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  • The Rise of the New Atlantic Studies Matrix
  • William Boelhower (bio)

In the context of such a rich production of various kinds of work increasingly presented under the labels of Atlantic history or Atlantic studies, it is appropriate that we consider the gathering significance not only of its scholarly momentum and emerging set of practices, but also of its rising institutional affirmation as a new disciplinary paradigm. Over the last few decades, publishers, journal editors, academic scholars, and website masters have resorted to the seemingly natural expedient of early modern Atlantic maps when seeking to promote or identify their efforts as immediately relevant to the Atlantic world. The very process of mapping this world provides us with important visual evidence of a political, cultural, scientific, and ecological nature.

One could even argue that early sixteenth- and seventeenth-century world maps provide us with variations in the primal scene of Atlantic studies as an identifiable epistemological domain and that whatever comes after must necessarily return to the map text as the authoritative site and central apparatus (dispositif, Foucault would say) of the Atlantic paradigm's vis et origo (force and origin) (Foucault, Dits 299–300).1 As scenes of inquiry, any number of these maps—say, a Juan de la Cosa, a Martin Waldseemuller, or a Giacomo Gastaldi—have the unique emblematic virtue of saving one from having to do a lot of explaining. Indeed, their synoptic intention is to present us with a coup d'oeil of a new oceanic order. In a single stroke, the Cantino planisphere of 1502 exemplifies one of the earliest surviving attempts to represent the mise-en-forme of the Atlantic world.2 I will argue that such maps, precisely because of their often inflamed political [End Page 83] perspective and tradition-bound iconography, also help us to characterize the epistemological environment and internal strategies of what, over the last 15–20 years, has developed into a new Atlantic paideia. But what does that mean?

If we look back to the mid-1980s, we can already identify a number of salient factors contributing to the rise of the new Atlantic studies. Some of them, pertaining to the realignment of disciplinary practices within the universities, are external and contextual, whereas others, related more strictly to the production of a new research horizon, are internal. Bernard Bailyn's recent book Atlantic History, Concept and Contours (2005) is an evident attempt to delineate an Atlantic history narrative that now seems to belong to an already completed paradigm ending—in terms of its thinkability—with his own pre-eminently Anglo-American and North Atlantic explorations. Starting from his often parochial and at times unabashedly Eurocentric genealogy (with its howling exclusions and swaths of disattended scholarship) and, even more tellingly, his unwillingness to consider the ways in which Atlantic history is being significantly enriched by cultural studies and decolonizing methodologies, we can more easily identify what is distinct about the new Atlantic studies paradigm, although the word paradigm itself is theoretically misleading, as I will suggest below.

Since there are conflicting opinions regarding the current practices of Atlantic studies scholarship and the legitimacy of its interdisciplinary move, it is crucial that we note the rather sharp break between the new and the old Atlanticist scholarship. Not all Atlanticists ( particularly among historians) acknowledge the abrupt perspectival reversals of postcolonial studies or the interpretative innovations of cultural and indigenous studies,3 so that the discontinuities of the former and the inventive methodologies of the latter have often gone unappreciated. What I am referring to as the new Atlantic studies, therefore, begins in the wake of post-colonial critique and cultural and indigenous research methodologies and has a two-fold agenda: a pars destruens and a pars construens.

Much of the historical genealogy Bailyn brings together in Atlantic History is markedly ethnocentric in outlook and implicitly informed by what J. M. Blaut has referred to as the supertheory of diffusionism (1–42). According to this mindset, the modern world has a single permanent center, Europe or the West, from which all significant cultural, economic, and political ideas have sprung. Europe is the center, the inside, whereas the rest of the world is the...


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