Winfried Fluck, Donald E. Pease, and John Carlos Rowe, eds., Re-Framing the Transnational Turn in American Studies (Hanover: Dartmouth College P, 2011), 460 pp.

Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 61.2



The late 2000s and early 2010s saw a considerable number of monographs and edited collections reconsidering the nexus of transnational and global American studies. Coming out of a discipline that tries to move beyond the exceptionalist legacy of Cold War American studies, transnational American studies questions established and new directions in the discipline alike, including frequently its own project and the legacy it builds on. The articles collected in Re-Framing the Transnational Turn in American Studies exemplify this trend by bringing together methodologically and thematically diverse articles that self-critically position themselves within a field in transition. The book is the result of a series of conferences that were financed through a research grant procured by scholars at the Humboldt University of Berlin, the Free University of Berlin, and the University of Potsdam, and collaboratively organized with John Carlos Rowe at USC and Donald Pease at Dartmouth College. Consequently, the list of contributors reads like a “who is who” of American studies in and around Berlin circa 2007 with a few international contributors including Rowe and Pease, as well as Nancy Fraser, Macarena Goméz-Barris, Peter D. O’Neill, and William Arce. As suggested by the reputation of the editors and the contributors who include many major forces in the reshaping of American studies, the book contains a number of excellent contributions to the field that will be essential reading for anyone seeking to enter it, and will add new perspectives to those already invested in it.

The book is divided into four sections consisting of four (and in one case five) chapters each and an almost fifty page introduction by Donald Pease, in which Pease reviews the state of transnational and global American studies with remarkable lucidity, offering an overview over a diverse field that reveals both Pease’s profound knowledge and his investment in a more political direction for American studies. Although the first sentence proclaiming the “transnational turn” to be “the most significant reimagining of the field of American studies since its inception” (1) might signal otherwise, Pease is nevertheless careful to not be overly celebratory of transnational studies as the final step to get away from American Exceptionalism. Instead, he reviews work done over the past two decades, examining it from a range of different perspectives in order to illuminate its many different agendas, as well as the historical forces that shaped and continue to shape transnational approaches in American studies. While positioning the transnational project as part of a historical moment of global socioeconomic transition, Pease stresses that the term is actually “a volatile transfer point” (4) that is imbued with different, sometimes contradictory meaning for different people with diverse and sometimes contradictory political agendas ranging from expanding to delimiting US-American global power. It is a concept that, while it oscillates between describing a reality and creating it through its discursive power, is nevertheless able to confront the current political order with its own omnipresent contradictions.

While it is impossible to do justice to the extremely dense meta-analysis Pease provides in the short space of this review (and interested readers are well-advised to go to Pease’s introduction directly), it seems worthwhile to at least mention the various angles from which he approaches the topic. In the subsection “The Geopolitical Context,” Pease points to supranational organizations and the ways in which they challenge our state-based understandings of sovereignty. Pease maintains that the concepts of sovereignty for Americanists, as well as for U.S. citizens, alternate between understandings of the United States as “a global state regulatory apparatus responsible for securing and maintaining the rule of law across the planet and as a territorially bound nation” (11). Establishing three phases in the transnationalization of the field, from countercultural, via multicultural to transnational American studies, Pease examines the stage of multicultural American studies and its displacement by transnationalism through its integration of “questions posed by diasporas.” Pease then goes on to describe the redefinition of the disparate field as being formulated to address the common enemy of American exceptionalism; an exceptionalism which, as Pease has also argued elsewhere, needs to be understood as formed from “incompatible elements” (21) and linked to very particular historical formations. However, as Pease warns, the “wholesale dismantling of American exceptionalism” in the field of transnational American studies can also be read as a response to a real geo-political state of exception that “produce[s] the version of American exceptionalism without exceptionalists that the transnational state of exception require[s]” (23) to continue a global domination by U.S. capital over a world in which the borders of the nation have become porous.

Pease follows up on this in the next section “Rethinking the Postexceptionalist Turn” in which he reexamines the Cold War as a period of global reordering in which transnational institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WHO “deflected the state away from identification with the prerogatives and obligations of the territorially bound nation to an identification with the deterritorializing provenance of the state of exception” (25), thus laying the groundwork for the transnational neoliberalism that has dominated the period after the end of the Cold War. This leads Pease to suggest a remapping of what he calls the “Transnational Field Imaginary” (26-30) that takes geography more strongly into account to argue against vague notions of deterritorialization and pays more attention to the excepted, e.g. the internally colonized, in American exceptionalism. The result according to Pease is “an unstable combination of anti-imperial triumph and transnational melancholia” (28), a notion he more fully explores in the final section of his overview “Transnational-Diaspora Complex” (30-32), before he turns to the customary summary of the organization and contributions to the volume.

The book’s first main section begins with an analysis of the works of Philip Roth, particularly his Operation Shylock, by Ulla Haselstein. She explores the doppelgänger motif in the novel and the novel’s intertextual reference to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice that Roth employs to comment on the Holocaust and the Palestinian conflict. Despite engaging these political issues, the novel, which Haselstein calls a “convoluted self-reflexive allegory of split authorial identity and of the conflict between artistic autonomy and political accountability” (69), in the end evades a clear statement of Roth’s allegiance with Israel, even though Haselstein argues that such a commitment is definitely implied. Haselstein’s interpretive strategy allows her to navigate between questions of cultural / transcultural myths of identity and individual subjectivity that are focused on Roth’s—and by implication others’—postmodern games of authorial identity.

Andrew S. Gross’s contribution is a good example of the self-questioning stance adapted by many of the contributors to Re-Framing the Transnational Turn. Gross critically examines the often self-congratulatory rhetoric of novelty that a self-proclaimed post-exceptionalism takes towards the supposedly naïve, exceptionalist past of American studies. By re-examining the writing of internationally and trans-atlantically oriented Americanists after the Second World War, Gross uncovers a legacy of “dissident internationalism” that is, despite not being transnational in the current sense, nevertheless “compatible with the situational approach called for by Rowe” (75). As Gross argues in his examination, this “forgotten history of internationalism” throws into question the radical break supposedly taking place with transnational American studies. At the same time, the blind spot to Cold War ideology of earlier Americanists can make us aware that we are quite likely as “susceptible to the forces of globalization [as] our precursors were to the dictates of the Cold War” (90-91).

William Arce’s contribution turns its gaze towards a reading of Alfredo Vea’s novel Gods Go Begging (1999). Through the lens of trauma studies, Arce shows how the novel’s depiction of Chicano soldiers in Vietnam draws a connection between the internally colonized Chicano/a population in the U.S. and the “transnational colonialism” (116) of the U.S. in Vietnam. He addresses topics about trauma and its impact on minority culture that draw out connections between Chicana/o studies to the field of transnational American studies, and make good on the field’s promise to learn from its diasporic predecessors without appropriating them.

Drawing on Carl Schmitt’s concept of nomos, which in comparison to Gramsci’s hegemony he sees as always transnational, and connecting it with Agamben’s theoretical construct of the “homo sacer,” Peter D. O’Neill casts a light on the transatlantic history of racialization and the Irish emigration to the U.S. after the Irish famine. As O’Neill shows, the inclusion of Irish immigrants into the US-American state apparatuses, especially in police and fire departments and the low ranks of civil service, as well as their inclusion into the Democratic Party and trade unions “dramatically transformed their relationship to the state, from the status of the ‘excluded’ to that of the ‘excluders’” (121). Adding a new facet to the well-known story of how, in Noel Ignatiev’s words, the Irish became white, O’Neill shows how through their migration and the transfer from a Nomos Britannicus to a Nomos Americanus and the different definitions of race these implied, the Irish “no longer held bare life status” (132).

Opening the second section “Re-Disciplinizing Transnational American Studies,” Winfried Fluck’s article explores Emanuel Leutze’s famous 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. In an opening section, Fluck delineates his approach, which he describes as cultural studies transnationalism, from the dominant traditions of “aesthetic transnationalism” that he sees in both Fishkin’s ASA address and Randolph Bourne’s 1916 multicultural transnationalism on the one hand, and a “transnational radicalism” that is most interested in forging political alliances across national borders (144-45). Fluck’s perspective links Leutze both to the Hegelian vision of history as manifestation of the Weltgeist and to the revolutionary spirit of 1848 in Germany. Fluck sees both visions as being more influential on the formation of an American exceptionalism in American art (and art history) than a supposed awakening of American nationalist sentiment in Leutze or other nineteenth-century American artists such as those of the Hudson River school that critics have often proclaimed. Instead, as Fluck argues in his conclusion, “without the help of European conventions, there could not have been any constructs of American exceptionalism in American art” (157). Coming back to his initial thoughts about transnationalism as a critical concept, Fluck argues that while aesthetic and political transnationalism merely repeat a circularity inherent in scholar’s search for distinct expressions of national sentiment, the type of transnationalism sketched out by Fluck “may pose a challenge” to both the nation-state and the lingering Hegelian legacy in the work of cultural critics “in a much more radical sense than is envisioned by current transnational studies” (158).

In his contribution, Frank Mehring examines the depiction of African, Mexican, Asian, and Native Americans in the work of German-American artist Winold Reiss. Mehring puts Reiss’s work into the contexts of Gebrauchsgrafik and compares it with the thought of other prominent thinkers about a multi-ethnic U.S., including W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and Randolph Bourne in order to establish Reiss’s “artistic ‘plea for color’” (164). In his article, Mehring describes a shift that took place after Reiss traveled to Mexico in 1920 from his initial depictions which were strongly influenced by colonial stereotypes of an ethnic Other to images that “challenge the discourse of forced assimilation and to reevaluate the imaginary construction of being an African American, a Mexican American, a Native American, or an Asian American” (188).

Uncovering a host of fascinating and sometimes amusing historical incidents and accidents, Sieglinde Lemke’s “Liberty: A Transnational Icon” examines the transformation of the Statue of Liberty as it traveled from France to the U.S. to eventually become an icon on a global stage. As Lemke shows, Miss Liberty started as a project by two Frenchmen: Bartholdi, a struggling artist with an interest in statues and monuments of gigantic proportions, and Edouard-René Lefebvre de Laboulaye, a professor specializing in American law and political history who was disillusioned by the political direction his country was taking under Napoleon III, the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871. While drawing heavily on Delacroix’s famous 1830 painting La Liberté guidant le peuple, the statue was imagined as an icon that would “radiate the light of liberty […] back to France” (195). Because of its somewhat un-enthusiastic reception by New York political leaders due to its high installment cost, the statue was Americanized in a special way: After officials were unable to come up with the money to pay for the base of the statue, Joseph Pulitzer launched a fundraising campaign in his papers directed at working-class Americans and soon convinced 120,000 people to donate an average of 83 cents each (199). Despite such investments by different people, as Lemke examines in the following pages, Miss Liberty nevertheless never held a consistent, unchanging meaning, being open both to the iconicity of a nationalist and exceptionalist U.S. and a counter-tradition of transnationalist challenges, which, in recent years, opened it as a target for “outsiders” who use its metonymic dimensions for their critiques against the U.S. For Lemke, the statue therefore functions as “a mirror that reflects both America’s aspirations and her tragic flaws” (212).

In the last chapter of section two, Laura Bieger turns from visual arts, and like Haselstein and Arce in section one, examines a narrative text, Richard Power’s 2006 novel The Echo Maker. Shifting the focus once again, Bieger’s contribution argues for belonging as a central category that we should take into account in our transnational examinations. As Bieger claims “questions of where and how one belongs have gained enormous currency” in an increasingly fluid globalized modernity, and it is particularly the affective dimension of belonging—“what belonging does” (219; emphasis in original)—that interest her. Understanding belonging as “a practice of narrativization” that “constitutes the frames in which questions and desires for a ‘known world’ can be felt, articulated, and negotiated” and building upon Vikki Bell’s work, she highlights how the affective dimension of belonging connects “be-ing” with “longing” (220). According to Bieger, this is a trend in contemporary U.S. literature that can be found in works by DeLillo, Foer, Franzen, Hustvedt, Krauss, O’Neill, Roth, and Senna. In her article, Bieger shows this trend exemplarily in Powers’s The Echo Maker, which uses the refracting echo to undermine its readers’ longing for be-longing.

Opening part three of this collection, “Transnational Pedagogies,” is Rüdiger Kunow’s article “American Studies as Mobility Studies: Some Terms and Constellations” in which he argues for mobility to “become part […] of our critical lexicon” and offers an entry into this lexicon by reading some instances of such mobility in recent fiction (245). Taking his cue from Stephen Greenblatt and John Urry, as well as from Althusser’s concept of expressive causality, Kunow examines various forms of mobility from people, via objects, non-human entities to ideas in individual sections dealing with representations of airplanes and airports, arrivals, the practice of citations, contagion, copyright, religious mission, as well as panic and risk. This incomplete list of mobilities (Kunow adds language, recognition, marketplace, and hospitality as other sites that need examination) “mark amove from area to site, […] from the vastness of the trans to a number of local, concrete, constellational sites where the inside and outside of ‘America’ and other cultural domains are intertwined” (260; emphasis in original). In this fashion, Kunow hopes to shift the discipline to a relational view of mobility that recognizes the process rather than its endpoints; an approach that pays attention “to the micrological level” which does not privilege human agency and rather “privileges the meeting over the mixing” (261).

Drawing on Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera and notions of a queer Aztlán, Marc Priewe’s essay reads Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s performance art as part of a larger trend in Chicana/o cultural production “of oscillating between resistance and co-optation, between opposition to and partial complicity with U.S.-American culture” (275-76). As Priewe argues, what New Americanists can learn from the “shift from ‘place-based’ to ‘place-less’” that he recognizes in the post-movimiento authors he discusses is “that under current conditions of globalization, resistance has to be rethought and retooled, because the terrains of power have begun to shift away from the nation as both the target and source of counter-hegemony” (277).

The final two contributions of the “transnational pedagogies” section by Reinhard Isensee and Matthias Oppermann look at the new digital media. Isensee examines social media practices and sites, particularly Myspace, YouTube, and Facebook. He reads the Web 2.0 as a site of transnational community building, identity construction or, as he puts it, an “identity performance ‘in the open’” that has replaced earlier promises of online anonymity (292). Isensee views this shift as being related to technological changes that have not only made the web accessible to more users, but have also transformed the modes of expression and “sharing” information about oneself—transforming social media sites into “cosmopolitical contact zones” in James Clifford’s sense (293). Oppermann, in contrast, is more interested in the ways in which new media offer possibilities to employ digital storytelling by students as a novel means of teaching transnationalism in a university setting. He sees new pedagogical approaches as a necessity in line with “American studies as a project of transnational cultural critique” that “requires a substantially reconfigured teaching situation in which students can actively confront the transnational and multicultural dynamics of their social realities” (296). Since the products of such collaborative digital stories will not look like classic scholarly writing, however, these new media necessitate a learning process that involves not only students but also their instructors.

The final section, “Transnational Governmentalities,” opens with an essay by John Carlos Rowe in which the author turns the focus to area studies as an approach that to a large extent has not yet influenced the transnational debate in American studies. Reviewing current debates within area studies, Rowe highlights in particular Walter Mignolo’s contributions to “border thinking,” which Rowe argues can be made productive for American studies, e.g. by deconstructing “the ‘differences’ between European imperial powers and Creole national powers […] to expose the shared history of the ‘modern/colonial world system’ worked out systematically for the first time in the Western Hemisphere” (333). The goal, as Rowe argues, is ultimately to work against “ourselves,” to become “Anti-Americanists” (334).

Macarena Gómez-Barris’s contribution, like Rowe’s, extends the volume’s mostly US-American geographical focus by looking at a Peruvian spiritual healing retreat, albeit one run by a white middle-class American woman, and with it the politics of spiritual self-healing projects in an age of neoliberal globalization. Gómez-Barris’s essay is one half theoretical exploration of the neo-colonial and racialist dimensions of new age narratives, particularly the retreat’s owner Dianne Dunn’s, and the other ethnography at a gathering to learn “ancient traditions of healing” and “to reclaim ‘the sacred feminine’” (348). Bringing together her experience at the retreat with her theoretical observations, Gómez-Barris highlights how “all versions [of the Andean ceremonies] operated within a tourist industry that mediates the practices of ritual through globalization,” and eventually for reasons of economic distribution as well as cultural hegemony expresses her skepticism “about the possibility that these practices of the spirit will translate into benefit for the indigenous communities” (352). In a final section, she focuses on the female of the two indigenous guides, Juana. The author puzzles over Juana’s almost complete silence during the week-long ceremonies, suggesting different readings from a form of embodied resistance to Dunn’s narrative to a silencing of the subaltern female as total Otherness, but—wisely—resists the urge to speak for her (and thus repeat the epistemic violence she at least implicitly accuses Dunn of). Instead she ends with a range of possible interpretations phrased as open questions.

Johannes Voelz in his contribution argues for an approach to transnationalism that considers cultural transnationalism in line with neoliberal globalization. He makes a case for a critical stance that distances itself from the history of American studies of “investigating possibilities of resistance” (357), claiming that this tradition goes back to the German idealist longing for autonomy, a longing expressed among other places in romantic nationalism as an expression of organism. In organismic transnationalism, a temporal longing merely shifts to a spatial one, but one that likewise promises to overcome “the distinction between inside and outside” (360). What such a critique of the nation and nationalism misses, however, is that it “is in danger of overlooking the extent to which it actually interacts with economic globalization” (367). Building on Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism,Voelz, in a final section, comes back to the idealist notion of autonomy, claiming that the appeal of neoliberalist offers of endless consumption is one of access or “potentialities,” such as the potentiality of movement. This is where Voelz sees a link to the transnational disavowal of the nation state and borders, asking “whether this organicism does not also follow a model of consumption based on access and potentiality.” For Voelz, American studies therefore “needs to reflect to which degree—and how—it has itself fallen under the spell of the consumption of access” (370).

Seeming at first much less transnational in the strict sense, Nancy Fraser’s contribution by bringing in a feminist perspective adds a crucial set of gender-related questions that the volume, except for Goméz-Barris’s contribution, would have otherwise missed. Benefiting from Voelz’s previous more explicit critique of transnationalism to draw out the implicit global and transnational dimension in her essay, Fraser’s contribution provides an example of the type of reframing the mode of inquiry into one that includes politico-economic terms. In what clearly constitutes a form of auto-critique by a second wave feminist, Fraser reexamines the history of feminist thought in the West. Reading feminist positions against a history of capitalism, which she divides into three stages (state-organized capitalism, the rise of neoliberalism, and the capitalist crisis of the late 2000s), Fraser examines the paradox of how feminists seem to have “won” by bringing their positions to the mainstream, but how feminist positions have in fact been coopted and compromised by neoliberal capitalism. Even worse, feminist positions “have served to legitimate a structural transformation of capitalist society that runs directly counter to feminist vision of a just society” (375). Conceptualizing feminism as directed against four main targets—economism, androcentrism, paternalistic étatism, and Westphalianism—towards which feminism had an ambivalent attitude, Fraser discusses each target in each of the three phases to show how a political project that combined the economic, the cultural, and the political was coopted into one of identity politics in which, for instance, the feminist critique of the paternal family structure could be transformed into neoliberalism’s integration of more low (or lower) wage earners (i.e. women) into the work force, thus keeping economic inequality while selling this as a victory for emancipation. In a final step, Fraser offers some suggestions for reinvigorating the feminist project in light of the crisis of capitalism to redirect the movement and counteract “the neoliberal onslaught [that has] instrumentalized our best ideas” (389).

In the final article in the collection, Günter Lenz’s (†) call for a transcultural (as opposed to a transnational) American studies works well as a final balance to Donald Pease’s initial review of the field’s past two decades. Adding a culturalist approach to Pease’s more materialist review of neoliberalism, globalization, and the Americanist field imaginary, Lenz reverts to Wolfgang Welsch’s concept of transculturalism. In his claim for a more dialogic view of American studies that builds on and learns from diaspora studies, Lenz reexamines the contributions of a wide range of thinkers in political philosophy, including Ulrich Beck, Paul Gilroy, Seyla Benhabib, Nancy Fraser, Iris Marion Young, Kwame A. Appiah, and Walter Mignolo, who have developed “concepts and strategies of dealing with cultural or social differences, cultures of difference, and transcultural studies” that can be made productive for a transcultural Americanist project (400). Drawing on their work, Lenz argues we should give up our age-old dream of finding the “right” theory of American studies and instead revel in a more dialogic, more transcultural, and more interdisciplinary approach to the discipline.

As this brief outline of the many angles and diverse perspectives the contributors take on the transnational suggests, transnational American studies as it is promoted by the current volume is indeed “a field in formation that defies efforts at stabilization,” but one that has “a shared opponent,” i.e. American exceptionalism, as Pease claims in his introduction (16-17). As many of the contributors stress, in light of the recent crises in a neoliberal, globalized world, it is a field that will make significant contributions to our understanding of America’s position in the world for years to come, at least if it does not overlook the material and economic inequalities inside North America as well as globally in favor of a purely culturalist narrative of a transnational utopia. Not despite, but because of its many, and in some cases contradictory takes and suggestions on which direction the field should take, the collection offers valuable contributions for those interested in transnational American studies, and will offer every reader food for thought and a range of points of contact with their own teaching and research.

Johannes Fehrle (Mannheim)