Doing What We Can Instead of What We Cannot
By Marco Katz Montiel, Co-Editor of Palgrave Studies in Music and Literature and author of Music and Identity in Twentieth-Century Literature from Our America
Walking down the street after lunch, I suddenly remembered my hat. My erstwhile commensals kindly agreed to wait on the sidewalk for a few moments while I ran to retrieve the sartorial item I had left on the table. Happily, the wait staff recognized me and handed it back as I arrived. As I turned to go, one of them asked for a word with me.
“I probably shouldn’t bother you with this, but I just have to say it” she declared. “That older lady at your table was absolutely the rudest person I have ever served.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied. “She teaches American Literature in Spain and makes a particular point about her feelings of solidarity with working people, especially African Americans.”
“Well she sure don’t show it. I know it’s really none of your concern, but I’ve never dealt with anyone like her in all my years, and just had to get this off my chest.”
Returning to my colleagues, I felt badly for the server, who struck me as muy simpática. Even so, I had to laugh because the professor in question had once again demonstrated her disdain for just about everything – and everyone – in the United States, a position that neatly balanced her dog-in-the-manger attitude when confronted with any criticism of Spain. In response to Chicano students who complained about prejudicial treatment in Madrid, for example, she would shrug her shoulders and remind anyone listening that she had studied more Chicana literature than any of those griping, as if that took care of the issue.
Earlier that day, the professor and I had participated in a discussion group at the American Studies Association conference in Washington DC. Following some shared commentaries on The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, the moderator, an earnest professor from central Europe, asked us to go around the circle and speak to our expectations of American Studies, in particular those that we bring to the classroom.
When my turn came, I outlined three concerns. My first had to do with the adjectival employment of the term American, which refers to a continent rather than a country. Many scholars get this but continue to misuse the word, in part because English speakers still do not agree on a translation for the Spanish estadounidense. Even though I continue to see wonderfully subversive possibilities in this adjectival engagement, the assembled professors found my second and third concerns far more troubling because, I believe, they called for auto-interpellation and a potentially risky commitment to personal ideals.
Having studied and taught in Canada, Chile, and Spain as well as in New York and Northern California, I tend to question students and colleagues about their reasons for taking up American Studies, the second of my concerns. What works, I will ask, moved them to make such an important decision about the use of their (often scarce) time and money? Did a book, an author or, perhaps, an entire literary genre make them feel as though this mattered more than anything else? Was it a painting, a piece of sculpture, or some moving images on a screen that compelled this choice of study? Or did some musical work reach a previously unknown place inside, so that they subsequently had no choice but to learn more about it?
No one has ever told me that they initiated study of a culture they despised. Historically, this has happened, however; in an impressive demonstration of openminded research, Fernando Ortiz, now regarded as a founder of Afrocuban studies, set out on an ethnographic mission to reveal the societal weaknesses of Africans and their descendants in Cuba in order to figure out ways to help them assimilate. As he learned about exemplary features of Afrocuban culture, he changed his thesis diametrically, leading to developments that transformed scholarly research in the field even as it put his own career in jeopardy. When the Cuban Revolution finally embraced Afrocuban achievements, his work influenced official government policy. Not yet having heard from anyone else who has made such a dramatic scholarly turnaround, I remain open to listening if ever a student informs me of his or her fundamental misgivings concerning any aspect of Music and Literature or American Cultural Studies.
In connection with these individual interests, my third concern focuses on ways in which students and colleagues integrate their studies with community interests. Sometimes, and this was where I sensed some bristling from my conference colleagues, I see American Studies employed as a way to validate smugness. Ignorant prejudice among ignorant people does not shock me the way it does when practiced by folks at post-secondary institutions. Decades after Malcolm X wised them up, professors in New York, working in some of the nation’s most segregated educational systems, still slur the South while their Northern Californian counterparts, living in impossibly white villages, unthinkingly employ coded references for movements (alternating between the humorous and the deadly serious) to secede from the “urban” southern sections of their state. While regularly hurling invective at abuses in Mexico and the United States, professors in Canada have failed to teach their own history of domestic slavery, concentration camps, residential schools for First Nations, or de jure mid-twentieth-century apartheid to Canadian students. With notable exceptions, as there are in Canada and the United States, I have known professors in Spain and Chile who share a similar preference for employing American Studies as a convenient means for ignoring events in their own countries while condemning easily condemnable figures in other lands, most facilely finding them in the United States.
In fairness, my own scholarship and teaching, which I view as firmly linked, also deals with national problems in America, from constitutions that enshrined white supremacy in Argentina, Chile, the United States, and Venezuela in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the employment of music industry tactics that ruthlessly bifurcated listeners to ensure the furtherance of highly profitable racial segregation in the twentieth. We must discuss all of this; just as I adore the cultural manifestations that flourish on an American continent made up of people from everywhere in the world, I abhor the enforced confrontations and concomitant misery that made it possible.
We must not, however, employ American Studies, or any other discipline, to limit ourselves to faraway targets. In this case the closer the mark, the more useful difficulty we encounter. Postmodern scholars enjoin students to Think Globally, Act Locally – a nineteenth-century phrase often attributed to the twentieth-century philosopher Jean-François Lyotard – even as they attend to national disputes in which their online petitions and social media postings can have little effect and ignore campus controversies ripe for the involvement of activists with secure positions. In these situations, losing turns out to be easier than winning; in the former, one can maintain an image of forthright activism in the face of planetary foes while the latter could make someone directly in charge angry, leading to downgraded pay, promotion, and most horridly – even for the most powerful of tenured full professors – personal discomfort. Many proudly proclaim themselves revolutionary, but few wish to be called disagreeable.
My research and dissemination, grounded in studies of music and literature on the American continent, necessarily involves my engagement with a campus community of students and colleagues. I could not, for example, consider links between sounds and texts of the United States and Mexico while ignoring the fact that no one on my California campus – including but not limited to the Multicultural Association and the NPR-affiliated radio station – had ever reached out to the manager of the community’s only Mexican radio station. And I refused to be silenced when a representative of the campus broadcaster wrote to a local paper to insist, “Katz creates his own Kristallnacht fantasy,” even though that charming bit of prose went unremarked by campus postcolonialists. If I did not publicly confront these issues, my students would be right to disbelieve in my learned discourse, and I would know that I did not really believe in my own writings and utterances. Similarly, something more than Kool-Aid has to run in my veins when a Canadian university president publicly repudiates union-organizing efforts by campus janitors, when departmental administrators deliberately derail self-representation by vulnerable international students, or when a faculty association engages in voter suppression against its own members. These battles, right on campus where I can make a difference, remain inseparable from my scholarship and teaching.
None of these remarks appeared to inspire the conference colleagues who heard me in Washington DC. The rude professor from Spain merely grunted and moved on to another tirade. Still, some of you reading this blog entry have surely engaged in community activism, and – for those who have – I hope you find my words validating. For those who have not yet acted locally, I urge you to give it a try. Experience has shown me that our scholarship and teaching can benefit from local activity that puts our ideals – and our very selves – on the line. It can be scary, but sometimes, I have found, can also be fun.
* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Palgrave Macmillan
About the author
Marco Katz Montiel, PhD, once nominated “trombonist of the year” by Latin New York Magazine, wrote Music and Identity in Twentieth-Century Literature from Our America – Noteworthy Protagonists and currently co-edits the series, Palgrave Studies in Music and Literature.