Americanisms: Discourses of American Identity

Americanisms: Discourses of
American Identity
Prof. Dr. Michael STEPPAT
University of Bayreuth (Germany)
A distinctive and exceptional culture?
Franz Kafka, America (ca. 1913)
A distinctive and exceptional culture?
"The great Theater of Oklahoma calls you! To-day only and never again! If you
miss your chance now you miss it for ever! If you think of your future you
are one of us! Everyone is welcome! If you want to be an artist, join our
(Franz Kafka, America [ca. 1913]),
from "The Nature Theater of Oklahoma")
A distinctive and exceptional culture?
“The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must
therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary
idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labor, he has passed to
toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. This is an
Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, in
Letters From an American Farmer
A distinctive and exceptional culture?
Concepts of Americanism
Bradley Thomson, in Cato Unbound:
On defining Americanism
“Reclaiming the original and proper meaning of this word—Americanism—is vitally
important today. . . . At stake in this battle to define a single word is nothing less
than the future of America itself.”
Concepts of Americanism (2)
•Definition of Americanism
•Principles of Americanism
The American Legion
Definition of Americanism:
Americanism is love of America; loyalty to her institutions as the best yet
devised by man to secure life, liberty, individual dignity, and happiness;
and the willingness to defend our country and Flag against all enemies,
foreign and domestic. Americanism means peace, strength, the will and
the courage to live as free men in a free land. It means a friendly hand to
people everywhere who respect our institutions and our thinking. It is not
a word; it is a cause, a way of life – the best way of life ever known – a
challenge and a hope in this world. Americanism is an ideal of loyal
patriotism, religious tolerance, righteous freedom, fearless courage,
honest integrity, abiding faith in the commanding destiny of the United
States, and a fathomless love for the principles that led our forefathers to
found this country. …..
The American Legion
Principles of Americanism:
The characteristic that distinguishes our form of government from others is
the recognition of the truth that the inherent and fundamental rights of
men are derived from God and not from governments, dictators, or
majorities. The unalienable rights, which are the gifts of man from his
Creator are: freedom of worship; freedom of speech and press; freedom
of assemblage; freedom to work in such occupation as the experience,
training and qualifications of man may enable him to secure and hold;
freedom to enjoy the fruits of his work, which means the protection of
property rights; and the right to pursue his happiness so long as he does
not harm others in the pursuit of this happiness. Upon these basic
principles, the structure of our form of government was established. …..
For educating “good stewards of our nation’s
freedoms and free institutions …”
For “our nation’s freedoms and
free institutions …”
Bringing into play incompatible postulates
is the founding law of discourse,
the very law of its existence: it is on the basis
of such a contradiction that discourse emerges.
Contradiction is ceaselessly reborn through discourse.
(Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge)
A myth of desires?
"A great many people were certainly standing before the placard, but it did
not seem to find much approval. There were so many placards; nobody
believed in them any longer."
(Franz Kafka, America [ca. 1913]),
from "The Nature Theater of Oklahoma")
For “Uniting America”
Yet: what is identity?
Identity is nothing belonging to the different perceptions, and uniting them
together; but is merely a quality which we attribute to them, because of the
union of their ideas in the imagination, when we reflect upon them. Mankind
are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which
succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux
and movement.
Our thought is still more variable than our sight; nor is there any single power of
the soul, which remains unalterably the same. The mind is a kind of theater,
where several perceptions pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an
infinite variety of postures and situations.
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)
Ideas . . . toils
“The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must
therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary
idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labor, he has passed to
toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. This is an
Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, in
Letters From an American Farmer
American space/time?
“Think of anything, of cowboys, of movies, of detective stories, of anybody
who goes anywhere or stays home and is an American and you will realize
that it is something strictly American to conceive a space that is filled with
moving, a space of time that is filled always filled with moving…..”
(Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America, 1934-35)
Formative paradigms
….. Seizing an opportunity
….. A space filled with moving
Photo: Lee Friedlander
The moving space
Snapshots aren’t enough. We’d need the whole film of the trip in real time,
including the unbearable heat and the music. We’d have to replay it all from end to
end at home in a darkened room, rediscover the magic of the freeways and the
distance and the ice-cold alcohol in the desert and the speed and live it all again
on the video at home in real time, not simply for the pleasure of remembering but
because the fascination of senseless repetition is already present in the
abstraction of the journey. The unfolding of the desert is infinitely close to the
timelessness of film…..
(Jean Baudrillard, America, 1986)
The moving space
... I went in search of the America of the empty, absolute freedom of the
freeways, not the deep America of mores and mentalities, but the America of
desert speed, of motels and mineral surfaces. I looked for it in the speed of the
screenplay, in the indifferent reflex of television, in the film of days and nights
projected across an empty space, in the marvellously affectless succession of signs,
images, faces, and ritual acts on the road ...
(Jean Baudrillard, America, 1986)
Again: Moving space…..
America as project of the modern
Down from the gardens of Asia, descending, radiating,
Adam and Eve appear …
I see … the vast terraqueous globe, given, and giving all,
Europe to Asia, Africa join’d, and they to the New World;
The lands, geographies, dancing before you, holding a festival garland,
As brides and bridegrooms hand in hand.
(Walt Whitman,
“Leaves of Grass: Passage to India,“ before 1892)
America as project of the modern
Years of the modern! years of the unperform'd!
Your horizon rises, I see it parting away for more august dramas,
I see not America only, not only Liberty's nation but other nations
I see tremendous entrances and exits, new combinations, the
solidarity of races,
I see that force advancing with irresistible power on the world's
stage …..
(Walt Whitman,
“Leaves of Grass: Years of the Modern,“
before 1892)
… Note: Images of theatre, as public spectacle
Spatial macro-analysis
Mirrors for American cultural self-location:
• Trans-Atlantic
• Inter-American
• African
• Asian
Hypothesis: These are permutable margins
to each other, with shifting centers
Yet: Difference as resistance
Culture as blockage
• Blockage as an imaginary order of excluding a promiscuous
circulation of representations
(explored by Stephen Greenblatt)
But whatisculture?
We may think of cultures as "interpellative practices”
that constitute subjects: "no culture is full unto itself,
no culture is plainly plenitudinous“; cultures are
(Homi Bhabha)
Interpellation = Ideology addresses the individual, thus producing her/him as subject (Louis
“No culture is full unto itself“
A philosophy that separates the individual from the land does not teach an
individual to give up his autonomy to become an interdependent
participant in the rhythms of nature .....
(David Noble, 2002)
The individual . . . And space
..... Is the individual an "interdependent participant in
the rhythms of nature“?
..... Does space (a space filled with moving) need to be
aligned with place as “structure of feeling”?
To exemplify this inquiry:
The recent work of
Leslie Marmon Silko
Leslie Marmon Silko
Silko belongs to the Laguna Pueblo tribe
Born in 1948 in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Ancestry Mexican American, Anglo American
Key figure of second wave of Native American Renaissance
Major novels: Ceremony (1977), Almanac of the Dead (1991),
Gardens in the Dunes (1999)
Recipient of MacArthur Foundation Grant, Native Writers’ Circle
of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award
National Museum of the American Indian
Leslie Marmon Silko
Silko, Gardens in the Dunes
Spaces “filled with moving”:
The American Southwest,
Long Island,
….. Inter-Esse
Deep desert sands
Squash plant (below), Datura blossoms
A plot outline
About 1900, in Arizona in a desert setting : Grandma Fleet takes young
Indigo (about age 11) and Sister Salt (Sand Lizard people) to where the
girls’ mother has joined other women in a spectacle of dancing to
summon the Messiah. But white soldiers disrupt the ceremony, the girls
are captured and separated. Indigo is rescued from a government
boarding school by a white couple, the intellectual Hattie and her
business-oriented husband Edward Palmer. They
take Indigo on an extended journey to New York,
then to Europe.
Eventually Hattie and Indigo both find a new
relation to the rich desert sands of
Southwest America.
Counter-spectacle: Masque of the blue garden
“Susan did not want her guests to see the same plants as the year before; she
relished the challenge of creating new and startling effects with bedding plants
and even shrubs and vines selected for their particular shade of blue; the whiteflowering plants and shrubs were chosen for their impact in the moonlight ... The
blue garden was a lovely sight indeed the night of the ball. ... Guests began to
arrive as the full moon rose over the bay.”
American margins: Desert/ocean / home
“The great rhythmic voice of Ocean resounded through the
ship’s steel skin; … the Earth herself was moved by her waves.
Ocean was Earth’s sister.”
“Tears filled her (Indigo’s) eyes and she cried softly: Please
help me, Ocean! Send your rainy wind to my sister with this
message: I took the long way home, but I’m on my way.”
The rich desert sands
Datura blossoms
The rich desert sands: Topophilia
Yi-Fu Tuan on the aesthetics of
The rich desert sands: Middle landscape
A type of the “middle landscape” (Leo Marx in 1964)
A topography of the pastoral scene, as shaped by Virgil in Eclogues, where a
shepherd tends his flock in green pastures located between the artificial
city and the natural wilderness.
The violence of the wild poses as much of a threat as does the complexity of
city life.
Yi-Fu Tuan on antinomies of wilderness
“In the agrarian myth, the ideal middle world of man is poised
between the polarities of city and wilderness. The structuring
of environment in binary opposition is analogous to the
structuring of the world. …. City and
wilderness are shifting antinomies in
the dynamic history of the Occident:
in time the meaning of these two
terms may be reversed.“
(from Topophilia, 1974)
A circular American odyssey
Messianic “ghost dance“
Planting / dancing
Bath, England: “This is the land of the stones that dance and walk after
midnight” (p. 237)
Corsica: “They farther east they traveled, the closer they came to the place
the Messiah and his family and followers traveled when they left the
mountains beyond Paiute country” (p. 318-19)
The tribal world embraces the globe
with a return odyssey
The return odyssey
“Down the shoulder of the dune to the hollow
between the dunes, silver white gladiolus with
pale blues and pale lavenders glowed among the
great dark jade datura leaves ...” (Pp. 475-76)
Mojave desert
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