- Empire's Remains:Cuba, Cuban America, and "the American 1898"
1. "The American 1898"
The US acquisition of colonial possessions in the Caribbean and Pacific after the Spanish American War of 1898 marked a significant shift in the way the country has reconciled its anticolonial foundations with its imperial enterprises abroad. Yet the designation of the US as an "empire," and of American empire building as an object of study and a nodal point of epistemic critique, has emerged as a relatively recent phenomenon in the academy.1 The field of American studies has led the way in the critique of US empire building despite the often neglected work undertaken on the subject by Latin Americanists who predominantly write in Spanish. Elaborated in American studies and its allied fields, this critique has ostensibly ushered in novel interrogations of how imperial incursions abroad shape domestic policies at home, to the neglect of a broader history of such engagement that emerged from colonized sites in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. Referring specifically to this impasse, the Latin Americanist scholar Sophia McClennen even suggests that the critique of US empire building—developed under the rubric of hemispheric studies or inter-American studies—might not be better understood as "the latest variation on the Monroe Doctrine of patronizing Latin America" (394). McClennen asks us to consider how such critiques, "housed in [End Page 380] English and History departments in the United States and taught by monolingual faculty," and historically and linguistically ignorant of its Latin American foundations, can be anything other than "an example of US intellectual expansionism" (402). The theoretical complexities and methodological challenges "the American 1898" poses, what I herein refer to as both the under-analyzed history of American empire building and the elision of related critiques from colonized or formerly colonized sites, have been the organizing principle of a series of recent studies that have aimed to surpass the limitations McClennen presciently analyzes.
Recent work on the topic has attempted to study how the US academy has co-opted as its own a form and structure of critique whose very conditions of emergence have been borne of epistemic, metaphorical, and linguistic violence. Indeed, to Americanists familiar with knowledge production on the linguistic and epistemic "contact zones" of the Americas, this is hardly news at all. What is new is how recent work is putting Latin American studies and American studies in conversation with each other. Indeed, some of the best current work grappling with the issues that McClennen, among many others, raises is entertaining a series of related questions that characterize such an impasse as a "problem of thought" rather than one of method, one that emerges when the logic of empire falters under the weight of its imperial justifications abroad. If empire building is ostensibly antithetical to democratic forms of governance, then how to explain the literal violence enacted on conquered populations and the epistemic elision of Spanish as the contact language for its critique?
David Luis-Brown's Waves of Decolonization: Discourses of Race and Hemispheric Citizenship in Cuba, Mexico, and the United States (2008); Louis A. Pérez, Jr.'s Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos (2008); and Laura Lomas's Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities (2008) propose three productive engagements with the legacies of the American 1898 that deviate from the monolingual and monological critiques of empire building that critics like McClennen have so vehemently decried. At their best, these critiques of the American 1898 dismantle the ostensible crisis in method augured by American studies' self-questioning by focusing on the circum-Caribbean, and Cuba more specifically, as the testing ground for rethinking the operative logics of empire building and its attendant forms of critique in the US academy. [End Page...