Volume IV, Number 2, Fall 2008

"The Futures of American Studies – Edited by Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman" review by Richárd Hajdú

Richárd Hajdú graduated from the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary in 2008. His primary fields of interest are film and theatre production and criticism. E-mail:

The Futures of American Studies
Ed. by Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman
Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.
619 pp., ISBN 0-8223-2957-3

The prefix “re-” dominates the pages of The Futures of American Studies. This suggests that there is an enormous amount of research and critical practice standing behind the field of American Studies of the last decades. The present collection of articles selects some problematic areas of study and launches projects of “reconstellation, rereading, recontextualization, redefinition, reconstuction, reconstitution, replacement, resituation, recodification, rearticulaion” in order to update the Americanist standpoint(s) on a number of troubling issues. The collection edited by Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman has a critical attitude to the past and present of American Studies. The editors ask their academic fellows to stop at the beginning of the 21st century and reflect on the history and achievements of American Studies so far; to re-shape their views on the possible routes to better comprehend “the American experience” in the third millenium. However, it is clear at the very beginning of the collection that the editors’ ‘request’ was rather indirect: the majority of the articles are transcriptons of lectures held at recent conferences or published earlier.

At first, Pease and Wiegman provides us with a thick, somewhat lengthy introduction to their concept of future(s). They use Gene Wise’s “Paradigm Dramas” as a framework for their own standpoint. Wise’s text is analyzed in detail over a considerable number of pages. It is questionable whether the analysis of a text so well-known in American Studies is necessary in this collection. Either way, it clearly determines the scope of the upcoming 600 pages. The second half of the introduction distributes the 22 essays into 4 distinct groups. There are essays representing the comparativist, the differentialist, the counterhegemonic and the posthegemonic trends in current American Studies. By the comparativist concept Pease and Wiegman mean views that suggest significant transformations in the field. Differentialists, of course, reject the idea that the transformations mean a forward movement. Counterhegemonic standpoints “return to subaltern political pasts to materialize alternative futures,” while posthegemonists “disclose the ways in which those alternative futures install hegemonies of a different order.” By summarizing all articles, the editors they pretty often spoil the potential intellectual pleasure of exploring the new findings for ourselves: they see the articles from their own standpoint, which seems a bit awkward when they try to direct our attention by selecting those aspects of the articles which are essential to them. However, this part is also very interesting on a formal level. The organization of paragraphs seems problematic; the conclusion of a paragraph always appears as the introduction of the next. After a while, it becomes clear that Pease and Wiegman always identify some kind of a “blindspot” in the articles. Pease and Wiegman strongly recommend a constant reader’s response, a “filling in” while we are reading. Thus, the identified “blindspot” is “filled in” by the next article which deals with a topic, some way or another, similar to the previous article. Pease and Wiegman call the attention to especially those shortcomings that help them form their argument while “intellectually brave readers” are encouraged to find other possible “blindspots.”

The opening essay of the collection is Janice Radway’s presidential address “What’s in a Name?” This is the first in the Posthegemonic part of the book and deals with the current trends in American Studies: with issues of race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality. The essays highlights aspects of the American experience that “challenged the earlier consensus view” of the field. Radway is considering the question of a possible renaming of the field: have the current trends modified the academic arena to such an extent that the name American Studies became outdated? She suggests some possible new names and clearly describes the reasons for her choice but cannot, in her words, “in good faith argue for any of these against the others.” Nonetheless, she thinks the intellectual game was not unnecessary as it helped “to clarify what might be desirable in the future.”

Lisa Lowe’s “The International within the National” is an example of the essays dealing with issues of race and ethnicity. Lowe identifies a difference between the American perception of Anglo-European immigration (as the nation’s past and the racialized immigration in the post-1965 U.S.). She argues that racialized immigration is not a recent phenomenon (following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965) but has older roots in the earlier decades. Lowe examines one particular group of “racialized immigrants:” Asian Americans. In her detailed research question(s), she divides the essay into three main parts: Asian immigration is examined as a racial formation, an economic sign and an epistemological object. The part of the essay deals with the complicated workings of stereotypes. In the end, she opens up the research for the study of other racialized immigrants and, thus, calls for “cross-race and cross-national projects.”

José Esteban Munoz chose a quite typical title for his essay: “The Future in the Present.” However, the subtitle promises much more: “Sexual Avant-gardes and the Performance of Utopia.” The text is a journey to the heart of the NYC gay subculture. I decidedly call it simply a journey and not an intellectual one because the tone is overwhelmingly personal throughout the text. We can read about many different aspects of gay life from performances of outlaw sexuality to gay protests and riots, but the tone remains the same: Munoz feels like a leftist activist fighting for the rights of the NYC gay population. His standpoint is crowned in the Notes part where he calls one of his colleagues a “comrade.” Accordingly, as “a minoritarian citizen-subject,”, he does not even attempt to be PC towards the “majoritarian public sphere” and its prominent figure the “draconian mayor,” Rudy Giuliani.

Amy Kaplan writes superbly about “Manifest Domesticity,” the world of nineteenth-century novels by white women writers and its parallels with manifest destiny. According to Kaplan, women, at the center of the home, played a major role in “defining the contours of the nation and its shifting borders with the foreign” because domesticity, in these novels, played the key role in “imagining the nation as home.” The groundbreaking essay moves away from the typical division of the public and private spheres: so far, not much attention was paid to women’s involvement in national and international affairs in nineteenth-century America. Well-known and so far neglected literary works provide perfect examples of Kaplan’s analysis. This text is a must for almost everyone from feminists to political historians.

Donald E. Pease’s contribution is on a case study of C. L. R. James’s detainment in the 1950’s and his project on Moby-Dick entitled “C. L. R. James, Moby Dick and the Emergence of American Transnatioanlism.” James went against the almost universally accepted view that Moby-Dick should be read as the essence of American exceptionalism: this was the prototypical national narrative, an intellectual (and perhaps even a cultural) weapon against the USSR in the age of the Cold War. According to Pease, James’s work provides an “uncanny temporality” as James, the castaway from Trinidad, imagined his stay on Ellis Island as an “additional episode” in Moby-Dick. Pease masterfully sets the example for the other contributors how to weave past, present and future together. Towards the end of the article the following summarizes their relationship: “The Pequod represented what Ellis Island will have been, and Ellis Island constituted a memory of the Pequod coming from James’s political present.” Unlike in case of Munoz, for example, the radicalism is always indexed as James’s radicalism: Pease tries here to be as objective as possible.

“Postnationalism, Globalism, and the New American Studies” by John Carlos Rowe is the opening article of the comparativist section. Rowe in this short essay argues that the field’s obsession with women’s studies, ethnic studies, and postmodern and postcolonial theories is not a unique phenomenon: these are important influences coming from outside. According to him, this is a completely different era compared to the previous era, the age of American exceptionalism. One can read the article as an answer to Janice Radway’s text: if we are about to keep the name American Studies, we should take into consideration “at least the different nationalities, cultures, and languages of the Western hemisphere.” Instead of theorizing about the future of American Studies, one should pave the way to the new American Studies, “the critical study of the circulation of America as a commodity of the new cultural imperialism and the ways in which local and regional knowledges and arts have responded to cultural importations.” Rowe calls for a narrower scope of the field, warning that the present “intellectual anarchy” can easily lead to other anarchies: if Americanists do not clarify the definition of the filed by delineating the field itself, the field can only lose from its benefits.

Dana Heller’s “Salesman in Moscow” is particularly important in a Central-European, post-Communist culture like Hungary. Heller reflects on her stay in the post-1989 Russia as a visiting scholar and on her findings in connection with the different representations of America in her students’ essays. She is after mainly the cross-cultural relevance of A. Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which she boils down to the parallels between U. S. gangsters and the Russian mafia. For her “the future of American Studies will proceed from the effort to see ourselves as others see us.”

Winfried Fluck’s study “The Humanities in the Age of Expressive Individualism and Cultural Radicalism” does not really enrich our understanding of the future of American Studies. Even the title of his article calls our attention that not American Studies (a large area itself) but the humanities in general (an even greater terrain) will be his focus. Fluck argues that the earlier social importance of humanities has totally disappeared. It is replaced by a community of different scholars who do nothing else, in Fluck’s rather “radical” view, but “argue” with each other constantly over different readings of the same text, which makes his stance an interesting standpoint in the light the interdisciplinary nature of the American Studies field.

“Autobiographies of the Ex-White Men: Why Race Is Not a Social Construction” deals with racial issues without reflecting on considerations of gender. It can be seen by some as a shortcoming because nowadays work on race and gender is pretty often joined. The collection presents essays dealing with race and gender separately: the contributions on race gradually move in the direction of sociology, politics and ideology criticism. Walter Benn Michaels’s text is a lucidly argued essay on “crossing over” and “passing”, the strategies of the “ex-white men” and that of the “ex-colored men.” Using Sartre as an essential intellectual source and drawing parallels with the situation of Jews are, undoubtedly, the high points of the article.

Carl Gutiérrez-Jones has the task to close the chapter on comparativist views. “Color Blindness and Acting Out” is especially interesting to read after Walter B. Michales’s “Autobiographies:” it is the perfect example of what Fluck is talking about. Gutiérrez-Jones, at first, criticizes Michaels’ standpoint, reflecting on the previous article as well. His focus is on Michaels’s Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism which is a “rethinking of race and American literary modernism.” The race censorship advocated by Michaels is connected, in the end of the article, with white male anger expressed in films like Falling Down. One would not think that Fellini’s 8 ½ is relevant indeed in an argument like this but Gutiérrez-Jones finally manages to squeeze in this movie as well on the basis that Guido’s state of mind can be understood in parallel with that of D-Fens.

The Differential part of the book starts with Wiegman’s “Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity,” an extraordinarily well-informed essay on Forrest Gump. Three main formulations of whiteness are analyzed by Wiegman: whiteness as mobile class identification, as self-conscious becoming, and as the minority within itself. The reading list includes many different items from “race traitor” to essays on “white trash.” Most importantly maybe, Wiegman is not on Fluck’s opinion that the humanities provide nothing important to think about for the general public: in the editor’s opinion, scholarly work does indeed have huge social significance.

Dedicated to the memory of Toni Cade Bambara Lindon Barrett’s reading of The Hammer Man is included to satisfy many possible readers’ demand for essays both on race and gender. “Identities and Identity Studies” article draws on the findings of various feminists of color while analyzing the short story. For Barrett, the definitive issue in the text is “the dissociative intervention of ethnicity/race into the world of the narrator.” So, instead of interdisciplinarity the emphasis falls on intersectionality in this analysis of “a tripartite complex of subject-formation” in the short story.

Ricardo L. Ortíz’s “Hemispheric Vertigo: Cuba, Quebec and Other Provisional Reconfigurations of ‘Our’ New America(s)” is again a too personal, “too close” contribution in the manner of Munoz. The essay is on border crossings in the different senses of the word. The political crossings of the childhood from Mexico to L. A. are parallel with the sexual ones from Vermont to Quebec. The Cuban exile has become a “sexual exile:” Ortíz has to cross the border between Canada and the U. S. in order to participate immensely in a vivid gay subculture. The “fresh and light” article (which is badly needed in a collection of thick theoretical texts) also deals with a Gloria Estefan concert in Canada and calls our attention to a webpage (www.nuestramerica.com) which is a “clearinghouse of information about resources available and cultural events of interest to Montreal’s growing Latino population.”

Nancy Bentley in “Marriage as Treason: Polygamy, Nation, and the Novel” goes back to the 19th century with the polygamy crisis at the heart of the argument: this was the period when openly practiced Morman polygamy “threatened to rupture the domestic novel’s way of imagining an ideal conjoining of womanhood, family, and nation.” The well-researched article follows Kaplan’s argument, which says that there was a strong tie connecting the domestic and the public sphere, the domestic and global discourses of 19th century U. S. Hysteria and exoticizing imagery in connection with Mormon polygamy are also key terms in the analysis of polygamy and anti-polygamy novels by Bentley.

“Litigious Therapeutics: Recovering the Rights of Children” opens as if the topic was child abuse in general but it soon turns out that Gillian Brown is using it only as a metaphor. Going back to Locke’s and Paine’s political theory, Brown identifies 18th century Americans as victimized children of the imperial father figure. The Revolution and Paine’s writings on it are of primary interest in the article. Brown contrasts two standpoints of recovery therapeutics: while, according to early Americans, a change for the better, the recovery is in itself a strong inevitable potential (i. e. the Revolution functions “as a healing incision”), in other words, it is “the genealogical vision of the abuse recovery movement binds the child to an eternal past” (i.e. the constant repetition of the same past events is required by abuse therapeutics). Brown’s essay moves away pretty far from the scope of the collection: it is not clear from her argument what she means by past, present and future or by the new ways of research she envisions for a 21st century American Studies.

The Differential part of the book closes with William V. Spanos’ article “American Studies in the Age of the World Picture: Thinking the Question of Language.” The thick, philosophical argument runs for about thirty pages drawing on findings by Heidegger, Derrida, de Man, and Lyotard just to name a few. The post-Gulf War U.S. situation is analyzed in detail: Spanos is after the contradiction that the U. S., a country so much preoccupied with internal affairs, is globalizing the idea of liberal capitalist democracy. The question of language interests Spanos when he talks about the language “of the American authors of the memoranda of the Pentagon Papers” in a thought-provoking part of the essay on the parallels between Nazi Germany and the role of the U.S. in Vietnam. One thing becomes absolutely clear for anyone after reading the article: Spanos is deeply immersed in his readings of great philosophers and often lets the readers fall behind his web of references. Unfortunately, this lack of focus results in the troubling shortcoming of the text: one does not get to know what Spanos himself clearly means by the very creative promise mirrored in the title under the “age of the world picture.”

The contributors to the last part of the book on Counterhegemonic views are Michael Denning, George Lipsitz, Günter H. Lenz, Paul Lauter, Eric Cheyfitz and Russ Castronovo; they are all engaged with the intertwining issues of class and the academic institution. In a way, this is the least exciting chapter of the book: the issues of social class, cultural capital, the institution and the critique of ideology passim discussed before return again in the last six articles. Despite of this redundancy this is the most homogenous chapter: especially Cheyfitz does a lot to achieve this homogeneity. Cheyfitz – as Pease and Wiegman show it in the introduction – builds on a “conversation” between Denning and Lauter when formulating his argument: academic politics and concrete social action should be two different things. These six writers, however, emphasize different aspects of the problem discussed. Denning starts out from the different concepts of culture, Lipsitz is mainly interested in the machinery of the Popular Front; Lenz draws a parallel between the American Studies and British Cultural Studies and Lauter uses a case study of students’ protest to form his argument; Cheyfitz distinguishes cultural capital and capital in order to analyze the financial aspects of our academic life and Castronovo uses the World Wide Web in order to present the production of the corporatist citizen. Denning spends an unnecessarily long time with the presentation of different ideas in connection with culture. He cites various theoreticians enthusiastically, but succeeds only in drawing a concise review of sources; unfortunately, he does not explain the relevance of his readings to the futures of American Studies. That is why some readers may be surprised to find out in the end that this essay is based on the keynote address of the 1998 Darthmouth Institute conference on “The Futures of American Studies.” The point of Futures is made entire explicit in the very end of the book. Castronovo brilliantly brings together Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, our “dot com” present and the future birth of the corporatist, “international” citizen. The language is that of the business world throughout the article that aims to answer the question: “What do we make of the institutional and academic success of American Studies?” Castronovo takes seriously the editors’ suggestion to write about the intricately linked relationships of past, present, and future, all in relation with what we today call American Studies.

It is worth noting that the Futures collection presents articles almost exclusively by American scholars in the field. Some contributors do not live in the U. S., but the majority of them are from the United States of America. One counterexample is Heller’s Salesman, which attempts to present a “quasi-outside” view (especially important for many americanists living and working outside the U.S.) but this article makes its presence symptomatic. What about other American Studies scholars living outside the political borders of the U. S.? As a final twist, Pease and Wiegman allow a “dissident” voice to be heard in the collection. Dana D. Nelson is this voice and she does not agree with the intellectual basis of the project of the book. However, this gesture on behalf of Pease and Wiegman cannot conceal the fact that the vast majority of American Studies scholars (those not living in the U. S.) are virtually absent from the collection. Their opinion is also equally important in connection with the futures of the field, especially when American Studies is internationalized. I recommend everyone in the field of American Studies to study the collection thoroughly and rethink them critically. These “rethinkings” of the articles can be the ways to new articles and further views on the futures of American Studies.