Sex

In common usage, the keyword “sex” names something an individual either is or has. It refers to both the material foundation (male or female) of binary gender difference (masculine or feminine) and the real and imagined acts that ground various sexual identities (homosexual, heterosexual, fetishist, sadomasochist, and so on). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the first sense of “sex” as male or female from the fourteenth century, though it also notes a more pluralized usage from the sixteenth century (“so are all sexes and sorts of people called upon”), a singular usage from the same period (“I am called The Squire of Dames, or the Servant of the Sex”), and a further revision in the early nineteenth century (“the third sex”). In contrast, the OED dates the second sense of the term from the mid- to late nineteenth century, when “sexual” (“Berlin is outbidding Paris in its …

Embodiments, Feelings, Methodologies

Society

The keyword “society” is generally used in academia and everyday life to refer to forms of human collectivity and association, but the scale and values of the formations referenced by the word—and its adjectival form “social”—vary widely. When we refer to Twitter and Facebook as “social media,” the term is roughly synonymous with “interactive,” a word that at its narrowest refers to exchanges between discrete individuals. But when mainstream media outlets and politicians assert that the spread of social media is somehow responsible for phenomena ranging from the Arab Spring to the August 2011 London riots, from Occupy Wall Street to so-called flash-mob attacks in U.S. cities, they are claiming (plausibly or not) that interactive technologies enable political participation and are linking the word to broader and more explicitly political usages such as “social justice” and “social movement.”

The term’s wide range of connotations was already evident in the classical …

Collectivities, Disciplinarities, Power

Sound

The final moments of President Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural address took a decidedly sonic turn. Standing inside the rotunda of the Capitol building, Reagan said that he could hear “echoes” of the “American” past and then proceeded to list them off as if he were doing a voice-over for the trailer to a new History Channel miniseries:

A general falls to his knees in the hard snow of Valley Forge; a lonely President paces the darkened halls, and ponders his struggle to preserve the Union; the men of the Alamo call out encouragement to each other; a settler pushes west and sings a song, and the song echoes out forever and fills the unknowing air. It is the American sound. It is hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair. That’s our heritage; that is our song. We sing it still. (Reagan 1985)

For Reagan, the arc of U.S. …

Embodiments, Feelings, Methodologies

South

To use the keyword “South” is to invoke, above all else, the importance of place and history. “South” is an imagined location, an inherently unstable unit of space, and yet most people in the United States feel they know exactly where it is: just below the Mason-Dixon line and just above the Gulf of Mexico. One needs only a compass and an atlas to find it. But the term “South” defies such directional certainty; it has multiple meanings, competing positions, and different personalities. “South,” of course, is not the same thing or place or concept as “the South” or “Souths” or even “southern.” Recent American studies scholarship seeks to understand the purpose and meaning of this much-anticipated place—envisioning “South” and its variants, wherever and whenever they are invoked, as situational ideals, as political statements, as self-referential terms, as frustratingly mobile, sometimes overlapping spots on a map. Each “South” is …

Disciplinarities, Feelings, Places

State

Gore Vidal (2004) observed in the first decade of the twenty-first century that we no longer live in a state; we live in a Homeland. The Cold War is over, but the U.S. national security state (supposedly called forth by the Cold War) is alive and well, fortified—now that the State Department is no longer sufficient—by its Department of Homeland Security. The rhetorical sleight of hand involved in this transposition of “state” into “Homeland” is not without precedent, and the 2001 Patriot Act is but the latest incident in a long history of state-sponsored countersubversion that predated the Cold War (Rogin 1987). Euphemisms for state (“Motherland,” “Fatherland,” la patrie) have long abounded, and so has the unwieldy and often inaccurate composite “nation-state.” Note also the substitution of “nation” for “state” in names such as United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.

The centrality of the state …

Disciplinarities, Ideologies, Power

Technology

When used in everyday speech today, the keyword “technology” refers primarily to physical devices. Yet this usage was not common until the second half of the twentieth century. During the seventeenth century, “technology” was either a systematic study of the arts or the specific terminology of an art (Casaubon 1612; Bentham 1827; Carlyle 1858). An encyclopedia, dictionary, or publication like Keywords for American Cultural Studies would have been called a technology. Related terms such as “tool,” “instrument,” and “machine” described physical devices (Sutherland 1717; Hanway 1753). In the nineteenth century, “technology” became the practical application of science, a system of methods to execute knowledge (Horne 1825; Raymond Williams 1976/1983), or a discipline of the “Industrial Arts” focused on the use of hand and power tools to fabricate objects (G. Wilson 1855; Burton 1864). During the twentieth century, the meaning of “technology” gradually …

Disciplinarities, Embodiments, Methodologies

Visual

Despite being rooted in a biological practice that most of us take for granted, visual experience is complex. The challenge of tracing how we consciously and unconsciously make sense of what is in front of our eyes has been exacerbated by the proliferation of mass media. Television, print media, film, and the Internet, all of which appeal primarily to the eye, using color, form, and narrative to convey messages more swiftly than the printed word, have displaced the central position of text in modern society, demanding the development of skills to analyze the nature and significance of the visual (Sturken and Cartwright 2009). In academic circles, the term “visual” is often paired with “culture” or “studies” to indicate an interrogation of the culturally and historically constructed nature of objects designed for visual consumption and the practices through which they are engaged. If the number of sessions indexed under …

Disciplinarities, Histories, Methodologies

War

“Tug of war.” “Cold War.” “War on Terror.” “World War II.” “Make love, not war.” “War Games.” “War on poverty.” “Prisoner of war.” “War of the Worlds.” “Iraq War.” “War on drugs.” “Antiwar.” “All’s fair in love and war.” These are just a few of the myriad ways that the word “war” is used every day in English vocabularies. It is difficult today to open a newspaper or magazine, turn on a television, or go to a movie theater anywhere in the United States without encountering a verbal or a visual reference to war. Whether through reports of wars around the globe; declarations of “war on” a variety of social issues, from AIDS to poverty to drugs to crime; reportedly cheaper costs brought on by price wars (airline ticket fares, gasoline, fast food); or descriptions of sporting events (“throwing a bomb,” “blitzing,” “sudden death”)—references to war …

Histories, Ideologies, Power

West

The keyword “west” typically has two referents. On the one hand, it refers to the western United States or the area west of the ninety-eighth meridian, where arid country begins; on the other hand, it invokes a global geographic division between the “West” as a center of global colonial powers in Europe and North America and the non-West, or the “rest” of the world. The two referents—the “American West” and Western colonialism—intersect in a system of narratives and images popularized in U.S. literature, visual culture, and especially cinema: Monument Valley, the Oregon Trail, cowboys, Indians, pioneers. Mainstream understanding of these narratives and images position them as wellsprings of Anglo-American nationalist character, as sites where the “Old West” or “Wild West” of the nineteenth-century masculine frontier becomes the West, a place frequently believed to be “more real” or “more authentically western” than the actual environs where novel readers, television viewers, and …

Disciplinarities, Histories, Places

White

What does it mean to be human? How can wide variation among humans in culture and physical appearance be explained? These were some of the questions that, as far back as antiquity, catalyzed theories about a hierarchy among humans in which the people considered to be the most beautiful and best civilized were ranked as superior. Drawing on the religious symbolism of “light” versus “dark” (purity versus contamination, saintliness versus heathenism) and the notion that outward physical attributes reflect inner moral qualities, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European historians, travelers, and naturalists propagated notions of the primordial and perfect human as fair skinned. White. The resulting ideas about what it is to be fully human were based on western European (male) interests, lifestyles, sexual desires, and beliefs (D. Goldberg 1993; Balibar 1994; Dyer 1997; Painter 2010). British colonists brought these ideas with them to their Caribbean and North American colonies, …

Ethnographies, Ideologies, Power
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