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Paradigm Dramas in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement. Gene Wise American Quarterly, Volume 31:3 (1979): 293-337. Paradigm: Definition (Thomas Kuhn). Beliefs held by a person, group or culture; The acts that function to characterize those beliefs.

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Paradigm Dramas in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement

Gene Wise

American Quarterly, Volume 31:3 (1979): 293-337


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Paradigm: Definition Institutional History of the Movement(Thomas Kuhn)

  • Beliefs held by a person, group or culture;

  • The acts that function to characterize those beliefs.


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American Studies: Stages of Development (An Overview) Institutional History of the Movement

  • Prelude to the American Studies Movement (Before 1900);

  • Initial Stage: Revolt against Academic Formalism, 1900-1927;

  • Consensus School of American Studies, 1927-65;

  • Crisis in American Studies, 1965-1975;

  • Emergence of Cultural Studies and Cultural Materialism, 1975- 1990s;

  • The Current State of American Studies (Kessler-Harris).


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I. Prelude to the American Studies Movement (Before 1900) Institutional History of the Movement

  • The insignificance or inferiority of American culture, especially in relation to British and European cultures;

  • Emphasis on individuals, great men and heroic events.


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II. Initial Stage: Revolt against Formalism, 1900-1927 Institutional History of the Movement

  • Vernon Parrington, intellectual founder of American Studies;

  • Main Currents in American Thought (1927);

  • Era when academic disciplines are being created and institutionalized (methods and hierarchies); formalism.

  • Where does the study of America “fit”?

  • Integration of Academic disciplines: history, literature, sociology, philosophy, etc.


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III. Consensus School of American Studies, 1927-65 Institutional History of the Movement

  • Intellectual agreement--or CONSENSUS-- on what the American experience is like and how to study it.

  • Goal of consensus scholarship:

  • To make American culture "intellectually usable.“ Not just objective history but a history (story) that supports the development of America and American culture;

  • To discern the fundamental (or universal) meaning of American experience and American culture.


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III. Five Characteristics of Consensus Scholarship Institutional History of the Movement

  • 1. There is an American “Mind.”

  • This mind is more or less homogeneous, essentially the same in everyone.

  • While it may be complex and multi-layered, it is a single entity.


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III. Five Characteristics of Consensus Scholarship Institutional History of the Movement

  • 2. What distinguishes the American Mind—in fact, what creates it—is its location in the New World.

  • As result, Americans are typically . . .

  • Hopeful (oriented toward the future rather than the past);

  • Idealistic or Innocent (Naïve);

  • Individualistic (Democratic);

  • Pragmatic or materialistic;

  • Believe in boundless opportunity.


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III. Five Characteristics of Consensus Scholarship Institutional History of the Movement

  • 3. The American Mind can be found (theoretically at least) in any American to varying degrees. Some individuals will possess it more fully than others based on their intellect and experiences;

  • Great intellectual works (artistic / political) reveal or express the major themes or ideas at work in the culture at large. They transcend their own particularity. They are universal.


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III. Five Characteristics of Consensus Scholarship Institutional History of the Movement

  • 3. Continued

  • The American Mind finds its fullest expression in the country’s most influential leaders and thinkers:

  • Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson;

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau;

  • These become the basis for our educational and political systems, as a way to “train” others—especially new Americans—in what it means to be American.


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III. Five Characteristics of Consensus Scholarship Institutional History of the Movement

  • 4. The American Mind is also evident not just in individuals but in the portrayal of our intellectual and cultural history;

  • Creates distinctive themes and identities:

  • The Pilgrims / Puritanism;

  • American Revolution;

  • The Frontier and Westward Migration;

  • Individualism / Non-Hierarchical Society;

  • WWII and “The Greatest Generation”;

  • The Cold War (Democracy threatened by communism)


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III. Five Characteristics of Consensus Scholarship Institutional History of the Movement

  • 5. The American Mind (and America itself) is revealed most profoundly in its “high” culture, its greatest intellectual thinkers and it greatest creative works (art, music, literature). These hold a privileged position;

  • Representatives of popular culture may be interesting but are NOT as significant to the understanding of America:

  • Popular heroes (Daniel Boone / John Wayne)

  • “Artistic” works (The Western / Star Trek);

  • Cultural Events (Dueling / Professional Wrestling)

  • Material Culture (farm implements / shopping malls)


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III. Key Figures in the Consensus School Institutional History of the Movement

  • Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950);

  • Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (1953)

  • F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941);

  • Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (1964);

  • Alan Trachtenberg, Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol (1965).


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III. Other Important Contributions During this Era Institutional History of the Movement

  • American Quarterly, 1949;

  • American Studies Association, 1951.


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IV. Crisis in American Studies, 1965-1975 Institutional History of the Movement

  • Emerges along with the cultural / political rebellions of the sixties;

  • Critiques A/S as a field of study;

  • Argues that it is not a pioneering movement but a very conservative one that reinforces old historical and cultural assumptions about America and Americans.


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IV. Crisis in American Studies, 1965-1975 Institutional History of the Movement

  • America is not one monolithic culture (the American mind), but a variety of interrelated cultures that are at times working together and at times in conflict with different values and goals;

  • Complete cultural synthesis is no longer possible.


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V. New American Studies: Institutional History of the MovementEmergence of Cultural Studies and Cultural Materialism, 1975- 1990s

  • Shift from humanistic to scientific / analytical approaches to American Culture;

  • Not interested in what the "meaning" of America is (or if one meaning is more legitimate or valid than another);

  • Rather, it is interested in how and why people create meaning, how individuals and groups go about creating a coherent social universe.


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V. New American Studies Institutional History of the MovementSEVEN Major Characteristics

  • 1. Focus on the social and material structures that underlie intellectual and artistic expression


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V. New American Studies Institutional History of the MovementSEVEN Major Characteristics

  • 2. CULTURE is redefined via social sciences.

  • The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought;

  • A set of control mechanisms--plans, recipes, rules and instructions for the governing of human behavior;

  • Social structures always mediate between a particular cultural artifact and the larger society in which it is situated.

  • Includes “high culture” (art forms) as well as popular culture;


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V. New American Studies Institutional History of the MovementSEVEN Major Characteristics

  • 3. Highly self-conscious;

  • Critically reflective;

  • Intellectually “neutral” or objective; not interested in supporting or endorsing any prevailing cultural ideologies.

  • Treats the study of America as a science.


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V. New American Studies Institutional History of the MovementSEVEN Major Characteristics

  • 4. Pluralistic approach (the MANY);

  • Does not focus on just one unifying national culture but looks at the many different cultures contained within America and how these are related to each other;

  • Looks at commonalities but also looks at where conflicts and tensions exist.


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V. New American Studies Institutional History of the MovementSEVEN Major Characteristics

  • 5. Emphasis on the PARTICULAR and the ORDINARY;

  • Instead of examining heroic figures or great art, the focus is on

  • Common Americans (farmers or laborers);

  • Popular art forms (collectibles or music);

  • Ordinary material culture (farm implements or daily life).


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V. New American Studies Institutional History of the MovementSEVEN Major Characteristics

  • 6. Rejection of universal “essences,” universal truths or absolutes;

  • While these may exist, they are not fully knowable and not the domain of intellectual inquiry;

  • Whatever “America” may be, we cannot assume that it is universal for all people.


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V. New American Studies Institutional History of the MovementSEVEN Major Characteristics

  • 7. Comparative Approach

  • No longer is the focus just on America or even America and Europe;

  • Understanding American through a dialogue with other countries and cultures;

  • Third or Developing World Nations;

  • Africa and the Caribbean;

  • The Muslim World.


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V. New American Studies Institutional History of the MovementCharacterized by the shift from myth . . .

  • MYTH: a fixed story used to normalize and regulate our social life;

  • Everything is read through the myth and it makes all things familiar;

  • Often a form of non-critical, self-interpretation.


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V. New American Studies Institutional History of the Movementto Rhetoric . . .

  • RHETORIC: attempts to question and analyze culture rather than affirm or deny it.;

  • its purpose is to reveal the interests that reinforce myths and culture;

  • the power of words, things, images, and ideas to create and subvert culture.


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