Category Archives: American Studies

main themes from WWI to the present

in no particular order:

  • SOCIAL MOVEMENTS
  • resistance to capitalism
  • repressive Cold War culture and its impact on gender, race, class, activism and life in general
  • representation (documentaries, photographs) of oppressed people as sites of social construction and subversion
  • Old Left vs New Left
  • fighting globalization
  • activism, especially activism that involves people laboring under multiple forms of oppression
  • relationships between race and class; deconstructing social categories
  • sexuality becomes an issue when everything else is in flux
  • figuring out how empire intersects with internal divisions of race and class (this is a major AMS project in the 1990s and 2000s)
  • the 1930s
  • the 1960s, both from the perspective of the people who were there and the people who weren’t.
  • structures of power determine the forms of resistance; infrapolitics, turbulence, mass protests
  • SMOs and whether they’re good or bad
  • nuclear technology, WWII, the Cold War, propaganda, the Culture Industry, and American exceptionalism
  • people need physical spaces in which to exercise our democratic rights
  • are we fighting for democracy or for something beyond capitalism?  or maybe these are the same thing?
  • consolidation of industry, agrarian manhood?

97: Penny Von Eschen’s Race Against Empire

In Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957, Penny Von Eschen locates radical black American thought within the larger tradition of politics of the African diaspora, and she traces the rise and fall of the relationship between the two in the decades surrounding WWII.  The international politics of the African diaspora (or the Black Atlantic) combined local struggles against racism and colonialism with a broad critique of imperialism.  International black leaders found support in Pan-Africanism, the Popular Front, labor movements in the US and the colonies, and a very vocal independent black press in the US; they viewed WWII as a unique opportunity to pursue their anti-colonial activism because they felt the racism and imperialism of the Axis powers would force the Allies to recognize and join their mission.  This international context for radical black American thought provides context for the Civil Rights movement while detaching race from its American context and reconfiguring it as the internal contradiction in global capitalism.

Von Eschen traces the rise of this international movement in the decade before WWII as an internationally coordinated project that was at once dedicated to eradicating local racisms and to fighting global capitalism.  After WWII, however, the movement began to decline.  In the US, the 1947 decision by the NAACP and major African American periodicals to stop criticizing Cold War policy because of anti-Communist sentiment dramatically reshaped the movement.  Critiques of US imperialism were replaced by a narrative of American exceptionalism, where the US was the legitimate leader of the “free world” and racism was an aberration, not a constituent element of capitalism or imperialism.  Further, the Americans replaced their international diasporic solidarity with paternalism toward “primitive” Africans, effectively erasing international ties with Africa.  The Cold War thus impeded decolonization efforts, disrupted black radicalism, and hindered the Civil Rights movement, all with devastating effects on black politics worldwide.

While Von Eschen might have overstated the dominance of radicalism in black American political thought, her integration of domestic thinkers and activists with an international movement to end racism by ending imperial capitalism provides much-needed context for the Civil Rights movement and the development of black American thought more generally.

96: Bill Stott’s Documentary Expression

In Documentary Expression and Thirties America, Bill Stott looks at 1930s America through the lens of the documentary genre.  Documentary is a form of expression that purports to represent reality but in which it is difficult for viewers to separate the false from the true.  Stott argues that at its base, the 1930s documentary had a left politics, a desire to look not just at the world as it is but at the world of the poor, the downtrodden, and the ordinary, with the intention not just of rendering it vivid and lifelike but also of constructing an audience response or instigating some progressive reform.  The different ways people created and used documentaries in the 1930s indicate, to paraphrase Agee, that the world can be improved and yet must be celebrated.

Stott considers a wide range of documentary forms and uses, and shows how documentary conventions were both developed and subverted.  Radio, examined through Edward R. Murrow, soap operas, and War of the Worlds, was the “paradigmatic medium of documentary” in the 1930s because it combined the two methods of documentary, “the direct and the vicarious, the unmediated experience and the interpretative commentary” in constant juxtaposition with one another.  Photography and documentary films, as Stott shows, were also forms in which apparent reality was actually heavily mediated, particularly when they were made by the government.  By contrast, Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men explodes social documentary by both critiquing the world of the tenant farmers and celebrating it in all its beauty, all well being self-conscious about the role of the narrator in the creation of a work of art that reveals the most intimate details and suffering in people’s lives in order to, perhaps, instigate social reform.

While Stott’s analysis is somewhat limited by his choice of documentaries – he works primarily with cultural products created by people who worked for the federal government or for private corporations – and while he could do a bit more with the conditions of production, his visual and textual analysis are strong, and his discussion of documentary as a particularly valid entry into American culture in the 1930s makes sense.  What better way to see what people might have thought about what their world was like?

95: Mark Smith’s Social Science in the Crucible

Mark Smith’s Social Science in the Crucible: The American Debate Over Objectivity and Purpose, 1918-1941 brings the Progressive Era tension between advocacy and objectivity into the interwar years, and shows that there was no “consensual paradigm” shift toward objectivity in those years.  Instead, he uncovers a debate between objectivists and purposivists – er, between people who thought they could do social scientific research from an objective viewpoint and people who understood that knowledge is always socially produced – and investigates the debate via 5 intellectual biographies.  By situating these biographies in their social contexts with an eye toward the sources of scientific research funding, Smith thus reveals the process by which scientific objectivity itself became socially constructed.

The five major figures Smith investigates are Robert Lynd, Charles Beard, Harold Lasswell, Charles Merriam, and Wesley Mitchell.  Via leading journals, lecture series, books, private letters, presidential addresses to professional societies, and other documents, he uses these five case studies to explore the historical trajectories of both sides.  Objectivists argued that it was the job of social science to provide clear, unslanted, authoritative data to policymakers, while purposivists were interested in using social science to further their own ethical goals for society.  At the heart of his book is a rather plastic use of Deweyan Pragmatism to highlight the differences and similarities of the two approaches: objectivists claimed Dewey’s argument that good techniques ensure good results, and they located morality in the consistently objective use of proper technique in social scientific research; purposivists argued that Deweyan morality dictated that research and knowledge had to be purposive, performed to solve a particular social problem, not to create knowledge for its own sake.

While Smith’s main argument, that social science at this time was not stuck in a consensual paradigm, was been proven by history of science scholars in the 1970s, his intellectual biographies are strong, and his interpretation of Dewey is interesting.  Further, the debate that Smith outlines here over the role of subjectivity and morality in science is replicated today, perhaps tellingly, in politics: conservatives argue that we should rely on our values to help us use our freedom, while liberals say that we should use our freedom to determine our values.  In science, I suspect we have arrived at a disingenuous combination of the two.

94: Doug Rossinow’s Politics of Authenticity

With The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America, Doug Rossinow writes a history of the New Left that emphasizes continuity across both time and the broader political field of the 1960s.  Unlike many scholars of the 1960s, Rossinow was not there; this is a much-needed history of the left from the outside.  Instead of drawing on personal connections and personal experience, Rossinow relies on newspapers, TV, radio, and other media sources, as well as interviews, to understand the Left and place it in context.  He argues that the New Left operated by applying an existentialist activism to the left; from this perspective, the New Left developed in response to the Cold War of the 1950s, and it ended partly because the seeds of identity politics within existentialism fragmented the Left after 1968.

Existentialism in Rossinow’s formulation directly linked to the demographics of the New Left.  Unlike the Old Left, which had been composed of working class activists in pursuit of a working class-based social democracy, the New Left began with the white, college-educated members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who directed their social criticisms not at economic exploitation but at the “alienation” and “anxiety” created by the “post-scarcity” society.  While these young folks initially thought that the poor or African Americans (not the working class) were the agents of social change due to their marginalization and consequent alienation from mainstream society, they soon adopted a theoretically-informed existentialist argument that “social and political arrangements caused inner alienation and that only radical social change would open the path to authenticity.”  Thus, affluent youth began to see themselves as the victims of postscarcity society, and they began to seek both authenticity and democratization.

Also unlike other scholars of the Left, Rossinow sees substantial connections between the student Christian movements of the 1950s and 1960s and the New Left.  The Student YMCA-YWCA used existentialism as a way of helping members connect individual alienation with larger social concerns, thereby overcoming the therapeutic culture of the 1950s.  Existentialist activists saw the individual as broken and alienated, and thus they sought solidarity and community.  Further, 1950s Christian liberalism was big into racial egalitarianism, and former Student Christians brought their views with them into the social movements of the 1960s.  This social existentialism stretched further back into the past as well, to Old Left emphases on a “humanist” Marxism based on the 1844 manuscripts, where the way to overcome alienation is to pursue wholeness and humanity in collectivism.

To examine existentialism and the New Left in detail, Rossinow operates at two different levels: at the national level, to see how the left functioned as a whole, and at the local level, with Austin, TX serving as a case study for the formation of the New Left and the explosion of SDS into prairie power.  While he finds that existentialism and the pursuit of authenticity operated at both scales, it was much more successful at “untying the knot of inner alienation and democracy than in pursuing large-scale social change.”  It was thus also much more successful in small, localized communes than in the large, national arena.  Further, the pursuit of authenticity as a means of overcoming individual alienation became detached from the larger collective enterprise, with the New Left fracturing into smaller culture-based groups: Black Power, Feminism, and so on.  The New Left thus headed into cultural liberalism, while the true radicals enmeshed themselves in small communities and passed from authenticity into marginality.

Rossinow emphasizes throughout that this is a story of a dialectical process between politics and culture, structure and dissent, and that political movements might rebel against structures of power, but their rebellions are always pre-conditioned by those same structures.  Hence the shift from radical politics to cultural liberalism and identity politics was prefigured by the capitalist system.

93: Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open

Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America is a conscious attempt to excavate and describe the legacy of the women’s movement – primarily second wave feminism – for generations of women (and men) who didn’t live through it, so that a kind of living, breathing social history can keep the struggle for gender equality alive.  In particular, Rosen charts the change in women’s consciousness from the 1950s to the 1990s through a vast compendium of the many issues, events, people, ideas, books, successes, and failures of the women’s movement in the United States, with some connections to women’s movements outside the US.

This book is written for a popular audience in response to her discovery that her undergraduate students in the 1980s had no idea what the women’s movement had redefined.  Accordingly, it hits all the highlights: Betty Freidan, SNCC and other civil rights groups, the coming together of the Old and New Left in what she calls the “female generation gap,” Kennedy’s commission on women and the tension between liberal and radical feminism, NOW, Gloria Steinem, the Vietnam War, abortion, the naming of hidden injuries, sexuality, the body, intersections between feminism and race and class, protests and happenings, consciousness-raising groups, sex, pornography,  ideological factionalism, trashing, paranoia, the FBI, commodification, the superwoman, and Ronald Reagan and the spread of global feminism.  Throughout, she attempts to characterize the depth and breadth of the women’s movement as much as she can while also showing just how interconnected this historical period was.  She also tries to account for the successes and failures of the women’s movement and the legacy of the movement as a whole.

Rosen’s faith in the power of narrative to continue the perpetual gender revolution is clear, and I think her point that we will lose the gains we have made if we are not vigilant is a good one – just look at the attacks on affirmative action.  However, I would very much like to read a history of this iteration of the women’s movement written by someone who was not there, to get a sense of the larger social and political context and a more thoroughgoing critique (instead of a celebration) of the movement itself.

92: Julia Mickenberg’s Learning from the Left

In Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States, Julia Mickenberg argues that “by maintaining the democratic spirit of the 1930s through the Cold War, children’s literature became a kind of bridge between the Old Left and the New Left generations” and contributed to the youth rebellions of the 1960s.  Working from a vast array of primary sources, including 33 author interviews, several hundred fiction and non-fiction books for children, and other archival materials, Mickenberg builds her argument by contextualizing close readings of children’s books in their historical time and place.  While she is not the first to discuss dissent in a Cold War context, Mickenberg shows that this dissent was right out in the open in children’s books; its very accessibility points to pervasive “counterhegemonic impulses” and the survival of the Popular Front in the midst of McCarthyism.

According to Mickenberg, it was possible for children’s literature to become the medium of transmission for 1930s radicalism partly because it was a largely feminine domain of the book world.  Publications rarely bothered to review children’s books, and the entire writing, production, distribution, and institutional dissemination system  for children’s books was inhabited almost entirely by women (most kids’ books were and still are bought by school libraries; also, children’s books were more expensive during the Cold War.)  Cleverly, many of these women were interested in introducing students to a “progressive” worldview and helping them be antifascist, antiracist, and more than a little idealist.  This interest was partly a legacy of Old Left parents and partly a reaction to 1950s repression, and these women hoped their kids would be able to change that.

Children’s literature was also largely ignored because its target audience was children, who presumably wouldn’t understand any particular ideological slant.  Thus children’s book authors foregrounded the contributions of African Americans, the working class, and other minorities in a critique of the whitewashed “American Way;” invented progressive dialogue for historical figures so that even Davey Crockett could be “an anticapitalist, antiracist, feminist friend of the Indians,” and emphasized the importance of sharing scientific discoveries for the benefit of all people.  Conveniently, many of these messages also served Cold War needs, particularly where they intersected with federal policies on racial equality and scientific progress, while also delivering subversive, Old Left messages.

While some of Mickenberg’s close readings seem a bit too intent on locating radicalism in texts where politics are a bit of a stretch, her interdisciplinary methodology shows clear links between Old Left and New Left radicalism in and around Cold War children’s literature.