Kvetch and Define a Field"
Richard P. Horwitz
A version of this essay also appears in
"American Studies: From Culture Concept to Cultural Studies?"
ed. Norman R. Yetman
Special issue of American Studies 38:2, (Summer 1997), pp.
kvetch (kvech or k¢ vech)
vi. [ModYid] to complain obsessively about trivial or unalterable
thereby showing that you are not yet brain-dead. See
This essay is a three-part commentary
on recent visions of American Studies. Part One is quite personal, bordering
on a rant. I try to evoke some of what it has felt like to live within
the field during the past couple of decades. Part Two offers a definition
of the field today, some serviceable norms and variants, as they appear
in colleges and universities. And Part Three is a defense of that definition,
including cautionary, personal and institutional tales. It is intended
to anticipate, largely via caricature, ways that diverse people pursuing
American Studies might best describe what they will be doing in the
future. Although each of the three parts might be read separately, I
hope they together evoke a sense of the field that is worth considering.
I. An American Studies Experience
When Norm Yetman approached me
on behalf of MAASA with the plenary question -- "From Culture Concept
to Culture Studies?" -- I must admit leaping at the chance. The opportunity
seemed so luscious that even I was left suspicious. I could understand
why old friends might call on me, either because rounds of professional
courtesy left me in someone’s debt or because they counted on my propensity
for indiscretion to liven things up. I am frequently accused of being
obsessive and whiny but rarely bland. Whether or not I was, in effect,
being set up like Howard Stern for a guest spot on "The 700 Club," the
motivation of my hosts was understandable. But what was the attraction
for me? An audience might welcome something "provocative," but why would
anyone want to be a provocateur? What associated agenda could be so
ominous as to challenge my own capacity for self absorption? All that
MAASA requested was someone to catch currents in the field over the
past quarter century -- the way the wind has been blowing, so to speak
-- and to track gusts to leeward. What could be so stirring in the prospect
of miming a wind sock?
Given the breadth of the subtitle,
it could be the Andy Rooney or Chicken Little welling up in me. The
topic unleashes a temptation to air every paranoid delusion and pet
peeve accumulated since I was a kid. I declared an undergraduate major
in American Civilization at Penn as a teenager nearly thirty years ago,
when my teachers were first honing "the culture concept." The major
was at once high-serious enough to be intellectually respectable and
outlandish enough to be hip. It was a cover for a little community organizing
with Students for a Democratic Society, for reading ex-slave narratives,
studying commercial architecture, folklore and fieldwork, chomping cheese
steaks and dodging thugs in West Philly. As long as courses were passed
and tuition paid, I also got to dodge the office on North Broad Street
that sorely wanted my butt in Vietnam. Asking me to reflect on changes
since then is a little like asking a Dead Head (well, at least when
Garcia was alive), "How’s the band been doing?"
It would be nice to begin with
a simple benchmark, the way things stood in American Studies back when
"the culture concept" was first the rage, but it is apt to be mixed
up with memories of adolescence and an era that GenXers have already
heard way too much about. A single image that may suffice can be drawn
from a senior seminar in AmCiv (almost exactly twenty-five years ago)
that I took with John Caughey (who was later among the first in a long
line of Penn purgees). We were talking about contemporary American values,
greed and arrogance, oil conglomerates, misogyny, nuclear holocausts,
white racism, and the plundering of the planet. I distinctly remember
one session, the first of several, that we agreed to end early, just
because these things were too urgent or depressing to cage in a classroom.
I suppose it is the mood of such
moments, the mixture of privilege, naiveté, fear and loathing,
that seems to so linger. The paper that I arranged for double duty that
term -- for the seminar in AmCiv and another in anthropology -- teased
dominant American values from Naked Lunch. William Burroughs
was for me what Walt Whitman was for my predecessors, and Cora DuBois
was my I. A. Richards. That choice might give you an idea of how the
"past," back upwind, seems to me. The culture concept emerged during
a period in which I was trying to grow up and do right in a place that
seemed horribly wrong. I fell in love and got married, successfully
resisted the draft (a rear-guard tour of duty in itself), and worked
on marathon committee meetings, full of PLP-versus-SDS intrigue, to
organize marches on Washington, that the President gleefully ignored.
On surrounding rooftops fellow baby boomers looked down through rifle
scopes, knowing that protest-singing flower children and Joe-Hill impersonators
were hardly a significant threat. There surely were much better ways
for us to have met or to have gone our separate ways.
These were formative, American-studies
times for me -- not all that different, I gather (at least in their
conventionally unconventional quality), from those of prior and following
generations, in as well as outside the U.S. Whether properly classified
under "myth," "hegemony," "culture," ("counter-" or "sub-") or even
"lifestyle enclave," the memories are not particularly sweet. They chafe
back to attention, like grit in socks after a walk on the beach. An
acquaintance in the Psychology Department (where a luscious topic is
more like "funding trends in psychometrics") recently introduced me:
"This is Rich Horwitz. He’s a Professor of American Studies. I am not
sure what that is, but I gather they hate the United States."
I don’t think I hate the United
States or consider hating anything (or for that matter, loving it) among
the things that my degrees credential or students pay me to do. It is
a familiar, reasonable misunderstanding of my kvetching, which
actually does seem at home in the field. The only kindred definition
that I find more seriously off-putting is the Oedipal variant that can
be heard around ASA meetings of late, where even the "slave market"
is weak. Unemployed ABDs or under-employed itinerants blow their last
eight dollars on a cup of Hilton latte and wonder how great it would
be, if only they could rescue the field from red-necked hegemones. I
have to wonder if they are referring to the likes of me or the authors
and teachers whose legacy, like it or not, I carry.
To hear the most recent round
of self-righteousness, you would think that those seminars, twenty-five
or even fifty years ago, could have been mistaken for "Paradise of Bachelors,"
or the ones last week for a "Tartarus of Maids."1
You would think that the current crop of cultural-studies folk is the
first really to care about students, to face a job shortage, to be suspicious
of capitalism, dominant ideologies or careerists. No amount of theorizing,
instantiating, or standpointing can pull that off without sacrificing
solidarity and a chunk of truth. Correcting that misimpression, insofar
as it exists, is surely part of the lusciousness of the challenge for
me. Thus doth I protest too much.
Whatever my rating on the latest,
more-radical-than-thou scale, the score does concern me, if only to
maintain membership in the opposition party, that "progressive" minority
which is the academic majority. I have always found greater comfort
in being the source than the subject of complaints. Workmates in the
humanities and qualitative social sciences almost demand as much, while
my workmates on the farm (who tend to be less doctrinaire, anyway) consider
it interesting. Hence, like more than a few of my colleagues, I have
felt encouraged to grow from adolescence to mid-life crisis without
passing through adulthood.
No one whom I have met in American
Studies, at least in the U.S., spent evenings harrumphing in walnut-paneled,
white-guy preserves, swigging brandy and sucking cigars. Yes, there
were and remain inexcusable gender and race inequities in the field
itself (though I have often found them worse outside than inside the
U.S.). We are all responsible for challenging such injustice, especially
those of us (yes, the likes of me) who benefit from them over the short
run, but that is hardly to say we put them there. They did not originate
in professorial practices -- missed opportunities to "adequately theorize"
or to sound sufficiently "radical" when published in a university-press
book or read aloud under chandeliers in a convention ballroom. The men
and women who contributed to American Studies, back when the "culture
concept" was hotter than "cultural studies," were not all that different
in their political and cultural commitments than people who currently
make the academic rounds. We might even be able to laugh about our lore
with some sophistication and affection, rather than leaving humor to
the cultural right.
We were not all white guys, and
many of us were also only very recently and tentatively awarded "whiteness"
for reasons that, we knew, were more for others’ detriment than for
our benefit. (I wish Pat Buchanan would speak of that history, too.)2
Racial tensions on campus were fierce enough, especially under the Rizzo
reign of terror, that no one could forget how deeply white privilege
was understood and resented.3 Most
of us had profound doubts about a nation-state that was using a generation
born on both sides of the Pacific for cannon fodder. The daily tally
of maimed, missing and dead was a drone on the morning and evening news
as health tips are today.
The academic job market was bad
enough even then that classmates actually assumed a Ph.D. had little-to-no
cash value, except in a "straight" world that was even more "in league
with the war machine." Whining, as I say, was cool, but whining about
your own job prospects was uncool, a sign (however mistaken) of disrespect
for people whose dreams resembled our fall-backs. And there were much
more thrilling substances to abuse than brandy.
Memories of living through all
of that and professionally identifying with American Studies are thoroughly
intertwined. So, as I reconsider the invitation from MAASA -- "How’s
the band been doing?" -- I realize I am apt to go overboard. I had better
keep a hand on the rail.
I had also better face a simple
fact: the question for this session calls for a more mature response
than I am inclined to deliver. I imagine, for example, assembling, for
the umpteenth time, a survey of the literature in American Studies over
the past sixty-plus years: books, articles, course syllabi, conferences
proceedings, et cetera. (I have had to do something like that to teach
the graduate methods course nearly every year since my first job in
1975.) Then, sort off a couple of piles from the last twenty-five years,
one for items with "culture-concept" and the other with "cultural-studies"
trademarks. Make yet smaller piles of similarities and differences.
Craft an essay that begins with "on the one hand" to introduce the smaller
sub-sub-heap; transition with an "on the other hand," leading to a summary
of the larger sub-sub-heap. Conclude with a humble, balanced contribution
to unnamed, pitiful others who have heretofore over- or under-estimated
the relative significance of one or the other heap. Done.
There are already a large number
of published works that have taken on such a challenge and done a better
job of it than I could, especially writing, as I am, in Hong Kong where
access to the latest English-language material is a little more difficult
than it is in Europe and in the United States.4 I
would get two words out, and somebody would wave yet another hot-off-the-press
Routledge edition in my face, proving that I was hopelessly out of touch.
No doubt, other plenary participants will be better able to handle such
a challenge. Whatever I have to contribute to a discussion will have
to take a different tack.
One of the most inspiring precedents
I have witnessed in the past few years was staged for the Fiftieth Anniversary
of the extremely influential Department of American Studies at the University
of Minnesota. Never mind that they decided not to mention that I had
taught there (in fact, had turned down more secure job offers for the
chance -- how naive! -- to make a difference in the belly of the beast)
or that, outside the confines of this particular love feast, a few faculty
were engaged in a blood feud. On this occasion, everyone took the high
I was most impressed by a staged
exchange between Leo Marx and George Lipsitz, who simply refused to
take the dumb-choice bait: "myth and symbol" in the tragically flawed,
distant past versus "cultural studies" in the gleaming present (presumably
with "the culture concept," of Penn rather than Minnesota vintage, a
forgettable detour). They even avoided the decorous Whiggish salve,
whereby the prior generation is credited with doing the best they could
and with clearing the way for progress, which inevitably ensued. Instead,
they improvised more circumstantial and controlled comparisons, finding
plenty of credit and blame to go around.5
I am quite certain that most of
their agreement cannot be chalked up to gender or class solidarity,
though clearly it was there, too. Although speaking English with an
American academic accent can be considered a hegemonic act, they showed
that good use could be made of it. Even if they were discursively duped
or a bit disingenuous in deference to the occasion, I think they were
right to recognize great continuity in the field. At least when I reread
classic manifestos -- such as American Quarterly essays by Wise
or Mechling, written before the latest British invasion hit Jones Beach
-- they seem to hold up pretty well.6
There are, of course, giant gaps.
In particular, (as Wise admitted) institutional considerations -- most
particularly, those related to hierarchical relations of nation-state,
race, class, gender, and sexuality -- were given nowhere near the prominence
they deserve. But I think their rise in prominence is more easily credited
to activists who demanded attention to those concerns than to people
who hung out in British universities or who crafted American renditions
of the latest monograph on 007 or working-class lads.7
I do not mean to belittle the overall importance of cultural studies
or even to restrict all usage of the expression to its Birmingham descendants.
But I do want to emphasize both more long-term continuities in the field
and extremely valuable changes that can be credited to people who were
responding to oppressions and inspiration outside as well as inside
hallowed halls in the U.K. or the U.S.
What have been the conceptual
changes in the field over the last twenty-five years and the ones that
have the most staying power? I have been presuming everyone knows the
answer and, if not, that it ought to be obvious: the consideration of
diversity beyond the U.S. border and within it, especially the ways
that certain sorts of social stratification matter -- those based on
nationality, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and (in appropriate
measure one day, I pray) class. And these items were put on the agenda
by people -- many of them better represented in university kitchens
and maintenance departments than lecture halls -- who have personal
experience with violence, neglect, INS, and obscenities yelled from
passing cars. These were also people who grew up with loved ones who
refused to accept hate and fear (or at least used them creatively) and
who claimed pleasures of their own, as their ancestors have done for
Many of them and their allies
within the hallowed halls also took substantial encouragement from American
Studies. For example, at the University of Iowa as elsewhere, both the
African-American Studies and the Women’s Studies Programs began when
diverse students and staff campaigned for them. American Studies responded
by supplying staff and funds that helped inspire or shame the Dean into
providing some, too. Although the American Studies Program had many
fewer resources than, say, English, Communications, or History (not
to mention central administration, where they actually do have a taste
for walnut and brandy), ours was the only department or program to tithe
itself (for several years, about fifty percent of the resources that
we were free to allocate) and to require all of our students to participate
in those programs. Of course, we had mixed feelings when those programs
requested autonomy, but we supported those requests, continuing the
commitment we made at the outset, with no talk of debts when they earned
substantial resources of their own. After all, we were not contributing
to "someone else’s" interest; it was ours, too. These are not memories
of the Sixties or Seventies, but initiatives that intensified then and
continue even today, precisely when larger and larger numbers of scholars
in allegedly allied fields are coming to the meager trough of American
Studies and asking, "Well, now that we all do cultural studies, what
do we need you folks for? What are you old farts bellowing about? Are
you trying to be exclusionary?"
As I say, kvetching appears
to be a pervasive habit (the academic’s mishigas), but I hope
it is now clear that there is a source for mine. The wind has never
blown very strongly in the direction of American Studies, and I fear
that come-latelies misunderstand the value of wind in our sails in addition
to their own, even if we are all, at the moment, flying "cultural-studies"
colors. I think their predecessors may have seen that value better,
albeit in a more distant past when higher education was less strapped.
For example, many programs, including my own at Iowa, originally began
only because regular departments -- English, in particular -- provided
support. In the 1930s-60s, they did for us what we did for those "women-and-minority"
operations in the 1970s-to-present. But now debts, (including bogus
claims by departments that were miserly in the first place) are coming
due, under the cover of avoiding duplication in our allegedly common,
The difference in our responses
to intellectual compatibility highlight what I think of as the fresh
breeze that has long blown through the field of American Studies. It
was there even before the days when the "the culture concept" fortified
it. It remains dear to many of us still, and it has little to do with
"cultural studies" or, for that matter, any particular body of literature
or research regimen. It is hardly to be found in younger operations
like ethnic studies, where one might most expect to find it. It is a
part of the spirit of American Studies that the come-latelies, debt
collectors, duplication fighters, and disciplinary tourists do not seem
When people who are committed
to American Studies have discovered kindred spirits they have generally
(well, ideally, anyway) responded: "Great! How can we help each other
and learn about our differences, too?" That disposition -- not some
recipe for processing primary sources or aping great works, not reciting
articles of faith (or, for that matter, devoutly avoiding them) -- that
more general collegial spirit is at the heart of what I consider the
"holistic approach" or "transdisciplinarity" distinctive of the field.
MLA or AHA-types, many of them recently slumming on our journal boards
and at annual meetings, if not running them, when faced with the same
condition have begun to say, in effect, "Oh, I guess we can go back
to our disciplines now. Since we’ve been-there/done-that, we’ll scout
out other places to vacation. You folks just adapt, OK? And don’t count
the towels or silverware till we’re gone." This scenario, lurking behind
the plenary topic, has a diplomatic analogue: the delegation from a
neighboring sovereign hoists a new flag and stations troops in your
backyard, the day that you invite them over for pot-luck, state dinner.
Of course, people talented in
cultural criticism will at this point smell the rotting mullet on deck.
I have not specified who these various types are, insofar as they exist,
or earned the right to speak, in effect, for them. And such talk of
who is or is not in the "spirit" of American Studies, of "we" and "they"
with turf and troops, is about as blatant a rhetoric of exclusion as
you are likely to find. Noting that I have fallen over the rail, I would
not expect anyone to throw me a line: "Good riddance, and keep the fish
But I think there may be at least
a shred of sensibility in the paranoia. (To reverse a more common lament)
each deliberate act of exclusion might also help us evaluate the qualities
of what we thereby necessarily also embrace. I think people who do American
Studies -- by which I mean people who have gained credentials, a podium
or a job that bears its name, who are thereby indebted to the generosity
of predecessors and the future of followers -- should articulate their
understanding of what that name is to mean. Talk of turf may be divisive,
a reminder of the difference between hosts and guests, but I do not
see how evading the subject is better.
Given prior discussions -- including
a feverish thread on H-Amstdy just as I am writing -- I do not expect
much agreement with that assertion.8
And I would like to address the strains of resistance to it forthrightly.
Unfortunately, much of the resistance is itself not terribly forthright.
It frequently invokes purely hypothetical or erroneous historical reconstructions
of the sort:
"How would we be poorly served if American Studies for the first
time had a canon like a regular discipline?"
(as if it did not have
one when the Minnesota/Harvard/Amherst, myth-and-symbol crowd was
"How can we be free of the evils that must have come as a result
of being subject to one in the past?"
(as if it were our syllabi
or theories in American Studies that accounts for the social inequity
that it has shared with Physics and Classics but not Home Economics
or Dental Hygiene).
Of course, I am again overstating the case for dramatic (provocative)
effect, but even when the worries are pared back to reality, I think
we might better begin with an actual instance of defining rather than
cowering before the mere possibility of one.
Fortunately, there is also lot
of helpful lore from which to draw. Many of the people who emphasize
the dangers of canon formation accept a bit of hypocrisy for the right
price. Most of us have to teach students and write catalogue copy, where
"problematizing" a long list of potential practices is itself problematic.
Those who speak plainly have their virtues and may even empower alternatives
as frequently as problematizers obscure them. It might be useful, then,
to take the sorts of simplifications that instructors ordinarily have
to offer nineteen-year-olds, their parents, and the deans, and to consider
them seriously ourselves, just to see what happens -- remaining mindful,
of course, of the concerns of those who resist such an effort on principle.
In doing so, then, I am thrashing back toward the rail.
While the foregoing has been a
highly defensive (I hope, not too offending) account of gettin’ no respect,
the following is an attempt to earn a little.
II. The Definitional Plunge
To what should the name "American
Studies" refer? That question could be answered by drawing precedent
at a variety of points, including any of a large number of regional
studies operations that boomed in higher education in diverse corners
of the world in the first half of the Twentieth Century. But I begin
with the U.S. where, (despite German protests to the contrary) I believe,
the field was first institutionalized and by which other programs so-named
have been strongly influenced.
In the U.S. there is reasonably
widespread agreement that the name "American Studies" means learning
as much as possible about the cultures of a place, America. In most
respects, there is nothing unusual about it as a field. Warrants for
claims in American Studies are for the most part the same as those in
any other academic enterprise: coherence, imagination, depth and breadth.
But there are also a set of standards
that may be more particular to American Studies, both in the U.S. and
in most of the rest of the world where the name is recognized. In this
field, knowledge is supposed to be limited chiefly to America but is
also supposed to span:
- a substantial period of time,
at least a couple of centuries;
- a diverse social spectrum,
including at least men and women and people of more than one racial
or ethnic category;
- insights drawn from a variety
of media -- non-fiction and fiction, books, music, performance, film,
video, artifacts; and
- the perspective of a variety
of scholarly traditions -- at the very least including those common
in departments of English and history.
I think it is also safe to say
that, despite great variation over about sixty years, American Studies
in the U.S. has also tended to express a distinct ethos. It includes
an interest in cultural criticism, in evaluating the quality of its
subject rather than simply accumulating findings. In fact, there have
been relatively few "discoveries" in U.S. American Studies. The most
prized works are distinguished by the originality and scope of interpretation,
the synthesis or way of narrating facts, that have usually been unearthed
in a "regular" discipline. The ethos also includes a respect for collegiality
and collaboration in teaching and for the solitary critic in research.
There is an almost adolescent zeal, where enthusiasm, novelty, and transgression
can be considered virtues in themselves. In these respects (among others)
-- despite great variability and adamant resistance to clear self-definition
(a.k.a. "methodolatry") -- American Studies in the U.S. has had a style
that can be characterized as critical, sociable but individualistic,
and non-conformist. In these ways, it has been stereotypically "American,"
at least more so than "regular" disciplines with their stronger European
Still, U.S. Americanists disagree
in important respects as they define the way the field can and should
be practiced. They most often disagree about the two halves of the name
of the field: the bounds of what is to be taken as "American" and the
spiritual, political, or pragmatic implication of doing something called
"studies" rather than a "regular discipline" like history or English.
Such definitional squabbles among academics in the U.S. have been ubiquitous
at least from the 1960s through the 1980s. At the moment the terms of
the debates have shifted from pedagogy or research to program administration,
but they remain strong and have powerful implications.
Two options for "America"
Disagreements about the range
of reference of the term "America" are politically charged. Nearly every
position can be taken to signal both how scholars respond to inequities
of power in and out of the United States and how they bound the range
of their expertise.
One ready option is to define
"America" as simply the United States and the colonies and territories
that it overcame. This is probably the most conventional and long-standing
use of the term in as well as out of the academy, and it has distinct
correlates in practice. For example, the range of its application tends
to constrict as the more distant past is considered. From this point
of view, for example, "America" began as a tiny, European (predominantly
British) project which expanded over the centuries. This use of the
term is more geopolitical than geographic. Hence, for example, in the
late Twentieth Century, the Pacific and Atlantic boundaries may be equally
emphasized, but the center of attention is in their northern halves,
where non-African racial solidarity and post-World-War I alliances are
strong. In this view, African or Asian dimensions of American culture
can easily be considered "tributaries" to a Northern-European-American
In this context, the term invites
an evaluative approach, whereby investigating "America" also entails
identifying good and evil in social life. The exercise often resembles
measuring American history and literature against the promises of earlier
European invaders ("the forefathers"). This is but one way American
Studies has significantly diverged from other area studies (more geographically
defined) that matured in the 1950s and 1960s. Hence, American Studies
in this vein is also a little more friendly to the humanities and qualitative
social sciences where evaluative and informational missions are self-consciously
A second set of definitions refuse
to equate the subject of American Studies with the geopolitical boundary
of only one of "the Americas," much less one that remains so dominated
by citizens of European descent. Since the late 1960s, often (in and
out of the U.S.) the subject is taken as "bigger," stretching from Canada
south through the Caribbean and Central America (or from South America
up -- I mean no nortecentrismo).
Scholars with variants on this
view still consider the U.S. their subject but only when considered
in addition to (or at least primarily in relation to) all of North America.
From this vantage it is much easier to fix the size and location of
the subject. The boundaries of "America" do not change. It is hence
easier to emphasize aboriginal peoples and relations across the south
as well as north Atlantic. It is thereby, too, a more strictly geographic
(and maybe cultural), less statist use of the term "America." And the
center of the subject moves to the east and south, away, say, from Hawaii
or Guam, which in this sense of the term become less "American." Political
progressives often champion this view in the name of more inclusiveness,
but it also more closely resembles the supposedly realistic, cool, detached
conception of place (as a physical vs. figurative setting) that has
dominated other Cold-War-vintage regional studies.
As I hope my tone has made obvious,
I do not think one use of the term "American" is simply superior to
the other. Each has its strength and weakness worth considering.
Three options for "studies"
Debates about the reference of
the word "studies" have had clearer implications for campus than civic
politics. Each sense of the term implies different relations among scholars
and among "regular disciplines" of the 20th-century Euro-American academy.
These senses can be classified into three recognizable types that generally
also have resembled stages of development for influential programs in
The simplest and oldest way may
be called "multi-disciplinary." In such cases, American Studies is a
loose confederation of students and scholars who work in a variety of
humanities and social sciences and who share an interest in America.
Cooperation is purely occasional and instrumental (e.g., for raising
money or mounting a conference). For students, the curriculum is a simple
sum of everything that is already available, a buffet line from which
students pile their plates according to individual appetites. Administratively
they require near-zero cost and very low maintenance. Running a program
mainly entails repackaging disciplinary courses off the shelf. The key
impediments are not intellectual but bureaucratic (e.g., if degree requirements
discourage students from electing courses in several departments).
A slightly more ornate conception
of the field may be called "cross-disciplinary."10
Bureaucratically speaking, American Studies becomes an adjunct or semi-autonomous
region for people studying America. Cooperation is organized around
certain types of situations (e.g., English courses that history students
should take or vice versa), and this cooperation is institutionalized
(e.g., whereby American Studies becomes a set of cross- or co-listed
courses that fit some rationale, and hiring decisions are affected by
curricular commitments that are less strictly departmental). Staff gather
irregularly to design a fixed menu or two from which students choose.
Program administration usually requires a staff meeting or two each
year and a designated advisor, if students have electives.
Finally, there is way to recognize
when the field is "inter-" or "trans-disciplinary." American Studies
in this sense exists as field of its own. It is considerably more than
the sum of its disciplinary ingredients or the way they are packaged.
Purposeful cooperation among disciplinary staff, for example, is a goal
in and of itself, as well as a recognized means for better teaching
and research about American culture. Staff collectively design and deliver
curriculum that represents a shared responsibility. Program administration
requires space, staff salary lines, a budget, and a vital, committed,
and regularly communicating core of instructors. Maybe then too, there
must be a distinction between core and cooperating staff based on a
requisite degree of commitment to this sense of the field.
Plainly, this sort of trans-disciplinarity
is the one that I was taught and teach. I believe it is good not only
for students and staff in American Studies but also for the quality
of academic life in general. In making this claim, I know I am in a
minority, even among Americanists in the U.S., but I think this is so
for reasons that can be better explained through campus political-economy
than sound reason. I will try to touch on a little of each of these
concerns as I aim to justify the foregoing.
III. In Defense of a Definition
Cede some ground
I am confident that cultural critics
worth their salt would find in this definition all manner of special
pleading on behalf of myself, associated social categories, and the
moment. In admitting as much, I hope that we can avoid a round or two
of painful and pointless ad hominem. Not that long ago, for example,
an elder statesman in American Studies began his evaluation of a proposal
I had written -- to compare the ways that people in the U.S. and in
South Asia learn about "America" -- by saying, "I wish you and all the
other Woody Allens would stop navel gazing and get on with it." I am
willing to forgive the anti-Semitic edge to the crack, if we can, indeed,
respectfully discuss what "it" is that needs getting.
Surely, every definition has power.
Every "is" implies an "ought," even if you are naming spoons ("one is
for tea; the other for soup"). And when it can delimit a profession
or tradition or what counts as a passing grade for a degree that also
awards social mobility, the consequences become more serious. People
with rallying points are encouraged and better able to recruit and sustain
allies next time around. Others who disagree or who "just happened to
be absent" when the rallying points were made are also likely to be
slighted in the future, and that can hurt everyone. Most academics of
any stripe can recall insufferable committee meetings, absorbing high-serious
blather from guardians of academic propriety. They warn how "every Medievalist
[or post-structuralist or whatever] would be horrified" or how "all
standards will be hopelessly lost," if a smidgen of creativity or sensitivity
to new circumstance were accommodated.
Based on such experience, I can
easily imagine the above definition coming home to haunt. A course that
I have lately been teaching ("American as a Foreign Country") aims,
among other things, to explore relationships between the two senses
of "America" that I distinguish above. Imagine a cadre of strategic
planners making my life difficult for trying to do "too much" by considering
both at once. That is hardly the sort of outcome I intended, but definitions
do help make it possible. At the very least, the blowhards and bureaucrats
would otherwise have to make up their own terms of intolerance.
Of course, few people, even on
the fronts of culture wars, would admit aiming for such an outcome,
but the possibility must be conceded. Since people in American Studies
regularly trespass academic terrain, we are often caught in cannon crossfire,
and we should be especially wary of booby traps and pigeon holes.
Costs of ceding too much
Alternatives to a pigeon hole,
though, include being left out in the cold . As we often remind "mainstream"
America, individual and collective liberty, freedom from a group
and freedom to act as a member of one, are worth distinguishing.
Both are freedoms worth prizing, even though they often conflict, and
I think the ballyhoo over methodology or definition in American Studies
can be considered just such a case. None of us wants to be told what
to do, and individual creativity benefits the common good, but there
is no support for or cumulative benefit in such individuality without
institutions that require definition. At minimum, I am referring to
things like budget lines for salaries and research, categories of media
to be maintained in the library, opportunities for students in classes,
and credibility among their prospective employers. In defining the field,
I am trying to help hone our claims on those things, that is, exercise
freedom to use instruments of the common good. I do not think cultural
critics can do so effectively if we -- like a "mainstream" whom we rightly
fault -- equate the denial of explicit social purpose and the advancement
Furthermore, I do not see many
people whom my definition actually excludes (though I must admit a standard
here, that is arguably high, intended to preserve a distinction between
legal or fiscal and figurative or ritual force. The word "exclude" is,
I think, used so frequently that an opportunity is lost to acknowledge
the difference between barbed wire and bad vibes.) No doubt there are
some people, maybe many, who will be discouraged to find their sense
of self or group and my definition at odds. I welcome reminders of who
they/we are and help in working together better to take each other into
Clearly the definition has its
implicit hierarchy. It renders some activities central (those, in effect,
of "hosts" of the field, e.g., people working full-time in interdisciplinary,
tertiary outfits) and others more peripheral ("guests," e.g., people
working as independent scholars or in more multi-disciplinary outfits).
And I hope such priorities will be openly discussed, rather than hardened
into a cruel system.
Guests should be welcomed, not
only because generosity is good but also because everyone stands to
benefit. But I think we would be naive to assume that pecking orders
-- some variety of boundary and social stratification -- are things
American Studies can do without. Whether discussed or not, they exist.
Some people go home after the party; other stay and clean up.
We might as well do so with justifications
that have more going for them than an alternative composed of unfettered
individualism and perfect meritocracy. Just in case this strikes you
as paranoid ("No such straw men exist"), I can testify to having witnessed
one come to life, during a formal evaluation of a program in American
Studies. Like faculty in most programs, at least when they are under
review, these American Studies professors were trying to build a case
to support claims on the resources of their institution, in exchange
for providing something of explicit value. Members of the program tried
to explain to students, prospective employers, and central administration
that they, indeed, had a distinctive mission to perform, including one
that required as much commitment on both sides as any other bureau.
They were, they said, conferring degrees of substance that they could
describe. I was not pleased to watch an evaluator -- jetted in to represent
the field of American Studies in the wider world -- remind players in
the process how much he thought the program would improve if faculty
would stop worrying about doing anything distinctive: "Why not just
admit good students and turn them loose with talented faculty? That’s
how it’s done at Yale," he said.
You can imagine, I hope, how discouraging
that message might be for students and teachers (who did not "just so
happen" to be at Yale) or how administrators might respond when the
evaluators (pursuing the same presumption) denied that training in American
Studies ought to be a prerequisite for supervising work toward a Ph.D.
bearing that name. "Just hire people from Yale," was the implication,
I suppose; "any degree will do." If you want an example of just the
sort of appeal to fantasies of individualism and meritocracy and their
use to justify denying resources to and from American Studies, there
you have it, in its boola-boola, boot-strapping splendor: an anecdote
in support of my concern.
I want to help people in American
Studies be less vulnerable to such pretense in the future. Some of the
exclusions, then, of my definition are quite purposeful. Implicitly,
I am rejecting two justifications that seem to have long been present
in American Studies: "Anything Goes" and "Super Method."
The one that I have been hammering
to this point is mainly the "Anything Goes" model, the one that is typically
opposed to definitions on principle (e.g., principles of inclusion that
rely on an individualist and a pseudo-meritorcratic status quo). Accordingly,
one might suppose, American Studies deserves resources because it is
one of the few places left in the academy with its innocence intact.
It is theory and method lite, a place for those credentialed in the
hard knocks of regular disciplines to kick off their shoes and refresh,
as if they were taking a weekend at a dude ranch or New Age retreat.
In case straw men again come to
mind and the prior, relatively bureaucratic example is not sufficiently
stirring, you might think of another sort of instance that I regularly
witness. A member of an allied department (it could be one of several;
so, let us call it, the Department of Seriousness) regularly blossoms
in American Studies dissertation defenses. The Professor, holder of
a Serious chair, joyously kicks around art, science and society, making
playful connections against which she or he counseled the student for
the prior six months. Then, just as we are about to end the defense
and award the degree, he or she pops The Big Question: "I know this
is a degree in American Studies, but [in effect, ‘all kidding aside’]
how is it a contribution to the discipline of Seriousness?"
Of course, it is valuable for
American Studies graduates to have proven an ability to contribute to
scholarly life as a whole (and that of other potential employers, in
particular), but it is certainly dispiriting to see this occasion, the
last formality of intellectual substance before graduation, so hijacked
for a purpose that is, yes, valuable but secondary. At least some of
us in the room -- those who run the outfit that is awarding the degree
-- are justifiably offended. How would you feel, if dinner guests, chewing
the last fork full of dessert, asked, "So, when are we going to eat?"
It would be rude, even if they brought the salad.
In case it is not obvious in the
foregoing, I do not so parody this option because I am a stickler for
manners or tradition, much less asceticism. Any field that restricts
itself to proper hosts has little better recipe for reproduction than
the Shakers. My extreme examples are basically drawn from disappointments
in dealing with the entrenched, but there are still many people and
ideas that need a foothold. American Studies should not and cannot survive
if its purpose shuts them out.
Moreover, American Studies, like
any field, should have plenty of room for surprising pleasures, quiet
and raucous. In fact, I know that some of the people who primarily identify
with history, English or journalism are drawn to American Studies because
it is fun. But, insofar as that is the draw, I challenge those friends
to work with us to make their fields more fun, too, and to remember
that, when budgets get strapped, the fun house is going to be one of
those frills that goes. We need each other, including both the good
times and mutual support they afford. You also should not be surprised
to learn that Professors of Seriousness have been movers and shakers
on the committees that have helped see that their salaries dwarf ours
and that "regular departments" like theirs maintain veto power over
appointments in ours. Yes, these observations have a sour-grape sauce,
but they may also help others beware.
I remember meeting with a Dean,
for example, asking why these inequities in the allocation and control
of resources should exist. And I take his words to be an awkward way
of saying, "You folks need a clear definition." What he was actually
doing was explaining my "salary situation" by noting that I was the
only person in the university without an appointment in a "regular"
department. The person who originally approved the deal was new to the
job. "It was a mistake," he explained. (How comforting!) I had to remind
him that I had, in fact, insisted on that "mistake" and would not have
accepted the position without it. His own discipline -- one of the social
sciences -- had only been "regular" for about ten years longer than
mine. Why should people in American Studies have to work harder than
everybody else, with twice as many committee meetings to go to and twice
as many units ruling on promotion and tenure? Furthermore, how could
the university justify awarding a degree, if the administration had
doubts about it? If the professors who held Ph.D.s in the very same
field, needed extraordinary supervision under people who did not?
What he blew off as a "mistake"
(with consequences apparently only mine to shoulder) was for me a matter
of principle, of a debt due to my teachers and a responsibility to students.
I hope you can understand, then, why pleas for freedom from definition
do not seem terribly persuasive to me. These freedoms have inflated
costs that we should not have to continue paying. If guests do not want
to pay or cannot, American Studies should do its best to help them.
But I do not think they need to feel slighted if we ask their help in
correcting overcharges on the bill.
I also challenge the option of
defining American Studies around a particular "Super Method," by which
I mean something as specific as I understand "cultural studies" to be.
I have less developed reasons for avoiding this model, in part because
I hear so little consensus about what the name, "cultural studies,"
is supposed to mean.
In its broadest usage -- the analysis
of groups through expressions of ideology and hierarchy -- I do not
see any reason to get excited, one way or the other. Probably anything
done in the humanities and social sciences would fit without an iota
of change. If we are going to start reorganizing the human sciences
into one, more harmonious outfit, I am all for it, especially if integrating
the various strains of that mission is part of the agenda. American
Studies has experience that could be extremely helpful. As soon as the
"regular" outfits -- like History and Sociology and so on -- offer to
share their more ample staff and budget to that common mission, please
let me know. When they have proven that they are more ready to be "inclusive"
than we have been, please let me know. Until then, though, please understand
if, as I feel a cultural-studies hug, I keep one hand on my wallet.
Permit me, as well, to remind
people that one of the interests that draws people to American Studies
is gaining knowledge of America. This is especially the case outside
the U.S., where relatively few people have the luxury of wondering if
it is "really" distinct. U.S.N. ships, "Bay Watch," Big Macs, and greenbacks
in Sri Lanka make such questions seem "academic" in the worst sense
of the word. At the moment, for example, governmental and educational
leaders in China are trying to figure out how to protect their "culture"
from "Western influence," especially through media primarily produced
by U.S. citizens and full of U.S. allusions. I would hope scholars of
American Studies can supply some information that is useful in such
deliberations, and I think it will be useful to the extent that it is
based both on global and intensely local knowledge. Such substantive
understanding of a particular place, America -- much smaller than "groups"
in general -- is important, properly prized around the world. Of course,
it would only make sense to include comparative and global-system perspectives,
but I still think that substantive knowledge of America seems a reasonable
ground for specialization, at least as reasonable as, say, English,
Political Science, and Japanese. From what I can see, though, those
units are dealing with "cultural studies" much as they have prior interpretive
modes, as a movement within their scholarly tradition, like formalism
or functionalism, that happen to resemble those in others. It may or
may not last; so, they are not taking a second mortgage on the farm
to buy it. I think we should probably do the same.
My mild, largely strategic objection
to redefining the field as cultural studies gets more principled as
the term "cultural studies" gets more specific. Since other scholars
have and will continue to treat this, more refined subject in the detailed
way it deserves, I will merely raise a few concerns (complaints, of
course) and trust others to elaborate on them or find others that are
My attention is mainly drawn,
not to what the promotional literature promises -- which is generally
very inclusive and impressive -- but to what I have seen its followers
normally do in classrooms and conferences, the folk representations
of this emergent tradition. I see at least a half-dozen very common
excesses, that seem also to accompany claims to be "doing cultural studies":
over-emphasis on the analogy
between culture and text (one that Geertz himself anticipates and
warns against), to the neglect of other useful analogies, such as
performance or game;12
an over-reliance on ironic
interpretations (whereby, groups aiming for A get non-A, a plot line
that quickly wears thin);
a rhetorical over-dependence
on virtuosity in unmasking such irony by the narrator/critic;
over-use of expressions of
flat, earnest outrage in voice (leaving, as I say, opportunities for
humor to the cultural right);
with notable exceptions, (e.g.,
pleasure in film viewing) a picture of human emotional life as fixated
on one-upmanship (to the neglect of other sentiments that also appear
universal, such as, reverence, humility, or generosity);
over-generalization of modern
American longing for anchors in social identity across space and time
under-emphasis on principals
of social differentiation and organization that are non-hierarchical.
A lot more work would need to
be done to show that these matters warrant concern and that cultural
studies is distinctly implicated in them. Even without a thorough investigation,
I am willing to concede that these alleged problems are not uniquely
Birmingham in pedigree. In fact, I often suspect that cultural studies
has gained much of its favor because the "excesses," that are here the
objects of my kvetching, have a longer history in American departments
of English, which are now Cultural-studies Central Station. Despite
the claims to interdisciplinairty vision there, I do not see much on
the ground. For example, the gestures toward history and social science
(e.g., mantric rants about "the" [singular, continuous?] elite in America
and supposed devotion to "positivism" down the hall) are barely recognizable
to anyone trained in those disciplines. Hence, it is hardly surprising
that the ASA has trouble getting proposals for papers that are not text-based
and that some Americanists -- people like me, whose humanities/social-science
orientation is closer to 50/50 -- feel estranged.13
My point is not to lay all of
this at the foot of cultural studies (or English Departments). That
would be a very cheap shot. In fact, I offer this little kvetch to
help others with more careful consideration of its merits. Since I have
been arguing that the field needs definition, I can hardly fault anyone
for suggesting that we rally around the one that is hot at the moment.
The reason I resist is not, I hope, because of the usual red herrings
-- that I am a white guy or against theory or a Europhobe -- but because
I would hate to think that we felt we had arrived at a solution in "the
search for method." The virtue of definitional and methodological discussion,
I am convinced, is its ongoing, dialogic quality. It ought to continue.
The fiction of "having a method" is useful only as long as we also remember
that every one is imperfect, only as long as it continues to motivate
the search for a better one. If we were to declare "cultural studies"
our Super Method, I fear that we will be duped by our own fiction.
I hope that the definition of
the field that I have proposed keeps the fresh wind of cultural studies
in our sails and our eyes to windward.
Getting on with it
This has been an extended plea
on behalf of a particular sense of American Studies, one that I hope
is both clear and open to contest. It also has been an extended kvetch.
Just as I am convinced that it is poses little threat to those worried
about freedom and exclusion, I am confident that it poses little prospect
of brightening my outlook. I will always find plenty to kvetch
about. I just hope that this paper and the plenary session that surrounds
it help us to do so together even more playfully and productively in
1. These are the
titles of a pair of widely anthologized short stories by Herman Melville.
Toward the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and
Working Class History (London: Verso, 1994). See also the paper
that Roediger presented at the American Studies Association Meeting
in Boston, November, 1993; and Federic G. Cassidy, ed., Dictionary
of American Regional English (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1991), Vol.
2, pp. 838-840. [return]
3. While I was
a graduate student living in the low-rent, militarily occupied zone
of West Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo distinguished himself as Chief of
Police and then Mayor. His henchmen who were paid to "represent" my,
predominantly African-American neighborhood were European-American suburbanites
who claimed residence in the only Italian-American-owned business (a
barbershop) in the vicinity. If only because there were too few chairs
in the barbershop to accommodate them in one sitting and because the
shop was almost never open, they were hardly a presence, except on election
day every four years or so. The Democratic party and city government
were generally visible in the form of uniformed thugs who cruised in
armored wagons which doubled as beating chambers for anyone – generally
Black, teenage males -- whom they found suspicious. [return]
4. Just as I had
hoped, other plenary papers cite the canonical sources, probably best
sampled in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, eds.,
Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1992). The only observation
that I would add (in addition to my list of "concerns" in the conclusion
of this essay) is a subtle difference between the two schools of thought.
People emphasizing the "culture concept" back in the late 1970s and
early 80s had largely epistemological concerns: of all the phenomena
on this earth, which might best be described as "cultural" (versus,
say, "psychological," "social" or "aesthetic") and thereby properly
subject to interdisciplinary identification, explanation, and criticism?
People embracing "cultural studies" within American Studies in the U.S.
since the late 1980s seem to assume that the characteristics of "culture"
in general and the "dominant culture" in particular are essentially
known or at least ought to be treated as such within the human sciences.
More engaging questions are about the ways these (presumably, transparently)
"cultural" dynamics are manifest across time and (again, presumably,
transparently) hierarchically arranged social space. [return]
5. Leo Marx and
George Lipsitz, "From Image, Myth, and Symbol to Cultural Studies,"
plenary session at "American Studies After Fifty Years: Retrospective
and Prospect at the University of Minnesota," Minneapolis, MN, October
22, 1994. See also "Conference Update," American Studies at Minnesota
[Newsletter] 9:1 (Fall 1995), pp. 1-3. [return]
6. These classics
include: Jay Mechling, Robert Merideth, and David Wilson. "American
Culture Studies: The Discipline and the Curriculum," American Quarterly
25:4 (October 1973), pp. 363-389; Gene Wise, "'Paradigm Dramas' in American
Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement," American
Quarterly 31:3 (Bibliography Issue, 1979), pp. 293-337.; and Gene
Wise, "Some Elementary Axioms for An American Culture Studies," pp.
517-547 of Prospects 4, ed. Jack Salzman (New York: Burt Franklin
and Co., 1979). [return]
7. See, for example:
Tony Bennett, "The Bond Phenomenon: Theorising a Popular Hero," Southern
Review 16:2 (July 1993), pp. 195-225; and Paul Willis, Learning
to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1977. [return]
8. Three related
threads -- "Am Studies to Cultural Studies--Rationale for Switch," "American
Studies Canon--Suggestions?" and "Cultural Studies--Origins and Relation
to Am Studies" -- spun electronically on the American Studies discussion
list (email@example.com), part of the H-Net Network, from the end of
October, 1995 through February, 1996. [return]
9. Joel M. Jones,
"American Studies: The Myth of Methodology," American Quarterly
31:3 (Bibliography Issue, 1979), pp. 382-387. [return]
10. I am grateful
to Norm Yetman for reminding me that the disciplinary relations I here
describe closely resemble those Robert Bellah and all define and display
in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American
Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1985). See especially, "Social Science
as Public Philosophy," pp. 297-307. [return]
11. I regret
inferring from Watts’ comments that he felt excluded, but for reasons
that I cannot quite understand. Certainly I agree that speaking plainly
to diverse audiences ought to be among our ideals. If, however, we include
the ordinary classroom teaching and the everyday life of Americanists
as well as their cutting-edge posturing at professional meetings, I
do not think that "Populists" such as he need feel quite so embattled.
In particular, I do not think the recent ballyhoo over national history
standards is as relevant or as alarming in its implications as he concludes.
As I understand it, the standards committee was dominated by academics
in secondary education and in history (none of them members of the ASA
or trained in American Studies) and that its purview was secondary public
education (rather than colleges or universities). Moreover, as I understand
it, the revisions that the Congress eventually approved did not entail
any major concessions by the academic left or right -- except as an
assertion of Congressional prerogatives (a matter on which diverse members
of Congress do routinely unite). Furthermore, I do not see how the will
of a hundred people in Washington (none of whom was elected to assess
secondary school, much less university, curriculum) is a better indicator
of popular ideals for university than a couple of thousand people, who
not only were trained and hired to teach there (most of them also as
public employees) but who also speak from regular, face-to-face experience
with the very students who are the people most affected. In other words,
if the turf I claim for American Studies still leaves Watts feeling
overwhelmed (albeit with the U.S. Senate on his side) and we aim for
common ground, I think we will have to work from maps with clearer directions
than the ones that either one of us might attribute to "the great political
and cultural mainstream" or the way he/we/they might want to "run" it.
Geertz, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 8-14. For a brief survey of such
"root metaphors," see Richard H. Brown, A Poetic for Sociology: Toward
a Logic of Discovery for the Human Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1977), pp. 130-171. [return]
13. After reviewing
a couple of thousand proposals, the Co-Chairs of the 1995 ASA Program
Committee concluded: "The heart of American Studies is now cultural
studies, with a strong representation of historians and material culture
scholars. Missing almost entirely from American Studies are social scientists
-- political scientists, sociologists, economists, even anthropologists."
Gary Gerstle and Elizabeth Lunbeck, "Preliminary Guide to the 1995 ASA
Program," American Studies Association Newsletter 18:2 (June
1995), p. 5. [return]