- Introduction to Focus:American Literature Unlimited—Toward a New Geoliterary Order
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“Worlded” and “worldly America”; “the world-becoming of the United States”; “the worlding of US culture”; “American world literature”; and perhaps “world American literature” too: still met with skepticism in various quarters, riddled with inescapable ambiguities and crying out for qualifications as they do, these phrases raise eyebrows these days much less than ten or fifteen years ago. They may not be the new buzzwords already, but they have accrued a certain cachet across disciplines, discourses, and publication venues. Moreover, not only is the recently minted vocabulary of US worldliness common in casual conversation, in the popular media, in diplomatic parlance, and in the humanities, but it also points to a commonplace: America’s world presence has grown in the post-Cold War years steadily and spectacularly. The question, of course, is what this means for America in general and for its literature in particular.
The exceedingly amorphous field of global studies and its disciplinary subsidiaries and partners known as transnational and (neo)cosmopolitan scholarship, (new) comparatism, and world literature have wrestled with this issue ad nauseam. And yet, after you have ploughed through bookshelf after bookshelf on the subject, chances are you will still come away with the nagging feeling that the multiple, often contradictory bearings and ramifications of the corporate, political, military, philanthropic-humanitarian, and literary-cultural being-in-the-world of the US largely evade their pursuers. This is not entirely unexpected. The problem we are facing here, no less than the history behind it, is quite daunting and must be recognized as such. But, it seems to me, most global studies inquiries, including those that profess to focus on literature, compound the difficulty from the get-go by shortchanging their object theoretically— arguably, there is a “method” to the critical failure to do justice to this mind-boggling complexity.
Very simply speaking, the bulk of research on the American literature of what I have labeled “late globalization” has tackled this issue economically and politically, and disproportionately so. Not only that, but it has also conducted its investigations in ways often hampering the full gamut of the economic and the political, as well as of the cultural, of America, of the world with it and, I hasten to add, of the world within it, of the world that has transformed—indeed, “worlded”—the US and its society, politics and policies, and cultural practices, be these collective or individual, public or private. Demonstrably, in the Cold War’s aftermath, more and more Americans think, dream, write, and, to recall Thomas Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas (The Crying of Lot 49 ), “project a world” in terms themselves “worlded.” That is to say, these projections are couched in the language of the bigger world that, as President Obama reminded Americans on April 18, 2015, neither ends nor begins at North American shores. This is definitely true of the world poiēsis typical of a sizeable, most lively segment of contemporary American literature. At play in some of the best American writers of our time from Don DeLillo and Chang-rae Lee to Azar Nafisi and Jhumpa Lahiri (and in some of their commentators too), this georhetoric of stylistic delimitations and cultural-imaginary unlimitations opens up, critically and inventively, America and the world individually and to one another, greatly stretching their reach in time, space, and meaning.
No doubt, such symbolic transgressions and dilations, no less than the overlaps and intertwinings coming on their heels, are not always unproblematic. For they do trouble our physical and mental maps alike, messing with geopolitical tectonics and, by the same token, with the conceptual cartographies and classifications into which the nation-state, geopolitics’s basic jurisdictional, epistemological, cultural, and literary-historical unit, has been traditionally built. But, both inevitable and fertile, this mess is a maze of unprecedented possibilities and a hotbed of thought-provoking realignments. A critic’s quagmire at times, these mount, to my mind, a welcome challenge most of the times. It is just that one cannot meet this challenge with the intellectual equivalent of Google Autocomplete. However, most forays...