By the 1980s and 1990s, American Studies scholars increasingly focused on the production, consumption, and influence of twentieth-century American mass culture. Americans and others have both lauded and lamented late capitalist culture and commodities, which have come to symbolize America to the rest of the world. Such analyses often assume that late twentieth-century political and economic structures have fragmented social life, and ask whether (or how) people form a sense of national identity, and/or how they fashion group identities, based on commonalities in their consumption of commodities (including literature), their sex/gender or ethnic/racial identities, or their sense of region or place. American Studies scholars produced historical and literary studies of consumer culture, women’s experience, and African American and immigrant identity. They also looked with new eyes at the American West and its inhabitants, from the perspectives of environmental history, Native American cultures, and Chicano/a conquest and cultural exchange in the borderlands of the Southwest.
Current American Studies scholars have expanded upon many of these traditional concerns, especially the problem of U.S. imperialism, past and present, and America’s role in the cultural and economic phenomena of global capitalism and transnational politics. The question of how a coherent nation has been constructed and reconstructed in the past and present has also received new scrutiny. The heterogeneous composition of peoples, the shifting borders of what constitutes that ever-changing nation and citizenship in it, are objects of study. How do people who describe themselves as “Americans” imagine and reinvent that country and its relation to the rest of the world?
Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, these old questions about American exceptionalism have taken on new meaning. Is America really unique in the world, or is this a widely held delusion that leads to American-centered policy making? As Americans have taken up arms and sides in the war in Iraq, claims about American identity, citizenship, and democracy have been deployed in language and policy. Earlier this year, for instance, a military official described the war in an NPR interview as follows: “The U.S. Army is in Iraq, America is at the mall.” By so doing, he simultaneously linked and divided battlefield and homeland, military and civilian, the economics of war and consumer culture. The renewed debate over immigration policies has also shown how Americans periodically contest and redraw our own national boundaries, both political and geographical, and redefine the conditions for American citizenship. Will this prove to be the Anti-American Century? American Studies scholars don’t have all the answers, but their past and current work on American culture can help put such questions in perspective.
My thesis allowed me to examine whether and how the development of
public school choice was enabled by struggles surrounding school desegregation.
Forty years of theses by Reed American Studies majors reflect the wider concerns of the national field. Predictably, Reed has sent numbers of students off to do graduate work in American Studies—though with equally predictable Reedie perversity, most of these would-be Ph.D.s did not do undergraduate theses in American Studies. I caught up with two current graduate students (both at Yale) to get their views on the state of the field. What does it mean to them to pursue an advanced degree in American Studies, especially at this historical moment?