Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 13. Nr. August 2002

Transnationality in American Studies of Today

Views of an Outsider

Elena Apenko (St. Petersburg)

American Studies programs appeared in U.S. universities in the 1930s. Literature and History Departments established these programs as an attempt to overcome a traditional academic preference for European literature and culture studies. It was a form of cultural self-reflection. "What is an American?" has remained a persistent existential question not only of the discipline, but also of all U.S. culture and ideology since the last decade of the 18th century, when it was first raised by Jean de Crevecoeur, who in those early days presented a primary version of a possible answer. Since then, philosophers, writers, historians, politicians, etc. have been providing answers, and it became obvious that a special academic program was a necessity.

At first relatively few faculty members were involved in the subject, mainly literary scholars and historians. They were the ones who first formulated and practiced an interdisciplinary approach, which has remained one of the strongest points of the field. Indeed, over the years the number of disciplines participating has increased.

During the formative years American Studies were constantly looking for methodology to employ. The initial intention seems simple now, but it sounded revolutionary to those who first introduced it: to regard "culture" as a unity of high and low, of art and everyday life, and to use works of literature as manifestations of culture thus understood. One of the most famous books of the period was Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950). It provided the name for a research method and for the school of American Studies in the 1950s and 1960s.

The holistic concept of culture made it possible to develop a methodological basis that guided the diverging and converging lines of the developing discipline within the changing sociological concepts defining the American nation: from the original "Melting Pot" to the present "Diversity and Multiculturalism." American Studies were constantly concerned with defining "the American character," with the exploration of "America" itself. At the same time they engaged in a process of methodological self-definition and self-justification.

This self-reflective function stayed immanent, but it was soon backed up by self-explanation. The U.S. government recognized the discipline's potential for augmenting foreign policy and began supporting and promoting American Studies abroad. Thus the ideological substance of American Studies was greatly emphasized. The "Myth-and-Symbol School" treated and interpreted democracy as an essential part of American civilization that was to be revealed and examined. This may be seen clearly in another canonical book, Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964). Decades later, in 1991, Alise Kessler-Harris, then president of the American Studies Association (ASA), stated in her address at the annual meeting that "the heart of American Studies is the pursuit of what constitutes democratic culture."(1)

Now we are approaching the problem of communicative relevance and can see the potential of language for transforming structures and meanings. The goal of American Studies may thus be understood as tainted by the ideology of American exceptionalism, when "national" becomes synonymous with "nationalist," and when U.S. culture is viewed as the best democratic culture. At the same time we can approach the formula from a nearly opposite perspective, if American Studies are seen as a result of applying a methodology that may help to understand what "democratic culture" in general is.

A variety of possible "readings" becomes obvious and extremely significant when we focus our attention on American Studies in Europe, where the idea of American Studies was implanted after World War II. But it appeared that the subject was to be adapted to a different situation. Some of the European founding fathers hoped they were creating a mere branch of the American Studies Association that would practice the same principles and approaches. Others aimed at a transnational enterprise, reflecting the different national identities within Europe.

The latter approach became dominant, but diverse practices within it revealed a tendency for further splitting. Some scholars strove to create a kind of European mirror for the Americans, while others, like the Dutch scholar Rob Kroes, stressed that research needed to focus on the transmission and reception of American culture as well as on its adoption and adaptation abroad, namely, in Europe.

By now works by both American and European scholars have a distinct tendency to question the concept of geographic and conceptual boundaries, problematizing notions of opposing relationships of traditionally separate fields of study, and trying to perceive and grasp some basic processes in the development of American culture. There is an important variety in what is considered to be "basic," in what is viewed as separate fields, and, most significant, a shift in understanding what "American culture" itself is.

In the early 1980s different minority and ethnic groups within American society began presenting their conceptions of America and its cultural constructions, and American Studies responded to the new reality. Scholars redefined many concepts, including national identity and national history, among others. They also changed their attitude towards culture and viewed it as an authentic expression of experience, perception and beliefs, not only of some dominant groups, but also of those people who had been "invisible" and thus neglected by society for many years. In other words, cultural forms were again used for political self-expression.

It was then that the very idea of American Studies became the core of the debates on both sides of the Atlantic. The idea of multiculturalism was applied to the ethnic situation in the U.S.A., and the so-called "new" American Studies were born. The results were varied and decisive. Some new associations appeared, the most important among them being MELUS - Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.

Diversity with respect to class, race and gender undermined the traditional ideas of a homogeneous cultural canon and made way for a vision of culture characterized by multiformity and heterogeneity. American Studies came to be regarded as a form of comparative studies. Postmodernist new historicism together with a deconstructive strategy of reading contributed greatly to creating a mess. Constant debates and speculations were carried on in new attempts to define or redefine the major principles and perspectives of American Studies.(2)

That was the period when European Americanists paid special attention to positioning themselves and understanding the transcultural goals of their activities. One of the most characteristic results of their efforts is the collection of essays entitled Through the Cultural Looking Glass: American Studies in Transcultural Perspective, published in 1999 in the series "European Contributions to American Studies." Additional evidence of the growing attention to transculturality is the name change of the European Society from The Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS Europe) to MESEA (Society for Multy-Ethnic Studies: Europe and the Americas). The change of name reveals the desire of European scholars for independence and a broader scope of research.

In their debates nearly all scholars seem to treat the idea of "culture" in anthropological terms. P. Bourdieu's idea that the field of cultural production is homological to the global field of economic and political power seems to be generally accepted. Primary attention is paid to ontological and ethical truths. The aesthetic substance of cultural production seems to attract much less attention, maybe because indulgence in reflections in terms of absolutes is supposed to be repressive, while denial of universal values is viewed as decisive for a concept of national culture. But if we look even briefly upon some of the models used to explore the multicultural situation in the U.S., we can easily see a generalizing aesthetic framework.

Paul Lauter's concept of "the literatures in America" was utilized more than a decade ago in the famous "Heath Anthology of American Literature" (1990), which inaugurated a new era of American Studies. He was one of the first who wanted to replace the limited canon of "major writers" by a presentation of ethnically diverse cultural practices: "It allows us to study the diverse and changing cultures of America, not only a narrow group of authors."(3) He tried, for example, to read the first Black American novels not within the great tradition of European and American fiction but through what he defined as the major influences on them - slave narratives and the African-American oral tradition. He thus acknowledged the heterogeneity of "cultures" in the U.S.A. and stressed the differences in their historical development. But as his main point is to see "differences" and "resemblances," the idea of "world literature" as an ideal whole still underlies the construction and inevitably injects some notions of transculturality.

Great desire to reevaluate tradition may be seen in books of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. This prominent scholar has articulated a theory of the black cultural tradition as a separate system. He has also stressed the point that "much of the African-American literary tradition can be read as successive attempts to create a new narrative space for representing the recurring referent of African-American literature, the so-called Black Experience."(4) He shows that the Black tradition has hermeneutical and rhetorical systems of its own. Gates' aim was to prove the irrelevance of Eurocentricity, and he succeeded. But comparison of some aspects of these black structures of meaning with those of the Western tradition reveals some striking similarities and parallels.

Gates is one if those few who want to modify not only the ontological, but also the aesthetic substance of studying Black American writings. For this purpose, in his book The Signifying Monkey he uses Russian term "skaz," translated as speakerly text, "an oral book," as one of the tools in his analysis. It proves to be productive, when dealing with some important tropes of the black tradition from the 17th century to the present. What is important, however, is that Russian formalists introduced the term to characterize some peculiarities of the Russian literary and cultural tradition. The matter of race hegemony helps in a new situation to explore different textual traditions as related within a more general historical context and critical discourse of multiculturality. It again brings us back to the idea of some general, transcultural principles of poetics that are relevant in different cultural traditions.

Here we see another case of the interaction between cultural tradition and language. The word "Eurocentric" is identified with "western," or "universal." From that point of view American multiculturalism appears to be a part of much broader tendency when, in order to overcome historical interaction, we now start speaking of "global multiculturalism." Again, language reflects the ideological situation. "Global" substitutes for "Universal" when, in fact, we are speaking about "transnationalism."

Mary Louise Pratt's adaptation of her linguistic model, called "Arts of the Contact Zone," may appear to be most productive for American Studies. She is one of those scholars who want to find logic, "codes" and language for a new multiculturalism. She defines "contact zones" as "social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of high asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery or their aftermath, as they are lived out in many parts of the world today."(5) "Contact zone" is a multilingual and multicultural space. But one may say that the contact itself becomes possible only if we have some notions as a common starting point. "Contact zone" exploration reveals several major themes - self-identity, otherness, displacement, etc. - which are not only common to all cultures within any multicultural reality, but are also easily considered as "eternal," transcultural and transnational.

We may say that, if viewed in terms of their rhetoric, these works reveal transnational to be inevitable in conceptualizing reality and transcultural interaction. This, to my mind, creates a methodological gap in multiculturalism as it has been practiced: while speaking about things common to humanity in general, it emphasizes the differences to the point of denying similarities. The fact that multiculturalism itself works with transnationalism or globalism, revealing the ontological unity of human life and showing the recurrence of "themes" common to different cultural practices and narrative discourses, was acknowledged only recently and mainly in Europe. That led to the development of the idea of transculturalism - especially in European American Studies.

The use of transnationalism restores an aesthetic approach to American Studies. Scholars have returned to an analysis of narrative tropes and other elements of discursive practices but from a new transcultural perspective.

© Elena Apenko (St. Petersburg)

TRANSINST        table of contents: No.13


(1) American Quarterly, 44 (September 1992): 310.

(2) See, for example: Lenz, Gunter: "Multicultural Critique and the New American Sudies," in: Bak, Hans: ed., Multiculturalism and the Canon of American Culture (Amsterdam,1993): 27-56; Giles, Paul: "Reconstructing American Studies: Transnational Paradoxes, Comparative Perspectives," in: Journal of American Studies 28 (December 1994): 335-358; Lauter, Paul: "Reconfiguring Academic Disciplines: The Emergence of American Studies," in: Krabbendam, Hans / Verheul, Jaap (eds.): Through the Cultural Looking Glass (Amsterdam, 1999): 229-243; Ickstadt, Heinz: "Re-visioning the Re-visionists: Dilemmas and Possibilities of American Studies in Europe," in: Through the Cultural Looking Glass...: 216-225.

(3) Lauter, Paul: "To the Reader," in: The Heath Anthology of American Literature (Lexington, 1990): Vol. II: XXXI.

(4) Gates Jr., Henry Louis: The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York, 1988):111.

(5) Profession, 91: 34.

For quotation purposes - Zitierempfehlung:
Elena Apenko: Transnationality in American Studies of Today. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 13/2002.

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