Today’s post is by John Garcia, a Ford Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the American Antiquarian Society.
“Historians treat theory the way rattlesnakes approach small mammals. They either strike to kill or swallow whole. The latter often amounts to death by citation.” David Waldstreicher’s statement on the problematic status of critical theory in Early American Studies appeared in a 2005 WMQ forum reconsidering the public sphere as a category for analysis. Must historians always view theoretical work through an antagonistic empiricism, or, just as unreflectively, swallow theory whole? Perhaps the tide is turning towards new theoretical engagements, as historians and literary scholars recognize that theories are themselves continually subject to refinement in relation to historical research. A recent conference at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, entitled Situation Critical!: Critique, Theory, and Early American Studies, offered a plethora of keynote lectures and panel presentations surveying older critical models and offering new approaches with which future work in Early American Studies might engage.