Copyright 1997 The American Studies Association. All rights reserved.
American Quarterly 49.3 (1997) 449-469
 

Presidential Address

Insiders and Outsiders:
The Borders of the USA and the Limits of the ASA:
Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, 31 October 1996*

Patricia Nelson Limerick


In 1972, I entered an American studies graduate program, and yet no one told me what American studies was. It is true that I never asked. In the unfortunate but seemingly unchangeable lifeways of graduate school, I assumed that everyone around me knew--and knew in detail--what American studies was. Thus, it would be an awful admission of vulnerability if I were to put my status of outsider out for unrestricted public display by asking the question. And yet steering around and avoiding opportunities for that exposure became something close to a full-time job.

Once I was browsing in the library and came across Vernon Parrington's Main Currents of American Thought. I had barely sat down to look at it, when an American studies graduate student happened by. This fellow had attended Harvard as an undergraduate and had climbed to a considerably higher rung on the ladder of self-esteem than the humble level where I appeared to have ended my ascent.

"So you are rereading Parrington," he said, and while I wondered whether I was under obligation to say that I had, in fact, just embarked on my maiden voyage on those now-much-less-traveled main currents, [End Page 449] this confident fellow sailed on ahead without checking to see if I was able to join him on this conversational voyage.

"So what do you think of Hofstadter's critique of Parrington?" he said. This was, of course, an alarming question because I barely knew who Parrington was, and I did not know who this Hofstadter fellow was, though I could certainly tell from the question that Hofstadter was someone I should know. But the great advantage of the company of graduate students of this sort is that they find their own answers to their own questions a great deal more interesting than anything that any other party could offer. The tension of the moment lifted immediately as the student launched into his own critique of Hofstadter's critique of Parrington, and thus spared me embarrassment.

I was not so lucky, a week or two later, when my twentieth century American history teacher John Blum said to us, "You've all read Hofstadter's Age of Reform, of course." When honesty overcame me and I shook my head, Mr. Blum looked at me with contempt and horror. This was a man very clearly wrestling with doubts about the effectiveness of the graduate admissions process. He then said, unforgettably, "Patty, you haven't read The Age of Reform? You're naked without it."

In point of fact, I was wearing overalls, which was another part of the problem. I wore overalls to Yale in 1972. This proved very advantageous on one occasion when I got a breather phone call early one morning. When the caller said, hoarsely, "What are you wearing?" and I said, "Overalls," he hung up before I did. This was even more effective than the strategy I had tried on a similar occasion when the phone rang early, and a man said, "What are you doing?" Thinking to myself, "Surely all this higher education has some practical uses," I answered:

What am I doing? Well, I am reading Thomas Jefferson's Notes on Virginia and I am paying particularly close attention to the ambivalent pastoralism at work here. Despite Jefferson's great enthusiasm for the agrarian tradition, he was surely aware that crops need markets and that ambition would make mere subsistence an unsatisfactory goal for most farmers. And so I am puzzling over the degree to which Jefferson was aware of his own contradictions. . . .

Here, too, the caller was off the line and out of my life in an instant, having given me an instructive demonstration of the unexpected powers of a well-educated mind.

The message of these overalls was made more complicated by the fact that a friend from Santa Cruz had embroidered a kind of seahorse/Pegasus [End Page 450] combination on the front. In hindsight, I think it is likely that some of my Yale professors believed that I belonged to a cult devoted to the worship of a spiritual entity represented by that symbol. I was, after all, as everyone knew, from the University of California, Santa Cruz. In truth, I had no better idea than the professors had, as to what that winged seahorse represented. And yet those overalls functioned very satisfactorily as a semiotic strategy, saying to the micro-society of Yale University that here, temporarily and improbably lodged among them, was a visible and voluntarily marked outsider.

And then, at the mountain-top of graduate school discomfort, there was the Champagne Social. I got a notice that said that graduate students were invited to attend a Champagne Social. I contemplated this invitation, and puzzled over it. Could it really be, in 1972, that students would have purposefully and knowingly organized something as archaic as a Champagne Social?

And then I figured things out. No one in their right mind, after People's Park, Jackson State, and Kent State, would put together a real Champagne Social. But they might well have a parody of a champagne social. With this understanding, I felt sure that I had figured things out and thereby transformed myself from bewildered outsider to in-the-know insider. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, we had been very big on costume parties, so I knew exactly how to proceed from here.

I headed off to the Goodwill store, and made all the necessary preparations for taking on this Champagne Social in the right spirit. I had a blue taffeta party dress. I had elbow-length gloves. I had a pillbox hat. I had make-up: lipstick, eye-liner, eye shadow, the whole thing. I had a fur stole, the remains of an animal that, one has to believe, had once been in considerably better health.

I was ready for the champagne social. When I arrived at the event, I found a lot of graduate students wearing campus casuals, sweaters and slacks and plaid skirts. I was the only one in a taffeta party dress, the only one with a pillbox hat, certainly the only one with a dead animal around my shoulders. Thus, though I had not read or heard of Erving Goffman at the time, I found myself perfectly placed to do some high-intensity Goffmanesque research. I had come up with the finest of opportunities to observe the ways in which people, who want very badly to stare at a deviant, remain appropriately fearful that their stare might be intercepted, the deviant might make eye contact with them, and then the deviant might approach and try to start a public conversation. But then [End Page 451] again, I had not gone to graduate school to become a social psychologist, so even this opportunity was one I could have done without.

Because no one had told me what American studies was, I constructed my own simple definition and followed it very rigorously for four semesters of coursework. I did not really notice until years later that I seemed to be the only one following this program. Each semester I took one class officially designated as a literature course, and one class officially designated as a history course, and one officially designated as an American studies course. In my first semester, the American studies professor, if he came to any appraisal of my promise and performance, was discreet and kept it to himself. The literature and the history professors were more forthcoming with their judgments. In the course of the very same week, the history professor told me that I was doing OK in his class, but he could tell that my heart was in literature; the literature professor told me that I was doing OK in his class, but he could tell that my heart was in history.

My heart was, thereby, officially declared to be homeless.

Thank heavens, then, for American studies: the place of refuge for those who cannot find a home in the more conventional neighborhoods, the sanctuary for displaced hearts and minds, the place where no one is fully at ease. And here is the glory of the American Studies Association: since no one feels fully at ease, no one has the right or the power to make anyone else feel less at ease.

I return to the stories of graduate school so that I can slip in a confession. I did read Hofstader; I did get a degree; I did, for a time, feel like I was getting somewhere in my reading. In the mid-1980s, working on The Legacy of Conquest, I really did keep up, at least with the field of Western American history; in those times, it was a comparatively rare experience to have someone mention a new book about the West that I had not already read. I finished writing Legacy in the summer of 1986, and the slide began. Very soon after the manuscript went off to the publisher, I began hearing myself say, "Why, yes, I bought that book, though I haven't had the chance to read it yet." And thus the slippage continued, until it turns out that I have not even gotten around to resolving to read the books and articles that everyone else is talking about.

I have come full circle: from a state of feeling bad, in 1972, because I was clearly behind in my reading; followed by a brief interlude in which I seemed to be getting somewhere; back to a state of feeling bad, [End Page 452] in 1996, because I have fallen even further behind. At least it seems much clearer to me that I am behind in my reading, not from personal failing, but because my reading has overwhelmed me, outrun me, left me in the dust. At any given moment, the scoreboard is several thousand to one: thousands of things I should be reading, and would profit from reading, and only one of me. Maybe there is, somewhere, an academic, living a life so far from anything I can imagine, that she or he goes to bed at night, turns off the light, and says to herself or himself, "Well, I will sleep well tonight because I have used my time very efficiently and I am all caught up with my reading." If such people exist, I am not sure that I want to meet them.

I suspect, in other words, that this is a burden many of us share. But there is no better method for discovering how hopelessly, irreparably far behind you are in your reading than to be elected the president of a thriving organization like this, and I thank the nominating committee and the membership for the chance to feel so pathetic, so humbled, and, I hope, so representative.

As we move into the electronic age, with some of us a great more adept and adaptable than others, I am hoping that those designing electronic projects will keep this information overload in mind. In other words, the problem I experience is not a shortage of information, or an inability to get access to information. My problem is an inability to get access to the time and the wit to take in and do something with the information that is already available to me. Here I may delude myself into thinking that I am speaking for much of the ASA membership, but I very much hope that those who are leading us into the electronic future will keep this in mind: while easier access to information is fine, we are in much greater need of methods and strategies for filtering, sorting, managing, synthesizing, and staving off panic over the flood of information that already has us swept off our feet.

I have been reminiscing about graduate school, also, to explain the foundation for the concern I feel about the matter of who gets cast as the outsider in academic circles, or in any circles. Those privy to the inner e-mail circles of the American Studies Association will know that I respond with remarkable pep when someone suggests that someone else is an outsider to this Association. Those who have been the recipients of those animated responses have probably figured out that I have a personal stake in these matters, a sensitivity that makes me into something of a force of nature, or at least of entropy, on those occasions [End Page 453] of boundary-drawing. I have my own very vivid memories of feeling like a certified, card-carrying, marked outsider in the academic world. Those memories provide one reason why I do not want anyone labeled as an outsider in this Association, and why I do not want to see any official act that would impose limits on the ASA's version of citizenship, declaring who was truly an American studies person and who was not.

I am aware of the extraordinary time and energy that many ASA members have put into the creation of American studies programs at their home institutions, and I have a great deal of respect for those achievements. And yet one effect of the current conditions of universities is this: when struggling for scarce resources, one can feel driven to imitate the behavior of departments and disciplines, to draw lines around the American studies approach that will make it bounded enough, solid enough, defined enough, to hold its own in the push and pull for money, space, faculty positions, respect, and status.

I understand where that response comes from, and I understand the discomfort that probably accompanies it, since one of the greatest charms of American studies is its permeable borders. It is a shame to feel that one has to yield to institutional pressures to seal up those borders. Thus, I suggest the possibility that the refusal to say that there is any such thing as a disciplinary "outsider" to American studies may, actually, be gaining in usefulness in the present-day straitened conditions of higher education.

At the University of Colorado, we have a unit called the Center of the American West. This Center is very interdisciplinary. When I wrote my statement of candidacy for the ASA, I expressed some hopes that we could extend the range of disciplines involved in the Association, attracting more political scientists, economists, anthropologists, and sociologists. Like others who have preceded me in this hope, I did not get very far. But I had my own reasons why I thought that this vision was neither utopian or quixotic.

The Faculty Advisory Committee of the University of Colorado's Center of the American West has people from philosophy, history, English, and fine arts. It also has faculty from geography, political science, economics, ethnic studies, and anthropology. It has a representative from the Law School, the College of Journalism, the College of Business, and the College of Music. What may seem more improbable is this: the Faculty Advisory Committee includes two biologists, an atmospheric chemist, an electrical engineer, and a geologist. The involvement [End Page 454] of the scientists goes way beyond tokenism; the scientists are as much insiders to the Center as are the humanists. In 1996, the Center had a conference on "Field Scientists and the Shaping of the American West." Scientists were the majority of the planning committee, and, in ways they may not have expected, they were brought into a conversation about the cultural and social factors that have shaped the pursuit of science.

Western American studies at the University of Colorado includes, quite literally, everything under the sun. We have no borders, no limits, no division, by subject matter, of insiders and outsiders, except for the fact that we are brought together by our shared interest in this very arbitrarily defined region, the American West. Before we start to look retrograde in that focus, it is important to say that the Center had a conference in 1995, called "Rumours and Borders," involving scholars of both Western Canada and Northern Mexico. One of the best presentations we had at that conference came from a biologist, a specialist in small mammals, who described a valley in Colorado. On the south side of this canyon, the biologist calls our attention to the flora and fauna of Mexico, and on the north side of the canyon, he shows us the flora and fauna of Canada. North and South, Anglo America and Latin America, meet in Colorado. This (at the risk of seeming to join E. O. Wilson in biological determinism) is a presentation that I would very much like to have immigration restrictionists hear.

After a few years of administrative sorrows and travails, our Center dug itself into the root system, really into the bedrock, of the University. If administrators decided to get rid of the Center of the American West, they would hear yelps--not just from the Humanities--but from the Social Sciences and the Natural Sciences, as well as from Journalism, Business, Law, Engineering, and Music. Moreover, if you sliced away at Western American studies in one disciplinary area, it would spring up from the still viable root system in fifteen or twenty other areas. In some way that we did not exactly plan, by making our borders and limits entirely porous, by sprawling over and through disciplines in a cheerfully chaotic way, by seeming to draw our intellectual plan from the urban design of the city of Los Angeles, the Center of the American West ended up as secure as any piece and part of a University can be in our uncertain times.

The joy of American studies is precisely in its lack of firm limits and borders. I hope that it will turn out that the Center's example is not [End Page 455] anomalous, and that expansive borders can be profitable in the most down-to-earth institutional way. Expansive borders do, however, require an adaptation to disorientation, and a willingness to join up with collaborators who make you feel profoundly at sea. Thus, in the interest of encouraging that kind of adaptation, I announce the creation of an informal and unstructured new ASA prize: the Champagne Social Prize, which goes to the people who, during the annual conference, take an active part in a session or discussion in which they feel completely at sea, asking questions that prove that outsiders and new arrivals to a particular topic often bring perspectives that freshen the thinking of those who would seem to be the experienced insiders in that topic. The prize, I think, is that the winner and I dress inappropriately for some public occasion, and, once everyone has had the chance to stare at us, then I buy the winner a glass of champagne and we indulge in a few moments of outsider pride and solidarity.

The contrast between the pleasure I now take in references to the Champagne Social and the misery I felt at the actual event illustrates my understanding of the power of narrative. Storytelling can take an unhappy experience, and, by an impossible and miraculous alchemy, transform misery into something else entirely. I know that one can take an awful private experience and make it into a public story, and thereby arm-wrestle its terror into submission and master its misery. But I also fully recognize the difference of scale here. I know that the terror and misery of graduate school are very limited, compared to the terror and misery of slavery or conquest. In truth, until July 20, 1996, everything I knew about the full scale of human terror and misery, I knew only from reading.

And then, around noon on July 20, I got an unmediated dose of the real thing, when a doctor came into the examining room and said that there was bleeding in my husband's brain, with spinal fluid and blood accumulating in the left ventricle.

Everyone who sees Jeff these days has cause to doubt the accuracy of this narrative, since, by a great miracle, the intervention came just in time, and he made it through without any permanent neurological damage. The reason that I am mentioning this event, already familiar to some of you from the ASA Newsletter, is to introduce a term I want to put to use in this essay. I cannot explain why the term carries such freight for me unless I go back to those times in the Intensive Care Unit at Boulder Community Hospital. [End Page 456]

For awhile, in the hospital, Jeff himself was not the source of much in the way of informative commentary on his dilemma, because the principal effect of the fluid in the ventricle was that he had lost his short-term memory. Thus he could not remember, from moment to moment, that he had a dilemma. But once they had put in a drain and reduced the pressure, and once he had come out of surgery and seemed, against the odds, to be cognitively coming back to earth, he took to using a phrase that I had never heard him use before.

"This," Jeff would say, when commenting on the fact that he was in the Intensive Care Unit, fully wired and monitored, narrowly escaped from a dire and life-threatening situation, "is a heck of a thing."

That is the technical term I wanted to introduce into the American studies lexicon, to go along with construction and representation and production and hybridity and transnationalism: "a heck of a thing," which is the technical term for a dire situation which seems to be, against all the odds, within the reach of remedy. It is a humorous term, but it is not, in any way, a light or dismissive term. Remember that a "heck of a thing" is a term that got its current meaning from a person who had just come out of brain surgery and was being very closely observed to see if he had sustained any permanent damage from having lived, for four and a half days, with an undiagnosed cerebral hemorrhage.

And thus I turn now to a heck of a thing, the highly charged tensions and frictions around the definition of outsiders and insiders and the borders of the United States. We are engaged in a war of words over insiders and outsiders, and words that are often set at a great distance from the lives of the people most affected by those words. Opponents of immigration often tell us of large groups of Spanish-speaking people, living in the United States but refusing to speak English. Leave the abstract heights of the war of words, however, and on the ground, you find "English as a Second Language" classes with giant waiting lists, backlogs, and lines of immigrants eager to take these classes, but simply not able to fit into the limited classes available.

Think how rapidly this seeming "dilemma" could transform itself into an opportunity. The United States operates in an undeniably global economy. There is no place to go to escape the internationalness of our dealings and decisions. This is a world in which language ability is a great competitive advantage. And thus, as one listens to opponents of immigration lament the fact that people come to the United States speaking languages other than English, one has to ask oneself, "Could [End Page 457] it be that an excess of language ability is a dilemma? Is one of our problems that there are too many Americans who are too fluent in too many languages?" The problem is so clearly the opposite, so clearly a need for increased ability, that the language skills of immigrants are instantly recast as a tremendous human resource. The challenge is to figure out how to make the most of those skills and abilities, and not to squash them out.

I have twice had the opportunity to debate former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, one of the most determined spokespeople for the anti-immigration cause. That is a whole story in itself, a story that certainly reached its peak of amusement in our first debate. Governor Lamm, who is a very serious and solemn speaker, was responding to a question from the audience. He was undertaking to say, as he often does, that we must make tough decisions today on behalf of a better tomorrow. But his response took a bit of a turn. We must, he told the audience, recognize the wisdom in an old Arab proverb, and then he attempted to restate that proverb: "In your lifetime," he was planning to say, "you must plant two trees, even though you yourself will not sit in the shade of those trees." But he said, instead, "you must plant two trees, even though you yourself will not shit in the shade of those trees." Even if I did not exactly win the immigrant debate at that moment, I did learn an important lesson about how important it is to laugh along with an audience when you misspeak, because if you do not laugh, as Governor Lamm chose not to, it means that the audience will laugh ten times as long.

What we have, in most of the public agitation and alarm over diversity, are textbook cases of people talking themselves into tizzies. I am not meaning this in a detached or dismissive way. Is there one among us who has not, on some occasion, talked herself or himself into an episode of unnecessary and wasteful agitation? Put an appointment with the dentist on my schedule, put me in the company of a couple of other people with profound cases of Dentist Fear, and I rapidly reach a state of distress that can, in fact, leave me a little let down when I actually go to the dentist office and do not suffer. By one theory, talking about our fears and anxieties is supposed to be a way of calming ourselves down, but the process can work just as well in the cause of stirring ourselves up. A war of words can stir people into very real agitation, and that agitation can have very real consequences, even though a close examination of the causes for that agitation often [End Page 458] indicates, as in the case of language diversity, that we actually face something closer to an opportunity than a disaster.

Thus, we have Proposition 187 in California, and comparable proposals from Congress, to deny health care and education to illegal aliens and their children. How do these proposals originate? First, cast a group of people as outsiders--and, speaking of the use of words in social warfare, there is no better term than "alien," with images of strange bulbous heads, green skin, eyes mounted on antennae, to dehumanize a group of human beings and cast them as strangers. Imagine that you can isolate yourself from these people, that you can draw a line of quarantine between insiders and outsiders, citizens and aliens. Then bring in the budget-cutting, antitax spirit of our times, and declare that society will no longer offer education to the children of those aliens. And then keep trying to imagine that society will be improved by setting up the conditions to produce a population of children-growing-into-adults who have been denied education and health care and who have no reason to feel anything but alienation and anger toward the majority and the ruling powers in that society.

It does seem to be a situation where the mandates of self-interest should set in fast. And yet a majority of California voters supported Proposition 187, defying their own self-interest and voluntarily creating a social dilemma from which they will find no refuge or quarantine down the road. You deny health care to a group; infectious diseases get a wonderful opportunity to get a foothold within a particular community; the infectious diseases then come back to afflict the native-born population. You can call this a boomerang effect, in which the majority of Californians throw out a missile that eventually will come back to hit them. But it seems to me that the boomerang metaphor is too gradual and indirect; Proposition 187's unhappy social effects would be so immediate and direct that it is much more a matter of the voters' picking up a boomerang and hitting themselves on the head with it.

These wars of words are full of down-to-earth consequence, full of peril for our common future. We are all of us, insiders and outsiders, long-term residents of the United States and recent arrivals, the descendants of immigrants who came a century ago and immigrants who came a year ago: we are all involved in a unit of common enterprise, tied into a unit of common destiny, that makes these distinctions of insiderhood and outsiderhood both deceptive and dangerous. Meanwhile, there are visible and well-funded forces out there, [End Page 459] actively engaged in talking people into this tizzy and whipping them into this frenzy. The challenge, for us, is to figure out how to talk people down from the tizzy and out of the frenzy.

Before going much farther, it is important to make one confession, so you do not have to waste your time figuring out if I really am as much of an anachronism, a period piece, a relic of ancient times as I seem to be sounding. I will say it directly, say the thing that President Clinton finds unsayable and unspeakable: I am a liberal--and not even a neo-liberal, but a paleoliberal. Worse, I am a white liberal who has been given more than her share of occasions when the dreams of white liberals seem to have been realized. The campaign that occupied ten years of my life, the revitalization of Western American studies, rested on a campaign for inclusiveness: without the work of Indian historians, Chicano and Chicana historians, African American historians, and Asian American historians, there would have been no renaissance for the once nearly comatose field of Western American history. Moreover, as associate director of the Minority Arts and Sciences Program at the University of Colorado, I have regular encounters with a program for the recruiting and retaining of students of color that, in daily practice, vindicates the hopes of the civil rights movement.

When I am hanging out at the MASP study center or contemplating the ways in which the old white-pioneer-centered approach to Western history had to yield its dominance and retire from centrality, then I am ready for what I think might be my final destiny: to be placed on display in a natural history museum as the happiest white liberal on the planet. I see this as a display modeled on the ones where the visitor sees a stuffed coyote, arrayed in a natural-looking posture in the midst of a glass-encased scene constructed to resemble the coyote's usual habitat. The wall copy, meanwhile, tells you that coyotes, while scorned by humans who often try very purposefully to get rid of them, are, in fact, superbly adapted to their environment and wonderfully enterprising creatures. So there I will sit, in my museum diorama, in some appropriately multicultural habitat, while the wall copy will explain that white liberals, though scorned by other humans who often tried very purposefully to get rid of them, were superbly adapted to a particular environment and, when left to their own devices and allowed to thrive on their own terms, white liberals, too, were wonderfully enterprising creatures.

This cheerful diorama would, in fact, mask an element of despair. When I was eighteen, I anticipated living in quite a different world [End Page 460] from the one I have ended up in. Contrary to my expectations, I teach in a mostly white department; I have mostly white classes; when I speak to public audiences, they are almost entirely composed of white people. And yet I still get to hear, in the national news, a chorus of people telling me that the cause of diversity has been pushed way too far in American life. This is not the way I thought it was going to be. This disparity between expectation and outcome is, to use the term of the Intensive Care Unit, really a heck of a thing--that is, it is a very bad situation on the far borders of remedy.

The difference between the 1990s as they materialized, and the 1990s as I anticipated and hoped for them, is astonishing, and almost blinding. As a teenager, I thought that the movement toward social and economic justice would continue uninterrupted into the future. I believed in progress, and I thought, in the 1960s, that I was watching progress unroll. I did not expect that this process would, at some rather immediate point, pick up and roll back the other way. I am perfectly willing to submit for consideration the possibility, maybe the probability, that my beliefs, thirty years ago, were naive, sentimental, insufficiently hardheaded in their recognition of power and its defenders, and thereby destined to fail.

It may be that what I am putting on tonight is one more performance in that play of many, many acts called "The Aging of the Baby Boomers." This is already a pretty entertaining play, but it is going to get more entertaining. As the generation that was planning not to trust anyone over thirty becomes fifty, and sixty, and seventy, the humor and irony are going to get very high-pitched. My own favorite question involves the problem posed for youth groups, who will be going to entertain the old folks in baby-boomer nursing homes. When I was a kid, we used to go to old folks homes to sing songs from the old people's youth, songs like "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree." Imagine, then, the nursing homes of 2020, and the church youth groups trying to entertain oldsters with choruses of "Let's Spend the Night Together," "Take Another Little Piece of My Heart," and "Light My Fire."

The disorientation of the baby boomers, as they move through time, has many components, and it is certainly a fruitful subject of study for the ASA. But the disorientation reaches its peak for me when I contemplate this fact: while I held to the same, familiar, white liberal course, the whole spectrum of American politics picked up and moved [End Page 461] under me. In the 1960s, I felt, appropriately and accurately, that I was timid and moderate in fairly embarrassing ways. I brooded and brooded before signing up on a membership list for the Santa Cruz Radical Union (acronym--SCRU). When I was a freshman, I went to an antiwar demonstration which involved shutting down the Central Services Building on the campus. That was fairly easily accomplished; the military-industrial complex did not seem to feel that its vital center was threatened when the secretaries could not get into the UCSC Registrar's office. But then one of the protest leaders came by our little group, holding its ground by one of the building's doors, and told us that the National Guard and the TAC squads might be on their way. If they came, he informed us, in something of an aside, one of their characteristic tactics was to step, hard, on the feet of protesters in order to break their arches. This was very disturbing news; I was wearing soft tennis shoes, and while I very much wanted the Vietnam War to end, I did not want my arches broken. So I took a break from the revolution, and went to put on heavier shoes. As I walked back to the dorm, I gave myself a longterm clue for later, hindsight reflection, that this must be the characteristic mark of liberals: they may want the oppression and injustice to end, but they are not entirely sure that they want to purchase this victory with their own smashed feet.

I have, all too fresh in the memory, a number of occasions on which I would have been embarrassed to admit to being a liberal, because it seemed to be an admission that I was timid, fearful, and sadly moderate. There are, in truth, a number of people in the ASA who make me feel that it is 1968 again and I am still on my same embarrassing liberal retreat, confessing my timidity by trudging back to the dorm to get heavier boots. But it is not the 1960s anymore. It is the 1990s, and Bill Clinton trembles to identify himself as a liberal--not because that will convict him of wimpiness and timidity (a conviction that would not be particularly hard for any prosecutor to achieve), but because admitting that he is a liberal will, in the eyes of the electorate, identify Clinton as dangerously left-wing. It is the 1990s, and the political ground has migrated out from under me. Now, on an improbable number of occasions, I find myself cast as if I represented the wild left wing of interpretation and thought. As I know better than anyone, if I have been attacked from time to time, as the voice of the leftward extreme of American intellectual life, then we are all in big trouble. [End Page 462]

Once I had an acquaintance who was summoned to jury duty in Boston. Everything got off to a bad start; it was a hot summer day and the air conditioning had broken down; the elevators weren't working; and by the time that he had climbed the stairs to the eighth floor, my acquaintance had just about had it. He headed over to a drinking fountain, and that, too, was not working.

"The way they treat us," he said to the man who happened to be standing next to the fountain, "you'd think we were the criminals."

"But I am a criminal," the man said.

Then, a few minutes later, they were in the courtroom, and the man standing by the drinking fountain turned out to be the defendant in the case.

"Has anyone ever had any contact with this man?" the judge asked the potential jurors, and my acquaintance felt that he had to say "Yes." The judge asked him to describe the contact, and he reported the drinking fountain conversation--"But I am a criminal." The judge then had to dismiss the whole pool of jurors, since they had just heard a very prejudicial remark.

Let me echo that confession--I am a liberal; I know that it should be time for me to be filed away in my Natural History Museum diorama; I know I should be out of date. Weirdly, in the 1990s, I am not.

In true liberal mode, I believe that, for all of our differences in the United States today, we share many common experiences. One of those experiences, absolutely astonishing in the range of people who share in it, involves going to Disneyland and being driven batty by that "National Brotherhood Week" ride in which multi-colored dolls wearing international costumes dance and bob and sing, "It's a Small, Small World." Regardless of ethnicity or individual self-definition, millions have taken this ride, and millions still shudder over the memory of that incredibly cloying, repetitive, dancing and bobbing, saccharine tribute to multiculturalism. In any gathering, there is guaranteed to be at least one person who took the Small Small World ride, had it break down, and sat there for eternity, hearing that unbearably sweet chorus repeat and repeat.

I bring up this miserable ride, fully aware that that tune is now lodged in your minds, and it will probably echo in your head for days, and fully aware that there is no reason for you to be forgiving about this. I bring it up in order to say that, while I am personally quite [End Page 463] cheerful on the subject of diversity and inclusiveness in the definition of insiders and outsiders in the United States, I am, though cheerful, not an idiot. If the Disney people ever consulted me, as a responsible American historian, I would recommend this revision to their ride: I would let the song continue (partly because shuddering over it has become such a remarkable element of our social glue, our common ground, our shared experience), but I would add a phrase to the song, and a little choreography to the multi-colored dolls' routine. "It's a Small Small World," they would sing, "But It's a Nasty One," and on that line the little dolls would all turn to their neighbors, kick at their shins, swing at their heads, and knock each other over. Yes, I am cheerful about diversity, but no, I am not inclined to fudge the very real facts of conflict, friction, and tension in the project of forming a whole out of so many diverse parts.

Now it is my conviction that scholars studying the United States in the past and the present have, in their hands, a number of the essential tools and devices that could lessen the heat and reduce the possible injuries from the war of words over insiders and outsiders in American life. What they have is the recognition, built into everything from the introductory American studies survey course to the most sophisticated and unintelligible professional scholarship, that you do not understand the United States until you acknowledge and reckon with all its pieces and parts. This recognition rests only partly on the not-so-reliable ground of altruism or empathy or good intentions, but, much more reliably, on intellectual necessity. This mandate for inclusivity is as fundamental in our work as it is in disciplines seemingly far removed from ours. Imagine, as a comparison to this intellectual necessity, a chemist, who undertook to study a particular chemical reaction, but who decided that she or he just did not like and was not interested in some of the chemicals playing a part in that reaction, and therefore wouldn't study them. Imagine a ecologist looking at an ecosystem, and deciding that she or he really found the study of soil tiresome and pointless, and thus would only look at the role of air and water. This exclusiveness would not make it in chemistry nor in ecology, and it is not any more successful in history, literature, fine arts, or cultural studies. In other words, built in to the scholarly agenda of American studies is a mandate that pushes us to a level above the usual categories of "insider" and "outsider," American and un-American. To understand this complicated nation, we have to look at all of the parts. If we do not [End Page 464] do so, we may or may not be bad people, but we are surely ineffective thinkers and investigators. This bedrock connection between inclusivity and understanding applies as clearly to makers of public policy as it does to scholars.

As one parable of things going awry in the translation of scholarly ideas into public conversation, consider a story that appeared in the Washington Post on 31 May 1994. A group called the Flight Safety Foundation has issued a report on the troubled relations between pilots and flight attendants. In a few cases, these troubled relations have been very dangerous indeed. In one instance, the Foundation said, "the captain reported over the public address system that he had a problem with the right engine. Although the attendants and passengers could see that [the] fire [was in] the left engine, they did nothing as the pilot shut down the wrong engine."

Here is the phrasing to which I would like to draw your attention: "Although cabin and flight deck crews share the same goals," the report said, "the two crews have evolved into two distinct cultures . . . " In this weird story, we have representatives of one culture who know which engine is on fire, and yet they will not share this information with the members of the other culture, even though everyone is on the same airplane.

In our times, developed nations may not be doing too well in industrial productivity, but their productivity in ethnogenesis is extraordinary. If only we could include new cultures and new ethnicities in the Gross National Product, the American GNP would gain a new vitality. Commercial flying has boomed only in the last four or five decades, and yet now we have the culture of the flight attendants, and the culture of the pilots, and, one assumes, the cultures of airplane mechanics, flight controllers, ticket agents, and baggage handlers. Should we now consider it to be a case of cross-cultural intermarriage, when, for instance, a flight attendant marries a ticket agent? What will become of the children, caught between these clashing cultures, pulled between the ethnicity hinged on the beverage cart and the ethnicity hinged on the seat assignment?

This is the most important element to note in this parable: the writers of the aviation report took it for granted that existing in a state of separate cultures meant existing in a state of friction or, at the least, misunderstanding. Pilots and flight attendants, the report said, giving examples of how these two cultures interact, "sometimes show animosity [End Page 465] toward one another, are often confused as to when to communicate problems, have little awareness of the other's duties in an emergency and sometimes don't even introduce themselves prior to a flight." One of the most significant events in the intellectual and social history of the last century was this: academics invented the concept of culture, and then completely lost control of it, and in its own way, this is one of our principal contributions to the escalation of the war of words over insiders and outsiders. On other occasions, we may complain about the gap between the university and the world at large, but this is not one of those occasions. The word "culture" has become something of a virus escaped from the lab, something of Frankenstein monster, defying its creators and exuberantly following its own agenda.

In the last thirty years, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians have written a great many articles trying to define the concepts of culture and ethnicity. To some degree, this is a matter of scholars struggling with other scholars over the meanings of key terms of inquiry. But there is another message to be heard in all these publications, a message of academics speaking to the general public and saying, "You bring that word 'culture' back, and bring it back right now. It's our term; it doesn't belong to you. You don't even know how to use it right, and if you're not careful, you'll hurt yourselves with it."

In truth, people have hurt themselves, and hurt their neighbors, with this word. "Culture" and "ethnicity" make very satisfactory verbal weapons, ways of erecting impermeable barriers and boundaries between insiders and outsiders. (Be warned, we are flying into another patch of thick "white liberal" fog here; flight attendants take your seats.) In the excitement of discovering how much there was to learn about the experiences of peoples formerly excluded from the historical record, we have backed away from any vision of common ground; we have, instead, divided American life into a set of experiences--Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish; male and female, heterosexual and homosexual; Indian, Anglo American, African American, Mexican American, Asian American.

For what were very good reasons, did we over-accent cultural differences? Did we, by virtue of that emphasis, unintentionally cut some of the ground out from under empathy, compassion, fellow feeling, and understanding? Might it be time to build some of that foundation back in, and, in the process, let our public and professional [End Page 466] behavior catch up to our scholarly understanding of the way in which all these groups have shaped, influenced, and remade each other?

Studies of the last ten or fifteen years accent mixture and mutual influence; they accent the ways in which people make choices that select from and synthesize a variety of cultural sources. Rather than rigid terms of purity, contemporary scholarship talks about flexible terms of biculturalism, of hybridity, of multiracialism, or transnationalism. And yet, while scholarship pursues the terms of mutual influence and reciprocal transformation, out in the world, we continue to hear a great deal more about separate destinies, separate cultures, separate and fragmented units of identity. Can we take this scholarly vision of interrelatedness, of our intertwined destinies, out into the world? Can we popularize an understanding of the proposition that, even if we wanted the people of the United States to have separate and pure identities and histories, we are about five hundred years too late for that purity?

A concern for purity means that we escalate the war of words over who qualifies as an insider and who qualifies as an outsider, both in the terms of ASA membership and United States citizenship. A concern for purity means that we take part in a conversation where we each, individually, speak with vigor, and listen with indifference. A concern for purity means that we give aid and comfort to the enemy, ratifying and enhancing divisions that make us ineffective and disunited on the occasions when our common goals most urgently require us to stand together.

While I recognize the unavoidable limits on our capacity to reach each other and know each other, I have come to fear that, in public conversation, the concept of culture has become more effective as a way of heightening the opaqueness of the surfaces we present to each other, a way of rendering ourselves even more mysterious to each other, even more baffling in our "otherness." As the story about the flight attendants and pilots shows, the concept of culture can become, not a route to understanding, but quite the opposite. It can become the way in which we explain why we cannot understand each other, and why we do not even care to try.

Our preoccupation with culture can, as well, betray us into fudging some very basic questions about power and economic dominance. One studies a particular group, and one highlights the ways in which that group--an ethnic group, a group of women, a group of workers--was [End Page 467] self-determining. This often involves noting and celebrating a series of cultural successes, by which these people have managed, despite the restrictions and constraints imposed on them, to maintain and redefine their family structures, their religious practices, their internal processes of self-governance, their forms of expression, and their sense of identity. In a book following this pattern, the chapters on family, religion, internal governance, ritual, art, literature, music, and cultural identity--chapters which compose the bulk of the book--are thus full of good news and cheerful outcomes. Sitting alone, and almost quarantined from the rest of the text, is the chapter on economics, in which it turns out that this group, for all its varieties of cultural self-maintenance, got trounced economically. Thus, with all our attentiveness to cultural self-determination, we obscure and evade the facts of power.

"Winning all the cultural battles, and losing the economic war," one of my students characterized this pattern. Culture becomes the consolation prize, the compensation awarded to offset and obscure the fact that one group took, from another group, the control of its land or its labor. We have become so ardent in addressing agency, in ferreting out all the ways in which a group of oppressed people were still managing and directing their own destiny, that we have nearly silenced ourselves when it comes to referring, by name, to the ways in which they were taken advantage of and overpowered. "Active agents, not passive victims" goes the formula, which unintentionally has proven to be a pretty good way to draw attention away from the agency, as well as the name and the responsibility, of those who exercised coercive power, at the expense of and to the injury of the culturally enriched, but economically ripped-off groups.

After the summer of 1996, I am very aware of one form of economic inequality, by which some of us are permitted to put up a much more effective fight against injury and illness than others. But I am also aware of death as the great equalizer; at a certain point, even the best-funded of health plans runs out of strategies for fighting death.

In late April of 1996, I gave a speech for the California Society of Archivists, which proved to be an occasion to reflect on the ways in which archivists devote themselves to the preservation of memory. Even when archivists are being drained by institutional irritations and obligations, they are still moored by their recognition of the fact that memory is the only defense human beings have against mortality. In that speech, I quoted the words of the archivist Andrea Hinding: "Acts [End Page 468] of memory stem from an individual and collective sense of time, which is ultimately a sense of our own mortality, that most profound biological and existential fact of human [life]."

I quoted this tribute to memory in late April, and then, two and a half months later, I sat there in the hospital in the company of my husband, and in the company of mortality. On July 20, memory and its absence were very much the topic of conversation, but in a manner about six or seven thousand times more immediate than it had been, a little while before, when I was speaking to the archivists. Experiences like this are supposed to change one's priorities and one's world view, and, indeed, in some ways they do. But this experience confirmed what I had always believed about our profession: whether we are literary critics or cultural critics, art historians or artless historians--we are finally and fundamentally engaged in a struggle against mortality. We are people determined to see that death does not erase our predecessors or our contemporaries, determined to see that death does not disconnect us from the life that proceeded us, the life that surrounds us, the life that will follow us. However sophisticated we may all become in the theories of postmodernism and relativism and the alternative constructions of truth, in all of our work there is this anchorage, the recognition that our concern with the past rests on a solid connection to what is permanent and lasting in the human soul. "And death," as Dylan Thomas said, "shall have no dominion"--as long as the American Studies Association has something to say about it.

It is a heck of a thing. We are in a war against mortality, and it is clear that we are losing. But we are also putting up a heck of a good fight. That is the central glory of the last two or three decades of American studies scholarship: many human beings who were doubly silenced, silenced by death, but silenced first by slavery, by conquest, poverty, or subordination, have been given voice again and restored to the attention and respect of the living. As the work presented at the ASA annual conference shows, memory is holding its own; our attention is sharpened by our residence along the all-too-insubstantial border that divides the living from the dead. Thanks to this massive, scholarly resistance effort, death's dominion is not the totalitarian empire it would otherwise be.

University of Colorado

Patricia Nelson Limerick is the associate director of the Minority Arts and Sciences Program and the chair of the board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado. She is the author of Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, and numerous essays and articles on the American West.


*Publisher's Note: See also
Going Public: Defining Public Culture(s) in the Americas:
Program of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, October 30-November 2, 1997, Washington, D.C.

http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/american_quarterly/v049/49.3limerick.html