I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. — MLK, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam” http://www.africawithin.com/mlking/beyond_vietnam.htm
This blog is one of the public faces of a conversation taking place at the CUNY Graduate Center among those who articulate to the field of American studies, and/or through American studies to a vast array of intellectual, political, social, and cultural issues.
On 4 May 2011, we launched an initiative titled Revolutionizing American Studies, with an event focused around Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California (UC Press, 2007). Graduate Center President William Kelly offered opening remarks that emphasized his commitment to the kind of interdisciplinary work that this book represents, and warmly welcomed the audience and Gilmore to the event. Duncan Faherty (Associate Professor of English, Queens College and the Graduate Center) and Kandice Chuh (Professor of English, the Graduate Center), introduced the initiative and the panelists, Cindi Katz (Professor of Environmental Psychology, the Graduate Center) and Nikhil Singh (Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University).
This initiative intends to animate a critical engagement with American Studies at and beyond the Graduate Center. The framing rubric for this effort to invigorate and document Americanist discourse at the Graduate Center underscores our intent to interrogate both the genealogies of revolutionary action and thought embedded in the histories of Americanness and the field of American studies, and the potential to think through this field to foster revolutionary thinking toward the generation of new politics, socialities, and cultural practices.
CUNY has a rich history of engagement with American Studies. Indeed, at the most recent conference of the major organization in the field – the American Studies Association (“ASA”) conference held in San Antonio (in November 2010) – 22 presenters had CUNY institutional affiliations. Taken together, this group represented seven campuses (Baruch, BMCC, Brooklyn, the Graduate Center, John Jay, Queens, and York) and at least seven different departments or disciplines (Anthropology, English, Environmental Psychology, Geography, History, Political Science, and Psychology). These presenters spoke on everything from “Affective Contracts in Big Love” to “Seeds as a Resource for Innovation: Institutional Interests in Global Food Security” and examined just about every temporality from the 1780s to our contemporary moment. To look over the program of the ASA’s annual convention is to note the impressive work already produced by members of the CUNY community under the large umbrella of American Studies. We hope that the series of conversations, lectures, workshops, and interactions planned over the next year will support and advance that work. We hope to foster conversations across fields, sub-fields, disciplines, and disparate temporal moments, to consider collectively the methodologies that animate and pollinate all these disjunctions and inform the work already being done and the work that we might do in the future.
A hallmark of American Studies praxis is a healthy skepticism of the idea that any one lens, any one disciplinary based approach can in and of itself adequately come to terms with the complexities of cultural production. At its best, American Studies is defined by its inter-disciplinarity, so it makes enormous sense that the Graduate Center, which is so well-versed in promoting the troubling of disciplinary boundaries, should embrace the possibilities inherent in Revolutionizing American Studies. That we do so now seems even more urgent: that we do so in the context of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders setting out from Washington, DC, seems appropriate, and that we do so after what the hip-hop artist M.I.A recently tweeted was our “Disney weekend Princes Married, Bad guys killed,” suggests the necessity of revolutionizing our study of America. That is, the timeliness of this initiative compellingly emerges in the unfolding of contemporary history. Our initial conversations about this initiative coincided with President Barack Obama’s address to the nation to explain the involvement of U.S. military forces in Libya – with his proclamation that “Born as we are, out of a revolution by those who longed to be free, we welcome the fact that history is on the move.” President Obama’s remarks recall a famous letter by Thomas Jefferson written in 1787 (over two hundred years earlier and just eight weeks after the endorsement of the Constitution by 38 of the 41 elected delegates). In this letter, Jefferson declared “what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?” This rhetorical injunction concludes Jefferson’s reaction to the Shays Rebellion, a domestic uprising caused by the instability of the nascent “national” economy after the Revolutionary War, a conclusion which he prefaces by declaring that, “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” To take seriously the intended affects and the imbedded contradictions in both Obama’s and Jefferson’s remarks, is the spirit of Revolutionizing American Studies. To think about what it means to be born out of a revolution – to think about how the project of revolution morphed into an effort to curtail revolutionary activity – to think about the revolutions which have not been acknowledged as “our” revolutions – to think about how, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, “the chronicles of revolutions all show how persistent and small changes, and altogether unexpected consolidations, added up to enough weight, over time and space, to cause a break with the old order” – and to inspire work that aims to foster the spirit of resistance so necessary to the preservation of liberties – is the aim of Revolutionizing American Studies.
The numbers in attendance at the 4 May event – some 80 faculty and students – and that the audience drew from a wide range of disciplines – English, History, Geography, Anthropology, Education, Environmental Psychology, and Sociology among them – are strong indications of the investment in the questions of freedom, justice, and the structural conditions that distribute these differentially across populations, that find traction for a great many of the Graduate Center’s publics. Drawing on the discussion from this inaugural event, a series of questions emerges that helps us to address the exigencies for this project of Revolutionizing American studies – questions that we expect would serve as the backbone of the work undertaken in the seminars: What kinds of conceptual tools and renovations are necessary to apprehend contemporary modalities of power? How do our engagements with history and the present inform the crafting of knowledges helpful in creating survivable futures? How may we address, as Cindi Katz put it, the “organized abandonment” of peoples – through incarceration, divestment from and privatization of public spaces, and the violent dehumanization that accompanies such legitimated modes of organizing socialities? How might we rethink the spatial and temporal protocols that have structured American studies in such ways as to recognize the effects of globalization? How may and should we think the relationship of intellectual practice to the extra-academic world?
Justice; capitalism; space; imagination; globalization; vulnerability; radicalism and transformation; race and gender; modernity; humanity; incarceration and dehumanization; intellectual history and interdisciplinarity; politics, power, and personhood; and activism and intellectual work: these emerge as concepts central to the work we will undertake. We hope to build on them – to borrow from Cindi Katz’s work, we can inform and enliven our “seeing, doing, copying, and making” with these concepts, to open pathways for the release of the playful, potentially revolutionary imagination of our collective endeavor.