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American Literary History 18.1 (2006) 175-189
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Locating Disciplinary Change:
The Afterlives of Area and International Studies in the Age of Globalization
The common thread running through these books is their interest in how location functions as an organizing trope for contemporary work in the humanities and social sciences. Taken together, they explore the concept of location as places we study (such as literature in America, culture in Africa), places we study in (English departments, American studies programs, centers for East Asian studies, and others), and circumstances that define and structure our subjectivity as scholars and critics (such as the fact that I write this article as a white, upper-middle-class professor of English at a Midwestern, urban university). This shared preoccupation with locations, and the act of locating, is connected both to significant developments in theory and methodology in the humanities and social sciences and to profound political, economic, and cultural changes in the areas and regions we study. David Simpson's Situatedness: Or, Why We Keep Saying Where We're Coming From (2002) and the essays collected in Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies (2002), edited by Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian and Disciplinarity at the Fin de Siècle (2002), edited by Amanda Anderson and Joseph Valente, for example, would be unthinkable without the theoretical critique of essentialism inaugurated by Jacques Derrida, or Michel Foucault's work on subjectivity and the relationship between power, ideology, and institutions. However, these books also respond to profound dislocations and realignments connected to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, the intensification of globalization, and the current crisis surrounding US policy toward Islam and the so-called "war on terror." Together, these changes have begun to significantly influence the areas and regions we mark off for study, the structures within which we do our work, and our self-consciousness about our situatedness as critics. [End Page 175]
This focus on location, place, and situation calls attention to how thoroughly scholarship and teaching in the humanities and social sciences have abandoned universalist models of truth in favor of analyses rooted in the historical, the contingent, the provisional, and the pragmatic. The historical analysis of disciplines and disciplinarity, the realignment and critique of "areas" in area studies, and our preoccupation with what Simpson calls the "rhetoric of situatedness" (7) are all connected to a postfoundational and postformalist commitment to understanding and making transparent the reciprocal relationships among how we structure areas of study and the areas we study, the questions and issues we explore and the theoretical and methodological premises that direct our study, and our formation as critical subjects and the critical subjects we explore. These theoretical changes have been accompanied by a set of political realignments that have begun to profoundly transform how we structure work in disciplines and areas, including
the transformation of colonized areas into postcolonial nations;
the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War as an organizing force for work in the social sciences and the humanities; and
the weakening in power of the nation-state in an age of intensifying economic and cultural globalization.
These changes have quite literally dislocated academic work in a variety of disciplines and areas. This is certainly the case in the study of English and American literature. Before the advent of contemporary theory and the social, cultural, and political changes I have just enumerated, literary study was organized using a national model: English literature involved the study of British, Irish and Scottish literature, American literature the study of writing in the US. This model has progressively given way to transnational forms of study that tend...