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Boundary as Center: Inventing an American Studies Culture

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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When the American Studies Association chose “Boundaries of American Culture” as the theme and San Diego as the site of its 1985 biennial convention, it made a particularly appropriate match between theme and site. Seen from my hotel balcony in a hazy autumnal glow, San Diego appeared a boundary city in at least three senses of relevance to the Association's work. First, lying at the border of the United States and Mexico, it hinted at the rich possibilities available to an American Studies willing to reach imaginatively beyond national boundaries, both north and south, toward a genuinely pan-American studies. Second, as a three-block walk to the beach from the convention hotel amply confirmed, San Diego borders what several commentators have called “the Mediterranean of the future”–a major arena of the globe too long and too much neglected by most Americans and Americanists. It was stimulating to welcome to the convention distinguished visitors from a dozen Asian and South Pacific countries, and more than a few speakers expressed the hope that such interaction would significantly further the comparativist and internationalist perspectives that they believed increasingly incumbent upon a nonparochial American Studies. Certainly the heartening presence in San Diego of both long-time and new colleagues from Europe, Canada, Latin America, Asia, and the South Pacific reflected a slowly but steadily growing impulse in the Association, a concrete dramatization of the premise that ideas and values, not to mention trade and power, do not stop at a nation's borders, although they may be often slowed down or even transformed at those borders.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1987

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Author's note: This essay is a revised version of the keynote address delivered at the 1985 convention of the American Studies Association.

1. Gottmann, Jean, ed., Centre and Periphery: Spatial Variation in Politics (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1980)Google Scholar. Of particular use to Americanists are the essays in this volume by Gottmann, Raimondo Strassold, Paul Claval, Alan K. Henrikson, and Owen Lattimore.

2. See, for example, Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Turner, Victor, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine 1969)Google Scholar; Geertz, Clifford, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983)Google Scholar; Cohen, Abner, The Politics of Elite Culture: Explorations in the Dramaturgy of Power in a Modern African Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981)Google Scholar; Barth, Fredrik, ed., Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (Boston: Little, Brown, 1969)Google Scholar; and Berger, Peter L., Facing Up to Modernity: Excursions in Society, Politics, and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1977), esp. ch. 10.Google Scholar

3. Among Eliade, Mircea's many relevant works, a very accessible starting point is his 1952 study, Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism, trans. Mairet, Philip (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969).Google Scholar

4. Lopez, Robert S., “The Crossroads Within the Wall,” in Handlin, Oscar and Burchard, John, ed., The Historian and the City (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1963), pp. 2743Google Scholar, and Mumford, Louis, The City in History (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1961), passimGoogle Scholar; my own thinking about the problematics of boundarycenter discourse has been signficantly influenced by Mumford's brilliant meditation on the complex dialectical relationship of the city as “container,” the city as “magnet,” and the city as “dynamo.”

5. Among many recent examples, see Hartman, Geoffrey, Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980)Google Scholar; Leitch, Vincent B., Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983)Google Scholar; Rowe, John Carlos, Through the Custom-House: Nineteenth-Century American Fiction and Modern Theory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982)Google Scholar; and a number of the essays in Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed., Reconstructing American Literary History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).Google Scholar

6. Miller, Perry, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983)Google Scholar, and Hartz, Louis, The Founding of New Societies: Studies in the History of the United States, Latin America, South Africa, Canada, and Australia (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1964), esp. chs. 1, 2, and 4Google Scholar. Many “classic” examinations of the role and notion of the West or the “frontier” in American history and culture, of course, from Turner's many works to Smith, 's Virgin LandGoogle Scholar, make considerable use of boundary-center discourse. For a pressing of the metaphorical dimensions of this discourse, see Fussell, Edwin, Frontier: American Literature and the American West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965)Google Scholar. Probably the most important recent and comprehensive application of this discourse to American history is Bailyn, Bernard, Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1986)Google Scholar; Bailyn argues that, “unlike the inhabitants of the British Isles, [the American colonists] were not located at the center of their culture looking outward toward exotic margins. Their experience was the opposite” (p. 4). Jehlen, Myra, in American Incarnation: The Individual, the Nation, and the Continent (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986)Google Scholar, suggests that, because of their denotative and connotative differences from such “archetypal” American words as “horizon” and “frontier,” “the currency of ‘border’ and ‘boundary’… poses a special problem for Americans” that reflects changes in “the very core of the meaning of America” (p. 235).

7. Wiebe, Robert H., The Segmented Society: An Introduction to the Meaning of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).Google Scholar

8. Douglas, Mary and Wildavsky, Aaron, Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), pp. 153–54.Google Scholar

9. Wise, Gene, “From ‘American Studies’ to ‘American Culture Studies’: A Dialogue Across Generations,” Prospects, 8 (1983): 6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10. See Barth, , ed., Ethnic Groups and BoundariesGoogle Scholar; Spicer, Edward H. and Thompson, Raymond H., eds., Plural Society in the Southwest (New York: Interbook, 1972)Google Scholar; and de Vos, George and Romanucci-Ross, Lola, eds., Ethnic Identity: Cultural Continuities and Charge (Palo Alto: Mayfield 1975).Google Scholar

11. Lewis, R. W. B., The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), pp. 13.Google Scholar

12. Williams, Raymond, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 7682Google Scholar; see also his Culture and Society: 1790–1850, rev. ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), esp. pp. 295338.Google Scholar

13. Gans, Herbert J., “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America,” in Gans, et al. , eds., On the Making of Americans: Essays in Honor of David Riesman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979), pp. 193200Google Scholar. See also Wagner, Roy, The Invention of Culture, rev. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981)Google Scholar, and Clifford, James and Marcus, George E., eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).Google Scholar

14. American Quarterly 1 (Spring 1949): 2.Google Scholar

15. Preface, in Cohen, Hennig, ed., The American Experience: Approaches to the Study of the United States (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), p. v.Google Scholar

16. Smith, Henry Nash, “Can ‘American Studies’ Develop a Method?”, American Quarterly 9 (Summer 1957): 348CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Further page references are in parentheses in the text itself.

17. Mechling, Jay, Merideth, Robert, and Wilson, David, “American Culture Studies: The Discipline and the Curriculum,” American Quarterly 25 (10 1973): 370CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Further page references are in parentheses in the text itself.

18. See, especially, Turner, 's The Ritual Process, chs. 3–5Google Scholar, and From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1982), pp. 2059.Google Scholar

19. Douglas, and Wildavsky, , Risk and Culture, pp. 120–25 and passim.Google Scholar

20. Wise, Gene, “‘Paradigm Dramas’ in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement,” American Quarterly 31 (Bibliography Issue 1979): 293337CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Further page references are in parentheses in the text itself.

21. Lenz, Guenter H., “American Studies-Beyond the Crisis?: Recent Redefinitions and the Meaning of Theory, History, and Practical Criticism,” Prospects 7 (1982): 53113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22. Mechling, Jay, “Mind, Messages, and Madness: Gregory Bateson Makes a Paradigm for American Culture Studies,” Prospects 8 (1983): 26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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