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Aesthetic Premises in American Studies

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  * First published in German under the title “Das ästhetische Vorverständnis der American Studies.”  Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien  18 (1973): 110-29. Part of the essay was used for a shortened English version in Other Voices, Other Views: An International Collection of Essays from the Bicentennial  . Ed. Robin W. Winks. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. 21-30. The essay printed here is a translation of the srcinal German version. Aesthetic Premises in American Studies * 1.1. Debates about the theory and method of American Studies have become a staple of the eld. They have remained unsatisfactory where they have failed to compare theoretical claims with the interpretive practice dominat-ing American Studies at the present time. Theoretical statements are declara-tions of good intentions in which possible contradictions can be glossed over  by skillful rhetoric. Their application and test in interpretive practice, on the other hand, will reveal what guiding assumptions have been really constitu-tive. Gunnar Myrdal has therefore reminded us: “Whoever wants to discuss the merits of a theoretical approach has to make an effort to analyze the tacit value assumptions by which the approach is constituted and its method and results are determined” (Myrdal 76). The following discussion of central but largely unacknowledged aesthetic premises in American Studies is an at-tempt to make such underlying premises explicit and to describe their far- reaching impact on the eld in its currently dominant form. A key promise of American Studies, as it emerged in the 1930s and then again in the post-War II period, was to break down the barriers between disciplines like his-tory and literary studies, so that literary studies could go beyond a narrowly dened formalism and discuss literature again in its historical and cultural signicance, while historians, on the other hand, would prot from the new interdisciplinary approach in their attempts to use literary texts as important sources for understanding America. The question is to what extent this proj-ect has been realized and, if not, what barriers still stand in the way of its realization.1.2. One of the main reasons why American Studies has paid little atten-tion to underlying premises is a persistent belief in the saving powers of a new, unied method. In order to overcome the narrow connes of traditional  16 Romance with America? disciplines, a new interdisciplinary synthesis was envisioned. 1  These calls for interdisciplinary cooperation are based on the “tacit assumption … that a single method, although not yet in sight, would be desirable …” (Spiller 19). It is safe to say, however, that an interpretation is not primarily determined  by the methods it uses. On the contrary, the choice of method is already a manifestation of underlying assumptions about the nature and value of the interpretive object. 2  These prior assumptions guide the interpretive practice and pre-determine the results. They dictate and limit the direction of our critical interest and constitute the very object the critic sees. An interpreter’s a priori views of literature – for example, why it is worth studying, what its function and potential is, and wherein its value lies – will decisively shape the way in which he will proceed methodologically. The kinds of features we are looking for in a work, the aspects we notice – or fail to notice – will thus inevitably be governed by what we take to be self-evident truths about the nature and value of literature. Wherever the by now classical works of American Studies have been dis- cussed as exemplary studies, the shaping inuence of such underlying as -sumptions on their interpretive procedures has been neglected. It is important to realize, however, that it is not the lack of a new interdisciplinary method,  but the continuing, unrevised perpetuation of certain aesthetic premises that stands in the way of determining how literature is related to society. The major shortcoming of current American Studies is not a lack of methodologi-cal rigor but a lack of awareness about the continuing presence and shaping  power of unacknowledged a priori assumptions. These premises will con- tinue to determine results in the eld as long as they are not subjected to criti -cal analysis and revision. For this purpose, the following essay pays closer attention to the actual interpretive practice of current American Studies than to theoretical debates which have often had little operational signicance. 3 1  See, for example, Henry Nash Smith’s essay “Can ‘American Studies’ Develop a Method?,” which can be read (and has often been read) as a theoretical manifesto of American Studies. 2  Recent hermeneutical discussions, for example by Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jürgen Habermas, have provided forceful reminders that method in the humanities always remains dependent on underlying assumptions (Vorverständnis). Cf. Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Wahrheit und Methode  and  Erkenntnis und Interesse  by Jürgen Habermas. A detailed discussion of the way in which aesthetic theories – consciously or uncon-sciously, willingly or unwillingly – govern the procedures of literary studies, that is, its descriptive, interpretative, and evaluative practice, can be found in Winfried Fluck,  Ästhetische Theorie und literaturwissenschaftliche Methode .  Eine Untersuchung ihres Zusammenhangs am Beispiel der amerikanischen Huck Finn-Kritik  . In the second part of the book, an analysis of American literary criticism of Mark Twain’s  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn  is offered as a case study. 3  The need for analyzing concrete interpretive practices instead of remaining merely on the level of theoretical discussions can be illustrated by a recent critical contribution to the American Studies debate in which Olaf Hansen, in applying an argumentative  17 Aesthetic Premises in American Studies 1.3. In describing certain shortcomings of current American Studies debates, I have already indicated what approach I want to pursue in the following essay. By the use of concepts like “a priori assumptions” or “tacit premises” I am not referring to pre-existing prejudices or to a hermeneutical hypothesis about the meaning of a text of object. Rather, I want to focus on prior assumptions about the object in question and its function that form the  basis for every subsequent interpretive step in literary and cultural analysis. The fact that these premises are characterized as “aesthetic” in the case of American Studies may appear puzzling, however, for several reasons. To start with, it has been one of the major promises of American Studies as an interdisciplinary project to go beyond a merely aesthetic perspective on literary and cultural texts. Moreover, one may argue that aesthetic values cannot be separated from more general assumptions about reality, society and  politics – so that, inevitably, aesthetic assumptions also stand in the service of ideological, political and social interests. However, these larger ideological or political interests are not directly constitutive in scholarly interpretations of aesthetic objects or cultural artifacts, because these interpretations must conform to standards of evidence and plausibility that disciplines hold at any given time. Thus, ideological interests are not sufficient to explain the  particular form and direction an interpretation has taken. In order to become influential within a discipline, more general political or other interests have to  be adapted to disciplinary rules and conventions. We have to learn to analyze these disciplinary uses and to resist their seemingly self-evident authority. 2.1 If one wants to describe the contribution of literary and Cultural Studies to the larger eld of American Studies 4 , one has to turn to those approaches that began to develop in American English departments of the 1930s in pro-test against a curriculum that was completely dominated by English litera-ture. The best known representatives of this movement – critics and scholars like F. O. Matthiessen, Robert Spiller, Henry Nash Smith, R.W.B. Lewis, Charles Feidelson, Richard Chase, Roy Harvey Pearce, Marius Bewley, Leo  pattern to the eld of American Studies that has been developed in the so-called “Positivismusstreit,” criticizes an “empiricist concept of culture” (395) and accuses American Studies of a naive positivism. However, although the positivistic culture concept of anthropological functionalism has occasionally been a point of reference in discussions of the theory and method of American Studies, it has hardly ever shaped the eld’s interpretive practice – and certainly not the classical works of the American Studies movement. In the interpretive practice of these works, the concept of cul-ture has remained, by and large, organicist, resp. “contextualist,” and has not become functionalist. It is thus not an “empiricist methodology” that undermines the goals of American Studies but the continued use of premises scholars take for granted. See Hansen’s essay “Hermeneutik und Literatursoziologie. Zwei Modelle: Marxistische Literaturtheorie in Amerika/Zum Problem der ‘American Studies’.” 4  The theme of the conference for which this paper was originally written was “The Relevance of Literary Studies for American Studies.”  18 Romance with America? Marx, Leslie Fiedler, and Richard Poirier – have shaped American Studies decisively, in the U.S. as well as in Germany, by their attempts to develop an alternative to the New Criticism and its insistence on an autonomous aesthet- ic sphere. The best known and most inuential theoretical statement of this group has been provided by Henry Nash Smith in his essay “Can ‘American Studies’ Develop A Method?,” rst published in 1957. Smith’s programmatic essay can help to recall the methodological dilemma that led to calls for a new method in American Studies. The methods of the social sciences were considered inadequate, because, as New Critics or Rene Wellek and Austin Warren had argued in their inuential Theory of Literature , they fail to ac- count for the specic literary dimension of literary texts and remain therefore “extrinsic” to literature. On the other hand, Smith criticizes the New Critical rejection of historical and social contextualization because – as he argues with respect to Mark Twain – this blocks an understanding of both the liter- ary achievement and the cultural signicance of a writer like Twain. Twain never bothered to observe formalist ideals of organic structure and literary craftsmanship, but he became a great writer nevertheless. Smith thus calls for a method that is literary as well as sociological: “What is needed is a method of analysis that is at once literary (for one must begin with an analytical read-ing of the texts that takes into account structure, imagery, diction, and so on) and sociological (for many of the forces at work in the ction are clearly of social srcin)” (Smith, “Can American Studies” 201). On the one hand, American Studies is encouraged to go beyond formalist concepts of litera- ture. On the other hand, Smith continues to insist on the idea of a specic lit -erary mode of communication. American Studies wants to revise the exclu-sion of sociological questions from literary studies but insists that the social or cultural dimension of a literary text can be understood only through its specically literary structure. If New Critical literary criticism had its short -comings, so had the sociological methods known to Smith. He thus looked for an altogether new combination of the two approaches in which social con-texts would not be neglected but integrated into a literary method of analysis. 2.2 But what exactly is a literary method of analysis? Smith’s reference to “structure, imagery, diction, and so on” appears entirely plausible at rst sight. But it is not the whole story. The concept of a specically or intrinsi -cally literary quality of literary texts had its heyday in the 1950s, when lit-erary studies claimed that, after many sociological reductions (for example in Marxist literary criticism), the discipline had nally reached a point of  professional maturity in which the impressionism of earlier approaches had  been overcome and the interpretation of literary texts could now be based on close, text-centered analyses of literary form. To distinguish these for- mal analyses from earlier, not yet sufciently analytical approaches, the term structure was introduced. As a technical term, structure carried welcome
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