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Reconstructing America

Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought

James W. Ceaser
Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
  • Book Info
    Reconstructing America
    Book Description:

    For too many people, America has become the primary symbol of all that is grotesque, deadening, and oppressive-or, as Heidegger once put it, the "emerging monstrousness of modern times." This image of a degenerate America, constructed by European intellectuals, has been gradually accepted within the United States, for America is now under siege by its own philosophers, literary critics, and postmodern thinkers. It is time, says James Ceaser in this provocative book, to take America back, to reaffirm confidence in our principles, and to remind ourselves that the real Americas opposed to the symbolic one has forged a system of liberal democratic government that has shaped the destiny of the modern world.With wit and passion, Ceaser traces the origins of the negative images of America, beginning with French scientists in the middle of the eighteenth century who viewed the country as a land of racial and physical degeneracy, and continuing with German thinkers from Hegel to Nietzsche, Spengler, and Heidegger, who viewed America as culturally inferior and a technological wasteland. Ceaser puts these critics of America in a dialogue with the country's defenders-among them Alexander Hamilton, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Leo Strauss. By revealing the sources of the hostility to America, Ceaser undermines the position of its present attackers. He contends that only if we reassert political science rather than cultural and literary criticism as the proper intellectual discipline to direct politics will we free the real America from the symbolic America and vindicate its name.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14780-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    If it were acceptable in a work of modern scholarship to rise with indignation in the defense of one’s country, I would begin this book with a simple call to arms: it is time to take America back. It is time to take it back from the literary critics, philosophers, and self-styled postmodern thinkers who have made the very name “America” a symbol for that which is grotesque, obscene, monstrous, stultifying, stunted, leveling, deadening, deracinating, deforming, rootless, uncultured, and—always in quotation marks—“free.” I would ride from lecture hall to lecture hall warning my fellow citizens of the attack...

  5. 1 America as Degeneracy
    (pp. 19-42)

    When America was founded—I am speaking here of the symbolic America—it rested on one of the most fantastic theories that the mind of man has ever conceived: the thesis of American degeneracy. This thesis, which dominated advanced scientific thinking in Europe during the second half of the eighteenth century, had two major components. First, it held that animals in America were inferior in variety, strength, and beauty to those found in Europe. This inferiority was no less true of the human species: the American Indian was a lesser being than the European or, for that matter, the Asian...

  6. 2 American Responses to Degeneracy Thesis
    (pp. 43-65)

    No one today subscribes to the eighteenth-century biological theory according to which all things deteriorate more rapidly in America than anywhere else in the world. Yet, although the science behind the degeneracy thesis has been rejected, its basic conclusion has been widely embraced. In the softer disciplines of philosophy, history, and literary criticism, the word “America” has become a symbol of disfigurement, disease, and distortion. If anything, the European biologists of the founding era were more sympathetic to America than are the intellectuals of today. For them, only the frogs and pigs in America were overweight, whereas for our contemporaries...

  7. 3 America in the Mirror of France: The Two Revolutions
    (pp. 66-86)

    The classical historian Thucydides called the Peloponnesian War the greatest “motion” up to his day. The comparable event of modern times is no doubt the French Revolution, described by Alexis de Tocqueville as the “most momentous event of all history.”¹ The importance of the French Revolution derives not only from its enormous political consequences, which shook the foundation of monarchy throughout Europe, but also from its extraordinary influence on modern thought. For many of the philosophers and writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the French Revolution, viewed as the manifestation of the entire Enlightenment project, was the...

  8. 4 America as a Racial Symbol: The “New History” of Arthur de Gobineau
    (pp. 87-105)

    Symbolic America has had a long-standing, direct, and intimate connection to racialist thinking. From the founding of anthropology in the late eighteenth century, which opened with a discussion of America, until the elaboration of Nazi theories about the United States in the 1930s, America has symbolized in various ways the meaning of race in human affairs. Although it is a fact sometimes overlooked today, the concept of race during this period was, in the words of George Stocking, the “central theoretical concern of pre-Darwinian anthropology” as well as a major theme of much philosophy, history, and literature.¹ In many areas...

  9. 5 From Ethnology to Multiculturalism
    (pp. 106-135)

    The use of America as a symbol in racialist thought, which Arthur de Gobineau inaugurated in the 1850s, became widespread by the end of the nineteenth century. Both in Europe, in a line of philosophical-historical thought that stretched from Richard Wagner through Oswald Spengler, and in the United States, in a new positivistic school of ethnology, America was the place where the meaning of race in human history was being played out.

    The picture of America alternated between the two polar images Gobineau had sketched. The first was the positive vision (in the racialists’ thought) of America as a white,...

  10. 6 Racialism Versus Political Science: The Tocqueville-Gobineau Exchange
    (pp. 136-161)

    Each time in the past two centuries that America has been attacked and political science challenged, a voice has emerged to take up their defense. In the late eighteenth century it was the founders, above all Publius, who responded to the degeneracy thesis of the Count de Buffon and Cornelius de Pauw. In the midnineteenth century, it was Alexis de Tocqueville who replied to the racial theories of Arthur de Gobineau.

    These two “dialogues,” separated by more than half a century, contain striking parallels. Not only were Publius and Tocqueville trying to save America and liberal democracy from the charges...

  11. 7 From America to Americanization: Images of America in German Thought
    (pp. 162-186)

    In 1930, Otto Basler, a German philologist, published an article entitled “Americanism: The History of a Term” in the intellectual magazineDeutsche Rundschau.Noteworthy less for its insight than for its subject matter, the article focused on the ubiquity of the term “America” and its cognates in German discourse of the time. “In the practical professions, in scholarship, in ordinary life, and in the newspapers,” Basler wrote, “one daily hears the terms Americanize, Americanization, and Americanism.”¹ “America” had become a vehicle by which ideas generated in philosophic and intellectual circles in Germany were transferred to the realm of common opinion....

  12. 8 Katastrophenhaft: Martin Heidegger’s America
    (pp. 187-213)

    No thinker in this century has had greater influence on the development of the idea of America than Martin Heidegger. Although he borrowed much from his predecessors in Germany, particularly Spengler and Jünger, Heidegger went well beyond any of them in fashioning a symbol that has ever since connected the themes of desolation, horror, and homelessness to America. With Heidegger, America was transformed from a country to a major literary and philosophic category that intellectuals have since been unable to ignore.

    The importance of Heidegger’s legacy in shaping modern thinking about America derives from two facts. First, as the most...

  13. 9 America as the End of History
    (pp. 214-231)

    Alexandre Kojève is a name few Americans recognize. Born in Russia in 1902, Kojève studied in Berlin after the Russian Revolution and settled in Paris in 1932. His one major work,An Introduction to the Reading of Hegel,published in 1947, is not even a book in the ordinary sense but a compilation of lectures from a course Kojève taught periodically between 1933 and 1939 on Hegel’sPhenomenology of the Spirit.A second edition of the book appeared in 1968 in which Kojève added one footnote, now well known in the philosophical world, that presents his haunting and ironic vision...

  14. 10 America as Postmodern
    (pp. 232-244)

    Jean Baudrillard, author of the widely read travelogueAmerica(1986), is a prominent figure in contemporary French intellectual life. He has written no fewer than ten books, most of which deal with themes that may loosely be called postmodernist. Among his most important works areThe System of Objects,in which he develops some of the concepts of the semiologist Roland Barthes, andForgetting Foucault,in which he turns on the master he had followed for years, committing the intellectual ritual murder known as deconstruction. Although Baudrillard may be unfamiliar to most Americans, those who move within postmodernist circles are...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 245-250)

    Before me on my desk lies a pile of opinion poll data and anecdotal information on how different peoples around the world think about the United States. My original plan was to feature this material in a study of mass and elite public opinion on America in several foreign countries.. What I quickly realized, however, was that such an inquiry would be premature. What I had to investigate first was the origin and development of the symbol of America, which has shaped much of the thinking about this country for the past two hundred years. Opinion about America has largely...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 251-284)
  17. Index
    (pp. 285-292)