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Bálint Rozsnyai

Twenty Years of American Studies in Szeged, Hungary

Bálint Rozsnyai is Associate Professor and Chair at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged. E-mail:


1985 was a productive year for Hungarian scholars interested in American Studies: the European Association of American Studies organized its biennial conference in a communist country for the first time in its history; and the first university program in American Studies was launched in the fall. The time was different from the worst period of communist dictatorship even though hardly anyone had thought the end was not too far away. The importance of the EAAS conference was both political and scholarly, in comparison the significance of the starting of the AS program was very modest.


The rationale of the AS program in Szeged had to be articulated in the face of the ideological position (in the process of gradual disintegration, yet entrenched in the official world of the academe) that considered the US as the leader and prime specimen of disintegrating capitalism and imperialism; the priorities set by (socialist/communist version of) Lukácsian esthetics and the academic preference for “learned culture.” The latter was manifested in the general attitudes of departments of modern philology and in the definition of American Studies by Professor László Országh (Debrecen) in 1972,


American Studies concerns itself with the culture of the USA, examines the formation of this culture, describes and analyzes the contemporary situation of this culture, taking in view the interrelationship of various fields of American cultural life.[1]


The definition then specifically restricted its concern to classic American literature, the “linguistics” of American English and the historiography of the USA. On this ground individual (unrelated) courses on American literature etc. were offered within English programs.


The articulation of the underlying assumptions of the new (coherent) AS program was considerably facilitated by a joint research project, The Reception of American Literature in Hungary, sponsored by ACLS-HAS, 1983-1988, the theoretical framework of which was informed by reception esthetics and reader-response theories.  Considering as mistaken both the attitude that claimed that our study of American culture should be imitative of American American Studies on account of its “authenticity” and the attitude that claimed we might have a better understanding of American culture on account of our “objectivity” (and ideological convictions), I claimed


Our job in American Studies is not the identification with the Americans, but rather to investigate, to reconstruct the ways they read, understand, interpret their literature and culture, to examine the interpretive strategies of that community, to find out what meanings the Americans make of their own literature/culture, and see those ways of understanding and those meanings in their historicity.[2]


The other, “obvious” (and related) decision was to conceive the program as cultural studies:  it necessitated the expansion of the scope of what might pass for “culture” and also opened the way for differing methodologies (differing that is from what the “official,” “traditional” identification of culture allowed.)


Higher education in Hungary has been under radical reconstruction ever since 1989, the beginning of the third republic. One very important change has been the expansion of higher education in at least two dimensions: the state gave up its monopoly of establishing institutions of HE—new institutions were established (religious denominations, private investment, local-regional interests, international initiatives). The other dimension concerns the number of those participating in higher education; until the late 80’s Hungarian higher education students had represented about 15% of their age group, since then this proportion has considerably changed, partly due to the new institutions, partly to new formats in HE, and to the greatest extent, due to the changed government-level admission policy (regulated financially through a quota system).


These changes facilitated a third—perhaps the most radical change: as part of the preparations to join the EU, Hungary entered the Bologna process—a process that intends to enhance the efficiency and competitiveness of European higher education. In the past months, the academic community have been active in shaping the future, various levels of academic administration, various bodies, from nationwide to department-wide have been engaged in articulating differing concepts and conceptions about the transformation of the traditional “parallel” system (parallel because it knows no continuity and mobility between the two levels of HE, university and college). The process has been channeled in a more or less rigid framework the “rules” of which are articulated in the new law on higher education.


The larger slot which contains American Studies is “Modern philology,” the smaller one is “Anglistik.” In the first rounds of negotiations, a traditional concept dominated the table, namely that the BA program should be British/English language and literature, giving a “neutral” introduction to the “discipline” covering British English language, linguistics, literature, and allowing bits of information about literatures or cultures in English. This concept considers American Studies as a form of specialization the proper level for which should be the MA (and PhD) level only.


This argument is new by no means. In the accreditation of the Szeged American Studies a decade ago, the legitimacy of the program was questioned on two grounds, 1. that you should study American culture once you have a proper background of British/English language and literature and 2. since American history is relatively short, a mere 200 years’ worth, there is not sufficient material to fill in a full-scale, independent American Studies program.  In other words, a good familiarity with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and the rest, the basic acquaintance with the events of British history, the command of a denaturalized English can only enable you to study the culture of the USA. This assumption roots deeply in Hungarian (Continental European) HE traditions. First of all, the traditional objective of university education in the liberal arts is teacher training (with some foundations in research), which partly explains the language-literature orientation and the “extensive totality” ideal of the traditional programs. Only partly: the notion rests in the 19th century Arnoldian (well, yes, classic German) concept of culture, with language and literature in an exceptional role—they are the realization of the essence, the “spirit” of the ethnically conceived nation state. The collective designation, “modern philology” is a reminder of all this: the modernity is there only to distinguish it from classical philology.[3]


Surveying college and university “English” curricula in Hungary today (yesterday), one finds that this argument informs the majority: independent American Studies programs are offered by the U of Szeged and ELTE (Eger offers college level American Studies program) and even in these programs, thanks to the national degree requirements, you find reminders of the notion of “universal English.” At the same time, you will also discover that US-related courses abound in all English programs, offered either as essential parts of “cultures in English” or as graduate studies programs. The degree requirements refer to the needs of (secondary) education, the central objective of the program is, after all, teacher training, and even if the program is non-teacher training, the normative pattern with its expectations is shaped by teacher training.


As a matter of fact, this normative pattern persists in the new model program. The BA program is not a direct/explicit teacher training program itself, it has a teacher training track option (the other options are: school leaving with BA, MA-track), yet the arguments supporting the new model spell out the aggressive presence of the teacher training ideal, which informs the selection of areas, the proportion of the various fields of study. It results in a contradictory proposition; the practical orientation of the basic BA degree is paid lip service but it remains only “icing on the cake.”


["Icing on the cake" - image: courtesy of György Novák]


 No, that is not quite correct. The culinary metaphor in English covers up the actual situation; the Hungarian version is far more revealing. Hab a tortán, we would say in Hungarian, whipped cream on the cake. While the English metaphor refers to the icing: a hard surface to dress up the cake, an extra layer that gives or at least maintains the (ideal) shape or contours of the cake and in that sense it is an essential part of the cake. The Hungarian metaphor refers to the shapeless cloud that sits on top of the cake, that is not an essential/organic part of the cake whether form- or taste-wise. 


["Whipped cream on the cakes" - images: courtesy of György Novák]


The objective that “Employability of graduates should be ensured already after the first cycle” is not part of this deal. The proposed model for this reason seeks to offer specialization (geared for this “employability”) in an external component, which actually ought to be a minor (a version of another degree program.)


If I want to be cynical, I should commend this Hungarian model. (I must add “Hungarian,” because other European models, as the German model follow a different pattern.) The praise is due since this model has already moved towards the post-nationalist model of American Studies, it has certainly decentered the “essentialist” American. But cynicism does not help us. The “universal English” within the presumed teacher training model appears as neutral since it contains or rather, can contain all versions of English, national, gendered, racialized etc. Through its catholicity this English appears as natural and transparent, and as a consequence, it prevents the recognition and the posing of basic questions, prevents them from entering the discourse of scholarship. They cannot be thematized; the colonial and the postcolonial, the national, transnational, post-national, or globalized positions do not become exposed; they do not form a framework within which the issue of English (and American Studies) could be negotiated.


American Studies as an “independent” program (BA to MA/PhD) may perform the thematization of this current issue by virtue of its difference. Yet the chance of devising the American Studies BA program has not eliminated all the inherent problems.


American Studies appears in the listing as a version of (universal, traditional) Anglistik. The consequences are that a./ American Studies must remain in the well-trodden space of language-literature based teacher training; the shape of the program must emulate the English/British language and literature program and b./ the set of assumptions which could be simplified as Euro-centric and colonialist retains its “esemplastic” power. It is in the vital interest of an American Studies program in Hungary today that it expose the untenability of these assumptions.


1.      The shape of the American Studies program conceived as cultural studies problematizes the equal share of language and literature in several ways. First of all, it functions as a critique of the notion of (national) culture which puts language and literature in a central position on essentialist and humanist assumptions, thereby establishing a system of values which canonizes, hierarchizes cultural phenomena, events (or systems), and which, by creating its canon, identifies what is worth studying and knowing. Through its selections it commits acts of exclusion. In other, very simple words, it eliminates huge chunks (areas) of (the totality) of culture from the curriculum before they can be perceived at all.

2.      This approach to American Studies reveals that the use of the category of Anglistik within which American Studies is a version, is an acceptance of imperial and colonialist attitudes, which conceive of American (US) culture as a spin-off of the late British empire, an appendix to Europe.

3.      American studies as cultural studies through its awareness of the political, also critiques the objectivity claim of “purist” scholarship.


All this warns us of a significant yet frequently denied or (at least) muted aspect of our profession in Hungary and I presume in all the other ex-Communist countries. If mentioned at all, it may appear as professional “responsibility.” I would rather use “accountability” here: responsibility implies more an innate sense of moral propriety, whereas accountability serves as a reminder of our basic relationship to students as our immediate customers. (No, I do not identify this relationship as a mere form of business transaction, but this aspect is undeniably there.) The preservation of the older, traditional concept of culture as the foundation of Anglistik and American Studies within it ignores the interests of American Studies students, BA, teacher training- or MA-track oriented alike: by our preserving an “archaic” version of American Studies, they get excluded from the ongoing dialogue of international American Studies, its discourse remains incomprehensible to them.


At this juncture it is necessary that we enter this international dialogue, with its claims and demands for “new paradigms of research.” What strategies do we have to engage in the debate? It involves an essential decision since the options of Hungarian American Studies depend on it, and in a perhaps less immediate way, it may determine the shape of American Studies programs in Hungary, BA to PhD level.


The founding of the International American Studies Association in 2000, its first convention in Leiden, the launching of Comparative American Studies are all signs that the request of American American Studies has been observed: we have critical internationalism informing it, and trans- and post-nationalism permeates its discourse, its most important lessons concern globalization and the imperial role of the US within it, subversion of the exceptionalist, essentialist (nationalist) positions of the US and American AS. And as a very characteristic, very opportune judgment we can read “the USA is too important to the world for American Studies to be left in the hands of American Studies specialists.”[4]


Notwithstanding all this, the situation is far more colorful. The happy condition of international American Studies is somewhat darkened by the undeniable effects of the American export of American Studies. Richard Horwitz[5] paints an extremely worrisome picture, referring among others, to the cooperation of various “IA” organizations in the export—the CIA, the USIA are specified as culprits. Horwitz’s narrative is instructive: American Studies is another imperial(ist) commodity in a globalized economy, compromising both ends. But his evidence, in fact, compromises his account. He gives away the secret how back in the bad old 80’s the EAAS organized its conference in Budapest under almost direct orders of the “IA’s”. True, his evidence is very soft: it is based on an anecdote. But even so, he reveals the badly strong limitations of his understanding of the situation. Here, several of us still remember the event—and to [at least, some of] us the meaning and the significance is totally different: what he ignores in his account is the historical and political circumstances.


His other reference is to the passive reception of “American Studies” all over the world from the visiting scholars in the Fulbright program (another IA), by which American Studies itself is complicit in the imperial-spirited globalization. His narrative again contains its own subversion: first, he blithely identifies American American Studies as (the only possible and therefore “natural” form of) the American Studies, by which he becomes guilty of nationalism, essentialism, and—needless to say--imperial mode of thinking. Then, he believes the exotic foreigners digest what “comes naturally” from the “big white chief,” and perform whatever they have just received. All this coming from a Fulbrighter--so hotly critical of imperial, globalizing American presence. Reception/understanding is not a passive act. Hosts to Fulbrighters, we also construct our meanings, and perhaps it is not saying too much that in the global age, a Fulbrighter’s visit is not the first contact even with American Studies. Then, again, if we accept his account of the export model, it is a marvel how the exported (model of) AS does not remain in place unchanged.  As a matter of fact, this is a bit unjust to Horwitz: he is not unique in assuming American American Studies as the natural (transparent) condition of American Studies.


American Studies is not American property. In Hungary we have a special understanding of American culture, in the same way, as the Poles have their own special understanding of it. The specialty of the understanding is not the product of an essentialist position: rather it is the outcome of an interaction (series of interactions) of various actors—the US is one among them. Hungary and Poland have their particular understanding/interpretation of “America”--in it the (ex)Soviet Union is undoubtedly a significant factor. In the same way, as Turkey has its own interpretation of American culture, yet even if the chief actors (the US, SU) are identical, their interaction is performed in a different way. This is one of the reasons why I cannot accept “international American Studies”—the US (all of us, non-Americans)—THEM relationship does not unite anyone. (Amy Kaplan’s remark to Djelal Kadir’s’s position is appropriate: it is an essentialist assumption which does not annihilate the other--American—essentialism.)[6]


If I accept American Studies as cultural studies, the historical, the political do not allow for a neutral practicing of American Studies outside the US, the web of relations do not let us free. For this reason, the critical examination of American practices of American Studies is a necessary part of our American Studies project (and AS program)—in the same way, as the critical examination of our practices of American Studies should be a part of American American Studies. But as Horwitz’s IA’s or Fulbrighters are unable  to impose their imperial “visions” (practices, actually) on us as passive consumers, it is equally naive to expect American practitioners of American Studies to appropriate our positions, our “visions,” and in that sense, critical internationalism has strong limitations.


And this applies to claims to trans-, post-national modes of American Studies. Hungary may serve as a good example here: on joining the EU, we have become part of a transnational and post-nationalist (by JC Rowe’s definition of the term) entity. But then, as current and recent events (the referendum concerning the status of ethnic Hungarian minorities living outside Hungary last December) indicate Hungary/Hungarians view the national as an urgency, with strong simplification, we might say it is precisely the trans-/post-nationalist condition that lends the urgency to the national. What further complicates the situation is that the EU is not simply post-nationalist: it is also a player in the world of globalization. This is a reminder that it is truly imperial to believe/assume that the US is the sole globalizing power—as several American and comparative Americanists claim. Globalization certainly has not pushed us into the post-nationalist world: we make sense of it from within our local positions, the critique of post-nationalist, transnational accounts are essential moments in the process.


The demise of the exceptionalist, essentialist narrative of “America” is one of the major jobs of today’s American Studies practices, be them American or otherwise. Strangely enough this project proceeds practically speaking under no critical scrutiny—the Alan Wolfe-kind of response[7] to it does not pass as either critical or scrutiny. One can identify two very important possible factors in this omission. The roots of one are to be found in a typical “new” Americanist attitude, though that attitude is far from new. The need of debunking the “errand in the wilderness”, the “manifest destiny” exceptionalist-nationalist narrative emerges as a central mission for American Studies; the exceptionalist position being conferred to Americanists. (American) practitioners of American Studies appear as the conscience of their community/society, eagerly forgetting about the discarded exceptionalism/essentialism and forging a totalizing project to end all totalizing projects. Even stranger when comparative Americanists urge their American colleagues to assume this role.


The other factor also reveals a similar blindness to exceptionalism.  When talking about recent events (contemporary globalization) or when talking about the beginnings of Colonial America, we get narratives of the empire imposing itself on everyone else almost unchecked. But then (British) America did not begin in a solitary act of colonial expansion--it started out contested by and contesting other colonial powers, a fact we occasionally are reminded of. These other colonial powers are European nations/empires--but then if you look properly around in 16th and 17th century Europe, the TransAtlantic arena and further, you must realize the aggressively expanding Islam is also among the rival imperial forces. (Earlier, I mentioned the Poles and the Hungarians: both could offer narratives of this imperial, colonizing process.) Without taking the Ottoman empire into consideration, we cannot discuss the “making of America,” the globalizing “trafique” of George Alsop[8] in the attempt to get rid of the exceptionalism of the American empire.  In the same vein, introducing post-nationalist globalization, we frequently have the aggressive expansion of the US as a sole globalizing power. Comparative American Studies offers a representative collection of the kind, again it is amazing (and somewhat dismaying) to read colonizers condemning another colonizer/imperial power. One should say again that this truly is the making of an essentialist and exceptionalist narrative--empires exist only contesting and contested, erasing the contestation and the contestants as contestants (presenting them as victims only) produces a false binary opposition of “us and them,” good guys and bad guys, the Manichean struggle of the good and the evil.


American Studies in Hungary should produce Hungarian interpretations of “America,” of American culture, not restricted to nationalist, essentialist, exceptionalist narratives. Also it must be informed by American practices and “international practices” of American Studies, in a critical manner, trying to avoid the danger of exceptionalism, essentialism, being aware of its relational position. I do not think that we can formulate prognostications about, say, the future of American Studies in Hungary--I would refrain from such speculation: it is only the conditions of today that we can be familiar with, and the games of tomorrow will not be played by the rules of yesterday. For this reason I do not think we could foresee what American Studies the future Americanists in the EU will practice, how they would recast our nationalist, transnational and post-nationalist narratives. At this moment, however, our job in Hungary is to design an American Studies program in accord with the framework of the Bologna process--itself a project to contest American globalization; an AS program that is designed by the rules of today and not by the outmoded assumptions of yesterday.





Works cited

-         Alsop, George. A Character of the Province of Maryland. (1666). Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1972.

-         Dirlik, Arif. „American Studies in the time of Empire.” Comparative American Studies.  2:3 (2004). 287–302.

-         Horwitz , Richard P. "The Politics of International American Studies." Exporting America: Essays on American Studies Abroad. ed. Richard P. Horwitz. New York: Garland, 1993. 377-418.

-         Kaplan, Amy. “The tenacious grasp of American Exceptionalism. A response to Djelal Kadir, ‘Defending America against its devotees.’” Comparative American Studies. 2:2 (2004) 153–159.

-         Országh, László. Bevezetés az amerikanisztikába. Budapest: Tankönyvkiadó, 1972.

-         Rozsnyai, Bálint. “High Culture, Popular Culture, and the Teaching of American Studies in Hungary.” High and Low in American Culture, ed. Ch. Kretzoi, Budapest: ELTE, 1986. 197‑204.

-         Torres, Sonia. “US Americans and ‘Us’ Americans: South American perspectives on Comparative American Studies.” Comparative American Studies. 1:1 (2003). 9-17.

-         Wolfe, Alan. The Difference Between Criticism And Hatred. Anti-American Studies. The New Republic, February 10, 2002.




[1] Országh, László. Bevezetés az amerikanisztikába. Budapest: Tankönyvkiadó, 1972., 5.

[2] Rozsnyai, Bálint. “High Culture, Popular Culture, and the Teaching of American Studies in Hungary.” High and Low in American Culture, ed. Ch. Kretzoi, Budapest: ELTE, 1986., 204.

[3] Sonia Torres’ s essay adds an interesting perspective here. “US Americans and ‘Us’ Americans: South American perspectives on Comparative American Studies.” Comparative American Studies. 1:1 (2003). 9-17.


[4] Dirlik, Arif. „American Studies in the time of Empire.” Comparative American Studies2:3 (2004)., 288.


[5] Horwitz , Richard P. "The Politics of International American Studies." Exporting America: Essays on American Studies Abroad. ed. Richard P. Horwitz. New York: Garland, 1993. 377-418.

[6] Kaplan, Amy. “The tenacious grasp of American Exceptionalism. A response to Djelal Kadir, ‘Defending America against its devotees.’” Comparative American Studies. 2:2 (2004) 153159.

[7]Wolfe, Alan. The Difference Between Criticism And Hatred. Anti-American Studies. The New Republic, February 10, 2002.

[8] Alsop, George. A Character of the Province of Maryland. (1666). Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1972., 72.



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