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American Quarterly 53.2 (2001) 193-231
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Prismatics, Multivalence, and Other Riffs on the Millennial Moment
Presidential Address to the American Studies Association,
13 October 2000
President, American Studies Association
WE MEET AT AN INTRIGUINGLY APPROPRIATE TIME TO BE EXAMINING THE PAST, present, and future of a protean field of study in a dramatically changing world, for we meet near the liminal middle of a liminal year, suspended between our own fin de siécle and the opening of a brave new millennium. Having survived the apocalyptic prognostications of the late, unlamented Y2K moment, and not yet overwhelmed by the predictable onslaught of launch-pad punditry, we lift off into the magical year 2001, the real beginning of the new millennium.
Though many of us may be savoring the respite, I wish to disturb the delicious calm between these two storms of millennial self-consciousness. I want to suggest that this turn of the century, this unique millennial moment, may have special uses for our work in ASA in spite of--and more precisely because of--the already shopworn, clichéd, and seemingly pedestrian-by-nature quality of almost anything that can be and has been said about this passage. 1
The turn of a century is an arbitrary point, not a line or a space. Though we tend to extend such a point backward and forward to approximate a fin de siécle or a "bridge to the future" era, it is hard to get around the artificiality of the central conceit that one specific point in time has any more inherent meaning than any other. But perhaps the [End Page 193] superficial nature of the century turn presents its most useful quality as a tool of analysis. This is because such a vacuous conception does so much to subvert narrative, grand or otherwise--no particular story, theme, or frame is necessarily privileged, at least initially, because inquiry starts, rather, with a point that can be imagined as a lens through which the entire spectrum of historical change must necessarily pass. A myriad of dimensions, from politics to technology or real estate or artistic expression or domestic roles, ethnic identity, and social space--all are in motion on distinct trajectories with distinct determinants and rates of change; all necessarily crowd through the lens of any particular moment. 2
My angle of approach, then, is to see the turn-of-the-century moment as a kind of prism, the opposite of today's laser. Instead of focusing diversity into the laser's concentrated and powerful stream, the prism deconstructs a beam into its constituent spectrum, allowing us to inquire into the composition, distribution, and relationships of its various components. This is the imaginatively liberating "prism" of the past, rather than the imaginatively controlled and controlling "prison" of the historical narrative. Sensing the limitless complexity of history in this way may prove useful as we confront the future before us--whether in general or for American studies as a field, a future at once deeply contingent and even over-determined, yet also wholly and resolutely unpredictable.
I have been much involved with these notions in my own work of late, in projects considering, from the vantage of our millennial moment, a world's fair at the dawn of the last century. I will draw on this tonight, in the first half of this talk, to propel broader reflections, in the second half, on the work before us in American studies.
The Fair was the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, held in my own city of Buffalo, New York (Fig. 1). Worlds' fairs in general have been multidimensional prisms more than singular narratives, and this particular prism within the turn-of- the-century prism embodied, quite transparently, all that was in motion in American culture and society at the dawn of the twentieth century, and all that was contested and complex in the project of resituating the U.S. in relation to the hemisphere and the world. 3 As...