- National, Transnational, International
In the wake of the US presidential election of 2016, it is worth pondering the fate and future of the transnational turn in literary studies. The slogan to "Make America Great Again" does not acknowledge the extent to which this nativist nostalgia is wrapped around larger global developments and crises from Brexit to the rise of ISIS and the flood of refugees from the Syrian conflict zone. Still, President Donald Trump's captious take on everything from NATO agreements to the Paris climate accords invites us to ask: has the aesthetic and political potential of transnationalism already passed us by?
We might be tempted to pose this question in spite of the evidence gleaned from a quick sampling of conference themes, edited collections such as the one that first brought together the contributors to this special forum in College Literature, and academic journals, including one expressly devoted to transnational American studies. If a transnational turn has influenced the directions of literary studies, it can also seem like the rest of the world has not veered away from nationalism, especially its popular manifestations. For many observers, 2016 was a year in which the horizon and promise of the transnationalism with respect to the movement of people and ideas had been scaled back, often it seems, out of fear and resentment. [End Page 515] The anxiety over the porousness of national borders that stoked support for Brexit, the resurgence of European nationalisms that rallied voters to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France, and, perhaps most spectacularly, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States have all cast a gloom over transnational imaginaries. Time magazine recently provided the Cassandra-like prediction that "an even larger crisis is coming. The popular fury convulsing Europe and the U.S. may well spill over into the rest of the world" (May 11, 2017). The global sensibilities associated with transnational aesthetics seem diminished by the insistent rhetoric of national crisis. In the United States alone, talk of a border wall and executive orders banning travel from predominantly Muslim countries, even if these plans never come to fruition, indicate that this drumbeat will likely continue for years to come.
Still, it would be a mistake to think of returning to a simpler map of bounded nation-states like the finite game board of Risk inspired by the Napoleonic Wars. Transnationalism has not burnt itself out nor has it been eclipsed by the talk of making America great again. After all, nowhere was this presidential campaign slogan echoed by sympathetic curricular cries to make American literature, painting, or film great again. Perhaps, as a cynic might point out, the steady hold of canonical thinking makes such a gesture unnecessary in fields that, whatever their openness to new approaches and texts, by and large remain organized around national traditions. From this vantage, the election of a Republican businessman as US president is hardly exceptional in a country that has long been inventing some version of "America first" every generation. Then again, a more sanguine observer might seek to reassure us that American literature and art, precisely because each is aesthetic, are already hardwired with non-national sensibilities. Each perspective is just true enough to indicate the extent to which the nation as a juridical, administrative, moral, even sports-related term (think of the importance of national units to global competitions such as World Cup soccer or the Olympics) persists as a meaningful formation within transnationalism. As Yogita Goyal writes in her introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature, "Because transnational frames do not argue for the demise of nations, but for a rethinking of them, they can help counteract triumphalist discourses of globalism" (2017, 7). At a moment of nationalist resurgence, we might also insist on a converse formulation: "Just because a race-baiting nationalist has been elected president does not mean [End Page 516] that transnationalism is suddenly obsolescent or irrelevant. Instead, the present conjuncture provides an opportunity for rethinking transnationalism and for considering why it might be an ever more crucial resource for progressive politics and cultural transformation at a moment...