Crossing Borders, Shifting Paradigms: The Perspectives of American Studies /Cultural Studies in Eastern Europe

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American Studies, Western Theories, Local Practices

American Studies in the United States has become a major forum for the advancement of cultural studies (CS), an interdisciplinary practice that is experiencing an unprecedented international boom not unlike the boom that American Studies experienced in the post-war years. Interestingly, both American Studies and cultural studies are often described as practices that stand at the crossroads of various discourses, the busy and vibrant "meeting point between different centers, disciplines, and intellectual movements." (1) Their influence spans the globe, from Great Britain and Western Europe, across the USA, to Africa, Asia, and Australia. In the case of cultural studies, the growing number of publications, the proliferation of websites, the opening of new departments and programs at universities, and the organization of numerous conferences all demonstrate the successful institutionalization and internationalization of this project all over the world. However, while cultural studies has become the dominant mode of cultural analysis in U.S.-based American Studies programs, it has not become a universal discourse. There still exist some exotic, or simply different locations where manners of studying culture--even American culture--do not conform to the paradigm of CS: post-Soviet Eastern Europe is one of these locations.

My statement is based on several observations. First of all, it seems quite obvious at international conferences. I was personally struck by the absence of East-European cultural theorists at the 3rd International Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference held at the University of Birmingham in 2000. The atmosphere of industrial Birmingham was a perfect match for the atmosphere of modern intellectual production: any distant observer would have been convinced that cultural studies is no marginal (say postmarxist) intellectual project, but a huge cultural industry producing and reproducing names, ideas, books, academic programs, journals, etc., at an impressive rate The session I chaired--"Cultural Studies in Eastern Europe: Western Theories vs. Local Practices"--was actually the only session at the conference that addressed the development of cultural studies in the region, its epistemological, political and methodological concerns. (2) Similarly striking was that among the more than 800 participants there were only eight East-European scholars, and, as I later learned from my conversations with them, (some Were anthropologists, others psychologists or teachers of English) not all came with a clear idea of what cultural studies is. Why should this be the case? Moreover, is it really worth posing the question? Does it matter if some parts of Europe neither know nor care about the existence of cultural studies?

Second, let us turn to some recent publications (in English) dedicated to the study of contemporary East European culture. As far as I know, there have been very few attempts to analyze the current cultural situation in the region, and even those few attempts have been sporadic and produced by, or in cooperation with, Western theorists. (3) These are mainly scholars from the discipline of Slavic Studies who are often criticized for their conservatism (4) (gender studies and other critical approaches face strong resistance in this milieu) and Russia-centrism, which means that other East European cultures, particularly small ones, hardly get any attention at all. All this does not mean, however, that there is no reflection on the current cultural situation by East European scholars. On the contrary, many interesting books in the area of cultural analysis have been published during the last decade in Eastern Europe, mostly in various local languages. The question "Why do they not get translated into English" might lead us to a long (and probably futile) discussion on the complex interconnections between intellectual production and economic interests, between first and third world economies and politics. …