America

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” begins the main body of the Declaration of Independence, and the definition of “America” may likewise seem utterly self-evident: the short form of the nation’s official name. Yet the meaning of this well-worn term becomes more elusive the closer we scrutinize it. Since “America” names the entire hemisphere from the Yukon to Patagonia, its common use as a synonym for the United States of America is technically a misnomer, as Latin Americans and Canadians continually (if resignedly) point out. Given the nearly universal intelligibility of this usage, their objection may seem a small question of geographical semantics. But “America” carries multiple connotations that go far beyond the literal referent of the nation-state. In the statement “As Americans, we prize freedom,” “American” may at first seem to refer simply to U.S. citizens, but the context of the sentence strongly implies a consensual understanding of …

Disciplinarities, Ideologies, Places

Black

The word “black” has a long and vexed history both inside and outside the United States. Typically used as a neutral reference to the darkest color on the spectrum, the word has also taken on negative cultural and moral meanings. It describes both something that is “soiled,” “stained,” “evil,” or “morally vapid” and people of a darker hue. The American Heritage Dictionary provides a typical example of this dual usage. One of the entries under “black” as an adjective is “gloomy, pessimistic, dismal,” while another is “of or belonging to a racial group having brown to black skin, especially one of African origin: the Black population of South Africa.” The slippage in the latter definition from “brown to black” highlights the ways in which the term’s negative cultural and moral connotations are racialized through reference to not-quite-white but also not-always-black bodies. This slippage maintains hierarchies among the races scaled …

Disciplinarities, Embodiments, Histories

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

Economy

The term “economy” in its contemporary sense came into use only quite recently. It is often assumed that the idea of the economy, defined as the relations of material production and exchange in a given territory and understood as an object of expert knowledge and government administration, was introduced by political economists such as William Petty, François Quesnay, and Adam Smith in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or even by Aristotle. In fact, however, this use of the term developed only in the 1930s and 1940s and was well established only by the 1950s (T. Mitchell 2005).

In earlier periods, “economy” (usually with no definite article) referred to a way of acting and to the forms of knowledge required for effective action. It was the term for the proper husbanding of material resources or the proper management of a lord’s estate or a sovereign’s realm. “Political economy” came to mean …

Disciplinarities, Money, Power

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

Ethnicity

The term “ethnicity” gained widespread currency in the mid- to late twentieth century, naming a process by which individuals or groups came to be understood, or to understand themselves, as separate or different from others. This meaning of “ethnicity” commonly referred to the consciousness of exclusion or subordination, though it also indexed social practices—language, religion, rituals, and other patterns of behavior—that define the content of a group’s culture. The spread of this theory of ethnic culture created two mutually exclusive, analytically separate categories: “ethnicity,” defined as cultural traits, was utterly divorced from the workings of the physical body, defined as “race.” When anthropologists such as Franz Boas (1940) of Columbia University and sociologists and anthropologists from the University of Chicago began to teach students in the early twentieth century that cultural characteristics were the most interesting social phenomena for study, they spread at the same time the idea that any …

Collectivities, Disciplinarities, Embodiments

Exceptionalism

Given the significance of the keyword “exceptionalism” to the U.S. American credo, it is certainly ironic that the word is not originally an “American” coinage. Joseph Stalin devised the phrase “the heresy of American Exceptionalism” in 1929 to justify his excommunication of the Lovestoneites from the ranks of the Communist International (J. Alexander 1981; Tyrell 1991). The Lovestoneites were a faction whose leader, Jay Lovestone, had already broken with the American Communist Party over what was then referred to as the national question, specifically the question of whether and how to work with established U.S. trade unions. The Lovestoneites provoked Stalin’s condemnation when they proposed that the United States was “unique” because it lacked the social and historical conditions that had led to Europe’s economic collapse. In sharp contrast, the founders of American studies as an academic field reappropriated the term in the 1930s in an effort to …

Disciplinarities, Ideologies, Methodologies

Gender

In American studies and cultural studies, as in the humanities more broadly, scholars use the term “gender” when they wish to expose a seemingly neutral analysis as male oriented and when they wish to turn critical attention from men to women. In this way, a gender analysis exposes the false universalization of male subjectivity and remarks on the differences produced by the social marking we call “sex” or “sexual difference.” Poststructuralist feminist theory queries this common usage by suggesting that the critique of male bias or gender neutrality comes with its own set of problems: namely, a premature and problematic stabilization of the meaning of “woman” and “female.” In 1990, Judith Butler famously named and theorized the “trouble” that “gender” both performs and covers up. In doing so, she consolidated a new form of gender theory focused on what is now widely (and variably) referred to as “performativity.” In recent …

Collectivities, Disciplinarities, Embodiments

Globalization

“Globalization” is a contemporary term used in academic and nonacademic contexts to describe a late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century condition of economic, social, and political interdependence across cultures, societies, nations, and regions that has been precipitated by an unprecedented expansion of capitalism on a global scale. One problem with this usage is that it obscures a much longer history of global contacts and connections. In the ancient world, there were empires, conquests, slavery, and diasporas; in medieval and early modern times, Asian, Arab, and European civilizations mingled through trade, travel, and settlement. Only with European colonial expansion, beginning in the sixteenth century and reaching its height in the nineteenth, did global contacts involve western European and North American dominance; the rise of Western industrialized modernity, made possible by labor and resources in the “new world” of the Americas, was, in this sense, a relatively recent global interconnection. Yet today, the …

Disciplinarities, Money, Places

Government

In common usage, the word “government” often refers to the individuals or parties that operate the state (as in “I support this government”). But it can equally refer to the institutional features of the state (as in a “constitutional” or “aristocratic” form of government). One result of this dual usage is that the practices of governance and the institution of the state are often treated as the same thing, even though their implications are quite different. The modern state, as a form of governance, is typically bound to the idea of the nation and its popular sovereignty. By contrast, government understood as an act of governing originally referred to such diverse activities as moral self-control, household management, or even the sailing of a ship (Oxford English Dictionary). One can today still talk about “governing” one’s behavior, a budget, or an organization. “Government” thus refers first and foremost to …

Disciplinarities, Ideologies, Power
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