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American Quarterly 57.4 (2005) 19-32
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Geographies of American Studies
A paradoxically conservative aspect of recent moves to "international-ize" the practice of American studies has been the way in which this turn toward the international has taken the national for granted. At the very moment that Americanists have been striving to disentangle disciplinary subject matter from the constraints of a static and border-oriented view of world space, calls to internationalize disciplinary practice have been reifying national boundaries and sorting scholarly activity by physical locations and national academies. In this article, we engage with this paradox by focusing on the ways in which dominant geographies of American studies practice are produced and sustained discursively. Our argument is that much U.S.-based writing about "international" or "global" American studies not only essentializes existing borders and subject positions, but also works to naturalize the idea that the U.S.-based Americanist position is simultaneously domestic and universal, while American studies as practiced elsewhere is by contrast foreign and located.1
Our aim is to destabilize the dominant geography that naturalizes the existing organizational forms and spatialized hierarchies of the field worldwide and limits the ways in which its futures can be imagined and debated. On the basis of our premise that different conceptualizations of global geography recognize and validate different kinds of scholarly interaction, we argue that a more self-conscious and theoretically informed geography of American studies practice would not only make it possible to acknowledge a greater variety of currently existing but practically invisible flows of work, ideas, and knowledge, but would also open up new opportunities for future collaborations of currently unimagined kinds across different kinds of distance.2
Our argument is made in the tradition of the critical geography of academic knowledge production and directed toward embedded space-producing practices current within the interdisciplinary work of American studies.3 As geographer Lawrence Berg has argued, "given the radically changing geographies of 'America'. . . there is no better time than the present moment to interrogate the relationships between the production of 'American' space and the spatialized cultural politics of knowledge production in American Studies."4 [End Page 1019] We offer this essay as a contribution to what Berg calls "the hard work of developing an explicit analysis and re-imagining of the spatialities of American Studies." Following Berg and other critical geographers, we believe that the hard work has to be done in this order: theory and analysis first, reimagining and reconstructing second, because only by rendering visible the everyday practices that currently reproduce and naturalize the dominant geography of American studies will we become able to identify that geography and generate alternatives.
The geography of American studies practice is far more than a matter of location: most crucially, it is a matter of the ways in which space is produced through routine scholarly activities. The spatialization of American studies practice is different from, and separable from, the spatialization of American studies subject matter, and it is equally open to reconceptualization. Even when the subject matter of American studies remains organized in terms of a center/margin model, the practice of American studies does not have to be spatialized in the same way, with U.S.-located concerns and institutions normatively positioned at the center. In fact, it is the disciplining power of this center/margin model to shape and limit the agenda for American studies worldwide that we most want to question here. Our goal is to render visible a taken-for-granted scholarly geography predicated on bordered national identities that enables the Americanist tendency to conflate subject matter with practice, a conflation that renders the U.S. academy the domestic "home" of the discipline. This geography facilitates the division of the world of American studies into two halves, separating U.S.-based (domestic) practice from American studies as practiced everywhere else (foreign). "International American studies," in this configuration, all too often becomes either another way of saying "American studies abroad" or a term used to refer to interactions linking the domestic center to the...