The Program Committee for the 1998 ASA Meeting gathered colleagues from a broad range of disciplines to present papers, performances, films, slides, roundtables, workshops, panels and sessions on many areas of American Studies scholarship including the theme of “American Studies and the Question of Empire: Histories, Cultures, and Practices.”
The theme of empire generated an excellent range of new and old scholarship, which discussed American national historical narratives as forms that produce particular understandings about the American past, its peoples, and its practices. More specifically, in light of the centennial of U.S. expansion into the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and Hawai’i the conference featured outstanding work from a variety of perspectives on the global dimensions of America’s past as well as its present, and the links between regions and territories that have been forged through migration and immigration. Many panels explored the connections between North America, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, considering how an international framework affects the concepts of U.S. nation, citizenship, domesticity, sexuality, culture, and canon.
Such an international framework, we found, not only expands the boundaries of the study of the United States, but it also compels us to rethink the subjects, objects, and methods of American Studies. For example, a consideration of the 1948 Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo through which the U.S. incorporated large sections of what was previously Mexico, or a discussion of the U.S. involvement in the 1898 Spanish-American War in the Philippines, not only remaps the geopolitical boundaries of the United States, but such discussions also require us to rethink what “America” is as an object of study. Such contextualization of the emergence of the United States within a long history of global encounters registers for us that a changed object of study demands different methods for knowing and different material archives for acquiring our knowledges. This is not merely a matter of “adding on” the histories of Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, or the Philippines to that of “America,” but it undertakes instead the unearthing of the very materials that are buried in the building of an isolated concept of “America.” In this sense many of the panels and sessions presented work in which “America” did not appear as a natural and given or as fixed, but rather “America” was presented as an object-in-process, making and remaking itself through the diverse histories of its encounter with regional, national, racial, and sexual “others.” The most exciting of these panels succeeded in revising the ontology of the nation, unearthing new archives, demonstrating new scholarly practices and methods, and offering us nothing short of a new epistemology for American Studies.
In heralding the importance of this moment as an “opening” for American Studies, scholars often talk about the importance of including different stories in our understanding of America. Indeed, the successes of this moment in the ASA are borne out in the association’s outstanding record of including different stories in the understanding of America – the stories of workers, African Americans, rural settlement and urban migration, men and women -- as Patricia Nelson Limerick declared in her 1996 presidential address: “To understand this complicated nation, we have to look at all the parts.” The papers and panels in the 1998 meeting allow us to take the next step: they assist us in advancing our work on America’s multiracial and always already international history and on the urgency of its contemporary globally restructured history and culture.
Papers and panel for the 1998 conference featured a variety of work exemplifying the manifold dimensions of American Studies – the practical, empirical, historiographical, and epistemological contours of the field. A focused series of sessions on Native American Studies encouraged connections within and across panels, while emphasis on local issues in other panels offered association members an opportunity to learn more about the city and region in which we met. Special sessions about the American Quarterly, about the pedagogical and programatic concerns of American Studies Departments and Programs, about instructional technologies, about American Studies at Community Colleges, about alternative pedagogical sites, and about graduate student union organizing and career development provided practical and theoretical insight into the activities that command most of our time as teachers and students. One of the outstanding features of this year’s meeting was the integration and exchange of work across the Humanities and the Social Sciences, and the large numbers of panels that presented interdisciplinary conversations and work. Scholars from Anthropology, Sociology, Geography, Communication, and Urban Planning exchanges ideas and perspectives on panels with colleagues from departments of Dance History, Theater, English, Music, and American Studies.
Many sessions made important connections between studies that might more easily remain disparate and discrete. Scholars connected the studies of African Americans with examinations of the U.S. war in Cuba. Sessions put in relation the racial and sexual dimensions of Asian immigrant communities in the United States with the history of indentured servitude in the Caribbean. One panel compared and contrasted Emanuel Leutze’s paintings of Aztecs, Spaniards, Jews, Norsemen, and Anglo-Saxon women with Diego Rivera’s depictions of Native Americans. Literary scholars from Brazil and Argentina presented comparisons between North and South American authors’ representations of race on a panel with U.S. literary scholars who emphasized how hemispheric issues appear in fiction by North American authors. The theme of empire, expansion, and environment brought together panelists from English, Art, and Environmental Studies while a discussion of corporations and the business culture of diversity involved scholars from Sociology and Management in discussions with colleagues from English, Journalism, and Law, History, and Communication. One discussion brought together Arnold Genthe’s photographic representations of Chinatown with Helen Hunt Jackson’s narrative representation of Indians in early California.
The 1998 annual meeting continued the extraordinary trajectory that the American Studies Association has experienced for more than a decade. The Association has become the most important professional organization for interdisciplinary scholars from an astounding range of perspectives and disciplines. At the same time, the egalitarian and democratic ethos that has always permeated American Studies remains as important as ever and is evidenced often through the careful collegiality and respect that informs our interactions. Our association has a history of innovation and daring, of creative efforts by concerned scholars attempting to address the trials of their time. It should not be surprising that the ASA retains the loyalty of long time members for whom its existence offered a unique opportunity to do socially conscious, pedagogically rich, and epistemologically audacious work. It should also not be surprising that such an organization would attract many of the most creative and innovative young scholars who see in it an opportunity to react creatively and constructively to the new realities that are emerging all around us. Consequently, the 1998 annual meeting was not only an energetic and energizing place, but also a site for substantive scholarly discussions, a place for people to learn about and participate in emerging currents of research, analysis, and criticism.
There can be no final report on the 1998 meeting, because our work is too dynamic for that. Four days of roundtables, panels, and presentations cannot possibly encompass the full intellectual life of a vibrant academic association; some of the best things that happen because of any national meeting happen long after it is over, once we start to digest the comments and criticisms we have received and offered to others. Our national meeting was a site for meaningful argument and exchange, a place for the generation of meaningful questions that will help structure our activities as scholars and as citizens in the years ahead. Our emphasis on interdisciplinary, international, inter-racial, and inter-generational discussions originated in our desire to promote complex and creative work that broadens our conversations and leads us to likely and unlikely allies as we attempt to address the anxieties and opportunities of our time.
Lisa Lowe and George Lipsitz