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

Affect

“Affect” names a conceptual problem as much as a tangible thing. As such, it is best understood as an umbrella term that includes related, and more familiar, words such as “feeling” and “emotion,” as well as efforts to make distinctions among them. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the history of the term to the seventeenth century, aligning it with “desire” or “passion” and opposing it to “reason.” Further specifying that “affect” is both a “mental” and a “bodily” disposition, the OED sets in place a persistent ambiguity that challenges distinctions between mind and body. More technical uses of the term emerge from mid-twentieth-century scientific psychology, where “affect” designates sensory processes or experiences prior to cognition and distinguishes such sensations from the cognitive processes that produce emotions (Damasio 1994). Because affect, emotions, and feelings stand at the intersection of mind and body, cognition and sensation, and conscious and …

Embodiments, Feelings, Methodologies

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

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

Family

“Family” is a widely invoked word. Friends and colleagues talk about family. It is a central topic in journalism, biography, autobiography, fiction, television sitcoms, theater, and film. It is a significant point of reference in public policy, whether in debates over welfare, AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), immigration laws, or, more generally, “family values.” The word has a long history in U.S. culture. In 1869, Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe began their book The American Woman’s Home by posing the question, “What, then, is the end designed by the family state?” For them, the answer was self-evident: the family state consists of a “stronger and wiser” father who “undergoes toil and self-denial to provide a home,” a mother who becomes a “self-sacrificing laborer to train its inmates,” and the inmates themselves, children (18). Christian values ensure its welfare. This …

Collectivities, Feelings, Money

Freedom

“Freedom” is a keyword with a genealogy and range of meanings that extend far beyond the history and geographical boundaries of the United States, even as it names values that are at the core of U.S. national history and identity. From the Declaration of Independence to Operation Enduring Freedom (the name given to the post-9/11 U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan), the term is at the root of U.S. claims to being not only exceptional among the world’s nations but a model that others should follow. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “freedom” in abstract terms as “the state or fact of being free from servitude, constraint, [or] inhibition.” But dictionary definitions cannot reveal the materiality of the specific contests through which freedom has attained its central place in modern Western understandings of self and society. While the term’s etymological roots and core attributes date to the classical societies of ancient Greece …

Feelings, Ideologies, Power

Identity

One of our most common terms, “identity” is rarely defined. In everyday language, its most common usages—“personal identity” and “social identity”—designate meanings not only distinct from one another but also hierarchically related. Personal identity is often assumed to mediate between social identities and make sense of them. Whereas our social identities shift throughout the day, what allows us to move coherently from one to another is often imagined to be our personal identity, or “who we are”—our constant.

Personal identity conventionally arbitrates taste and lifestyle. “It’s just not me,” a potential home buyer says to her realtor. “That’s so you,” a helpful friend appraises as the shopper steps out of the dressing room. An “identity crisis” is a crisis rather than an “identity opportunity” because personal identity demands proper and unimpeded expression. It is a value, something we prize. This sense of identity as ours implies an immutable essence unchanged …

Embodiments, Feelings, Nature

Interiority

An amorphous space located somewhere “inside” the human body, generating conviction (“that’s just how I feel inside”), satisfaction (“I felt all warm inside”), and even identity (“I have to be who I am inside”), interiority has preoccupied recent work in American studies and cultural studies. This preoccupation arguably stems from the influence of Michel Foucault’s (1975/1995) analysis of the institutional discourses shaping, implementing, and managing subjectivity and will. Interiority, in these contexts, is the precondition and outcome of power as new knowledge regimes (pedagogical, medical, and penal) have shifted social control from forces exerted on the body (punishment) to institutional incentives to increase the productive forces of the body in managed systems of normalcy (discipline).

Attention to interiority emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries out of new institutional discourses that sought to maintain social order without impinging on Enlightenment principles of self-governance and rational liberty. Institutional knowledge …

Embodiments, Feelings, Nature

Marriage

Marriage seems to be an ordinary fact of life, not a contested concept. In U.S. culture, however, the term “marriage” has pointed to two simultaneous but incompatible functions. As a component of U.S. kinship law, marriage sanctions particular sexual alliances, from which property relations are determined. It thereby defines a sphere of protected sexual and economic interests, whose exterior is marked by sexual “deviants.” Yet as an aspect of modern emotional life in the United States, marriage is also the ideological linchpin of intimacy—the most elevated form of chosen interpersonal relationship. At the core of political debate and much critical debate in American studies and cultural studies is whether marriage is a matter of love or law, a means of securing social stability or of realizing individual freedom and emotional satisfaction. These have become national questions; marriage seems so tied to collective national identity and democratic practices that many U.S. …

Collectivities, Feelings, Histories

Normal

“Normal,” because of its easy associations with typical, ordinary, or unremarkable, appears to many people as a benign word, nothing more than a neutral descriptor of certain groups, bodies, or behaviors that are more common than others. Yet more than almost any other keyword in American studies and cultural studies, “normal” carries with it a history of discursive and literal violence against those who could never hope to be described by the term. Sexual minorities, disabled people, racialized populations, immigrants, and many others have at times found themselves among the motley group that the Chicana lesbian feminist Gloria Anzaldúa terms los atravesados: “those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the ‘normal’” (1987, 3). For Anzaldúa and innumerable other critics of the normal, this border crossing has consequences. Lives lived beyond the confines of the normal have been marked as illegitimate and targeted for surveillance, …

Embodiments, Feelings, Power
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