What’s Wrong With ‘American Studies’ in One Sentence

American Studies is intended to be a cross-discipline combining literature, history, political science, and one or two other fields (anthropology and philosophy perhaps), and that’s what it did when I emphasized the field through the History and Government departments at Claremont more than 30 years ago. It was a wonderful way of having truly interdisciplinary discussion on key issues past and present.

But today, like so many other areas in the humanities, American Studies has become a field for mediocrity, triviality, and politically correct orthodoxy—and often all three.

The American Studies Association is having its big annual meeting in Los Angeles in a few days. I’m not going. The reason is simple. The theme of this year’s meeting is (drum roll please): “The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain In the Post-American Century.”  Apparently it wasn’t enough for the ASA to spearhead the odious boycott of Israel a few months ago.

Here’s how the ASA set out the meeting agenda:

The call for proposals for the 2014 ASA convention in Los Angeles invited fun and fury, critiques of the good life, alternative realities, queer utopias and nothing short of a “new dialectics of pain and pleasure.”

Covering enormous ground (“From Furious Orientals to Funny Arabs,” for example), engaging the serious (“Matters of Life and Death”) and the flippant (“Eat Me: Consuming Urban Cultures”), not to mention the filthy (“The Filth and the Fury: The Cultural Politics of Waste in America”), the program represents this newly disorganized dialectic of pleasure and pain and spends considerable time outlining how and when and where a definition of pleasure for some might open out onto an experience of pain for others.

The presidential address will be given by Lisa Duggan of NYU. I’ve never heard of her either. Her address will celebrate what she calls the “transformation” of American Studies in the following way:

I am especially interested in tracing the impact of queer studies and queer of color critique, of performance studies and affect theory, of sexuality studies and the live arts, of new technologies and social media, on the interdisciplinary terrain of American Studies. I am interested in exploring how these approaches are interacting now with studies of empire and settler colonialism, analyses of the racial state and the history of work and capitalism. I am interested in the political implications of these interactions, and with their failures. Most of all, in the face of the brutal conditions of life and work so many humans and others on the planet confront, I am interested in exploring why we should care about the fun and the fury at all.

And professors of the humanities wonder why they’re losing student enrollment in their courses.

JOHN adds: The cherry on top of that banana split of stupidity was “…the brutal conditions of life and work so many humans and others on the planet confront.” American Studies is a wide-ranging discipline, indeed!