Promises and limits of the transnational turn in North American literary studies

It is difficult to dispute or overestimate the importance of globalization theory for reading North American literatures at this time. Nor can we ignore the susceptibility of global and hemispheric approaches to charges of neocolonialism, neoimperialism, interventionism, and economic exploitation (see ch. 1, esp. sections titled Continentalist approach and Global studies).2 The most common response to these charges has been that the proper reading of a boundary- straddling narrative is twofold, that it reconciles the near and the far, and that no single text can easily be subsumed to a single (often binary) rhetorical framing, which means not only that so-called fictions of globalization (Annesley 2006) have been opened to various readings enfolding the global as only one aspect among many, but also that various literary works have been subsumed under a global aesthetic that may not have revealed itself as such at first sight. What I want to do is examine texts that, although apparently building on the binarism of global military conflict, are indeed uncongenial to the dichotomies of nationality and postnationality often proffered in defense of a global reading of literature. Instead, they suggest triangular modes of thinking by which the laws of asymmetrical warfare complicate the one-to-one comparison of one North American national literature to another. Before developing this idea, I first want to bring into dialogue two strands of criticism that rarely overlap, despite institutional efforts and intense postnationalist avowals on both sides, mostly because practitioners in one field seldom venture into the other—most likely as a result of rigid specialization. Transnational re-mappings of American and Canadian literatures are legion, yet they seem to proceed in somewhat inexplicable ignorance of one another. While Canadian studies of literature and globalization remain largely under the radar of US-based scholars, Canadian scholars too appear largely unaware of key works in comparative and transnational American Studies that have transformed the field.3

A rich library of scholarship, both literary and, more broadly, cultural, has emerged around American Studies and Canadian Studies within an amorphous and sometimes even defiantly obscure globalization studies. The term globalization itself is shrouded in an inflationary mystique in that it "enacts the very process it inscribes, it travels easily, floating freely between different discourses, serving different interests" (Newman 2007, 3). Spivak's related term planetarity denotes, in a somewhat obfuscating vein, a "catachresis for inscribing collective responsibility" (Spivak 2003b, 102), where catachresis signifies a metaphor for which there is no adequate referent. Other scholars of globalization write of the "dim visibility" and "twilight" in which "new formations are not yet manifest" (Edwards and Gaonkar 2010, 5). To bring clarity to this theoretical model, some studies of North American culture insist on a binary between commitment to nationalism—as a socially and politically engaged paradigm whose task is to encircle and safeguard the nation, the language, and the people—on the one hand, and a fuzzy post-, trans-, or internationalism that tries to level out all the borders that defensive nationalism has erected on the other hand. If it were to favor this model, Comparative North American Studies would become an exercise in judicious, two-pronged equilibration. The task would be neither to overlook the geographical and historical specificities of local conditions, nor to succumb to the utopia of globalization and the sovereignty of liquid capital.

However, the reality of how the nation and the larger world interact is not always (or not compellingly) a binary but often something much less balanced and clear-cut. To pursue this thought, I want to argue that we should pay closer attention to global armed conflict in general and contemporary asymmetric warfare because they involve both North American nations in ways that allow them to define and locate their "worldliness." I think the ways in which the United States and Canada have participated in overseas wars over the past two decades reveal more about their distinct visions of the world than what we may glean if we registered the evolution of literary trends and critical disciplines as, largely, a characteristic of peacetime, when in fact quite the opposite is the case. US American and Canadian literatures have been influenced by international conflict to a greater extent than we may have been aware. To make sense of this influence is to redraw the map of globalized North American Studies in ways that take seriously and do justice to the inevitably violent tensions from which such synthesis grows.

But where exactly do we find ourselves in the history of the two disciplines I am enjoining here? Recent interventions in the field appear to have sounded the death knell of US exceptionalism as the enabling conceptual matrix of American Studies (see ch. 1, esp. section titled Major issues of Comparative North American Studies). This has, however, not dislodged the hold of familiar binaries. Janice Radway, in her presidential address to the American Studies Association in 1998, spoke of "intricate interdependencies" between "the near and far, the local and the distant" (Radway 1999, 10). And hers is not the only formulation espousing a dialectic arrangement. Drawing on what Sacvan Bercovitch in Reconstructing American Literary History calls "a dialogic mode of analysis" (Bercovitch 1986, ix) and on Bakhtin's description of the novelistic form as a clashing plurality of discourses, Jose Saldivar, in The Dialectics of Our America (1991), proposes a similar model for a hemispheric agenda: "This new critical cosmopolitanism neither reduces the Americas to some homogeneous Other of the West, nor does it fashionably celebrate the rich pluralism of the hemisphere. Rather, by mapping out the common situation shared by different cultures, it allows their differences to be measured against each other as well as against the (North) American grain" (Saldivar 1991, 4). Binary thinking is equally explicit in Paul Giles's agenda for an international American Studies that "would seek to locate precisely those junctures where the proximate and distant illuminatingly converge and diverge" (Giles 2011, 258).4

Similarly, in a Canadian context, Herb Wyile tries by his own admission to "steer between the Scylla of a homogenizing, parochial localism and the Charybdis of a potentially imperializing hemispheric scope" (Wyile 2010, 58). Many years earlier, even Northrop Frye in The Bush Garden maintained that "in our world the sense of a specific environment as something that provides a circumference for an imagination has to contend with a global civilization of jet planes, international hotels, and disappearing landmarks" (Frye 1971a, iii). Frye diagnoses the emergence of a country that is "post-Canadian, as it is post-American, post-British, and post everything except the world itself" (249), which seems not to contravene the binary thinking that mobilizes transnational American Studies.

Sometimes the binarism between the national and the transnational is merely implied, for example in situations where only one term is explicit and something else is posited that surpasses the familiar ground. Caroline Levander and Robert Levine, in their introduction to the collection Hemispheric American Studies (2008), insistently seek to "move beyond the U.S. nation in American studies" (Levander and Levine 2008, 7; my emphasis). Smaro Kamboureli in her introduction to the agenda-setting volume Trans.Can.Lit prescribes a form of Canadian Studies that "also contests the stateness, and boldly points beyond it, to an elsewhereness that is not yet legible" (Kamboureli 2007, x; my emphasis).

Legibility is itself a site for reflection in this debate. Paul Giles, in The Global Remapping of American Literature, highlights "not what we know but what we know that we do not know: the interplay, the Derridaean brisure, between circumference and its insufficiency" (Giles 2011, 262) and maintains that an awareness of ignorance is the shortest path to overcoming it. There is a similar sense of the salutary humiliation of not knowing in Carolyn Porter's 1994 review essay "What We Know That We Don't Know: Remapping American Literary Studies." The paradoxes of not knowing also inform Smaro Kamboureli's "negative pedagogy," which focuses attention on the kinds of knowledge that the framing of certain questions already forecloses, and recasts "the object of knowledge as nothing other than the process leading towards ignorance" (Kamboureli 2009, 25). Although it is certainly a truism that the more we learn about the world the more acutely we perceive our own ignorance, we might expect such studies to reveal what we have, in light of a new transnational opening, actually learned.5

To explain this cognitive gain, Walter Mignolo proposes what he calls border thinking or border gnosis, "based on the spatial confrontations between different concepts of history" (Mignolo 2000, 67). Extrapolating from his critique of the Mexico border and its history, we could say that border thinking along the 49th Parallel likewise "implies to think from both traditions and, at the same time, from neither of them" (Mignolo 2000, 67). To stage this contradictory gesture, I turn to triangular formations that involve both the United States and Canada, yet recede from both. We cannot seem to entirely resist "America" as a foundational assumption. Nor will the field of Comparative North American Studies, though likely to forge a more heterogeneous narrative, succeed in dropping "America" entirely as a structural source of coherence, even if it intended to (see also ch. 1). What this chapter wants to provide instead is a productive geographical nonsequitur through a comparison involving not only Canada as a foil to US culture but also a third region of conflict and instability, which could pry loose the idea of Americanness through the kind of vertical hyphenization we find in Kushner's title: Homebody/Kabul—a delimiter that implies (as does the title of Canadian author Jane Urquhart's Sanctuary Line [2010], the second text I will discuss in this chapter) an ominous separation that takes us out of the comfort zone of a monolithic US-Canadian reading of transnationality.

My remarks so far concern the binary-driven challenges posed to the longevity of US exceptionalism by transnational and hemispheric approaches. As for how American Studies and Canadian Studies intersect on transnational terrain, there is still much to be done. Rachel Adams's Continental Divides (2009) is a landmark, as is Paul Giles's discussion of "virtual Canadas" in The Global Remapping of American Literature (2011). Yet a cogent and consistent North American vision of transnational literature remains somewhat mired in the "protoplasmic idiom of reorientation" (Giles 2011, 252) into which these scholars have inscribed it. Complicating this sense that the field is struggling to find a sure footing is the fact that transnational literary studies in the United States and Canada have not been entirely coeval. On the US side, the global imagination dates as far back as William Spengemann's definition of "American" as "everything having to do with civilization in the New World since the European discovery" (Spengemann 1978, 135). In Canada, however, since some parts of the country were for a long time "constructed as insular, primitive, effectively lost in time" (Wyile 2011, 26), transnational views of Canadian writing gained currency quite a while later. Although the influential Canadian critic A. J. M. Smith already wrote, in 1943, of cosmopolitan versus native poetry in his introduction to The Book of Canadian Poetry (and even earlier in a preface to another book, though rejected in its original form), his remarks were quickly dismissed as promoting colonialism under the guise of universal humanism (see also ch. 14).

Remarkable about the evolution of transnational Canadian Studies is indeed the strong resistance of many writers and critics to the project of reading Canada in a global context.6 This resistance goes back to George Grant's Lament for a Nation, which argues that the movement toward a "world of continental empires" does not necessarily usher in a "peaceful world order," but possibly a formation even "more ferocious than the era of nationalisms" (Grant 2005 [1965], 343). More recently, Stephen Henighan, in the accurately titled When Words Deny the World, rallies in defense of the nation against what he sees as the homogenizing impoverishment of planetary culture. Whether as "America's boring appendage" or a country "afloat in the ether of globalization" (Henighan 2002, 105), how Canada sees itself when it looks beyond the nation does not sit well with the national project of identifying and safeguarding Canadianness. Frank Davey in Post-National Arguments (1993) laments the bifurcation of Canadian writing between individual interests and a deterritori- alized scene of global interaction, with the nation slipping between the cracks. The loss of sovereign Canada in the aftermath of the 1989 North American Free Trade Agreement signals to him the erosion of participatory politics on the national level, as well as the lack of an interregional consciousness of Canadian geographical space. "Between the local and the global, where one might expect to find constructions of region, province, and nation, one finds instead voyages, air flights, and international hotels" (Davey 1993, 258-59).

In 1955, Hugh MacLennan hoped that by the year 2005 "all traces of provincialism" would have vanished from Canadian culture, and Canadian cultural products would no longer compete "in a minor league" (MacLennan 1955, 106-7). If we are to believe the editors of the seminal volume Globalizing American Studies (2010), however, the task for global studies is precisely to "provincialize" (Edwards and Gaonkar 2010, 25)—that is, to see in a local and specific (but not unsophisticated) light—everything that smacks of centrality and overbearing jurisdiction, including the "major league" aspirations MacLennan describes. MacLennan prescribes emancipation from narrowly self-centered mentalities, yet how does a struggle for global centrality make sense when centrality itself is being called into question? And how does a national culture so eagerly engaged in self-definition open up to a postnational literary imagination? I think the defensive stance of many responses to a globalized CanLit— pinioned as they are between assimilation into a US-dominant discourse at one end and complete dissolution among shapeless global entities at the other—does more to hem in the agenda of transnational Canadian Studies than anything we might find in Canadian literature itself.7 Transnational Canadian Studies does not abandon the idea of Canadianness or national specificity as much as it emphasizes the Canadian sense of the world conveyed by works of literature in Canada,8 while showing how national space has been and continues to be productively redefined.

An obvious context to begin this redefinition is hemispheric American studies, which, however, has been reluctant to significantly incorporate Canada (see also ch. 1, section titled Continentalist approach, hemispheric studies). While Winfried Siemerling and Sarah Phillips Casteel, both based at Canadian institutions, contributed to the remediation of this absence with their volume Canada and Its Americas: Transnational Navigations (2010), Gustavo Perez Firmat's landmark collection Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? (1990) would have benefited from a discussion of English Canada. Gretchen Murphy's study Hemispheric Imaginings: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire (2005) likewise may have been enriched by a Canadian perspective, since the question of whether Canada was included in the scope of the Monroe Doctrine, by which the United States asserted dominance and responsibility over the Western Hemisphere, was highly contested and shaped policy in the region for decades. Interestingly, some comparative studies of American and Canadian literatures have avoided reification of their subject by aspiring to a broader assessment of global writing and culture. Eleanor Ty, for example, calls for a strategic alliance between Asian American and Asian Canadian cultural narratives by citing their "unfastened" identities in the context of what she calls globality (Ty 2010, x). For better or for worse, the hemispheric inquiry itself in some places appears to have run its course. R. J. Ellis has turned instead to "interhemispheric issues, their routes and their roots—considerations which can help prevent too much focus on long-established and arguably well- rehearsed exchanges" (Ellis 2007, 170), exchanges that to his mind include

US-Canada relations. Seen in this light, North American Studies do not seem as groundbreaking as these even more ambitious projects.9 In ways that have also shaped my own approach in this chapter, Comparative North American Studies tend to rely on national literary traditions to make statements that go beyond the two nations, seeking to justify the significance of a binary comparative approach by shedding light on a third element, be it identity concepts or, more broadly, the underpinnings of comparative methodologies.

I seek a thematic entry into the field through the representation of war partly because it imbues binaries and beyondness with a specific urgency that ties the comparative method to the politically consequential realities of military violence. By focusing on war, I want to literalize what I earlier called "trajectories of conflict"10 and their potential to historicize and redraw national borders. I can only address a small sample of texts here that stage such re-bordering. Beyond my central exhibits in this chapter, we may look to Guillermo Verdecchia and Marcus Youssef's 1997 play A Line in the Sand, which conveys an unsparing view of Canadian peacekeeping through the story of a Palestinian teenager befriended and subsequently killed by Canadian soldiers in a Qatari desert. How would we grasp the status of Canada as a border nation if we focused more attention on how faraway Baghdad in the midst of Operation Desert Storm introduces in Canadian national and domestic relations a renewed "sense of an enemy" (Marlatt 1996, 19)? How does Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero (2007) redefine the American desert as an ambiguous, deterritorialized borderland by turning to the Gulf Wars of the 1990s and 2003? For gamblers "inhaling piped-in oxygen" in Nevada casinos, "the war is already a video game, taking place on a fictional planet" (Ondaatje 2007, 53; see also Banita 2012b). How does the muddled mediation of such distant wars reorder the nearer geographies of North America?

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