Fashion

What is “fashion”? In contrast to “clothing” and “garments” (words that name the materials that are the basis of fashion) or sewing and tailoring (the processes that produce those materials), “fashion” names a relatively new cultural form. The term originated in the fourteenth century, derived from the French facon (meaning “manner, mode, or appearance”) and the Latin factionem (“making or doing”). In its etymological origin, “fashion” referred to the acts of making and of displaying—to both object and labor—but this relationship has become increasingly obscured in the term’s contemporary usage. A word that once implied both the object produced and the mode of its production is now commonly used to reference only the former, as fashionistas and fashion scholars alike become less concerned with who makes clothing (and under what conditions) than who wears it (and what this might say about their class positions, gender roles, ethnic affiliations, sexual proclivities, …

Embodiments, Ideologies, Money

Finance

Finance today signals a whole range of ways in which culture, economy, and polity—the very fabric of material and symbolic life—have become interwoven. It maps a terrain where expert knowledge jostles uneasily with tacit understandings of the world, where enormous wealth becomes entangled with everyday poverty, where the future mingles with the present and the faraway with the very near. “Finance,” as a noun or verb, along with “financialization” as a name for the process by which financial habits of thought have become prevalent across a wide array of fields and activities, has meanings and applications that shift depending on usage. This variation renders the term all the more challenging to grasp, even as the calamitous specter of households, businesses, nations, and global markets in default has made private matters of credit and debt objects of public consideration.

One reason for this confusion is that “finance,” considered as a keyword, …

Methodologies, Money, Power

Globalization

“Globalization” is a contemporary term used in academic and nonacademic contexts to describe a late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century condition of economic, social, and political interdependence across cultures, societies, nations, and regions that has been precipitated by an unprecedented expansion of capitalism on a global scale. One problem with this usage is that it obscures a much longer history of global contacts and connections. In the ancient world, there were empires, conquests, slavery, and diasporas; in medieval and early modern times, Asian, Arab, and European civilizations mingled through trade, travel, and settlement. Only with European colonial expansion, beginning in the sixteenth century and reaching its height in the nineteenth, did global contacts involve western European and North American dominance; the rise of Western industrialized modernity, made possible by labor and resources in the “new world” of the Americas, was, in this sense, a relatively recent global interconnection. Yet today, the …

Disciplinarities, Money, Places

Labor

In April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated while organizing mass protests in support of an illegal strike by Memphis sanitation workers. Like many activists of his day, he saw a series of connections among discrimination by race, sex, and workplace exploitation. He asked, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” (1968). In response to intersecting modes of oppression, King and others believed that liberatory social movements needed to pursue shared goals. The long tradition of such intersectional labor analysis includes the oratory of Frederick Douglass (2000) and the sociology of W. E. B. Du Bois (1995a, 1995b); the feminist anarchism of Lucy Parsons (2004) and Emma Goldman (1969); the revolutionary communist poetry of Langston Hughes (1973) and Amiri

Collectivities, Money, Power

Liberalism

“Liberalism” is one of the most important terms in Anglo-American and, more broadly, Euro-American political and philosophical discourse. It derives from the English term “liberal,” which initially referred to a class of “free men” as opposed to the unfree—that is, people embedded within or bound by one or another form of socially restrictive hierarchy (Raymond Williams 1976/1983, 179–81). “Liberalism” has never shed the class meanings and elitist connotations at its root and origin, in large part because it indexes tensions and ambiguities at the heart of what are now referred to as liberal-democratic nation-states. At the same time, the term “liberal” has also retained long-standing associations with universality, open-mindedness, and tolerance linked to an advocacy of individual freedom and an antipathy to socially determined, collectively defined forms of ascription. As such, it has had special purchase for scholars of U.S. politics and culture, from Louis Hartz’s seminal critique in the …

Ideologies, Money, Power

Market

References to the market abound in American studies and cultural studies scholarship, but historians and critics who use this term are not always referring to the same thing. As an abstract noun, “market” can refer to the potential demand for a commodity or service or to the actual state of trade at any one moment; it can refer to the trading network for a particular commodity or, more generally, to the business of buying and selling. The phrases “market society” and “market culture” are frequently used to invoke the promises and constraints of a capitalist economy, even though the buying and selling of goods, often to distant consumers, is not specific to capitalism. Economic historians and political theorists have elaborated distinctions that can help us to use this term with greater precision: to distinguish stages in the historical development of the U.S. economy and to attend to the uneven growth …

Ideologies, Money, Places

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

Neoliberalism

The word “neoliberalism,” first used during the 1930s, came into widespread circulation in the 1990s to name a utopian ideology of “free markets” and minimal state interference, a set of policies slashing state social services and supporting global corporate interests, a process (neoliberalization) proceeding in company with procorporate globalization and financialization, and a cultural project of building consent for the upward redistributions of wealth and power that have occurred since the 1970s. But neoliberalism might best be understood as a global social movement encompassing all of these political goals. In American studies and cultural studies, the concept has gathered force as a description of current tendencies in global politics and a critique of those tendencies, even as its meanings have dispersed.

Though the term tends to be used differently across the social sciences and the humanities, there is wide agreement that neoliberalism is a radicalized form of capitalist imperialism, centered …

Ideologies, Money, Power

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

Slavery

“Slavery has never been represented, slavery never can be represented,” said the novelist, antislavery lecturer, and former slave William Wells Brown in 1847 (1847/1969, 82). Brown referred, in the first instance, to the world-making violence of the system of kidnapping, dispossession, and labor extraction that emerged in the fifteenth century and persisted almost to the dawn of the twentieth. But he referred in the second instance to a sort of epistemological violence, a murderous, forcible forgetting of the history of slavery. Only slavery’s victims—if it is possible to use the word “only” in the context of so many millions of stolen lives—might have truly told the story he wanted to tell. Brown reminds us that we approach the history of slavery by way of whispers and shadows, where truth has often been hidden in half truth in order to be saved away for the future. We approach it, that is …

Embodiments, Money, Power
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