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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

September 14, 2011: The Transnational Turn

Of the many trends and developments that have taken place in the broad and diffuse field of AmericanStudies over the last couple decades, none has been more prominent than the turn to the transnational: to emphases of 21st century international interconnectedness and interdependence, certainly, but also and more strikingly to arguments and ideas and narratives that connect American history and culture and literature and identity to other nations and communities at more or less each and every moment of our existence. Rejecting wholesale the still present and often still prominent arguments for American exceptionalism, these transnational scholarly frames seek instead to make plain just how much America has always been part of, and often in these perspectives defined by, broader circuits and links, from the web of the burgeoning 17th century slave trade to migrant labor in the early 21st century, the fad for authentic Chinese dishware in 18th century homes to the influence of Eastern spiritualities and philosophies on the Transcendentalists, and countless more.

All of those specific connections are really interesting and compelling to me, and I find worries about what’s lost if we move away from an America-specific scholarly focus to be almost exactly opposite to what I’d say is a particularly salient contribution of such scholarship: to make plain just how much America has always included such transnational presences and influences. But in this post I want to make the case as well for a different, and admittedly much more potentially troubling or false, kind of transnational AmericanStudies: transnational comparisons, engagements with histories or voices or texts from other nations that can interestingly inform American narratives and identities.  As I say, I understand the limits and even dangers of such comparisons, which are roughly like cross-historical comparisons (ie, “The Abolitionists are just like Pro-Lifers!”; “The Clinton impeachment really echoes what happened with Andrew Johnson!”) but with probably even more need for contextual specifics and distinctions. Yet if we don’t try to argue for equivalencies, but rather simply look closely at the other history or text in question and then consider how it might speak to our American narratives, I think we allow our range of possible AmericanStudies texts and focal points to expand very helpfully.
My case in point today is the late 20th century Australian rock band Midnight Oil, and specifically the band’s best and (to my mind) most America-illuminating album, Diesel and Dust (1987). Like all of Oil’s music—and like its frontman and creative genius Peter Garrett’s whole life for that matter, as he left the band in order to run successfully for Parliament—Diesel is grounded very clearly in specific Australian issues and images, in this case the intertwined stories of the land itself and of the Aboriginal peoples who have inhabited it for many thousands of years. Since, as the album also captures on many levels, the arrival of British settlers (many of them convicts) and colonialists profoundly and often destructively impacted and has continued to impact those Aborigines, it’s easy enough to make the direct comparisons to the experiences and identities of Native Americans. But in the album’s best songs, and especially in the singular, beautiful, and haunting “The Dead Heart,” it’s the multi-level combination of content and form that is most powerful and most potentially illuminating, as Garrett writes (with great sensitivity and success) and the band sings harmonies in the first-person voices of the Aborigines themselves. I wrote in a long-ago post about the striking 19th century novel Ploughed Under, a text in which a European-American author (William Justin Harsha) created a fictional first-person Native American voice; despite its many flaws, the novel remains significant as one of the only American works (in any medium) to take that bold and empathetic step. Which is to say, we could stand to learn a good deal from the power that the narrative choice of a song like “The Dead Heart” conveys and captures.
Diesel and Midnight Oil are well worth our time on their own terms, and I’m certainly not arguing that American connections make non-American artists or works better or more important than they’d otherwise be. But if an album is great and can also add to our AmericanStudies narratives and ideas, well, listening to it is a transnational turn that everybody can get behind. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Three complex and important takes—by three very prominent scholars—on the transnational turn in AmericanStudies:

2)      “The Dead Heart”:

3)      OPEN: Any non-American works or artists with interesting AmericanStudies connections you’d highlight?

4) UPDATE: My colleague Irene pointed me to this amazing speech of Garrett's, which very much speaks to all these issues too:

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