Night Thoughts on American Studies at Century's End

Alan B. Howard


(This is the first draft of a kind of manifesto for the American Studies Programs, highly personal and not a little polemical and manifestly a work-in-progress; a kind of Op-Ed piece for Americanists Here, as elsewhere in the course, the objective is to "do it in the street," to work in public, to see the work as process rather than perfected product, and to open up the conversation.)

I've been musing lately on the future prospects of American Studies as a discipline and, at least in some moods, the future looks like a disaster. And not just any disaster, not an accident partially redeemed by pathos or tragedy or heroism, but something grotesque, ludicrous, and wasteful, something like the wreck of a circus train late at night on a lonely stretch of Georgia line, garishly colored cars spilled down red mud banks, animals and clowns shakily seeking a way to safety while, somewhere in the background, a steam calliope blasts out endless, insanely cheerful choruses of "Roll out the Barrel." So what follows is, as Americanists of whatever stripe should recognize, a Jeremiad, that first of arguably "American" forms in which we are called to recognize how far we have strayed from the true path, and to repent.

I.

So, where are we, then, as we move into what the American Studies Association has determined to be the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the American Studies Movement? . Despite all the very widespread talk about "interdisciplinarity" and "multicurlturalism," American Studies seems to heading in the opposite direction, not toward some new American Renaissance but for some something that looks like a chapter 11 bankruptcy hearing. First, there is the failure to grow over time, to realize something like the original promise and to retain founders' original sense of calling. Even if this is measured in the crass terms of the decreased size and prestige of programs and the in ability to attract more and better students and more and better institutional support, the slippage is not only undeniable but, in a culture that seems often driven by notions of plenitude, destiny, and grandeur, a failing not likely to be forgiven.

Next, American Studies has lost much of what was once considered its sovereign territory, lost it to a variety of new programs that have evolved from or against or beyond American Studies ( African-American Studies, Women's Studies, The New Historicism, Cultural Studies) and also the traditional departments like English and History that have reconsidered the costs of presenting themselves as guardian of the traditional and "real" values and have repackaged their products in bright boxes labeled " new and improved" and "now with added ethnicity, class, and gender." No matter these are still the same folks doing the same business at the same old stands, the marketing strategy has been largely successful. And, in part because of American Studies classic liberalism, a commitment to a kind of intellectual laissez faire that was always part ideological commitment and part political necessity, part a measure of its commitment to "traditional democratic values" (as it understood them) and in part one of the necessary concessions one makes if one lacks power.

This same process has been mirrored by a similar proliferation, fragmentation and politicization (not as I understand it, necessarily a term of opprobrium nor a category of which anyone escapes), of the journals, presses, association, societies, centers and conferences, in effect, the whole web of institutions within which we have our professional being. (Here, I need a catalogue of new journals and association sections, something like Whitman set to a 17th century hymnals rhythms.)

The result, I think, is 1) the fairly ugly demise of venerable programs like American Civilization at the University of Pennsylvania; 2) an increasingly polemical and confrontational tone in the general discussion, largely the product, I think, of the tendency of conversation always to grow shrill when the speaker preaches only to the converted on the sinfulness of the preterite. 3) Increasing skepticism "out there" about the general worth of what we do "in here." This is a classical rhetorical situation, with responsibility assignable in unequal proportions to speaker and audience. For our part as Americanists we have clearly failed to gain credibility with the larger audience. In combination with our filed's traditional, often self congratulatory resistance to developing a disciplinary methodology, it must seem to many that American Studies, in response to the question "What is it you do and why should we value it?", persists in checking the box for "none of the above."

The net-net result of all this is that American Studies is increasingly unable to attract students, especially graduate students; it is even less capable of placing them professionally, either in its own professorate or in the public sphere; it seems politically isolated within and without the universities, in the best of times living on table scraps, in hard times banished from the table altogether; and it seems incapable of developing in ways that don't accelerate the process of fragmentation that is rendering it suspect and irrelevant. American Studies as a Movement, then strikes me as the loser in some sort of Darwinian derby , something looking more and more like a dinosaur and less and less like one of those promising little furry mammals up there in the rocks.

II.

If all this is reasonably fair and accurate, what is one to do?

Perhaps the first thing is to look at the other side of the same coin. For example, despite the decline and fragmentation of American Studies, especially in graduate programs at Major Universities (as they like to refer to themselves), there's been an interesting proliferation of undergraduate programs, in colleges, junior colleges, and in high schools. These have come into existence, in part, in response to market forces, to the desire for the "new and improved" wherever it might appear and whatever its actual merit. Much of it is the a byproduct of social change or the efforts to create social change in the larger community. And some of it rises out of a genuine desire to do things differently, more honestly, and to greater effect. At the same time, there is a at least lip-service paid out there in the public arena to the notion that there is a genuine need managers and policy makers who are able to think in coherent but richly contextualized ways about the world. In combination, these seem to suggest at least a perceived need for exactly the kinds of people American Studies has the capacity to train. . Good will and the enthusiasm of the convert, a willingness to spend a summer being 'retooled" by taking courses outside one's original field of study seems adequate. or perhaps just a semester subscribing to T_AMLIT, will not be adequate to this task, however. Take a look at one of the American Studies bulletin boards and you will see, not only lot of duplication and waste, but a remarkable scene in which substantial numbers of people lost in the same swamp can be found giving directions to each other. Nevertheless, upon this one might build

Again, American Studies seems at times just another unwitting victim of its own successes. This is certainly the case in the metaphorphoses of American Studies into a half- dozen hyphenated sub-specialties: African-American Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, Modern-Post- Modern Studies and the like. Ours was one of the first fields to publish scholarly work on popular culture, on non-canonical works , and on interdisciplinary problems and analyses. It was also one of the first to publish essays articles on and by women, and African Americans, and immigrants, one of the first to challenge the supposedly 'natural and fixed boundaries between genres like fiction and history, belle letters and political pamphlets or religious sermons or almanac verse, over the last thirty years it has served as witness or midwife to the birth of a series of sub specialties -- Cultural Studies, the New Historicists, African-American, Latino, and Native American Studies, etc. I suspect that, for some scholars who were trained in the forties and fifties, the number of intellectual off spring gathered at the holiday table must create in them mingled pride and horror; so many good things have come of this and yet.... Again, there is an opportunity here, I think: perhaps American studies can build on this, in part, by becoming the table at which all of these descends talk with one another and rediscover their common origins and concerns. This will require some other model of "Americanness" than the classically liberal, unconsciously white-and-male-and-elite-and Northeastern model we began with, perhaps a model that, in Derek Wolcott's terms, reflects an America that is an experiment in mongrolization and hybridization, the dynamic mixing of various contributory "strains."

If our field now seems hopelessly fragmented and contentious, the same pattern obtains at the "scale" of the individual. Our once noble dream of a field in which scholars, conversant in a variety of discourses, could embody the virtues of "liberal" as opposed to "professional" culture, the possibility of something like the omnicomptenence of the Renaissance man of virtu or the nineteenth century' high minded and widely experience high amateur. This has been lost somehow, or co-opted into the narrowest of professionalism, the ultimate in intellectual clannishness as dozens of our probable children pursue careers and defensible theoretical positions rather than clearer understanding. Some of this must reflect the impact of "the knowledge explosion," the tendency of individuals and organizations to focus on progressively smaller areas of expertise in order to maintain coherence and their own integrity. And in this regard we are surely participating in some larger historical process. But, once again, there may be possibilities here.

Finally, the Politics of American Studies. Having sought to take a position somewhere on the margins of academic institutions and theoretical schools, we have concluded, I think, that what distinguishes us is our ability to rise above those structures to remain free of the fetters of a defining "methodology." And the result is that we are fragmented, atomized, idiosyncratic at every level, disorganized, powerless, and largely ignored. Like the gas station attendant who talks with John Updike's hapless Rabbit in Rabbit, Run, when asked which road Rabbit should take (in his first attempt to flee his own life), "if you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there," We need, in a sense, both a better sense of where we want to go as well as better maps for getting there.

Often, the discussions between younger and older Americanists sounds like pieces of some intergenerational, Oedipal conflict. We seem to enter the drama at the moment at which the son discovers the frailty and humanity of the father, a deliciously double moment for him; On the one hand it is liberating and energizing. On the other, it is suffused wit the righteousness of lost innocence and the moral certitude of one's own untested ability to rise above such hypocrisy and venality. This conflict has produced quarrels I have, so far, found little to take comfort in. In it, I often think I hear older scholars defending, not their work, but their status and the respect they have looked forward to receiving since their own apprentice days when it was so powerfully extracted from them by their elders; younger scholars seem much given to demonizing the good old, bad old days when people were befurred and beribboned in false consciousness and small natures; older scholars who no longer need to read a younger colleagues' arguments to know that they are shallow and venal; younger scholars who, time and again, betray their own ignorance of the works they energetically tumble down to create the foundations of their own careers.

Largely a product of elite institutions laboring to maintain their status against the challenge of lesser land-grant institutions blossoming under the economic and intellectual stimulus of the G.I. Bill; largely shaped by liberal academics who saw American Studies as the most effective means to assert their own broadly liberal and democratic values in a world traumatized by the effects of one tyrannical modern state and filled with anxiety at the apparent emergence of a second one, American Studies programs took upon themselves the task of strengthening their vision of the national culture as the official one. And, in the process, they occasionally found themselves slipping down the slippery slope toward enlistment as cold warriors in the CIA's battles.. All of this is, in retrospect of course, , not just clear but predictable But, many young people, brought up on 13th Gen skepticism and the corrosive, generalized habit of irony that seems to be its hallmark, the history of the American Studies Movement, then, looks like just one more historical fraud, just another "official" group cheerfully announcing its objectivity and omnipotence in order to hide from public view some more sinister private agenda, just another American clerisy, passing off its activities as mysteries, incapable of being systematized and taught to those who don't already "get it," to be acquired only by osmosis, only in the best places presided over by the best people. .As one of my graduate students put it, "I love graduate school. It's a strange blend of the executive washroom and OZ!" Old Marxists in Jaguars, young Marxists in BMWs, ethnic scholars passionately defending the superior merits of "their" group; feminists demanding sensitivity and respect in terms that convince of nothing so much as their genuine deficiency in these articles; not, as they say, a pretty sight! But even here, there are possibilities. What's required, as the preacher says, is more righteousness and less self righteousness, more humility in oneself and more pride in the contributions of others. (I have clearly lost the thread here, if not at some earlier point).

In part, because our discussions have been carried forward at such low levels and with so much mean-spiritedness, we've never been able to find the means to break down the economic, political, and institutional structures that help keep us separated and at odds with one another. By and large, the modern American University is an invention of the nineteenth-century and, like other inventions of that time, the penitentiary, the asylum, the poor house, the assembly-line factory, it is now in a period of peculiar strain because, in the face of radical social and cultural change, it has sought to preserve itself as much as possible intact rather than to take on the more difficult task of reconceiving and reinventing itself . As a result. Americanists are housed in what some might regard as a maze of archaic, anachronistic, institutional, administrative, legislative, and ,traditional structures that constitute serious obstacles to doing our business. In effect,, most of us are housed, like maiden aunts in Victorian attics, in someone else's house.

There we find that we're sometimes valued, sometimes tolerated, sometimes merely warehoused; but we are also terribly isolated from the individuals, materials, and disciplines that could enrich our own work. At my own campus, I know more than a dozen colleagues, twice that many students, and twice again as many support personnel (in libraries, electronic text centers, institutes for humanities and for the liberal arts, special collections, restoration projects, computing support staff etc) who could be invaluable to each other if only some means could be found to put them in touch. (I trust that no one will underestimate the difficulty of getting together on some regular and productive basis, 75 or so individuals out of a group of some 7,000.) Periodically, we run into each other; we almost invariably start our conversations with something like "Wouldn't it be nice if we could...." and then go on to talk about team teaching, joint projects, sharing graduate students and material resources. Eventually, the conversations peter our, we shift to children and the weather, we nod, we smile, and then turn away, reconciling ourselves to another year of going our separate ways. So, tonight the future looks pretty much like the past, just darker. but there are possibilities even here.

III.

"So, about those possibilities you've been promising?/p p First, and against my own instincts and the lessons of history as I understand them, I think we must assume that this is a problem in understanding rather than the eternal drama of human depravity, that its stems from ignorance rather than stupidity or ill will. In part, we are all caught in what seems the general intention of events to prove the validity of Chaos theory, and in equally understandable human responses, try to manage its incipient chaos by defining smaller and more arcane areas of knowledge as our "proper fields." The result: we know more and more about less and less, and we know what we know badly in the sense that we know less and less about the larger contexts within which our tiny principalities s exist, mean, and have their life.

Having thus brushed aside the Jeremiad' s commitment to innate depravity as his central organizing idea, his master narrative, I'd like to recoup it thus. in the end, I believe that Pyncheon is right, that what we once understood as the fall into knowledge might now be seen as the fall into information what it is, how do you find it, what you do once you've got it, where, how, and for what reasons do you send on the results? These question underlie, I think many of the others, if not Marxists in Jaguars, then at least generational conflict, the rigidities of "professionalization," the intellectual and political temptations of "territorialization," the constraints imposed on us all by archaic institutional boundaries. So, if the question is one of information, perhaps American Studies should commit itself to moving, lock, stock, and the barrels we stand in, toward the new technologies for handling information. These technologies, centered on the computer, may provide a method of retrieval, analysis, and dissemination that is more nearly equal to the massive and complex phenomenon we hope to understand. It seems to have the capacity for storing, retrieving and displaying the varied kinds of information, literary and non-literary texts, of course, but also all those other kinds of "texts" that are written in images or sounds or events.. And, since most of us share both some notion of all these texts as somehow a kind of transaction -- between individual author and the anonymous readers to whom he/she speaks, the original text and what later users make of it, the text in focus with all the other inter/texts that surround it and help constitute it's "meaning," why not exploit the technologies capacity for simultaneity, non-linearity, and the layering of phenomenon? In addition, the technologies seem to offer easier, more wide-spread, and speedier dissemination, surely something, at least theoretically, any Americanist should value. And it offers a real opportunity for the creation in virtual reality of a larger, more diverse, more comprehensive community of learners than any merely "real" reality. And this more comprehensive "virtual community" might even find ways in which to translate its "virtual power" into real power, in its claims on institutional resources and in its ability to draw on the political capital that is available when the public that understands what we do.

IV.

Here at the University of Virginia, I think we might begin simply by making more widely available the resources -human and material-- that already exist here. In The University of Virginia and in the Commonwealth it serves, we have an institution that is unusually rich in resources for American Studies: The Grounds, Monticello, nearly 340 historic sites, parks and items in the National Registry; the Barrett and MacGregor Collections in Alderman, the fine arts digitized Graphics collection in Fiske Kimball, significant portions of the faculty and students in the Departments of English, History, Anthropology, Religion, the schools of Law and Architecture, The Center for the Liberal Arts, The Institute for Advanced Computing in the Humanities, the New Center for Teaching and Technology. The vast majority of these resources now exist as atomized, fragmented, parts of some yet to be imagined greater whole; many of them are simply invisible to the majority of students and teacher, many of them lie in forms that make modern, sophisticated analysis almost impossible, and some of them are just too difficult to get access to given the limits of time, energy, and individual longevity. We need to find a means --outside of departmental and disciplinary structures -- to interconnect these resources and the people who are their curators.. Finally, we need to realize that our students are a significant resource as well, perhaps the single most underutilized resource in the University. We need to involve them as 'links' between these physically and spatially separated resources, to integrate as a significant portion of their education the process by which these artificial separations are overcome, to inculcate in them the notion that there is a world of difference between a student trained in literature who also knows a bit about art and a student who is conversant in both disciplines and can use them proficiently and interactively. And, finally, we need to understand that The University is no longer bounded by the area designated as area code 22903; the University is as much of the world as you can access and utilize intelligently. If human and material resources happen to sit in Adelaide, South Australia, that resource can be brought to the campus; similarly, the University is not only the primary educational site for some 17,000 students and 3,500 instructors, it is a point where they, as well as colleagues around the world, can meet and further the discussion of topics that concern them. Third, we need to find a mechanism to allow people housed in different administrative units, sitting on different budgetary lines and answerable to different masters using different criteria for evaluation, to work together, to pool talents and knowledge and curiosity so that they can more powerfully address the big problems, the really interesting problems.

V.

Somewhere near the center of the crisis in American Studies I find both a central problem and a potential solution. I would argue that we have been attempting to work within a medium that is, if not hostile to our enterprise, at least an impediment -- the written text. The book or article is both the primary "subject " of the Americanist bur also his/her primary "product." Because we work in print, we have difficulty seeing or analyzing or valuing things that are not print based': oral materials, material culture, music, art, architecture, statistically based analyses, personal dress, interior design, industrial design to name but a few. . Because we produce "books" we tend to leave out these kinds of material, or at best stuff them away in appendices we know no one will read or" illustrations" that serve less as evidence or argument than as graphical tropes, visual metaphors for the essentially text-based ideas we are really dealing with. Simply stated, we need above all a new "platform" for American Studies, one that is capable of storing, retrieving, manipulating(analyzing), and presenting mass amounts of very different kinds of phenomenon We need a platform that can leap over departmental and institutional barriers, allowing Americanists very differently trained and affiliated to work together, to gain access to the best data and the best that has been said and thought about that data. We need a platform that will allow people to work cooperatively, to exploit the differences in their perspectives, training, and expertise to mutual advantage And, finally, we need a platform that is less prone to constructing mono-myths of the Virgin Land or the American Adam, or the American Renaissance, and more able to provide a space in which discussions from various points of view might take place.

By this time I suspect I've tipped my hand completely In my judgement, and the Tarot cards notwithstanding, I believe that the train wreck might be avoided if we rapidly and effectively move the foundation of American Studies to take advantage of many of the opportunities already available in computing and related kinds of technological innovation. This will do nothing if it is just understood as a kind of hot rodding venture, sticking technologically superior and hence more powerful racing engine in a 1935 5-window coupe. It will work if we understand that it will be as difficult as the transition from orality to literacy, from the bard singing his people's story to the printing press I have spoken primarily from the perspective of a teacher of American Studies, and my own field seem to be both in greater distress and thus, if my Jeremiah's logic hods up, to offer the possibility for more dramatic revitalization. But it is not unique, and I would hope that Project Crossroads would give rise to a whole series of second generation disciplinary servers; the cumulative effect of such a movement would, I think, be profoundly, positively transformative. Like the change from orality to literacy, or from the monastery scriptorum to Guttenberg's press, it offers nothing less than a reshaping of consciousness, of the ways in which we see and understand our world.


abh9h@virginia.edu