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American Studies and the Transnational Ideal

From: Criticism
Volume 51, Number 3, Summer 2009
pp. 505-512 | 10.1353/crt.0.0110

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It is not surprising that the contemporary vogue for transnational and hemispheric American Studies in the last decade has coincided both with the militarization of national borders and a popular ideology of open frontiers for capital and ideas, if not for labor. The field of hemispheric studies reflects this functional dialectic. At its worst, the U.S.-based subfield recapitulates cosmopolitan ideals of Pan-American unity and cultural hybridization in an era of U.S.-dominated economic restructuring. At its best, however, the transnational optic can unsettle nationalist myths of cultural origins, progress, and development, and even point a way to alternative futures. As Susan Gilman has observed about “empire books”—the series of recent works on empire in U.S. culture—the posture of most works of transnational American Studies continues to be that of a revelation, of the unpaid debt of American culture to Latin American migrants, for example, or the latent hemispheric consciousness repressed by American exceptionalism, the battered but persistent antagonist of transnational Americanists. Nevertheless, many such authors recognize that there is nothing new, or even especially contemporary, about the “transnational,” nor is there anything intrinsically radical or even liberatory about it. It has gone by other names, like internationalism, comparative literature, Pan-Africanism, and Pan-Americanism, and a hemispheric consciousness guided the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in 1898 as surely as it took New Leftists to a later revolutionary Cuba. Therefore, writing about transnational or hemispheric American Studies is inevitably a historiographical enterprise, since in revising American cultural history in terms of the transnational one inevitably ends up writing a history of the transnational idea. American transnationalism is as old and persistent as the exceptional notion of American culture.

Hemispheric American Studies, a volume edited by Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine with an impressive roster of historians and literary scholars, pursues many of the expansive possibilities of the hemispheric frame while engaging some of its theoretical problems and its complex historiography. The book is an excellent contribution to the field of American Studies and the debates over its internationalization. The editors’ introduction advances a dialectical approach to nationalism and the hemispheric frame that focuses, they write, on “the complex ruptures that remain within but nonetheless constitute the national frame, while at the same time moving beyond the national frame to consider regions, areas, and diasporan affiliations that exist apart from or in conflicted relationships to the nation” (2). This approach does not disavow nationalism in favor of some ideal hemispherism, but emphasizes how these concepts and political postures are in fact mutually constituting. Matthew Guterl, Kirsten Silva Gruesz, and Jennifer Rae Greeson consider the hemispheric imaginaries of southern proslavery internationalists, Spanish magazine writers of early-twentieth-century New Orleans, and Reconstruction-era local-color writers, respectively.

Meanwhile, Ifeoma C. K. Nkwanko’s essay, “The Promises and Perils of U.S. African American Hemispherism: Latin America in Martin Delany’s Blake and Gayl Jones’s Mosquito,” engages the complex position of hemispherism in the case of a population that has historically been denied, and has fought hard to claim, the universality that nationality and nationalism can bring. Her essay on Delany’s and Jones’s novels

eschews the assumed oppositions between “real” (read national) African American literary studies and the “new” transnational approach, while illuminating the limits of hemispherist approaches modeled on now canonical concepts such as José Martí’s “Our Euro-Indigenous America” (nuestra mestiza América).

(189)

By putting pressure on the seeming novelty of transnationalism and on the cultural politics of hemispherism, this volume’s essays combine both a careful historical approach with a critical skepticism that is refreshing and enlivening.

Where texts like Hemispheric American Studies seek to reframe U.S. cultural studies within a hemispheric history and historiography—and therefore dislodge the nation as a stable unit of analysis—Laura Lomas seeks to recover a practice of Latino anti-imperial critique that could inspire contemporary thinking. Lomas’s book, Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities, is an often provocative text that manages to pull off a difficult feat: saying something new about Martí, the canonical Cuban poet-statesman whose long exile in the...



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