Culture

The concept of culture has had widespread use since the late eighteenth century, when it was synonymous with civilization and still indicated a sense of cultivation and growth derived from its Latin root, colere, which also included in its original meanings “inhabit” (as in “colonize”), “protect,” and “honor with worship” (as in “cult”). According to Raymond Williams (1976/1983, 87–93), the noun form took, by extension, three inflections that encompass most of its modern uses: intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development; the way of life of a people, group, or humanity in general; and the works and practices of intellectual and artistic activity (music, literature, painting, theater, and film, among many others). Although Williams considers the last to be the most prevalent usage, the extension of anthropology to urban life and the rise of identity politics in the 1980s (two changes that have left a mark on both cultural studies and …

Ideologies, Money, Power

Democracy

Democracy is the name that has been assigned to a dream as well as to certain already existing realities that are lived, by many people, as a nightmare. The dream is of government by the people, government in which the common people hold sway, in which the dispensation of the commons—“the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces, etc., created through universal exchange” that Karl Marx called wealth—is collectively determined, in which the trace of any enclosure of the commons whatever is an object of the severest vigilance since such dispensation will have been understood as ending not in tragedy but in romance (Marx 1858/1993, 488; Hardin 1968). This is the fantasy of democracy as fantasy, as the contrapuntal arrangement of the many voices of the whole. The materialization of this dream will have been real democracy.

Authority in democracy can be exercised directly, in the immediate participation of …

Collectivities, Ideologies, Power

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

Diaspora

Until only a few decades ago, “diaspora” was a relatively esoteric word restricted in meaning to the historical dispersion of particular communities around the Mediterranean basin. Since then, it has become a privileged term of reference in scholarship, journalism, and popular discourse, used broadly and at times indiscriminately to denote a number of different kinds of movement and situations of mobility among human populations. Diaspora is a Greek word, a combination of the prefix dia- (meaning “through”) and the verb sperein (meaning “to sow” or “to scatter”). It was used in the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Torah prepared for the ruler of Alexandria in Egypt around 250 BCE by a specially appointed group of Jewish scholars. Subsequently, the word came to be employed as a self-designation among the Jewish populations that spread throughout the Mediterranean during the Hellenic period.

In recent deployments of the term, it is sometimes …

Collectivities, Methodologies, Places

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

Disability

As a keyword in American studies and cultural studies, the site of a political movement, and the name of an interdisciplinary field, “disability” articulates vital connections across the many communities of people with disabilities, their public histories, and a range of cultural theories and practices. People with disabilities have too often been rendered invisible and powerless because of a mainstream tendency to valorize the normal body. As a result of disability activist work emerging from the civil rights movement, legal reforms, and grassroots activist work, the framing of disability has shifted from an emphasis on “disability” as a medical term to one of disability as a social construction. In the 1980s, disability activists began to move into the academy and to formulate a wide range of scholarship around the keyword. In the first phase, their work centered largely on the analysis and reform of public policy. By the early 1990s, …

Feelings

Diversity

What is the best way to manage unlike human capacities in the name of human progress and improvement? This deceptively simple question has preoccupied Western political modernity, especially in the United States. The positive connotations often adhering to the keyword “diversity”—a term commonly used to reference human differences broadly considered—arise from its importance in high-status discourses that have sought to discern the best management of human differences, including eighteenth-century liberal political philosophy, nineteenth- and twentieth-century natural science (especially the so-called race sciences), and twentieth- and twenty-first-century law and education policy. In contrast, research in American studies and cultural studies has come to look on the endeavor of managing human differences in a suspicious light (Ferguson 2012). It recognizes that ideologies of progress and development from Manifest Destiny to multiculturalism have consistently, and sometimes in surprising ways, divided people into good (desirable) and bad (undesirable) forms of human diversity, creating hierarchies …

Embodiments, Ideologies, Power

Domestic

The keyword “domestic” conjures up several different yet linked meanings. It evokes the private home and all its accouterments and, in a secondary fashion, hired household help. It also refers to the “national” as opposed to the “foreign” and to the “tame” as opposed to the “natural” or “wild.” American studies and cultural studies scholarship has only recently begun to think through the connections among these usages of the term and to make visible the racial and class bias of much of the scholarship on domesticity in relation to the United States.

Theorizing the domestic has been integral to many academic disciplines: architecture and design, anthropology, sociology, history, economics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literary and cultural criticism. Expressed in binary terms such as male/female, public/private, and production/reproduction, a relatively stable home/work dichotomy has formed the basis of scholarly writing on domesticity across these disciplines. Newer studies of domesticity are more attentive …

Ideologies, Money, Places

Economy

The term “economy” in its contemporary sense came into use only quite recently. It is often assumed that the idea of the economy, defined as the relations of material production and exchange in a given territory and understood as an object of expert knowledge and government administration, was introduced by political economists such as William Petty, François Quesnay, and Adam Smith in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or even by Aristotle. In fact, however, this use of the term developed only in the 1930s and 1940s and was well established only by the 1950s (T. Mitchell 2005).

In earlier periods, “economy” (usually with no definite article) referred to a way of acting and to the forms of knowledge required for effective action. It was the term for the proper husbanding of material resources or the proper management of a lord’s estate or a sovereign’s realm. “Political economy” came to mean …

Disciplinarities, Money, Power

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
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