Media

“Media” is a word with unusual weight in the United States. The keyword appears in the name of a discipline—media studies—as well as numerous subfields, such as media industry studies, feminist media studies, comparative and transnational media studies, and most recently, digital media studies. “Participatory media,” “interactive media,” and “social media” are all relatively new terms that describe the production and consumption of digital texts, images, and sounds through the World Wide Web and mobile applications that use social networks such as YouTube, Pandora, Facebook, and Twitter. The quick uptake and incorporation of these new media into everyday life in the United States and globally have resulted in a proliferation of usages of the keyword “media.”

Though “media” is the grammatical plural of the singular “medium,” the word is most often used in the singular. It is easy to portray “the media” in negative terms as “addictive” and socially isolating, …

Disciplinarities, Histories, Money

Mestizo/a

The terms “mestizo” (masculine) and “mestiza” (feminine) come from sixteenth-century Portuguese and Spanish, but over the past few hundred years, they have been incorporated into U.S. English. In general, “mestizo/a” refers to racial and cultural mixing among Europeans, Indians, and Africans. As nouns, “mestizo” and “mestiza” refer to a mixed man and woman, respectively, but the word may also be used as an adjective, as in “the mestiza writer” or “a mestizo nation.” The process of such mixing is called “mestizaje.” These words have long and complex histories in diverse parts of the world, including Asia and the Americas, but their most prominent usages in American studies and cultural studies scholarship have referred to the Mexico/U.S. borderlands. In that context, the meanings of “mestizo” have been intimately shaped by dominant and oppositional political movements.

The earliest known appearance of “mestizo” is in a Portuguese dictionary from the 1560s, in which …

Collectivities, Embodiments, Places

Naturalization

“Naturalization” evolved as a keyword along with the modern conceptions of political belonging that we have come to associate with the nation. The term appeared first in Middle French to describe the conferral of the rights and privileges of a native-born subject on a foreigner. While the noun form dates from the late sixteenth century, the verb “naturalize” preceded it by a century. Usage of “naturalize” spread quickly throughout western Europe in the sixteenth century, expanding to include the conversion of something foreign—words and phrases, beliefs and practices—into something familiar or native. With roots in the Renaissance, “naturalize” and “naturalization” continue to register the concerns of the moment of their coinage: an emerging interest in social classification and taxonomy, an increasing emphasis on human agency and the potential to adapt sufficiently to a new environment to enable settlement, and a fascination with the interplay between the natural world and human …

Embodiments, Nature, Places

Property

Property is as central to discussions of culture as culture is to discussions of property. “Property” references not only the things that are owned, as in common usage, but also a social system in which the right and ability to own are protected by the state. Property is commonly discussed as a universal state of being, and the U.S. nation-state is predicated on the notion that all citizens have equal rights to property. Yet in U.S. history, property relations have grown out of and secured class, racial, and gender hierarchies. The keyword “property” thus indexes a contradiction between the ostensibly universal endowment of the right to property for all U.S. citizens and the uneven actualization of that right through forms of racial and gender dispossession. U.S. culture is a crucial site where this contradiction is managed, troubled, and destabilized. Diverse cultural artifacts and practices disavow this contradiction, even as they …

Disciplinarities, Money, Places

Queer

“Queer” causes confusion, perhaps because two of its current meanings seem to be at odds. In both popular and academic usage in the United States, “queer” is sometimes used interchangeably with the terms “gay” and “lesbian” and occasionally “transgender” and “bisexual.” In this sense of the word, “queer” is understood as an umbrella term that refers to a range of sexual identities that are “not straight.” In other political and academic contexts, “queer” is used in a very different way: as a term that calls into question the stability of any such categories of identity based on sexual orientation. In this second sense, “queer” is a critique of the tendency to organize political or theoretical questions around sexual orientation per se. To “queer” becomes a way to denaturalize categories such as “lesbian” and “gay” (not to mention “straight” and “heterosexual”), revealing them as socially and historically constructed identities that have …

Collectivities, Disciplinarities, Embodiments

Race

The study of race incorporates a set of wide-ranging analyses of freedom and power. The scope of those analyses has much to do with the broad application of racial difference to academic and popular notions of epistemology, community, identity, and the body. With regard to economic and political formations, race has shaped the meaning and profile of citizenship and labor. In relation to corporeality, race has rendered the body into a text on which histories of racial differentiation, exclusion, and violence are inscribed. Analyzed in terms of subjectivity, race helps to locate the ways in which identities are constituted.

Many of these insights are the intellectual effects of antiracist political struggles, particularly ones organized around national liberation and civil rights. In the United States, the minority movements of the 1950s and 1960s fundamentally changed the ways in which racial minorities thought about their identities and cultures and the ways that …

Embodiments, Methodologies, Power

Reform

Embedded in the term “reform” is a tension between constraint and possibility. The prefix “re-” suggests familiarity, boundedness, and recursion, just as the root “form” denotes structure, whether institutional or ideological. And yet “reform” also conveys a sense of movement or potential. As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in “Man the Reformer,” reform entails “the conviction that there is an infinite worthiness in man which will appear at the call of worth” (1841/1983, 146). This optimistic undercurrent requires that reformers not simply deride the existing order but propose alternatives—that they must, in short, form something. And to the extent that the term calls for a realignment of established elements rather than obliterating what exists and starting over, “reform” can seem less alarming—but also more tepid—than “radicalism” or “revolution,” even as it suggests greater political engagement than either “benevolence” or “charity.”

That said, scholarship in American studies and cultural studies …

Collectivities, Feelings, Ideologies

Region

The keyword “region” may seem self-evidently place based, both culturally and economically. But this commonplace understanding of regions as natural effects of a stable geography misses a central paradox: historical processes of modernization have created “places” that then appear to preexist or be peripheral to the modern. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a region as “a large segment of a surface or space, especially on the earth, or a specified district or territory.” It thus registers that regions are relational—a region is part of something beyond itself—but only implicitly. Only the fourth definition, “an area of interest or activity, a sphere,” recognizes human involvement in regions’ creation and thereby suggests that regions are not simple effects of natural geography. Considered historically, regions have been created and re-created in conjunction with the unfolding of global capitalism, the ceaseless movement of populations, and the consolidation of nation-states as well as uneven economic …

Disciplinarities, Nature, Places

Science

To speak of science is to deploy a deceptively simple word whose use confers the mantle of authority. As Raymond Williams (1976/1983, 276–80) and the Oxford English Dictionary tell us, the word came into English from the Latin scientia, meaning simply “knowledge.” In the fourteenth century, it was distinguished from conscience, with “science” signifying theoretical knowledge, as opposed to knowing something with conviction and passion. In the seventeenth century, it began to denote that which was learned through theoretical—as opposed to practical—knowledge: philosophy, in short. Already, then, the term “science” was making hierarchical distinctions in kinds of learning, favoring the abstract and the dispassionate. In the nineteenth century, “science” came to distinguish the experimental from the metaphysical, that which was known as truth as opposed to asserted. In its current configurations, this struggle over which kinds of knowledge should be accorded the higher status of being known as …

Disciplinarities, Methodologies, Nature

Sentiment

The term “sentiment” marks the recognition that emotions are social and historical. Feelings seem personal and interior—yet it is often easy to see that they are structured and shared. “Sentiment,” “sentimental,” and “sentimentality” are used at moments when the entanglement of the subjective and the public is implicitly or explicitly acknowledged. This entanglement makes them vexed and value-laden categories. They have a complex range of uses in everyday language and have been the focus of much debate in American studies and cultural studies.

Discussions of sentiment always depend on concepts of emotion—itself a poorly understood phenomenon. When I am moved, the experience is anchored in my body: tears come to my eyes or my heart beats faster, my skin flushes or my stomach roils. These physiological responses are emotion’s most intimate aspect and at the same time its least individual, because they are common to all humans and in some …

Embodiments, Feelings, Ideologies
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