U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Matter of American Studies

The following guest post is by Andrew Seal, a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Yale University.

I read Ray Haberski’s post, “How American Studies Matter,” with a great sense of appreciation, and with a more mixed sense of recognition and puzzlement. Since my graduate student home is American Studies, and since, with the annual American Studies Association a few weeks away, my mind has been taken up with definitions and redefinitions of the field, I am, on the one hand, extremely happy that Haberski praises American Studies for the contributions it can make to intellectual history as a case study in understanding the dynamics and tenor of the Culture Wars.

On the other hand, I am dismayed by Haberski’s argument that the “handwringing” which is now valuable as a record of culture war confusion is also, in his opinion, an obstacle to the field’s forward progress, giving primacy to internal debates about the politics of calling the field “American Studies” while losing sight of the empirical entity outside the conference room doors that “other people were actually killing and dying for.” American Studies is perhaps guilty of violating Melville’s admonition, staring at competing social constructions too fixedly:

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. (1)

Haberski brilliantly and concisely reconstructs the outlines of the debate about the name of American Studies, putting his finger at precisely the right spot to check our vital signs, but I wonder if he is not pushing a bit too hard to detect the vigor of the pulse beneath.

Haberski argues that, within the field of American Studies, the culture wars produced an extraordinarily acute response: they “confirmed the relevance and nearly the epistemological core of American Studies,” but they also caused the discipline’s leading voices to turn even more than customarily inward, re-examining the field’s origins in the mid-century consensus-driven search for The American Mind, the adjudication of what was and what was not American. Eschewing this prior mission, American Studies scholars instead sought to replace it with a robust pluralism that hybridized and pluralized what had been the “America” in American Studies. Their deliberate acts of boundary-crossing, however, made the field’s title itself impossibly awkward and, according to Haberski, rather than confront this fact by returning to the original problem of (re-)defining “America” in light of its contested but very real existence, those in American Studies turned to “the paralyzing notion that America is [merely] socially constructed,” piously assuming that it could be challenged and replaced by deconstructive fiat.

Most graduate students in American Studies programs are encouraged to read relatively deeply in the essays which Haberski cites that have, over time, built up a rich legacy of field-definition and self-examination. I absolutely agree that these essays (2) are essential to understanding the evolution of American Studies over time, and through them we get a vibrant picture of the pressures and eruptions that constituted at least one side of the culture wars. Yet I read them not so much as essays on ontology—what is America? Is there a thing called America? Is it bad to believe that there is?—but rather essays on methodology—do we in American Studies have a method? Is it adequately distinct from other fields? Does it fit the empirical and discursive phenomena we hope to study? A name change was contemplated for American Studies not because we hoped that doing so would shrink “America” into a mere linguistic fantasy, but because we hoped to remain methodologically commensurate with the reality of an always already transnational entity: to say we studied “America” undercounted the breadth of our field.

Taking this view may be an instance of der Primat der Innenpolitik, or insider baseball. Certainly, as Haberski points out, serious political considerations weighed on the field: by remaining “American Studies,” did we seem to be indifferent to the historical exclusions that moniker had been used to cover? Did it support, against our will, an exceptionalist rhetoric that imagined that the USA was self-evidently unique as well as superior to other nations in the hemisphere?

Yet if we go back and read these essays, what is at stake is not really identity but method. Those categories are radically entangled in all fields, to be sure, but Haberski’s charge that American Studies’s preoccupation with its own name was “paralyzing” has much less bite if we see the internal debates as more orderly struggles over competing methods, or as the struggle to find a method in the first place. An emphasis on method also draws a bright line continuously back to the founding of the field: the first essay in the Lucy Maddox collection that Haberski cites is Henry Nash Smith’s “Can American Studies Develop a Method?” (1957).

Even Matthew Frye Jacobson’s presidential address from last year is, I think, better read as a reflection on method rather than a worrying of the issue of disciplinary identity. While Haberski sees Jacobson’s address as attempting to “avoid the messiness of studying the Culture Wars by simply disregarding the fractious debates that lead to the fracturing of American Studies,” I read Jacobson’s conjoining of American imperialism and neoliberalism less as a way of defining what the field is—stipulating that it is about those two things—than about what it does, and I think it’s best just to turn over the mike to Jacobson here:

Part of what I want to urge tonight is a bringing together of these two lines of inquiry (US empire and neoliberalism), these two distinct interpretive paths. I said earlier that history is not merely sequential but sedimented or layered. These are two of the most important layers, or strata, in the historical ground we now occupy—the frankly imperialist history of militarism, projections of state power, and violations of sovereignty in the ages of mercantilism, industrialization, and fossil fuel, and the overlapping history of geo-economics, aggregations of capital, and the power structures of global finance in the age of the corporation, and particularly this latest, neoliberal chapter…

And so, emphatically, my call tonight is not a call to turn away from the cultural analyses of empire that have been the hallmark and the signal contribution of American studies scholarship in recent decades. But this complicated moment in the evolving shape of US power globally does challenge us to develop an invigorated scholarship equally devoted to political economy, to the structural landscape of corporations and financial institutions, to policy and the institutions of governance, to legal frameworks, to tax codes, to trade agreements and the import-export infrastructure, and to naked economics, alongside the iconographies, narratives, tropes, poetics, images, rituals, media spectacles, and cleansing acts of erasure and forgetting that have long been the subjects of American studies scholars’ focus and interpretive creativity. (3)

Jacobson’s call is not for a redefinition of the field, but for a renewed commitment to what has often been the method that American Studies scholars have, faute de mieux perhaps, claimed as their own: the interpretation of the ways that different “strata” of history are articulated one to another, the illumination of the shadowy no-man’s land where different modes of life—economic, cultural, political, religious, intellectual—intersect and overlap.

This is, definitively, not a new development in American Studies: Jacobson’s use of the idea of sedimentation recalls, in fact, the first and second prefaces to Henry Nash Smith’s germinal classic Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. In the first, Smith attempts to define his usage of the terms “symbol” and “myth” as imaginative constructions which, while often “exert[ing] a decided influence on practical affairs,” nevertheless exist “on a different plane.” (4) In the Twentieth Anniversary edition of Virgin Land, Smith elaborates this enigmatic metaphor:

[The metaphor of different planes] encourages an unduly rigid distinction between symbols and myths on the one hand, and on the other a supposed extramental historical reality discoverable by means of conventional scholarly procedures. The vestiges of dualism in my assumptions made it difficult for me to recognize that there is a continuous dialectic interplay between the mind and its environment, and that our perceptions of objects and events are no less a part of consciousness than are our fantasies. (5)

For me, this manifesto is congruent with Jacobson’s assumptions: American Studies doesn’t have a methodological home in the mind or its environment, but in the interplay of the two; American Studies is neither all culture nor all political economy, neither (surprisingly) only American imperialism nor only neoliberalism, but the space shared, contested, or disavowed by both, where they meet and often refuse to look eye-to-eye.

So I would say yes, American Studies is an ideal location for the study of the culture wars, but don’t come only for the handwringing. Stay for the interplay!


1. The passage continues: “To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp—all others but liars!”

2. In addition to those cited by Haberski, I would add Michael Denning’s 1986 “‘The Special American Conditions’: Marxism and American Studies”, Gene Wise’s 1979 “‘Paradigm Dramas’ in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement”, Leo Marx’s 2005 “On Recovering the ‘Ur’ Theory of American Studies,” Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s 2005 “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies,” and Michael Bérubé’s 2003 “American Studies without Exceptions.”

3. Matthew Frye Jacobson, “Where We Stand: US Empire at Street Level and in the Archive,” American Quarterly 65.2 (June 2013): 282-283.

4. Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970; 1950), xi.

5. Smith, Virgin Land (1970; 1950), viii.

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. While I concur with your focus on the method of American Studies as being a cornerstone of the many debates within the field, I wonder where does multiplicity lie. The insistence on method over methods creates a disciplinary structure delimiting the possibilities of our work. Think of the responses given to Phil Deloria’s presidential address by Nikhil Singh and Jack Halberstam. The coexistence of disparate, contentious, and concurring methods is, in part, the vitality of American Studies. Similarly, this moves us away from dualist thought and its molar categories as a way to interrogate the molecular layers of our existence. As we move through these layers we arrive, again, at Ray Haberski’s questions on the identity of American Studies as materialized by the “Culture Wars.” To engage a question on the method of American Studies is to, by necessity, inquire what is this something that has a method. And the essence of American Studies is still to this day a matter of debate and political critique. Take your genealogy for example, or the body of literature engaged in your post, where are the contributions to the field by Ethnic Studies (Latina/o Studies, APIA Studies, Arab American Studies, African American Studies, and Native American Studies)? Where do their methods, questions, and criticisms lie? The emergence of these studies comes out of, in part, a push for visibility from and for these communities. The multiplicity of questions and approaches comes under threat by the push for a method (in the singular) espoused here. Hence, to discipline method is to delimit the contours of the field and what or who can be found within its limits.

  2. I am grateful for the responses that my original post generated. These smart counterpoints also suggest the breadth of the discussions that have thrived within American Studies for many years. So take advantage of such expertise, I’d like to return to one of the original reasons I wrote about American Studies for a panel on the Culture Wars. When Alice Kessler-Harris considered the intimate role American Studies plays n both the perpetuation as well as the analysis of debates about national, group, and personal identity, where does methodology help us out? It the Culture Wars fostered some sort of crisis about methodology, I would be interested to see the particular way that debate addressed what I interpreted as her larger epistemological questions about the field of American Studies itself. Can American Studies know itself if that self has fractured? The answer does not need to be something definitive, but that is why I thought Susman seemed useful in this case, by pointing out the history interacts with myth to push a field or scholarship beyond an epistemological crisis. Andrew and Ivan, you have both given us a great deal to consider. Can I give you some more?

  3. Ivan,
    Thanks so much for your comments. They raise excellent points that I admittedly skated over or obscured.

    First, as to the question of multiplicity and the place of ethnic studies, I want to specify precisely what I was trying to speak to–not the field of American Studies as a whole, but this body of essays that Ray rightly points to as a locus of disciplinary self-examination. Presidential addresses are the clearest expressions of this genre, but there are a couple dozen that have appeared over time in American Quarterly, New Literary History, PMLA and other places. My point is that these essays in fact share a great deal more as far as methodological assumptions about what American Studies does than they differ as far as to what the “America” in “American Studies” is. There is less multiplicity, or I would say far less “fracturing,” among them than there may appear to be.

    I don’t think that is as true of the field as a whole, where there are many more voices like Jack Halberstam’s arguing for “wild projects of knowledge” (I’m chagrined that I forgot to include the Deloria-Singh-Halberstam exchange you cite), but that has not, in my reading, been the tone or project of this genre of AmStud self-reflection.

    Sorry, I have to run now (and sorry not to respond to you, Ray!) but I did want to get these thoughts out first.

  4. Part 2:
    Ray and Ivan,
    You are both very right to call attention to the ongoing debates about what the “essence”of American Studies is, or if it should or can have an essence, but what I mean to stress here is that this running debate is better understood as a Methodenstreit of a more common sort rather than as something unique to the disciplinary politics of American Studies. That is, I would offer that the culture wars is not a sufficient frame for reading Kessler-Harris’s address, or Jacobson’s or Deloria’s or Radway’s, though reading them does help us better understand the culture wars. It’s not symmetrical: they help us understand the culture wars, but the culture wars only incrementally help us understand them.

    I acknowledge that this may be a minority reading of the institutional history of AmStud over the past, what, 25 or 30 years. And a large part of the reason why a culture wars frame looks so congenial to a historicization of American Studies is indeed because that is the story many in American Studies accept. The potted institutional history is often one that imagines an early 90s/late 80s “fracturing” or a rupture or, less violently, a turn away from a prior placid but rah-rah and centripetal American Mind Studies to a volatile and frankly oppositional coalition of centrifugal America(s)(?) Studies that drew both its politics and its energy from the ethnic studies programs which were often themselves indebted to the British cultural studies and to postcolonial studies.

    I absolutely agree that American Studies was reenergized in incalculably beneficial ways by these new affiliations and intellectual resources, but I disagree, based on what I have read, that they constituted a complete break with the methods and even many of the key figures of pre-culture wars American Studies. What is left out of the story is why American Studies was, in the first place, a fertile environment for these new energies and ideas, and I would argue that much of the credit goes to the methodological apparatus already in place, which harmonized very well with the new politics of the younger generation of scholars. Emphasizing the culture wars dimension and the narrative of a radical break with the politics of the Old American Studies occludes these continuities almost completely.

    The metaphor of “the turn” (transnational, linguistic, cultural, etc.) has always been an interesting one to me: turning implies a new direction, but it does not necessarily imply a new gait, a new mode of locomotion. I think that, although they broke new paths toward new destinations (and definitely a multiplicity of paths and destinations), AmStud scholars like Radway were moving in a manner quite similar to their disciplinary predecessors.

  5. And so, emphatically, my call tonight is not a call to turn away from the cultural analyses of empire that have been the hallmark and the signal contribution of American studies scholarship in recent decades.

    America as empire. To assume such a premise without first proving it leaves the current method [if not definition] of “American Studies” as a circular argument, begging its own question. For America is not inarguably an “empire,” no matter how many scholars write books, essays, or even create schools of thought and study based on that assertion.

    To wit:

    by Paul Schroeder
    Mr. Schroeder is Professor Emeritus of History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

    At the January meeting of the American Historical Association Professor Schroeder gave an electrifying address on the differences between imperialism and hegemony. AHA President Lynn Hunt ran up to him afterwards to implore him to write an op-ed. At our request, he did so.
    “American Empire is the current rage–whether hailed or denounced, accepted as inevitable or greeted as an historic opportunity. Common to the discourse is an assumption, shared also by friends and foes abroad, that America already enjoys a world-imperial position and is launched on an imperial course.

    But that assumption involves another: that America is already an empire simply by being the world’s only superpower, by virtue of its military supremacy, economic power, global influence, technological and scientific prowess, and world-wide alliances. The term “empire,” in short, describes America’s current condition and world status, and is equivalent to phrases like “unipolar moment” or “unchallenged hegemony.”

    This is a misleading, unhistorical understanding of empire, ignoring crucial distinctions between empire and other relationships in international affairs and obscuring vital truths about the fate of empires and bids for empire within the modern international system. A better understanding of empire can point us to historical generalizations we ignore at our peril.”


    See also Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, American Umpire


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