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

African

The keyword “African” has been and remains a touchstone for African-descended peoples’ struggle for identity and inclusion, encompassing extremes of racial denigration and vindication in a nation founded on the enslavement of Africans. Both the African presence throughout the Americas and its significance for constructions of national culture in the United States have remained fraught with racialized and exclusionary power relations. In a nation that has traditionally imagined its culture and legislated its polity as “white,” “African” has often provided for African Americans a default basis for identity in direct proportion to their exclusion from national citizenship.

As scholars ranging from Winthrop Jordan (1969) to Jennifer L. Morgan (2004) have noted, there was nothing natural or inevitable about the development of racial slavery in the Americas. Nor was the emergence of the racialized category of the African as permanent slave foreordained. European travelers who recorded their initial encounters with Africans …

Collectivities, Embodiments, Places

Asian

“Orientals are carpets!” is a common Asian American retort today, one that rejects the linkage between objects of desire—whether hand-woven carpets made in central and western Asia or porcelains made in China—and the people who make them. During the late-1960s phase of the civil rights movement, second- and third-generation, college-age, mainly Chinese and Japanese Americans from the United States and Canada protested the term “Oriental,” seeking to replace it with the seemingly less fraught term “Asian.” But as in any debate about naming practices, the names rejected and defended reflect differing points of view, as groups trouble certain terms and adopt others in order to shape and reshape meanings for themselves. “Asia,” “Asian,” and “Asiatic” are still common, though the latter is far less preferred. Variations such as “Asianic,” “Asiaticism,” “Asiatise,” “Asiatall,” “Asiatican,” and “Asiatically” are now archaic.

Each of these terms comes loaded with particular spatial orientations rooted in

Collectivities, Embodiments, Places

Citizenship

Although we tend to think of citizenship as something national, originally the citizen was simply a certain kind of someone who lived in a Greek city: a member of an elite class who was said to be capable of self-governance and therefore of the legal and military governance of the city. But the ancient history of the term tells us little about the constellation of rights, laws, obligations, interests, fantasies, and expectations that shape the modern scene of citizenship, which is generally said to have been initiated by the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century (B. Anderson 1991; B. Turner 1993; Mouffe 1995). Most simply, citizenship refers to a standing within the law (this is often called formal citizenship); jus soli citizenship allots citizenship to people born within the geographical territory, and jus sanguinis awards citizenship by way of a parental inheritance.

At the same time, citizenship is a relation …

Collectivities, Embodiments, Ideologies

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

Class

As an analytical tool and historiographical category, “class” has an important place in American studies and cultural studies, if only because so many people have thought it irrelevant to the study of the United States. Unlike Europe’s old countries, with their feudal pasts and monarchical legacies, the United States, it has often been said, is a land of unlimited economic and geographical mobility. Abraham Lincoln was only one of the most notable believers in “American exceptionalism,” the idea that the United States, uniquely among the globe’s nations, assigned its citizens no fixed class definition and afforded boundless opportunity to those who would only work hard and look beyond the next horizon. The reality is much more complicated, as scholars and critics have to some extent always known and over the past forty years have demonstrated in studies of U.S. class formation, cultural allegiance, and artistic expression.

Some form of class …

Collectivities, Ideologies, Money

Community

In the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century United States, the term “community” is used so pervasively that it would appear to be nearly meaningless. The term is often deployed more for its performative effect of being “warmly persuasive” than for any descriptive work it accomplishes (Raymond Williams 1976/1983, 76). Carrying only positive connotations—a sense of belonging, understanding, caring, cooperation, equality—“community” is deployed to mobilize support not only for a huge variety of causes but also for the speaker using the term. It functions this way for companies such as Starbucks and Target, which have programs and pamphlets in their stores proclaiming their commitment to community, as well as for the feminist scholar who seeks to legitimize her research by saying she works “in the community.” It is deployed across the political spectrum to promote everything from identity-based movements (on behalf of women, gays and lesbians, African Americans, and others) to …

Collectivities, Ideologies, Places

Democracy

Democracy is the name that has been assigned to a dream as well as to certain already existing realities that are lived, by many people, as a nightmare. The dream is of government by the people, government in which the common people hold sway, in which the dispensation of the commons—“the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces, etc., created through universal exchange” that Karl Marx called wealth—is collectively determined, in which the trace of any enclosure of the commons whatever is an object of the severest vigilance since such dispensation will have been understood as ending not in tragedy but in romance (Marx 1858/1993, 488; Hardin 1968). This is the fantasy of democracy as fantasy, as the contrapuntal arrangement of the many voices of the whole. The materialization of this dream will have been real democracy.

Authority in democracy can be exercised directly, in the immediate participation of …

Collectivities, Ideologies, Power
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