American Studies and the Nation Form
English 537: Topics in American Studies:
American Studies and the Nation Form
In the early to mid-1990s, American studies was transformed by its encounter with post-colonial studies. Amy Kaplan’s essay on the decidedly belated quality of this encounter introduced the landmark anthology on the Cultures of U.S. Imperialism (1993), which more than any other publication, perhaps, at once announced and exemplified this transformation. What followed was an overdue, as well as extraordinarily generative reorientation of American Studies to the critique of the nation form that was -- as the name “American (sic) studies” implies -- foundational to this cross-disciplinary field. This reorientation entailed new-found attention to the (broadly Marxist) corpus of historiographic and theoretical work on nationalism, modernity, and race (e.g. Fanon, Hobsbawm, Nairn, Anderson, Balibar); a reconceptualization of the U.S. as settler-colonial nation-state (rather than simply emancipated British colony); and an emphasis on the ongoing imbrication of nationalism and imperialism, especially in the (so-called) “American Century.” Together, these elements comprise what is generally dubbed the “transnational turn,” a collective effort to defuse the exceptionalist paradigm, (re)insert the study of the U.S. within a global, comparative matrix, and relatedly, to dislodge this academic field from its implication in the discursive and institutional reproduction of the nation form. Some two decades after the publication of Cultures, however, it appears that “Transnational American Studies” has fostered its own celebratory and suspiciously progressivist narrative: American studies used to be nationalist (exceptionalist and parochial and complicit), but now it is post- or transnational (and no longer enmeshed in the above). This introduction to the field aims to revisit the long history of that turn, with an eye to foregrounding a series of questions that seem especially salient for American studies in the present historical moment:
• How do we think nationalism as a product of political modernity that serves both revolutionary change and the repression of such change?
• What is the historical role of cultural nationalisms in challenging state-sponsored nationalisms?
• If the study of a national culture, however critical, is always also implicated in the reproduction of a nationalist imaginary, does the “transnational turn” resolve this implication?
• Can American Studies as a field ever disburden itself of its organizing relation to the nation? Can we imagine a critical relation grounded in complicity, rather than exteriority?
• Does nationalism continue to be central to forms of state domination? To what extent is the critique of the nation-form within American studies coterminous with transformations in the form and function of the state – in effect, with the divorce of the nation-state couple?
While this course is not a survey of American studies, it is intended to orient participants to (some of) the major issues and methods of the filed since the 1950s. Our reading will encompass critical work on nationalism (Fanon, Anderson, Balibar, Chatterjee); Cold War Era American studies from the 1950s through the 1970s (Henry Nash Smith, Leslie Fiedler, Loren Baritz, Richard Slotkin, Sacvan Bercovitch, Carolyn Porter); a unit on American studies in the context of the 1980s “culture wars” (Jan Radway, Michael Warner, George Lipstiz, Eric Lott, Hortense Spillers, Robyn Wiegman); a unit on the work of (un)thinking the nation in the 1990s (selections from Cultures, American Studies Association presidential addresses by Mary Helen Washington and Jan Radway) ; and last but certainly not least, a capstone unit operating (at least for the moment) under the ungainly heading of “(Post)(Trans)National American Studies and its Discontents” (Djelal Kadir, Robyn Wiegman, Don Pease, Brent Edwards, Dilip Gaonkar, Ali Behdad, Jose Saldivar, Lisa Lowe, We