The Transnational as Civil Obedience

by guest author Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera

Hybrid cultural analyses are abundant, relatively straightforward, and often very interesting, but the turn toward transnational inquiry—inaugurated to a degree by Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture—appeared revolutionary in the 1990s (endnote 1). However, the pluralization of critical models into multi- or cross-national questions has forged only diminutive challenges to extant power structures. Many have noted that colonial metaphors remain embedded in the adjective (or noun) “American” when it is hyphenated. Walter Mignolo maintains that “to embrace Americanity is to dwell in the erasures of colonity” (48) while Ramón Saldívar critiques its set of “internally colonized horizons” (xiii).

Indeed, the transnational is obedient to some of the principal myths of this age: that people believe in or identify (in a direct, hybrid, multi, worlded, temporalized, or dialectical sense) with national material. Rather than transcending the slippery folklores of national idolatry and its cultures, the transnational reengages them in ways that do not intend to annul their relevance. In this way, the myth that “American” stories, narratives, and feelings inform people’s lives and cultures in a hybrid or direct way is a (if not the) fundamental presumption in the transnational turn, and it is also a fundamental weakness.

The exceptionalisms that “American” unpacks (even when hyphenated) are reinforced, albeit with new nuance, by transnationalizing the base of inquiry. Donald Pease observes that the approach represents “a change in mentality but not in institutions or structures,” one that leaves “power intact” (16). In “Next Times: The Futures of American Studies Today,” John Carlos Rowe notes how many emerging scholars still configure criticism “primarily in terms of US national knowledge” (260). Constrained by these grammars of inquiry, nonconforming voices are situated within the transnational exigencies; their critique is restricted to objecting to such orders of community and identity instead of entirely displacing them.

Lingering Twilight of Idols:

I think the nation is here to stay; it’s not going to vanish for a long time as an analytic unit, and certainly not as an organizing unit.

-Wai Chee Dimock (quoted in Williams 2016)

For some, the transnational offers an ontological map of the hybrid, fluid spaces between cultural/national groups. Rather than inquiring if these discrete groups exist in the ways imagined, the transnational fluidity presumes they do in an a priori sense, and uses the blending of these vessels as markers of meaningful culture, history, community, and individual and communitive performances. The transnational assigns a person, community, or piece of material culture a categorization with two or more of these pre-apportioned (allegedly existent and supposedly) disconnected groups, makes associative observations, and uses the inferences to form ostensibly new and stable modes of knowledge.

The transnational does not question the self-evidence of the a priori mythos but rather remobilizes these by insisting that people engage with them in traditional and hybrid ways. Wai Chee Dimock’s explanation could be understood as representative of the direction of the field, when she invites “us to see the nation not as a closed chapter but as one endlessly in flux, endlessly in relation” (2). Dimock skillfully argues that “this fluid landscape injects a corresponding fluidity into self-evident concepts such as ‘The United States’ and indeed ‘American Literature’ itself, making each less a foregone conclusion as a heuristic occasion” (2), but instead of engaging this uncertainty to tease out the potential non-transnational (or any meaning system external to an “America” qualifier), her analyses return to the traditional “center and peripheries” containers, thus maintaining a critical vocabulary that explicitly avoids ontologies external to transnational exigencies. The terms of the comparison remain tied to the supposedly discrete groups, thereby rehashing the traditional understanding of “interconnectedness [as] a key feature of American literature” (3).

Whether the transnational imagines A + B = C or A/B, B/A, BA, AB, A-B, B-A, ABC, ACB, BCA, or another arrangement, A and B are not variables in the equation, and C cannot be articulated outside the confines of A and B. A fundamental flaw is that studies in social psychology and cultural neurology refute that discrete cultural groups (A and B) or their hybrid blends (C), so embraced by the transnational, exist in people’s lives in these ways (Glatzeder 242; Blaser 1; Wibbelsman 48). The transnational lacks extra-disciplinary affirmations of its constituent components, but despite these theoretical miscues, the transnational turn has an increasingly axiomatic grip on scholarship.

As the transnational America(n) map maintains that “A” is always “America(n),” the approach enforces unjust ways of understanding individuals and communities, and their cultures. Besides the colonial and Eurocentric weight which that term bears, prescribing its valence to all whom are exposed to “American” cultural material (or any such set of myths, even when hybridized) underscores notions that are not self-evident but actually somewhat irrational (endnote 2). Such a map is not unlike a Rudyard Kipling utopia: the colonial tie to “America(n)” is prescribed as extant and universal, if not philanthropic; it is acceptable and even considered accurate in American Studies to link all comers to the umbrella term. These are the myths that hold up (that is, “support,” “retard,” and “rob” meaning from) American Studies as a field.

It’s an old form of thinking to assert that what surrounds a person (cultural geographies of residence and life experiences; familial and social backgrounds, etc.) fully informs their being. But that is precisely what transnational lines of inquiry require. Such exigencies lay the groundwork to continue ad infinitum, “endlessly” as per Dimock’s description, a form of cultural inquiry that excludes any recognition or institutionalization of other webs of being, which have little or nothing to do with “America(n)” ties, especially those which arise in digital spaces. This benefits traditional power players, like the transnational state and its neoliberal and capitalist contents, which have already introduced measures to appropriate the channels of understanding that the hybrid turn has opened. Indeed, the transnational is attractive because it creates a subject that is useful to both the US national myth base and its neoliberal interests.

In this sense, the transnational has its eyes backward, looking at pre-hypercommunicative peoples and cultures, and applying that traditional comparative model to contemporary affairs. As digital humanities (DH) theory is yet in its infancy, it makes sense that scholarship has developed in this way. DH is not yet a requisite component across graduate training models, and much of the existing American Studies scholarship does not locate DH outcomes on cultural being as a central emphasis.

If DH cultural philosophies become as central to graduate training as, say, knowledge of material in multiple languages (in the context of the neoliberalization of universities, this seems somewhat unlikely), one would hope that scholars throughout the humanities could develop new sensibilities about the fabric of cultures, fraternities, identities, and social performances in digital frames, which would offer some attuned nuance that balances the traditional transnational models. These new knowledges would be (hopefully) more sensitive to the shifting role of physical spaces, cultures, one’s surroundings, national canons and myths, in human activity; the new perspectives may involve inquiry that transcends physical spaces and the transnational confines, involving verbal and nonverbal language, visual communication, and other social performances and their cognate outcomes on relationships. These are emerging and have emerged in e-spaces. Very little of this material on cultural being, however, corresponds with much precision to transnational frames. Digital platforms, as Leonardo Flores deftly notes, have the potential to work “against the machinery of an unjust state and save lives” (2017, my translation). (Endnote 3)

Civil obedience in American Studies maps structures that reiterate the “America(n)” base in hybrid forms. Civil disobedient geographies would annul the assertions and platforms that the adjective (or noun) in question presumes are self-evident. To put it more precisely: it would recognize that “America(n)” (and other such terms, and their subhyphenations) are not merely archaic but that people have not ever mechanically realized their cultural lives in concert with (trans)national myths in the ways prescribed; that the system relies on models of logic that mirror the exceptionalist narratives they strive to circumvent.

Civil disobedience would not only question the self-evidence of transnational material but also express disregard if not contempt for the prescriptions and presumptions which the term “[subhyphenated-] American” emits about the peoples, cultures, rights, and regions in question. Those who do engage in such civil disobedience—like Oscar Zeta Acosta, Ana Belén Montes, Pedro Albizu Campos, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, and citizens of the Republic of Lakotah, among others—are often punished by physical violence. Garry Garrison of the Bureau of Indian Affairs maintains that articulating extra-national sentiments in these ways “doesn’t mean anything” and doing so will result in people “getting arrested and being put in jail” (quoted in Toensing). Meanwhile, the transnational fodder, which maintains the “American” base in all cases for all peoples, is often rewarded for symbolic obedience: that is, the ongoing promotion that “America(n)” (and subhyphenations thereof) and all the cognate significances conflated down into it, is a suitable (if not the most appropriate) way to categorize the peoples, places, communities, and cultures in question.


1) Randolph Bourne’s 1916 text “Trans-National America” articulates cross-border sensibilities that examine the meeting points of simultaneous histories and cultures long before the Transnational Turn in American Studies. Some of his remarks reverberate over a century later, like his questioning of “American” as an external and colonial prescription onto people whom may or may not experience the emotions that others imagine for them: “We act as if we wanted Americanization to take place only on our own terms, and not by the consent of the governed” (86).

2) Despite these shortcomings, American Studies as a field strives to effect a bounded cultural interiority as an organizing motif, one that hinges on the presumptions embedded in transnational myths. Eva Cherniavsky’s Neocitizenship addresses what she terms “the afterlives of citizenship” through a look in on “the changing present [that] operates through a set of analytical categories wrought in the very contexts whose disappearance we now seek to comprehend” (4). Cherniavsky’s deft critique argues that many scholarly and political institutions may be understood as devolved mechanisms dedicated to the “art of running simulations” that attempt to posit a fictional unity that would make “many nonintersecting planes” (160) appear integrated.

3) Ramón Saldívar’s groundbreaking work maintains that this circumstance requires an “outernationalist approach” (x) that transcends the existent grammars of inquiry. For outernationalist examples, see chapter 6 (“The Outernational Origins of Chicano/a Literature”) in Saldívar’s book Trans-Americanity and chapter 9 (“Imaging New Communities”) of Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera’s After American Studies. 

Work Cited:

Bhabha, Homi. 1994. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Blaser, Mario. 2014. “The political ontology of doing difference… and sameness.” Fieldsights–Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology Online 13.

Bourne, Randolph. 1916. “Trans-National America” The Atlantic Monthly 118: 86–97.

Cherniavsky, Eva. 2017. Neocitizenship: Political Culture After Democracy. New York: New York University.

Dimock, Wai-Chee. 2017. “Introduction” in American Literature in the World – An Anthology from Anne Bradstreet to Octavia Butler. New York: Columbia.

Flores, Leonardo. 2017. “Literatura electrónica y desobediencia civil: La herramienta transfronteriza para inmigrantes” 80grados 10 Sept:

Glatzeder, Britt. 2011. “Two Modes of Thinking: Evidence from Cross-Cultural Psychology.” Culture and Neural Frames of Cognition and Communication, edited by Shihui Han and Ernst Poppel. New York: Springer. 233-48.

Herlihy-Mera, Jeffrey. 2018. After American Studies: Rethinking the Legacies of Transnational Exceptionalism. New York: Routledge.

Mignolo, Walter. 2005. The Idea of Latin America. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Pease, Donald E. 2011. “Introduction” in Reframing the Transnational Turn in American Studies. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College.

Rowe, John Carlos. 2013. “Next Times: The Futures of American Studies   Today.” American Literary History 25.1: 257-270.

Saldívar, Ramón. 2011. Trans-Americanity: Subaltern Modernities, Global Coloniality, and the Cultures of Greater Mexico. Durham: Duke.

Toensing, Gale Courey. 2008. “Withdrawal from US treaties enjoys little support from tribal leaders.” Indian Country Today. 4 January.

Williams, Jeffrey J. 2016.  “American Literature in the World: An Interview with Wai Chee Dimock.” boundary 2 43.2: 163-178.

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera is associate professor and distinguished researcher at the Universidad de Puerto Rico. His books include After American Studies: Rethinking the Legacies of Transnational Exceptionalism (2018), Paris in American Literatures (2013) and Hemingway’s Expatriate Nationalism (2011).

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