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  • Ecocriticism and the Transnational Turn in American Studies
  • Ursula K. Heise (bio)

1. The Transnational Turn

One of the most conspicuous developments in American studies over the last decade has been its transnational turn, the increasing interest in approaching the study of US culture in a more international framework, in terms of both the questions being asked and the resources deployed to answer them. As Priscilla Wald has pointed out, calls to internationalize the study of American culture are not new, but have been voiced at least since the late 1970s (199–201). Nevertheless, they have assumed a new urgency ever since the concept of "globalization," from the mid-1990s onward, has begun to replace both "postmodernism" and "postcolonialism" as a central category organizing analyses of contemporary culture. The theoretical projects that inform the international imperative are by no means uniform, however. While some scholars aim to reconceptualize American studies hemispherically by linking explorations of Anglo-American and Latin American literatures and cultures, others focus on transpacific connections around the "Pacific Rim," both orientations following a combined geographical and cultural logic. Other theorists, in a somewhat different vision of internationalization, focus on diasporic communities—such as the African or Jewish diaspora—for whom the US is one [End Page 381] among several, often geographically remote, anchoring points. Finally, approaches that seek to internationalize American studies through greater attention to the work of Americanists from outside the US ultimately aim not so much to reconfigure the object of study itself as to bring a different range of institutional, disciplinary, and cultural perspectives to bear on it.

If there is a shared logic that links these quite divergent projects, it is a shift in the conceptualization of the cultural subject, understood both as the subject of cultural practices and the subject of the study of such practices. At an earlier stage, American studies, very broadly speaking, had focused on "localized" subjects who were conceived to offer privileged points of departure for socio-political and intellectual resistance to what was then perceived to be the mostly oppressive force of national forms of power, interpellation (in Althusser's sense), and identification. In the 1980s and early 1990s, a great deal of work in fiction, poetry, biography, and autobiography, as well as in cultural criticism, was dedicated to the detailed exploration of family histories, places of origin, migration, inhabitation and reinhabitation, local communities, material contexts, embodied experiences, and situated forms of knowledge, all of which were understood to contribute to alternative social visions. The conceptualization of many of these local subjects as composites of different cultural, racial, ethnic, religious, or national traditions—as in Homi Bhabha's explorations of "hybridity," for example, or Gloria Anzaldúa's portrayal of the borderlands identity of the "New Mestiza"—prepared the way for the recent shift in locus of cultural resistance from the localized subject within the nation to the one that reaches across national borders in what has variously come to be theorized as critical internationalism, transnationalism, diaspora, or cosmopolitanism. As the anthropologist Aihwa Ong has pointed out, this shift in conceptual territory was accompanied by "hopes that transnational mobility and its associated processes have great liberatory potential (perhaps replacing international class struggle in orthodox Marxist thinking). In a sense, the diasporan subject is now vested with the agency formerly sought in the working class and more recently in the subaltern subject" (15).1

Environmentally oriented literary and cultural studies, or eco-criticism for short, emerged as a new field just before this shift toward the transnational assumed its full force. Seminal studies in both British and American literary studies, ranging from Jonathan Bate's Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (1991) and Karl Kroeber's Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind (1994) to Lawrence Buell's The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, [End Page 382] Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (1995) and Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm's Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (1996), set the first parameters for the new research area, which began to emerge as an institutional presence with the foundation of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE), and its journal...


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