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American Quarterly 56.1 (2004) 163-170
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Un-bridaled Pageantry; or, Here Comes the Eruption of Queer Desires
The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture. By Elizabeth Freeman. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002. 304 pages. $19.95 (paper).
Okay, it's probably no surprise that sexual metaphors pervade characterizations of American studies—perhaps especially those made in informal settings, late at night. A fairly recent discussion on H-Amstdy, under the subject line "American Studies v. American History," for example, included a consciously flippant characterization of American studies as "American history unbuttoned and unrepressed," which prompted another poster to sigh, with a note of dismay cum irritation, that too many of her colleagues seem still to view American studies as downright "promiscuous," particularly by comparison with more traditional fields like history. 1
Literary scholars like me live for these moments.
Of course, all good American studies scholars know that our beloved discipline is not simply an unattached, sexual free agent engaged in a series of one-night stands with a variety of other disciplines chosen mainly for their sex appeal. (Although in our more curmudgeonly moments, the best of us may have our suspicions, and in our more whimsical moments, we may also ask, "why not?") Nor yet is it a simple marriage of two fields—"one man and one woman" in the [End Page 163] demanding language of the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (and of similar legislative movements rumbling through the bowels of state governments these days). Such discipline-based stereotyping is problematic, for obvious reasons, and interdisciplinary fields, moreover, should not simply create connections between two related majors, but instead should include a deep intellectual engagement (pun not fully intended but unresisted) with a variety of disciplines: art history, anthropology, and the panoply of the social sciences, for starters.
Still, as Paul Lauter recently observed, as soon as we seek to define the field, it's hard not to "reinscrib[e] the old literature / history dichotomy," even in discussions—like Lauter's own—that strive to do precisely the opposite. That alluring reinscription derives from a positing of American studies as a kind of troubled heterosexual marriage of literary "textuality"—interpretive, fluid, ungrounded, even playful—with historical "contextuality," firmly established on the seeming solidity of historical documentation. 2 In this lurking, continually denied play marriage, literary scholars risk always playing the wife, thus facing the deauthorization encountered by all feminized voices—especially the peril of being dismissed (by one's own internal critic and one's readers) as a hysteric. Or, at the very least, literary scholarship may be accused of offering only "clever readings of unusual 'texts' . . . detached from the worlds in which they do their work" 3 or, bluntly, being labeled as "presentist." 4 Although allegations of presentism are difficult to prove and often used as boundary-enforcing "no trespassing" signs, even I will admit the label to be justified in some circumstances.
Elizabeth's Freeman's book The Wedding Complex presents a useful focal point for a discussion of these ongoing identity debates within American studies. First, the book is explicitly devoted to examining the productive tension between the conservative, citizen-forming impulse of marriage, perhaps the most patriarchal of all institutions, and the explosion of possibility and feminized lavishness of the wedding ceremony. And, second, its wide-ranging choice of materials and periods and explicitly literary approach leave it open to the charge that it merely advances a series of inventive close readings of hip texts. The book's introduction, for example, includes references to nineteenth-century fashion plates, stereoscopic photographs, brief analyses of Mazda and Reebok ads, and commentaries on a variety of contemporary films and TV programs—from Su Friedrich's experimental film [End Page 164] First Comes Love (1991) to the game show "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire." That chapter serves to frame, in theoretical and historical terms, an examination of the book's central chapters, which discuss a wide variety of more "literary" works, by authors...