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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Border

Were we to imagine an earlier iteration of this keywords project—one published around, say, 1989—“border” would most likely have been left off the list entirely, though “margin” or maybe “minor” might well have been included. In the intervening years, as violent border conflicts erupted across the world and as the U.S. government heavily militarized its border with Mexico, the term has become prominent in academic work. Accounting for this shift—understanding the concept’s fortunes, as it were—entails movement among academic concerns, theoretical conversations, and sociopolitical and economic developments over the last quarter of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first. To be sure, a loosely defined field of “border studies” has been around in some form or another since Frederick Jackson Turner (1893/1920) argued for the significance of the frontier and Herbert Eugene Bolton (1921) published The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest and …

Ideologies, Methodologies, Places

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
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