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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 59-65
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Transnationalism and the Transformation of the "Other":
Response to the Presidential Address
Mae M. Ngai
Shelley Fisher Fishkin impresses upon us just how profoundly the transnational turn has transformed American studies. Citing scores of examples from exciting recent scholarship, she highlights some of these transformations, most obviously, perhaps, in immigration and ethnic studies, but also in cold war studies, in comparative studies of race and racism, and in labor and religion studies, to mention a few.
Putting the transnational turn in the context of a genealogy of American studies, Fishkin notes that in the course of the last few decades a new generation of scholars brought to the fore subjects that were previously ignored or marginalized in academic inquiry—African Americans, women, and Latino/as and Asian Americans. These scholars challenged conventional wisdoms, opened up new areas of research, and in the process recentered and utterly transformed the discipline. Fishkin updates the question asked by previous ASA presidents—"What would the field look like if African Americans (or women, or . . .) were at the center?"—by asking: "What would the field look like if the transnational were at the center?"
Before addressing that question, it may be useful to pause for a moment to examine the links between past and current trends; for, the transnational did not drop from the sky or simply appear as part of the recent interest in "globalization." Scholars of the transnational owe an enormous debt, both intellectual and institutional, to earlier projects. For example, diaspora has long been one of the key concepts of Afro-American and Africana studies. Chicano/a and Asian American studies encouraged us to enlarge our frame of reference from one focused on the Atlantic world to one that includes the West and the Pacific. The study of American empire underscored that geographic shift and, moreover, pushed us to problematize the role of nationalism in American history, culture, and politics. We have also learned from scholars in non-U.S. fields of study in history, anthropology, and literature, who in many ways are more advanced in their interrogation of nationalism than are Americanists.1 [End Page 59]
The transnational turn in American studies builds directly on these innovations. We are, in Fishkin's words, now "less likely to focus on the United States as a static and stable territory and population whose most characteristic traits it was our job to divine, and more on the nation as a participant in a global flow of people, ideas, texts, and products." As Fishkin suggests, this involves not a rejection but, rather, a decentering of the nation-state. It is a profound shift, because the nation-state has been the standard unit of analysis in academic inquiry (and training) since the modern profession was established more than a hundred years ago.
The transnational turn, as Fishkin amply demonstrates, has opened up new questions and new problems for research. I am especially struck by her attention to matters that concern methodology and sources. She challenges us to reject our own nation-centric biases, asking us to reckon with sources in languages other than English, with archives located outside of the United States, and with scholarship published abroad by non-U.S. academics.
In this context, I would like to address another methodological issue. One of the most important (and refreshing) aspects of the transnational turn, in my view, is that it foregrounds human agency. At one level, that is because human movement and practices link—indeed, constitute—transnational spaces. At another level, a focus on the transnational, with its emphasis on multiple sites and exchange, can potentially transform the figure of the "other" from a representational construct to a social actor. This is not to deny the significance of work on the constitutive role of Orientalism in Western cultures. But insofar as much of this work remains focused on the metropole, and the "other" remains an object and not a subject, it reproduces, albeit unwittingly, the privileged position of the Western, liberal subject and occludes the...