- Beyond the Exceptionalist Thesis, a Global American Studies 2.0
For some time scholars have been caught up in the problem of American exceptionalism. The claim that American society and the nation itself are “exceptions” to the historical rules that guide other national histories is deeply ingrained in the image of the United States, from John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” to Alexis de Tocqueville’s insistence on the United States’ fundamental egalitarianism, to Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis.” Accounts of American exceptionalism have often, though not always, skewed positive, engendering historical narratives of the United States that obscured national catastrophes such as slavery, Native American genocide, and U.S. imperialism. [End Page 899]
Discovering a uniquely “American character” is also integral to the disciplinary foundations of American studies itself, which arose out of the historical conditions and conceptual warrants of the Cold War.1 Arguably no moment in the history of American studies has been so shaped by an anti-exceptionalist position as its current transnational turn. In conceptualizing the United States beyond the nation-state, and emphasizing its often unsavory international policies pursued in the name of exceptionalism, transnationally oriented scholarship contends with the realities of U.S. global power to which, in retrospect, the exceptionalist thesis seems so teleologically inclined.
At the same time, no critical orientation has struggled as much with the Cold War origins of the discipline itself, specifically the possibility that Americanists, despite themselves, work through a deep-rooted and inextricable exceptionalism. The transnational turn in American studies thus had a pyrrhic quality to it: how does one do American studies without “America” as the object of study? Insofar as the transnational turn effectively razed much of the critical ground behind it, which disciplinary foundations could be reasonably kept? What new knowledge might they foster? And after such knowledge, as T. S. Eliot might have put it, what forgiveness? This review covers five books that are suggestively divergent in terms of how American studies exceeding the nation-state might be practiced. But taken together, they represent yet another new turn in the globalizing of American studies, one now characterized by a de-emphasis of its problematic relationship to the exceptionalist thesis. Certain books in this review prefer the term transnational over global in conceptualizing the United States beyond the boundaries of the nation-state, and the two terms, of course, can signal methodological differences. To focus on questions of transnationalism is often understood as a way to critique or speak back to U.S. state power. Using the term global can signify a less fraught relationship with U.S. power and the value of globalization theory in situating the United States within multilateral flows of information, goods, and people. Overall, this essay prefers the term global, not as an indictment of any of the transnationally identified books discussed here but because describing the extenuated status of anti-exceptionalism requires a term that similarly moves away from the United States itself—that is, the exceptional state—as the end point of analysis. All of these books, in one way or another, make an effort to move beyond the meta-critique of anti-exceptionalism and toward a global American studies exploring the kinds of knowledge that can be built in its wake.
More than any other scholar, Donald Pease has helped clarify the necessity of—as well...