Jelena Šesnić

Doing American Studies in Croatia: What Have We Done, Where Do We Go from Here?

From Siting America/sighting modernity: essays in honor of Sonja Bašić. Ed. Jelena Šesnić. Zagreb: FF Press, 2010. 239-55.

Let me being by invoking a utopia of a smoothly applied and resourcefully handled Bologna reform which we try to conjure in Croatian higher education nowadays. Part of it would inevitably entail the overhaul of the humanities and social sciences, among which we also find American studies. (cf. Knežević 2007; website of the Ministry of Science, Education and Sports) Further, let us imagine that the two scenarios are in waiting; one, which clearly sees and recognizes the need for the inclusion of American studies and similar disciplinary ventures (Croatian studies, European studies, English studies, Irish studies, to mention but a few) as a necessary addition and part of the landscape of the humanities in Croatia, as much as in any other transitional country.

The other scenario, on the contrary, we may see as, in fact, cancelling the need and obviating the reason for a sustained consideration of cultural facts that go into the making of national identities as composed in these disciplines. This second scenario, which I don’t intend to conjure and even less so to espouse, conforms rather to Fredrick Buell’s (1998) and Bill Reading’s (1995) diagnoses of the state of the humanities and social sciences as a whole in the present-day university diminished as an idea and an institution. Similar prediction as to the impact these disciplines are likely to have in “the dominant political culture of the United States,” which, as suggested by David Noble (2002: 296) is increasingly committed to the idea of the international marketplace, claims that apparently the university no longer functions as a standard bearer of “bourgeois nationalism” (Noble 2002). Needless to say, the developments in the USA are cited here for the obvious reason that they often prefigure similar tendencies elsewhere.

In fact, Noble is worth considering for yet another key insight. As he locates the impulse for internationalism squarely in the steady rise of the US political, military and economic involvement in European and world affairs especially during and after World War II, he repeatedly urges us to consider this as an extension of the international nature of capitalism. This internationalism, however, has been continuously refracted in the study of national culture either as its end-goal or its unfortunate aberration, but has always featured prominently in the conceptualization of American studies, whether as history, literature or arts. In fact, by locating from the beginning this strong impulse towards internationalism, whether to castigate or to endorse its workings, Noble has in fact shown that it is partly thanks to this particular aspect of their disciplinary habitus that American studies could on intellectual level exercise effects co-extensive with the parallel developments on military and economic level, of course, using different means (cf. also Mead, “Report”; Nash Smith, “The Salzburg Global Seminar”; Kelley).

However, should the idea of American studies as a full-fledged discipline survive the onslaught of the Bologna protocols, and manage to re-instate itself in new humanities and social sciences curricula in Croatia, this will signal a new ideological moment (of emergence), in itself contingent on and different from the provisionally speaking two earlier ones, which it is my intention to revive in a few moments in order to provide a fuller picture of the possible history of the discipline in Croatian context since the end of World War II. I should from the start make clear that this restorative effort is far from exhaustive and is in itself based on incomplete archival data, scattered reports, anecdotal evidence, oral testimonies and the living practice of American studies as they have subsisted at the University of Zagreb in the past decades.[1]

What becomes apparent, however, is the need to think about the discipline as it has been practised in Croatia as a mirror of some salient socio-political and ideological concerns, not so much in US, as in Croatian, society. It is this reflexive nature that energizes the continuing effort to do American studies and to think them through not simply as an ongoing attempt to understand and explain (as if that were within our reach) “America,” but simultaneously to take reckoning of ourselves. As I have already suggested, American history and its story in what in 1945 is the Socialist Republic of Croatia, a unit in a federal, multinational state of Yugoslavia, headed by the communist regime, is inextricably linked with the broader history of the region, the continent and its post-war relations with the United States and its reconstructive endeavour in the wake of the war.

When we turn for the moment to the history of the American Studies Association (ASA), we have to acknowledge and consider the way it was from the beginning implicated in the political climate of the Cold War and the major reconstruction effort undertaken by the Americans in Europe and globally. Janice Radway sums up this position in her 1998 presidential address to the Association: “the American Studies Association was a product of a Cold War context that produced a desire to delineate what was exceptional about U.S. culture at a time when public debate was structured by the perceived opposition between the aggressive empire of the Soviet Union and the supposedly disinterested, democratic republic of the United States” (1999: 4). As a saving grace, though, a few paragraphs down Radway notes a parallel tradition that went into the making of American studies as outlined by Michael Denning, identifiable as the left cultural front (5). Another telling feature of the discipline from its inception, that is of some relevance to the point that I am trying to make, would be what Radway terms an intense “self-consciousness” of the discipline evinced in the ways it has always incorporated intense scrutiny of its field of study and has not flinched from assessing its own methodology and approach to its subject matter (p. 13, n 2). This line of argument is further refined in Mary Kelley’s (2000) report to the Association the next year, where she appropriately rehearses different intellectual strains interweaving to create the core of the discipline (1-5).

While a host of other humanistic disciplines faced a rather bleak prospect of succumbing to a Cold War clipping of their critical and independent wings, it seems that this simultaneously enabled American studies to act in part as their substitute, at the same time making use of their methods and research material in the days of the Cold War, as suggested by Alan Nadel:

The only topic deemed worthy of interdisciplinary approaches was that exceptional place, America, where nature and history, at that very moment, converged in the name of the West, that merging of American frontier history with the imagined destiny of the western bloc and the ostensive (and implicitly Judeo-Christian) values of western democracy. (2008: 57)

Similar conclusions are reached by Buell’s assessment of the field in the climate of neo-liberal cultural economy or from John Carlos Rowe’s (2000) version of postnationalist American studies. As my argument unfolds, we should do well to keep these imbrications of the political, the ideological and the cultural in mind as they were concentrated in the early years of the consolidation of the discipline, since it is this conjoining, and the attendant occlusion of it, that is inherent in the later revelation and unmasking of the discipline’s “blind spots,” especially as these were decried by new historicists, ethnic studies scholars, feminist and gender studies scholars, and other directions comprised by critical theory in general.[2]

Among the European scholars, Winfried Fluck (2007) has recently called upon Americanists to return to and refocus on specific issues the USA forcefully raises for scholarly and wider communities, and he seems to suggest that it is the outsider status of non-US Americanists that might make their inspecting gaze more penetrating, insightful, critical and intellectually challenging (cf. also Fluck’s recent key-note address “Romance with America” at the EAAS conference in Oslo, May 2008; for another critical reassessment of the most recent developments in US and European, especially German, American Studies, cf. interview with Berndt Ostendorf in Broeck 2008).

Act 1: The Cold War: learning the ropes

Act 2: After the Cold War: self-examination and the quest for a new meaning

Act 3: Post-9/11: further misgivings, the US or the new Europe


Works Cited