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  • Disciplining American Studies?:A Response to the Presidential Address
  • Nikhil Pal Singh (bio)

In his fascinating presidential address, Phil Deloria asks us to take a deep breath and consider the roots and branches of American studies as collective interdisciplinary practices and institutional locations. This is a brave intervention. Eschewing the grand critical gesture or politically engaged polemic, Deloria risks dulling us with the mundane details of our academic survival. Hiring, publication, tenure evaluation, scholarly standards, institutional strategy, intellectual coherence-serious matters all, but perhaps what we are inclined to forget amid the convivial, capacious intellectual exchange at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association.

Deloria's endeavor is risky in another sense: even as it pushes us to enlarge our field imaginary, it invariably skirts the borders of new definitional enclosures. How should we conceptualize the components of American studies interdisciplinarity? What is usable from its past? How does it compare and connect with more insurgent interdisciplinary sites whose genealogies derive from social movement histories and struggles? How should it calculate its necessary accountability to the administrative strictures and reward structures of the university and profession? With potential to inspire disagreement and disillusionment, these are questions worth asking. It remains unclear how well they are answered here.

One of Deloria's main contentions is that American studies scholars are overly reliant upon the "lonely intersection" of Robert Johnson's crossroads as the background image for their intellectual and institutional practice. The crossroads signifies intellectual virtuosity and innovation. Its metaphorical resonance draws sustenance from and sustains the idea that American studies is an irreducibly "idiosyncratic practice." Infused with vanguardist political pretensions, it tends to invest speculative thought with an ability to conjure "alternatives to disciplinary structures and political neutrality." Privileging the atypical and unprecedented, it imagines that knowledge advances through "creative pioneering" and creative destruction of what came before. [End Page 27]

This is an admittedly condensed, interpretive summary. This is only fair, perhaps unavoidable, as Deloria liberally elaborates the transitive, open-ended capacities of this extended metaphor in making a case that is more inferential than definitively referential, or programmatic. The crossroads, he starkly warns, has become a dangerous place for American studies scholars and scholarship. The radical revisionism, and the "outsized" knowledge claims it encourages, threaten "heroic desolation," or worse, the abandonment of the more modest achievements of the many-located at the intersection of "Broadway and Main." Both individual careers and institutional futures-it would seem-are at stake.

There is a curiously idealist causality at work here, as if a particular discursive style, or set of dispositions, exerted relatively autonomous effects across an entire field of intellectual practice. More paradoxical, Deloria's ambitious call to strengthen and to make American studies interdisciplinarity more relevant-by renovating intellectual infrastructures, coordinating institutional resources, and coalescing field narratives-is tacitly framed by an administrative injunction and animated by an omnipresent, if largely indeterminate, sense of menace. The "crossroads," he cautions, are not only dangerous, they are under surveillance as well.

What about American studies as an institutional location and set of intellectual traditions inspires the crossroads habit? Deloria does not explicitly answer this question, though there are responses embedded within his essay. First, despite a generalized emphasis upon interdisciplinarity in the contemporary university, disciplines remain privileged even within extant modalities of interdisciplinarity such as American studies, leaving scholars trained in interdisciplinary American studies at a competitive disadvantage, and therefore pushed into riskier intellectual postures and behaviors. Second, and potentially more interesting, scholars are drawn to interdisciplinary American studies precisely because they come with political concerns and intellectual questions for which the institutional formations and archives of received and inherited knowledge have proved either inadequate or actively hostile.

Deloria, it seems to me, is reluctant to choose between these explanations, or to address the necessary interrelatedness and tension between them. Instead, he essentially combines their difference. On the one hand, he suggests that American studies might become a more institutionally durable and self-confident interdiscipline by laying claim to a more robust and decidedly consensual understanding of its intellectual history, method, and craft. Second, he wonders if American studies might function as a broad confederation of newer interdisciplinary [End Page...


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pp. 27-32
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