Capitalism

While the capitalist system is generally celebrated by mainstream economists, American studies and cultural studies scholars will search in vain through their writings for actual discussions of the term “capitalism.” Instead, neoclassical and Keynesian economists refer to the “market economy” (in which individuals and private firms make decisions in decentralized markets) or just “the economy” (defined by scarce means and unlimited desires, the correct balancing of which is said to characterize all societies) (Stiglitz and Walsh 2002; Bhagwati 2003; Krugman and Wells 2004; Samuelson and Nordhaus 2004).

In contrast, discussions of the term “capitalism” have long occupied a central position in the vocabulary of Marxian economic theory. References to capitalism in American studies and cultural studies draw, implicitly or explicitly, on the Marxian critique of political economy: a critique of capitalism as an economic and social system and a critique of mainstream economic theory. Karl Marx and latter-day Marxists criticize …

Ideologies, Money, Power

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

Contract

“Contract” is at least as old as the Old Testament and as new as the market transactions of the moment—local, national, and global. It encompasses the provinces of religion and commodities, state and civil society, public and private exchange, the rights of persons and the rights to property. Puritan theology speaks of covenants, Enlightenment liberalism of social contracts, political economy of commercial contracts, the law of liberty of contract. Informed by those traditions, U.S. culture has long been infused by contract. Just after the Civil War, a primer handed out by Yankee liberators to former slaves testified to contract’s vast province: “You have all heard a great deal about contracts, have you not since you have been free? . . . Contracts are very numerous; numerous as the leaves on the trees almost; and, in fact, the world could not get on at all without them” (Fisk 1866, 47). The …

Ideologies, Money, Power

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

Copyright

Embedded within the word “copyright” is a simple and succinct self-definition. It means, quite literally, the right to copy. Unlike “intellectual property,” a term that did not come into common usage until the mid-twentieth century, “copyright” has been used for centuries, dating from 1735. The term accurately describes what this legal doctrine is and how it functions. Often understood as a synonym for “copyright,” “intellectual property” is actually a deceptive neologism. That is because copyrighted, patented, and trademarked works are not in fact property—they are instead protected by government-granted rights that are limited in how they can be enforced. The term “intellectual property” functions ideologically because it naturalizes an association with physical property that does not exist in law. This encourages many false analogies, such as the common claim that the unauthorized download of a song or a film is like breaking into someone’s car and driving it away. …

Ideologies, Money, Power

Corporation

In current usage, the keyword “corporation” is synonymous with “business corporation,” generally referring to a for-profit organization that can operate at the discretion of its owners and managers free of social and legislative control. The term is derived from the Latin corporatus, the present participle of corporare, which means “form into a body,” and appeared in English by 1530. A business corporation can own property; buy, sell, and control assets, including other corporations; pay or avoid taxes; write or break contracts; make and market products; and engage in every kind of economic activity. At the same time, the persons involved in a corporation have under most circumstances no liability for its debts. Since 1900, the corporation has been the dominant form for organizing capital, production, and financial transactions. By 2000, the corporation had become a dominant force in the global economy, the only alternative to the state as …

Embodiments, Money, Power

Culture

The concept of culture has had widespread use since the late eighteenth century, when it was synonymous with civilization and still indicated a sense of cultivation and growth derived from its Latin root, colere, which also included in its original meanings “inhabit” (as in “colonize”), “protect,” and “honor with worship” (as in “cult”). According to Raymond Williams (1976/1983, 87–93), the noun form took, by extension, three inflections that encompass most of its modern uses: intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development; the way of life of a people, group, or humanity in general; and the works and practices of intellectual and artistic activity (music, literature, painting, theater, and film, among many others). Although Williams considers the last to be the most prevalent usage, the extension of anthropology to urban life and the rise of identity politics in the 1980s (two changes that have left a mark on both cultural studies and …

Ideologies, Money, Power

Domestic

The keyword “domestic” conjures up several different yet linked meanings. It evokes the private home and all its accouterments and, in a secondary fashion, hired household help. It also refers to the “national” as opposed to the “foreign” and to the “tame” as opposed to the “natural” or “wild.” American studies and cultural studies scholarship has only recently begun to think through the connections among these usages of the term and to make visible the racial and class bias of much of the scholarship on domesticity in relation to the United States.

Theorizing the domestic has been integral to many academic disciplines: architecture and design, anthropology, sociology, history, economics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literary and cultural criticism. Expressed in binary terms such as male/female, public/private, and production/reproduction, a relatively stable home/work dichotomy has formed the basis of scholarly writing on domesticity across these disciplines. Newer studies of domesticity are more attentive …

Ideologies, Money, Places

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

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
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