TfC Annual Public Lecture: Madeover Nation: The United States of Reinvention?

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Madeover Nation: The United States of Reinvention? The grand promise of the United States is that what its people were born as need not define them ever more. James Truslow Adams coined the term 'American Dream' in 1931 as the core to his wide-ranging overview of national history, The Epic of America.Adams argued that since the 17th century, voluntary immigrants had been driven not only by '[t]he economic motive,' but also 'the hope of a better and freer life, a life in which a man might think as he would and develop as he willed.' The 'American dream' was 'of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller... with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.' Measured by something beyond commodities ('merely material plenty') it was 'a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman,' defying class barriers. That grand meritocratic promise still has the power to fascinate. It is expressed and achieved through the ultimate Yanqui desire: self-invention via commodities. Commodities appeal because they provide a way to dodge that old Hegelian dilemma: what to do about an absense of ethical substance. In the US, a sense of ethical incompleteness comes courtesy of origins in the under class of Europe and Asia, the enslaved of Africa, and the dispossessed of the Americas. It encourages an ongoing personal self-criticism that relies on faith and consumerism as means of surviving and thriving. One alternately loving and severe world of superstition (AKA religion) is matched by a second alternately loving and severe world of superstition (AKA consumption). In times of economic dynamism and uncertainty, they merge with old myths about meritocracy and religion to inform the way we think about the nation and manufacture citizens. DH Lawrence identified 'the true myth of America' as: 'She of the old skin, towards a new youth' (1953:64). The detritus of Europe needed remaking, and so have successive newcomers and newborns. Foundational myths of the 'American Dream' permeate this society. And dreams reference and distort reality. They attract and please even as they horrify and disappoint. So I look at the power of various forms of knowledge about people and their emotions applied to the US population. If we are to understand an absurdly wealthy and wasteful country, we must question the pleasures of reinvention as well as embracing them, teasing out as we do so the mystification of moral panics, and the reality of risk society.
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