Understanding the Whole
The American Studies Approach

By MARK NOONAN

THE question "Why a Journal of American Studies?" can be answered quite easily: to promote American Studies as a significant field of study here at Columbia, academia generally, and in society at large. Are we finished? Is my essay done so we both can go home and watch The Simpsons? Not quite, for implicit in this first question is another that demands our strict attention, namely, "Why American Studies?" The answer to this query is not so readily resolved. In a sentence, however, American Studies exists as an emergent and serious academic discipline because the humanities are, and have been for some time, up mud creek sans paddle. 11
  By now, the enforced retreat of the humanities to the far edges of America's academic curricula is a familiar story. Also well-established and equally disturbing, one finds the humanities marginalized in society at large. This retreat within the academy and obsolescence outside it has been the subject of several books and articles in recent years. Works such as Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy and Giles Gunn's The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism of Culture have located the numerous sources for the reduced status of the humanities. The pressures of the economic marketplace, we are told, in which little time is available for true reflection and thought about books and ideas, are one factor. The careerism of undergraduates is often cited as another; national priorities that favor science and technology are a third. The pervasive materialism, as de Tocqueville called it, of the American people, which makes them so indifferent to, if not hostile toward, pleasures whose gratifications are not immediate as well as direct, experts claim, constitutes a fourth. To some extent, all of these explanations possess a certain legitimacy. There is, however, a far more corrosive, albeit less vocalized factor responsible for the diminished role of the humanities as a legitimate mode of intellectual inquiry. I refer to the faulty manner in which just about everyone, both within and without academia, conceives of the humanities.2
  To begin, in society at large today, most Americans tend to regard reading, say, Shakespeare, attending the opera, or tarrying at a museum of art with an attitude akin to Mikey's view of Life cereal—not particularly exciting but perhaps "good for you." Infinitely preferring prize fights to poetry, rock to Bach, shopping to Schopenhauer, Americans, in general, view "serious" art, at best, as something to be endured, and at worst, completely useless. For scholars and aficionadoes of popular culture like myself who revel, for example, in the beauty of a Frank Thomas home run swing or the genius of a Bob Dylan song as much as we admire the provocative contours of a Ryder painting, society's predilection for less than "classic" diversions is not necessarily a bad thing. What is problematic, however, is the automatic connotation the humanities have of being too serious, too dry, too difficult to understand, or too alien to the "real" world to actually be enjoyed. Put another way, in reference to why his book Private Parts is a best seller and most serious books are not, radio "shock jock" Howard Stern succinctly explains, "Books suck." Stern's remark, despite its Beavis and Butthead-esque inanity, reveals more than one would like to admit about how the general public views the humanities. Instinctively associating artistic and intellectual masterworks with high-brow, elitist (read: snob) culture, the majority of Americans regard the humanities as dull mead with no bearing on really important matters such as economics, politics and sports. 23
  In the universities as well, where folks should know better, the humanities are misconceived. This misconception, I believe, owes a great deal to the "compartmentalization" of knowledge pandemic to academia. On most campuses, for example, there exists an English department, an art history department, a film department, a philosophy department, a geology department, a psychology department, etc. etc.; each department possessing such an autonomous air as to seem almost "naturally" estranged. 3 Contrary to the divisive manner in which academic fields are physically represented on campus, however, the divisions are artificial constructions for the sole (and useful) purpose of order. The problem is telling this to the academic specialists who profess the humanities.4
  For the most part, professors of the arts and sciences are unable or (as Michel Foucault, who refers to academic specialties as "regimes of power," would claim) unwilling to spell out the relations of the humanities to other branches of learning or even to relations among the various components of the humanities themselves. In the classroom, for example, meaningful connections between the humanities and the sciences (natural, social, physical) are rarely made or encouraged. Similarly, within the humanities themselves, such interdisciplinary questions as what language study has to do with historical understanding or what understanding in the visual arts can teach about the arts of composition are too often kept mum.5
  As Columbia University Professor Edward Said argues in his latest work Culture and Imperialism, thinking associatively is hardly one of academia's strengths; its inability to make interdisciplinary connections is its greatest liability:

The tendency for fields and specializations to subdivide and proliferate, I have for a long while argued, is contrary to an understanding of the whole...To lose sight of or ignore the national and international context of, say, Dickens' representations of Victorian businessmen, and to focus only on the internal coherence of their roles in his novels is to miss an essential connection between his fiction and its historical world. And understanding that connection does not reduce or diminish the novels' value as works of art: on the contrary, because of their worldliness, because of their complex affiliations with their real setting, they are more interesting and more valuable as works of art. 4

As Said contends, "understanding the whole," is vital to under-standing the individual part, be it a Charles Dickens character or ourselves.

6
  Concerned with examining how diverse others have lived and thought about life so that well-advised decisions governing our own lives are possible, the humanities require the pursuit of complete knowledge. Though ultimately unachievable, striving to know "all" the connections should remain a matter of infinite hope, the possibility that something is left unknown, always the cognizant reality. As Alexander Pope's admonition about "a little learning (being) a dangerous thing" and recent history make clear, the alternative to expansive thinking spells disaster.7
  Just how dangerous failing to think largely and diversely can be is evident in the recent onslaught against the humanities. Critics include the hermeneutical skeptics who have concluded that the humanities, or for that matter, any mode of intellectual inquiry must, by virtue of the human condition, be a self-serving farce. 5 Also critical of the humanities are those who claim that such modern phenomena as totalitarianism and the growth of terrorism have destroyed all our previous categories of thought and standards of judgment. The remaining antagonists fall generally under the pejorative rubric—the PC Police (PC standing for politically correct). Among the ranks of the PC Police are those individuals whose conception of the humanities begins and ends with a constricted view of the "the great books" as those ancient, and thus antiquated, repositories of straight white male thoughts which perpetrate and perpetuate such inhumanities as racism, sexism and homophobia.8
  Primarily at issue for most critics of the humanities is the manner in which its proponents privilege its thoughts and concerns at the exclusion of others. Traditionally consisting of what Matthew Arnold once nominated "the best which has been thought and said in the world," the humanities, as conceived in this manner, have become a mockery to those who realize, like Said, that the West (the only "art-producing" world which Arnold and his contemporaries would have intended) "represents only a fraction of the real human relationships and interactions taking place in the world." 6 Too, the humanities have become a focus of derision to those who realize that things "thought and said" are not necessarily (as Arnold's line implies) superior to things done or made. And when Allen Ginsberg begins his poem "Howl": "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," his hyperbolic use of the adjective "best" demonstrates the absurdity and presumptuousness we humans suffer from to think hierarchical distinctions such as good, better, or best can objectively be made.9
  Clearly, privileging self-serving interests (at the exclusion of other interests) is the primary reason why the humanities have been viewed with such marked suspicion in academia. Outside of the university, the humanities are given short shrift owing to their perceived inaccessibility and high-handed dullness. Such accusations as exclusivity or remoteness, clearly, are not inherent to the study of the humanities. As I have attempted to show, the problem lies in the manner in which they have been traditionally conceived.10
  American Studies, within its limiting scope of American culture, 7 attempts to reconceive of the humanities in a delimiting, more inclusive fashion. An American Studies approach to Herman Melville's Moby Dick, for example, would not necessarily be limited to a merely literary discussion. Game might be a historical comparison of the whaling industry to the opening up of the "Wild West," a review of old sea songs, an analysis of how "luminism" in nineteenth century American painting relates to the whiteness of Ahab's whale, or coverage on early Nantucket recipes for Quahog chowder (samples to be sent to the editors!). Like jazz music, whatever comes to mind to a writer on Melville or any topic related to Americana is potentially valid, for American Studies recognizes only two categories of writing. As Dizzy Gillespie once said about music: "there's only good and bad."11
  Our Journal of American Studies hopes to be a repository of mostly "good" writing on myriad topics concerning American culture. More accessible and, at times, more rollicking than most academic journals, we are more interested in encouraging participation in American Studies than promulgating the untruth that graduate degrees are the prerequisite to enjoying this nation's vast and exhilarating intellectual/creative heritage. Thus, be it a poem, a photograph, a dispatch on a current event, an informative article, a "serious" academic piece, a review, an announcement, an opinion, an exclusive interview, or a blistering attack on the editors, you might find it in here. Again, our sole mission is to bring American culture to light and to life. Getting folks published, initiating some coffee table talks, and throwing a bash or two ain't such bad ideas either.12
  Enjoy and join us.13


Note 1
By humanities I intend such fields as history, literature, languages and philosophy, film, folklore, music and the study of art, society, religion and politics. Latent in these disciplines are the stories, ideas, and images that help us make sense of our lives and our world, that encourage us, in the words of Alfred Kazin, "to create a future in keeping with (our) imagination." [back]

Note 2
For a full-length study of how historical conditions and social processes in the nineteenth century led to the division of American culture into "highbrow" and "lowbrow," Lawrence Levine's book, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America is excellent. [back]

Note 3
Most mindboggling to me is how at most universities (Columbia included) writing departments are separate enclaves from English departments. Perhaps the appropriateness of such a division resides in the fact that nonacademic writers often find the literary criticism that streams out of today's departments of English to be of small practical use. T.S. Eliot, literary critic and writer, do another twist and turn in ye old grave! [back]

Note 4
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Random House-Knopf, 1993), 13. [back]

Note 5
I refer to the very important work of structuralists like Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes and poststructuralists like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida who believe that human beings are hopelessly entangled within webs of cultural meaning and practice; all people can ever presume to do, so the argument goes, is to discover the self-serving and ultimately self-cancelling character of such webs of meaning and set about trying to demystify and deconstruct them. [back]

Note 6
Said, op. cit., 54. [back]

Note 7
It is important to note that although dealing with works, thoughts and deeds that primarily relate to American culture and history, American Studies is conscious of and interested in the entire world of cultures that make up its own. [back]


Columbia Journal of American Studies. 1:1 (1995).