Areas of Concern: Area Studies and the New American Studies

Article excerpt

The new American Studies encompasses the various nations and communities in the Western Hemisphere and studies them in comparative, transnational, and, in some cases, "postnational" contexts. The field also deals with the global influences of these "Americas" and Canada, especially the powerful impact of the US around the world. It thus faces increasing opposition from traditional American Studies and "area studies" specialists in Latin American, Middle Eastern, Asian, and other disciplinary areas established at the beginning of World War II by the Ethnogeographic Board, an alliance of independent foundations, scholars, and governmental institutions. This article traces the historical consequences of the Ethnogeographic Board's work and how the new American Studies might overcome the provincialism of the "area studies" model.


American Studies has thus far avoided the heated debates concerning the restructuring of area studies prompted by dramatic changes in the geopolitical and economic maps as a consequence of globalization. In view of the US role in the economic, political, and cultural changes produced by globalization, we might expect that American Studies would be as fiercely contested in its disciplinary borders as East Asian, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, Soviet, and Latin American Studies, to mention only a few of the areas established by post-World War II scholarship, and facing dramatic challenges since the 1970s, especially in the aftermath of Soviet decolonization. Of course, the area studies model has defined primarily the social sciences--economics, political science, and sociology--and interdisciplinary conjunctures of history and the social sciences, including "historical sociology" and "social science history" (Wallerstein 44-45). Given the centrality of cultural production, especially literature and the visual arts, and traditional history in the field of American Studies, it is not surprising that American Studies would be considered eccentric to the debates concerning the scholarly map of a new world order governed by new political, economic, and social forces. Whether treated as epiphenomenal or superstructural, the objects of study dominating post-World War II American Studies--"myths and symbols" to use a convenient tag--hardly warranted the attention of serious scholars dealing with urgent issues of global political instability, economic crisis, war, genocide, famine and drought, and the spread of infectious diseases.

In the past twenty years, American Studies has posed a much greater threat to the authority of the "area studies" model and to the nation-specific knowledge it supports. Scholars of the "new" American Studies have challenged traditional American Studies for its exclusive attention to the distinctive qualities of US citizenship and nationalism, condemning such "exceptionalism" for its deliberate neglect of the demographic diversity of the US and the transnational networks on which the US state has traditionally relied (Rowe, New American Studies xiii-xviii). The key post-World War II advocates of this American Exceptionalism were the scholars of the Myth-and-Symbol School, and the challenge posed by "new Americanists" included broadening the field to include the Americas and Canada. Such debates internal to the field of American Studies may appear to have little to do with US foreign policies, the power of the state, or its domestic authority; these are merely academic debates negotiated in specialist journals and conferences.

Yet the new Americanists' challenge to US national form, itself crucial to US state power, occurred in a historical period when national knowledges in general were called into question. Alan Wolfe's review essay "Anti-American Studies" targeted work by the new Americanists as "anti-American," in large part because such scholarship threatened familiar US national ideologies. No longer merely academic, debates within American Studies threatened larger public efforts to bolster a tottering US state, whose exclusiveness relied on a stereotypical "representative man" who was white, middle-class, and of European descent. …