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

City

Raymond Williams (1973) demonstrated the overarching significance of the keywords “city” and “country,” establishing the simultaneously positive and negative inflections of urbanity. On the positive side were the values of learning, light, progress, civilization, cosmopolitanism, tolerance and civil liberties, excitement, and sophistication; on the negative lay the countervalues of sin, darkness and noise, corruption and devolution, danger and violence, irreligion, mob rule, and anomie—in short, urban modernity and its discontents.

As Williams noted, these city/country oppositions are always invoked in the service of political interests. Diverse social actors described European and, later, U.S. urban life in ways that shifted and evolved with cities themselves. Troubadours, priests, ministers, and Romantic poets gave way to flaneurs and other urban observers, who then gave way to social statisticians, settlement-house workers, novelists, playwrights, journalists, photographers, and painters. The new social scientists and artists took cities and urban dwellers as their research objects, as problems …

Collectivities, Histories, Places

Civilization

“Civilization” refers to an ideal perpetually contested, a condition perpetually threatened, and a practice perpetually prescribed. It is a term employed by academics and cultural theorists, policy pundits, and government officials in the United States and around the world. In the view of R. G. Collingwood (1971) and a host of lesser defenders of “Western heritage,” it is the political order and cultural treasure of the West threatened by totalitarian, proletarian, and jihadist barbarities. It is the globally exportable condition of social development promoted by the United Nations Civil Society Organizations and Participation Programme. It is the seductive discipline of decorum prescribed by colonizing powers on subaltern populations critiqued in Homi K. Bhabha’s essay “Sly Civility” (1994). It is an abstract set of conditions, found in any number of world cultures throughout history, described by sociologists such as Benjamin Nelson (1973) and Stanford M. Lyman (1990).

These various …

Collectivities, Histories, Ideologies

Colonial

“Colonial” has very old roots. The Latin word colonia was used during the Roman Empire to mean a settlement of Roman citizens in a newly conquered territory. Often these citizens were retired soldiers who received land as a reward for their service and as a display of Roman authority to the conquered inhabitants. For Roman writers, colonia translated the Greek word apoikia, which meant a settlement away from one’s home state, as opposed to the polis, meaning one’s own city or country as well as a community of citizens, or the metropolis, literally one’s mother city or mother country.

Despite these etymological ties to the violence and power of conquest, the English word “colony” was until the eighteenth century as likely to mean simply a farm or a country estate as a settlement in conquered land subject to a parent state. The cognate “colonial” was not coined …

Histories, Ideologies, Places

Dialect

It is both fortuitous and overdetermined that the critic most responsible for the view of dialect writing that American studies and cultural studies critics are challenging today was a man by the name of Krapp. Writing in the 1920s, George Philip Krapp (1925, 1926) insisted that dialect writing was a highbrow literary convention that always involved a patronizing class-based condescension. Krapp’s view came to dominate scholarship on the topic through much of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is echoed decades later in the ten-volume Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, which avers that dialect speakers in literature are usually presented as inferior, primitive, and backward (Asher and Simpson 1994). To be sure, the hierarchy that Krapp and others invoke was, historically, a component of much dialect writing. But recent scholarship emphasizes that the story is more complex and more interesting: dialect writing can be subversive as …

Disciplinarities, Ethnographies, Histories

Digital

In the twenty-first century, we tend to associate the word “digital” with computation, but its origins hark back to ancient times. The term derives from digitus in classical Latin, meaning “finger,” and, later, from digit, which refers both to whole numbers less than ten and to fingers or toes. Digital procedures long predate the development of electronic computers, and we might understand a number of earlier devices or systems to operate by digital principles. For instance, the abacus is a simple digital calculator dating from 300 BC, while Morse code and Braille represent more recent digital practices. What each of these examples has in common—from fingers to digital computers—is a particular use of the digital to refer to discrete elements or to separate numbers. This focus on the discrete and the separate is central to the functioning of today’s digital electronics, which, at a basic level, operate by distinguishing …

Embodiments, Histories, Methodologies

Empire

For most of the twentieth century, the intellectual and political leaders of the United States denied that the nation was an empire. Then around 1994, things began to change, with the neoconservatives aligned with the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) openly embracing the idea of an American empire capable of ruling the post–Cold War world. This shift is a good example of the process Raymond Williams describes in Keywords (1976/1983, 11–26), whereby changes in the significance of words occur rapidly at times of crisis. For Williams, World War II decisively shaped the remarkable transformations in the meanings of certain keywords that inspired his book. In the twenty-first-century United States, the response of the Bush administration to 9/11, which sociologist Giovanni Arrighi calls “a case of great-power suicide” (2009, 82), precipitated a similar crisis.

While PNAC’s embrace of empire was a departure from the Cold …

Histories, Ideologies, Places

Environment

The term “environment” in its broadest sense indexes contested terrains located at the intersections of political, social, cultural, and ecological economies. In its narrowest sense, it refers to the place of nature in human history. In each of these usages, representations of the natural world are understood as having decisive force in shaping environmental policy and the environmental imagination. Conservation politics were inspired by interpretations of particular places as untouched by the industrial revolutions of the nineteenth century, while much contemporary ecocriticism has continued the mainstream preoccupation with wilderness traditions, pastoralism, and the Romantic impulse of nature writing. Environmental justice activists and some ecofeminists have questioned these preoccupations, as have indigenous and postcolonial writers and scholars across the Americas who point out that imaginative writing about “nature” has a long tradition among colonial settlers attempting to mythologize and indigenize their relationships to place. This polyphony of competing voices and genealogies …

Disciplinarities, Histories, Nature

Immigration

Immigration is one of the most frequently discussed and multivalent concepts in scholarship on the U.S. experience. A subcategory within studies of “migration,” “immigration” refers in the American Heritage Dictionary to the activity of “enter[ing] and settl[ing] in a region or country to which one is not native.” The usage note at “migrate” adds, “Migrate, which is used of people or animals, sometimes implies a lack of permanent settlement, especially as a result of seasonal or periodic movement. Emigrate and immigrate are used only of people and imply a permanent move, generally across a political boundary.” As this definition indicates, many kinds of relocation may be described in everyday vernacular as “immigration.” In partial contrast, academic studies of immigration generally focus on geographic relocations across political boundaries, usually of nation-states. These relocations are often imagined as permanent, thus differentiating immigrants from groups such as temporary migrant laborers, tourists, …

Collectivities, Histories, Places

Internment

For many American studies scholars, “internment” identifies the specific process of relocation and resettlement of Japanese Americans during the early years of World War II. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “intern,” the verb form on which “internment” is based, as “to confine as a prisoner” is an obvious and essential starting point for the discussion of “internment.” Yet a further investigation of the significance of “internment” as a keyword in American studies also requires an understanding of internment not simply as an unusual act of confining or imprisoning citizens in a racial democracy but as typical of U.S. racial-disciplinary projects in the twentieth century. In the wake of the Cold War, political and legal comparisons tended to liken the internment to an earlier phase of Native American removal and dispersal or, perhaps more ominously, to the system of concentration camps in wartime Europe. As the case of …

Collectivities, Histories, Places
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