- German Contributions
a. Border-Crossers, All?
"Still the New World," rejoices Philip Fisher in his new book with the same title, unabashedly celebrating a culture that, in his eyes, depends on rhetoric only and needs no ideology. Foreign Americanists, notably the Europeans among them, shaken by their respective, none-too-distant experiences of nationalism and separatism, may have been reluctant to accept that Americans should be entitled to enjoy, with impunity, their own form of cultural exceptionalism. Recent theory has now given these scholars a powerful tool of self-legitimation. The hottest property on the market of American literary scholarship in German-speaking countries is a new emphasis on cultural hybridity, "creolization," and "border discourses." For better or worse, the United States has become, in Mary Louise Pratt's now hugely popular metaphor, a "contact zone," and everyone is invited to join in the exuberance. With the blurry figure of Homi Bhabha beckoning in the background, German-speaking scholars are now invoking a "postnational" American culture and are practicing approaches to American literature that emphasize heterogeneity, difference, multiculturalism, the impossibility of unitary models of interpretation, and whatnot.
What the new paradigm of the "contact zone" has produced so far is much theorizing and some phrases that baffle the computer spell-checks, beginning as they do with prefixes like "post," "trans," "inter," and "intra." If American culture is indeed "made and remade in different intercultural and transnational discourses," as Günter H. Lenz puts it joyfully in a programmatic article, then, really, no one need feel marginal about it ("Toward a Dialogics of International American Culture Studies: Transnationality, Border Discourses, and Public Culture[s]," Amst 44: 5–23). As Lenz has it, American Studies outside the United States—and in the age of "transnationalism" the very concept of an "outside" has become questionable—is now charged with the solemn task of launching a "dialogic critique" of U.S. exceptionalism. Americanists abroad also [End Page 468] should find out where and when in the past their own institution or program has been implicated in such execrable "imperial politics."
The new prophets of "border-crossing" get a further boost in a new collection of essays, Heterotopien der Identität: Literatur in innerameri-kanischen Kontaktzonen, ed. Utz Riese and Hermann Herlinghaus (Winter). The editors add another term to the debate: "heterotopia," a place, literally translated, that is always "other," never identical with itself. The model for his contributors' inquiries into "heterotopic" texts, states Riese in an introduction ablaze with jargon, comes from recent anthropological theory. Modern ethnographers, by concentrating on the act of writing itself, have recognized that one culture can never be fully expressed in the terms of another culture; now it is the turn of literary critics to discard, likewise, such old-fashioned concepts as authenticity, objectivity, and the fixity of time and place. In Riese's "heterotopia," life has inevitably become "translocal," an insight that he explores further in his own contribution to the volume, "Kulturelle Übersetzung und inter-amerikanische Kontaktzonen an Beispielen aus der autobiographischen Literatur der Chicanos" (pp. 99–150). Glancing at autobiographical works by José Antonio Villareal, Richard Rodriguez, and Oscar Zeta Acosta, Riese informs us that postcolonial contact zones as represented in Chicano writing are the "non-places of postmodernity." Citing Homi Bhabha, Riese declares that such borderlands are abuzz with acts of cultural border-crossing, all of which serve to create "a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite." We are left to work out what exactly this means.
After such generalities, the polemic of Thomas Claviez's Grenzfälle: Mythos-Ideologie-American Studies (Wissenschaftlicher) comes as a fresh breath of air. In this ambitious, intelligent book, Claviez attacks a slew of U.S. Americanists for their cavalier treatment of such terms as "myth" or "ideology," the interrelation of which, he claims, has never been fully disentangled. In the book's first two sections, Claviez surveys an impressive roster of theorists, from Marx/Engels to Clifford Geertz. Only in the third part does Claviez finally sharpen his knives, setting out to demonstrate what happens to myth—the epitome of openness and flexibility—when it ends up in the clutches of...