- Manifesting America: The Imperial Construction of U.S. National Space
Mark Rifkin's Manifesting America offers a mirror image of nineteenth-century American ideas of Manifest Destiny. Rather than U.S. imperial expansion being celebrated, it is vigorously critiqued as a process of "semiotic and literal violence" (8) eviscerating indigenous conceptions of territoriality on a continental scale. The author's approach is founded in rhetorical and philosophical concepts that predominate in contemporary post-colonial studies. Rather than developing either a traditional historical narrative or an in-depth contextual analysis of particular historical venues or events, Rifkin concentrates upon the language embedded in the "imperial construction of U.S. national space." In his view, U.S. empire-building rested upon a series of legal and political "discourses" (8). One rhetorical strategy, which the author views as manifestly false, was the U.S. government's insistence that native territories were incorporated into the nation by consent rather than by force.
Manifesting America is a very challenging study in an intellectual sense. The book is replete with rhetorical complexities such as "deterritorialized border crossing" (24), "jurisdictional imaginary" (29), "collective subjectivity" (31), "synthetic hegemony" (57), "subaltern agency" (62), that are not always felicitous or clear. Rifkin's study will appeal mainly to academicians who are already well versed in the literary tropes and ideological constructs prevalent in the recent scholarship he cites.
Manifesting America offers four historical examples to display its thesis of the antagonism between imperial and native conceptions of territoriality. These case studies concern the struggles leading to Cherokee expulsion, Black Hawk's narrative of the Sauk experience, Anglo and Hispanic American perceptions of the Comanches, and imperial and insurgent conceptualizations of California in the wake of the U.S.-Mexican War. Students of Texas history will be especially interested in Rifkin's examination of Juan Seguín's Memoirs (1858), which is interpreted as both a Tejano outcry against Anglo invasiveness and a text emblematically ignoring [End Page 204] or diminishing Comanche territoriality. In the author's view, Seguín's narrative draws much of its power from its depiction of Tejano familial and social rootedness against foreign imposition. Rifkin asserts that Tejano sensibilities of connectedness to the land were linked to the "disowning" of Indian claims associated with nomadic culture (113). Though the author is surely correct that both Hispanic and Anglo settlers had an animus against those labeled "savage" or "barbarian," he does not sufficiently consider Comanche aggressiveness and the havoc wrought by nomadic raiding and captive-taking.
Manifesting America is most valuable when Rifkin probes the contradictions present in the imperial logic of U.S.-Indian treaty making. The treaty process, which commonly stripped natives of huge swaths of territory, relied upon the notion that specific Indian peoples constituted nations that had the authority to consent to their dispossession and removal. This conception was effected through federal bargaining with particular native elites, who themselves claimed to speak for a unified nation that had little or no basis in reality. Rifkin is so dedicated to renewing native historic rights that he purposefully adopts a "negative critical stance" toward imperial historical understandings (17). A prime example is his gloss upon what he calls "the territorial imaginary of the state of Texas, and before it the Republic of Texas" (110). In this phrase, the author presents "Texas" as an imagined space that came into being through the "racialization" of political geography (114). Though this assessment is insightful, it does not quite erase the historical reality of Texas as much as the author may desire. Manifesting America—an intricate and not easily readable text—still compels us to think carefully of the rhetorical and legal legerdemain of imperial conquest and the centrality of language in the making of the United States as a hegemonic power. His book is worthwhile for that reason alone.