American studies analyzes what America was, is, and could be in the world within and beyond U.S. borders. Here are three reasons (among many) why it has turned me on for life.
KNOWLEDGE WITHOUT BORDERS: In Moby-Dick (1850) Herman Melville insists: “Nothing exists in itself.” American studies insists: no discipline—English, history, art history, film, music, anthropology, sociology, economics—exists in itself. In American studies we think relationally. The academy smashed Humpty Dumpty into pieces: it fragmented the production of knowledge and its study of how social power works into disciplines. American studies was institutionalized in the 1930s to put the pieces together again: nowadays we synthesize visual studies, cultural studies, history, literary studies, ethnoracial studies, gender studies, sexuality studies, queer studies, ecological studies, and much more. American studies invents new knowledge. It’s always multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. At times it’s antidisciplinary (it criticizes the disciplinary production of knowledge and works out the political implications of such boundaries). Sometimes it’s postdisciplinary (it expands the field of knowledge production beyond what the disciplines conventionally cover). American studies trespasses. It’s knowledge without borders! Also, it’s studying what you love (and sometimes stepping back critically from what you love). And that’s exciting!
LEARNING AND UNLEARNING: American studies has to do with “you” and learning more about what social conditions, contradictions, and structures of difference produced “you.” It invites what F. O. Matthiessen–a founder of American studies in the 1930s–liked to call unlearning. “Education,” he said, requires “having to unlearn what [one] was taught.” The theorist Michel Foucault calls this striving to “get free of oneself.” This ideological, emotional, and even sensory unlearning—for instance, anti-identitarian unlearning–is easier said than done. In Mules and Men (1935), Zora Neale Hurston admits how hard self-defamiliarizing can be: “[The culture] was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn’t see it for wearing it.” American studies—as premises studies, givens studies–takes up this challenge. It often questions the “givens” by analyzing how and why these “givens”—affecting how we think, feel, see–were historically produced. The good news: what was socially made can be unmade. So American studies considers how the world—it identities, its work, its values, its commitments–might be imagined otherwise. At times this encompasses how we might imagine ourselves otherwise.
WHAT’S GOIN’ ON? The American studies I love has a sense of what Matthiessen calls critical “responsibility.” It often focuses its critical gaze on who’s getting hurt systemically, how this came to be, and what Americans have done to try to change this (activism and organizing studies). American studies advances the project of American self-critique. It scrutinizes not only the politics of excluding people (from wealth, resources, access, legal rights, citizenship, and so on) but the politics of including people (Americanizing people) within a power structure. It entails seeing—systemically–what we’re involved in. If some Americans subordinate other Americans, why do those who are subordinated put up with it and how is it that those who subordinate feel good about it? If Americans are being bamboozled, how does culture pull this off? American studies is about not being hoodwinked. It asks Marvin Gaye’s question: What’s goin’ on?
Joel Pfister, Chair, American Studies Department