November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Discourse: American Studies

American Studies at a Crossroads

A conversation with
Donald Pease, Robyn Wiegman & John Smelcer

* * *

In the tenth anniversary of The Futures of American Studies (Duke UP, 2002), John Smelcer interviews the editors of that critical volume. The author of numerous books and over a hundred articles on American and British literature, co-editor Donald Pease is the Ted and Helen Geisel Third Century Professor in the Humanities at Dartmouth College and founder of Dartmouth’s Institute in American Studies. In 2000 he was the Drue Heinz Visiting Professor at Oxford, and for the past five years he has been Distinguished Visiting Professor at the JFK Institute of American Studies at the Freie Universitaett in Berlin. Co-editor Robyn Wiegman is Professor of Women’s Studies and Literature at Duke University and author most recently of Object Lessons , a wide-ranging exploration of the institutionalization of the study of identity in the U.S. university. From 1998-2004 she was co-director of the Dartmouth Institute in American Studies and from 2001-2007 the Margaret Taylor Smith Director of Women’s Studies at Duke University. Educated at Oxford and Cambridge, John Smelcer is the author of over 40 books and more than 400 journal publications, mostly in ethnic American literature, cultures, and languages. In the past two decades, he helped to establish and direct an undergraduate Native American Studies program at one university and a doctoral program in Hispanic Studies at another.

JS:    Broadly speaking, American Studies interprets the development and expressions of  national culture and subcultures and diasporas through the integration of a panoply of interdisciplinary academic subjects and methods, including, but certainly not limited to, history, literature (including ethnic American literature), ethnic studies (including folklore), social sciences, gender and sexuality, law, urbanism, ecology, religion and politics, economics, material culture, film and media, the arts (visual and performance), and transnational or global studies. Students and scholars of American Studies learn to think critically about American spaces, places, intellectualism, pluralism, and global connections. Have I missed anything or unnecessarily clogged things up in this definition?

Robin Wiegman

RW:  No definition of the field is ever complete, but in general American Studies scholars do aim for the kind of interdisciplinary reach you describe. In doing so, we encounter a variety of problems, beginning with a really basic one: what precisely do we mean by “American”? Historically speaking, of course, “America” is hemispheric in scope and there are many people in the world today who consider themselves American who are not from the United States.  The challenge facing the field is about  grasping the currencies of the contemporary world — what some people call transnationalism or globalization — without reproducing the cultural and political extension of the U.S. as a global hegemon, which entails a certain attention to what is particular about the U.S., its history, and its critical discourses. American Studies scholars are quite nervous when we encounter the demand for particularity, in part because it can lead so easily to declarations of American exceptionalism, which is a story the nation tells about its world historical singularity and god-given exception. Almost every war in the history of the U.S. has been buttressed by the exceptionalist explanation in which the U.S. acts as a model — the triumphalist term is “beacon” — for the rest of the world. American Studies today is more interested in what a bad example the U.S. has been for democracy, global security, and equality than the mythic story of how it has led the way.  I think the biggest difficulty for the field is ultimately not about countering dominant narratives so much as putting the U.S. “in the world,” which requires a much broader and longer historical perspective that considers the U.S. in Thomas Bender’s words, “a nation among nations.”

Joseph Mehling Photo

DP: I agree with Robyn’s description of the interdisciplinary organization of American Studies. But the challenge she is talking about is well underway, as the recent “transnational turn” in American Studies has affected the most significant re-imagining of the field since its inception. It has been either the explicit topic or subtext of the last seven presidential addresses at the American Studies Association, the basis for innumerable conferences, and the term responsible for the founding of several new journals and book series. “America” remains the commonly accepted self-representation in American Studies Associations. But the term “transnational” is the most frequently invoked qualifier, undermining an exceptionalist conception and subsuming many of the variants that have drawn scholarly attention for decades, including such frameworks as the multicultural, border, and postcolonial.  As “transnational American Studies,” the field is producing an encompassing geo-politics of knowledge that changes the way we imagine our work.

John Dowling Photo, 2011

JS:  Perhaps I should better describe the issue at question. Transnationalism and diaspora are generic terms that denote a wide range of migrant experiences, such as dislocation and relocation of ethnic groups and entails not only socio-cultural and psychological experiences, but also, because of the processes of accommodation and acculturation, entails a renegotiation of identity, one of the main themes in contemporary ethnic American literature/diaspora. This topic has become the subject of much interdisciplinary study. Does this mean that the transnational framework settles the problem Robyn identifies — that being American does not belong to the U.S. alone and that scholars need to find a way to differentiate between U.S. versions of globalization and the contemporary U.S. situation as part of globalization?

DP:  The transnational turn has raised some questions of its own.  Did the newly configured field foster an expanded sense of injustice and a cosmopolitan ethos? Was it a form of disciplinary imperialism designed to re-fashion social relations and cultural practices after the U.S. neoliberal model? Did the transnational framework foster an alternative to U.S. cultural and economic hegemony or embody the standpoint that Americanization assumed in the present conjuncture? While their responses to these questions vary, scholars agree about two significant matters: that Transnational American Studies scholars dismantled the foundational tenets and premises informing the methodology, periodization, pedagogy and geographical locations of U.S. American Studies, and that transnational Americanists have not as yet added a coherent order of intelligibility to the field.

JS: But all disciples go through transmutations, sometimes in fits and spasms, supplanting past paradigms and resignifying disparate pasts and futures. For instance, a myriad of subfields in anthropology exist today, which did not exist when I was an undergraduate almost thirty years ago, and ethnic American studies was still fairly new when I began college after the 1970s. How do we reconcile the recent emphasis on transnational perspectives within the foundational framework of American Studies? Can there be synthesis?

RW:    Don’s description of the transnational’s remapping of U.S. American Studies has enormous appeal as an empirical claim about the practice and political investments of the field today.  Countless books have recently emerged that take up the transnational as just such a radical reinvention, sometimes by paying attention to the important questions that Don offers about its implications, but most often not. My interest in the transnational turn lies in a different trajectory, as the rhetorical claim that underwrites its current celebrity does not supplant prior paradigms so much as imitate them. To be sure, the figure of transformation changes — from multicultural to border to diaspora to transnational. But the claim for transformation remains central. From this perspective, the transnational is the latest but surely not the last turn in which U.S. American Studies will repeat its characteristic reinvention of itself!  The question this raises for me is “why?”  Why do scholars spend so much time defining and defending the idea of a transformed field?  I think it has everything to do with the anxiety that the object of study raises.  It is as if scholars are trying to outrun the object’s global power by focusing on the formation of the field as the means to do so.

JS:     I’d like to return to what Robyn said in her first response, i.e. that American Studies today is more interested in what a bad example the U.S. has been for democracy, global security, and equality. As I write this, today is the tenth anniversary of 9/11. It seems reasonable, to me, that Bush’s “War on Terror,” with its “us against them” policies reminiscent of the Cold War (a time when many tenets of American Studies were founded), should have spawned a decade of discourse about America’s exceptionality. Although published in 2002, almost all of the essays in Futures were written before 9/11 and, therefore, could not have predicted how that course of events would affect American Studies. I was not impervious to the spiritus mundi myself. Before his death in January 2010, Howard Zinn and I were planning a book organized similarly to yours to have been entitled, The United States of America(n Exceptionalism). Why do critics like Alan Wolfe view such thinking as anti-American? Indeed, in his 2003 New Republic review, Wolfe called my esteemed colleague and one-time teacher William Spanos (“American Studies in the ‘Age of the World Picture’”) “America-hating” (7), which I vehemently challenge. Spanos is part of the “The Greatest Generation” who served our nation proudly in World War II. It seems to me that a patriot can criticize national policies and histories and yet still love his nation. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say it is the duty of the informed citizen of a democracy to do so.

RW:   Alan Wolfe also took aim, as you know, at The Futures of American Studies volume, casting nearly every essay included in it as the work of “bitter rejectionists” whose “hatred for America [is] so visceral that it makes one wonder why they bother studying America at all”. Don devoted an entire essay to examining the ways in which Wolfe’s attack reflected a near complete acquiescence to the heated language of the Bush Administration, whose rhetorical approach to the “war on terrorism” drew heavily on school yard machismo, as evinced by his much repeated proclamation, ‘if you aren’t with us, you are against it.’ In structuring his critique of American Studies through the language of hatred, Wolfe took part in the simplistic worldview revived by Bush, which made the critic who failed to affirm American innocence an enemy of the state. As John notes, this was a powerful tactic during the Cold War period which is also the geopolitical context in which American Studies was formally organized in the U.S. university. In both political moments, the idea that John raises — of patriotic critique — disappeared from public political culture altogether. Today, Americanist scholars are less interested in reviving the idea of dissent as a national duty or part of American identity than in pursuing the urgent questions that have remained unaddressed for the last decade: what role does U.S. foreign policy play in producing the very global antagonisms that the state “innocently” defends itself against?  And what does it mean that our political elites today spend very little time soliciting popular support for wars and interventions? While Wolfe might be right about the way that dissent is at heart of contemporary Americanist work, his essay contributes next to nothing for the necessary analysis of these complexities.

JS:  We’ve talked about the past and, to some extent, the present. But what is the future(s) of American Studies? How might you respond if a conscientious student were to ask you, “Where is the field headed in the next decade?” Several recent job announcements for Americanists state that the candidate should have a “dynamic understanding of where the field is headed.” Perhaps your response illuminates not so much where it is headed, but where it should be headed?

RW:   In asking and answering the question about the shape of the field a decade ago, we felt certain that what was at stake for American Studies was about its future. Today I’m rather more interested in attending to the challenges of doing the transnational and postnational work that everyone now embraces, which is not about imagining where we are going but coming to grips with where we say we now are.

DP: I want to situate my response within the context of the significance of the recent transnational turn that Robyn and I both have affirmed. I do so to indicate its importance but without losing sight of some of the problems inherent in this re-orientation. The slogan “We’re all multiculturalists now!” suggested that multicultural and postcolonial attitudes had become the cosmopolitan norm. But transnational Americanists who encouraged the reformulation of multicultural conflicts that continue to take place within nations in terms of the cross-cultural processes carried out in between national and transnational imaginaries have sometimes ignored the structures of economic and cultural injustice that have persisted within the domestic sphere. In constructing alternative terrains of collective aspiration responsible for the production and reproduction of the everyday social life of subjects and citizens, transnational Americanists have argued that extra-national affiliations of domestic ethnic communities constituted the indispensable linkages interconnecting the US socioeconomic polity with Asia, Africa, and Latin America as well as Europe. They did so to elucidate the interdependence of the inequities and oppressions within the United States with the problems that had arisen throughout the global economic order. When Transnational American Studies scholars displaced the problems of the domestic multiculture onto these transnational environments, however, they sidelined unresolved multicultural and postcolonial discrepancies. By focusing on the political solidarities organized out of transnational commonalities, transnational Americanists also tended to ignore the intra-national trans-ethnic alliances fostered by domestic multicultural and postcolonial scholars.
Presupposing that domestic cultural and ethnic hierarchies could be suspended through such global exchanges, Transnational American Studies scholars left extant structures of power intact. The power relations regulating cultural arrangements within nations could not be magically transformed through the exchange of knowledge and experience between nations and transnational movements. But in the arc of the transnational turn, the exchanges between national American Studies organizations have assumed more significance than the reconfigurations of the relations among existing political constituencies within national cultures. In their assessment of the ways in which global economic processes have exceeded the nation-states regulatory powers, Transnational American Studies scholars may have engendered a change in mentalities but not in institutions or structures. They have called attention to disparate practices of spatialization, as they are evidenced in diasporas, migrations and borderlands, but the structured injustice at work in these spaces call for the instituting of postnational regulatory agencies and international courts of justice that have not yet emerged.

Since the social logic of diaspora communicates the aspiration of dispersed populations for such global tribunals of justice, questions posed by diasporas have reinstated the questions of the multicultural and the postcolonial within the transnational perspectives that had supplanted them. Diasporic migrant populations highlight the antagonism between the nation-state’s sovereign self-determination claims on the one hand, and the constraints dissevering migrant laborers from the rights to a fair wage, housing and health care enforced by enactments of local and global state of exception on the other hand. If multiculturalism and postcolonialism are the spectres that haunt Transnational American Studies, the peoples of the diaspora occupy sites beckoning transnational Americanists to return to these old haunts in the future. Transnational American Studies scholars have highlighted the role transnational and diaspora formations have played in challenging the state as the core governance apparatus regulating the economic, political processes within nation-state’s territorial borders. They have also attended to the ways in which states have reasserted sovereignty by assuming the abnormal status of the state of exception that installed the geo-juridical line disjoining transnational from diaspora formations. While the United States has assumed the global posture of a transnational state of exception there is no transnational democracy and there are no representative public institutions at the trans-statal level to recognize and adjudicate transnational cosmopolitan norms.

Under the new global conditions, I hope that in the future the field of Transnational American Studies take on responsibility for fostering what Michel Foucault called governmentality, which he defines as the “conduct of conducts.”‘ Governmentality links the norms informing an individual’s self-conduct with the forms of power through which the state governs the conduct of populations. As the placeholder for the transnational democracy and trans-state institutions that have not yet materialized, the Transnational American Studies movement has already assumed state-like functions. Scholars within the newly configured field exercise transnational governmentality in their efforts to undermine the juridical and economic constraints of the transnational state of exception, to accomplish the re-distribution of economic entitlements and cultural recognitions, and to re-map geographies. In the future I hope that Transnational American Studies will play a major role in inventing, fostering, reflecting upon the multicultural, postnational as well as trans-national mutations of the field of American Studies.

RW:     What Don suggests here is that Transnational American Studies has yet to articulate its critical influence as a counter to state and market formations of power, which is why he calls for the field to engage more directly in promoting democratic institutions for transnational times.  My sense is that the conscientious student needs to understand how the question of ‘where the field is headed’ performs, in its very claim to the future, a very long history in which the field vies with the nation-state for symbolic control over the meaning, authority, and political possibility of the geopolitical entity “America.”  I am more interested in teaching the student about why American Studies scholars are so anxious about their relation to their object of study and what this teaches us about the challenges of being an Americanist today.


Editor’s Note:

This article is being published simultaneously in “Rosebud”, the nation’s oldest quarterly literary publication that can be purchased at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and many independent bookstores. The simultaneous publication is an effort to bring select material in a timely fashion to audiences of both print and electronic editions. See

Illustration at top of page: Valerie Brown