Redefining American Spaces: The City, the Lland, the Body, and History: The Fulbright American Studies Institute, Northern Illinois University, July 1-August 12, 2002

Article excerpt

By considering the work of such critics as Edward W. Said, Gloria Anzaldua, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Doreen Massey, Edward W. Soja, and Michel Foucault, one can perceive that the concepts of space and geography, alongside history, have increasingly become central to literary and cultural criticism. Said, for instance, has pointed out that high modernist texts are often so obsessed with time that the importance of space was virtually overlooked in them. Postmodernist criticism also tends to be concerned with time, though in another way, with theories of periodicity. Anzaldua, Soja, Massey, and Sedgewick, by focusing respectively upon the defining power of borders, the quest for a transcendent "third space" (the merger of the instinctive recognition of physical space and the "mental or cognitive" awareness of that recognition), the interaction between public and private spaces, and the history/time and geography/place of the body, have called attention to issues of space in American writing since World War II as they have addressed this modernist and postmodernist oversight. In this context, it is obvious that an American Studies Institute devoted to extensive and intensive examination of the centrality of geography and space, along with history, to contemporary American literature is of genuine value to teachers in the discipline from inside and outside the United States.

Reflecting our defining focus on space, the institute was entitled "Redefining American Spaces: the City, the Land, the Body, and History;" and, in order to evaluate thoroughly traditional and still emerging definitions of space, it was organized into five modules. The first of these, "Public and Private Spaces," reflected the inclusive nature of our controlling definition of space as incorporating the external and the internal as well as a merger of the two. Various human encounters with landscape were the major focus of the module. The institute's second module, "The Urban and Ethnicity," was based on two of the major concerns of contemporary American literary criticism, the nature of the city and its role as the center of cultural and historical diversity. The third module, "The Suburb, the Exurb, and the Farm," contrasted two of the newest kinds of American spaces with one of the most traditional. In the fourth module, "The Geography of the Body and the Family," the focus was on a still-emerging body of literary criticism and theory that envision the human body as a unique kind of space. The last module, "Landscape and History," was devoted to exploration of Western outdoor space as prototype of the American western myth.

Located in DeKalb, Illinois, Northern Illinois University (NIU) is ideally situated to offer such an institute. It is at the center of several kinds of space that cumulatively embody contemporary American culture. First, NIU is only sixty-five miles west of Chicago, a city that has played a dominant role in the development of American history and culture, and, therefore, literature since the late nineteenth century. Literary critics have identified three major Chicago literary movements: the naturalism of the late nineteenth century, the era of socially committed fiction and poetry in the 1930s and 1940s, and a contemporary Chicago literature of racial and ethnic diversity. This last stage is an inevitable outgrowth of the contemporary critical valorization of literary multiculturalism and of the cultural/historical diversity of Chicago. Chicago has long been a city identifiable by its distinct racial and ethnic neighborhoods, enclaves that literally constitute multicultural spaces. Moreover, the city, with its architectural heritage derived from Wright, Sullivan, and others, its world-class museums (the Art Institute, the Field Museum of Natural History), its diverse and vital theater, and its role as a commercial center second only to New York City in the U.S., has long been a cornerstone of American culture. It is in fact the cultural and commercial center of the American Midwest. …