- Virtual Americas: The Internationalization of American Studies and the Ideology of Exchange
Early in 1995, Wired, the American magazine dedicated to celebrating the information revolution, published its first British edition. Emblazoned across the cover was a portrait of Thomas Paine, together with one of his famous apocalyptic maxims: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Elsewhere in this issue, Wired hailed Paine as its newly-appointed “Patron Saint,” a beacon of libertarian thought whose concern for the empowerment of individual citizens rather than their subjection to oppressive authorities would provide a potential model for the decentralized, anti-institutional forces of global cyberspace.
It is an evocative, even tantalizing, idea, another modulation of those utopian visions that have appeared in different guises throughout modern history, and which have often been associated, in one form or another, with America. In the Renaissance era, as J. H. Elliott has shown, Europeans would dream of the new-found world as a fabulous source of gold and untold wealth, while reluctant Old World cosmographers puzzled over how to fit all the new data from America into their traditional epistemological schemes. 1 No less compelling from their perspective was the appropriation of early America as what Anne McClintock calls “a porno-tropics for the European imagination—a fantastic magic lantern of the mind onto which Europe projected its [End Page 523] forbidden sexual desires and fears”: depictions of the “discovery” of America by Jan van der Straet and others represent it visually as an eroticized encounter between man and woman, with the “virgin land” figured as a territory to be conquered and “known” in all senses of that word. 2 In the late eighteenth century, such fantasies tended to assume a more social and political aspect, as the salons of Europe came to reimagine America as an external correlative to their romantic aspirations for a new earthly Atlantis. Thus it was that Paine, William Blake, and others aligned their images of paradise regained with projections of the newly-emerging nation of the United States: Paine’s transatlantic perspective led him to conceive America as something magnificently other, an escape from the old social obstacles haunting moribund Britain. In retrospect, it is easy to see how many of the difficulties Paine encountered with Jefferson, Washington, and others arose from his reading of the United States through the lens of alterity, his desire radically to simplify social and political issues in the interests of promulgating his pastoral hypostatization of America as the brave new world. My point is that the conceptual displacements involved in all transatlantic refractions of this kind have the effect of prismatically reconfiguring local cartographies into unfamiliar, estranged patterns. For Paine in 1790, as for British Wired in 1995, the United States of America represents not so much a political or historical fact but a virtual reality, a realm of difference poised to interrupt the claustrophobic vistas of Old World life.
Conversely, American literary and cultural theory has tended to avail itself of European ideology, in its various inflections, so as to interrogate the New World’s traditional horizons of liberty and exceptionalism. Again, it would be possible to trace this practice back to the eighteenth century, when the influence of Locke, natural science, and other forms of Enlightenment philosophy began to make the separatist formulas of the “city on a hill” appear increasingly anachronistic. More recently, though, George Lipsitz has noted how the methodological sophistication of European cultural theory, with its radical refusal of self-authenticating identity, appears to be rendering obsolete the traditional Americanist question of “what is American?” 3 From Adorno and Horkheimer through to Foucault, Derrida, and Baudrillard, European approaches to American culture have served to hold up ironic mirrors to the self-reliant romanticism bound up with native forms of idealism, [End Page 524] that “Emersonianism,” as Ross Posnock represents it, which “remains our most obdurate intellectual reflex, one that often controls and indeed stifles the terms of intellectual debate.” 4 In this sense, movements over the last decade to reconstitute the American literary canon can be seen as commensurate with the ideological subversion of nationalist paradigms by way of postcolonial discourses...