Abolition

“Abolition” is a word we use when we want to activate scholarship with a sense of urgency, relevance, or potential for the future. W. E. B. Du Bois deployed it in this manner when he coined the term “abolition-democracy” (1935/1999, 184) to summarize the grand, unrealized potential of social and economic change initiated during the Reconstruction era. Looking back on the progressive labor politics, liberal economic policies, and civil rights efforts of the late nineteenth century, Du Bois left little doubt that he intended abolition to be a critical modifier for democracy in his own time, providing a corrective to an imperialist, global capitalism bent on exploiting the “basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black” (16). “Abolition” continues to play this pivotal role in the vocabulary of American studies and cultural studies, interjecting the history of radical social justice movements into conversations about …

Collectivities, Ideologies, Power

Aesthetics

At once universal and specific, transcendent as well as deeply historical, property of individual feeling but also affecting the mass subject, aesthetics have been notoriously difficult to define. This imprecision explains why aesthetics have often been invoked as a progressive force that opens new conceptual horizons and just as often derided as a tired elitist dodge that preserves the status quo. The unevenness of the ground on which matters of beauty, perception, taste, and the sublime stand results from elemental fissures between art and politics. Such fissures may be more fantasy than actuality, however. When aesthetics are considered in terms of social practice, philosophy, and cultural criticism, they appear as profoundly material engagements with embodiment, collectivity, and social life.

Aesthetics are in their narrowest sense purely about the discernment of formal criteria such as unity, proportion, and balance within the domain of art. If we trace the term’s origins back …

Collectivities, Embodiments, Feelings

Body

As a term that designates the physical or material frame of human and other living beings, “body” has a long career in the language and a relatively brief one as a focus of critical engagement in the study of culture. For Christian theology as for speculative philosophy in the West, the body figures as the devalued term in a structuring dualism of body/soul (in sacred thought) and body/mind (in secular traditions). These dualisms apprehend the body as a material substrate of human life that is fundamentally distinct from and subordinated to the privileged term in the dichotomy (mind, soul), which alone comprehends the human capacity for knowledge and self-knowledge, as well as the repertoire of human sensibilities, dispositions, and affects on which the salvation, expression, or advancement of humanity is understood to depend. In Christian theology as in humanist philosophy, the body turns up on the side of animality or …

Embodiments, Feelings, Methodologies

City

Raymond Williams (1973) demonstrated the overarching significance of the keywords “city” and “country,” establishing the simultaneously positive and negative inflections of urbanity. On the positive side were the values of learning, light, progress, civilization, cosmopolitanism, tolerance and civil liberties, excitement, and sophistication; on the negative lay the countervalues of sin, darkness and noise, corruption and devolution, danger and violence, irreligion, mob rule, and anomie—in short, urban modernity and its discontents.

As Williams noted, these city/country oppositions are always invoked in the service of political interests. Diverse social actors described European and, later, U.S. urban life in ways that shifted and evolved with cities themselves. Troubadours, priests, ministers, and Romantic poets gave way to flaneurs and other urban observers, who then gave way to social statisticians, settlement-house workers, novelists, playwrights, journalists, photographers, and painters. The new social scientists and artists took cities and urban dwellers as their research objects, as problems …

Collectivities, Histories, Places

Civilization

“Civilization” refers to an ideal perpetually contested, a condition perpetually threatened, and a practice perpetually prescribed. It is a term employed by academics and cultural theorists, policy pundits, and government officials in the United States and around the world. In the view of R. G. Collingwood (1971) and a host of lesser defenders of “Western heritage,” it is the political order and cultural treasure of the West threatened by totalitarian, proletarian, and jihadist barbarities. It is the globally exportable condition of social development promoted by the United Nations Civil Society Organizations and Participation Programme. It is the seductive discipline of decorum prescribed by colonizing powers on subaltern populations critiqued in Homi K. Bhabha’s essay “Sly Civility” (1994). It is an abstract set of conditions, found in any number of world cultures throughout history, described by sociologists such as Benjamin Nelson (1973) and Stanford M. Lyman (1990).

These various …

Collectivities, Histories, Ideologies

Coolie

The word “coolie” is first and foremost a product of European expansion into Asia and the Americas. Of Tamil, Chinese, or other origin, it was popularized by Portuguese sailors and merchants across Asia beginning in the sixteenth century and later adopted by fellow European traders on the high seas and in port cities. By the eighteenth century, “coolie” referred to a laborer of India or China, hired locally or shipped abroad. The word took on a new significance in the nineteenth century, as the beginnings of abolition remade “coolies” into indentured laborers in high demand across the world, particularly in the tropical colonies of the Caribbean. Emerging out of struggles over British emancipation and Cuban slavery in particular, “coolies” and “coolieism”—defined by the late nineteenth century as “the importation of coolies as labourers into foreign countries” (Oxford English Dictionary)—came to denote the systematic shipment and employment of Asian …

Embodiments, Money, Places

Dialect

It is both fortuitous and overdetermined that the critic most responsible for the view of dialect writing that American studies and cultural studies critics are challenging today was a man by the name of Krapp. Writing in the 1920s, George Philip Krapp (1925, 1926) insisted that dialect writing was a highbrow literary convention that always involved a patronizing class-based condescension. Krapp’s view came to dominate scholarship on the topic through much of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is echoed decades later in the ten-volume Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, which avers that dialect speakers in literature are usually presented as inferior, primitive, and backward (Asher and Simpson 1994). To be sure, the hierarchy that Krapp and others invoke was, historically, a component of much dialect writing. But recent scholarship emphasizes that the story is more complex and more interesting: dialect writing can be subversive as …

Disciplinarities, Ethnographies, Histories

Digital

In the twenty-first century, we tend to associate the word “digital” with computation, but its origins hark back to ancient times. The term derives from digitus in classical Latin, meaning “finger,” and, later, from digit, which refers both to whole numbers less than ten and to fingers or toes. Digital procedures long predate the development of electronic computers, and we might understand a number of earlier devices or systems to operate by digital principles. For instance, the abacus is a simple digital calculator dating from 300 BC, while Morse code and Braille represent more recent digital practices. What each of these examples has in common—from fingers to digital computers—is a particular use of the digital to refer to discrete elements or to separate numbers. This focus on the discrete and the separate is central to the functioning of today’s digital electronics, which, at a basic level, operate by distinguishing …

Embodiments, Histories, Methodologies

Disability

As a keyword in American studies and cultural studies, the site of a political movement, and the name of an interdisciplinary field, “disability” articulates vital connections across the many communities of people with disabilities, their public histories, and a range of cultural theories and practices. People with disabilities have too often been rendered invisible and powerless because of a mainstream tendency to valorize the normal body. As a result of disability activist work emerging from the civil rights movement, legal reforms, and grassroots activist work, the framing of disability has shifted from an emphasis on “disability” as a medical term to one of disability as a social construction. In the 1980s, disability activists began to move into the academy and to formulate a wide range of scholarship around the keyword. In the first phase, their work centered largely on the analysis and reform of public policy. By the early 1990s, …

Feelings

Environment

The term “environment” in its broadest sense indexes contested terrains located at the intersections of political, social, cultural, and ecological economies. In its narrowest sense, it refers to the place of nature in human history. In each of these usages, representations of the natural world are understood as having decisive force in shaping environmental policy and the environmental imagination. Conservation politics were inspired by interpretations of particular places as untouched by the industrial revolutions of the nineteenth century, while much contemporary ecocriticism has continued the mainstream preoccupation with wilderness traditions, pastoralism, and the Romantic impulse of nature writing. Environmental justice activists and some ecofeminists have questioned these preoccupations, as have indigenous and postcolonial writers and scholars across the Americas who point out that imaginative writing about “nature” has a long tradition among colonial settlers attempting to mythologize and indigenize their relationships to place. This polyphony of competing voices and genealogies …

Disciplinarities, Histories, Nature
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