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Reconsidering Theory: Power, the Learning Body, and Cultural Change during Early American Colonization

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This essay participates in recent calls for more direct engagement with theory in research and teaching within History and Early American Studies. Over the last decade voices have gathered for a reconsideration of fundamental theoretical concepts in the historiography of culture. This essay reconsiders theory on semiotics, learning, and the body to reopen a conceptual problem in early American cultural historiography: the relationships between organized power and individual agency. I suggest an approach to power and agency specifically tuned to the conditions of early America colonization, which was more intimate and diverse while possessing fewer institutions and less communications-saturation than a focus on myth, ideology, or discursive formations might assume. Reconsidering semiotics as embodied allows a conception of the body as a learning entity creatively mediating discourses and social constructions and thereby generating new historical identities and relations of power. The argument draws on studies on gender/sexuality, Native Americans, and the enslaved and takes cues from the work of Gyatri Spivak, Ann Laura Stoler, Michel Foucault, Lev Vygotsky, and Charles Sanders Peirce.


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