- Shades of the Planet: American Literature as World Literature
A compact volume featuring contributions by distinguished authors reflecting on a major theme, Shades of the Planet certainly ought to join the collections of university libraries and the syllabi of graduate courses in English departments. Although comparativists will probably find more that is familiar here than Americanists, the collection should stimulate useful discussions of the effects of globalization on the humanities for many scholars. Collectively, the contributors ask how a particular discipline—here, the study of American literature—can and should develop what Wai Chee Dimock calls “a platform broader and more robustly empirical than the relatively arbitrary and demonstrably ephemeral borders of the nation.” This effort is paired with a quest for “alternate geographies, alternate histories”—projects that ideally extend to the scope of the planet itself (5). This ambitious goal leads the contributors in different directions methodologically and ideologically, but some paths are also not taken. Studying these essays thus reveals as much about the limits to interdisciplinarity as it does about the formation of new disciplinary projects.
Several of the contributors adopt the “routes” strategy defined by James Clifford in his now classic study, The Predicament of Culture. Without citing Clifford, Susan Stanford Friedman, David Palombo-Liu and, to a lesser extent, Ross Posnock, Rachel Adams, Homi Bhabha, and Wai Chee Dimock all track the movements of particular figures, critical ideas, or language fragments as they travel across political boundaries; these projects identify patterns of influence and traditions more difficult to study in a purely [End Page 519] national framework. On the basis of a reading of Philip Roth's involvement with dissident Czech writers, for instance, Posnock offers a defense of an international community of cosmopolitan aesthetes; Adams describes authors of detective fiction concerned with the US–Mexico border as part of a community defined by genre; and Friedman describes Muslim feminism as involved in a transnational effort to recover the figure of Scheherazade. From a reading of W. E. B. Du Bois's description of racism in anticolonial struggles in Dark Princess, Bhabha describes a global minority discourse generally—one that encompasses immigrants, women, and racial and sexual minorities. In her concluding essay, Dimock discovers elements from many West African languages that appear in African-American vernacular. Palambo-Liu layers discussion of Henry James's return to New York City with the outward movements of formalist critic R. P. Blackmur in Japan. With the exception of Dimock's contribution, all of these essays focus on individual writers, leading to a speculation about whether this approach to literary study replaces the nation with another version of the representative author. If so, is this a significant improvement? Is the author's biography a broader platform and “more robustly empirical”? Would a focus on the travel routes of individual writers be more or less planetary in scope than the framework of the nation?
Other contributors try other approaches. Paul Giles's essay in defense of “geographical materialism” offers a wide-ranging critique of the boundaries assumed to define the American nation in literary study and suggests a positive project of re-periodization. By taking 1980 as an important turning point for the rise of postnational geographies, he argues that scholars of American literature and culture can begin a new research project. A similar case for reviving political and economic readings appears in Joseph Roach's essay; borrowing a phrase from Amitava Kumar's collection, World Bank Literature (n.b.: this author contributed to Kumar's collection), Roach offers an exemplary reading of what he calls “world bank drama.” Understanding the classic Broadway musical Oklahoma! in relation not only to nativist and folkloristic ideologies of the land but also to a language of cultural heritage developed by international institutions such as UNESCO, Roach provides a smart version of a depth model of interpretation. His essay suggests how scholars of American literature might unearth and rework the ideologies of globalism invoked in particular texts. Co-editor Buell's contribution...