Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Finding Purple America: The South and the Future of American Cultural Studies

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Finding Purple America: The South and the Future of American Cultural Studies

Article excerpt

Finding Purple America: The South and the Future of American Cultural Studies. By Jon Smith. The New Southern Studies. (Athens, Ga., and London: University of Georgia Press, 2013. Pp. [xviii], 176. Paper, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-8203-4526-0; cloth, $69.95, ISBN 978-0-8203-3321-2.)

Finding Purple America: The South and the Future of American Cultural Studies is addressed primarily to literary critics who practice in the field of southern studies. This field is divided into two camps, the "new southern studies" and the "old southern studies" (pp. ix-x). According to Jon Smith, the latter group is composed of aging white baby boomers who have too long been committed to a theory and a practice of southern studies that is narcissistic and driven by melancholia rather than a desire to observe the world "in its senseless actuality" (p. xi).

Though Smith's audience is likely to be mainly literary critics, readers of this journal might consider the usefulness of his critique for the field of southern history as well. His argument is this: people who study the South have long brought to their work fantasies about what the South is, and these fantasies have prevented them from truly understanding their subject. Borrowing from marketing theorist Douglas B. Holt, Smith calls these fantasies imaginary "populist worlds," identity myths that have been produced and consumed by scholars for decades (p. 9). "The South" has been less a real place to study than an ideological vessel into which scholars have placed "our libidinal investments, our enjoyment" (p. 4). The problem? "You cannot act reasonably," Smith says, "if your actions are overdetermined by fantasy" (p. 9).

Smith analyzes the way South-observers so often articulate their fantasies about the region in the mode of grief and melancholy--that the South used to be something real (a community, a place, a culture, and so on), but that authentic (even if part evil) thing has been disrupted by industrialization or immigration or mechanization or some such historical force, and lost forever. This sense of loss and the attendant desire to understand it, Smith notes, is precisely what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would have called "the drive," which is a problematic motivation for scholars, because, as Slavoj Zizek explained, "'the drive's ultimate aim is simply to reproduce itself'" (p. …

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