Crises and Turns:
Continuities and Discontinuities in American Culture
While it appears to be perennially tempting to see one’s own time as exceptional and unprecedented, it is nevertheless safe to say that our present time is perceived by many as characterized by crises of different kinds (democratic, humanitarian, environmental) to an unusually high degree. As a result, the stakes are high when it comes to identifying causes and cures and the political, media and academic communities are all concerned in their different ways with constructing narratives that make sense of what is happening: Backlash, renewal, apocalypse? Whatever their political, ideological, or theoretical underpinnings or agendas, all mobilize tropes of either continuity – understood for instance as progress, degeneration, or intensification – or discontinuity – understood for instance as a break with previous values, a dramatic shifting, or an unprecedented development – or of both at the same time.
In a specifically North American context these narratives draw on a long tradition of speaking of the nation as renewing itself, as becoming again what it was (meant to be). In our academic contexts, a number of “turns,” often framed as oriented away from traditional human-centered or rationalist concerns, can be understood as a response to a sense of crisis and raise new questions for the field of American studies. A focus on continuities and/or discontinuities provide opportunities for discussing both the specificities of American developments and their place in larger cultural, historical, and political contexts.