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  • Oceanic, Traumatic, Post-Paradigmatic:A Response to William Boelhower
  • Jed Esty (bio)

William Boelhower's richly erudite and multidisciplinary essay points to four main factors that have contributed to the rise of the new Atlantic studies matrix; I will summarize these and raise a few initial questions for further consideration. The first factor centers on the changing status of US hegemony in the world, a development that has reorganized the field of American studies both here and in Europe in Boelhower's account. The old transatlantic history or transatlantic studies—exemplified by Bernard Bailyn's Atlantic History (2005)—depended on a narrowly focused version of the Anglo-American story, a scholarly enshrinement of the US/UK special relationship. That North Atlantic axis has now been displaced by the new Atlantic studies—and not just replotted along the global North-South axis, but dispersed and reshaped into a matrix in which many more territories, flows, events, peoples, and problematics meet and collide. Boelhower accounts for that displacement by reading academic and disciplinary shifts of the last 20 years against the background of macropolitical change, particularly the end of the Cold War and of the American Century. Of course, those last two events interfere with each other; one question that emerges right away concerns the eclipse of US power at the end of the Cold War, since by some influential accounts—including Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire (2000)—the US, which may have seemed in decline during the 1980s, was resurgent in the 1990s, fueled by dotcom economics and lone-superpower status. Has the new Atlantic studies displaced the old transatlanticism ahead of the decline of US power or in neat historical tandem with it? To that [End Page 102] basic question, we might add the following two: if the new macro-regional area studies, including Atlantic studies, are formulated as post-millennial modes of knowledge production, what relation do they bear to the old Cold War area studies? And, how does a formation like Pacific Rim studies tell a different story from the one assembled around the Atlantic studies matrix?

The second key factor is the ever-intensifying flow of migration in the highly deregulated period from 1980 to the present—what Boelhower, following Zygmunt Bauman, calls the global rise of "liquid life." Here the emphasis seems to follow the work of Arjun Appadurai in Modernity at Large (1996) on the expansion of media and migration networks in the era of globalization. The question raised, I think, by this larger macrosociological frame has to do with the problem of theorizing or modeling or even describing the current era of globalization: without the academic failsafe of historical distance, how do we know whether our analytical language is simply replicating the dynamics of globalization in the rhetoric of vivid sociological reportage or whether it is offering a critical account of that phenomenon—so impossibly vast, so new?

This brings us to the third element of the conjuncture that produced the new Atlantic studies, modulating now in the direction of an intellectual-institutional history: the influence of postcolonial studies (and critical race studies) within humanities and social sciences disciplines during the 1980s and 1990s. Since the postcolonial approach to questions of national culture and imperial history began to redraw the map of fields like anthropology and literary studies, it also began to reinflect and unsettle the given geo-graphical and historical parameters of area-based fields like American studies. The postcolonial project, defined by Boelhower as essentially counter-historiographical, challenges the official (state) archives of national history and charts the key movements of modernity across rather than within national borders. But where the old postcolonial studies focused on an allegoresis of the nation, the new Atlantic studies has begun to outstrip postcolonialism's transnational appeal, enlarging our map of the contact zone and pushing the disciplines even further away from their residual nineteenth-century attachment to the nation-state as knowledge-container. The new Atlantic studies work takes its productive charge—as do most versions of postcolonial studies still proceeding under that banner—from the analysis of the ways in which the nation-state (however crepuscular a formation) relates—politically, culturally, and...


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pp. 102-107
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