to Terms With International American Studies"
I grew up remarkably ill-equipped for cross-cultural communication. Until very recently, I did not even realize how serious a handicap that was. I may still have it, but thanks in part to opportunities for academic work overseas, it seems less debilitating. Although a professor of American Studies and thus vocationally fixated on the country of my birth, I have found ways to function cross-culturally, maybe even to spare others my mistakes. This essay is an autobiographical account of the experiences that taught me about my place as a cultural critic in the wider world.
My most severe limitations could be blamed on circumstances surrounding my birth in Connecticut just after World War II. There was the comforting embrace of an allegedly homogeneous New England town. Anything other than English was a "foreign language." In an age when even hoods dressed up for the prom, youth culture was considered threatening, not to mention the cultures of Puerto Rican- and African-Americans in the next town. The rest of the world was associated with the insanity and terror of Europe that my ancestors recently fled, the Pacific theater, or The Bomb. In school I learned about countries outside the U.S. -- Korea, the Philippines, Cuba, "Banana Republics," Vietnam -- only as they became troublesome to the Department of State. They were "problems." Learning about the United States was called "civics," meaning the glorious privileges of democracy, but learning world geography meant guessing who would be on "our" side in World War III. We spent more time rehearsing for nuclear attack -- "duck and cover" -- than developing our minds or strategies to avoid it.
Of course, there were contrary influences. Great-grandparents and grandparents had come from Eastern Europe. Those who survived in the U.S. were people for whom global conflict and cultural divides were visceral experiences. Shouting matches about Israel, trade unionism, U.S. policy in the Middle East, and the global history of "my" people were not unusual. For them, the United States, my home, was still the land of "goyim" (i.e., non-Jews, akin to "honkies") even if a particularly nice bunch. Such Yiddishkeit signaled the mix of envy, fear and loathing for an American culture that would never be theirs. Even after seven or eight decades in this country, most of my ancestors died "green horns." My parents were bilingual, using Yiddish in parental pidgin over dinner for developing a united front about my bedtime. Since I had a stake in learning the code (and not letting them know I knew), I received early training both in quasi-anthropological participant observation and in a language that gave me a jump-start in Dutch. I was usually the rare Jew in my school, but this was hardly something to advertise at the time, at least without protected flanks. Like so many children of the Baby Boom, I thought it my responsibility to get with the program of the American melting pot. Whether as a good student of civics, a Jew or an adolescent, when faced with difference, duck and cover.
Some of this fearsome conformity withered with maturity. But most of it was more ruthlessly hacked apart in The Sixties, when I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Then the smart people among whom I counted myself were non-conformists, at least in the sense that we began to see bright spots wherever the State Department saw gloomy ones and vice versa. Although active in the anti-war movement (a "community organizer" for SDS), I found the field of American Studies an hospitable academic niche in my search for relevance in a Talmudic vein.
But from an international point of view, that proved an unfortunate choice. American Studies was at the time still dominated by tweedy WASPs who clung to intellectual dispositions that, though radical for the 1950s and early 1960s, seemed hopelessly accommodative to the status quo a few years later. In hindsight I should have recognized that many of the deficiencies in American Studies were attributable to its almost exclusive focus on the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, its European connections. But like rebel academic peers I concentrated on easier targets: the mushy methodology, the privileging of Euro-American belles-lettres, the neglect of working people and popular culture. The preoccupation with American "exceptionalism" was a target, too, but only because of the way it invited xenophobic jeremiads, harkening back to Jeffersonian ideals rather than real cultural diversity within the United States. Diversity outside the U.S. or connections between the U.S. and other nations were low on the reform agenda. By drawing attention to cultural divides within the U.S., we rebels may have made it even easier to ignore much greater ones beyond it. (Davis, 1990; Winkler, 1985; Wise, 1979)
Whatever the latent urges, the first overt push overseas came to me from a different source. I had long been interested in cultural anthropology and gained some fame in American Studies for applying fieldwork routines to the U.S. But I had trouble gaining much legitimacy in anthropology itself because I had no experience with anyone radically "other," a standard initiation rite in that field. A mentor in anthropology and American Studies at Penn and then at the University of Maryland, John Caughey, kept urging me to head for other lands to strengthen what he saw as a decent but undeveloped sense of culture outside my own experience.
I came close to doing so for the first time, when I applied for a Fulbright to Rumania in 1982-83. As best I can recall I picked that location for four reasons: 1) I thought a communist country would be sufficiently "other" to educate me, or at least to please anthropological skeptics; 2) my family hailed from that region; 3) Fulbrights in Eastern Europe were supposed to be relatively easy to win; and 4) I saw Herzog's "Nosferatu," which made the Transylvania Mountains look gorgeous. I readied my application, received a nomination, took an unpaid leave from my job (as did my wife Noni), rented our house, and waited for the phone to ring with my assignment in September. At the end of August, CIES was still trying to get the right person to answer the phone in Bucharest. When I showed signs of panic, they offered me an alternative in Yugoslavia, but they would have to begin again to arrange visas and what not. Since we had no income and no place to live, I opted for a colleague's cabin on an island off the Maine coast and a job in the plumbing supply department of a local hardware store. CIES never bothered to let me know how the transatlantic cables turned out. This experience piqued my interest in internationalism only insofar as I had one good reason never to trust my future to Fulbright again.
But while working in Maine I finished a book that helped secure my promotion and another leave in 1984-85. This time I would better prepare, take the half-salary to which I was entitled, and keep a wary eye on alien bureaucrats in Washington. John Caughey was fresh back from a Fulbright in Pakistan and advised that India was the place for me -- quite "other" but less Byzantine than Byzantium, and English would do. Again I applied and received a nomination from Fulbright. We arranged leaves, rented the house, and waited for the phone to ring. This time, I would begin reading everything I could about India well in advance, call Washington weekly, and prepare alternatives if there were a repeat performance. In fact, there was. This time I bailed out before the money ran out to head for the Republic of China where we had some indirect contacts and Noni had a good paying job (supposedly!).
While we were packing for Taiwan at the end of August, CIES called to say that they had "just about" succeeded in arranging my passage to India. With barely repressed glee, I declined. We flew to Taipei, joyously independent of Washington whims. Our five-year-old son Carl and I played around "the Y" where we holed up while Noni looked for an apartment and checked on her job. After a series of tumultuous disasters and good fortunes, I was awarded a research grant from the National Science Council of the Republic of China to work at Academia Sinica, the national center for advanced research. I would deliver a series of lectures on American Studies in the United States and conduct research on American Studies in Taiwan -- a very attractive assignment to say the least. I remain monumentally indebted to the NSC and colleagues in Taiwan for their staggering generosity.
My research entailed a history of institutionalized American Studies in China and a tough-minded analysis of interviews and questionnaires that I administered to Taiwan Americanists, including many beneficiaries of cultural exchange programming between the United States and the Republic of China, on their backgrounds, beliefs and practices. Since I have published my findings elsewhere (Horwitz, 1989), I will not repeat them here. But that experience dramatically affected the broader orientation I have toward American Studies overseas and the cross-cultural business in general.
Since I was surely mistaken about the particular mix of estrangement and kinship I felt toward the Taiwanese at the time, I would not claim to have "understood" their culture, but even in failing to do so I much better understood my own. As everyday life confounded my common sense, it increased my sensitivity to the potential variety, scale and significance of cultural divides. I could no longer assume that common sense was quite so "common" or "sensible." Even working in the plush environs of Academia Sinica, I gained a much deeper appreciation for the dedication that studying the U.S. from abroad may require. The English language, the relative poverty of research and teaching facilities, the fractional academic politics, and the geopolitical valence of American Studies for a quasi-client state -- these represent hurdles that internationally-oriented Americanists could better take into account. As my attention was drawn to such hurdles, I developed lasting doubts about the potential effectiveness of academic exchanges for producing mutual understanding. In fact, I still wonder how fortunate or unfortunate that limited potential may be. In evaluating it and trying to imagine improvements, I developed a new awareness of the limits of my own "liberal relativism."
I realized that being open to a foreign culture was insufficient. In challenging circumstances, even as limited as a debate with a Chinese colleague about "the lesson" of U.S. experience in Asia, it is hard to tell how much of our disagreement is attributable to cultural difference in the first place. Since that colleague, as likely as not, was trained in the U.S. and we get our facts from the same sources, it is worth considering that we are working from within a single academic culture, and for that reason our "foreignness" has nothing to do with it. We just disagree. Moreover, even if the source of our differences is properly considered cultural, I may remain convinced that this foreign culture errs no less than my own. Finally, whatever my private analysis of the situation, the simple fact of my presence abroad has contradictory, institutional repercussions that a commitment to open-mindedness may help in assessing but does not resolve. In Asia I had to confront this troublesome reality, one that cultural diplomats take for granted but that intellectuals can too gleefully ignore. At the very least, cultural communication had better be arranged with due attention to the potential for conflicting circumstances and interests of both parties and their sponsors.
Although my identity as an American opened lots of doors, I felt that working for an agency formally disconnected from the U.S. government greatly helped me reach these conclusions. For example, Fulbrighters and cultural diplomats whom I interviewed in Asia spoke to me as if I presented a rare opportunity for them to let their hair down. They were startlingly critical of the official exchange industry and spoke as if its disappointments had been a guarded secret: "Gosh, you're lucky to be able to look into this without any connection to the U.S. government; I bet you're getting some great stuff, and you can say whatever you want."
Since at the time I saw only the vaguest of connections between the government and what Fulbrighters actually did (certainly most of them were not Reagan's sort of folks), I was puzzled by this response. I was also struck by the large amount of time and energy foreign scholars put into courting U.S. cultural diplomats to fund their travel, research, conferences, and publications. Since they knew I interviewed in the embassy, Asian colleagues even pumped me for advice in shaping proposals that U.S. diplomats would support. Naturally, I felt exceedingly awkward when the same diplomats asked me which of the competing factions of foreign academics should get limited U.S. resources.
My analysis of these puzzles progressed little beyond a naive wish for greater candor about the exchange industry and concern for the clumsy way that my tax dollars were being used, like it or not, to shape the intellectual life of foreigners. I had thought that this was supposed to be a cross-cultural business, an equitable trade of gifts rather than the reflagging of American ships.
Nevertheless, I was glad to have USIA grants of my own to compare situations on short lecture trips in Japan and the Republic of Korea and on a longer stint, alas, courtesy of Fulbright in India. The change in funding source certainly did not incline me to alter my lectures. They fit the slightly left-of-center fare typical of U.S. Americanists. I noted only modest changes in other realms. For example, it was clear that being welcomed at the airport or depot by a bilingual host, supplied with advice on day-to-day living and ready-to-wear respectability, greatly eased my way into foreign countries. It was also clear that this ease exacted a price in the depth and breadth of my exposure to those countries when compared with Taiwan. As much as I appreciated the creature comforts, they made it easier to remain ignorant of the culture of hosts, a deficiency I recognized in myself and that I thereafter better understood in the American turbo-profs whom I met.
With the intense experience in Asia behind me, I returned to the United States to discover that my professional association, the American Studies Association, was in the midst of a frenzy to "internationalize." With USIA support, a cadre of largely self-appointed ASA representatives were jetting around the globe to network and negotiate terms of cooperation with (and thereby canonization of) Americanists overseas. The U.S. government had primed the pump, and colleagues rushed to help with little more than a glance at the potability of the supply or integrity of the pipes. I was deeply troubled to find not only little discussion of the concerns that confronted me but also resistance to their public discussion. I felt like a heretic for daring to challenge the culture of our own professional impulses in the critical manner that I took to be the distinctive feature of the field.
As far as I know, I was the first person outside of USIA ever to study what these particular exchanges actually do in a foreign environment. Proposals to present my work at the national meeting of the ASA were repeatedly rejected by the ASA international committee. Instead, they featured cliche-ridden testimonies of turbo-profs (often jetted in with USIA funds) on the wonders of exchange. Sessions were co-chaired by cultural diplomats from Washington who steered discussion toward effective recruiting for the existing system. Easily finding contradictions if not hypocrisy rampant, I became determined to make international American Studies itself a legitimate subject in the field.
Despite (or maybe because of) significant obstacles, I set out to edit an anthology on the subject, one that would sweep away the platitudes to address the academic, personal, and political challenges that I feel cultural exchange has always entailed. I would do my part for candor. As best I could, I tried to finesse the star system to allow dissident voices to emerge (Horwitz, 1993). Since Europe has the oldest and most distinguished tradition of American Studies outside the U.S., I was determined to learn about it first-hand. This time, in part because I was more secure in my own professional status, I dared to trust Fulbright a little more and was not disappointed. In fact, I was showered in good fortune and remain grateful.
For 1990-91 I received a distinguished senior lectureship, the John Adams Chair established in 1984 by the Netherlands America (Fulbright) Commission for Educational Exchange to rotate in Dutch universities. I was assigned to Catholic University (Katholieke Universiteit) in Nijmegen, a very pleasant place. I have only begun to reflect on this recent experience, but I can already see some advantages and disadvantages relative to those in Taiwan.
Teaching full-time (as opposed to research) helped me better understand the practical -- organizational and financial -- limits of doing American Studies overseas in the manner to which I am accustomed. It also put me in slightly closer contact with students. But the sheer effort involved put me less in communication with faculty and sorely compromised my research. The perks of the position -- the pay, the prestige, the opportunity for funded travel, help in finding food and shelter -- were wonderful. But I again suspect that they also made it easier for me to learn little about the necessities of everyday life in the Netherlands. I would not relish retaking the crash-course in survival that my position in Taiwan required, but I know that I learned more because of it. Similarly, while the Fulbright helped me gain serious responses from European "heavyweights" in my field, it also made it harder to see their world from the outside. As a Fulbrighter, I was presumed to be enough of an insider to have a stake in the existing system of cultural exchange and thereby to be an inappropriate person for sharing gripes. Through such rarefied experiences I gained important lessons in cross-cultural ideology. In the simple, largely unspoken niceties of becoming/being treated as a Fulbrighter, boosterism is normalized, unspoken secrets established, and heresy defined -- all without any visible agent.
I gained much the same sense on sundry lecture tours, courtesy of foreign universities, embassies and Fulbright commissions. After a lecture, members of the audience would routinely ask me to explain some U.S. government policy (as likely as not on a totally unrelated subject) that had made the local news. It was usually plain that they asked because the policy seemed to them transparently wrong. The justifications that made the press were entirely unpersuasive, and they wanted me to come up with a better one to test their initial judgment. Since I aim to please my hosts and normally welcome such conceptual challenges, I would do my best to improvise a new, improved rationale, imaginatively placing myself in Washington shoes.
But I was also struck
by the fact that I, too, usually found the policy wrong and the justifications
wanting. Since I am hardly a policy analyst, much less an ambassador,
why should I be trying to persuade the audience that their and my instincts
were wrong, that lurking behind official pronouncements was some higher
wisdom we were obliged to concoct and respect? I began to learn first-hand
how simple decorum and intellectual integrity can turn a Fulbrighter
into a spin-controller for the powers that be.
Of course, there have been times when I am sufficiently ambivalent about or supportive of the dominant American line to relish the opportunity to do some image management on its behalf. The first generation of Americanists, after all, touted the U.S. overseas to solidify the Alliance against the Axis powers, hardly an ignoble calling. I felt just as self-righteous in "correcting" Dutch students' understanding of U.S. history, when, for example, they blamed the U.S. entirely for the Cold War, as if only certified paranoids could worry about Stalin.
Similarly, I could not help but temper their view of U.S. race relations. Self-styled progressives often spoke as if the only races worth acknowledging were in one of two exclusive, essentially uniform categories, white and "other," oppressor and victim. They needed help to understand why "others" often do no get along, why many are not pleased to be considered victims, and why, quite apart from bigotry, separate facilities such as black university dormitories might be considered attractive by the "victims" themselves. Often their impressions of the U.S. bespoke images from the mass media which featured poverty and violence unknown in most of northwestern Europe. When contrasted with the predominantly white, well-groomed talking heads who packaged the news, you could understand how their bifurcated images were warranted but over-generalized. In such ways, I have found myself alternating between moments of feeling soiled or at least compromised and self-righteous by virtue of my position.
There have also been moments where the tensions were present at once but refused to blend into some manageable mix. The most memorable ones occurred in the classroom when I was trying to help Dutch students bear in mind the importance of Christianity for many Americans. On average, when compared to other peoples around the world, Americans are especially church-going people, and it is impossible to make much sense of everyday life in this country without a sense of the weight of Christian traditions.
As a Jew, constantly embarrassed by references to "goyim" but knowing full well what they mean, I may be oddly sensitive to this issue. Furthermore, at the time I was living in Nijmegen, an easy bike-ride from the German border (an object of irrational fear), teaching at a Catholic, albeit libertarian university. The house where my family lived was literally in the shadow of the church that was the main landmark for the town. But just around the corner was the remains of a humble synagogue, now converted to an art gallery named for a saint. It was rarely open, and news that I had been sighted peering through a window occupied neighborhood gossip for a couple of weeks. Everyone who could have been a relative worth reckoning had been efficiently removed or more likely annihilated within a few years of my birth. My son went to a Catholic school at the end of the street, also in the shadow of the church. Furthermore, nearly everyone around me had the blue eyes and fair hair of the Protestant elite in the U.S., people who if they are liberal still boast of having someone like me among "some of my best friends," like a cocker spaniel. I may have had a Distinguished Fulbright, but I was not feeling terribly secure or proudly American.
Students, though, tended to treat talk of organized religion, especially heart-felt religious devotion, as a sign of ignorance. To be proudly Christian was analogous to being a member of the Klan. Church-goers are a kind of rabble, spouting mumbo-jumbo that could turn at any moment to terrorism. Given European history, it is an understandable worry, but it is also a serious obstacle to understanding life in modern America (and, I must say, much of it in the Netherlands). Their proud insistence on tolerance and dispassion limited them to viewing American Christians as mental or moral defectives. I could use my Fulbright to help them get past such presumptions, at least provisionally to grant American Christians enough integrity to consider how their faith could be reasonably related to other facets of everyday life.
So, this Jewish American -- a descendant of the Holocaust, living in the shadow of the church, alternately fearful of mainstream America and determined to represent it well -- spent many hours trying to evoke a sense of the beauty of Christian devotion that my compatriots know, distancing it from the version that helped justify the slaughter of my ancestors and a goodly share of the students'. I cannot imagine a moment better capturing the way Fulbright has helped me confront the dilemma of my position in the world.
These competing dispositions -- on the one hand to worry about academic exchange as U.S. cultural imperialism and on the other to relish it as an opportunity to do the right thing -- are still at the heart of my understanding of the difference a Fulbright makes. I cannot consider "just doing my work," apart from weighty personal and global, ethical and geopolitical considerations. Working overseas in brief but diverse encounters has led me to doubt the value of sorting ourselves into categories of "self" and "other," least of all according to geopolitical borders. Of course, those borders reinforce lines of inequality. They remain important especially as long as the agencies that coordinate and fund our exchanges are themselves instruments of the state. However unwittingly, those agencies have helped teach me to beware and encouraged me to help others more critically participate in addressing the cultures that unite and divide the world.
Davis, Allen F.