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National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives

National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives

by Donald E. Pease

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National narratives create imaginary relations within imagined communities called national peoples. But in the American narrative, alongside the nexus of belonging established for the national community, the national narrative has represented other peoples (women, blacks, "foreigners", the homeless) from whom the property of nationness has been removed altogether and


National narratives create imaginary relations within imagined communities called national peoples. But in the American narrative, alongside the nexus of belonging established for the national community, the national narrative has represented other peoples (women, blacks, "foreigners", the homeless) from whom the property of nationness has been removed altogether and upon whose differences from them the national people depended for the construction of their norms. Dismantling this opposition has become the task of post-national (Post-Americanist) narratives, bent on changing the assumptions that found the "national identity."
This volume, originally published as a special issue of bounrary 2, focuses on the process of assembling and dismantling the American national narrative(s), sketching its inception and demolition. The contributors examine various cultural, political, and historical sources--colonial literature, mass movements, epidemics of disease, mass spectacle, transnational corporations, super-weapons, popular magazines, literary texts--out of which this narrative was constructed, and propose different understandings of nationality and identity following in its wake.

Contributors. Jonathan Arac, Lauren Berlant, Robert J. Corber, Elizabeth Freeman, Kathryn V. Lingberg, Jack Matthews, Alan Nadel, Patrick O'Donnell, Daniel O'Hara, Donald E. Pease, Ross Posnock, John Carlos Rowe, Rob Wilson

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National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives

By Donald E. Pease

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7775-7


National Identities, Postmodern Artifacts, and Postnational Narratives

Donald E. Pease

In my introduction to the first volume on New Americanists, I constructed an account of the phenomenon by way of an argument with Frederick Crews, who, in a critical review of New Americanists, identified himself as an established representative of the field of American Studies and denied New Americanists official recognition. I understood the precondition for a successful argument with Crews to be the conceptualization of an alternative disciplinary field, whose practitioners were constructed out of assumptions wholly different from Crews's. For the sake of this argument, I constructed a purely fictive theoretical scenario, assigning to Crews's field of American Studies a crisis in what I called its "field-Imaginary" (wherein abided the "field's fundamental syntax–its tacit assumptions, convictions, primal words, and the charged relations binding them together"), which had already resulted in a dramatic transformation in the self-understanding of American Studies; that is, a complete overhauling of its ruling assumptions, defining consensus, certified practitioners, as well as their interpellation, the complex process of ideological linkage, whereby they were constituted as New Americanists.

I intended by way of this scenario a model of American Studies able to displace Crews as the field's official representative. But, as some critics of the volume and several members of the boundary 2 collective have observed, I also thereby confirmed one of Crews's central assumptions, namely, that the field of American Studies was monolithic, unidimensional, and monocultural. In proposing a national meta-narrative able to discriminate those who could be included along its chain of substitutions from those who could not, I had reconstructed Crews after the image of the series of figures–African Americanists, feminist Americanists, Chicano Americanists, Asian Americanists, gay Americanists–he had excluded from his field of American Studies and thereby had implied that all of these "minority figures" had been constructed out of commensurable assumptions.

In constructing a field whose practitioners were identified with the assumptions of a meta-narrative, I had simply replaced one grand narrative of American Studies with another. In an unintended reprise of his conceptual model, I had reconstructed Crews's American Studies as if it were a minority discourse in need of the new field of American Studies to become a recognizable object of knowledge. Following his banishment from the newly nationalized narrative, I had redescribed Crews as a social materiality unrepresentable within the new field and had left unexamined the process whereby that field was delimited from its environment. Although I had asserted the New Americanists' ability to transform literary masterworks into social forces, I nevertheless associated Crews with a social context wholly separable from the new academic field. In so doing, I had reaffirmed one of Crews's fundamental tenets: the necessity of a national meta-narrative as the paradigmatic dimension necessary for a recognizably New Americanist subject/object of knowledge.

This oversight followed from the failure to explain this crucial passage from the first introduction:

In denying the separation constitutive of their field, however, New Americanists have changed the field-Imaginary of American Studies. The political unconscious of the primal scene of their New Historicist readings embodies both the repressed relationship between the literary and the political and the disenfranchised groups previously unrepresentable in this relationship. And as conduits for the return of figures and materials repressed through the denial of the relationship of the field to the public world, New Americanists occupy a double relation. For as liaisons between cultural and public realms, they are at once within the field yet external to it. (31)

An adequate understanding of the New Americanists' status as liaisons between academic disciplines and U.S. publics would require an account of their emergence from and continued interconnection with different emancipatory social movements.

The essays I have gathered for the second volume on New Americanists initiate such an account. They configure individually and collectively postnational narratives as the surfaces on which New Americanists have constructed their identities. The term postnational indicates New Americanists' multiple interpellations: their different identifications with the disciplinary apparatuses in the new American Studies, as well as with social movements comprised of the "disenfranchised groups" already cited.

These social movements emerged with the collective recognition of the marked disequilibrium in the allocation of social empowerments and resources in the national narrative. The national narrative produced national identities by way of a social symbolic order that systematically separated an abstract, disembodied subject from resistant materialities, such as race, class, and gender. This universal body authorizes the discrimination of figures who can be integrated within the national symbolic order and matters (of race, gender, class) external to it. Because the coherence of the national narrative depends upon the integrity of its universal subject, that figure is transformed into a tacit assumption and descends into the social unconscious. Instead of accepting this assumption as the basis for their social identities, the socially disenfranchised figures within emancipatory political movements understand that the universality of the national identity depends on their externality for its integrity. In the wake of this recognition, these movement figures offered themselves up not for integration within the national narrative but, by way of what I am calling postnational narratives, actively contested its social arrangements.

This contestation between social demands developed within political movements and a nation-state's power to misrecognize them did not originate with New Americanists; rather, it originated from within the discourse of the Enlightenment. The term national narrative itself refers to the process whereby the discourse of the Enlightenment produced particulars–nation-states–out of universal norms: Reason, Equality, Social Justice, Liberty. Acting as agents of the state, these national narratives constructed imaginary relations to actual sociopolitical conditions to effect imagined communities called national peoples. The image repertoire productive of the U.S. national community can be ascertained through a recitation of the key terms in the national meta-narrative commonly understood to be descriptive of that community. Those images interconnect an exceptional national subject (American Adam) with a representative national scene (Virgin Land) and an exemplary national motive (errand into the wilderness). The composite result of the interaction of these images was the mythological entity– Nature's Nation–whose citizens believed, by way of the supreme fiction called natural law, that the ruling assumptions of their national compact (Liberty, Equality, Social Justice) could be understood as indistinguishable from the sovereign power creative of nature.

In its representation of the transition from a proto-national to a national community, the national narrative proposed a scene of emancipation, wherein a captive people liberated themselves from a tyrannical power. That scene resulted in an utterly equal (because universally abstract and disembodied) subject position devoid of any particularity whatsoever. But alongside the nexus of belongingness established for the national community, the national narrative represented other peoples (women, blacks, "foreigners," the homeless) from whom the property of nationness had been removed altogether and upon whose differences from them the national people depended for the construction of the universality of their norms. When understood from within the context of the construction of an imagined national community, the negative class, race, and gender categories of these subject peoples were not a historical aberration but a structural necessity for the construction of a national narrative whose coherence depended upon the internal opposition between Nature's Nation and peoples understood to be constructed of a "different nature."

Whereas the national narrative resulted in the assimilation of differences to the self-sameness of ruling assumptions, whose universality was predicated upon their inapplicability for peoples construed as of "another Nature," the postnational narratives dismantle this opposition. The agents for this dismantling were the national subject peoples, figures of race, class, and gender, who had been previously interpellated within the hegemonic category of disqualified social agency. As motives for changing existing social models, the figures of race, class, and gender moved from the status of objects of social regulation within the national narrative into performative powers, postnational forces able to change that narrative's assumptions.

Strictly speaking, these postnational forces for social change are neither wholly intrinsic to the previously subjugated social categories of race, class, and gender nor reducible to a capability external to them. Idealized stereotypes of race and gender were* often reaction formations designed to combat negative stereotypes but which in fact corroborated the same impulse to universalize social norms. Postnational forces understand every social category as the ongoing antagonism between internalized models and external forces. As such, they are productive of an internal divide (the contamination of the excluded/external), whereby the structures underwriting the stability of the national narrative can undergo transformations. At this divide, the figures who had been reproduced as subordinated objects and denied identification with the meta-national person could engage in ongoing struggles over the cultural models upon which cultural agents and their actions could be based. As I have indicated, this internal division of fully integrated and external matters is a structural feature of the social symbolic system. The national narrative sustains its coherence by transforming internal divisions into the symbolic demand that the subjects conscripted within its narrativity misrecognize the figures it excludes as simulacra of themselves. But when these figures surge up at these internal divides, as unintegrated externalities, they expose national identity as an artifact rather than a tacit assumption, a purely contingent social construction rather than a meta-social universal.

As a universally believed assumption, the meta-social subject underwriting the national symbolic order subsisted within the social unconscious. There, it guaranteed the narrativity, the chain of substitutions underwriting the social symbolic order, by demanding that national citizens constitute themselves out of its assumptions wholly and without residue. At the internal divide, where every given is exposed as an antagonism between the power to integrate into selfsameness and different matters, this deeply held assumption was drawn up to the narrative surface by forces that refused to be beholden any longer. Consequently, the paradigmatic dimension of the social unconscious guaranteeing the hermeneutic depth of the national narrative was flattened into postnational surfaces. On these surfaces, the energies that previously had bound the national identities, which could never wholly embody them, to the national symbolic order were re-cathected at the divide, thereby activating intranational relations between previously subjected and national peoples. At this intranational boundary, the national subjects, who had previously derived their sense of identity from incomplete identification with the meta-social subject of the national narrative, could become dislocated from this structure and could rediscover national identity itself as a permanent instability, an endless antagonism between figures integrated within ever changing social imaginaries and singularities forever external to them. As a result, the nationalist assumptions that had been understood as preconditions for the constitution of a coherent national identity became postnational, provisional strategies, subject to the ongoing revisions of movement politics.

This revision in the genealogy of national identity rediscovers its source in social movements rather than national narratives and entails a different understanding of the complex process whereby the New Americanists within social movements became figures within a new field of American Studies. In the introduction to the first volume, I described New Historicism as the disciplinary agency that returns questions of class, race, and gender to the field of American Studies:

When a New Historicist makes explicit the relationship between an emancipatory struggle taking place outside the academy and an argument she is conducting within the field, the relationship between instruction in the discipline's practices and participation in emancipatory political movements can no longer be described as imaginary. Such realized relations undermine the separation of the public world from the cultural sphere and join, as Jonathan Arac puts it "the nexus of classroom, discipline, and profession to such political areas as those of gender, race, and class as well as nation." (19)

But in joining the "political areas" of race and class to nation, the new discipline of American Studies also, I must now add, constructed a reproducible pedagogy grounded in the construction of a disciplinary doublet: the dominative/subjugative subject. The subjects of knowledge constructed out of disciplinary norms never completely work through the double bind interconnecting domination and subjection. When construed as an objectification of the disciplinary norms in the field's positive unconscious, a New Americanist subject can misrecognize his/her determination by those norms as the power to subjugate others to its determinations and can further misrecognize the power to discipline another as his/her own freedom from external determination. The rhetorical figure enabling a New Americanist's misrecognition of his/her determination as absolute freedom from social determinants is canonicity.

The subtitle of the earlier volume, "Revisionist Interventions into the Canon," proposed an understanding of social change as if it simply entailed a transformation of a disciplinary field, American Studies, whose coherence had been previously guaranteed by the canonical works Americanists had integrated. Referring to an aspect of the work unrepresentable either as a formal quality or a historical force, canonicity names the irreducibility of a literary work to either intrinsic aesthetic features or extrinsic social forces. As the presence/absence of what can neither be internalized nor stipulated as external, canonicity is productive of literary historicity. Literary history refers to a complex temporal process wherein the absolute singularity of pure canonicity takes place within a discourse that compels its reiterability as generic conventions and literary periods. Literary history sutures canonicity to the generic conventions productive of heterogeneous literary discourses, and it stages, at another level of analytic density, subreption of those rules as the instantiation of different literary periods.

Understood from within the social (as contrasted with the disciplinary) logic of American Studies, canonicity enables a New Americanist to misrecognize the norms constitutive of field identity as the canonical value of a literary work. This misrecognition indirectly confirms the universal value of a New Americanist identity. Canonicity binds the New Americanist to the norms informing disciplinary practices by designating the historicity of canonical literary works as the only appropriate sociohistorical site for those practices. When so defined, however, canonicity also projects a New Americanist who is identified with the assumptions of a national meta-narrative rather than, as I had previously argued, one who is disassociated. If literary canonicity seals the space distinguishing Americanist literary historicity from extrinsic contamination, how could the national narrative become postnational?


Excerpted from National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives by Donald E. Pease. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Donald E. Pease is Avalon Professor of the Humanities and Professor of English at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context and editor of a number of books including National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives and, with Amy Kaplan, Cultures of United States Imperialism, both published by Duke University Press.

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