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American Quarterly 54.4 (2002) 563-579
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Politics and Epistemology in Post-Cold War American Studies
Eötvös Loránd University
The topic of this paper is the epistemic and political directions American studies has taken in the past decades. I will try to show that while in the United States and Western Europe the changes, originally triggered by the political movements of the 1960s, became epistemic by the 1970s and 1980s, east of the Iron Curtain these changes have only occurred belatedly, in the 1990s: the changes brought about by the political changes of 1989-1990 needed time to turn into an epistemic shift. But American studies, I will insist, is a veritable pull factor in this sense, boiling down to being a new methodology in the humanities and social sciences.
Of course, American studies seems to have played a rather special role in East-Central Europe from the start, different from the role of French or German studies, for example. Indeed, all along this has been a subversive role, American studies being a subversive field, its teaching a subversive enterprise. "Old American studies," as one might call the first, Cold War phase of the discipline, was for a long time dangerous territory in East-Central Europe both because of its idealized message concerning "the meaning of America" and its structuralist-phenomenological methodology. "New American studies" that emerged towards the end of the Cold War and has been characterized by severe rifts and paradigm debates became problematic in East-Central Europe for its critical stance and its poststructuralist-postmodern-multicultural-post-hegemonic [End Page 563] assumptions. In fact, both "Old American studies" and "New American studies" were problematic epistemically in East-Central Europe: the former for being framed by the modern episteme (at a time when no theoretical and methodological alternatives to Marxism were tolerated), the latter for being framed by the postmodern episteme (at a time when only structuralism was tolerated as an auxiliary to Marxism). Given the very different political and ideological developments in the U.S. and Western Europe, on the one hand, and East-Central Europe, on the other, the mission of post-Cold War scholarship includes a "sixties"-type politicization, where the 1960s must be folded, so to speak, into the 1990s. At home, this mission means the spreading of advanced ideas, and rests on the application of American studies as methodology. Internationally it can hold up a synthesis of idealism and pragmatism: of what I will expound as the "respect mode" of "old American studies" and the "attack mode" of "new American studies."
East of the Iron Curtain the 1960s were not "the sixties" as usually understood: these 1960s were characterized by the tightening of police control and the lack of any civil rights politicization whatsoever. Here the 1960s was not the decade of emergent feminism, demands for social equality, or the critique of racism and sexism. At best, our 1960s were characterized by a belated disillusionment among leftist intellectuals in communism. This disillusionment was triggered by the Prague events of 1968—not the uprising but rather its crushing by Warsaw Pact tanks—occurring twelve years after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a landmark historical event with the potential for many of revealing the downsides of the communist system. So, the real "sixties" had to wait until the 1990s, after the fall of communism and its totalitarian regimes. Therefore, in East-Central Europe the intellectual had to "do the sixties" in the 1990s, when finally there emerged a demand, say, for both feminist activism and feminist criticism, for gay and lesbian consciousness-raising as well as queer theory, for social activism in general as well as the desire for a finer understanding and critique. Together with all these new activities and ideas often packaged in the United States, there came an unprecedented influx of U.S. products. U.S. business and cultural presence has proved equally difficult to figure out; this is where American studies is beginning to have a social role: to help identify what...