Wednesday, May 26, 2010

15b Politics Beyond the Voting Booth

It might not be apparent to you, but American Studies 101 actually isn't supposed to be a class about American frontiers. It is a class about American Studies theory. We just chose the frontier in order to put theory into practice, to make theory more concrete. Now that we have reached the end of the semester, we need to step back to think about what we have learned more theoretically.

Honestly, American Studies risks becoming trivial. Studying the lives of everyday Americans and using diverse cultural sources -- often pop-cultural sources -- we risk being accused of insignificance. It would be insignificant if Schlosser just traced the colors of the McDonald's logo or if Slotkin just listed John Wayne's movies. What makes these quotidian subjects important is the way that each author on our syllabus asks thoughtful questions about seemingly-superficial subjects.

Those questions are the kinds of questions that you yourself asked in your second essays, finding surprisingly deep meanings in "Oregon Trail," "Borat," "Hannah Montana," and the restaurant Claimjumper.

Those questions are the heart of American Studies theory. They are questions about our culture's role in identity formation, creating norms of race, gender, class, sexuality, region, citizenship, and more. They are questions untying the web that links culture to economics and governance. They are questions linking the past to the present by examining the politics of public memory. They are questions seeking multiple perspectives, continually wondering who is left out and how we can think beyond the boxes that we are given. They are, most deeply, questions about politics -- but this is not the politics of simply voting Democratic or Republican on the second Tuesday in November. Instead, American Studies investigates the everyday politics of power. American Studies is the study of politics beyond the voting booth. That doesn't mean that we don't also, sometimes, study the voting booths. We have mentioned several presidents and wars in this class. You must have noticed by now, though, that we often look at issues that don't just involve presidents and wars; we also find significance in a Happy Meal.

That is what I hope you will remember from this course. American Studies, in the end, is not a set of facts but a style of looking at the world, asking questions and examining connections.

We have spent a lot of time insulting Frederick Jackson Turner this semester. Slightly unfairly, we have used Turner to stand in for a frontier myth promoted by many people (including Leatherstocking and Teddy Roosevelt before Turner ever gave his speech) and we have taken poor Turner to task for not understanding everything that the next 118 years of historians figured out after him. Turner didn't understand the role of racial politics, gender roles, environmental extraction, urbanization, governmental policy, corporate economics, and more in creating what he saw as the independent, macho American frontiersman. Subsequent historians -- all of our syllabus since Turner -- have explored what Turner left out, and hopefully taught you all to look at many issues from multiple perspectives.

Despite all our Turner-bashing, there were some things that Turner did get right. Turner challenged American historians to study less-famous Americans, not just the leading politicians. Turner attempted to theorize connections between issues of culture, history, economics, politics, and the lives of ordinary Americans. Above all, Turner believed that historians must study the past not for its own sake but for how it affects the present. Limerick quotes Turner in her introduction: "The antiquarian strives to bring back the past for the sake of the past [while] the historian strives to show the present to itself by revealing its origin from the past. The goal of the antiquarian is the dead past; the goal of the historian is the living present" (Turner, 1891, quoted in Limerick, 17). That is our goal, too: American Studies strives to connect the past to your present.

If you remember nothing else from this class, I hope you remember that good history is about the present. Good history is not about memorizing facts, but about learning to ask thoughtful questions. And it can be about you yourself, whether or not you are white, male, heterosexual, interested in the History Channel, or not.

Since you have learned to ask questions and to look for what is left out, I hope that you have noticed how much is left out of this course, too. We focused on the time period 1850 to the present, omitting much of American history. We focused on the frontier, omitting many other important American issues. We tried to use diverse sources -- poems, paintings, photographs, literature, diaries, movies, amusement parks, interviews, advertisements, rodeos, and the entire fast food experience -- but we did not use every possible variety of source: we left out music, most video-games, and much more. The only way to compensate for those many gaps is to explore other American Studies courses and to keep asking questions on your own. I hope you will.

No comments:

Post a Comment