Sunday, March 31, 2013

34: Kaplan and Pease's Cultures of United States Imperialism

Cultures of United States Imperialism helped usher in the international turn in American Studies, and got AMS folks thinking about America's place in the world many years before 9/11 forced pop culture to come to terms with America as an empire, and not a particularly nice one, either.

In her introduction, Kaplan is straightforward: she argues that we cannot understand American culture without looking at the interconnections between internal and external colonization, because in America, empire-building and nation-building go hand-in-hand.  If Deloria argues that Indians are at the heart of American national identity, Kaplan takes that argument a step further and says that empire is at the heart of America; and unlike Deloria, who focuses on cultural play, Kaplan anchors her argument in the very real world of foreign relations, economics, and cultures of subjugating and subjugated peoples.  In other words, taking over other countries and colonizing them is part and parcel of what it means to be America, and it has been that way since the colonial era.

33: D'Emilio & Freedman's Intimate Matters

This one got a bit technical... oops ;)

John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman's Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America has the modest goals of surveying the history of American sexuality from the colonial era to the present AND rewriting both American history and sexuality in the process.  The authors draw on mostly secondary sources  to make three main arguments: that political movements to change sexuality usually occur in the context of larger economic, social, and political upheavals; that gender inequality and sexual politics are inseparable, and that sexual politics develop out of both real and symbolic (or representational) issues.  They are also keep to connect individual sexuality with larger cultural constructions of it, and to show that struggles over empowerment and oppression outside the bedroom are often connected to those same struggles within it.

The authors divide their history of US sexuality into four periods, and trace continuities and ruptures within and among them.  (No, don't worry, they don't tell a story of slow but steady progress.)  These are:

32: Philip Deloria's Playing Indian

In Playing Indian, Philip Deloria investigates Americans' long history of dressing up and acting like Indians, and he discovers that Americans use Indian play to work through who they are as individuals and as a nation.  This argument - that pretending to be something you're not helps you figure out who you are - is not terribly innovative, but in Deloria's hands, playing Indian connects particular kinds of representation with particular politics.  Thus, playing Indian is not just about representing "American ideas about Indians;" it's about putting ideas about Native Americans at the center of what it means to be American, even as Native Americans themselves are quarantined and hidden from white view.

To make this rather complex argument, Deloria traces the American game of playing Indian from the Boston Tea Party and other Revolutionary War incidents through 19th century societies, early 20th century Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls, post-WWII Indian hobbyists, and "new-age pseudo-Indian spirituality."  In each of these instances, he shows how Americans played Indian to define themselves: Tea Partiers (the first ones) wanted to imagine themselves as part of the continent's ancient history and to separate themselves from England; 19th century secret societies wanted to show that they possessed secret, authentic, uber-patriotic knowledge; Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls embraced Indian play as an escape from modern consumer society and a return to the primitive and the authentic; Cold War hobbyists sought out real Indian objects and people in the hopes of becoming Indian; new-age multiculturalism turns Indians into fashion statements and distracts cultural attention from the poverty of the Rez.

Because this is a history of American images of Indians and not of Indians themselves, the book focuses on the development of these American institutions and identities more than on the plight of the tribes as they were relocated and forced into reservations, though the real-world history of Native Americans underpins his argument that Indian play does serious cultural and political work.  In doing so, he places himself not just within the literature on relationships between Indians and American culture, but also in a growing body of literature on whiteness and othering.  Like Roedgier and other whiteness scholars, he draws on a wide variety of cultural sources to show how the other is key to the construction of the self; by viewing Indians through the lens of American Indian play, he also shows how incorporation by a dominant culture always constructs and shapes an oppressed one, politically as well as culturally.

31: Richard Drinnon's Facing West

In Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building, Richard Drinnon uses an old American Studies analytical tool called "myth and symbol" to get at the ideological and mythological justifications behind westward expansion from the colonial era to the present day.  The idea behind myth and symbol is that cultural productions, like novels, paintings, political essays, advertisements, etc., may not represent the real world as it is, but they do a really good job of representing the world as the artist and his or her intended audience see it.  Especially if the cultural production is intended for a mass audience (so that it represents the world view of a lot of people), the myth and symbol school holds that the worldview it espouses can be used to explain the behavior, culture, and mindset of a group of people.  Old school American Studies scholars applied this method to dime novels, paintings, and so on get at the "American mind;" Drinnon applies it to the writings of folks ranging from John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Frederick Jackson Turner to John Dunn Hunter, Dean Worcester, and Alden T. Vaughn, and he uses it to pull out the connection between racism ("indian-hating") and empire.

Here we go!

Many short reviews, for your reading pleasure, coming right up!