UC Riverside

Toby Miller

Toby Miller

Reinvention: The Founding Mythology of American Culture

Toby Miller has been a Californian since 2004, but he's been a California dreamer all his life. "Growing up in Australia, I harbored a California fantasy based on perceptions of the state's natural beauty, the lure of Hollywood, the impact of the American military," said Miller, professor of English, sociology and women's studies in UCR's College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

A big-idea generator with a ready and well-articulated opinion on all things sociocultural — media, sports, labor, gender, race, citizenship, politics, economics — Miller understands the importance of reinvention to the American mindset in general and California in particular.

It signifies two kinds of promise. The first is the promise to the broader society to struggle for a just, equitable culture and economy that draws on the abilities of all to improve the lives of all. The second is the individual corollary of that: the capacity to hunt truth in the morning, fish Web pages in the afternoon, rear students in the evening, and criticize governments after dinner.

"Reinvention is the founding mythology of American culture," he said. "This is a nation based on the idea that you can come here from anywhere in the world, transcend class, race, gender and financial circumstances and reinvent yourself."

This concept comes to life in California — a Western American "quest destination" for people from around the world — and in the Inland Empire, the fastest-growing region in the country.

Then there's the aftermath of innovation and reinvention: what happens when today's technology breakthroughs give way to tomorrow's whiz-bang gizmos? The consequences are daunting, Miller said — enough to make reinvention of what we do with technowaste a must for our survival. Solutions to this and other post-innovation dilemmas — from air and water pollution to traffic congestion — must emerge from modern American research universities like UCR.

"I see UCR as a boutique: flexible, nimble, open, providing ideas and people, inspiring investment and partnership in the region," he said. "Universities need to show that they are about more than just teaching classes — that they contribute to the local culture and economy, that they undertake research, that they are engines of reinvention."

The solution, Miller believes, lies in the reallocation of resources, whether wealth, technology or simple opportunity, for the public good - an act of reinvention perhaps not unlike the quest for a more universally accessible good life that first inspired immigration to the Golden State. "As Californians, we must reinvent ourselves as a multicultural society and restore the greatness that is California's public sector.

You can read more of Miller's ideas in his recent books, Cultural Citizenship (2007), Makeover Nation: The United States of Reinvention (2008), The Contemporary Reader (2009) and Television Studies: the Basics (2010).

See the faculty profile of Professor Toby Miller.

Visit Miller's personal website.

Watch Miller talking about the study of popular culture.

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