- Introduction: Durable Americas
While history is constituted by movement, change, and transformation, it is also distinguished by the powerful capacity of beliefs, feelings, and practices to endure. Indeed, transformation is only possible in a context that, paradoxically, allows for the possibility of non-transformation. This special issue explores that contradiction in the specific context of cultural history, tracking the surprising durability of cultural and political practices in America’s past and present. Our efforts, in this project, are not to deny the historical “specificity” of events and practices or to deny the manifestly transformative movement of history. Instead, by considering historical durability, we are accounting for what is, itself, a specific (and transformative) dimension of history—that dimension of a practice or belief that is different from what has come before but not as different as it should be.
In “The Persistence of Myth: Written Authority in the Wake of New World Discovery,” Jan Olesen meets head-on a historical challenge to theories of durability by engaging the intellectual history of the clash between “old” and “new” worlds in the Americas during the early days of colonization. Specifically, Olesen explains how classical authorities, such as Pliny the Elder and Aristotle, influenced scientific practices and regimes of knowledge long after the practice of phenomenology and the assessment of experiential evidence ought to have destroyed their influence. Ultimately, Olesen argues that the persistence of myths (for instance, beliefs in the existence of magical creatures) was linked to durable intellectual desires to keep classical authority circulating influentially. On one level, the article historicizes the durability of specific myths, theorizing at least one element in the maintenance of their long lives; on another level, the article sets two forms of circulation, usually considered [End Page 125] oppositional, in relation to each other and shows how even their opposition might be the motor that drives their mutual durability.
Sara Humphreys’s article, “The Mass Marketing of Colonial Captive Hannah Duston,” argues that the durability of Duston’s captivity narrative is synchronized with the durability of nationalized and racialized models of cultural and national identity in the United States. Noting various instances of the materialization of the Duston narrative—from the written responses of Cotton Mather, to commemorative statues, and finally, to a 1973 “American Heroes” Jim Beam liquor bottle—Humphreys argues that the durable fascination with, and marketability of, the narrative runs in tandem with the durability of politicized efforts to understand the violence of colonization as the expression of strength and freedom. These efforts, in turn, are joined to a belief in neocolonial exceptionalism that “blithely celebrates white supremacy” through a commemorative whisky decanter whose material form straddles the border between the familiarly ephemeral qualities of a liquor bottle, a story, and the durable hope embodied in every act of material commemoration.
My article, “Durable Public Feelings,” identifies and problematizes the constitutive role of feelings in the emergence of publics in the United States. After providing multiple, and sometimes productively competing, definitions of publics and of feelings, I theorize the possibility that feelings may be not only public but durable and then ask what such durability might mean in relation to the United States as a nation with a durable commitment to the politics of white supremacy. I conclude with a brief discussion of the history of US white supremacy as indexed by the history of blackface minstrelsy and the durable, massive, public feelings associated with this most persistent mass-culture practice. The forms of feeling through which white supremacy endures are not exactly the same as those of the nineteenth century but, I suggest, they are not as different as they should be.
Peter Brown’s article, “ ‘Strange Notes’: The Durability and Legacy of Darby Crash,” explores the history of one of the stranger, more adventurous, and more disturbing figures in the early years of punk culture. Darby and his band the Germs, who influenced groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana, continue to have an impact on punk music in the United States, even though they existed for only three years and even though [End Page 126] Darby Crash committed suicide by heroin overdose in...