Anarchies and Empires

by zunguzungu

Within American studies, I absolutely love Amy Kaplan’s contention in The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture that “domestic and foreign spaces” like Mark Twain’s Mississippi and the port of Honolulu in 1866 “are closer than we think, and that the dynamics of imperial expansion cast them into jarring proximity.” This is right on; I was thinking about this when I commented at SEK’s joint with regard to Huckleberry Finn’s famous “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”:

For me, the register of that line has always been that connecting “I’ll go to hell” to an actual social issue turns Huck’s silly little rebellions into something more meaningful (i.e., it’s not about slavery, but about whether hell is actually better than heaven). In this context, being a “boy” starts to mean something less like immaturity and more like an explicitly anti-civilization stance, harnessing the (as you point out, well established) moral authority of abolitionism to defy the authorities of polite society. And “polite society” (and the ways it extends its authority out to remake “immature” societies) had by no means disappeared by that point; 1884 is the very year of the conference of Berlin where Africa was portioned out to European powers who were really at the very peak of their ability to use moral arguments about “civilizing savages” to justify conquest. When Huck, as a character whose savagery is explicitly being civilized decides that he doesn’t want to go to heaven (and, in the same act, aligns himself on the right side of an already settled question), it seems to me that, in its historical moment, it has quite a lot of significance. I don’t know if I’d say “bravery” exactly, but it’s worth noting that the Berlin conference was convened by King Leopold, who Twain would directly attack in his “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” of 1905. But by that time Leopold was already a fairly reviled name, in certain reform circles, so it’s interesting in a different way that Twain had already attacked the principles that Leopold would use, and did it long before the “abuses” of the Congo had really begun.

Wiser words were ever spoken! But anyway, Kaplan is good because people in American studies so often tend not to think this way. The very institutional construction of American studies, in fact, reinforces an “exceptionalist” sense of its subject, the idea that “America” is coherent and autonomous, and that an “American” author like Mark Twain could only, in writing an “American” novel like Huck Finn, be talking about “America.” So I love that Kaplan seeks to put “America” in quotation marks, trying to establish that America’s sense of its “domestic” self has everything to do with how its “foreign” was conceptualized, and vice versa: sentimental novels, for example, may have taken the white family as their subject, but (as an example like Uncle Tom’s Cabin indicates), they could only do so by imagining the non-white alien other. And Kaplan extends this way of thinking outside the borders of the American domestic state itself, suggesting that, for example, we should think about Huck Finn and Hawai’i at the same time.

All good, so far. But as Kaplan sets out to “challenge the traditional understanding of imperialism as a one-way imposition of power in distant colonies and to call attention instead to ambiguities and contradictions of imperial relations in the formation of a national culture,” my cheering section start to get a little hesitant. In part, this is because the “traditional understanding” of anything is such a glaring cliché that challenging its spectral figure is not nearly as heroic as sentences like this one make it sound. Nor is this understanding of imperialism, as it happens, nearly as hegemonic or as “traditional“ as she portrays. There are certainly political reasons why a variety of thinkers continue to wrongly maintain a conception of imperialism as a “one-way imposition of power,” but her invocations of “ambiguities and contradictions” seem just as much a cliché of our post-“Postcolonial” moment in critical history as anything else: “ambiguity” became a buzzword precisely because everything from Edward Said to Homi Bhabha to Gayatri Spivak have presumed, for decades now, that nothing about imperialism was “one-way.”

In that sense, therefore, her exploration of “how international struggles for domination abroad profoundly shape representations of American national identity at home, and how, in turn, cultural phenomena we think of as domestic or particularly national are forged in a crucible of foreign relations” only really seems innovative within “American studies,” bless its pointed little head, because “American studies” has traditionally not conceived of itself as having “empire” as its object. And the idea that national identity is a function of imperial identity (while a certain tension between the two remains) has already been a basic given within post-“postcolonial” British studies for a while, ever since (at least) Edward Said.

The real intervention, then, is simply her contention that “American” culture needs to be understood as “imperial” from the get-go. And again, while there are political reasons why a variety of people have maintained America != Empire, it’s only because she’s talking to those very people (see under “pointed little heads”) that her application of postcolonial framings to American studies seems innovative and unusual. Not to say that the book isn’t for this very reason, totally necessary and helpful; it is, precisely because of the amount of American exceptionalism that still needs to be unthought.

But what, the heck, is “American exceptionalism”? I’m not sure anymore, especially given that Kaplan also wants to “call attention to the ambiguities and contradictions of imperial relations in the formation of a national culture.” The traditional definition of “American exceptionalism” is the Tocquevillian notion that America is just different than Europe, a kind of “new world,” if you will, that offered a way outside of the perils of industrialism, despotism, and revolution found in the “old world.”

To steal a chunk of text from the first draft of my first chapter:

In recent years, American studies has taken “American exceptionalism” as a central point of debate, but the question of whether or not “America” is “exceptional” has never been reducible to the question of America’s historical peculiarity. After all, not only is it a banal truism that any historical formation is unique (a uniqueness that is therefore without particular evaluative content), but the central premise of American exceptionalism is that American democratic ideals are both appropriate for adoption on a global scale and are virtually certain to be adopted. And if the future is a teleological convergence, then an “America” defined by reference to this future can hardly maintain a historical position distinct from the rest of the world. “American exceptionalism,” in other words, is precisely the opposite of what its name seems to suggest: it is the claim that America is universal.

The “New” American studies, has therefore been premised less on repudiating the idea that the American historical experience is unique than on recovering exactly the banal historicity of this uniqueness, an effort to strip the term of its trans-historical status as arbitrary evaluative marker by re-embedding it within the particularities of its North-American historical context. After all, if American historical formations are seen as produced by American conditions and history, non-American contexts cannot plausibly be held to standards of value defined according to that American civilization.

Man, I like using the word “banal.” And who wouldn’t? What a word. But here’s the point: if you are working to establish that “America” is a myth used to establish the United States’ right to colonize the world, as Kaplan is, then why would you revert back to the concept of a “national culture”? She is essentially mimicking the Said-ian move, the claim that “English” culture is really a transnational imperial culture, but perhaps because “America” has itself already always been a discourse about trans-nationalism (America is a nation of nations, a “United” federation of “States”), she doesn’t follow the thrust of her own argument to its conclusion: if “America” is a myth of empire, then there cannot be a “national” culture. “Nation” as a term of analysis (rather than a term we need to be analyzing), is precisely the thing that the “anarchy of empire” makes unavailable to us.

I like Amy Kaplan’s book a lot; she’s blazing trails I want to travel, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from reading her. But I come to this material (and to American studies in general) from a different place than she does, I think. When you learn about “American empire” after having already spent years studying the European colonial empires in Africa, a lot of truisms and falsisms about American exceptionalism look quite different. So I’m going to let this be a first post in a series on her book, a book which I’m totally incapable of reading for more than a page or two without scribbling furiously in the margins. But there’s something important about a book that you can agree with on the most basic level and yet still be unable to go twenty seconds without finding something to disagree with. I’m not sure what that is, really, but I’m going to try blogging (instead of marginalia) as a way of finding out.