Volume 3, Issue 1, 2011
Cosmopolitan Fantasies, Aesthetics, and Bodily Value: W. E. B. Du Bois's Dark Princess and the Trans/Gendering of Kautilya
The recent turn to a transnational American literary cosmopolitanism, coupled with efforts to move beyond what Paul Gilroy calls “ethnic absolutes,” have generated a resurgence of interest in W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1928 romance novel, Dark Princess. In addition, the last two decades have witnessed tentative movements to bridge the gap between American ethnic studies and postcolonial studies. This essay begins with the premise that there are compelling reasons to reread Dark Princess in light of twenty-first century debates about postcolonialism and cosmopolitanism, but it also points to some of the hazards of reading the novel outside of the social and aesthetic politics of the decades between the two world wars. The main part of this paper is an attempt to address the gendered and sexualized body politics of Du Bois’s aesthetic practices through an analysis of his essay “Criteria of Negro Art” and his novel Dark Princess. Allusions in the novel to the fourth-century BCE Indian political philosopher Kautilya and his treatise Arthasâstra suggests that Du Bois’s naming of his princess, Kautilya, was neither accidental nor insignificant. This trans/gendering of Kautilya speaks to a gender and sexual politics inherent to German theories of the aesthetic, to which Du Bois remained wedded. Scholarly fantasies of cosmopolitanism tend to ignore the extent to which such fantasies depend upon ideologies of family and the reproductive bodies of women.
Time, Space, and National Belonging in The Namesake: Redrawing South Asian American Citizenship in the Shadow of 9/11
The terms of national belonging after 9/11 for South Asian Americans have taken shape through a vague and depoliticized discourse around ethnic identity, one in which the clichés of multiculturalism and melting-pot nationalism stand in for the specific socioeconomic and historical conditions that helped form the South Asian diaspora in the US. This paper explores the ways in which Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake and its cinematic adaptation by filmmaker Mira Nair challenge the erasure of South Asian American citizenship following 9/11. Recounting the journey of a young Bengali graduate student and his wife migrating to the US in the late 1960s, each text speaks back to the erasure of South Asian American citizenship through the materialization of time in space: while Lahiri foregrounds the state itself in producing the rhythms through which immigrants are assimilated into the nation, Nair creates a narrative world in which filmic space materializes many, and often competing, histories, unifying multiple temporalities and histories through the representations of space. I argue that the cinematic adaptation of The Namesake generates a new spatiotemporal state of affairs, one in which the iconography of 9/11 both challenges post-9/11 racial logics and destabilizes the singular, progressive, and institutionalized temporality through which Lahiri writes South Asian American immigrants back into nation.
Beyond K's Specter: Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life, Comfort Women Testimonies, and Asian American Transnational Aesthetics
This essay argues that Chang-rae Lee’s novel A Gesture Life exemplifies both the conceptual gains and the potential pitfalls of current Asian American literature’s transnationalism. The first section of the essay discusses the interlocking of psychoanalytic theory and political philosophy, specifically Freud’s uncanny and Arendt’s banality of evil, in Lee’s portrait of the psychology of criminal repression. The second section juxtaposes Lee’s novel against real-life comfort women’s survivor testimonies to probe broader questions of historical memory, politicized historiography, and the modes of circulation and authority in contemporary international comfort women discourse. The final section, which recontextualizes Lee’s novel within current debates in Asian and Asian American Studies, argues against a paradigm of alterity vis-à-vis the comfort women and proposes instead a transnational aesthetic premised on the human.
The most popular American writer the year the Civil War began was not, perhaps, American. A nation on the verge of splitting asunder enthusiastically consumed stories of its national identity being consolidated in Africa in a book by Paul Belloni du Chaillu, a young man of ambiguous origins and spectacular credibility issues. His 1861 bestseller Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa about his pith-helmeted exploits marked him as an intrepid scientist or armchair fantasist or, possibly, both. Regardless, his rise from anonymity to transatlantic sensation in a moment of acute national crisis suggests that something important was created and perceived in the shifting identitarian signs of his person and his work. Du Chaillu was not simply a European adventurer or American journalist or African homesteader, all of which he became, for capital of all sorts moved through him in multinational and continental forms. As a result, Du Chaillu deserves a space of prominence in any configuration of a nineteenth-century transatlantic canon. He also merits attention as the author of the last great antebellum American narrative. The fact that the qualifier “American” in that statement is utterly debatable is entirely, given 1861, the point.
Regular Revolutions: Feminist Travels in Julia Alvarez's How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies
This essay examines two novels by Dominican American author Julia Alvarez, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies. By undertaking a transnational feminist reading practice, the author explicates the novels’ critique of the political constructions of the Latin American Third World as “deprived” and “depraved.” Alvarez’s work traces how these representations have been constitutive of a North American liberal feminist imaginary, limiting its conception of the forms of feminist agency available to women in the Americas as well as the liberal social rebellion and “development” of the woman of color in the United States. Ultimately, the two novels uncover the imperial history between the United States and the Dominican Republic that (neo)liberal linkages otherwise obscure.
A Transnational Temperance Discourse? William Wells Brown, Creole Civilization, and Temperate Manners
In the nineteenth century, temperance movements provided the occasion for a transnational discourse. These conversations possessed an intensity throughout Britain and the United States. In America temperance often became associated with strongly nationalistic Euro-American forms of identity and internal purity. Nonetheless, African American reformers and abolitionists bound themselves to temperance ideals in forming civil societies that would heal persons and provide communal modes of democratic freedom in the aftermath and recovery from chattel slavery. This paper explores the possibilities of temperance as a transnational discourse by considering its meaning in the life and work of the African American author and activist, William Wells Brown. Brown expressed a “creole civilization” that employed the stylistics of the trickster as a unique mode of restraint that revealed a peculiar power of passivity that was able to claim efficacy over one’s life and community. This meaning of temperance diverges from and dovetails with certain European meanings of civilization that were being forged in the nineteenth century. Brown was in conversation with temperance reformers in America, Britain, and Europe. He imagined the possible meaning of temperance in African, Egyptian, Christian, and Islamic civilizations. He speculated upon the possibility of temperance as a defining characteristic of a transnational civilization and culture that would provide spaces for the expression of democratic freedom. Brown reimagined temperance as a form of corporeal restraint that offered a direct and sacred relation to the land, space, people that appeared in between an ethnic nationalist ethos and the European imperialistic civilization.
The following set of essays consists of revised versions of contributions read at, or prepared for, a roundtable discussion at the 2009 convention of the American Studies Association in Washington, DC. The short contributions by the individual authors reflect on the boundaries, the perspectives, and the transdisciplinary dynamics of the field imaginary of transnational American Studies and the specific political role of new notions of citizenship and the parameters of a new cosmopolitanism beyond the limits of the Western tradition.
Redefinitions of Citizenship and Revisions of Cosmopolitanism—Transnational Perspectives: A Response and a Proposal
It is both a pleasure and a privilege to offer this response to the essays in the symposium “Redefinitions of Citizenship and Revisions of Cosmopolitanism—Transnational Perspectives” by five of the leading scholars in the field. Indeed, without the transformative earlier work by these five scholars, the field of American Studies would look very different than it does today. Each of them has pioneered in bringing transnational perspectives on our field of study to the fore, and for that we owe them a debt of gratitude. These short pieces are typical of their key contributions to the field: they are eloquent and insightful, and they give credit to the work on which they build and which they extend.