- Tarrying with the “Private Parts”
Two-thirds of the way through Object Lessons (2012), Robyn Wiegman’s provocative study of the institutional and ideological development of what she names identity-based modes of inquiry in US colleges and universities, the author recounts a 2003 trip she took to Leiden to attend the inaugural meeting of the International American Studies Association. There, she was regularly met with the claim that American studies, at least as it is practiced by citizens and long-term residents of the United States, was deeply provincial and too caught up with rehearsals of the humdrum difficulties of American social and cultural life, particularly our always fraught conversations about race, gender, class, and sexuality. American studies in both its old and new substantiations was imagined as not sufficiently “in the world,” far too eager to reiterate the basic assumptions underlying so-called American exceptionalism, even as basic geo-political realties clearly demonstrated that the United States, if not exactly America itself, was rightly understood as but one nation among many.
The most obvious approach to this particularly meaty bone thrown to us by Wiegman is to suggest that there is nothing especially radical or even expansive about the rhetoric that she describes. I am not certain that the meeting in Leiden represented so much an internationalization of American studies as its Europeanization. American studies programs and associations exist in England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in Europe. Similarly formalized and reasonably well-funded American studies institutions are quite difficult to find elsewhere, even in the rest of the Americas. Like Wiegman and many others, then, I would make the point that what we think of as the new internationalism in American studies is more often than not established along those routes of power and influence, which are themselves some of the most rigorously guarded and celebrated artifacts of the cold war. Imagine a none-too-liberal US president with an always-already absent Kenyan father and skin not a bit fairer than mine stumbling his way into a quiet Irish [End Page 149] village, the great might of the White House press corps in tow, only to shake hands, kiss babies, and share a pint with his willing, grinning—and never to be seen again—ruddy-cheeked relatives. Or to reiterate what we know already, our president, and the many people of color whom I take him to represent, can be seen to have conquered his provincialism precisely to the extent to which he genuflects not so much toward the universal or the global, as toward the European and the white.
One of the things that is most exciting about Wiegman’s work in Object Lessons is the attention that she pays to not only the institutional histories of women’s and gender studies, whiteness studies, queer theory, and American studies, but also the ways in which these fields, these processes of institutionalization, have often gone far beyond the original intentions of the individuals who helped to found them. Wiegman precisely names the methods by which insurgent modes of inquiry have at once restructured traditional disciplines and been deeply marked by them in return. Indeed, the academic and intellectual practices that Object Lessons examines are at their best when then they unsettle calcified notions about where the proper distinctions between various types of inquiry lie. I say all of this as a way to provide myself some sort of stage upon which I might announce one of the few quibbles I have with Wiegman’s work in Object Lessons. While I found her rehearsals of the theoretical and programmatic histories of the several fields she examines to be always interesting and, at times, brilliant, I was not convinced by her use of the term identity knowledges. I think that it gives far too much away to suggest that sexuality studies, gay and lesbian studies, Asian studies, Latin American studies, African American and Africana studies or postcolonial studies somehow concern themselves with identity, while those fields to which we most (un)consciously pay allegiance—English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch, to name the most obvious—do not. On the...