4/21/2022 Doctorate Exam Answers
The origin of American Studies is largely seen as originating from the work of Vernon Parrington in the early twentieth century. He worked primarily as an educator as an instructor in a literature program. The teaching of literature at the time was pedagogically framed to see literature as functioning as part of the cultural/historical situation in which it was immersed. Literature was seen as reflecting and representing the values of the world from which it arose. Within this framework there was a most complete emphasis upon the teaching of British and European cultural texts. Such a canon excluded much, and importantly from Parrington’s perspective excluded a study of American texts.
Parrington’s original work then as an American Studies scholar saw him doing research and publishing works designed to challenge the monopolistic influence of British and European literature within American classrooms. His efforts lead to some success but were eventually disrupted not by a counter force seeking to maintain a form of British/European cultural hegemony, but instead by a transformation within literary and pedagogical theory.
New Criticism transformed the methodology of teaching literature within American academics from its inception through the world wars and for decades after that. The pedagogy in which Parrington had been immersed had tied the text contextually to the cultural world from which it came. New Critical formalism sought to see the text as an independent artifact to be study as a thing of itself. New Critics focused on a close reading of the text studying how the form of the text created quality and unity within its own construction. The text was a work of art possessing its own beauty/value without need for a connection to any historical/cultural situation. As such the desire to see a work as being particularly British, or European, or American had little value, although the deemphasis upon contextuality did lead to an unchallenged continuance of a predominantly British/European canon.
New Criticism then held back a push to increase scholarship exploring American literature within American classrooms. The New Critical years though from the world wars through to the more radical 60’s saw within America radical shifts within its cultural reality. The growth of radio, television, the automobile, and industrial technologies overlapped social and political movements seeking greater civil and economic justice within the nation. New Criticism lost its influence within literature departments just as similar pedagogical shifts were occurring throughout the academic world, most notably within the humanities and social sciences.
Ironically this shift that permitted the growing possibility of attention directed toward the study of American things followed from research and publications done substantially by European academics. The shift from New Criticism to a study of texts which placed the text back within the context of its political/historical situation can be seen as following from the works of Husserl, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and many others. They influenced work across many academic fields in the humanities and contributed to the shaping of a different pedagogy that saw American Studies becoming something more than the study of American literature.
Today the interdisciplinary nature of American Studies works within a culture shaped by post-structural, intersectional, complex realities. Such a situation can lead to an acceptance of a “postmodern” reality in which nothing can be complete, universal and true, and can lead American Studies down a path in which the study of American culture can be nothing but the display of museum like artifacts creating commodified visions of American things. A more
critical pedagogy though can refuse to see the complexity of contemporary cultural reality as leading toward a collapsing nihilism and seek to see within the humanities the possibility of developing shared meaning through difficult analytic work. Ultimately the question that must be asked: “Does American Studies have the power to influence an understanding of the world in a way that can empower people to influence and change the world, or does it merely work to commodify the American experience in an interesting and commodifiable way?”
The research and work that I am presently doing as a student within the American Studies field seeks to study the influence and power of the sacred within the American cultural/historical reality, to see how the sacred hinders the development of critical thinking skills in the academy and in the social world around the academy. I seek to demonstrate the significant, perhaps hegemonic, presence of the sacred within American culture, and I seek to develop a critical methodology capable of challenging such hegemonic influence.
The works of Yukio Mishima and Graham Greene provide a strong opportunity to examine the possibility of self-critical analysis within text(s) that can lead to strategies for similar critiques of personal political/social/cultural situations. Mishima and Greene both identify as members of religious communities and/or traditions, and both in their writings do the work of critiquing ideological/philosophical foundations that are part of their own traditions. In ”The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea” Mishima, a Buddhist, deconstructs a desire to transcend suffering through acts of disciplinary and meditative work, and in “The End of the Affair” Greene, a Christian, seeks to examine the value of “faith” within Christian traditions, in which true faith is seen as requiring a complete separation from and/or conflict with the rational.
The value, or importance, of these works comes from their authors’ ability to avoid a desire to perform apologetic work supporting their own faith traditions. In each case the position held by the religious community in which they are immersed can be seen as being defeated. Mishima’s story would lead one to conclude that there really is a problem contained within Buddhist traditions connected with a desire to end suffering, and Greene’s novel, written by an Atheist narrator, would lead one to accept the position put forth by its atheist author, in which faith is dismissed as containing nothing but teleological value. Mishima’s boys perform acts of violence against animals, cats, (and eventually a human, the sailor/lover to one boy’s mom) skinning them alive, performing acts of personal suffering (it hurts the boys to perform these acts), all with the goal of feeling controlled sorrow in one moment, so that the natural sorrow of the world would not affect them through the rest of their spontaneous lives. Greene’s Narrator writes a letter to God, a writing which implies a desire to communicate and connect with the Christian God, a letter which fails though, in the end to lead the narrator achieving faith, and leaves him only alone disconnected from the love he desires, disconnected because of the faith his lover has in the Christian God.
In both cases tradition and belief lead to negative, harmful outcomes for the stories’ participants, and in both cases the particular examples can be seen as effecting the cultural situations in which they function. It would appear that both authors agree most completely
with the critiques developed within their narratives, but also in both cases the authors continue to maintain attachments to the religious traditions which they critique. The authors’ desire to critique their traditions comes from a attachment to that tradition, not from apathy or anger. Instead of apologetically defending their beliefs with a blind faith that prohibits examination, they do the work of “that which does not kill me makes me stronger” and do hard critical examinations of their beliefs.
Such writing allows the student/reader to contemplate their own ability to do such work. Can the American student study the American culture reality with a similar detached yet passionate analytic power as exhibited by Mishima and Greene in their works? To do so the student must be open to developing an understanding of the text in which the text itself is filled with particular meaning, and in which the text is infused with meaning derived from the context of the cultural situation in which it resides, and in which it contributes to influencing the social world in which it is immersed.
The post-structural/intersectional work of authors like Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Michele Foucault, Edward Said, Slavoj Zizek and others help shape a pedagogy and methodology of analysis which connects identity to the social world in which the particular individual resides. Such connection sees the individual as being shaped by the individual’s cultural reality, and sees the individual as having the agency, perhaps, to effect that cultural reality. The text is seen, like the individual, as being both of product of the culture in which it resides, and as an influencer of that culture. With this understanding analysis of the text, works together with an analysis of its cultural context, and with the readers personal analysis of the self and its relation to both and all. To understand the text, is to understand the self, and to understand the relation the self has to the world in which it resides. Such unified work can lead the student toward an understanding of the power of literature, culture, and media to shape their lives and to work as tools for personal agency.
Mishima and Greene help to display a vulnerability that does not submit to fear. Their texts function within the cultural worlds from which they arise, without being trampled by a cultural authority that would prevent personal critical discourse. Analysis of such work can lead a student to an understanding of how to do similar personal and cultural analysis and can help that student grow in an understanding of text, culture and self.