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American Studies, Cultural History, and the Critique of Culture

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 November 2010

Richard S. Lowry
Affiliation:
College of William and Mary

Abstract

For several decades historians have expressed reservations about how scholars of American studies have embraced theory and its jargons. The program for a recent American studies convention seems to confirm the field's turn from history and its embrace of the paradigms and practices of cultural studies. The nature of this gap is complicated by comparing scholarly work published since 2000 on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in the respective flagship journals of each field. Scholars in both fields are committed to the study of culture, but they differ in how they understand historical agency and subjectivity. A historical overview of American studies scholars' engagement with cultural critique as well as a critical analysis of how two exemplary books in the field engage with historical change offer historians a way to understand such work not only as complementary to their own objectives, but necessary for a full understanding of the past and our relation to it.

Type
Essays
Copyright
Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2009

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References

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2 In fact, Wikipedia claims that “in the U.S. [cultural history] is closely associated with the field of American studies”; “Cultural History,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Cultural history (accessed July 15, 2008).

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21 Needless to say, the range of engagement with theory by White, LaCapra, Stoler, and Scott is remarkable. Most relevant here are White, Hayden, The Content of the Form: Narratipe Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore, 1987)Google Scholar; LaCapra, Dominick, Soundings in Critical Theory (Ithaca, 1989)Google Scholar; Stoler, Ann, “Tense an d Tender Ties: The Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies,” Journal of American History 88 (Dec. 2001): 829–65, andCrossRefGoogle Scholar “Matters of Intimacy as Matters of State: Response, A,” journal of American History 88 (Dec. 2001): 893–97;Google ScholarScott, Joan, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17 (Summer 1991): 773797.CrossRefGoogle Scholar See also Cornell, Saul, “Moving Beyond the Great Story: Post Modern Possibilities, Postmodern Problems,” American Quarterly 50 (June 1998): 349–57.CrossRefGoogle ScholarThompson, E. P., The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (London, 1978)Google Scholar.

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35 Wolfe, “The Difference between Criticism and Hatred,” 25. Wolfe is not alone in this language; Wise in ‘“Paradigm Dramas,’”308, terms the mid-twentieth century, “the Golden Era.” Marx, Leo, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the PastoralIdeal in America (New York, 1964)Google Scholar.

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39 Warren cites Smith's book, though he draws more fully on Slotkin's, RichardRegeneration Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 (Norman, OK, 1973),Google Scholar which he also cites.

40 Smith, “Can ‘American Studies’ Develop a Method?” 208.

41 Geertz's, Clifford influential essay, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York, 1973), 3-30,Google Scholar draws on Max Weber to suggest that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun” (5). Geertz's essay appeared after Smith's book but offered an interpretation of culture that complemented that in Virgin Land.

42 Trachtenberg, Alan, Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol (Chicago, 1965)Google Scholar.

43 Wise, ‘“Paradigm Dramas,’” 306. Wise notes that the textbook for one of the earliest American studies courses was entitled, simply, The American Mind.

44 Denning, ‘“Special American Conditions,’” 360, makes this point. Wise, ‘“Paradigm Dramas,’” 307, puts it as an effort “to probe for the fundamental meaning of America.”

45 Susman, Warren, “History and the American Intellectual: The Uses of a Usable Past” in Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1984), 7-26Google Scholar.

46 Marx, “On Recovering the ‘Ur’ Theory,” 121.

47 See Wise, ‘“Paradigm Dramas,’” 308–10.

48 Davis, “Politics of American Studies,” 355. Diamond, Sigmund, “Lux, Veritas, et Pecunia,” Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 16 (1991): 4155;andCrossRefGoogle Scholar, Diamond, “Compromising American Studies Programs and Survey Research,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 6 (Mar. 1993): 409–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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51 Pease and Wiegman, The Futures of American Studies.

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53 Watts, Steven, “The Idiocy of American Studies: Poststructuralism, Language, and Politics in the Age of Self-Fulfillment,” American Quarterly 43 (Dec. 1991). 626CrossRefGoogle Scholar(quote 3), 627 (quote 1), 645 (quote 4), 655 (quote 2). Watts engages in particular with Brodhead, Richard, “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America,” Representations 21 (Winter 1988): 6972;CrossRefGoogle ScholarTompkins, Jane, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860 (New York, 1985)Google Scholar; and Wolf, Bryan Jay, Romantic Re-Vision: Culture and Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century American Painting and literature (Chicago, 1982)Google Scholar

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56 The classic explications of these ideas remain Jameson, Frederic, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text 1 (Winter 1979): 130–48; and Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar

57 For an example of an American studies approach to this, see especially Lipsitz, George, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis, 1990)Google Scholar.

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59 Denning, ‘“Special American Conditions,”’ 357.

60 Pfister, “Americanization of Cultural Studies,” 209.

61 Patricia Limerick has had “plenty of occasions to feel impatient with and worried about the disadvantages of the jargon and complacency of quite a number of applications of cultural theory. When I think about the really quite substantial effort that one must go to, to ‘translate’ scholarly work to wider audiences (and smart audiences at that), I wonder why so much effort must go into creating the initial obscurity that then occasions the need for translation”; in al, Drew Faust et., “Interchange: The Practice of History,” Journal of American History 90 (Sept. 2003): 588Google Scholar.

62 Pfister, “Americanization of Cultural Studies,” 223. Frank, Robert, The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanationsfor Everyday Enigmas (New York, 2007).Google Scholar Winfried Fluck suggests that a market-based academic culture of expressive individualism in the humanities encourages tenure- and status-seeking intellectuals to “brand” their work with a particular valence of criticism; see Fluck, “The Humanities in the Age of Expressive Individualism and Cultural Radicalism” in Futures of American Studies, ed. Pease, and Weigman, , 211–30Google Scholar.

63 , Pfister, Critique For What?, 2381Google Scholar.

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65 , Gabaccia, “Is Everywhere Nowhere?”; Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian-American Cultural Politics (Durham, 1996)Google Scholar; Clifford, James, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA, 1988)Google Scholar; and , Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the hate Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA, 1997)Google Scholar.

66 Milette Shamir raises this issue in ‘“Our Jerusalem’: Americans in the Holy Land and Protestant Narratives of National Entitlement,” American Quarterly 55 (Mar. 2003): 2960.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For an overview of border studies in history, see Adelman, Jeremy and Aron, Stephen, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in Between in North American History,” American Historical Review 104 (June 1999): 814–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 Amy Kaplan, “Left Alone with America” in Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Kaplan, and Pease, , 321;Google ScholarRadway, Janice, “What's in a Name?: Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, 20 November 1998,” American Quarterly 51 (Mar. 1999): 132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

68 Quoted in Kaplan, “Left Alone in America,” 6.

71 Radway, “What's in a Name?,” 10–15.

72 Gillman, Susan, “The New, Newest Thing: Have American Studies Gone Imperial?American Literary History 17 (Spring 2005): 196–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

73 Gustafson, Sandra M., “Histories of Democracy and Empire,” American Quarterly 59 (Mar 2007): 117CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

74 Eight out of twenty-three articles in AQ and seven out of eighteen in the history journals can be construed as engaging the topic.

75 This describes the logic behind Pease, and Wiegman, , eds., The Futures of American Studies.Google Scholar A recent engagement with these issues animates Levander, Caroline and Levine, Robert S., eds., HemisphericAmerican Studies (New Brunswick, NJ, 2008)Google Scholar.

76 Wajda, Shirley Teresa, review of Tender Violence,Google Scholar by Wexler, Laura,journal of American History 89 (Dec. 2002): 1078–79;Google ScholarCapozzola, Christopher, “Empire as a Way of Life: Gender, Culture, and Power in New Histories of U.S. Imperialism,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 1 (Oct. 2002): 370–71Google Scholar.

77 A good gauge of Kaplan's influence comes in a review of a collection of essays on North American empire, in which Jon Smith wonders, “Has American studies stalled out, with the best boomers in the business still writing elaborate footnotes to Amy Kaplan?”; , Smith, review of Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History, ed. Ann Laura Stoler, Journal of American History 93 (Mar. 2007): 1273Google Scholar.

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80 Wexler, Laura, “Tender Violence: Literary Eavesdropping, Domestic Fiction, and Educational Reform,” Yale Journal of Criticism 5 (Fall 1991): 355–70;Google Scholar repr. in The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender and Sentimentality in Nineteenth Century America, ed. Shirley Samuels (New York, 1992), 9–38.

81 Brodhead, Richard was among the first to explore these issues; see his “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America,” Representations 21 (Winter 1988): 6796CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

82 See Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1977)Google Scholar.

83 Wexler borrows the phrase from Sekula, Alan, Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1975–1983 (Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1984)Google Scholar.

84 Both father and son were professional photographers; the former known for his images of Confederate and Union officers during the war, the latter an early “field” photographer who made many of his images outside the studio.

85 Trachtenberg was Wexler's colleague at Yale and edited the series for UNC Press in which Wexler's book appeared.

86 Bederman, Gail, Manliness and Civilisation: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hoganson, , Fighting for American Manhood; and Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York, 1995)Google Scholar.

87 Kaplan, Amy, “Manifest Domesticity,” American Literature 70 (Sept. 1998): 581606CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

88 The Order of Things (New York, 1970)Google Scholar is the title of Foucault's most influential book.