History Act 2

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

How to account for the transition from Dubrovnik to Zagreb in a sensitive after-war period? Part of the answer is provided from the correspondence between the organisers of the new programme in American studies and the Rector of the University of Zagreb, when the whole issue was negotiated. Thus it turns out that with the transfer of studies to Zagreb, a new era begins. It becomes necessary to rethink the initial concept and to re-assess its applicability and feasibility in the post-war Croatian context. The core programme still owes its basic outlines to the insightful draft suggested earlier by Bujas, retaining the structure of “core subjects” (American studies: history, theory, methods; American literature; American history: political, sociological and cultural perspectives; Socio-political system).

How to account for the transition from Dubrovnik to Zagreb in a sensitive after-war period? Part of the answer is provided from the correspondence between the organisers of the new programme in American studies and the Rector of the University of Zagreb, when the whole issue was negotiated. Thus it turns out that with the transfer of studies to Zagreb, a new era begins. It becomes necessary to rethink the initial concept and to re-assess its applicability and feasibility in the post-war Croatian context. The core programme still owes its basic outlines to the insightful draft suggested earlier by Bujas, retaining the structure of “core subjects” (American studies: history, theory, methods; American literature; American history: political, sociological and cultural perspectives; Socio-political system).

It might be argued as a general point that after the Cold War the discipline has found itself in a serious crisis. This crisis, as pointed out by the historian David Noble was mounted incrementally during the 1970s and 1980s with serious questioning of, what he terms, the myth of the national bourgeois culture, which had sustained the work done in American studies for decades. Paradoxically, it is the demise of socialism, as an idea but also a contending force, against which the United States could define itself, that occasioned this crisis, coupled with serious and far-ranging interventions within the US national borders.

On a parallel track, Croatia finds itself in its own kind of vacuum, where one paradigm of nation-formation is defunct and has to be superseded by another set of definitions. It is possible to acknowledge in this phase that the logic imbuing American studies provides a vocabulary for the education of future Croatian democratic subjects.

However, with 1989 and our continuing coverage of the fate of the discipline in Croatia at the end of the Cold War, we should return to Appadurai to record further some of his succinct and pertinent remarks about the necessary changes in the status and goals of area studies in the academy since 1989 (16-17).

Along the lines adopted in the previous paragraphs, where my concern was to outline a parallelism entailed in the interests and goals of American studies and the ways they could be made to fit and serve particular Croatian concerns, it becomes necessary to register a seismic shift brought about in the States by the fall of the Berlin wall, and the end of communism. Even if its staunchest opponents couldn’t have foreseen this development, rather soon it becomes necessary to formulate and circulate a set of theories and conceptions which could accommodate this surprising event, which has of necessity required an intense thinking-through on the part of American studies practitioners. Not surprisingly, the demise of the arch-enemy called for a self-examination of the possibly new goals for the knowledge systems entailed in the study of the USA. As shown by Frederick Buell, this reorganization of knowledge has taken its cue after the initial shock from the manifold, often disparate, discourses of globalisation, be it in economic, political or cultural sense. What happens in the process, according to Buell, is an interesting attempt not so much to cancel out the perhaps overused and clumsy concept of “national culture,” which now strove to define itself precisely by means of fissures, contradictions, heterogeneities and differences which at least from the 1960s were seen as divisive and corrosive, if not downright detrimental to the nation (552). It was especially the Clinton presidential campaign followed by boosting economic indicators during his two-term presidency that, as suggested by Buell, provided a frame “for restructuring the political discourse of national crisis and internal division into a new kind of recovery narrative, one that seemed to blend conservative nationalist and radical-postnationalist positions together into a new kind of nationalism for a global era” (553) (cf. Bérubé, who rehearses the role of American studies in the Cold War [107]).

As suggested further by Michael Bérubé, the loss of purpose obviously felt in the field has to do with the generally observable trend whereby the field of competition shifts form the sphere of culture to that of economy (2003: 109). Within this new dispensation, the role of the nation-state also changes, which makes Bérubé on the whole wary of the wholesale attacks on the nation-state as one of the prime villains (109, 111). At the same time, this reduction of the role of (national) culture is accompanied by its replacement with pluralist, international cultures that, according to Noble, are now expected to play along with the international dispensation of the economy. Hence the crisis in American studies that is meant to be addressed or resolved by the call towards transnationalism.

This signalled the rise of a particular brand of post-national nationalism, which could take over a baton for neo-liberal capitalism from the wasted forerunner, the hegemonic nation-state. Also, what seemingly happened was that the field of dispute would be transferred from the field of (international and domestic) politics onto the field of culture. The domain of the economy is no longer disputable, since the spectacular meltdown of the hollow socialist planned economies in the Eastern bloc in itself left no doubt as to the final supremacy of capitalism. This issue, thus, was not contested, as much as the previous two would become. It is in this change of focus, however, that lies the rub, not only for the latest versions of American studies, but also in the case of its international context and application. In other words, how is it supposed to provide a critical discourse, a way of conceptualising tremendous changes primarily driven by the transition into the capitalist economy of the formerly socialist countries? This is where we could say that post-Cold War American studies have in part failed.

Their intense cultural orientations, as it is correctly diagnosed by Buell, however, could still be put to different uses. In Croatia, at the time going through a process of self-invention and national consolidation, there was a fertile ground for enacting what American studies have known from the beginning, the intense tie between the nation, its shell of the state, and the intermingled representations which legitimize these two salient formations. It is perhaps also for these reasons that the handful of enthusiasts in Croatia at the time deeply embroiled in the war, decided that it was time to reinstate a version of American studies.

Looking back, one of the most telling symbolic shifts entailed in this reconstruction was, primarily pragmatic, decision to move the centre of study from Dubrovnik and its Interuniversity Centre to Zagreb, now also the capital of the new-fangled state. Even though this was done for more than obvious reasons, given the vulnerability of Dubrovnik and due to the war damage to the infrastructure there, still one cannot but notice the as yet inarticulate change of paradigm—if Dubrovnik was the gem of the former Yugoslav socialist system which could easily be advertised as almost a disembodied domain of cultural achievement, purportedly bereft of any national or ethnic considerations, then Zagreb in its newfound role bespeaks the decidedly national framework for the reconstructed American studies. Three generations of students managed to pass through the system before the war put a temporary stop to the Dubrovnik story. And it wasn’t a very gentle stop either: during the attacks on the city from the neighbouring states, the dorms and the library with extensive holdings were destroyed entirely while part of the seminar building with teaching facilities sustained heavy damages from the shelling.

In view of the proposed linkage between American studies and the nation-state, one would do well to consider the use the revamped programme of American studies was put to in the curriculum of Croatian higher education.

It was in 1997, two years after the cessation of military operations in Croatia, that the office of the Rector of the University of Zagreb issued the statement of acceptance of the new MA programme in American studies. In the early 1997, the proposed programme for American studies was positively reviewed and accepted by the Senate of the University of Zagreb. There seemed to be a plethora of reasons, some of them strictly academic, some of them political and geo-political, that made either Zagreb or Dubrovnik a preferred location, as already suggested. This was conceived as a multidisciplinary venture, encompassing four semesters of study in various disciplines, ranging from American geography to American political system. In its decidedly multidisciplinary orientation, American studies of this era displayed an interesting anomaly and departure from the standard taxonomy of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, which was difficult to accommodate even on the MA level. Nevertheless, the studies managed to set forth a project of making sense of the USA and its role in the changing world.

The courses proposed in this cycle of study pertained to American geography, American public policies, the stratification of American society, history of the USA, the history and methods of American studies, American literature in terms of different genres and periods, African American literature, American foreign policy after World War II, sociological aspect of urban America, while the course instructors in their turn reflected the multifarious face of the programme. The novelty of the programme, while not being nearly as striking as its predecessor in the socialist mid-1980s Croatia, still reflected the sense of a different academic tradition, while communicating a viable agenda for the education of people in so-called civic religion, long recognized as one of the goals of American studies nation-wide and world-wide (cf. in particular Ostendorf in Broeck 2008; Knežević 2007).

Also, it should make us wonder, given the previously suggested more than incidental ties between the sense of national identity and the interpretive models applied in American studies, that in this pregnant time, there is a turn to the lessons imparted by American studies, if intellectuals and the humanities at all might be seen as contributors to the process of national self-definition. I am far from dismissing the caution of exaggerating the implied (or misconstrued) disinterestedness on the part of the participants in this process of “imagining the nation,” going back to Benedict Anderson’s term, but, in view of the fact that is a necessary ingredient of the process in question, it should be recognized and theorized rather than simply deplored.

Even though I am merely stating the obvious, it still bears repeating that the years of the Homeland War in Croatia (1991-1995) mark a first major rupture for American studies in more recent Croatian history , one that is not likely passed over or considered superseded even nowadays. It is possible to extract from the documents how many valuable and promising projects and initiatives for international co-operation and exchange petered out into the bleak indefiniteness of the war situation, and it has taken quite some time for the study, academic life and the discipline to resume its course, which, of course, after the war wasn’t quite the same any longer.

Still, the continuing Fulbright exchange programme, sustained both by the State Department and, on our side, the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport, and the support provided by the American Embassy, makes possible a steady lifeline for an exciting exchange of ideas, teaching and research methodology between American studies in Zagreb and the home culture in the States. In the past and at present, American studies in Croatia have also relied on the Embassy to either facilitate or provide access to invaluable resources for academic and research work which has ultimately brought benefits not only to American studies students but to the Faculty and the University as a whole (books, journals, short- and long-term exchange programmes, guest lectures and presentations, scholarly databases, and the like). That also makes a part of an ongoing and multifarious enterprise of American studies in Croatia, of which Sonja Bašić has from the beginning been one of the movers and shakers.

When trying to gauge the possible appeal that American studies might have presented to Croatian depleted academic resources at the time, it becomes pertinent to evoke similarly fraught moments in US history, where—as it turned out—it was precisely the discipline that, as it were, bailed the idea of the nation out of the mire of history, as recently suggested by one of its most renowned practitioners nowadays, Alan Trachtenberg. Commenting on what he calls “the problem. . .at the base of the field” referring to the idea of the nation, which hauls on its back the concomitant idea of “American exceptionalism,” he credits older approaches for demonstrating “that one of the ways the country met the crisis of the Great Depression was by re-inventing the idea of the nation. . . .Sussman argues that a widespread ‘quest’ for ‘American stuff’. . . characterized the 1930s, giving that decade of severe social crisis a sense more of reconnection with a collective past. . .than of radical disruption” (Trachtenberg 2008: 8, 9). Given the intense need and urgency for self-invention permeating Croatian post-war anxiety, it could be argued that this flare for national re-invention could have served as a basis for a number of intellectual pursuits at the time, the renewed American studies being one of them. (Not the least of our concerns if we embrace the idea of the death of the nation-state, should be the fact that the corporate culture seems so keen to “cultivate the same death-of-the-nation logic”; if it works for “transnational corporations,” why not also for the university, one wonders; cf. Pfister, summing up Brennan’s arguments [2008: 26]).

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

Works Cited

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