History Act 3

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

In his by now classical manifesto of the tendencies of the “new Americanists,” Donald Pease (1990, 1994) in the early 1990s evokes the concept of “disciplinary unconscious” which has relied, according to him, on repressing some things or foreclosing others, mostly from the American past. This has been the case with most of the approaches taken within the discipline and has presumably been uncovered in the expansive gesture and more comprehensive vision offered by new practitioners of American studies, as suggested by Pease of the contributors in his very respectful and far-reaching two-volume reorganisation of the disciplinary field.
Then came the 9/11, and the talk of the dissolution of the nation-state or its surpassing by other models of socio-political organising gave way to the renewed nationalist fervour. One must stress how deeply the field-imaginary, the discipline’s unconscious, to echo Pease once again, has changed—given the break-up of the World War II consensus, the theorising of the concept of empire in American studies, a shift from American studies to cultural studies, and, increasingly, a transnational orientation, this latter explicitly raised as an issue in the 2004 Presidential address to the ASA by Shelley Fisher Fishkin (2005).

In his by now classical manifesto of the tendencies of the “new Americanists,” Donald Pease (1990, 1994) in the early 1990s evokes the concept of “disciplinary unconscious” which has relied, according to him, on repressing some things or foreclosing others, mostly from the American past. This has been the case with most of the approaches taken within the discipline and has presumably been uncovered in the expansive gesture and more comprehensive vision offered by new practitioners of American studies, as suggested by Pease of the contributors in his very respectful and far-reaching two-volume reorganisation of the disciplinary field. Then came the 9/11, and the talk of the dissolution of the nation-state or its surpassing by other models of socio-political organising gave way to the renewed nationalist fervour. One must stress how deeply the field-imaginary, the discipline’s unconscious, to echo Pease once again, has changed—given the break-up of the World War II consensus, the theorising of the concept of empire in American studies, a shift from American studies to cultural studies, and, increasingly, a transnational orientation, this latter explicitly raised as an issue in the 2004 Presidential address to the ASA by Shelley Fisher Fishkin (2005).

One might wonder, after all, if it isn’t more than historical coincidence that just as we witness the fissures in the monumental display of “America,” this same signifier proceeds to be dismantled before our own eyes as it peters out in innumerable area studies, by courtesy of the US global outreach. According to John Muthyala (2001) in a recent article, even spaces traditionally outside of the purview of both disciplinary and national boundaries, and conceived locally, nationally and globally, have increasingly come to impinge on American studies, while generating new meanings of America and providing new modes of doing American studies.

As Bérubé aptly puts it in his article, this latest urge on the part of American studies scholars, especially in the USA, to go international, has to be seen also in conjunction with two currents, “the corporatization of the university” as “one aspect of the ongoing globalization of capital,” which then requires the alignment of “the actual and potential intellectual functions of an increasingly internationalist American studies” especially as it finds itself operating “in an increasingly transnationalist economic environment” (104).

The other factor by and large contributing to what recent curricular revisions term “the post-nationalist American studies” (John Carlos Rowe), can be attributed to the specific demographic currents observable in the USA, domestically (the increasing share of Hispanic-origin population and its concentration in some parts of the country) and internationally (immigration flows, especially from the global South and Asia). In other words, as Bérubé sums it up neatly, such a curriculum in American studies could be seen as “a program perfectly of a piece with the university’s roles as partner to corporate management and stimulant to financial growth, under the auspices of which ‘internationalism’ is understood as an important development area” (105). He asks a provocative question, what if this latest configuration of the discipline is itself a ruse, “propaganda value of a critical, anti-imperialist, internationalist American studies” (110). (In voicing such concerns, Bérubé comes close to Buell’s overall mistrust in the validity of replacing culture for any number of other references, such as nationality, citizenship, ethnicity, class, economy, nation-state, etc. Globalisation presciently and conveniently, it would seem, manages to convert these factors to its goals.) The prescience of Bérubé’s approach lies predominantly in his willingness to pose hard questions and to demand that the discipline take stock of its latest entanglement with the structure of the nation-state as it caters to the postmodern aspect of globalisation: “this shift in American studies takes place at a time when the field is not generally seen, by the state of by multinational capital, as an area of vital interest. . . . But is it perhaps possible that the fitful globalization or hemispherization of American studies somehow coincides with the globalization or hemispherization of American capital?” (109). Similar sense of displacement and disorientation of many scholars is echoed by Noble (287-301).

In a related move, we should look at a specific application of the educational reach of American studies, perhaps not unlike the effort of “re-education,” to evoke Werner Sollors’s term in the Salzburg seminar of 2005 as he assessed the post-WW II American presence in West Germany. The latest effort of that kind, carried out by means of American studies, occurs today in Bosnia-Hercegovina. It is instructive in this light to look at a recent proposal for a joint MA American Studies programme devised and proposed by the Faculty of Philosophy in Sarajevo and Smith College (USA), and laid out in an article jointly authored by Jim Hicks and Zvonimir Radeljković. Needless to say, given the cases of both Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, the space of the Balkans lends itself easily and perhaps inevitably due to recent turmoil in the region to such reconstructive efforts. It is interesting to note that once again the example of America, as it stands represented and conceptualised in American studies, can enact its “manifest destiny,” and exert its “soft” power. (For a related concept, see also “cultural democracy,” especially as laid out in the special issue of Comparative American Studies 2006.)

Works Cited

{ 0 comments… add one now }