- Critical Keywords in Early American Studies
This compilation has its genesis in the American Studies Association’s 2010 conference theme, “Crisis, Chains, and Change: American Studies for the Twenty-first Century.” The theme inspired us to examine some of the critical keywords that will inform early Americanist scholarship in the near and distant futures. Since the publication ofRaymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976), scholars have adapted his approach to define and delimit fields of investigation through metacritical analysis. The collection Keywords for American Cultural Studies (2007), edited by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler, reinvigorated American studies (broadly construed) with just such an intervention. The continued attention to “keywords” as a measure of praxis has sparked a variety of dialogues and debates about the state of the field, specifically in regard to subject matter, methodology, pedagogy, research, the university, and the discipline. We sought to both expand and deepen this discussion by focusing on early American studies, inquiring how keywords function differently when framed not just by the spatial lens of “America” but also the temporal prefix “early.”
A principal aim of Williams’s pathbreaking work was to consider the historically specific denotations of terms and unpack their evolving connotations over time. In this vein, we encouraged our panelists to think not only about the meanings of keywords during the periods we investigate but also about how they function in the critical temporalities we currently inhabit. In the following pages, Joanna Brooks (on “Colonialism”), Ed Cahill (on “Formalism”), Kathleen Donegan (on “Catastrophe”), Robert Fanuzzi (on “Relevance”), Lauren Klein (on “Archive”), and Bryce Traister (on “Nation”) individually and collectively prompt us to reconceptualize the meanings of key terms that shape our field and our methodologies. While some of these terms—Colonialism, Archive, and Nation—may [End Page 601] on the surface appear constitutive of the field and hence unchanging, they are here imagined in such a way as to animate our understanding of these perennially useful yet often controversial terms. The contributors do so by asking us to look back at our archives of the deep past, as Traister does by unearthing some ways in which the word nation was used in 1658; to look more closely at our (more contemporary) inherited critical archives, as Brooks does in tracing the initial appearances of the word colonialism in Americanist scholarship beginning in 1936; and to query what tomorrow will look like, as Klein does in ruminating on the complex relationship between digitalization, digital platforms, coding, and the futurity of archival work. Perhaps more than ever, we embrace the limitations of our existing critical vocabularies; our other keyword meditations—Formalism, Catastrophe, and Relevance—bring attention to this insufficient explanatory power. They do so by pointing us to the deep past as exemplified by forms and genres, as Cahill does in his exploration of patterns of rhetorical and representational practices; by diagnosing our approaches to ontology and epistemology, as Donegan does by positioning catastrophe to open up our understanding of the chaos zones so persistent in the early American cultural matrix; and by questioning the ways in which our work must and does speak to the contemporary moment and to the future of American studies, as Fanuzzi does by interrogating the complex synchronicities and disjunctures between our objects of study and the work that we do. We could not have predicted the cross-pollination between and among these terms but found it enormously fruitful for mapping our field imaginary.
While it is impossible to index the lively conversation that followed the panel at ASA, we hope to extend and complicate that discussion by reproducing the observations that the panelists offered. Like Williams’s insistence on blank pages at the end of his Keywords and Burgett and Hendler’s eloquent invitation to “revise, reject, and respond to the entries that do—and do not—appear” in their volume (5), we intend the sketches that follow to contribute to an ongoing conversation about critical keywords in and for early American studies.
- Keyword: Catastrophe
In the study...