WRECK PARK

ISSUE NO. 0.2

BECOMING AMERICAN STUDIES: A STATE-OF-THE-FIELD INTERVIEW WITH DONALD E. PEASE

With Robert P. Wilson

ROBERT P. WILSON

In the Futures of American Studies volume, which you co-edited, Jan Radway described Carl Bode’s 1960 address to the American Studies Association as “one of the first instances of the now familiar American Studies genre” dedicated to establishing a field identity by defining its theoretical parameters, methodology (or lack thereof), and object field of study. Since the birth of American Studies as an academic formation, this sort of state-of-the-field address as been undertaken by scholars like Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, Gene Wise, Amy Kaplan, John Carlos Rowe, William Spanos, and yourself, just to name a few. When she delivered the keynote address at Binghamton University’s annual American studies graduate student conference (“Shifting Tides, Anxious Borders”), Branka Arsic more or less diagnosed this genre practice as a kind of neurosis—that’s my term, not hers—suggesting that no other discipline expends such an enormous amount of scholarly energy on obsessive self-definition. Surely critical reflection on one’s own scholarly practices is not only productive but essential. But do you see any drawbacks to such reflection as it is practiced in this American studies “genre”? Is it possible, for example, that such addresses, even when anti-exceptionalist in posture, can work to consolidate exceptionalist norms by sustaining precisely the sort of identity crisis constitutive of “American” cultural identity from the very beginning—whether that’s Trilling’s “dialectically capacious” Liberal Imagination, or the question Who are we?, which has been central to questions of national identity from the Puritans to the global War on Terror?

DONALD E. PEASE

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that state-of-the-field addresses have been taken up at different moments precisely in order to designate the stakes of a perceived crisis. They have done so because the jointure between the state and the nation, which the field of American Studies in a certain sense inhabits, also designates the site where the “illegal legality” of the State of Exception has produced ongoing crises in national self-definition. We might say that the field of American Studies undergoes constant redefinition because of its constantly mutating relation to the state. State-of-the field addresses can opportunistically transpose such crises into pretexts for the consolidation of a renewed sense of national cultural identity. They do so by articulating the “crisis-inducing” factors to the normative exceptionalist presuppositions already sedimented within the field’s pre-existing categorical framework that can quite literally consolidate them. If you construe the field of American Studies solely as an ideological state apparatus that produces imaginary relations to the Real State of Exception, then it would follow that state-of-the-field addresses would turn whatever precipitates a crisis of national identity into quasi-ritualized occasions to re-affirm exceptionalist norms – no matter whether through their critique or their acclamation – as the invariant grounding and horizon of interpretation of the nation-state.

But I don’t think that the field of American Studies is altogether reducible to an ideological apparatus of the state. Nor would I claim that all state-of-the field-addresses conform to the rules of the subgenre – the nationalizing identity-crisis narrative – to which you’ve alluded.

In our introduction to that Futures of American Studies volume, Robyn Wiegman and I described Jan Radway’s “What’s in a Name?” as a presidential address that introduced claims about the field that could be assimilated neither to the rules of the subgenre nor to exceptionalist norms grounding it. Radway’s address injected an irrecuperable crisis in the members’ accustomed modes of field-belonging. It represented the field and its members as committed to projects that traversed and transgressed national borders and that undermined both the notion of a bounded national territory as well as the coherent national identity to which the members of the ASA had formerly adhered.

In The New American Exceptionalism, I argued that President George W. Bush inaugurated a State of Exception that installed an insuperable impasse to the consolidating powers of the state-of-the-field address. After President Bush inaugurated what he called a Global War on Terror, he disassociated the Imperial State of Exception that the United States had in fact become from the normalizing powers of the ideology of American exceptionalism. Bush also disjoined the Homeland Security State from the exceptionalist nation that it “protected” and “secured.” After the State of Exception became the Rule, Bush's Global Homeland State did not depend upon the norms of American exceptionalism for either legitimation or disavowal. As the installation of an unimaginably Real State of Exception, the Global Homeland Security State disjoined scholars in American studies from their ideological “vocation” of constructing imaginary (exceptionalist) relations to it.

That dis-joining has become the occasion for thinking that’s radically different from a consolidating or synthesizing account of the state of the field. Throughout the essays that I’ve written after Bush’s inauguration of the Global Homeland Security State (which the Obama Administration has continued), I have returned to a passage from Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy of History to underscore the political stakes of this alternative way of thinking: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of exception in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history that corresponds to this fact. Then we will have the production of a real state of exception before us as our collective task.” Now what I understand Walter Benjamin to mean by the “production of a real state of exception” involves thinking from the perspective of the people the state of exception has oppressed throughout United States history. Such thinking does not aspire to reconstitute the exceptional nation that legitimated such oppression.

Think, for example, of the constituent powers potentiating the Occupy movement, the anti-globalization movement, the Black Lives Matter movement. These movements emerged at what Antonio Negri has called decisive “constituent moments” that gave rise to assemblages of singularities whose irreducible differences involved them in pluralizing and heterogeneous relations that did not presuppose exceptionalist norms and remained utterly recalcitrant to assimilation within a national identity.

WILSON

I’ll come back in a moment to the transition into the permanent state of exception that you identify with the Bush administration, whereby traditional structures of disavowal are cast off by way of a positive affirmation of imperial ambition. But I wonder—and I know you’ve done this in your writing—if you could go back to something you’ve just said and articulate your understanding of the disjunction between state and nation, which you identify as the site where American studies has taken up its problems of self-definition.

PEASE

I do think that the field of American Studies might be understood as situated at the site of the disjunction between state and nation. But I would also want to draw some crucial distinctions about the projects taken up at this site. Practitioners of state-of-the-field addresses can and have turned this disjuncture into the pretext for inventing a newly exceptionalized American Studies. Indeed some Transnational American Studies scholars have taken this disjunction as the occasion to redefine the United States – “Indispensable Trans-Nation” – as indistinguishable from the Imperial State of Exception. Contrarily, the disjoining of state from nation has also opened a site for thinking modes of constituent relationality (what Benjamin calls the “real state of exception”) that are not based on individuals who share national identities and that do not depend upon the continual re-inscription of exceptionalist presuppositions for their articulation. Jan Radway’s “What’s in a Name?” address that we’ve already mentioned provides one instance of such thinking. Radway’s state-of-the-field address did not work at the level of the already constituted field, and Radway did not attempt to re-constitute either a national cultural identity or a newly consolidated field. Radway’s address enacted a constituent power that exceeded the field’s already constituted order, and permanently disrupted the contextual background conditions out of whose (exceptionalist) presuppositions the field of American Studies might be redefined. Radway’s enunciations worked in the name of indeterminate formations – in between academic disciplines and transnational social movements, in between the nation and the imperial state of exception – that were not part of the already constituted order and that did not aspire to reconstitute the field that excluded them. Radway made these claims wholly on the authority of the formations that these constituent claims brought into existence.

I’d base the distinction that I’ve adduced between state-of-the-field addresses on a more pervasive distinction between the registers in which “We the People” operate in the national political field. The phrase “We the People” tacitly includes two opposed sets of people. The set of the people as an organized political body (“We the National People”), on the one hand; and on the other, a subset of the people as a fragmentary multiplicity of vulnerable, unhoused, denationalized, stateless, excluded, unprotected bodies (Benjamin’s “tradition of the oppressed”). The “We the National People” who are the repository of the sovereign democratic will that putatively authorizes the state’s policies are constituted out of the relegation of the fragile, homeless people to the part of no part in the whole of the constituted polity. After 9/11, the Homeland Security State inaugurated a bio-political settlement that regarded “We the National People” as indistinguishable from unprotected biological life, the part of no part of the entire constituted order. I think that truly constituent moments emerge through an understanding of the people as at once the part of no part as well as a stand–in for whole that can lead to the restructuring of the entire social space.

In The New American Exceptionalism, I claimed that during his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama seized the constituent power that surged up at the disjuncture between the Imperial State of Exception and “We the People.” He effected a tidal shift in the dominant state fantasy when he linked the image of homeless, unprotected life forms in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina with a more encompassing image-repertoire — of citizens stripped of their constitutional rights by the Patriot Act, of parents separated from their children by war, of families forced from their homes by the subprime mortgage crisis – that was already inscribed in the script responsible for the Bush administration’s production of the Homeland Security State. Obama inaugurated his movement at the site of the void disjoining the state of exception from a recognizable national polity. After he embodied the void as the object cause animating the desires of the multitudinous participants in his movement, Obama became the object cause as well of the missing America through which those desires became imaginable. Obama’s standing as a transformational object sustained the constituent power of his movement; it also located the profound sense of loss that emerged when his state policies betrayed the movement’s demand for change. Obama’s election brought audacious hope into intimate relationship with radical despair.

WILSON

To clarify – in The New American Exceptionalism, you argue among other things that the George W. Bush administration’s refusal to disavow its imperial ambitions effectively undid the state fantasy that regulated the relationship of U.S. citizens to the state during the Cold War period, i.e. American exceptionalism as such. And you claim, as you were just saying, that Obama’s campaign effected another “tidal shift” in the dominant state fantasy by way of its symbolic identification with those who had been relegated to non-being by the state, rather than identifying with the state itself…

PEASE

Exactly. Its relegation to non-being inaugurated self-exilic America. I told Bill Spanos that I did not really understand the ontological significance of his critique of the New Americanists until Bush’s Global War on Terror interpellated me to what Bill called “the neighborhood of zero.” The ontological breach this post-9/11 event occasioned made me feel like a displaced person in between a nation that had been permanently supplanted by a perpetual war on terror and the global U.S. imperium. The Imperial State’s declaration of a global war on terror had revealed the will to power that tacitly informed the relay of counter-hegemonic sociopolitical practices that New Americanist scholars practiced.

The return of blacks from exile (the tradition of the oppressed) animated one of the Obama movements core fantasies. The movement’s constituent power was linked to the potentiating of this singular universal – black exiles, the part of no part – to particularize an alternative universalization. In potentiating the part of no part – the oppressed blacks constitutively excluded from the U.S. Polity – Obama particularized the object cause of the movement’s desire. Throughout his presidency, images of Obama oscillated between celebrating him as the Black Messiah and denouncing him as the Black Anti-Christ. Following Obama’s election in 2008, the Tea Party movement represented Obama as a figure who lacked the state-authorized long-form birth certificate required to certify his status as a legitimate United States citizen and re-imagined him as a Muslim terrorist intent on convoking “death panels” to endanger the American people’s bio-political welfare. Posters appeared with Obama and Osama bin Laden as mirroring images. Contrarily, Obama’s devotees hailed him as the black messiah auguring a post-racial epoch. The construction of Obama as a Muslim terrorist was not removed from circulation until Obama gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden. But in giving that order Obama personified the legal extra-legality, the executive power of the state of exception. When Obama underwent disembodiment into the sovereign overpowering force of the United States Imperial State of Exception, the fact that he was the “first Black president”” no longer mattered.

WILSON

You’re beginning to talk about what you said at the end of The New American Exceptionalism here in terms of Black Lives Matter, in terms of another kind of shift made possible by that election moment…

PEASE

Yes. When President Obama personified and legitimated the Sovereign Violence of Bush’s Global Homeland State, audacious hope did indeed begin to give way to radical despair – as I said I feared it might at the conclusion to The New American Exceptionalism. When the first black president exercised the universalizing regulatory and militarized power of the state inherent to the executive office…

WILSON

When he fulfilled that function…

PEASE

…the constituent power of the movement became destitute. His presidency then became a kind of fulfillment of the disavowed underside of the fantasy.

WILSON

If you were to append a chapter to the end of that book, how would you characterize the present state of the American state fantasy?

PEASE

I see several fantasies that are in contestation for dominance at the present. Many of those fantasies are retrieving a relationship between the United States as the global exception that renders the entire planet secured against terror, and the United States itself becoming a terrorizing state. That oscillation between terror and security – in debates over immigration, health care, surveillance, powers, education, military policy – is what I see functioning in various registers in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Think about what’s happening, for example, about the imaginaries surrounding the Trump-Carson duo on the Republican side. Donald Trump has turned his campaign into a spectacular promotion for the hate-talk radio/blood-sports radio mentality. Like the live commentators on those broadcasts, Trump appeals to mostly white males who need to give vent to racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic rage. Throughout the primary, Trump has opened up and occupied a “safe space” – an unassailably secure space – where he gives quasi-hysterical expression to a generalized crisis in white masculinity. Trump’s public rants make his supporters feel as if they have acquired a kind of power that reverses their own feeling of powerlessness. Trump consolidates this entire series of hysterical white male scenarios. Carson is a black, male Republican, a doctor, who has positioned himself as the inverse of Obama on a series of issues – Muslim fundamentalists, immigration policy, Obamacare, the Black Lives Matter movement. Carson refers to the fact that he is a medical doctor to legitimate the policies that would effectively annul President Obama’s policies in each of these domains.

WILSON

Bio- and -political.

PEASE

Yes, bio-political in the foundational sense.

WILSON

You talk about the Trump phenomenon in terms of trying to reclaim a certain power in the face of powerlessness, and I think describing Trump as a sort of consolidation or concentration of that generalized crisis might be appropriate in even a more, perhaps, literal sense. He does seem to have a certain kind of invincibility. He’s effectively scandal-proof in that he refuses to admit wrongdoing or apologize for anything, so it’s impossible to pin any sort of momentum-obliterating action or statement on him.

PEASE

It’s not exactly that he’s scandal-proof. His power exists in his capacity to say the most scandalous things – to publicly shout out the things that white males are, without exception, prohibited from saying, and then to challenge the “liberal media” (or the Republican elites) to discredit him. The fact that political pundits have tried and failed to pin him to a campaign-ending “gotcha moment” comprises the ongoing scandal of his candidacy.

WILSON

Right.

PEASE

But he is the white male who has achieved real financial and real political power – he backs candidates that can either win or lose, in whatever party, no matter what election – who is empowered to say what most white males can only say in the safe space of hate radio or sports radio. His scandalous attraction is precisely his capacity to say what cannot be rendered scandalous, what cannot be subjected to the logic of that’s racist and he’s now disqualified, that’s sexist and he’s now disqualified, that’s misogynistic, that’s homophobic, that’s anti-Muslim. He says all these things to qualify himself as the scandalous outside to established political order. If he stops saying them, he would be disqualified. He has produced, let’s call it, the perfection of the symptom.

WILSON

I think that’s a good way to describe it. You also mentioned Hillary Clinton in the context of an oscillation between terror and security, and immigration is central to this issue, especially since the Paris attacks…

PEASE

But before going to the specific issues, let’s consider the fantasies in which Hillary Clinton’s positions on the issues undergo fantasmatic re-framing. Unlike Trump, Hilary Clinton was haunted by two interconnected scandals that would not go away: the Benghazi incident, in which she was held responsible for the killing of American diplomats, and her use of her private e-mail server to conduct state business, which supposedly rendered the United States utterly insecure. The combination of these scandals putatively rendered Clinton unelectable. When she went before the Senate Hearing Committee, the Republican Senators’ primary purpose seemingly involved fixating her within the inescapably vertiginous space of these oscillating, mutually re-enforcing security/surveillance scandals. At the level of the fantasy spectacle, the Republican interrogators turned the public space of the Senate Hearing into a mise en scene for the fantasmatic performance of a public rendition ceremony. The Senators apparently wanted to render Hillary Clinton abject, powerless, and penitent for the deaths of the diplomats in Benghazi and for her “unsecured” e-mail. However, instead of either falling apart or becoming hopelessly repentant, Clinton put up a firewall to ward off the intrusive questions about Benghazi as well as her e-mail. The scenario became double-edged in that Clinton turned her Republican interrogators into the intrusive, at times terrifying, surveilling powers of the state.

As these perforce schematic observations indicate, I think we’re in a force-field in which incompatible fantasies are emerging. But I have not yet been able to discern a hegemonizing state fantasy.

WILSON

I’d like to take this discussion (about the present moment) back to the topic with which we began – the American studies field imaginary. I want to ask you about some of the talks you’ve recently given on canonical American Renaissance figures – specifically Melville, Whitman, and also Douglass – and to refer to another visitor we’ve recently had at Binghamton University, John Carlos Rowe, a long-time colleague of yours. He delivered a state-of-the-field address calling upon American studies scholars to make their object field of study more globally inclusive. In so doing, he explicitly – though very gently – questioned the efficacy of your recent return to figures like Melville and Whitman, though he also admitted that he sometimes teaches Whitman in his graduate seminars, and that he just finished his fourth book on Henry James. I wonder how you negotiate, or what you make of, this tendency of some Americanists to maintain scholarly and pedagogical commitments to canonical figures, who they were trained reading, and simultaneously to call upon Americanists to turn away from these figures in their scholarship – that tension. And, more specifically to yourself, why have you seen fit to return to these figures at this particular historical juncture?

PEASE

I never left those figures. Those figures are for me events in Badiou’s sense that I can never let them go. The experience of reading them has left traces that are so encrypted that they continue uncannily to inhabit and haunt my thinking and feeling and responding in ways that, as long as I live, I will never fully fathom. Jacques Derrida once described the literary critic as under a dual responsibility – to an infinite demand emanating from the heritage to which the artist or critic must be faithful – as well as from the “other” of that heritage. If what is infinite in the demand of a democratic culture refers to what is missing from its conditions of democratic inclusiveness, the addition of what the existing heritage is presently lacking would certainly constitute one way of responding to that infinite demand. However, if the Transnational American Studies scholars who add these literary works from other cultural and literary traditions to the pre-existing object field do so by interpreting them according to the epistemological protocols and generic rules of the scholar’s homegrown disciplinary training, how can these critics distinguish their laudable intention to enlarge the object field from their globalization of the United States version of liberal multi-culturalism?

As my remarks throughout this interview indicate, I would also understand the “other” to the heritage to name the part the heritage excluded or averted or disavowed in order for the heritage to appear self-contained. In responding to the part of no part to the heritage, the critic’s response to the infinite demand of the “other” to the heritage can also reveal what brings those powers of aversive exclusion to their limits. It is the “part of no part” in the works of the writers you’ve mentioned – the “anti-slave” in Emerson, Pip in Moby Dick, Simon Legree’s mother in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the elided escape from Douglass’s 1845 Narrative, the Battle of Goliad section [in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”] – that reveals the infinite demand for what is Other from within the heritage of the American Renaissance. I do not agree with John [Carlos Rowe] that we are “at Emerson’s tomb,” and that our proper work of mourning necessarily involves the liberating (and liberal) disavowal of all of them. Although I will not disavow my fidelity to these writers, I should add that, perhaps like John, I have learned that I remain all the more psychically attached to the very things that I consciously claim to have disavowed.

WILSON

This is something I wanted to ask you about. Some of the critics associated with the New Americanism – and I’m thinking of you and William Spanos in particular – have pushed back against the post-exceptionalist or transnationalist momentum because it engenders a tendency to disavow the ways in which the U.S. continues to except itself from the regulatory norms of the economic and geopolitical processes of globalization. As you suggest, such disavowals imply an intensity of psychic attachment, not its absence.

PEASE

Yes. Like Bill, I do find some versions of Transnational American Studies to be ongoing and unacknowledged reworkings of the logics of the providential mission and Manifest Destiny. But let me put what I said earlier in another way. When certain writers become, for you, events in your life, they subtract you from countable places and sortable places. They produce a kind of void that you keep reconnecting with by recommitting yourself, differently, to what emerges in your re-engagement. Of course, there are recent works to which I feel infinitely answerable. For me it’s an act of fidelity. Not in a political sense, but in an existential sense. I would feel as if I had violated the conditions of living if I did not maintain a relation to the worldliness of that unrelation.

WILSON

You’re talking about these experiences or events, these literary events, which are constitutive of your being, and not simply as a scholar or an academic…

PEASE

They’re constituent of my being.

WILSON

Constituent, yes.

PEASE

Which means my becoming.

WILSON

This reminds me of an anecdote Spanos related in an interview ten years ago or so. He talked about inviting young poststructuralist scholars to Binghamton to speak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how he would be disappointed to see none of the established faculty in the audience, only graduate students. And he would say, “Here’s the counter-memory, but where’s the memory?” I wonder whether this might be an appropriate question to ask of American studies. I sometimes get the sense that my generation of Americanists has specialized in counter-hegemonic discourses without necessarily being pressed to interrogate the normative practices and objects of study those counter-discourses were mobilized to resist in the first place. If so, I wonder whether that might constitute a kind of institutionalized memory loss – whether disavowing the field’s attachments to canonical literary texts or to field-defining works by Parrington, Matthiessen, Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, etc., might mirror the sort of disavowal that has always animated the “American” national identity.

PEASE

I think that the relationship between memory and counter-memory is a very vexed and interesting one. Usually what we call institutional memory is monumental time. It’s a way of sustaining an already institutionalized and consolidated understanding. When my generation of Americanists emerged, and we called ourselves the New Americanists, we quite self-consciously resisted and re-described what we considered petrifying in the temporalities of the field. And in so doing we also did something of an injustice to the subtleties and, let’s call them, counter-memories at work in many of the figures you’ve cited – the popular front commitments encrypted in Matthiessen’s American Renaissance, for example, the profound socialist sympathies of Leo Marx, the deep sense of what he called the “imagination of disaster” animating Lionel Trilling’s understanding of the “liberal imagination.” But what I really love about this generation of American studies scholars, of which you are one, involves your individual and collective desire to rethink, re-inhabit, and thereby re-imagine a whole constellation of relations that include soundscapes, a different sense of materialism, an alertness to the complexities of translating cultures, colonial modernity, digitization’s transformations of the archive, an interrogation of the line between the human and that which is always already understood as otherwise than human, that I find deeply attractive. I am inspired by your generation’s rethinking of feeling that has become, for me, a revitalizing alternative space of becoming. So I don’t share the indignation or the feeling that this generation is a generation of resentment. I think yours is a generation of truly visionary and powerful scholars.

WILSON

Is there something in what you’re describing that you’ve not discerned in this precise form over your long tenure in the field?

PEASE

The willingness to be open to as many sources of inspiration as possible, as imaginable, is for me a Whitmanian dimension.

WILSON

Well, I think you, in particular, and your colleagues at the Futures of American Studies Institute, can take some credit for that. One of the things that struck me about that institute is that one doesn’t tend to find there the kind of dismissive posturing common elsewhere in the academy. The institute achieves a strong sense of inclusiveness, of openness to a variety of critical perspectives, without having to sacrifice intellectual rigor in the process. Participants are challenged, but no one seems interested in demolishing anyone else in a kind of war of attrition between intellectual positions.

PEASE

That’s good. I think you put your finger on it. The Futures Institute is for me a place of real hospitality, where you are encountering one another not as figures who are involved in a friend/enemy relation, but as figures who are open, utterly open, to an uncovering of what’s possible in your thinking even as you reveal what’s possible for another in her thinking or his. Agamben described the Franciscans to be unlike the Benedictines, in that they understood life and forms-of-life to be utterly indistinguishable. Life itself – that’s what I think the form-of-life called unconditional hospitality is. It’s life itself. The Futures Institute is for me something like Agamben’s sense of a Franciscan heterotopia – responsibility to the infinite demand of the Futures to come.