Wednesday, January 19, 2005

"American Studies: A Not So Unscientific Method”
Brian Attebery
So I’m at this party, and a drunken soldier comes up and starts talking to me. Long story short, he says, “You’re majoring in American Studies? When I was at Notre Dame, that was the major with the highest paid graduates!”

“No Kidding!” I said, foolishly assuming the best. “Yeah, those are the only courses the football players could pass. Hah ha ha ha ha.”

If that fool could read big words, he might have a field day with Attebery’s article, in which he summarizes Henry Nash Smith’s point of view that American Studies, by definition has to be unscientific. He also concurs with “Marxist-Freudian readings of American culture,” which argue that “no study of culture is strictly empirical.” But rather than muddying the waters, Attebery’s argument, I believe, strengthens the theory behind the discipline.

Attebery’s point is that the “feature of the past” American Studies tries to measure “is something particularly accessible through poetry and literary texts.” This, by its very nature, can’t be empirical research.

Leo Marx wrote to Smith that he thought it would be “possible to trace, using the literature as an index, the genesis of the American middle class simply in terms of its self-consciousness, or the consciousness of ‘middleness.’” That’s such an important idea. To me it almost sounds like he views literature as a cultural Rorschach test, a way to measure the inner workings through a certain type of abstract image. Marx was not as interested in the “historical and cultural context” of the literature as he was in the “‘consciousness’ that is formed by the something collective,” whatever “American-ness” there was.

Attebery even spells out Marx’s methodology, or “regimen” for analyzing culture. He wanted to “Isolate the use of industrial-technical themes, metaphors, images in the work of the writer.” Then, he wanted to see how these same themes “fit into the novel, story or poem.” After that, he examined the way the way the writer related his or her own “preoccupations, themes, concepts” with the way the characters behaved “toward the emerging machine age.” Finally, he planned to go back to the “works of art” and try to interpret them in the light of what he had surmised from his work. Attebery points out that Marx’s methodology was “circular,” rather than “an open spiral.”

Marx also dealt with the issue of whether to consider literature in terms of its historical context. Neither Marx nor Smith was inclined to think of literature as “exceptional, an isolated aesthetic object.” Rather, both scholars valued literature because they believed “it is more than ordinarily representative of its time and place.”

Marx and Smith used the methodology of myth and symbol as “interpretive tools to aid them in identifying the structures of thought used by nineteenth-century writers to sort out their own complex and contradictory environment.” One of the key disagreements with their methodology is that the critics are inclined to begin with a foregone conclusion and find evidence for whatever conclusion they believe.

Though Smith and Marx didn’t always agree, they did share the belief that: “The subject matter of American studies is the American mind or consciousness.” Also, “The method for studying this subject involves interpreting artifacts” such as literature. The next is that “the interpreter is himself a product of history.” Another is that the method isn’t flawed—it can “validated by interdisciplinarity.” Finally, they agreed that “literature has a special place in American studies because the literary text articulates its own theory about itself and its time and place.”

Attebery ends by saying that we don’t need to “apologize for American studies.” Instead, we can value it as a “different kind of science, one in which interpretation and cross-disciplinary validation replace prediction and experimental verification.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

yes, this is carlos. it's me again. suffer patiently, heidi. not that there's much of an option. that's the bad side of a blog.

"american studies." i must confess i never liked the name, perhaps (well, not perhaps, but surely), the distress at such nomenclature comes from being from argentina. as you (may) know, in latin american countries, "america" is a big continent divided in three areas (north, central and south america). still, it is a single continent. so the idea of "america" as a way of naming the u.s. feels rather... imperial to our third-world ears. granted, we're still trying to figure out if we're living in post-colonial or colonial times (we tend to lean towards "colonial").

funny story: when going through customs there used to be two signs that read: "americans" "foreigners" until one blessed morning at the miami int'l airport there was a commotion of sorts because a bunch of south american folks aimed directly towards the line under the "americans" sign. it was quite a sight (it was also prior to 9/11/01) but the next time i landed on miami and have to go through customs there, there was no "americans" sign, rather one that read "u.s. citizens." i don't think there's a moral to the story, given the fact that most people tend to use (even if reluctantly) the term "american" to signify the u.s. in any event, it makes me wonder why such an area of inquiry would be more self analytical and examine its naming practices...

of course, the political, humpty dumpty teaching alice about what words means and the like.