North American Literature and Global Studies: Transnationalism at War
American playwright Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, first performed in New York City in December 2001, yet written long before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, presciently dramatizes the geopolitical ties linking the United Kingdom, the United States, and Afghanistan. The play drew much controversy, which distracted from Kushner's subtle themes of globalism, communication, language, and the vagaries of translation. The prefatory "Notes" to the published text include instructions for how the titular character—the traveling British housewife known only as the Homebody—should refer to a location she is familiar with (and which could be anywhere in London, Kabul, or elsewhere in the world), yet refuses to disclose to her audience. "She doesn't mention its name," Kushner writes, "instead, where the name would fall in the sentence, she makes a wide, sweeping gesture in the air with her right hand, from left to right, almost as if to say: 'I know the name but I will not tell you.' It is the same gesture every time" (T. Kushner 2004, 5). In the course of the play this site becomes increasingly unspecific: "The home (She makes the gesture) away from home" (ibid., 27). The Homebody's feigned disorientation speaks not to a desire to conceal any specific locality, but rather to how the play deter- ritorializes familiar expectations about narratives of global conflict.
I would argue that the Homebody's gestures also resonate with a tendency toward ambiguity in some critical discussions of globalization, which often refer to a presence as an absence, to a place as a part, to the specific as nebulous, to the certain as doubtful, to the stable as movable, and to everything as mutually constitutive and intertwined, in a "wide, sweeping gesture" reminiscent of the Homebody's geographical vagueness. Certainly not all scholarship in the ever-expanding field of globalization studies evinces this feature. Yet the highest honor bestowed on the circuits of the global is quite often their unspeakability, their mysterious and mythic resonance; as one critic cynically puts it, "A Zeus or a Satan comes to mind" (O'Hara 2003, 19). As Kushner demonstrates, however, the challenge of globalization is very specific and may be best decoded by looking at how it aligns domestic and foreign spheres in the experience of war. This chapter then wants to circumscribe the question about the global dimensions of US and Canadian literatures to a scrutiny of how they imagine wars on proxy territories in which both countries have become entangled. In the filaments of these triangular narratives, I suggest, we can trace the fraught terrain of global North American Studies, not as a field that imposes a choice between the national and the transnational, or a reconciliation of both, but as an opportunity to compare two distinct visions of the global, visions that have been forged by conflicts in an international arena.1
I also aim to use Comparative North American Studies—and more specifically US and Canadian literature—as a springboard not only for a unified study of North American literary production but also for an exploration of what it actually means to compare (juxtapose, balance, or relate) and how such comparison helps to reorient the field and its methodologies (see ch. 1, section titled Comparative Literature, Comparative methodology). What exactly do we contrast when we speak about American and Canadian literatures? In putting them side by side, do we genuinely respond to the specificity of these literatures, rather than simply applying generic comparative methods to the literary output of North America? How do these literatures map the world and each other? And what pedagogies for global studies do we derive from measuring them on the same scale?