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Studies and the Age of Globalization
American Studies in an Age of Globalization
Freie Universität Berlin
There seems to be an increasing gap between the traditional concept of the university as a place of independent intellectual pursuit and the demand that it respond more adequately and more immediately to the needs of its social, economic, and technological environment. 1 It is most of all the structural unwieldiness of our universities that has called their usefulness into doubt. Might not the much-needed chemists, engineers, and computer specialists be educated faster and more efficiently elsewhere? Should not these clumsy institutions of public education function at least as efficiently as a business enterprise, since they seem to be exposed to the same forces that presently accelerate the restructuring of economic, financial, or political formations on a global scale? In Europe, where the universities are caught between nineteenth-century ideals and the realities of the twenty-first century, and where nationally divergent university traditions are under pressure to develop transnational (that is, European) structures, the American university appears to offer the only convenient model for implementing this otherwise hopeless project. In his book, The University in Ruins, William Reading has, with some irony, called this model "the university of 'excellence.'" Such a university, he argues, will become the locus of a predominantly technological training and will not be in the service of the nation any longer but in that of transnational corporations. [End Page 543]
Whether this will indeed be the future of European academia may be doubted: the inflexibility of its long-existing structures would seem to speak against it. But one can well see why; in an academic context changing along these lines, the humanities—and especially literary studies—have been steadily de-emphasized since they come under increasing pressure to prove their usefulness. "What good is literary study now in this new university without idea?" J. Hillis Miller publicly moaned not too long ago. "Can literary study still be defended as a socially useful part of college and university research and teaching, or is it just a vestigial remnant that will vanish as other media become more and more dominant in the new global society that is rapidly taking shape?" This loss of confidence in the legitimacy of literary study may well have contributed to what Miller calls "the self-destruction of the traditional literature departments as they shift to cultural studies" since it invited university bureaucracies to "gradually cut off the money in the name of financial stringency." 2 Another aspect of the fundamental changes (and very likely connected to them) is the radical questioning of the field's national foundation and the pressure to redefine English literature in global terms. "Departments of English like my own," Giles Gunn wrote in his introduction to PMLA's special number on "Globalizing Literary Studies," "have routinely redefined their responsibility as all the literatures written in English, forcing themselves to teach the writing of regions from Southeast Asia to Sub-Saharan Africa, from Canada to the Caribbean." 3
If this is the effect of globalization, then—at least in the eyes of some—it spells disaster for the traditional concept of the discipline as well as for its institutional organization. However, for others, like Stephen Greenblatt, the prospect of such reinvention and reorganization in the sign of the global is less depressing and, in addition to being an intellectual challenge, also evidence of the vitality of the field, of its ability to map new areas of research, generate new questions, and stimulate new interests and intellectual energies in a younger generation of scholars. "We can always imagine alternative ways of practicing our profession; indeed, we are continually called on to explore such alternatives," write Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn in Redrawing the Boundaries. "The very concept of the literary is itself continually renegotiated," and "continual refashioning is at the center of the profession of literary study: it is both a characteristic of the texts we study and a crucial means to keep those texts and our own critical practices from exhaustion and sterility." 4 [End Page 544]
Whether the conceptual and institutional changes that now affect English almost as much as American studies are desperate attempts to keep a sinking ship afloat or evidence of a "profession in the process of renewing itself" may be a matter of different generational perspectives, of individual temperament, and/or political conviction. 5 These changes have, in any case, affected especially those disciplines that derive their raison d'être from a concept of national identity and cultural coherence. How to study a national literature and culture transnationally, how to reconcile a national with a global view, is a burning issue for all disciplines similarly founded on the concept of nation; this is the first question I would like to address. My second question concerns itself with the study of literature after the "cultural turn." How can it be pursued within the context of a cultural study that increasingly defines itself in global terms? American studies lends itself to a discussion of such questions particularly well, since, being a relatively late addition to academia, it has been most vulnerable because it is least traditional and least self-assured and yet, precisely for that reason, also most open to a continual "refashioning" of its professional self-conception.
American studies has indeed always felt apprehensive about its rather shaky theoretical and methodological foundation as an academic discipline. The only answer to Henry Nash Smith's long-ago question concerning whether American studies can develop a method of its own has been the resounding lack of a convincing answer. It has, however, made a virtue of this seeming weakness and conceived of itself as still and always in a process of self-discovery and self-becoming. In fact, this openness may well be taken as proof of its vitality, of its ability to map new areas of research, to generate new questions, and to stimulate new interests and intellectual energies with a younger generation of scholars.
In this seeming ability to re-invent itself, American studies, from its beginnings, seems strangely tied to the object of its inquiries: by putting itself on the academic map, it has also created an academic discourse of (and on) America. Sacvan Bercovitch's interesting observation, that the rhetoric of the founding fathers of American studies in the 1930s and 1940s picks up, or even duplicates, the rhetoric of the founding fathers of American culture one hundred years earlier, also [End Page 545] points in this direction. For better or for worse, American studies not only studies America but creates, or rather reconstructs (and now deconstructs) "America" in its own discourse.
J. Hillis Miller suspects that "the rise of . . . American Studies" was part of an attempt "to create the unified national culture we do not in fact have." 6 This may be a hindsight truth. For the first generation of American studies scholars (mostly literary critics and historians), it was important to believe that there was enough of a genuinely American, i.e. non-European, culture to put its matters on the map of American academia against the colonial tradition and the overbearing vested interests of English or history departments. Since American studies emphasized the cultural reading of its primarily literary material, it anticipated by more than thirty years what Miller later called a sudden and "almost universal" shift in literary study from language "toward history, culture, society, institutions." 7 But if American studies has thus been the vanguard of developments that are now changing even the syllabi of tradition-minded English departments, it has also illustrated the diffusive dynamics of this shift. On the one hand, there is the permanent theoretical and methodological challenge of how to define and how to relate literary text and cultural context and on the other, there is the problem not only of how to define "culture" but how to define American culture specifically. These questions have persisted and the various answers they have provoked have greatly changed the field. During the last twenty or thirty years the aggressive professional self-projection as much as the intellectual brilliance of a new generation of Americanists has submitted the foundation of American studies to relentless critical scrutiny.
That the American studies movement and the formalist movement of the New Criticism developed more or less at the same time is surely no coincidence: they are a-positional as well as oppositional phenomena. Therefore, the first and second generations of American studies scholars, although ideologically at odds with the formalism of the New Critics, nevertheless used their strategies either to practice the close reading of the literary text as a form of cultural analysis or to recognize the text's cultural meaning in the analysis of its mythic structure. Looking back on this early phase of American studies, Leo Marx took a rather moderate stance on this much-maligned alliance between American studies and the methods of the New Criticism: "There was no reason, logical or pedagogical, to assume that such a formalist method [End Page 546] was irreconcilable with the study of the interplay between literary works and their societal and cultural contexts . . . F.O. Matthiessen, Perry Miller, and Henry [Nash] Smith were gifted close-reading critics." 8 So was Leo Marx himself, of course, as was Alan Trachtenberg—all scholars whose by now "classic" texts demonstrate the brilliance of this first and second generation of the American studies movement.
Although this so-called "Myth-and-Symbol-School" did not in fact glorify American myths (as some of its present detractors maintain) but analyzed their hegemonic power, it came under heavy critical fire by a younger generation of American studies scholars who suspected that even a critical focusing on mythic structures implied ideological complicity. Since the deeper life of American culture as embodied in its classical texts had been defined in terms of dominant myths, "new historicists" felt compelled to relocate, almost two decades later, the canonical texts of American literature in the very concrete world of American politics and social conflict. Yet even more severe seemed the shortcomings of an assumed correlation between textual and cultural unity that not only took the organic wholeness of the text for granted but also assumed an essential homogeneity of American culture that excluded everything outside the horizon of a predominantly white and male perspective. After the shattering experience of the Vietnam War, after decades of race conflict and the concomitant weakening of the dominant culture, this old holistic paradigm had become "inoperative" and was replaced by a cultural model that embraced heterogeneity. From then on, American studies was marked by what Robyn Wiegman has called the conscious "struggle to break apart the coherency of the field's object of study." 9
But were the founders of the American studies movement really chauvinists? "Yes" and "No." This ambivalence surely describes the dilemma of American studies, yet it has also provided critical energy to its further development. "No," because, as convinced leftists and democrats, their scholarship was directed against existing institutional structures within and outside academia, and "Yes," because they applied their discovery and critical reading of American literature to the creation of a "true," an essentially democratic, America. Their method, the cultural reading of literary texts, went hand in hand with their claim that the neglected American masterwork expressed the essence of American culture, that "America," as Sacvan Bercovitch put it, "was a [End Page 547] literary canon that embodied the national promise." 10 The structure of each work was organized around a set of thematic dualisms that dramatized the tragic conflicts of the democratic self as the mythic substance of American culture. This cultural substance was seen as a force at once removed from and subversive of society, resistant and "antagonist" but also somehow "representative:" "a world elsewhere" that was nevertheless a permanent resource of democratic consciousness.
This redefinition of "America" in terms of cultural de-hierarchization re-asserted the "progressive" political claims that had been part of American studies from the start. "The heart of American studies is the pursuit of what constitutes democratic culture," said Alice Kessler-Harris in what I think is the most precise definition of the radical heritage of an American studies movement 11 that had always aimed at having more than a purely academic agenda and that had always wanted to be more than just another professional organization since it was committed, as Günter Lenz recently wrote, "to reunite the 'scholar' and the 'citizen' in a truly democratic society." 12 That the "pursuit of what constitutes democratic culture" has to be seen as an ongoing process is self-evident. It must question again and again dominant notions of representativeness (including its own). It thus worked as a powerful dialectic that has moved American studies away from a concept of unified culture toward a "pluralization of cultural worlds" and to an increasing diversification of the field. 13 French theories (and their feminist and post-colonial variants) may have sharpened the tools of this process but its drive comes from this logic of subversive democracy that lies at the heart of American studies itself.
The result has been a Babel of rivaling voices, or, as others have argued, a Pentecostal democratization of academic speech. It was, in any case, a "triumph of theory" 14 marked by a sequence of short-lived booms of a variety of competing theories from reader-response criticism to the Marxism of the Frankfurt School, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, or cultural anthropology which frequently served to underpin the claims to "difference" of groups marked by a history of racial, ethnic, or sexual discrimination. That the fierceness of the struggle can also be explained by the very particular conditions of American academia, that, as Frank Lentricchia explained, "to become important in literary-critical circles in this country is to be perceived as being on the avant-garde edge of certain movements," is a matter that need not concern us here. 15 But, since American studies continued to be [End Page 548] understood as a cultural reading of mostly literary texts, the question of what such a reading implied in view of the new paradigm of cultural heterogeneity became of central importance.
Sacvan Bercovitch saw the various strands of the new American studies characterized by assumptions that show a heightened awareness of the centrality of text and text analysis. If anything, the new paradigm had increased the sense of textual complexity since the categories of cultural or historical analysis themselves had become textualized: "The text," he wrote, "has been invested with all the subtleties of historical process so that history may be understood through the subtleties of literary criticism," even though, in this new "close reading" of the cultural and social texture of the text, its specific literariness was no longer of any concern. 16 The assumption "that race and gender are formal principles of art, and therefore integral to textual analysis" became the basis of a multicultural approach to literature that has shaken the theoretical foundations of the old American studies perhaps more than anything else. It has, in any case, led one of its proponents to assert that it was time "to stop teaching 'American' literature." Not only were there many literatures expressive of, or addressed to, the needs of different groups of readers, there was also so much cultural diversity that the claim not only of a coherent national culture but also of one national literature appeared to be unfounded. 17
The "pluralization and heterogeneity, even the polyvocality" of American literature (or literatures) became fully apparent in Werner Sollors's and Marc Shell's multi-lingual anthology of American literature of a few years ago which contains literary texts in many foreign languages—texts that had been published in America, yet never became part of a collective memory or tradition. 18 (The more reason for American studies as a cultural reading of literature to become comparative on all levels in order to adequately fulfill its new responsibilities.) The comparative approach, for critics like John Carlos Rowe, José Saldívar, Carolyn Porter, and many others on both sides of the Atlantic, seemed to provide a way of finally transcending the much too narrow conceptual frame of an earlier American studies. 19 Accordingly, they developed models of postnational American studies that stress "'comparative American cultures' within the multiculture of the United States" and situate "domestic 'multiculturalism' within international, transnational, and potentially postnational contexts." (I shall return to this a little later.) [End Page 549]
This determination to transcend the national even beyond its multicultural re-definition has been a crucial point in all recent debates. Behind the eagerness to get away from a predominantly national perspective, one can easily detect the fear of continuing, in the name of the multicultural, the notion of an American "exceptionalism" one had hoped to overcome. As Gayatri Spivak observed, not only were the multicultural debates within the United States quite "parochial," even a multicultural America could still be seen as a model city upon a hill. 20 In addition, the insistence on difference and dissent as the true dynamics of American culture issues from the awareness that any conceptualization of cultural coherence might reintroduce elements of dominance and hierarchy. Although most proponents of a multicultural approach to American studies do not define "difference" in terms of origin or essence but see it as a result of dialogue and cultural interaction, they conceive of it nevertheless as primarily rooted in cultural resistance and dissent.
As an outside observer one might argue that the study of a culture (even if it sees itself as grounded in internal difference and fragmentation) cannot be based on a study of dissent alone—as much as one cannot recognize "otherness" without also recognizing elements of "sameness." After all, cultural diversity may well be the chief characteristic of a particular national culture, with Canada as a prime example. In addition, one could argue that the "different" or particular, whether on the local, national, or transnational level, is part and parcel of any comparative approach and that the idea of a particularly American difference has been a "cultural reality," a creative resource and powerful incentive to innovation in American culture from Whitman to William Carlos Williams and Langston Hughes, from Jackson Pollock to Gene Kelly. It is of course possible that this resource has exhausted itself and is now being replaced by a drive toward ethnic self-assertion. Yet even then I wonder whether this new sense of ethnic difference might not still be based on, or carried by, an encompassing sense of American distinctness. 21 Many of my American colleagues will suspect here the continuing pull of traditional ideological assumptions. Indeed, they might point to the logic of Janice Radway's playful and provocative suggestion of several years ago that American studies may have outlived its name since its dynamics have consistently pushed beyond the boundaries of discipline as well as of nation. Since the question of difference cannot be discussed any longer in terms of [End Page 550] biological, geographical, or cultural essentialisms, the focus of analysis should now be on the complex ways in which human beings are wrapped up in multiple, often conflicting discourses, practices, and institutions. 22
This position, it seems to me, is much to the point—although not completely, since, as Michael Kammen has remarked, "[t]he creation of compiled identities has been a highly significant aspect of Americanization as a social process." 23 Many proponents of the new American studies see human beings, on the one hand, as locally or metaphorically defined in terms of borderline (i.e. as formed by overlapping or conflicting cultures or discourses) and, on the other, as being part of transnational areas (the Caribbean, the American South, the American and Canadian West, Latin America or Africa) where cultures have clashed and interacted in a shared if antagonistic history. Although such an assumption certainly opens new perspectives and new areas of study, it ignores that between the local and the global there is still the "national" as a category requiring continuous analysis. To abandon the concept of the nation together with that of "America" in order to extricate the discipline from its ideological foundations eliminates a middle ground on which the United States must be studied as a distinctive collective entity (however heterogeneous or divided it may perceive itself to be) within a network of global or transnational interrelatedness.
In view of the constant push toward decentralization that has marked the field during the last twenty years, it comes as no surprise that, institutionally speaking, American studies, in a strict sense, has almost disappeared in the U.S.: like the legendary pelican it has sacrificed itself (in many cases quite consciously) for the benefit of its numerous off-spring. With some polemical exaggeration one might say that it regains visible existence only once a year when participants in the convention of the American Studies Association shed their identities as members of English, history, ethnic studies, African American studies, Chicano studies, Native American studies, popular culture studies, women's studies, gay studies, film studies, or performance studies departments or programs and out themselves as Americanists. Parallel to this interior diversification and subdivision of the field, there has been the continuous effort of transcending the national also by placing it within a larger organizational frame. About two years ago, the attempt to find an Archimedean point outside the position and perspective [End Page 551] of the national has logically led to the foundation of an International Association of American Studies, which aims at studying the United States in its relation to Latin America or its global interrelatedness to other cultures. Inside the European Association for American Studies, or rather parallel with it, we have CARR and, more recently, MESEA, which internationalizes what used to be (multi)ethnic American studies in its organizational structure as well as in its subject matter. 24
Will these diverse organizational initiatives eventually exhaust themselves and their overlapping membership by a duplication of fees and functions? Are we witnessing the self-deconstruction of a field or its conceptual and institutional "refashioning" under new global conditions? We are, indeed, in a rather paradoxical situation: on the one hand, the interest in American studies has been on the rise, as is apparent in the steadily increasing membership of American studies organizations all over the world. (By far the largest of these, by the way, is the Indian Association of American Studies with more than seven thousand members.) On the other hand, the sense of what American studies is or represents has become increasingly uncertain and diffuse. And, on the basis of the dynamics that have been at work during the last twenty years, there seems to be no logical end to its further diversification—short of a running out of funds, positions, or ideas.
To illustrate, let me briefly sketch Carolyn Porter's attempt to expand "the 'American' field" and thus to "fundamentally destabilize not only its boundaries but its norms." Porter is very much aware of what she calls the "extraordinary difficulty entailed in resisting the virtually gravitational force of 'America' as a foundational assumption" and therefore in need of a new conceptual frame for remapping a field that to her is "clearly no longer mappable" by any traditional paradigm. Therefore she turns to Chicano and Caribbean literary scholars like José Saldívar or Roberto Retamar whose "'America' is both plural and contestatory in its reference." What she seems to have in mind is what Saldívar calls "a place of hybridity and betweenness . . . composed of historically connected postcolonial spaces" 25 —borderlands "that reveal and renew cultural networks linking the Caribbean and Latin America to the North." 26 Thus it would be possible to [End Page 552] conceive of a "pan-American literary history" whose focus would not be the United States but the Cuban José Martí's "Our America" which offers "the promise of approaching America's literatures as the very opposite of the parochial or insulated or exceptional, without thereby assuming a global or imperialist perspective." The common ground of such a new discipline of comparative studies would be the shared history of a colonial past. "American studies would confront (at the least) a quadruple set of relations between (1) Europe and Latin America; (2) Latin America and North America; (3) North America and Europe; and (4) Africa and both Americas. The aim here would not be to expand American studies so as to incorporate the larger territory of the hemisphere but rather to grasp how the cultural, political, and economic relations between and within the Americas might work to reconstellate the field itself, reinflecting its questions in accord with a larger frame." 27
Porter knows quite well that her brave attempt to model a new comparative American studies, even if it were desirable, is difficult to realize given the present distribution of academic territory, especially since her model would have to be complemented by at least one other of similar scope focusing on U.S.-Asian relations. John Carlos Rowe therefore pleads for a "new intellectual regionalism" that would allow for considerable difference of emphasis according to specific local conditions, communal needs, or preferences. Yet since he is also aware that this might well lead to a new provincialism, he wants each local variant embedded in a "larger understanding of the United States in the comparative contexts of Western hemispheric and, finally, global study." 28 We are back at what I believe is an impossible redefinition of American studies as an at once locally decentralized and globally comprehensive field.
I know of course that such visions and revisions do not only issue from the methodological problems of a specific academic discipline. As Homi Bhabha and many others have pointed out, they may well be part of an ongoing global reorganization of knowledge. Yet apart from the fact that the inflexibility of academic institutions everywhere makes such a drastic revisioning of academic borderlines unlikely, there is also the very real danger of overextending the boundaries of the field—even if one admits that it would be as futile as it would be foolish trying to ascribe to American studies a clearly defined and compartmentalized territory of academic inquiry. The house of American studies, like James's house of fiction, has many windows— among them several, I [End Page 553] am sure, that are still hidden or unopened. I admit, however, that the diversification of the field and its diminishing disciplinary foundation worries me in view of the increasing pressure for proof of academic relevance and the inevitable fight for a decreasing number of positions foreseeable in the near future.
Therefore, I argue that if the ongoing redefinition of American studies implies a transgression of traditional boundaries on the one hand, it also demands a redrawing of boundaries on the other. The cultural and literary analysis of such vast and culturally diversified areas as Carolyn Porter and others have in mind runs the risk of promoting academic dilettantism, however well-intended and progressive it may be. Gayatri Spivak, although herself a proponent of transnational culture studies, calls such overextension "sanctioned ignorance," "now sanctioned more than ever by an invocation of 'globality' or 'hybridity.'" She sees the danger that studies of such global scope "become so diluted that all linguistic specificity or scholarly depth in the study of culture is [...] ignored." 29 In a slightly different context, Gunn and Greenblatt, too, remind us: "Each branch of literary studies is inherently ambitious, eager to extend its sphere of influence. But this ambition has its limits—due either to some inherent restraint (for example, some limit to the resources of energy, intelligence, and time) or to some feature in the larger organization of knowledge that presents an insurmountable resistance." 30
I would insist, therefore, that American studies should accept its name as its limitation and its boundary—that it cannot be a global and postcolonial, not even an international American studies in the sense of inter-American or intra-continental investigation, although these fields will increasingly become areas of fruitful cooperative research between individual scholars or groups of different fields and disciplines. What seems more immediately available (although this may purely be a matter of my own local positioning as a member of an institute for North American studies) is to do American studies as a comparative study of the U.S. and Canada—not in the spirit of quasi-colonial appropriation but with the expectation that the mutual mirroring of U.S. American and Canadian national experience and self-expression would be illuminating for an understanding of both.
Was Rob Kroes thus right when he asked some time ago (not without irony, to be sure) whether we would have in the future "transnational American studies in America" and "national American studies in Europe"? 31 In the special number of Cultural Critique that she edited in [End Page 554] the fall of 1998, Robyn Wiegman spoke of "The Futures of American Studies" with reference to its present de-centralized status—for her, the precondition for any future of American studies, be it in the plural or the singular. One could shift perspectives and argue that it is indeed entirely possible that American studies will have different faces all over the world, depending on diverse local or national interests, traditions, or historical experiences. If this sounds very much like another version of Rowe's "intellectual regionalism," one should keep in mind that the positioning of European—as, for that matter, of non-American scholars of American studies in general—differs from that of their American colleagues: they can look at the United States as an object of political, social, and cultural analysis without running the risk of being considered chauvinistic or parochial. Therefore they can and should make greater use of their outside-position by asking questions that their American colleagues could not, would not, or would no longer ask—questions concerning American particularities, continuities, and coherences but also questions concerning transatlantic relations, and the flow of cultural exchange, the creative appropriation and transformation of American culture. Or they might make use of the American discussion of such issues as gender or inter-cultural relations and apply them critically to as yet unquestioned essentialisms of their own culture. Paul Giles recently pleaded for the "radical aesthetization" or "virtualization" of American democratic values in order to use them deconstructively. "America is valuable not for what it might be in itself, but for the interference it creates in others . . . American studies might work as a virtual discipline, a means of disrupting the self-enclosing boundaries of other areas, whether academic disciplines or geographic territories, by its projections of dislocation and difference." 32 American studies has indeed always had that function—whether on essentialist or virtual grounds—of being a ferment of cultural change wherever it took roots: in post-war Germany as well as in post-wall Eastern Europe. Yet here, too, I perceive limits. Although the study of multiculturalism in Europe can profit immensely from a comparative approach and the expertise acquired in American studies, such studies as applied to one's own country cannot be done as American studies but require interdisciplinary cooperation.
Another way of making use of the new paradigm of the global, the transnational, or the postcolonial would be to raise the questions that it has generated without leaving the territory of American studies behind—that is, to do national American studies with a transnational [End Page 555] consciousness: postcolonial studies may in this case not expand the borders of our discipline but the horizon of our questioning. Thus the "mirror of the other" should prevent us from taking our own position as absolute—as much as it should remind us of the questions we did not ask. It should make us keep in mind that the study of American culture can have a national focus and a transnational perspective, since cultural identities are the result of complex cultural exchanges embedded in histories that extend beyond national borderlines. Being aware of this should not let us forget, however, that the categories of postcolonial studies ought to be put under scrutiny before they are applied to American studies: To what extent can minorities in the U.S. be considered victims of an interior colonialism or imperialism? Does it make sense to conceive of them as post-colonial? Are they really part of what Homi Bhabha calls "a growing transnational culture?" (Note his rather striking use of the singular here!) To what extent does the term "diaspora" really apply —even if we apply it only in a metaphorical sense? Isn't the "subaltern" in most cases also a willing participant? At the same time, it may be worthwhile to find out whether the temporality of "unsynchronic Nows" or the "temporal difference of the colonial space" (I am quoting Bhabha again) has any relevance when we discuss the processes of modernization, for instance, or the rise of literary modernism in the U.S. 33
Which brings me—at long last—to my second question concerning the pursuit of literary studies (for many of my colleagues from Southern and Eastern Europe still the core of what they consider American studies) in a field whose emphasis has shifted from literature to culture. In his recent reflections on American studies, Leo Marx noted with some surprise "what a diminished role literary study now has in American studies—and in the humanities generally" in comparison to when he started teaching it at Minnesota some fifty years ago. 34 But although the cultural dimension of a literary text has become more important than its literariness (its aesthetic function or constitution having become background murmur at best), the literary text has nevertheless kept a privileged status. In the eyes of John Carlos Rowe it is a "liminal region or 'borderzone' in which different cultures meet and negotiate their 'neighborhood'" or, as José Saldívar argues, where [End Page 556] global history and local knowledge overlap and interact. 35 For Spivak and Bhabha the postcolonial text acts as a mirror to the colonial tradition and its liberal interpreters—as a locus where identities are deconstructed and postcolonial subjectivity is tentatively acted out. "The study of world literature might be the study of the way in which cultures recognize themselves through their projections of 'otherness,'" says Bhabha; Spivak insists that literature "remains singular and unverifiable." 36 But why literature should be thus privileged is not reflected by either one of them. Sacvan Bercovitch does this in a recent essay appropriately called: "The Function of the Literary in a Time of Cultural Studies." 37 He places literary study in a territory between disciplines—and yet not in a field of "inter-" but of "counter-disciplinarity" because it draws for its analysis on disciplines whose abstractions and certainties add to our understanding of the literary text, although they are at the same time undermined by the text's concrete particularities. The "as if" of fiction allows for its projecting a world that exists of its own right and on its own conditions. Referring to the famous lynching scene in Faulkner's Light in August, Bercovitch argues:
To explicate the scene without reference to issues of sex, race, gender, and American violence would be to drain the passage of its aesthetic force (ambiguity, complexity, defamiliarization, chiasmus, etc.). Formalist explication itself requires us here to draw on disciplines called history, sociology, etc. But we need not authorize these as textual explanations. Instead we can see them in the as-if light of the text. They are abstractions whose meaning depends on the facts of this fiction. (77)
He then confronts what he calls the troubling issue for all literary critics engaged in cultural studies: "What can we say about matters that concern (say) sociology that sociologists can't say as well, or better?" And he answers:
[A] literary-cultural perspective can open up sociology as a cognitive system by investing its abstractions with the malleability, the ungroundedness of literary evidence. For this analytic occasion, suspending sociology's beliefs, we take the fictive for our measure of truth. The insights we gain thereby about race, sexuality, class, and national rituals function as a mode of inquiry. (77)
The as-if truth of fiction is a truth not of rule, norm, or abstraction but of uncertainty and "not-knowing," a truth that is embedded in the text's many layers of meaning (often contradictory, resisting hierarchy), a [End Page 557] truth, in any case, beyond discipline but within culture. Literary study, thus conceived as "counterdisciplinarity," can "contribute to the overall project of cultural studies by insisting through negation that we are always already more than our culture tells us we are, just as language is more than a discipline and just as a literary text is more than the sum of the explanations, solutions, probabilities, and abstractions that it accumulates as it travels across time and space." (82)
Bercovitch sees the aesthetic as given with the ontological status of fiction and its power as consisting in the richness of the conflicting cultural implications it contains in layer upon layer. One could take the matter of the aesthetic still further, however. I have argued elsewhere for the reinstatement of the aesthetic as a discourse not separate from or against American studies as cultural studies but very much within it. 38 Such redefinition would have to give account of a fundamental plurality of aesthetic production and reception, of different and rivalling aesthetics, i.e. of aesthetics different in purpose, use, and function at different historical moments or for different social groups. Such reconceptualizing of the aesthetic would need to be highly inclusive and thus also highly inconclusive, since it could never provide more than tentative answers, and whatever "certainties" it propagated would have to be constantly questioned and renegotiated.
In conclusion, let me try to bring the different elements of my argument together and make it more particular. I come back to Homi Bhabha's "temporal difference of the colonial space" and apply it to the rise of American literary modernism. Whether such application makes sense is, of course, debatable. After all, the United States conceived of itself, economically and technologically, as the vanguard of modernization. By the turn of the century, it had colonized its West and, in foreign policy, had joined the league of imperialist powers. Culturally, however, it was still colonially dependent on European, especially English, culture. Writers like William Carlos Williams or Hart Crane and painters like Charles Sheeler or Charles Demuth were engaged in what one might call a postcolonial search for a genuine national expression—an expression that would have to be called "modern" since, as Gertrude Stein argued, America had entered the twentieth century earlier than any other nation. Whatever these artists learned from the artistic revolution of the European avant-gardes they translated and [End Page 558] absorbed into an intellectual tradition of Emersonian new beginnings. In the eyes of European critics their innovations seemed provincial, if not imitative—homemade or self-made ("not in Greek and Latin but with bare hands" as Williams wrote). Williams and others attempted to uncover a buried original culture beyond the colonial mind-set of the Anglo-Saxon—the original "newness" of the continent, its lost Indian heritage, the democratic dignity of everyday objects and of common people. As a black echo to this white modernist movement, the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s (and after) explored possibilities of giving aesthetic expression to black experience in a black idiom—against, but also within, the frame of white modernism ("to beat barbaric beauty out of a white frame" as Claude McKay phrased it in Home to Harlem). If the Europeans tended to look down on the provincialism of American modernists, the American avant-garde did the same with respect to their black colleagues and their "Negro stuff," although they also longed for what they considered the expressive power of an original, a "primitive" vitality. Modernism's discovery of the 'primitive,' so conveniently made evident in Picasso's use of African masks in his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907, gained special poignancy in the U.S. where the avant-garde's putting on the mask of the "primitive" had different implications than in Europe since a long national history of racism had established a cultural tradition of racial stereotype and mimicry. The attempt of American modernists to help create a culture that went beyond the cultural tradition of the Anglo-Saxon and to re-conceive the United States "as something other than a white nation" thus made confusions between the fantasized image of primitive life and the actually existing other inevitable. 39 At the same time, it was precisely the modernists' fascination with the "primitive" that opened a historic window for creating an African-American literature that we have by now learned to understand as a genuine contribution to American modernist culture. 40 Many artists of the Harlem Renaissance became painfully aware that this "window" was a treacherous gift, since it provided a frame of predominantly white expectations of what black writing should be. It nevertheless led to an artistic reinvention (and translation into writing) of the rich inheritance of black oral culture.
Both modernisms, white and black, are curiously linked in their similarity of purpose as well as in their difference. Since the postcolonial self-assertion of black art vis-à-vis a dominant white art must itself be seen as placed within the larger frame of American modernism's [End Page 559] postcolonial self-assertion vis-à-vis Europe's cultural dominance, they both share the search for a medium that would be artistically innovative as well as democratic and home-grown. Although they are each rooted in fundamentally different social experiences and cultural traditions, they nevertheless mark, in their antagonistic yet complementary doubleness, a distinctly different American modernism.
We can make this question of belatedness even more interesting if we attempt to think of it in terms of a North American modernism and add a Canadian dimension to it. Robert Kroetsch once proposed the idea that Canadian literature skipped modernism altogether and moved, in the 1960s and 1970s, directly from Victorianism to postmodernism. 41 I would argue, however, that what he took for postmodernism was, at least in its early phase, a specifically Canadian mode of modernism, and that the moderately modernist experimentalism of writers like Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, or Rudy Wiebe went hand in hand with the short foundational period of a national Canadian literature that could in fact be called a "Canadian Renaissance." It turned out to be a very brief period of transition since the emphasis on the modern and the national almost immediately gave way to a de-centralizing impulse that foregrounded the regional, the post-modern, the multicultural, and postcolonial. A case in point is the urban cultural space of Montreal where the traditional bi-cultural opposition between Anglos and Quebecois came to include the literature of different ethnic groups (recent immigrants from the Caribbean, Pakistan, India, or Latin America) written, in most cases, either in English or in French. The writers of these texts not only define themselves and their cultures as postcolonial, but they press for a definition of Canadian literature in terms of the national and— perhaps even as— the postcolonial. How these different ethnic literatures relate to and interact with those across the U.S.-Canadian border regionally as well as nationally, are questions interesting precisely because they force us to combine a conceptual frame of transnational interconnectedness with a knowledge of regional and national divergences.
Heinz Ickstadt, professor of American literature at the John F. Kennedy Institut für Nordamerikastudien, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. He was President of the German Association of American Studies (GAAS), 1990-93, and of the European Association of American Studies (EAAS), 1996-2000. His most recent book is Faces of Fiction: Essays on American Literature and Culture from the Jacksonian Period to Postmodernity.
1. This lecture was delivered at the bi-annual conference of the European Association for American Studies at Bordeaux, March 22-25, 2002. [End Page 560]
2. J. Hillis Miller, "Literary and Cultural Studies in the Transnational University" in John Carlos Rowe, ed., "Culture" and the Problem of the Disciplines (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1998), 45-69. For the reference to William Reading see ibid., 45.
3. Giles Gunn, "Introduction: Globalizing Literary Studies," PMLA 11 (Jan. 2001): 16-31, esp. 18.
4. "Introduction" in Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn, eds., Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies (New York: The Modern Language Association, 1992), 1-11, esp. 7, 5.
5. Ibid., 1.
6. Miller, "Literary and Cultural Studies," 59.
7. J. Hillis Miller, "Presidential Address 1986. The Triumph of Theory, the Resistance to Reading, and the Question of Material Base," PMLA 102 (1987): 283.
8. Leo Marx, "Reflections on American Studies, Minnesota, and the 1950s," American Studies 40 (summer 1999): 39-51, esp. 40-41.
9. Robyn Wiegman, "Introduction: The Futures of American Studies," Cultural Critique 40 (fall 1998): 5-9.
10. The Rites of Assent: Transformation in the Symbolic Construction of America (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), 363.
11. See Alice Kessler-Harris's presidential address at the 1991 ASA annual meeting, American Quarterly 44 (Sept. 1992): 310.
12. Günter Lenz, "Periodization and American Studies" in Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. George T. Kurian, Miles Orvell, Johnella E. Butler, and Jay Mechling (New York: Grolier Educational, 2001), vol. 3: 293-96, esp. 293.
13. See Winfried Fluck, "American Studies—Möglichkeiten und Probleme einer kulturwissenschaftlich orientierten Literaturwissenschaft," Anglistentag 1990, ed. C. Uhlig/ R. Zimmermann (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1991), 7-18.
14. See Sacvan Bercovitch, "The Problem of Ideology in a Time of Consensus" in The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America (New York: Routledge, 1993), 355; and J. Hillis Miller, "Presidential Address 1986."
15. As qtd. in David Lodge, After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), 181. See also Winfried Fluck, "The Americanization of Literary Studies," American Studies International 28 (Oct. 1999): 9-21.
16. Bercovitz, "Problem of Ideology," 361.
17. Gregory Jay, "The End of 'American' Literature: Toward a Multicultural Practice," College English 53 (Mar. 1991): 264-81.
18. Marc Shell and Werner Sollors, eds., The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature (New York: New York Univ. Press, 2000); and Werner Sollors, ed., Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and Languages of American Literature (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1998).
19. See John Carlos Rowe, "A Future for 'American Studies': The Comparative U.S. Cultures Model" in American Studies in Germany, ed. Günter Lenz/Klaus Milich (Frankfurt: Campus, 1995), and "Post-Nationalism, Globalism, and the New American Studies," Cultural Critique 40 (fall 1998): 11-27; José Saldívar, The Dialectics of Our America: Genealogy, Cultural Critique, and Literary History (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1991), and Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 1997); Carolyn Porter, "What We Know That We Don't Know: Remapping American Literary Studies," American Literary History 6 (fall 1994): 467-526; Günter Lenz, "Transnational American Studies: Negotiating Multicultural Identities, Communities, and Border Discourses in Cultures of Difference," Annals of Scholarship 12 (fall/winter 1998): 139-67, and "Toward a Dialogics of International American Culture Studies: Transnationality, Border Discourses, [End Page 561] and Public Culture(s)," Amerikastudien/American Studies 44 (spring 1999): 5-23; Paul Giles, "Virtual Americas: The Internationalization of American Studies and the Ideology of Exchange," American Quarterly 50 (Sept. 1998): 523-47.
20. As qtd. in D. Ramakrishna, "Crossing Boundaries: American Literature in the New Millennium" in Rediscovering America: American Studies in the New Century, ed. Kousar J. Azam (New Delhi: South Asian Pub., 2001), 76-85, esp. 79.
21. The latter may be latent, however, and emerge only in moments generally experienced as a "national" crisis—as became apparent in the wake of September 11.
22. Janice Radway, "What's in a Name? Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, 20 November, 1998" American Quarterly 51 (Mar. 1999): 1-32.
23. Michael Kammen, "The Problem of American Exceptionalism: A Reconsideration" in In the Past Lane: Historical Perspectives on American Culture (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998), 169-98, esp. 195.
24. MESEA, the Society for Multi-Ethnic Studies: Europe and the Americas, was founded in June 2000 as a successor to MELUS Europe. CAAR, the Collegium for African American Research, was founded several years earlier by European and American scholars to provide a forum for interdisciplinary research in African American studies.
25. Saldívar, Dialectics in America, 153.
26. Porter, Remapping American Literary Studies, 468.
27. Ibid., 510.
28. Rowe, "A Future for 'American Studies,'" 21.
29. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999), 164, 170.
30. Gunn and Greenblatt, Redrawing, 6.
31. Rob Kroes, "National American Studies in Europe, Transnational American Studies in America?" in American Studies in Germany, ed. Lenz and Milich, 147-58.
32. Giles, "Virtual Americas," 544ff.
33. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 174 and 244ff.
34. Marx, "Reflections," 40.
35. Rowe, "A Future for 'American Studies,'" 271. Saldívar, Dialectics of America.
36. Bhaba, Location, 12. Spivak, A Critique, 174.
37. Rowe, ed., "Culture" and the Problem of the Disciplines, 69-86.
38. Heinz Ickstadt, "Toward a Pluralist Aesthetics" in Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age, ed. Emory Elliott, Louis Freitas Caton, and Jeffrey Rhyne (Cambridge: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), 263-78; see also Winfried Fluck's incisive essay an the problematic relation between aesthetics and cultural studies in ibid., 79-104.
39. The phrase is George Hutchinson's; see Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995), 446.
40. On the relation of American modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, see among many others: Michael North, The Dialect of Modernism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994); Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White; Susan Gubar, Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (Oxford:: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997); Sieglinde Lemke, Primitivist Modernism: Black Culture and the Origins of Transatlantic Modernism (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998).
41. "Canadian literature evolved directly from Victorian into Postmodern," Robert Kroetsch, "A Canadian Issue," boundary 2, 3 (fall 1975): 1.