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Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms

Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms

by Inderpal Grewal

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In Transnational America, Inderpal Grewal examines how the circulation of people, goods, social movements, and rights discourses during the 1990s created transnational subjects shaped by a global American culture. Rather than simply frame the United States as an imperialist nation-state that imposes unilateral political power in the world, Grewal analyzes how


In Transnational America, Inderpal Grewal examines how the circulation of people, goods, social movements, and rights discourses during the 1990s created transnational subjects shaped by a global American culture. Rather than simply frame the United States as an imperialist nation-state that imposes unilateral political power in the world, Grewal analyzes how the concept of “America” functions as a nationalist discourse beyond the boundaries of the United States by disseminating an ideal of democratic citizenship through consumer practices. She develops her argument by focusing on South Asians in India and the United States.

Grewal combines a postcolonial perspective with social and cultural theory to argue that contemporary notions of gender, race, class, and nationality are linked to earlier histories of colonization. Through an analysis of Mattel’s sales of Barbie dolls in India, she discusses the consumption of American products by middle-class Indian women newly empowered with financial means created by India’s market liberalization. Considering the fate of asylum-seekers, Grewal looks at how a global feminism in which female refugees are figured as human rights victims emerged from a distinctly Western perspective. She reveals in the work of three novelists who emigrated from India to the United States—Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Amitav Ghosh—a concept of Americanness linked to cosmopolitanism. In Transnational America Grewal makes a powerful, nuanced case that the United States must be understood—and studied—as a dynamic entity produced and transformed both within and far beyond its territorial boundaries.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Inderpal Grewal deftly combines postcolonial, transnational, and feminist approaches to the study of neoliberalism and consumerism in this timely and important book. The challenges it raises for area studies and disciplinary formations are sure to excite argument and debate in many different quarters.”—Akhil Gupta, author of Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India

“Inderpal Grewal produces profound insights by bringing together disparate contemporary cultural, economic, and political phenomena within a single analytic framework, that of ‘transnational America.’ The acuity, gravity, and strenuous scholarship that mark her writing reflect the conviction that such an understanding is a crucial precondition for social transformation. This book is an important intervention by one of the foremost feminist postcolonial critics in the United States academy today.”—Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, author of The Scandal of the State: Women, Law, and Citizenship in Postcolonial India

Zoe Gordon

Transnational America offers a sophisticated analysis of the complex and varied mechanisms that shore up the global economic system. Grewal’s choice of topic alone is welcome. It is refreshing to encounter such a highly developed appreciation of the critical role of discourse. Grewal handles her subject matter with subtlety and precision. . . . Grewal’s compelling thesis on the pervasive nature of America’s transnational neoliberal regime presents itself forcefully.”
Sandra Dawson

“In Transnational America, Grewal offers an insightful and provocative analysis of the complex relationship between politics, consumption, culture and power in the creation of global subjectivities. In doing so, Grewal illustrates the usefulness of postcolonial theory as a prism through which to critically explore the entanglement of geopolitics and biopolitics with the disciplinary and governmental technologies that created neoliberal subjects at the end of the twentieth century. Transnational America raises important questions for those willing to confront the classed, racialized and gendered assumptions that underpin ‘the global’ in Western politics.”

Product Details

Duke University Press
Publication date:
Next Wave: New Directions in Women's Studies
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Transnational America

Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms
By Inderpal Grewal


Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3532-0

Chapter One


Within the United States, the record number of those identifying themselves as "foreign-born" (almost 31.2 million according to the last census) has created an extremely diverse group of migrants who confound attempts to theorize what it means to be a citizen. Questions of citizenship have became vexed as new social movements have produced heterogeneous, changing, and overlapping subjects. Yet it is not possible to argue that social movements or transnational formations have been able to prevent nationalism or the formation of national subjects. While some assume that nationalism is linked to a more settled subject and that mobile subjectivity could be resistant to nationalism, it is clear that nationalism itself has proved to be protean and mobile, providing identities and affiliations to mobile as well as settled subjects, and indeed to what have come to be called "global" and "cosmopolitan" subjectivities as well as to specific and local ones. Thus while some may argue that the appearance of transnational movements, subjects, and connections has sapped the power of nationalisms, it could also beclaimed that the strength of various nationalisms is visible within the transnational arena, giving a sense of place to those who see themselves as displaced. As a consequence of these shifts, the binaries of placement and displacement, mobility and immobility could not adequately capture the ways in which ideas of place are crucial to those displaced, or in which immobility is central to creating mobile subjects.

Within transnational connectivities, in which the flows of goods, capital, labor, and knowledges revealed continuities and discontinuities with older colonial formations, the subjects that could be termed "diasporic," "hyphenated," or migrant were produced through three discourses of identity which were sometimes distinct and sometimes in combination with each other. The first was the discourse of the universal or global subject; the second, that of the national or local subject as separate and distinct and different; and the third, the hyphenated, hybrid subject straddling the first two formations. While the first two subjects were sometimes thought to be quite different from each other, they were linked as subjects of western modernity. The universal or global subject, usually believed to be stateless, outside of culture, or "international," was presumed to exist in a world without borders or even one that would be better without borders, while the national subject was believed to rely on borders around states or communities to produce an identity. The third subject, understood in relation to mobile subjects of various kinds, was sometimes seen as the hybrid that offered resistance to the nation-state or sometimes was assimilable to it. The histories of the overlap between the third kind of subject and the first two at various times and places have become important issues for scholarly debate since the hybrid subject was believed to be sometimes opposed to the other two subjects and sometimes in collusion with them. Thus within modernity's binary opposition of the universal or global as stateless and nomadic and the national subject as settled and placed within the boundaries of the nation-state, the nationalism of the former as well as its location within a nation-state became an important issue.

Given the intensifications of transnational movements of capital, goods, media, and labor, in which those who stayed in one place were just as much transformed by transnational formations as those who moved, instead of focusing on the mobility and immobility of people as the key to identity formation at the end of the twentieth century, I focus on transnational connectivities as the means through which subjects and identities were created. Connectivities enabled communication across boundaries and borders through articulations and translations of discourses that circulated within networks. Subjects were constituted as discursive nodes within un-even and heterogeneous transnational processes. Comprising histories of various kinds, of new and old forms of globalization, transnational connectivities enabled multiple nationalisms and identities to coexist as well as to shift from one to the other. They produced institutions and subjects, places and identities out of circulating discourses.

In this chapter I will focus on one important mobile subject, the cosmopolitan, and its connections with immigrant, diasporic, and national subjects. While each of these subjects was produced through various articulations of the global, the local, and the hybrid, cosmopolitan subjects emerged in relation to specific nationalisms as well as to discourses of universalism. In the United States, the relationship between South Asian, Asian-American, and American subjects produced a set of questions that remained at the heart of issues of gender, race, and nation. This chapter probes the connection of diasporic, national, hyphenated subjects located in the United States to the various conceptualizations of cosmopolitanisms that took root in the scholarship in cultural, literary, feminist, Asian-American, and postcolonial studies. I suggest that given the heterogeneity of the Asian and South Asian populations in the United States through the 1990s, it is important to examine the various forms of transnational connectivities that enabled these subjects. In these connectivities, discourses of race, gender, class, caste, and nationalisms all came together to create some divergent versions of postcolonial cosmopolitanisms.

In using the term "connectivity," my goal is to spatially and temporally disaggregate the various levels of connections that make up cosmopolitan subjects. If our understanding of transnational movements is merely spatialized, it will be impossible to examine why some subjects are formed and not others, and why some connectivities were more powerful than others. I argue in this chapter, therefore, that transnational connectivities and their histories lead us to rethink the relationships of migrants to the state, the nation, and the international. By doing so, I examine why for many migrants from India, the term "cosmopolitan" is useful to describe some versions of postcoloniality that were expressed within literary and aesthetic cultural productions.

The term "cosmopolitan" became important in the last decade within scholarly debates on the politics and identities of displacement and provoked a number of key questions: Did awareness of being part of transnational processes make one a cosmopolitan? Could all immigrants be seen as cosmopolitans? What were the connections between diasporic and immigrant subjects and what relation did these subjects have to cosmopolitanism? What were the terms generated by the institutions of the nation-state and which terms were especially connected to the transnationalization of economic, social, and cultural formations?

Instead of suggesting that only mobile subjects could be cosmopolitan, I want to suggest that cosmopolitanism depended on participation within various discourses of the global, national, and international that moved across transnational connectivities and enabled subjects to cross borders or claim to transcend them. Thus cosmopolitanism depended on the particular connectivities possible at a given time and place and the transmission of these discourses. Furthermore, while some subjects may have been constituted by these connectivities, others participated in them intermittently or in unstable ways. Consequently, rather than focus on the cosmopolitan as a stable or homogeneous subject, I want to instead address the discursive practices that produced ideas of universality and the global and that enabled the formation of uneven and unstable cosmopolitan subjects. In particular, I focus on the production through transnational connectivities of what can be called "postcolonial cosmopolitanism" and a feminist version of this as a condition for the emergence of South Asians as liberal, multicultural, or American subjects in the United States. Thus I argue that while some versions of cosmopolitanism can be understood only in terms of "western" subjects, histories of colonization and of transnational connectivities have produced postcolonial, feminist, and national as well as racialized and ethnic versions. In this formation of subjectivity, histories of trade and the movements of goods and ideas remained key, as the globalization of consumer culture enabled the production of differences of many kinds.

In the three texts that I examine in this chapter, all written by authors who reside in the United States, cosmopolitan discourses appeared in diverse versions. One author, Bharati Mukherjee, saw herself as a nationalist; another, Chitra Divakaruni, articulated a multiculturalist position; and the third, Amitav Ghosh, sought an anti-colonial cosmopolitanism. Whereas these three authors might all be called Asian-American, since they live and work in the United States, or diasporic, given that they all emigrated from India after the changing of immigration laws in 1965, it is not clear that these identities were claimed by these authors or that their works suggested any common identification at all. Bharati Mukherjee, for one, rejected the label of "Indian-American" writer in favor of an American and Bengali nationalist identity. All three authors participated in cosmopolitan networks of knowledge production while also articulating quite divergent identities and discourses of nationalism, Indian, Bengali, and American.

The three texts produced quite distinct postcolonial cosmopolitanisms which incorporated an explicit and articulated relationship to nationalisms on the basis of their own class formation and from the histories of a colonized subjectivity that was privileged yet subordinate to the West. To Ghosh, for instance, a valorization of mobility was central to the production of a liberal, colonized subject produced not in relation to one state but to a broadly conceived global or international arena of anti-colonial struggle and solidarity. In his text, In an Antique Land, Ghosh recuperated this cosmopolitan subject to reconstruct and critique Indian history and knowledges produced under British colonial conditions as well as to suggest anti-colonial cosmopolitanism as a possible solution to divisive nationalisms. The second subject, the national subject, could be seen in Jasmine, a novel by Bharati Mukherjee published in 1989, just three years before Antique Land. Mukherjee reconstituted the national subject in this novel as well as in her own practices of identification, claiming that she was an American of Bengali origin. Mukherjee's cosmopolitanism coexisted easily with her belief in the nation-state as the guarantor of rights and privileges as well as with a stable ethnic identity that was not seen as conflicted with her American identity; her work was clearly not anti-colonial or even written in response to the continued power of the West within late-twentieth-century globalizations. Consumable in the United States and India within a genre of Asian immigrant women's writing that rapidly became popular by the end of the twentieth century, and participating in the transnational production of works that depicted Asian "traditions" as unmodern, this text was able to create connectivities that articulated knowledges about women within transnational and cosmopolitan, feminist and literary circuits. The third text, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni's The Mistress of Spices (1997), also participated in this transnational circulation of knowledges of Asian women, but it did so to exoticize and romanticize the notion of "tradition," incorporating it within a belief in a liberal multicultural state in the United States as well as in India. Here the colonial constructions of the division between traditional and modern were exoticized rather than denigrated as they were in Mukherjee's text. Multiculturalism was the universal and desirable global condition.

All three texts have genealogies that connect them to an earlier phase of globalization engendered by British colonial policies in India in the nineteenth century, and this history provided the precondition for the authors' participation in the cosmopolitanism of the late twentieth century. All three writers have the background of a particular social formation, the Bengali, English-educated middle class created by British colonization in India during the nineteenth century. The British policy of providing an "English" education to Indians, as articulated in Thomas Macaulay's "Minute on Education" (1835), was initiated to produce a middle class which might function in the British government as an intermediary between the colonial state and the Indian population. Well versed in British literature and in the English language, this group emerged in Bengal in particular as a vocal entity, which became active in nationalist and anti-colonial politics and produced famous writers and poets. It came to constitute an élite through knowledge of and contact with the West. Although many other groups of Indians came to be influenced by an English education, each group had a particular history and genealogy; the Bengali middle classes were important targets of English education. However, it can be argued that the entire class of English-educated Indians came to have a colonial cosmopolitanism that inserted its members into circuits of knowledge about Britain and India that were not previously open to them. This cosmopolitanism, although quite different from the postcolonial cosmopolitanism of the 1990s, was nevertheless a condition of possibility for that later articulation. All three authors are also what Salman Rushdie called "midnight's children" in his novel of that name (1981): that is, they were born just before or after Indian independence, a generation wrestling with the legacy of colonialism and the problems of decolonization. As such, all were brought up with a British colonial education and the Indian state's attempts to decolonize it. There is a considerable literature on this group that tells us about its relation to British colonialism, its postcoloniality, its public culture, its educational systems, and, in the case of Bengal, its relation to Bengali nationalism. Much less has been written about its internationalism or its later diasporic formations, so that for my purposes what is important is how the three authors that I analyze participated in transnational connectivities that are linked to these earlier histories of colonialism but that also create new national subjects in locations outside India and Bengal.

Within postcolonial cosmopolitanisms, the publication and circulation of literary works, especially those written in English as are the three texts under discussion, were made possible by the globalization of the publishing industry and the ability of texts to circulate across national boundaries. Which texts circulated depended not only on the language in which they were written but also on histories of literacy, of publishing and trade, as well as on the kinds of narratives that enabled readers to consume texts in different ways in various locations. These connectivities of representational practices and of knowledge production, I will show, have long histories that resulted in specific formations during the 1990s. These works also participated not solely in diasporic but also in transnational networks of knowledge production that encompassed India and the United States, anti-colonial nationalisms and American nationalisms, global feminisms and postcolonial networks. Nineteenth-century English education in India created a class which was able to move into the West with a facility that was not possible for others in India not well versed in this education.


Excerpted from Transnational America by Inderpal Grewal Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Inderpal Grewal is Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Home and Harem: Nation, Gender, Empire, and the Cultures of Travel (also published by Duke University Press); coauthor of An Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World; and coeditor of Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices.

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