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part 5 Drive and Desires This page intentionally left blank 249 For They Know Not What They Do Southern Studies Centers, Normativity, and Fantasies of White Redemption jon smith When describing how she and Jodi Skipper decided whom to invite to the groundbreaking Transforming New South Identities symposium that led to this book, Michele Coffey has joked that one of the things it involved was going to a bunch of mainstream “southern studies” conferences and looking around to see who in the room looked angry. As the symposium amply demonstrated, they found a lot of us, in fields ranging from literary studies to anthropology. Yet there seems to be a presumption among more mainstream southern stud‑ ies scholars—a presumption that may echo or simply drag out the kerfuffle fifteen years ago in southern literary studies over Patricia Yaeger’s “angry” tone in Dirt and Desire—that this anger, coming chiefly from the left, is mys‑ terious, unjustified. “Some of the criticisms by figures in [the new southern studies] are pretty harsh,” the director of the Center for the Study of South‑ ern Culture at the University of Mississippi, Ted Ownby, has recently opined, “and plenty of the students and working scholars have read some of the cri‑ tiques, apparently intended to be glib and pithy, as being something closer to smug and unwelcoming.”1 I cannot speak for everyone, but the “harshness” of my own critiques has derived largely from frustration with what I will call an unearned normativity at the core of too much of what mainstream southern studies still does. Even now, old southern studies can too often offer a sub‑ ject—“southerners” or, worse, “we southerners”—followed by a predicate that does not reflect what “we” do at all. Much of the time it reflects a particularly narrow, upper-­ class white notion of “southern,” or, perhaps paradoxically, an upper-­ class white notion of “inclusiveness.” We southerners love barbecue. We southerners are great storytellers. We southerners have a sense of place. It has been decades since American studies felt the need to do anything like this. American studies centers do not, as a rule, celebrate the putative distinctiveness of American foodways or host vaguely old-­ timey “American music” sessions on the front porch of whatever building houses their offices. And the more people at southern studies centers and in the corresponding 250 smith lifestyle magazines and websites—Garden and Gun, the Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, and even at times Southern Cultures—celebrate “southern identity,” the more it can look, to those trained in American studies, not like a celebration but a narcissistic overcompensation. It can look like an overreac‑ tion to the general perception that the South is inferior to the rest of the na‑ tion (so “we” have to claim it’s the best, most beautiful, most authentic, foodi‑ est, whatever), but more fundamentally (for those of us who get Lacan), it overcompensates for the gnawing anxiety that no such identity exists. I have written about how most new southern studies scholars grew up in the south‑ eastern United States after the most obvious mark of southern distinctive‑ ness—de jure apartheid—had been struck down.2 In arguing against south‑ ern exceptionalism, we have been largely measuring exceptionalist claims against our really rather unexceptional upbringings—“not to absolve the south,” as historians Matthew Lassiter and Joseph Crespino have put it, “but to implicate the nation.”3 Mainstream southern studies, on the other hand, just can’t seem to let go. Its practitioners can still seem desperate to forge an alternate, more benign version of “southern identity,” one grounded in food‑ ways and music and attempting, at least, to be “inclusive”—unless, of course, you’re one of the millions of vegetarian southerners, or southerners who find “southern storytelling” to be wildly predictable, or who find a sense of place in lots of places, from Manhattan to the Canadian Rockies, but not so much in southern small towns, with their tedious strips of identical Walmarts, their Applebee’s and Advance Auto Parts and Hardee’s, or who come from border states like Virginia and appreciate far more similarities with, say, Maryland‑ ers than Mississippians. The need for group identity seems wildly to override the available evidence, and that’s bad enough for any putatively scholarly en‑ terprise, but what can seem worse is the emotional neediness that seems to motivate the whole thing. It’s tempting to take the position—perhaps from the Olympian distance preferred...


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