States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies

States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies

States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies

States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies


The contributors to this volume argue that for too long, inclusiveness has substituted for methodology in American studies scholarship. The ten original essays collected here call for a robust comparativism that is attuned theoretically to questions of both space and time.

States of Emergency asks readers to engage in a thought experiment: imagine that you have an object you want to study. Which methodologies will contextualize and explain your selection? What political goals are embedded in your inquiry? This thought experiment is taken up by contributors who consider an array of objects--the weather, cigarettes, archival material, AIDS, the enemy, extinct species, and torture. The essayists recalibrate the metrics of time and space usually used to measure these questions. In the process, each contributes to a project that redefines the object of American studies, reading its history as well as its future across, against, even outside the established grain of interdisciplinary practice.


Srinivas Aravamudan, Duke University
Ian Baucom, Duke University
Chris Castiglia, The Pennsylvania State University
Russ Castronovo, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Wai Chee Dimock, Yale University
Nan Enstad, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Susan Gillman, University of California, Santa Cruz
Rodrigo Lazo, University of California, Irvine
Robert S. Levine, University of Maryland
Anne McClintock, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Kenneth W. Warren, University of Chicago


What is the object of American studies? This opening salvo really asks two questions. What does “American studies” study, and what does it want? Some would say that the question is the problem. “Must self-identification as an Americanist put one under the obligation to be an upholder or subverter of American institutions?” Why should American studies take upon itself the call to endorse a program, especially one saddled with all sorts of nationalist connotations, more than any other field of literary and cultural studies? To say that the nation is the self-evident truth of the field simply states a tautology. W. E. B. Du Bois, author of “The Study of the Negro Problems” (1897), a foundational essay on the origins of his own methodological creativity and experimentation in studying an object, offers an answer. The scope of any problem, Du Bois recognizes, changes over time and across space—as surely as black life in the United States is conditioned by the long fetch of history that unfolded in the broader Atlantic world. “All Art is propaganda and ever must be,” he wrote some twenty years later in “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926). Translation: all American studies scholarship is ever propaganda. This is a place to start, not something either to celebrate or to decry.

In pressuring the object of American studies, we are questioning how the things that this interdisciplinary field studies—whether bits of material culture as small as a cigarette stub or as large as war—imply a political position or practice. Still following Du Bois, we could say that we do not care a damn for any methodology that is not used for political ends. For now, though, we advance the less controversial point that all politics have methodologies, and it is about time that American studies consciously evaluate the strategies . . .

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