Time

A child can learn to “tell time,” but telling time in American studies and cultural studies is anything but simple—not least because time is crucial to the act of telling, the work of narration. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “time” tautologically, as “a space or extent of time” and “a system of measuring or reckoning the passage of time.” It eventually suggests that “time” can signify a “period or duration,” but after a lengthy entry including “time out” and “time after time,” the concept of time remains unspecified. As these circular definitions indicate, time often seems self-evident—it either needs no explanation or has no explanation, perhaps because its meanings are so prolific and so various.

Scholars in American studies and cultural studies have sought to unpack some of these meanings, starting with the distinction between time understood as a natural phenomenon and time recognized as a social construction. If you …

Feelings, Histories, 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

Youth

The keyword “youth” bears a potent and overdetermined symbolism that has made it both central to cultural studies and significant, if relatively marginal, in American studies. Critical conversations about youth span anthropology, sociology, psychology, education, history, and geography and cross over into interdisciplinary areas such as cultural studies, American studies, feminist studies, queer studies, and ethnic studies. Across these fields, the word “youth” is used in myriad ways, generally as a signifier of a developmental stage, a transition to adulthood, or a moment of socialization into or rejection of social norms. A universalizing notion of youth as a period of development that everyone experiences coexists with a particularized understanding of youth as subjects-in-the-making who are always embedded in specific historical and social contexts. This tension underlies the significance of the keyword and its appearance and disappearance in scholarly and political debates.

The most common definition of “youth” in the United …

Collectivities, Ethnographies, Methodologies
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