- IntroductionSpecial Cluster: New American Studies in Science and Technology: Essays in Cultural Historicism
As it completes its third year of publication, Configurations is still in some senses defining what it means to be “a journal of literature, science, and technology.” In the very first essay of the journal’s very first issue, Joseph Rouse provides a cogent definition of the practice of “cultural studies of scientific knowledge,” which he situates in opposition both to “postpositivist history and philosophy of science” and to the “social constructivism” of “the Edinburgh ‘strong programme,’ the Bath constructivist-relativist approach, applications of discourse analysis to science, and ethnographic laboratory studies.” 1 Despite the inaugural or originary force of this paper’s placement, however, it is not at all clear that Configurations has restricted itself to work in that (inter)discipline. Nor is it clear that the three essays in this cluster would fall under Rouse’s rubric of “cultural studies of scientific knowledge.” In assembling this cluster, then, my hope has been in part that these papers would contribute to and help expand the ongoing definition of what it means for Configurations to call itself “a journal of literature, science, and technology.”
Perhaps the most obvious way in which these essays can contribute to the definition of the journal’s identity is in their shared focus on the role of science and technology in the cultural construction of the idea of America in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. Although Configurations has published special [End Page 349] issues on the cultural construction of Russia or of cyberspace, this cluster represents its first coordinated effort to focus on America. For most of the journal’s first three years, the idea of America has remained unspoken, despite the fact that Configurations is basically an American journal: edited by American academics, and published by an American academic press, for an audience made up mostly of Americans. Americanness has been, in some sense, an unmarked term in much of the journal’s discussion of science and technology—even functioning as a kind of absent or unseen other in the special issue on “Communities of Science and Culture in Russian Science Studies.” These papers will, I hope, initiate the discussion of the idea of America in Configurations—that is, of how the idea of America both defines and is defined by the network of relations among literature, science, and technology.
Less obvious than their shared focus on American science, technology, and culture are the methodological or theoretical affinities among the three essays. All three authors were trained at Berkeley in the late seventies and early eighties, during the emergence of the new historicism in Renaissance and American literary studies. “New historicism” has been defined in opposition to an older historicism in which history was seen as a neutral or unproblematic context against which to interpret literary texts. Unlike this older historicism, new historicism extended to history the poststructuralist axiom that everything is a text; consequently, it turned to history, not as a source of facts or events or statistics, but as a source of textual analogues to the literary texts that were their primary focus. In so doing, new historicism also recognized that literature itself was historically constructed—that is, that it was the product of economic, political, and social (i.e., of ideological) practices. Consequently, literature was seen as a contested site, an arena where the ideological conflicts of history were played out.
As second-generation new historicists, each of the authors can be said to practice what I would like to call “cultural historicism.” Unlike much first-generation new historicism, in which the literary was singled out as a privileged (if still ideologically and culturally constructed) site of analysis, each of these three papers treats the literary as one cultural discourse among others. The aim of these essays in cultural historicism, then, is not to focus primarily on the ways in which literature plays out the cultural and ideological conflicts of history. Rather, each focuses on the way in which certain myths of American cultural origin are played out across a number of diverse and heterogeneous discourses and technologies of representation...