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

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

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

Citizenship

Although we tend to think of citizenship as something national, originally the citizen was simply a certain kind of someone who lived in a Greek city: a member of an elite class who was said to be capable of self-governance and therefore of the legal and military governance of the city. But the ancient history of the term tells us little about the constellation of rights, laws, obligations, interests, fantasies, and expectations that shape the modern scene of citizenship, which is generally said to have been initiated by the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century (B. Anderson 1991; B. Turner 1993; Mouffe 1995). Most simply, citizenship refers to a standing within the law (this is often called formal citizenship); jus soli citizenship allots citizenship to people born within the geographical territory, and jus sanguinis awards citizenship by way of a parental inheritance.

At the same time, citizenship is a relation …

Collectivities, Embodiments, Ideologies

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

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

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

Community

In the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century United States, the term “community” is used so pervasively that it would appear to be nearly meaningless. The term is often deployed more for its performative effect of being “warmly persuasive” than for any descriptive work it accomplishes (Raymond Williams 1976/1983, 76). Carrying only positive connotations—a sense of belonging, understanding, caring, cooperation, equality—“community” is deployed to mobilize support not only for a huge variety of causes but also for the speaker using the term. It functions this way for companies such as Starbucks and Target, which have programs and pamphlets in their stores proclaiming their commitment to community, as well as for the feminist scholar who seeks to legitimize her research by saying she works “in the community.” It is deployed across the political spectrum to promote everything from identity-based movements (on behalf of women, gays and lesbians, African Americans, and others) to …

Collectivities, Ideologies, Places

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
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