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American Literature 75.4 (2003) 903-906
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Having grown up in a Jewish household right after World War II, George Lipsitz can't quell his apprehension as he flies to Germany for the first time in 1992 to attend a conference on racist violence. But he finds some solace in his memories of St. Louis, inspired by the music he listens to while the rest of the passengers sleep: Fontella Bass, Chuck Berry, and Ike and Tina Turner. "Listening to the music I listened to in St. Louis during those years," he reflects, "always arms me with an energy and an optimism that I find in few other places" (299). Lipsitz's American Studies in a Moment of Danger is a casebook of sources for such energy and optimism, combining the study of economics, politics, and popular culture with irrepressible passion and irresistible poignancy, adept above all at bringing the work of oppositional cultures to life.
American Studies in a Moment of Danger maps a sequence of critical paradigms—the myth-image-symbol school giving way to social history and the anthropological turn, superseded by cultural studies—in relation to the collective struggles of the 1930s, the activism of the 1960s, and the conservative backlash of the 1980s that blamed the "‘excesses' of the 1960s for an astonishing range of social problems" (76). Now that "old social movements" (union activism, socialism, ethnic radicalism) have given way to "new social movements" that adopt "sophisticated strategic interventions on the terrain of culture" (214), the task for American studies is to perpetuate its record of learning from "grassroots theorizing" (27) and to fashion new forms of knowledge [End Page 903] for combating the "increasingly indecent social order" (34). An unabashed advocate of identity politics, Lipsitz nonetheless insists on "drawing identities from politics," not "drawing politics from identities" (285).
Lipsitz's argumentative mode is more extensive than intensive, responding to a range of previous historical work (by Michael Denning, Michael Rogin, and Leo Marx, among others); engaging cultural practices that range from the poster art of the Movimiento Chicano, to video and performance art in Los Angeles, to the hybrid music of Miami; and analyzing mass culture at its most fatuous (reading Blacula as an important example of how race provokes genre anxiety and how genre is deployed to negotiate social concerns [196–98]). A refrain keeps reminding us of the facts of globalization, of a world of migration and transnationalism where culture, identity, and place no longer coalesce, and where the "hegemony of the nation-state as the ultimate horizon of American studies" thus "has deadly consequences" (17). But despite the "obsolescence" of national cultures and national identities, they still have "enduring importance" (33), and specific locations (like St. Louis) remain an aesthetic, affective, and ideological resource. Just as Lipsitz himself makes comparative reference to cultural movements elsewhere (Australia, Haiti, Mexico), he points to how an international imagination has informed previous work, such as the work of DuBois.
Lipsitz's book means to overcome the "institutionalized pessimism" (272) that results both from failing to understand "the instability of bourgeois hegemony" (273) and from overlooking the "progressive force" of American studies as a "site for exploring the chasm between the ideal and the real in the United States" (23). Lipsitz not only emphasizes "the enduring culture of opposition in America" (273), he insists that "academic politics still matters," and that "professors and students" have "crucial roles" to play "in collective social struggles" (287).
If American Studies in a Moment of Danger is, despite the danger, an uplifting expression of hope, then David Simpson's Situatedness is a sobering expression of doubt. Lipsitz repeatedly situates himself (institutionally, intellectually, politically, geographically) and applauds the...