- Preposterous Encounters:Interrupting American Studies with the (Post)Colonial, or Casablanca in the American Century
What did these devils want? Precisely why had they come? [The Americans] said that they had come to help the people and to search for water, that there was gold underneath the sands and that they would extract it and distribute it among the people, but what did any of that have to do with their books or the questions they asked?'Abd al-Rahman Munif1
Is it rude, in company, to interrupt? Not a social question, of course, but a field question—namely, how not to be properly disciplined? The same question, rephrased: when is critical preposterousness warranted?
This essay responds to critical impasses in the encounter of American Studies and postcolonial studies: competing assertions that the United States is from the start postcolonial versus denials that it has ever or yet undergone decolonization and institutional disincentives and disciplinary impulses against comparative, multilingual, and multi-sited work. Drawing its urgency from the multiple emergencies made visible and exacerbated by 9/11/01, especially the pedagogical and institutional crises that follow that rupture, the essay argues for a "preposterous encounter" of the two critical approaches, one which productively harnesses the energies signified by the word preposterous, a word which etymologically yokes the pre- and the post-. Such an encounter focuses on unraveling the pernicious uses of temporal/spatial/linguistic manipulation named by Henry Luce's phrase "the American century" and performed by his 1941 essay of the same title, a manipulation that is the hallmark of U.S. cultural production representing the foreign since 1941 and the place of U.S. cultural production in globalization. In its first half, this essay outlines a series of tactics of critical interruption of "Americanist" work, which despite frequent attempts at political resistance is paradigmatically bound within an exceptionalist circle of its own making. Insisting on the inseparability of the cold war and the postcolonial period, I argue that accounts of U.S. cultural production since entry into WWII—which announces the U.S. rise to global power status that marks the last six decades and is the catalyst for the more rapid globalization of the U.S. economy—are severely delimited by not following the global presence of that cultural production and the ways in which those texts and, in turn, "Americanness" are understood and recoded abroad. In the essay's second half, I discuss an exemplary and influential text—the 1942 film Casablanca—and understand the film's own manipulation of time/space/language and the silent wrenching apart of an historically demonstrable confederation of African American and North African during the 1930s and 40s as a performance of the logic of Luce's so-called "American century." By summoning a Moroccan archive of critical and creative responses to Casablanca as a tactic against such a manipulation, I attempt to stage the type of "preposterous encounter" of American Studies and postcolonial studies discussed earlier and interrupt American(ist) understanding of the film in particular and the critical impulses in the study of U.S. cultural production in general.
Considerations of the state of postcolonial studies in 2003 can't help but consider the relationship of that diverse field to the interdisciplinary field of American Studies.2 It's a conversation that goes both ways. A decade after Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease's influential collection Cultures of United States Imperialism made the statement that American Studies had to return to the question of empire repressed at its founding, and the editors' own various projects and publications, it has become less possible to avoid the consideration of U.S. global power within studies of U.S. literature and cultural history.3 In the postcolonial camp, eight years after Jenny Sharpe's much cited Diaspora essay attempted finally to settle the question "Is the United States Postcolonial?" those who find themselves working on postcolonial [End Page 70] formations and subjectivities are similarly unable to avoid a deeper engagement with U.S. politics and cultural production. Sharpe's intervention addressed both academic fields: "I want us to define the 'after' to colonialism as the...