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  • Notes from Antigua Naval Base
  • Laura Briggs (bio)

Something remarkable happened in American studies two decades ago: it became the place to talk about US Empire, race, and the abrupt transformations in the US and world economies (which we then called Reaganomics and now call neoliberalism—a linguistic shift that signals we are joining the rest of the Americas, finally, in understanding the relationship of this iteration of free market fundamentalism to classic liberalism). Matt Jacobson's address, like many other presidential addresses in recent years, diagnoses and crystallizes this state of affairs. American studies has become a place from which we name and resist drone strikes and secret kill lists, the shrinking of the public sphere, mass incarceration and legal and political disfranchisement, and the immense public pessimism that trickles down as dystopic young adult literature and Tea Party politics as much as Occupy Wall Street.

Jacobson reminds us of this two-decade sea change by pointing to the 1993 publication of Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease's Cultures of United States Imperialism. Something was in the air that year, in the immediate aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union. He could equally have cited the 1993 ASA annual meeting itself, full of critical ethnic, race, and empire scholarship. A number of senior scholars at that time warned about what such a revolution in the program committee would mean—that "myth and symbol" school American studies scholars would stay away from the meeting, and that this would have long-term consequences for the association. As it turns out, they were right—the American Studies Association was never the same. And, as Jacobson's presidential address signals, neither is our scholarship in the aftermath of Kaplan and Pease.

Jacobson suggests that the history of American empire is the history of the United States, which, surprisingly, seems simply true at this point, a narrative embodied in countless monographs and articles. This is surprising, given the marginal space allocated to questions of empire in most US history curricula still. William Appleman Williams's schema is still too often descriptive—we did it, but not for very long; we did it, but we didn't mean it, or, just, we didn't do it. This "we are not empire" consensus has not been altogether straightforward [End Page 303] to resist—with all the complicated things that revolts in scholarship mean about hiring, promotion, and tenure—and it has been successful partly because it has been a collective action of many scholars, something worth pausing to note in our fiercely individualistic profession.

The 2012 annual meeting where Jacobson gave his address was in the perfect place to contemplate empire. It was sited in the very beautiful, seven-year-old Puerto Rico Convention Center, or Centro de Convenciones de Puerto Rico Dr. Pedro Rosselló González, which was built atop land previously belonging to Antigua Naval Base in San Juan. (My Evernote software in fact tagged all its files from the conference with the name of the base, so all I have from those days contain this digital pentimento.) That naval base was the United States' third outpost in the region, after Guantánamo and the Canal Zone, built in the 1940s to be the "Pearl Harbor of the Caribbean," the key base anchoring our southern empire, a refueling station for bases around the area. It was constructed just three miles from el Morro, the Spanish fort that had served a similar function for an earlier empire (one bombed by the United States in its successful invasion in 1898).1 A decade ago, this reminder of military empires began to give way in glass and steel to a conference facility built for Puerto Rico's incarnation as "bio-island," a pharmaceutical paradise where Bristol-Myers Squibb, Abbott, Pfizer, and Amgen have been lured with generous tax breaks. Viagra is manufactured in Puerto Rico, following Enovid and other birth control pills to the island, as big pharma learned in the seventies not only how to test but how to manufacture volatile organic compounds on the island—and both have generated complaints about local contamination and dangerous health effects.2 Rosselló, the governor for whom the...


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pp. 303-308
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