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  • Discourse, Agency, and Empire:Texts and Contexts
  • Dolores Janiewski (bio)
Tracey Jean Boisseau . White Queen: May French-Sheldon and the Imperial Origins of American Feminist Identity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. xiv + 258 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-253-34389-5 (cl); 0-253-21669-9 (pb).
Amy S. Greenberg . Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xv + 323 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-521-84096-1 (cl); 0-521-60080-4 (pb).
Karen J. Leong . The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. x + 236 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-520-24422-2 (cl); 0-520-24423-0 (pb).
Etsuko Taketani . U.S. Women Writers and the Discourses of Colonialism, 1825–1861. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003. x + 236 pp.; ill. ISBN 1-577233-227-1 (cl).

These contributions to the so-called "theory wars" provide examples of the benefits of taking the "linguistic turn" but also some of the risks. The authors—Tracey Boisseau, Amy Greenberg, Karen Leong, and Etsuko Taketani—critically interrogate texts and analyze discourses in complicated negotiations between historical interpretation and literary criticism, giving different emphases to one or the other of these scholarly enterprises. Each author inserts her examination of gender into the historical context of what has too often remained invisible in U.S. women's history—the American empire. Sometimes conceiving of the national mission as the creation of an "empire for liberty," most of the women and men discussed in these four monographs took part in imperial projects as participants, advocates, or uncritical observers. A few of the individuals who populate these studies emerge as critics of colonial practices. Although historians, particularly those who give priority to experience instead of texts, may have significant reservations about some of the authors' interpretative strategies, these books reward their readers with important insights into the ways that prevailing discourses impose constraints on what individual subjects can think and how they act within a specific historical context. [End Page 195]

While some of these authors avoid the temptation to flatten out the differences between texts and experience, others appear to consider colonialist or imperialist texts as no different in their historical and personal effects than the interactions between colonizers and the colonized. These authors provide provocative case studies of the use of postmodernist, postcolonialist, performance, and queer theory, but they sometimes divorce authorship or performance from its social context. Taketani acknowledged this problem in one chapter of U.S. Women Writers and the Discourses of Colonialism where she admitted to using the word "colonize" somewhat "loosely" (81). Readers who do not feel the need to apologize for engaging in "historicism" will certainly find evidence of the dangers of a too-enthusiastic taking of the linguistic turn as resulting in a blurring of an important distinction between paper transactions and imperial encounters.

Another interpretative dilemma emerges in some of these books because of the authors' simultaneous commitment to postcolonialism and to the discursive construction of subjectivity. If subjects are hailed into existence by the process of discursive interpellation, as argued by social theorist Louis Althusser, how can those subjects be labeled as complicit with colonialism or described as imperialist? How can the hapless creations of discursively constructed circumstance be implicitly or explicitly criticized for imperialistic tendencies? Assuming agency while simultaneously denying its existence, these examples of the application of literary theories sometimes reveal an incoherence between different interpretative practices and the authors' ideological commitments. Assuming the discourses of colonialism, Orientalism, feminism, antislavery, or imperialism as already in existence, some authors do not fully explore the importance of conflicts between discourses just as they do not always recognize conflicts in the theories that they use. These gaps and discontinuities, however, are useful to their readers since they raise the issue of agency with which women's historians and feminist scholars must contend.

Taketani's U.S. Women Writers and the Discourses of Colonialism, 1825–l861 reveals several interpretative problems, at least as viewed by a historian, that arise from her goals as a literary scholar. Bent on rescuing texts from historical and literary obscurity, she ignores the question...


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