- The World, the Text, and the Americanist
We have entered a period of time when the meanings attached to the US in the world have shifted decisively. In the Middle East and North Africa, there is widespread distrust of American imperial intentions. As the global economic crisis persists, the US economy has entered what some prominent economists have called its “autumn,” a putative decline from its apex during the twentieth century.1 During the exciting winter and spring of 2011, a wave of global protests for democracy in the Arab world did not look to American models for sustenance or inspiration. Indeed, members of an apparently spontaneous movement in the US, Occupy Wall Street and its many affiliates, avowed that they had looked to the Middle East for their own inspiration.2 Many, if not all, of the sustaining principles that Americans have held dear through the last half of the twentieth century have been questioned—and no longer on the margins of the left, but at the heart of American public discourse.
Meanwhile, the world is experiencing the most profound technological revolution since that which rocked the late eighteenth century, another time of global transformation. The digital age has affected individuals across the globe, from those born in the twenty-first century to those from generations who remember the days before the smart phone, the Internet, or even the microcomputer. The ability to connect with people, via cell phones or social networking sites, personally or tens of thousands at a time, has changed our very sense of what it means to be an individual connected to larger communities—whether local, national, or global, and whether real or imagined. This change is more than [End Page 231] practical—it is epistemological, changing our very way of knowing: how we know what we know. In Iran, a vibrant blogosphere has emerged among 36.5 million Internet users, nearly 47% of Iran’s population in March 2011.3 India recently surpassed 100 million Internet users and is predicted to overtake the American presence on the Internet in just two or three years.4 As with the last technological revolution, the links between new tools and the spread of ideas are intimate. Acceleration is the rule.
Despite an increasing acceptance that the conditions within which individuals engage American literature and the world in which it circulates have changed profoundly (if not fundamentally), much of the field of American literary studies remains committed to an anachronistic set of reading practices. The great tradition of placing texts produced in and about the US (or by individuals marked as, or calling themselves, Americans) in deep conversation with their historical contexts and the social worlds or publics they engage has constructed a formidable framework. Yet that critical structure has outlasted the conditions within which it was created. Despite its attractiveness and the compelling readings it still is capable of producing, it leads us away from a more supple appreciation of ways in which the multiple conditions of globalization, on both local and international levels, set a fundamentally different encounter between text and world. Though many scholars have advocated a transnational approach to American studies, brilliantly critiqued the exceptionalism at the heart of the Americanist enterprise, and embraced hemispheric and other spatially conceived international approaches to American literary studies, the problem persists when attention to the logics and contexts of circulation is not brought back to our methods of reading.5
The question is what we do with our carefully historicized readings of American literature when the conditions for their circulation and within which they address a reading or viewing public have altered so profoundly. My contention is that American studies’ historicization, perhaps its most defining characteristic, by necessity draws boundaries around texts—and the communities and spaces and temporalities they depict and address—making crucial decisions, sometimes implicitly or even unconsciously, about what is in bounds and what is out of bounds. But an awareness of the transnational, digitally enabled circulation of such texts shatters the presumption of careful historicization because an innumerable number of archives and contexts are now required to place a text in its context. Even when these archives are...