about renaming the association as an institution devoted to a different form of knowledge production, to alternative epistemologies, to the investigation of a different object?
A name change can seem a superficial gesture, or the disrespectful, willful dismissal of a significant past, or it can function as the signifier of something more positive. It is not clear to me whether changing the name of this association would amount to one or another of these possibilities. Would finding another name for this association do little to alter the parameters of the field and the forms of knowledge-production generated within it? Would it amount only to a dangerous and ill-timed denial of the achievements of a field that many believe has done more to foster diversity in personnel and intellectual point of view than have many other scholarly disciplines? Or, would a name change renew the field by pushing scholars to reconceptualize its proper object of study by asking questions about culture for which they do not already have the answers? 37 I am uncertain about how to respond to these questions in part because every name change I can think of produces as many objections to it as it does potentially positive effects. Although I think that in the end, the name “American studies” will have to be retained, I believe it is worthwhile to open up a speculative discussion of the name for several key reasons.
The activity of exploring potential new names is generative because names are never simply descriptives. They also function as directives and sometimes as promises; as such, they have to be enacted and embodied in constitutive practices; their promise demands to be realized. Thinking of possible ways to rename the field and the association can help to identify new practices that might be taken up by participants as a way to institute the relational perspectives I have been [End Page 17] recommending here. The act of trying out new names, it seems to me, can therefore work to suggest how a different relation to the name “American studies” might be taken up or realized by those who are seeking to redefine it. 38 If the study of human social interaction is not to be spatialized and essentialized in isomorphic ways at this historical moment, if the boundaries of the “American” are not to be naturalized or taken for granted or mapped onto the United States alone, how should the parameters of the field be delineated, how should objects of study be constituted?
In closing, and as a way of furthering the conversation I have tried to initiate tonight, let me sketch out three possibilities for renaming the association and the field and the advantages and problems they might pose. I can’t in good faith argue for any one of these against the others, but I have found that the effort to think them through is fruitful precisely because it helps to clarify what might be desirable in the future. At the same time, because each name change generates certain dissatisfactions and hints at the potential objections that might be made by others, this thought experiment demonstrates both how difficult it is to shed some of the field’s most basic presuppositions and how hard it will be to negotiate within a world that is increasingly wary of the multifarious forms of power exerted by the United States and by dominant modes of thought. Ultimately, I think, the process of examining the imperatives contained within different names can at least suggest concrete actions which the association might take now to help ensure that the field’s proper objects of study can be further transformed.
One possibility would be to name the field and the association with greater modesty. The field could be called United States Studies and the association could be renamed the Association for the Study of the United States, with the proviso that analysis of the U.S. would have to foreground its relationships to the rest of the world as well as to non-national communities. Such a move would have the advantage of refusing to repeat the imperial gesture whereby competing claims to the name “American” were erased. In keeping with this greater awareness of international power relations, the association could additionally be reconfigured as the International Association for the Study of the United States, following the lead taken by the International Forum for U.S. Studies organized at the University of Iowa. This would acknowledge the fact that analysis of the U.S. and its history, people, and cultures is not carried out solely within the borders of this country. [End Page 18] Indeed those positioned beyond its borders and hence at a remove from ordinary and taken-for-granted ways of seeing and doing things can frequently de-naturalize the familiar with greater effectiveness and thereby see culture and convention where others see only the world.
It should be noted, however, that, as Jane Desmond and Virginia Dominguez have effectively cautioned in their article, “Resituating American Studies in a Critical Internationalism,” the act of renaming the association an international one would enjoin upon all those associated with it certain responsibilities. 39 It would be necessary to ensure that international scholars and scholarship occupied something more than a token position within it. At the association’s conference, in the pages of its journal, and in the notes of scholars who associate themselves with the field, the work produced by scholars living and teaching outside the United States ought to figure crucially in arguments about the nature of this country’s history and cultures.
The present Association has made important strides in this direction but it could do more to institutionalize an international, comparative agenda, as Desmond and Dominguez have argued. A growing number of individual scholars from outside the U.S. (especially from the European Association of American studies) have been welcomed at recent ASA conferences. The Association has also institutionalized ties with the Japanese Association for American studies and sponsored joint conferences with the Canadian Association for American studies. But the work of international scholars is still often cordoned off in special “international” panels rather than integrated within panels that feature U.S. based scholars. And the ASA as an organization has yet to explore the possibility of formalizing connections with other world-wide associations for the study of the culture of the Americas, including the Latin American Studies Association. By placing the U.S. (conceived always in a global context) at the heart of the field’s work while formally acknowledging that that work is carried out internationally, this new name might be successful at challenging the chauvinism Américo Paredes and others found embedded in the name of American studies, the sense that only U.S. citizens understand the United States.
The problem with this name change, of course, is that it would not necessarily address the questions I have raised about the reification of cultures. Even more to the point, by associating the field with the political rather than the conceptual borders of the nation state, such a name might actually promote even less questioning about the nature of [End Page 19] the U.S. nation and nationalism as the implicit objects of study of the members of the association. Even more worrisomely, such a name might lead to a greater isolationism in the intellectual construction of the U.S., a sense that its embeddedness in changing international contexts is not essential to its definition. This would perpetuate and perhaps worsen the tendency to believe that something essential and fundamentally different happens when individuals and families migrate to the U.S., that those people become entirely other cultural subjects than they were before.
A second possibility, then, might be the Inter-American Studies Association. After all, in her presidential address some five years ago, Cathy Davidson suggested that “post-colonialism is the theory, inter-American studies is the practice.” 40 José Saldívar himself has also recently repeated this call for inter-American studies in Border Matters and Eric Cheyfitz argued for something similar when he proposed “Americas Cultural Studies.” 41 Betsy Erkkila has argued for another related formulation in her article, “Ethnicity, Literary Theory, and the Grounds of Resistance.” 42 The name Inter-American studies would have the advantage of comparatively connecting the study of U.S. history and cultures to those of North, Central, and South America and to the countries and cultures of the Caribbean as well. By focusing on trans-national American social and cultural relations, inter-American studies could foster the investigation of regional cultural flows, of peoples, ideas, institutions, movements, products, etc.
At the same time, such a name would implicitly place the entire “American” field in relation to the imperial Europe that first began to define it. The refocused field could comparatively explore the complex economic, political, social, and cultural relations that produced the various “American” societies that have emerged in the so-called “new world.” A field organized upon such principles could conceivably challenge the naturalization of nations as discrete units of analysis and it might even question the theoretical reification of culture on the model of a distinct and unitary thing. By recognizing that the “American” idea has been pursued somewhat differently in different contexts, such a field might be able to foster an understanding of culture as a complex site of economic, social, and representational contestation and exchange, transactions produced by contiguities and circulation through relationally-defined borders. 43
In attempting to foster Inter-American studies, a redirected association [End Page 20] would need to institutionalize connections with the Latin American Studies Association, with the Canadian Association for American studies, The European Association of American studies, the Canadian Studies Association, The National Association for Ethnic Studies, the National Association of African-American studies, the National Association of Hispanic and Latino Studies, and any number of others. It would be extremely important, however, that possibilities be explored with sensitivity and with attention to the fact that such a gesture could easily be seen as another imperial act of containment, erasure, or even co-optation. Clearly, an Inter-American Studies Association should not be conceptualized as a means for pre-empting the work of organizations developed previously according to other rubrics. It must not be conceived as an umbrella organization uniting and overseeing the work of more specific, local, American studies organizations. Inter-American studies would need to be conceptualized and organized as a comparative site, a place where scholars with many different focal points of interest in the diverse Americas come together to explore the connections and divergences in their scholarship. An association renamed in this way would need to seek out other organizations and explore with them what sort of an alliance might be useful to all concerned.
Still, there are drawbacks to this new name as well. Although inter-American studies could well foster attention to regional cultural flows and thus to the hybridity of cultural identities, one has to ask why the American continents and the Caribbean should be singled out as a coherent region? Why contain the flows in this particular geographic way? What is the justification for isolating this region as somehow different from all others? Wouldn’t the relationship of the United States to the countries of the Pacific Rim be just as important for the definition of American citizenship, say, or for understanding labor and legal history in the U.S.? 44 What about the virtually unstoppable export of U.S. cultural products around the globe at the end of the twentieth century? Doesn’t that phenomenon potentially enlarge the purview of inter-American studies even further? Would one want to investigate Singapore, for instance, or some of the major cities in India, where U.S. mass culture has had an enormous impact, as zones where the American interacts with other cultural processes? This could seem an even more troublesome imperialist gesture than the one the proposed name change is attempting to undo if it did not focus carefully on the reciprocal nature of the exchanges involved. [End Page 21]
Should space and geography, then, be thrown out entirely as an organizing rubric for the investigation of human culture? What about a third possibility, something like the Society for Intercultural Studies? Such a move offers distinct possibilities but it comes with major drawbacks as well. To begin with, if the field were organized in this way, it might better foster the study of non-national and transnational forms of identity construction. By training its gaze on complex processes of cultural flows, on the hybridities they produce, and even on the reactionary formations that develop in their wake, this reconceived field might do a better job of attending to the many ways in which the logic of nationalism is and has always been contested. A society that was not hemmed in by the need to peg cultural analysis of community and identity-formation to geography might better be able to attend to the full variety of cultural negotiations, negotiations that do not recognize national borders but flow across them to solicit the identifications of attentive and like-minded individuals.
In particular, such a field might more effectively focus on the study of identities and communities based on interests, actions, and politics rather than on simple location or position. Additionally, by focusing on exchanges, crossings, and mutual influences, by placing the idea of the transaction rather than that of the boundary or limit at its conceptual heart, such a field might more successfully develop a pedagogy predicated on relations, not on mutually exclusive divisions. It might then develop as a technology for fostering interdependence rather than autonomy, responsible mutuality rather than satisfied self-regard. The field might provide something other than a civic-minded pedagogy for the national subject. It might imagine a pedagogy designed to foster what David Noble has called “unpredictable creativity.” It might seek to foster fluidity and flexibility in a mobile, always changing subject who lives both here and there, in the present and in the past, for the future and for others. 45
Institutionally, a society renamed in this mode might then sensibly pursue the cause of multi-lingualism. In fact, I think this is a good idea even if the American Studies Association is never renamed. It would make a good deal of difference, I think, if this association, in whatever incarnation, came out in favor of at least a bilingual, if not a multi-lingual, student body. 46 Jane Desmond and Virginia Dominguez have already made this recommendation and I think the Association’s council could recommend this policy to departments and programs in [End Page 22] American studies. I believe that American studies programs should require extensive knowledge of a language other than English and that the question of what life is like when it is lived between and among different languages should be structurally embedded at the heart of the curriculum. I believe that American studies programs should demand that their students develop the skills to read American studies work in languages other than English.
There are clear drawbacks, of course, to the name “Inter-cultural studies.” No doubt you are wondering about the loss of specificity that this might promote. Would such a name change make this field another form of what is now known as “cultural studies”? Would something important be lost in the process? What is the value of local specificity in an age of global capital? How important is it to remember that people live everyday lives that are embodied and locally situated? Similarly, how important is it to understand and preserve the ways in which knowledges are themselves particular and situated, that is, generated in, and relevant to, specific contexts and histories? Do those who focus their attention on the United States have a special responsibility at this historical moment to track the ways in which processes of global integration disproportionately work to benefit a relatively small number of U.S. citizens? Would lack of attention to the ways in which the effects of global processes are always felt locally simply aid and abet forces of global integration? Is this a moment of historical watershed in which it would be particularly dangerous to do away with the respect for local contexts? I believe that it is.
I come back, then, to American studies, the field, and to the American Studies Association as an organization with a particular name and a complex history, embedded in the contradictions of a particular historical conjuncture. What is to be done? Is it possible to honor the past and to build on the successes of the field and the association even while mounting a responsible but vigorous critique of past myopias and earlier paradigms? I believe that it is. I do not think this field or this association needs to fear change. Together, they have fostered it in the past and embraced its effects; they can do so again. Change, however, won’t come on its own. Changes will have to be made deliberately and actively, with an eye to their potential consequences. Although the association probably does not need to be renamed in order to reconfigure for the future, I do believe it should at least seek ways to institutionalize new forms of bifocal vision, a [End Page 23] capacity to attend simultaneously to the local and the global as they are intricately intertwined. Such a project will entail the fostering of a relational and comparative perspective. It will also require that the association actively pursue the intellectual and political consequences of difference by establishing connections with other organizations, whether they be subnational in focus, differently national, transnational, or regional. It will entail a recognition of the theoretical centrality of working class and ethnic studies, women’s studies, queer studies, and Native American studies to a reconceived American studies project. At the same time, it will require conversations with others who have very different points of view, a fact that will require even greater disciplinary and political openness. I believe the association must promote multi-lingualism within American studies programs and departments and within its conference proceedings. Finally, as a way of foregrounding the complexity of the social relations that produce the cultural flows, transactions, and exchanges that are now to be highlighted, the association must seek ways to foreground the intricate calibrations between the structural and the cultural. This will require more extensive attention to social theory and to the new work being done in the social sciences. Attention to the complexity of cultural construction will require renewed and refined thinking about the intricacies of social behavior and social action. This is a complex agenda, I know, but it seems to me that this field and this association, which have both changed dramatically since their inception, can embrace further change and actively seek to bring it about in order to face the challenges of the future.
Janice Radway is Frances Hill Fox Professor in Humanities and professor of literature at Duke University. She is the author of Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (1984) and A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste and Middle Class Desire (1998). She is also a former editor of American Quarterly.
I would like to thank my research assistant, Jessica Blaustein, for her terrific help with this address. I would also like to thank my students for their rigorous questioning over the last several years and for the many times they have introduced me to new work. Finally, I would like to acknowledge the assistance I have received from many friends who read and critiqued an earlier version of this address. That group includes, in no particular order, Kathy Rudy, Cathy Davidson, Barry Shank, Shantanu Duttaahmed, Jane Desmond, Virginia Dominguez, Nancy Hewitt, Alberto Moreiras, José Saldívar, Sybille Fischer, Wahneema Lubiano, and Larry Grossberg. I would also like to thank the members of a seminar at the University of Kansas who also commented extensively on an earlier version of this address and had an enormous impact on the final version.
1. Carl Bode, “The Start of the ASA,” American Quarterly, 31 (Sept., 1979): 345–354. The headnote to the essay clearly notes that it had been written in 1960.
2. Bode, 347. Although it is conventionally said that what distinguishes American studies as a field is its investment in interdisciplinarity, it seems to me that it has been equally characterized by its critical, theoretical, and methodological self-consciousness. That is to say, as a form of intellectual investigation and study that specifically challenged older, more naturalized configurations of knowledge-production in both the humanities and the social sciences, American studies has consistently had to think critically about the intentions and imperatives that pushed it to construct its object of knowledge differently. In fact, in 1958, only eight years after the founding of the Association, American Quarterly began publishing an annotated list of “Writings on the Theory and Teaching of American studies” as part of its annual Bibliography Issue. In that year, the list included forty entries alone under the heading of “The Philosophy of American studies.” Since the very beginning, then, the field has consistently asked itself a series of questions including: why study American culture?; exactly what is American culture?; and what are the best ways to go about examining American culture?
I see this address as another instance in this now long-standing tradition and hope that it generates thoughtful conversation about how American studies might construct its proper object differently at a moment when complex global processes are augmenting the circulation of capital, commodities, and people and therefore challenging older ways of thinking about the autonomy of cultures, nations, and identities. My claim here is that this new context at least demands the rethinking of justifications for the study of American culture if not also the rethinking of the very idea of American culture itself.
3. Donald Pease, “New Americanists: Revisionist Interventions into the Canon,” boundary 2, 17 (Spring, 1990): 1–37. For an example of work that fundamentally challenged older configurations of “the American,” see Nina Baym’s important and now classic essay, “Melodramas of Beset Manhood,” (American Quarterly 33 [Summer 1981]: 123–139), where her questions about traditional ways of thinking about the nature of the American experiment are inspired by feminist frameworks. Baym specifically criticizes the theoretical presumptions and methodological habits by which the traditional canon of representative “American” literary texts had been constructed based on an unconsciously gendered way of thinking about American experience.
4. Sacvan Bercovitch, The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America (New York, 1993).
5. Mary Helen Washington, “Disturbing the Peace: What Happens to American Studies If You Put African American Studies at the Center?” American Quarterly 50 (March 1998): 1–23.
6. I want to make it clear here that I am only strategically questioning the search for common ground and not necessarily challenging its worth on an absolute, theoretical basis. Though I believe the move to invoke common ground at this precise historical moment is problematic precisely because questions about the nature and significance of difference are both volatile and consequential for the lives of many, and because any move to define the nature of the common very likely would be controlled by those already in power who hold to a dominant set of assumptions, values, and beliefs, I do feel that the future of a diverse population will depend on the capacity to articulate a conception of a shared public culture that will both depend upon difference and protect and celebrate it as well. It seems to me that a new “commons” will very likely have to be built through the difficult process of coalition-building rather than through the incorporative processes that tend to characterize efforts to define common ground in a society built fundamentally on the idea of property and private space.
7. See, for instance, Robert Spiller, “American Studies, Past, Present, and Future,” in Studies in American Culture: Dominant Ideas and Images, ed. Joseph J. Kwiat and Mary C. Turpie (Minneapolis, 1960), 207–220 and “Unity and Diversity in the Study of American Culture: The American Studies Perspective,” American Quarterly 25 (December, 1973): 611–18, where he observes about the founding of the association: “We said by our actions if not by our words: There is now in existence a well-formed total and autonomous American culture and it is our business to find out just what it is, how it came into being, how it functions, and how it should be studied, researched and taught”(613). Although he acknowledges that there is diversity in American culture, he suggests that such diversity does not challenge the prior idea of the whole. Spiller writes,
Actually, there never was such a thing as an ethnically, geographically and temporally pure culture; nor was there ever a culture that was not made up of an infinite number of variations and subcultures; but such qualifications of the concept of total culture do not invalidate it where the gestalt is clearly enough defined to overcome the problem of inner diversity and conflict.(613, emphasis added)
8. Gene Wise, “Paradigm Dramas,” American Quarterly, 31 (Sept. 1979): 293–337
9. It was this canon of quintessentially “American” authors, of course, that Nina Baym was questioning in “Melodramas of Beset Manhood,” where she suggested that
This myth of artistic creation, assimilating the act of writing novels to the Adamic myth, imposes on artistic creation all the gender-based restrictions that we have already examined in that myth. The key to identifying an ‘Adamic writer’ is the formal appearance, or, more precisely the informal appearance of his novel. The unconventionality is interpreted as a direct representation of the open-ended experience of exploring and taming the wilderness, as well as a rejection of ‘society’ as it is incorporated in conventional literary forms. There is no place for a woman author in this scheme. Her roles in the drama of creation are those allotted to her in a male melodrama: either she is to be silent, like nature; or she is the creator of conventional works, the spokesperson of society.(138)
10. Linda Kerber, “Diversity and the Transformation of American Studies,” American Quarterly 41 (September, 1989): 415–431; Allen F. Davis, “The Politics of American Studies,” American Quarterly 42 (September, 1990): 353–74; Martha Banta, “Working the Levees: Building Them Up or Knocking Them Down?,” American Quarterly 43 (September, 1991): 375–391; Alice Kessler-Harris, “Cultural Locations: Positioning American Studies in the Great Debate,” American Quarterly 44 (September, 1992), 299–312; Paul Lauter, “Versions of Nashville, Visions of American Studies,” American Quarterly 47 (June, 1995), 185–203; Elaine Tyler May, “The Radical Roots of American Studies,” American Quarterly 48 (June 1996): 179–200; Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Insiders and Outsiders: The Borders of the USA and the Limits of the ASA,” American Quarterly 49 (Sept. 1997): 449–469; Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London 1996). See also Denning’s first version of this argument in “‘The Special American Conditions’: Marxism and American Studies,” American Quarterly 38 (Bibliography, 1986): 356–380.
11. George Lipsitz, “‘Sent For You Yesterday, Here You Come Today: American Studies Scholarship and the New Social Movements,” Cultural Critique 40 (Fall, 1998): 203–225.
12. The masthead of the American Quarterly also makes it clear that, despite its tendency to focus on domestic events, institutions, and movements, an interest in the place and role of the United States in international contexts did exist within the association from the beginning. Indeed, in the Fall, 1949 issue of the journal, the title page was headed by the following note: “The aim of American Quarterly is to aid in giving a sense of direction to studies in the culture of the United States, past and present. Editors, advisers, and contributors are therefore concerned not only with the areas of American life which they know best but with the relation of each of those areas to the entire American scene and to world society.” This headnote has been used continuously throughout the history of the AQ. For the most part, however, and until recently, the material in the journal has tended to focus on domestic events and concerns of the United States and its citizens.
13. Stuart Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular,” in The People’s History and Socialist Theory, ed. Raphael Samuel (London,1981), 226–239.
14. I am indebted here to the work of Akhil Gupta and, in particular, to his perspective on nationalism and transnationalism. See especially his essay, “The Song of the Nonaligned World: Transnational Identities and the Reinscription of Space in Late Capitalism,” in Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, ed. Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson (Durham, N.C., 1997), 179–202. I should also note that this entire volume (along with recent discussions in the field of anthropology) has been enormously influential in the formation of my own thinking about the issues under discussion in this address.
16. José Martí, “Our America,” in Our America by José Martí: Writings on Latin America and the Struggle for Cuban Independence, trans. Elinor Randall, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York, 1977), 84–94.
17. Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease, eds., Cultures of United States Imperialism (Durham, N.C., 1993). I also want to acknowledge here how much my thinking in this address has been influenced by the recent volume edited by Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd, The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital (Durham, N.C., 1997). In addition, I have found very helpful an essay by Paul Giles, “Reconstructing American Studies: Transnational Paradoxes, Comparative Perspectives,” Journal of American Studies 28 (1994), 335–358. There, he writes, “A question arises whether American Studies might not have become a redundant tautology, the residue of an age of patriotic empire-building that bears little relevance to the increasingly transnational networks of the 1990s.” (337) He continues, “for all the talk about post-national narratives and comparativist perspectives, it remains very difficult to dislodge many of the primary, foundational assumptions of American studies, because such assumptions are often bound unconsciously to a residual cultural transcendentalism that fails to acknowledge the national specificity of its own discourse”(344).
18. On this point, see Carolyn Porter, “What We Know That We Don’t Know: Remapping American Literary Studies,” American Literary History 6 (Fall 1994): 467–526. There she argues that
The lip service paid to the severance of the U.S. from its claim of title to American—in the by now habitual disclaimers we offer in courses on “American’ literature, as well as in just such scare quotes used to signal our understanding that ‘American’ is a misnomer—are more than marks of bad faith. They also signal the failure of too many of us to ‘rethink’ what we thought we already know in the context of what we all know that we do not know—how to reconceptualize a field that is clearly no longer mappable by any of the traditional coordinates.(471)
19. As I write this, I am acutely aware that this work is not work I myself have done in my own scholarly investigations. Indeed I want to make it clear here that, despite the feminist focus of Reading the Romance and an effort to think the notion of a fractured subjectivity and questions of difference in A Feeling for Books, I place my own work within the traditional, “Americanist,” highly spatialized paradigm of culture that I believe the new work on race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender explicitly challenges. Although I was attempting to question certain fundamental assumptions about gender in the first book and about the categorization and functioning of print culture in the second, the framing of each study remains within certain dominant ideological assumptions of the time, assumptions that justify the treatment of American cultural genres in isolation. My thoughts in this address are now prompted by an engagement with the work of others that challenges this fundamental presupposition. That engagement has taken place in my classes and in conversation with my students. It is also the product of several formative experiences that occurred while working on other projects.
I am thinking particularly of conversations with Professor Nicolás Kannelos that took place during the first organizational conference about volume IV in the American Antiquarian Society’s History of the Book in America project. I am co-editing the fourth volume of this project with Carl Kaestle of Brown University. Our volume covers the years 1880–1945. We invited Kanellos to our first organizational conference for this volume along with a number of other well-respected scholars of American culture and book production. We were hoping to emphasize the increasing diversification of the population during our period and to focus on the impact this had on book production and consumption. More specifically, Professor Kaestle and I were hoping to include a specific essay on the Hispanic press in a section of the book devoted to the functions of print culture for diverse audiences and communities.
Although Kanellos applauded our intent, he also provided a powerful critique of our assumptions which, despite our interest in difference, had located the center of book production in “the trade,” on the east coast of the U.S., and conceptualized American print culture as primarily English-speaking. He pointed out that if the Hispanic press only appeared in a section on readers and uses of print, there would be no way to tell the story of the different history, chronology, and functions of print production within primarily Spanish-speaking communities in the U.S. from a time even before English colonization. He also noted that the story of Spanish-language print production in the U.S. would have to trace movements across the U.S./Mexico border and throughout Central and South America, and would need to think about economic, social, and cultural relationships to Spain and Mexico as well as to the United States. His larger point was that our outline presumed a narrative point of view located at some putative “American” center assumed to be within the continental U.S. and therefore conceptualized difference as something “foreign” emerging from the periphery and beyond the border, which could only thereby modify the main story but not contest and reconfigure its outlines or structure completely. He urged on us a more complicated narrative structure, one that would recognize that print culture in the United States has been simultaneously realized multiply and differently at different sites, and that those different forms of print culture are the product of radically different histories and chronologies. To do justice to their stories, it would be essential not to make one a secondary subplot within the lineaments of another.
Kaestle and I did attempt to reorganize the planned structure of the volume in response to Kanellos’s critique (including acknowledging in our volume title that our concern is principally with the print culture of the United States, not with that of all the Americas). Still, we fear that we have not managed this reconfiguration as fully as we should have. As Carolyn Porter has pointed out, it is extremely difficult to reconceptualize research subjects in a larger field that can no longer be responsibly mapped according to traditional coordinates or through the use of a familiar set of organizing metaphors—like that of center and periphery, or theme and variation, both of which have been prominent in narratives about culture which attempt to acknowledge the presence of difference. My aim in this address is to encourage a conversation that would seek to define what those new coordinates might be.
20. For an important review of and commentary on this history, see Avery Gordon and Christopher Newfield, Mapping Multiculturalism (Minneapolis, 1996).
21. Nikhil Pal Singh, “Culture/Wars: Recoding Empire in an Age of Democracy,” American Quarterly 50 (September, 1998): 471–522,
22. This way of thinking is what I was referring to earlier in making a distinction between internal and external U.S. imperialism. It seems to me that American nationalism and American national identity have historically been constructed through a set of relationships of power that actively subordinate both internal, non-national communities and other nations to the privileged claims of the U.S. nation state. For a discussion of the role of subordination and superordination within nationalism more generally, see David Lowe, “Nationalisms Against the State,” in The Politics of Culture, 173–200. For a discussion of the way in which processes of identity-formation are always relational and carried out for some purpose, see George Bisharat, “Exile to Compatriot: Transformations in the Social Identity of Palestinian Refugees in the West Bank,” in Gupta and Ferguson, Culture, Power, Place, 204–233. There, he argues, “I would venture to say that statements about identity are virtually never idly made but are typically coded with implications for future action and sometimes with claims, being fielded with reference to some, not necessarily conscious, purpose. The negotiation of an identity is thus a step toward an end, not an end in itself: identity is always ‘identity for’ something” (205).
23. I am specifically not suggesting here that American studies must somehow be reduced to ethnic studies, or gender studies, or sexuality studies. Nor am I suggesting that the U.S. nation or American nationalism should no longer be at the heart of American studies. Rather, what I am suggesting is that the very notion of the U.S. nation and the very conception of American nationalism must now be understood as relational concepts, that is, as objects and/or figures constructed precisely in and through a set of hierarchical relationships with groups, communities, and nations defined somehow as other, alien, or outside. I am further suggesting that this way of thinking can and should be generalized so that subjects like the one I recently examined, The Book-of-the-Month Club, might also be understood as constructed precisely in dynamic and working relationship to other formations which are actively being affected and controlled through that relationship. Had I understood the full implications of this way of thinking when I first conceptualized my research project back in 1985, I might have looked more carefully at the way the club’s creation of a middlebrow culture, with its pretensions to being national in scope, worked precisely to subordinate both certain ethnic cultures and the culture of the working classes in the U.S. Although I discuss both these aspects of the club’s history in A Feeling for Books, they are treated as secondary or as additional concerns in a larger narrative about middle class desire, not as the defining and organizational architecture of the entire study itself. Had they been, I might have constructed the study in much more comparative fashion, examining not only what was happening to middlebrow culture through the club but also what was happening to the cultures of the working classes in local or union newspapers, in community-based theaters, and in neighborhood venues.
24. It seems to me, however, that this section of the address could easily have been written by foregrounding the ways in which the queer work on sex and feminist work on gender have both called essentialized identities and cultures into question and fostered a practice of attending to mutually constitutive relationships.
25. Wahneema Lubiano, “Like Being Mugged by a Metaphor,” in Mapping Multiculturalism, ed. Avery F. Gordon and Christopher Newfield (Minneapolis, 1996), 64–75 and The House That Race Built (New York, 1997).
26. George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia, 1998).
27. I am here adopting terminology used by Michel Foucault to describe the ways in which intellectual paradigms function because I think his use of the word, technology, helpfully welds material practices to conceptual articulation. Foucault generally uses the word to characterize ways of producing and organizing knowledge about the world as well as to describe particular ways of acting within the meaningful world thereby produced. He suggests that, in identifying or relying upon certain features, events, and objects in a social world, human actors call those very features, events, and objects into being precisely as things worthy of remark and/or control. He notes in Volume I of The History of Sexuality, for instance, that bourgeois society of the nineteenth century did not simply describe or repress a previously existing “sex.” Rather, by putting “into operation an entire machinery for producing true discourses about it,” bourgeois, psychologists, physicians, clergymen, and scholars called into being the very category of sexual behavior they simultaneously sought to organize and to manage.
I believe Foucault’s move is important for the way in which it recognizes that actions within a world are also always ways of conceptually ordering the world, and vice versa, that ways of knowing the world are also always ways of acting upon it. In this particular context, “technology” is especially suggestive because it can be applied to the ways in which book clubs, legal decisions, world’s fairs, entertainment spectacles, museum exhibits and any number of other activities functioned as technologies of nationalism by conceptually and materially producing the “American” against that which was identifiably not. At the same time, it can be applied to the very practices of problem definition, research design and intellectual argumentation associated with American studies that have operated to carve out a bounded “American” world open to observation, investigation and analysis. The importance of Foucault’s terminology in this context, then, is that the word refigures practices of knowledge-production as conceptual actions rather than as mere passive descriptions of already existing “things.”
The question is whether American studies as just such a technology of knowledge-production has done enough to challenge its own once dominant conceptual frameworks for organizing the world so as to fundamentally alter the kind of action it exercises within the world. American studies must ask whether, in spite of the powerful challenges posed by its alternate traditions, it continues to function in subtle, still unconscious ways as a technology of imperial political relations, as a practice helping to create an “American” nation poised both to “contain” and “include” those who would challenge it from within and to interact with and dominate those defined as different on the far side of the border.
28. José Saldívar, “Américo Parades and Decolonization,” in Cultures of United States Imperialism, 292–311 and Vicente M. Diaz, “Pious Sites: Chamorro Culture Between Spanish Catholicism and American Liberal Individualism,” in Cultures of United States Imperialism, 312–339.
29. Américo Paredes, “With His Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (Austin, 1958); George Washington Gómez: A Mexicotexan Novel (Houston, 1990).
30. I should note here that it is this sense of the subject as conflicted, ambivalent, haunted by ghosts, and internally divided by history that A Feeling for Books attempts to enact by narrating my own complex relationship to, and investments in, both middlebrow culture and the culture of the academy. That project was enabled by my engagement with feminist explorations of the personal voice and also by the efforts made by African-American, Chicana, and other women of color to challenge the very idea of a singular womanly identity. On this point, see Denise Riley, “Am I That Name?” Feminism and the Category of ‘Women’ in History (Minneapolis, 1988).
31. For a particularly clear and cogent discussion of these issues, see James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 1997).
32. Doreen Massey, “Spaces of Politics,” unpublished paper delivered at the University of North Carolina, 1998.
33. Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity and the Politics of Difference,” in Culture, Power, Place, 33–51.
34. Gupta and Ferguson, 35.
35. David Lloyd, “Nationalisms Against the State,” in The Politics of Culture, 173–200.
36. On this, see Lowe and Lloyd, “Introduction,” The Politics of Culture, 1–32 and Lisa Duggan, “Queering the State,” Social Text 39 (Summer, 1994): 1–14.
37. I want to acknowledge the influence of Dipesh Chakrabarty on this particular formulation. He gave an enormously moving account of the history of subaltern studies at a conference at Duke University entitled “Cross Genealogies and Subaltern Knowledges” in which he suggested that subaltern studies benefited from the youth of its early practitioners because, as students, they operated under the assumption that they were asking many questions to which they did not have already-formulated, preset answers.
38. Thanks to Alberto Moreiras for this suggestion about name changes and the possibility of taking up a different relationship to a familiar name.
39. Jane C. Desmond and Virginia R. Dominguez, “Resituating American Studies in a Critical Internationalism,” American Quarterly 48 (Sept., 1996), 475–490.
40. Cathy Davidson, “Loose Change,” American Quarterly 46 (June, 1994), 123–138.
41. Eric Cheyfitz, “What Work is There for Us to Do? American Literary Studies or Americas Cultural Studies,” American Literature 67 (Dec., 1995): 843–853.
42. Betsy Erkkila, “Ethnicity, Literary Theory, and the Grounds of Resistance,” American Quarterly, 47 (Dec., 1995): 563–594.
43. Thanks to Jane Desmond for stressing the importance of exchange in addition to contestation.
44. Thanks to Virginia Dominguez for stressing the importance of the Pacific Rim, the “fluid West” in her words, to the definition of American culture.
45. David Noble, The End of American History: Democracy, Capitalism, and the Metaphor of Two Worlds in Anglo-American Historical Writing, 1880–1980 (Minneapolis, 1985). For a discussion of the importance of Noble’s formulations, see George Lipsitz’s discussion of his book in the essay, “Sent for You Yesterday, Here you Come Today.”
46. By taking this action, the Association would be making the kind of change that would fundamentally alter some of its deepest, most unconscious assumptions (the notion, for instance, that American literature is literature written in English) and it would therefore insure that the field’s supporting paradigms functioned as a very different technology of knowledge-production. This could serve as an effective counter, then, to the recent passage of “English only” laws which are clearly aimed at immigrants and function themselves as technologies for the production of a certain kind of Anglicized “American.”