- Situating Normal: Questions of Centrality in American Studies
The most salient characteristic of American studies over the past 30 years has been its centripetal movement away from its origins in notions of an exceptional national character and toward marginalized groups, artifacts, traditions, spaces, and practices. In what one might call the bagelization of the discipline, nearly all of the action has occurred at the perimeter for such a long time that we now have a difficult time even conceiving its center, so much so that the very term American studies has become something of an embarrassment, giving way to modifiers like “postnational” or “transnational,” or bolder remappings along the lines of “borderlands studies” or “Americas studies,” formulations that explicitly reflect the figure of a centerless field in which all the intellectual chewing goes on at the edges.1 This focus on aberrant or eccentric spaces, this anxiety regarding norms and deviations, is not peculiar to the academic study of American culture. Across a wide discursive range—over the past 15 years in particular—one finds an obsession with the difficulties of establishing norms. The ubiquitous calls for embracing a new normal in the wake of the September 11 attack are the most striking example, especially insofar as the would-be restorers of this normality rationalized the exceptional suspension of constitutional principles and laws, such that the very aberrations from legal norms put the “new” in new normal.2 But we can also look to discussions of the equity, real estate, and derivatives bubbles from 1998 to the present, in which [End Page 441] the bubbles become visible only against the background of a normal market with rational valuations, a figure–ground relation whose stability is increasingly eroded as the procession of bubbles instantiates itself as a norm of sorts. The question of normal American identity also looms large amid the demographic recession of Anglophone whiteness as a national norm, along with the concomitant and strident politics of borders, citizenship, and migration. The idea of norms reaches its limit case in discussion of climate change, in which the very weather appears to be losing its moorings in normality, such that catastrophes once conceived of as 100-year events—category five hurricanes, droughts, or floods—become part of the fabric of everyday life whose unpredictability is increasingly folded into our horizon of ordinary expectations.
Several recent books provocatively address this issue of vanished or occluded centers, the discursive formation of norms and deviations, and the place of intellectual work vis-à-vis political and social centers in post–World War II American literature and culture. These projects, all first books by emerging scholars, survey the vacuum or wasteland of the erstwhile idea of cultural centrality, not to restore a moment of perceived past greatness, but to squat in its structures for awhile and think through what resources these ruins might offer the present moment. In these books we explore central spaces (the suburban household; the college campus), mainstream genres (the domestic novel; the sitcom), and middling classes of people (the bourgeois homemaker; the member of the postwar professional new class). More abstractly, we examine the construction of American normality itself—the way the US at mid-century, obsessed with normal bodies, minds, and behaviors, enforced those norms and viewed itself as the global norm—as well as the singular moment in which the humanities itself was normal in the sense of deeply woven into the dominant values of the liberal “vital center” ideology of mid-century, to use Arthur Schlesinger’s influential term.3
What is at stake in each of these attempts to examine, recover, or renovate an old normal for a cultural moment in which normality seems fleeting and remote? One strand of thinking about normality in these projects suspiciously tugs at its underpinnings in order to reveal the ideological nature of all norms and of the mid...