EESE Strategy Statement No. 1

Observations Concerning the Current Situation in American Studies

Hans-Wolfgang Schaller (Erfurt)

EESE, the recently established Erfurt electronic journal for English and English speaking cultures, also has a section devoted to American Studies. Since Bergsträsser's1 challenging essay on the whole idea of Ameri can Studies which broke new ground in the 1950s, there have been many changes and developments so that a new definition of the state of things in this discipline has now become necessary. This contribution is an attempt in this direction and will be b ased on modern cultural and literary theories to act as a stimulus to further discussions on this theme and, perhaps, also to contribute to the editorial policy of the new journal by indicating areas and themes which may be suitable for future contributio ns.

American Studies
as a general cultural field of studies concentrating on the USA

Since the late 1960s, modern cultural studies, and in particular literary studies, have been characterised by what is it at the moment an acrid debate concerning the basic premises and scope of various methodological approaches. This situation has lead to such an abundance of theories that nowadays it seems that the only way through the morass is to produce more "theories about theories," (Theorien über Theorien)2. On the one hand, Hagenbüchle is still able to see his way to a metatheoretical position in his treatment of hermeneutics as an epistemological process by bringing together the most important approaches such as "the historical and biographical, formalistic, psychological, mythical, archetypal, feminist and (post) str ucturalist stances and linking them to "deconstructionism, genre criticism, reader-response, the New Historicism etc.3 Cornel West, on the other hand, reaches a conclusion which involves a total fragmentation of theoretical positions. H e maintains that post-structuralism aims at throwing cultural interdependence and the coherence of society with its own history onto the "rubbish heap of history"

West's diagnosis for the basic drift of American post-structuralism as he sees it would result in the impossibility of American Studies being a coherent and definable academic discipline. Without wishing to reject completely W est's analysis, it must be d that poststructuralism has released literature from the isolation of being a special case within cultural criticism, to existing as an independent, fictional and linguistically aware multi-dimensional structure which can now b e seen to be embedded as an integral part of society with its own social function. As in the case with philosophy, theology, history, sociology and jurisprudence, it has become one mode of discourse among many and is becoming increasingly important as a s emiotic system of language signs, a system which is conceived as arbitrary and not as a contrast to an extra-linguistic reality, but as having its own social impact. From this, the paradoxical situation has arisen that this self-referential discourse whic h lacks any clear referential import has, however, influenced the whole social structure and has had a particular effect on power relations. The theoretical understanding of the text assumes semantic reference in all its linguistic utterances which highli ghts a recognisable, extralinguistic reality and offers a 'quasi' image of this reality. At the same time, norms and values labelled in language are then placed in a hierarchy to become fixed values in society. Black/White, body/mind, man/woman and simila r 'binary oppostitions' are not only pairs of contraries but are also culturally transmitted values. In poststructuralism they are seen as:

This certainly implies that in all the areas of the arts and humanities, discourse theory has the effect of breaking up religious/ideological, philosophical/political and socio-economic hierarchies and traditional power structures. With this radical retre at into a 'linguistic self-referentiality', the consequence in the humanities could result in a total relativisation of all things and put an end to epistemological reflection and culture criticism in general.6

In addition, two points can be made with regard to American Studies, one general and one specific. If a given language discourse no matter what it may consist of, can have no generally valid meaning with regard to an external reality on account of its having to lack reference, then this non-referentiality would also apply to the theoretical concept of post-structuralism itself. This relativisation of all individual discourses and, in this context, the resultant de-hierarchisation of discursive approaches can be seen to lead to a situation in which all cultural and linguistic discourse takes place in a volatile network of reciprocal influences. At any particular time, first one theory and then a different approach prevails or i s seen as more important, but the theories must then be immediately deconstructed. Despite the task of having to interpret history from teleological perspective, certain epochs are, however, discernible when making a synchronic study o f the relevant cultural discourses taking place in the particular century, and it is clear that in one period one particular form of discourse prevailed whereas in another period there would be a different form of discourse. In addition, definition of cer tain periods arose within the history of the discourse in question which were explicable in terms of a discussion with other areas of discourse, which, in turn, also influences the discussion. The individual areas of discourse could then be understood as the nodal points within a net representing the totality of a particular culture at a given period in history. At this level of abstraction, the possibility of introducing a static programme of historical periods to aid our understanding of culture can now be a factor despite the hidden agenda of dynamism and movement behind each epoch, so that the analysis would function in a similar way to an instant photograph of a body movement in the world of sport. With the great varieties of discourse in West's frag mentation and heterogeneity approach and in view of the perspective of the network as a whole, there is, however, still the possibility to form a summarising cultural concept although the individual components may be in constant motion. This movement can, in fact, be evoked by dialogue with other forms of discourse and with its own tradition.

For our present time, it can be asserted that the post-structural position itself

ional subject borders are particularly relevant to this supposition even though this position may be supported by euphemisms such as 'innovative' and interdisciplinary. Whatever the case may be, it is becoming perfectly clear that, in line with the postst ructuralist position, there is now an argument about power in society. This is particularly conspicuous in the power structures within the critical and academic culture industry whilst it still raises the question as to the relation ship between politics, economics, science and the whole academic world.

Rüdiger Ahrens, for example, considers from the perspective of Anglophone literature within the paradigm of the de-hierarchisation of discursive and political hegemony, that a "postcolonial discourse has been become established which is seen as a timely alternative to the Eurocentric picture of England together with its culture and language." (sich ein post-kolonialer Diskurs etabliert hat, der sich als zeitgemäße Alternative zum eurozentrischen Bild Englands, seiner Kultur und Sprache, versteht.)" The cultural emancipation which came about as a result of America's economic and political independence of the Commonwealth States from the culturally dominant, former mother country is interpreted here as a discourse argu ment.8 In the context of our metaphor of the volatile network consisting of interdependent and, at the same time, competing discourses which together form a culture, Ahren's statement acts a liberation from the restricting of discourse to literature, and so, opens up the debate to all the forms of cultural studies. Research has, however, made the greatest progress within the literary disciplines.9

To concentrate more on the area of American studies, the question now may arise as to whether or not there is anything like an American network of discourses which may have reached a precarious and constantly embattled equilibrium based on the uniqueness of the American experience, an equilibrium which is also constantly under threat. This question also implies there may well be, in fact, a typically American version of the discussion network transcending the poststructural approach inv olving fragmentation, relativisation and diversification. Even more than this, it can be asserted that there are many discussion networks of this kind competing, in the first instance, within their own cultural framework and then with each other, at a glo bal level of discourse. In addition, however, it is becoming clear that each of the individual national networks of discourse have a considerably higher degree of consistency than could ever have been suspected from the post-structuralist approach. In the ir traditions, the various discourses would seem to offer criteria for their cultural and economic validity as a nation or as a cultural circle, and also to ensure a global influence. Viewed from this perspective, the concept of 'interculturality' takes o n a new and unusual meaning. The adoption of a global, cultural dialogue struggling for secure positions of power appeared to have developed from the idealistic notion of being able to produce a mutual tolerance based on an intercultural communication. Fr om a world-wide perspective within the intercultural paradigm, this would imply, in the first instance, a global hierarchisation of national networks based on their economic, military and cultural importance. The process of hierarchisation cannot, however , remain static, but would be constantly exposed to the danger of deconstruction arising from all the various individual areas of discourse. Thus, the intercultural debate contains an enormous potential dynamism for change in any given status quo, but the globalisation of this perspective would be conceivable only if it were based on a more tightly structured national network which could also be intrinsically changeable whilst at the same time allowing each individual discourse position to take on a more strongly held fixed stance so that the national network achieves a consistency which would be adequate for international dialogue. It can be also asserted that in every culture, there is, at first, a process of certain amount of consolidation within the n ational network which has, of course, to be envisaged as remaining in dynamic motion before the intercultural debate for power can be brought into play. Right up to the end of the 19th century, European theoretical approaches were adopted in the USA so th at they could be subject to an Americanising assimilation process. Perhaps, with a little exaggeration, it can also be maintained that, based on the global importance of America, there was an Americanisation not only of Europe but also of other areas of t he globe.

In a different context, Berndt Ostendorf provides a very good example of an American discourse argument which would be impossible in Europe in this form, but which lies at the heart of American culture in a very typical fashion and which vividly illustrat es the uniqueness of the American cultural network down to specific, detailed aspects of their behaviour. He notes that, despite the proverbial horror of communists in the USA, distinguished Marxists still teach at renowned private universities. He makes the following comment:

Cultural peculiarities including modes of behaviour have developed in the USA which have an effect on other areas of discourse and which, to a large extent, control the arguments both within the specific discussion areas and also with each other and are b ased on the political and democratic discourse which found its crystallisation point and anchor hold in the American Constitution. These basic attitudes have almost become sacrosanct with codification and have a normative effect on American behaviour even at the level of intercultural competition. This is also an indication how a certain discourse within a society can both characterise a society and affect its future. To a very large extent, they can no longer be easily relativised, at least as far as the basic principles are concerned and they remain generally withdrawn from the argument with other discourses which could threaten their very existence. A very cunning legal system renders alterations at the codified base at least very difficult, if not imp ossible. In this situation, the post-structural approach with its absolute demands become, of course, questionable. It is clear that the only outcome is that an 'external' making sense of human society, or even a progressively teleological view of history , have become impossible.

From what has been stated so far, the task of American Studies can only consist in describing the cultural system of the USA which involves the interplay of the various forms of discourse within our network metaphor. It is important that the whole system is placed within the context of a constant, historical flux. In this way, traditional demarcations emerge for both the whole network as well as for the individual nodal points or components of the network. This historical movement does not usually proceed in a regular fashion within the whole system. It is more a case of their being limited processes either for the driving forces of or the deceleration of the intradiscursive dialogue leading, in turn, to shifts in importance and significance within the whole system. The concepts of 'traditional lines of demarcation' and 'historical driving forces' are, however, to be understood only as methodological pointers rather than as theoretical goals because the attempt to find a unified concept or culture or to define the variety would, in itself, be another case of making a politico-ideological stance and a biased choice. Nevertheless, although it is impossible to dispense with these concepts as aids, they should, instead, be used with great caution even with regard to their provisional application at any particular moment.

American Studies has the important task of describing the American cultural network as a totality together with its distinctive traditions as well as describing the individual components each with their own traditions and their impact on the whole culture.

In view of the historical development, it is also interesting in this connection how, in what fashion and in what ways, other European, Asiatic, Indian etc. ideas and approaches have offered their unique character in their assimilation into the American f ield of discourse and similarly, how, in what fashion and in what ways, American ideas and approaches have affected, influenced or even dominated the areas of discourse in other nations. If the cultural network is to be described, then, first of all, the functions of each individual discourse must be described. That, however, will only succeed if the methodology of the critical stance is itself subjected to close, critical scrutiny. The i nterpretation of individual phenomena and their connectedness is to be conceived as a methodology, which should be strictly controlled, if predictable and testable results are being aimed at.

Roland Hagenbüchle has made some important points on this topic in the essay already referred to called "Literary studies and methodology: a contribution to the basic principles." He assumes that there is basically only one possible methodological ap proach in the humanities, which is, for him, hermeneutics. Although within hermeneutics, there are various approaches acting as an expression of constantly shifting areas of interest and insight, they all remain firmly entrenched with in hermeneutical discourse. The relationship of hermeneutics to other fields of discourse is particularly interesting because, at this point, the various functions and joints in the network of discourse can be seen as a cultural totality. Hagenbüchle distinguishes three types of discourse: hermeneutics, scientific discourse and creative (artistic) discourse.

To give a brief summary of this, it can be seen that hermeneutics has taken on a mediating role between the natural sciences, on the one hand, i.e. in their unambiguous, exact, value-free discourse with axiomatic procedure leading to an instrumentalisati on of nature and, on the other hand, between the highly ambiguous polyfunctional discourse serving the subject's search for the self in both its individual and social context. Hermeneutics tries to interpret human behaviour as a subject acting as a social being within the conditioning structures of his or her historical situation. This opens up the norm and value horizons of a particular society as has been correctly shown to be the case by Hagenbüchle. The value horizon remains in constant motion wh ich is determined by the reciprocal influences and the constant communication in all the discourse forms.

The term 'value horizon' is useful as it illustrates how the constant discussion within the various forms of discourse and between other forms of discourse serve to produce agreement in the social order which may only be temporary, and so, it fulfils a so cial purpose. If the various forms of discourse are viewed from this perspective, then a more exact allocation of the various individual discourse forms to functions within the cultural network would now seem to be possible. This, however, applies only wi th strict regard to any, particular historical situation. Theology, for example, with its Puritan character in the new English colonies in America creates a philosophical base which becomes enshrined in law as a codified norm system expressed in ethical terms, and the dialogue of artistic discourse with society (which from the Puritan point of view is too subjective) is then tamed and narrowed down. This is particularly true for the theatre, but it also applies to the whole of litera ture.

Despite the feeling of belonging to the English culture, the experience in their history of the strange new world and the consciousness of a new beginning in America lead, at least in the New England Puritan form, to their creating their own, characterist ic form of established ruling bodies during the course of the political history of the colonies. Influenced by the Enlightenment philosophy, these ruling bodies received their reference points encoded in text in the Declaration of Independence and in the American Constitution, both of which had a socially stabilising effect with their setting down norms for the period. It is now quite obvious that, in the 18th century, there was a shift of emphasis from theology to the ideas of the Enlightenment within th e network. At the same time, it is equally obvious that this is a gradual process taking place within society as an argument about social and political power. The modern methodological notion of changing paradigms is, in this context, too crude. It can be seen from this example that discourse theory provides a more subtle form of differentiation.

The second general point particularly relevant for American Studies can now be added to the argument. In the period from 1620 to about 1823 (Monroe Doctrine) American disassociation from the Anglo-European connection could be observed with increasing clar ity and this process seemed to be fed from two sources:

For our journal, at this point, two kinds of investigation are of interest: on the one hand, research into theology, history, philosophy, jurisprudence, sociology, economics, science and art and literature but, on the other hand, there are also attempts t o describe the whole American cultural network by emphasising the relationships of both dominance and interdependence in the individual nodal points of the network. Without wanting to venture to undertake my own hierarchisation, the cultural substratum of colonial America and the early republic can be charaterised by a list of key words whose individual positions within the network are a matter for further research. The list would include the following: Anglo-European basis for the colonial consciousness at that time, the experience of a new, alien world, the Puritan form of Protestantism, the rationalism of the Enlightenment, self-government or American autonomy, social and historical aspects of the new beginning, anthropological and ultra-utopian aspect s of the 'melting-pot' idea, definition and self-limiting values from the notion of nationality, the individual effects of the 'American Dream,' the teleological, historical plan with its global missionary zeal to change the world, the 'manifest destiny' as justification for expansion together with the self-limiting tendency to develop on its own. The assessment of the relative importance of these positions within the American culture network is an area still in need of thorough research. In this field, p eriodisation in line with our example of the weighting of factors from Puritanism to the Enlightenment is also a goal worth striving for. It must, however, be noted, at this point, that the term 'periodisation' is not used in the traditional sense of refe rring to historical epochs, but instead, it is used as a time reference only in the context of the various types of discourse.

It would now seem to be appropriate to address the special problem area of art and literature. As Hagenbüchle correctly notes, literature is a case of a subjective and at the same time, critical dialogue with the established, ethical cultural norms o f the society, as they take effect at the level of the individual. With this, the whole socio-cultural value horizons are put to the test and the test result, in turn, affects all the areas of the cultural network. The subjective dialogue with the normati ve parameters of society has, by no means, referred merely to the author but also to the readership, even if in a subjective fragmentary form for each individual. Gadamer makes this point very clearly when he describes the process of understanding a text:

There are two important points to note in connection with Gadamer's remark. The reader and the 'act of reading' are the main focus of attention. In this way, literature loses the special role claimed for it, for the whole period from Romanticism to Formal ism where literature is presented as intuitively subjective and as a type of imaginatively aesthetic use of language, following its own formal rules, thus separating itself fundamentally from other forms of language discourse. Hermeneutics extended the t raditional idea of literature by turning our attention to the reader who is communicating with the text, thus placing the 'work of art in language' in a broader cultural context alongside historical, political, philosophical, theological and any other tex t in which the social effect consists simply in being read. The cultural network as a totality now comes once again into the picture, and literature makes its appearance as one of the key nodal points. Hubert Zapf gives a very precise definition of litera ture from the hermeneutic point of view: This shift of emphasis onto the reader and his communicative competence in hermeneutics within the context of the reader's dialogue with the text based on his cultural experience is typical of the various approaches of modern literary theory and also of l iterature itself.

Thus, American Studies is a general cultural discipline which has chosen the USA as its subject. Its immediate subject boundaries are restricted to the field of experience within American culture whilst at the same time, enj oying a sharper focus in its dialogue with other cultures, with particular emphasis on the Anglo-European culture which formed the substratum for American culture itself. For this reason, it would seem to be only natural that an important area of interest for American Studies, as envisaged in the EESE journal, should be modern literary theory. In any case, we do not regard it a matter of mere chance that the most intensive and most vigorous debates on theory are now taking place in the USA. In addition, it should be stressed that this very debate is based on the adoption of French and German, thus European philosophical assumptions which are in the process of being assimilated and finally, Americanised. In the global cultural debate, there i s the effect of American reaction to European theory on Europe itself and there are also global ramifications. Thus, even, in the field of constructing theories, the American experience is making itself felt. The assimilation process to which the European approaches are being subjected, will be important certainly in this regard.

American literature in the cultural horizon of the USA: two illustrative examples

Despite the foregoing, literature should still remain the central area even in the culturally based, academic discipline of American Studies. The 'otherness' of the literary text which is present even when horizons are being formed, force the reade r to have a more intense awareness of the cultural structures as they are presented in idealised or typical form. The relative, formal closed nature of a literary text leads, however, to a reflective and yet playfully creative dialogue with a fictitious, literary world as an individual and subjective experience.

A few central areas of dialogue may be mentioned in passing. With the subject as a starting-point, the following arguments emerge: the argument with
a) society,
b) nature,
c) 'God' or the numinous and
d) the self.
The overlapping of the se areas together with their interdependence and general prevalence cannot be validly portrayed in an abstract form, but are only properly described in individual studies. This division should suffice as a concrete suggestion for possible main fields of r esearch for EESE. By taking the first two points as an example, I should, in fact, like to point out which research directions could prove to be the most fruitful.

a) Argument with society

Literature brings the relevant socio-cultural norms of any society together with their historical character to the forefront as a possible battle-field of conflicting values; and particularly in the cases of epic and dramatic literature, they are, as it w ere, then held open for discussion. In this way, the whole cultural network becomes the topic of discussion because its conditions break through the text to affect the situation of the hero.

The studies, for example, on American realism and naturalism, show that even in this very same field, research into literary epochs and styles of writing has quite clearly proven to be fruitful.14 In this context, the excellent study b y Winfried Fluck15 which takes the socio-cultural value horizon into consideration can be quoted as an exemplary piece of work. In all these studies, the clear analysis shows how the living and working conditions in late nineteenth cen tury industrial society in the USA at that time had a crucial effect on a society's view of ethical norms and on social behaviour, thus, displacing the traditional values of the American republic. Again, we are dealing with a case of a gradual process of ethical change similar to my example of the triumph of the Enlightenment values over Puritanism where the ethical shifts manifest themselves even at the detailed micro-linguistic and stylistic levels. At the same time, the European theories on realism and naturalism were absorbed and transformed to fit into the American context. The American value horizon is strongly emphasised at this point as being an independent and unique culture by its deliberate distancing itself from European conditions.

This kind of research is not only fruitful with regard to studying certain literary periods as in-depth genre studies can also provide impressive insights into the whole of American culture. The historical novel, for example, is able to show how the changing circumstances transforming the English version of genre based on a different view of history had became instrumental in the search for a national sense of identity.16 The early types of the American historical novel, a genre which certainly should include the works of Cooper, Simms, Irving, Paulding, Hawthorne and Melville have affected both the canon17 and American consciousness, their form becoming the touchstone for the discussion of val ues from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Not only is the history of America's awakening to its own unique character of great interest but this is also the case for the phases of gradual and/or spasmodic growth away from, and even protest against Anglo-European ideas. In addition to the approach which stresses the main points in early American literature, it is also important to look at present-day literature which portrays the breakdown of historical consciousness via the post-structurali st fragmentation of form; and only by returning to the traditional narrator model can there be any historical narrative as is shown, for example, in the work of Annie Dillard, John Updike, Robert Ford, E.L. Doctorow, Robert Coover etc. This point, by no m eans, implies a new quest for finding a new unity, but merely notes that traditional historical narrative is now experiencing a fresh impetus.

As drama confronts the audience directly with social action during the performance of any particular play, it is a genre which is even more closely bound to society than the novel. Drama is also the literary genre which did not achieve recognition as an a rt form until very late in the 20th century. Puritanism with its cultural impact on the colonial period particularly in New England had, by and large, cut off the USA from the English drama tradition because of the Puritan hostility to the theatre and had had an adverse effect on the theatre practically right up to the end of the 19th century. Only the minstrel show, a grotesque parody using music and song purporting to show how the Blacks were supposed to behave was able to develop since the 1820s, thus starting off the burlesque tradition of American shows with the musical as its most important offshoot. The thesis now in vogue that the development of American drama parallelled the increasing secularisation of American society need s to be analysed in greater detail, but this still indicates that the theatre was particularly relevant as place for social dialogue as it is related to the main issues within the American cultural net.

In the 20th century, however, drama established itself very rapidly within American culture to become an important art form for social criticism. Ancient Greek adaptions with their return to religious roots in the 'little theatre movement' of the Province town Players, Washington Square Players and the Theatre Guild in the early 1920s appeared alongside O'Neill's adoption and Americanisation of the modern European theatre of Ibsen, Strindberg and Kaiser. Within the period roughly from 1920 to 1950, express ionistic, symbolist, epic, existential and finally, the theatre of the absurd were all absorbed into the culture, and then adapted to the conditions in America. Together with Freudian and Jungian forms of psychology, they were transformed into an instrume nt which widened the American horizon of values.

As was already clearly the case in novels, this was also a matter of adoption, adaptation and Americanisation of theoretical approaches. The form was altered with the intention of entering into dialogue with ethical ideas within American culture. Our jour nal EESE will be particularly active in this area.

b) Dialogue with the nature

In his essay "Scenes of nature, signs of man," written for the eponymous collection of his most important papers on American literature,18 Tony Tanner points out the special significance of the opening of Cooper's novel, 'Deerslayer'. Natty Bumppo steps onto a hill in a forest and suddenly stands in front of the magnificent vista of 'Lake Limmerglass'. His position above the whole view extends his horizon enabling him to see further out where a quiet, calm lake is embedded within the i mpressive scenery. The view is enclosed by a mountain range and leads into a clear sky. Donald A. Ringe observes a similar scenic composition in contemporary literature and in the Hudson River school of landscape painters. He makes the following comment: Natty experiences the sublime in the unspoilt natural landscape of America in a similar way to Edmund Burke's use of the aesthetic idea of the sublime in his work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful written in 1775. In contrast, the beautiful is characterised by order, symmetry, harmony and regularity. Uvedale Price (Essay on the Picturesque, London 1794) analyses the term "picturesque" to define that surprising, irregular form which lies som ewhere between the sublime and the beautiful, thus completing the aesthetic system of the late 18th century which is an area lying between European Classicism and Romanticism. A classical ruined temple, for example, is a picturesque theme as its effect ac hieves its full force only in the "tension of completing the full architectural form already known to the observer" ("der Spannung zur vollkommenen architektonischen Form, die der Betrachter kennt").20 The historical significance inves ted in the 'picturesque' made this category become the most important aesthetic term in Europe. In contrast, there is nothing picturesque about the American landscape: Tanner, however, also notes that, during this contemplation, Natty is supported by his gun: "The poet-appreciator (passive), and the hunting sharp-shooter (active) meet in Deerslayer, who incarnates the irresolvable, ambiguous position of man - white man - in the American wilderness."22 In this way, the American wilderness becomes a space for human activity which man invades, conquers, and then possesses by language, by giving it a geographical name, and he finally destroys its unspoil t nature, thus causing it to become the object of the historical processes of land invasion and settlement.

Ursula Brumm places the significance of the wilderness within the whole context of American history and makes the following comment: