Unrealized America : transforming American studies to transform America

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Davis, Jonathan Michael S., 1959-

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This dissertation asks why there is no socialism in the United States, what a realizable socialism would be like, and how American Studies can contribute to this social transformation. I claim that many on the American left and in American Studies have used culturalist theories to answer these questions, but that in this use they are mistaken. Instead we should use realist theories to help us understand and transform American society. I conclude that the only type of realizable socialism will be a market socialism and that a reformed American Studies could help bring this into being. The first chapter outlines ideas about realism in science, the study of the human, and interdisciplinary study. Then I discuss whether realist theories license oppression. After explaining the relation of my political commitments to this framework, I criticize an article about American Studies by Shelley Fisher Fishkin and conclude that we have assigned too much importance to "culture" in American Studies. The second chapter discusses the 1948 Progressive campaign and Michael Denning's culturalist interpretation of the Popular Front. I argue that the campaign failed because of its obedience to the imperatives of Stalin rather than those of domestic politics. Denning's culturalist theory obscures the politics of this period, misreads the media and arts, and advances mistaken political strategies. Part I of the third chapter considers pragmatism, which Denning claimed as part of the "cultural front." By comparing Dewey's philosophy with Berkeley's, I show that Deweyan pragmatism represents an antirealist hostility to modernity that has existed since the scientific revolution and that culturalism fulfils the same role today. Part II shows that Dewey’s influence prevented Progressive supporter Rexford Tugwell from developing a workable economic strategy in the early thirties. Because the market socialisms of that time gave more careful thought to resource allocation, they provided a better approach than Tugwellian planning to social control of the economy. The dissertation concludes with consideration of the attitudes and methods needed to begin a move to market socialism in the USA and a discussion of how those in American Studies can satisfy political commitments without sacrifice of intellectual integrity.



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