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  • Beyond Broadway and Main:A Response to the Presidential Address
  • Judith Halberstam (bio)

In his elegant and thoughtful 2008 ASA presidential address, Phil Deloria directs our attention to the positioning of American studies as, variously, a crossroads, a refuge from the disciplines, a new path for knowledge, and a landscape dotted with other, abandoned ghostroads. He exhorts his audience-an audience he has mapped in advance as an overlapping group of scholars mostly from the humanities interested in historiography and cultural studies-to resist the seduction of the new and the disruptive and to look for smaller and quieter modes of analysis, modes that open up American studies rather than close it down. In his address-dotted with whimsical mock SAT questions and deftly illustrated with the occasional baseball metaphor-Deloria practices what he preaches and does not swing for the fences, settling instead for a sacrifice bunt in the hopes that everyone moves up a base. The problem with a sacrifice bunt, of course, is that someone has to be, well, sacrificed, and it is not always the bunter! So, while I sympathize in spirit with much of Deloria's state of the field address, and while I much appreciate his careful parsing of the differences among disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and so on, as well as his methodical tracking of the various pasts of American studies, I also want to argue for a less orderly field of study, one oriented less toward professionalization techniques and one more committed to wild projects of knowledge. I don't want to choose between the sacrifice bunt and the home run in America's favorite pastime; I want the choice of changing the game altogether.

Deloria's mapping of the field presumes that the field, indeed the discipline, already exists and merely awaits the scholarly documentation of its theories and methods in order to appear alongside and be legitimated in relation to other disciplines such as English and history. And so he traces the origins of the field back through figures like Gene Wise and Perry Miller. Not that Deloria is plucking a field history out of the blue; obviously others have made similar kinds of genealogical surveys. And yet, as the big disciplines begin to crumble like banks that have invested in bad securities, do we really want to shore up [End Page 33] the ragged boundaries of our shared interests and intellectual commitments with these origin mythologies, or might we rather take this opportunity to rethink the project of disciplinarity altogether? Just as SAT exams identify people who are good at SAT exams (as opposed to, say, intellectual visionaries), so disciplinarity identifies scholars with an aptitude for maintaining and conforming to the dictates of the discipline. Disciplinarity, as defined by Michel Foucault, is a technique of modern power: it depends upon and deploys normalization, routinization, convention, tradition, and regularity, and it produces experts and administrative forms of governance. The universities that we now inhabit stand at a very particular crossroads in this moment and it is not simply at the meeting place of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, past and future, national and transnational. The crossroads at which the rapidly disintegrating bandwagon of disciplines, subfields, and interdisciplines has arrived offers a choice between the university as corporation and investment opportunity and the university as a new kind of public sphere with a different investment in knowledge, in ideas and in thought and politics.

A very different take on disciplinarity and the university from the one that Deloria described at the ASA conference can be found in a manifesto published by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney in 2004 in Social Text titled "The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses." In this essay, Moten and Harney make a searing critique directed both at the intellectual and the critical intellectual, the professional scholar and the "critical academic professionals." For Moten and Harney, the critical academic is not the answer to encroaching professionalization; rather he is an extension of it, using the very same tools and legitimating strategies to become "an ally of professional education." Moten and Harney prefer to pitch their tent with the "subversive intellectuals," a maroon community of outcast thinkers who refuse, resist, and...


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