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Posts Tagged ‘American Studies’

The most recent data released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (2008) disclosed that 11.7 million persons in the United State experienced at least one attempted or successful incident of identity theft during a two-year period.  The incidences increased 22% from 2007 to 2008.  For the past decade it has been a federal crime to “knowingly transfer, possess, or use, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person.”  A steady stream of news stories reminds us of the dangers of identity theft and identity impersonation—from credit card and social security numbers stolen, to bank accounts hacked into, to child predators trolling social networking sites under false identities.

Our legal system and news media have sent us a clear message about identity theft: it is criminal.  It is unacceptable.  It is a menace to society.  You need to protect yourself, vigilantly, against it.  But in the imaginary world of popular culture, the ethics of identity theft is, well, far less rigid.  In the fictional stories we tell ourselves about identity fraud, the act itself can actually be a justified means to a moral end.  In the past year alone, three films have been released with plots that are propelled by characters who assume false identities, identities inhabited “knowingly” and without permission.  In the sci-fi film Source Code (2011), a soldier is transposed into the body of an everyday man who is riding a train that will blow up in eight minutes; he is occupying the man’s body in order to try to find the bomber on the train.  In Unknown (2011), a doctor awakens after a car accident to find that another man has assumed his identity, is married to his wife, and has his career (the other man’s photograph even shows up when the doctor’s name is searched on the internet).  Finally, the documentary Catfish (2010) explores the world of Facebook and the ways in which users perform their identities for people they’ve never met in real life.  I don’t want to give too much more away from any of the three movies, as each contains various twists and turns, but suffice it to say that identity cloning and identity manipulation is a theme that runs through all of them.

And here’s what strikes me about this cultural content and its broader context: in each case, the ethics of assuming someone else’s identity is not exactly black and white. In fact, in the moral logic of Source Code, posing as another person is wholly justified if it can help save the lives of others.  In Unknown, it turns out that identity fraud is ultimately a redeeming act for one of the characters.  And Catfish challenges the audience to reflect on whether questionable identity performance justifies the good works that can result in the process.  In short, if another person’s identity is assumed for reasons other than criminal purposes and/or economic gain, then it may just be okay.

It’s not just these three movies that explore the ethical gray area of identity theft.  We can go back farther into the decade to find others.  As readers of the Harry Potter series know, the magical “polyjuice” is a potion that will transform the imbiber into another person, at least in outward appearance.  While it is used to evil purposes in one of the books, it is also used by Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron throughout the series to obtain valuable information and pursue dangerous missions.  Their temporary acts of identity theft are deemed morally defensible.  Another example: the hero protagonist of the popular 2002 film Catch Me If You Can is a clever identity imposter—based on a real-life criminal—whom the audience finds itself rooting for.  And in the TV show Mad Men (spoiler warning…), the lead character is not actually the “real” Don Draper, but is a Korean war vet named Dick Whitman who has assumed the identity of an officer killed in the war—named Don Draper.

Of course, the theme and plot device of false identity is not a new preoccupation of literature and cinema.  Mark Twain explored it in Pudd’nhead Wilson, Herman Melville in “Benito Cereno,” Vladimir Nabokov in his dark novel Despair.  Older movies, like Day of the Jackal, the film version of the play Six Degrees of Separation, and the science fiction story Gattaca all revolve around identity fraud.  But in the world we live in today, where online identity theft is a rapidly growing criminal phenomenon, I find these contemporary iterations of the theme even more noteworthy.  As the performance of our identity becomes more fluid, unstable—indeed more uncomfirmable—in this online age of social networking, it seems that our sense of the morality of identity performance has become more muddied and culturally contested.  The law and the news media are telling us one story about the ethics of identity theft and manipulation; our popular culture is telling us another; and, I daresay, what we post on our own Facebook and Twitter accounts is telling us a third.

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This is an excerpt from the keynote address I gave on June 11, 2010 at the American Studies Institute of the Lovett School in Atlanta.

…In my talk this afternoon, I would like to conceive of American Studies not as a method, or a field of study, but rather as a habit of mind.   I think we in American Studies sometimes get too bogged down in trying to define concretely what American Studies is or is not, in trying to identify whether or not American Studies has a method, or in debating what kind of scholarship or what kind of teaching is or is not “America Studies.”  I’d like to set all of those debates aside for now, and talk about American Studies as simply a habit of mind.

I believe American Studies is, at its core, a habit of mind.  What is a habit of mind? A habit of mind is a usual way of thinking about things.  A habit of mind is a disposition.  It’s a disposition we employ to solve a problem.  It’s a disposition that we have internalized and that we can draw on instinctively when confronted with a problem.  Especially when we are confronted with a problem whose solution is not immediately apparent.

So what is the American Studies habit of mind?  I would argue that the American Studies Habit of Mind is a disposition we employ in the study of culture and history.  We draw on this habit of mind when looking at cultural problems and historical problems, when asking cultural questions, when analyzing cultural products like literature, art, film, and music, and so forth, and when framing cultural inquiry.

So what exactly is this American Studies Habit of Mind?  This disposition? What are its characteristics? How can we define it?  Let me begin by offering a few quotes that I think capture the essence of what the American Studies habit of mind is.

First, a quote from American Studies scholar Gene Wise.  In 1979 Wise published an important essay in the American Quarterly called “Paradigm Dramas.” And in this essay, Wise wrote that the practice of American Studies requires one to have a “connecting imagination.”  A connecting mind.  I’ve always loved this phrase.  Wise argued that exercising this “connecting imagination” was necessary if one was to properly understand the world around in its interconnecting context.  He wrote that the connecting mind can “probe the immediacy of the situation to search for everything which rays out beyond it.” So I would make the case first and foremost that the American Studies habit of mind is a connecting imagination.

Let me offer another quote.

In his recent book Five Minds for the Future, cognitive theorist Howard Gardner—he of Multiple Intelligences fame—argues that people will need to cultivate a “synthesizing mind” if they hope to thrive in the 21st century.  As Gardner defines it, the synthesizing mind “takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense.”  According to Gardner, a mind that can synthesize will be better equipped for the challenges of an increasingly interconnected, information-driven society.

So what is the American Studies habit of mind?  A connecting imagination, a synthesizing mind.  Let me go back a bit earlier in time and throw another quote into the mix.

In his 1837 essay “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson describes the mind of what he called “Man Thinking” as a mind that is, “tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, it goes on tying things together, diminishing anomalies, discovering roots running under ground whereby contrary and remote things cohere and flower out from one stem.”

“Tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct.”  Now of course Emerson predated the institutionalization of the field of American Studies, but I would argue that his quote certainly captures the spirit of it.

So what is the American Studies habit of mind? A connecting imagination, a synthesizing mind, a unifying instinct.  Connection, synthesis, unification…

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Why did I pursue a graduate degree in American Studies?  When did I know I wanted to teach American Studies?  When did I even discover that I had a knack for American Studies?  Someone recently asked me these questions.  I’m used to getting the common “What the heck is American Studies?” question, but these inquiries were more personal.  I confess I had not thought deeply about them beyond my usual rote response, “Well, I always liked literature and history.”  I applied to graduate programs in American Studies when I was 27 years old, but surely I was developing some kind of disposition for American Studies years before that.  This post is my initial attempt to pinpoint stepping stones, the episodes that guided me in the direction of American Studies before I even knew what it was.  An American Studies mini-autobiography, if you will.

When I was a teenager I wrote several songs for my high school garage band about my two primary interests (fears?) at the time: romantic love and nuclear holocaust.  The songs typically involved me falling in love just as the world ended.  This may in part explain why I am still single, but my bigger point is this: as a songwriter, my instinct was always to integrate larger social and political issues into my lyrics and have them merge with the personal, to examine how the broader world could shape and impact everyday people.  Possible stage 1: The skinny, nerdy American Studies composer, synthesizing with his synthesizer.

In college I was an English major and I wrote my senior thesis on the influence of blues music on African American literature.  I didn’t really know about American Studies back then, but it just seemed natural to me to study literature by intersecting literary works with other cultural forms, contexts, and concerns.  I couldn’t read Ralph Ellison or Jean Toomer without turning my attention to the writings of Albert Murray, David Evans’s fantastic book Big Road Blues, and the musical recordings of blues and jazz artists.  Possible stage 2: The undergraduate American Studies bluesman, ever drawn to the crossroads.

In my mid-twenties, when I was a high school teacher, I read the book Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean and also saw the film several times.  I discussed both with friends, and wrote about both in my journal.  Ultimately the book and film caused me to change my position on the death penalty, from pro to anti.  The process of engaging with this material helped me better understand the power of culture, the ways in which culture and ideas can affect our worldview and shape our identity.  Possible stage 3: The politically evolving young man influenced by the cultural work of Sean Penn and a nun.

And one last touchstone, the likely precondition for all of the above stages: I am adopted.  My adopted parents, whom I love dearly, have no information about my biological parents.  The adoption was arranged through lawyers before I was even born.  I have no knowledge of my biological family tree, my ethnicity, my roots and long generational history.  Perhaps as a consequence of this I have always considered myself simply American, born into and of this culture from the very beginning.  A blank slate.  If American Studies seeks to understand identity—how it is constructed and inscribed, negotiated and redefined—then I suspect my love of the field is not unrelated to my own personal story and journey.

So how did I end up in American Studies?  I guess I can credit love, nuclear war, Ralph Ellison, the blues, Sean Penn, and an adoption in a Philadelphia hospital in 1970.

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