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  • Making Globalization Ordinary:Teaching Globalization in the American Studies Classroom
  • Stacy Takacs (bio)

The publication in 1983 of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities marked a turning point in the scholarship of the nation state and of national cultures. By daring to suggest that nations were "imagined political communities" emerging out of distinctly historical circumstances, Anderson challenged the status of the nation as a taken-for-granted category of analysis. His argument was well-received not because it was original, but because it crystallized an emerging consensus from within a variety of academic fields that the nation was not the only possible lens through which to examine culture, politics, economics, or history. As David Noble points out, the "aesthetic authority" of the nation—its capacity to organize thought and analysis—had to be actively sustained through practices of suppression, exclusion, and fabrication (Noble 2002, 273). By the 1940s, the work of defending the boundaries (real and symbolic) of the nation became increasingly difficult. World War II, the Cold War, and anti-colonial struggles made the global context of national life inescapable while the struggles of oppressed minorities within the nation for civil rights and social recognition exposed national coherence as fiction. Scholars in a variety of fields began to look beyond the paradigm of the nation for ways to understand political, economic, and social relations. They took up comparative international studies and focused on subnational circuits of culture; they began to excavate the histories of "peoples without history" (Wolf 1982) and to examine patterns of global similarity; they even sought to discover how nationalism became a [End Page 221] truly transnational phenomenon. Anderson's reconceptualization of the nation as a contingent phenomenon, crafted out of the nexus of colonial (i.e. global) relations and in response to the reality of human social diversity, spoke to these new conditions of intellectual engagement.

The challenge to the concept of the nation as the primary unit of social analysis has posed particular problems for the interdisciplinary field of American studies, which was founded on an exceptionalist mode of inquiry.1 Early American studies scholars assumed the meaning of the term "America" was self-evident and sought to define the content of "American" uniqueness. They did not ask "what is America" or "what is culture;" they asked "what is American"—what political, economic, and cultural conditions defined the essence of the nation's difference (Denning 1986, 360). Latter-day American studies scholars, or New Americanists, have subjected this romance of the nation to intense scrutiny, illustrating how this consensus version of the national particular was produced through the suppression and exclusion of internal heterogeneity and external interconnection.2 The field-imaginary of American studies has been redrawn by critical work on U.S. multiculturalisms and migrations, regional and hemispheric comparisons, and transnational studies of the "flows" of money, materials, ideas, images, and peoples. A cursory glance at the themes of the last ten American Studies Association (ASA) conferences documents this dramatic shift away from cultural nationalism and exceptionalism within the field. References to American "cultures" in the plural and to the connections between violence and belonging are complemented by a new orientation toward trans-hemispheric and transnational "crossings" and "migrations," all of which are designed to foreground the links between "local" identities and places and "global" power relations.3 Presidential addresses have worried over what it means to conduct a "transnational American studies" (Elliott 2007; Fishkin 2005; Kaplan 2004; Radway 1999; Sumida 2003), to attend to "borders" and "crossings" (Fishkin 2005; Limerick 1997; Sanchez 2002), and to place racial and ethnic multiplicity and dynamism at the heart of the American studies enterprise (Kelley 2000; Ruiz 2007; Sanchez 2002; Washington 1998).4 Janice Radway (1999) dared to suggest that the name "American studies" might be part of the problem, promoting a parochial emphasis on the nation state at a time when national sovereignty and agency were becoming less determinant of social relations. Stephen Sumida's 2002 address, "Where in the World is American Studies?" captured precisely the sense of confusion associated with these material and intellectual shifts.

This questioning of the field-imaginary of American studies responds, as I have argued, to shifting material conditions...


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