What is the relationship between American studies and affective production? In what specific ways does our scholarship participate in the creation, circulation, and appreciation of affective practices? These questions provide a foundation for understanding the sometimes obscure connections between academic scholarship and mass culture. I argue that the history of American studies involves a specific and influential imbrication with affective production that has shaped notions of identity and affect since the nineteenth century. Usually this history is understood in terms of how the field used to advocate conservative notions of nativist national identity; this paper brings the history of this advocacy into new focus by histricizing the relationship between scholarship and affective production in the often-overlooked field of humor studies. The first section traces the invention of an academic tradition that articulated humor practice to national character, and identifies this articulation itself as the affective labor of that scholarship. The second section addresses alternative histories that might be written once we recognize this articulation of affective practice to identity as itself a form of affective labor. In three case studies, I briefly explore the relations between humor, mass culture, and politics in the works of the late nineteenth-century humorists David Ker, Marietta Holley, and Bill Nye, whose humor was produced in the same period that saw the durable articulation of humor practice to national identity emerge. These cases gesture, polemically, to the important work American studies can still do with humor, especially as we realize the key role of affective production in our disciplinary history.
(Online publication December 24 2009)