Space and Concepts of American Culture: From Crèvecoeur to the Contemporary Asian American Cultural Discourse
|Geographic and demographic grandeur correlate when we think about America in relation to space. As teachers and students of American culture are certainly familiar with, space in terms of breadth and scope permeates the work of major American writers such as James F. Cooper, Herman Melville, Willa Cather, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac. A sense of space is present in the panoramic landscape paintings of 19th century artists such as Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt as well as in the abstract expressionist works of Jackson Pollock in the twentieth century. Visible for every tourist coming to Chicago and New York, skyscrapers represent towering images of space central to an understanding of American architecture. |
And yet space in critical attempts to define American cultural identity, I maintain, turns into a trope that cannot simply be equated with the idea of scope. Although the geographical vastness of the territory of the United States looms large behind models of American culture, space as a trope gets dissected, both compartmentalized and freed of boundaries, as it expresses changing ideas of cultural unity and diversity. This essay traces models of American culture which draw upon spatial metaphors for defining American cultural identity from the early republic to the contemporary cultural discourse. While I aim at a broad historical sweep, I do not aspire toward rendering a complete picture of cultural models of America. Rather I intend to communicate the continuity and changes which spatial metaphors, used as a trope, undergo in myth-making endeavours to construct America. Such approach should not be misread as an attempt to revitalize myths about America already strongly contested-such as the frontier and the melting pot-nor is it designed to add another myth about America to the tradition. Instead it intends to expose and analyze the spatial tropes that have lured behind those practices attempting to define and renegotiate American cultural identity throughout centuries. Within the essay at hand my focus will be on models of American culture as developed by Crèvecoeur, Turner, Kallen, Bourne and Lott.
Taking a diachronic perspective, one encounters selective constructs of space representative of a homogenizing melting-pot in early concepts of American cultural identity. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, though, critics begin to focus on the notion of separate spatial units thus signaling a solid heterogeneity of cultures within the United States. Cultures in this context are defined through ethnic differences primarily and perceived as interactive yet separate spaces. As one moves into the contemporary period, ideas about space as border areas become prevalent. Such concepts describe space as contact zones and suggest that the local and the global overlap in contemporary culture(s) which are in transit through continuous exchange and interaction.
Especially in recent discourse on culture, assumptions of fixed cultural identities give way to fluid conceptions putting emphasis on development and change. Stuart Hall points out,
[c]ultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous 'play' of history, culture and power. (225)
In retrospect then, it is not surprising that American culture has continuously been redefined and renegotiated. To look for a historical starting point as concerns attempts to define America, one should turn to J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782) who poses the question of national identity at the birth of the Republic.
De Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer
Using the mask of the American farmer James, Crèvecoeur develops a narrative style that shifts between idyllic and realistic renderings of rural life in colonial America. What emerges is a double-voiced mode in which Crèvecoeur, as a Frenchman and temporary American, develops a bicultural and ambiguous vision of America. Not only does he juxtapose the Old World and the New World, he also presents utopian and real images of America in a counterpoint technique. Whereas he creates a picture of American exceptionalism, especially through the voice of James the Farmer and the creation of Andrew as representative man, he renders it ambivalent through explicit depictions of intercultural and interracial tensions, too. Hence shifting visions characterize the narrative progression of Crèvecoeur's style.
Due to his bicultural focus, we may classify his views on the American colonies as an insider's as well as an outsider's perspective. Despite such double vision, Crèveceour is primarily seen as an early representative of a typically American synthesis of liberalism and anticapitalism, individualism and communitarianism that we also find in Jefferson's and the Southern Agrarians' outlook (cf. Kelleter 164). In the words of Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner, he represents "the first and possibly the most successful promulgator of the myth of the American yeoman" (973).
Critics have neglected, though, that a complex and at times ambivalent use of spatial tropes makes his vision of America an ambiguous one. Crèvecoeur sees in "the vast virgin land of America" a territory which "could supply all the wants of the Europeans who come here" (Abel, 252). Referring to the geographical vastness of America, he clearly reads space in terms of scope. But at the same time he politicizes his notion of space since the new territory is defined as a space of power in which a redistribution goods and political status is made possible. He thus defines America as a place in which liberal and tolerant forms of British government and Christian religion prevail, a definition which views America as a freed and transplanted Europe. It moreover reveals that Europeans are the primary addressee of Crèvecoeur's writings. Especially in those parts in which Crèvecoeur relishes on ideas of innocence, arcadia and progress, traces of a promotion tract for European emigration stand forth. While the reader may expect that the author locates his utopian outlook in the vastness of the territory, since it marks such a decisive difference to Europe, Crèvecoeur's vision takes a surprising turn. It is not the vast territory but a rather limited colonized middle region which embodies the ideals of a new political order.
Why does Crèvecoeur choose the colonies of the middle region to construct and define America? In particular, he resorts to a rural setting, as Leo Marx has pointed out, because it provides a middle ground between urban Europe and the yet to be tamed wilderness in the west.1 Marx's interpretation shows that the spatial unit selected represents a platform for negotiation between the strange and the familiar. To construct a space both new and familiar and thus appealing as well as comforting to Europeans ready to emigrate Crèvecoeur emphasizes the vastness of the new territory at first, yet delineates a selected spatial unit already colonized and cultivated to define what it means to be American. Crèvecoeur's text translates the notion that only a trope referring to a closed concept of space provides the basis for defining American cultural identity in times of ongoing colonial struggles and changes. Such closure of space somewhat paradoxically allows him to translate the idea of scope anew; this time in terms of ethnic heterogeneity. In Crèvecoeur's rendering, a greater ethnic and cultural heterogeneity gain significance for setting the American colonies apart from ethnically more homogeneous European nations. James the Farmer describes the new race as "a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes" (41). Frank Kelleter links such conception with the idea of "transnational European identities or values" (163, translation mine). Helmbrecht Breinig and Susanne Opfermann point out that neither a new state nor a new nation is envisioned here (66). And yet, despite such traces of transnational thinking practices of inclusion and exclusion shape the Farmer's selection of the middle ground. The selected space leans on the Old World and appears primarily as a transplanted Europe freed of its dividing boundaries, as the most famous quotation from Letters of an American Farmer illustrates:
What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. (43)
Although Crèvecoeur intends to create a difference between Europe and America through the mythic creation of a new race of men, the Farmer's voice cannot hide that Europe, as propelling force, looms large behind such new conception. We certainly need to be aware that we encounter James' rather limited frame of reference in such context. Moreover, ideologically, we face in James' account the ideal of the middle ground cherished by the promoters of the New World, a social construct which tends to neglect the 'true' ethnic heterogeneity of America. In particular, the exclusion of Native Americans and African Americans exposes a rather limited perspective on America and Americans as a new race. The middle ground thus turns into a spatial metaphor infused with ethnic reductionism. Leaving out both the terrain of Native Americans in the West and the visibly more multicultural urban spaces in the East, the narrator in the above quotation confronts us with a remodelled yet still Eurocentric pattern of ethnic and cultural identity.
Nevertheless Crèvecoeur's vision exposes that America as political and ethnic space is larger than the concept of a utopian middle ground could contain. We need to be aware, though, that the practices of inclusion and exclusion present in James' outlook also reveal an ambivalence on Crèvecoeur`s part as concerns the New World. As soon as the James the Farmer leaves his farm, the vastness of space returns, this time, though, its original utopian promise turns into dystopia, as intercultural and interracial tensions characterize the other America that James encounters on his travels. Outside a domesticated milieu, ethnic and cultural conflicts as well as hierarchies become visible that cannot be as easily controlled as the differences in the cultivated colonies. Hence we learn about the absence of peace and harmony due to tribal warfare on Nantucket even before the arrival of white settlers. The narrator tells us:
So prevailing is the disposition of man to quarrel, and shed blood; so prone is he to divisions and parties; that even the ancient natives of this little spot were separated into two communities, inveterably waging war against each other, like the more powerful tribes of the continent. (104)
Only a "partition line" separating the tribes spatially, as the narrator points out, prevented them from mutual extinction (106). Moreover unreconciled relations between the settlers and Native Americans lead to the extermination of the latter. Darrel Abel is clearly right in stating that "Crèvecour neither makes America out to be a utopia, nor expects it to become one" (252). But even if Crèvecoeur does not limit his view of America to the Farmer's reductive view of a selected and idealized space, both have in common that they see the new American race of the middle ground jeopardized by non-European ethnic and racial outsiders. When the narrator of Letters From an American Farmer reflects upon having to give up his farm after the outbreak of war, it is already the thought of joining Native American tribal structures which sets free profound fear of being alienated from both the European and the new American race.
Another instance that shatters James' utopian vision of America is his encounter with a dying African American slave on a Southern plantation. As the narrative reveals, the slave is caged and publicly exposed in a cage suspended from the branches of a tree. The narrator recollects his memories in consternation: "I perceived a negro, suspended in the cage, and left there to expire! [...] his arms had been attacked in several places, and his body seemed covered with a multitude of wounds"(172). Symbolically, the slave's public punishment displays the practices of hierarchy and exclusion characterizing the slave existence within the plantation system (160-61). Different from its utopian counterpart in the middle region, the social system fosters social differences and keeps the races separate. Metaphorically, 'multitude' signals pain and conflict and no longer the harmonious and homogenizing potential the Farmer addressed in his depiction of the cultural diversity of the middle ground.
Hence, we need to distinguish between the constructed and idealized Eurocentric middle ground which works well as a promotion tract and marginalized spaces occupied by Native Americans and African Americans which have been neglected not only by the visionary outlook of James the Farmer but also by the overall reception of Crèvecoeur's text. Clearly ambiguity reigns when Crevecoeur juxtaposes the vastness of space with a closure of space in his vision of America. Such uncertainty corresponds to his admittedly difficult and challenging aspiration to define an American cultural identity against the background of colonial power struggles still in full swing.
Frederick Jackson Turner's "The Significance of the Frontier in American History"
While Letters From an American Farmer approaches a vision of American culture through a synthesis of fiction and documentary, the scholarly study of American character and nationality does not begin until the late 19th century. Frequently Henry Adams is mentioned as the first professional historian to tackle the investigation of the national character as a legitimate subject (cf. Luedtke 8-12). No historical concept, though, has had a greater impact on the popular as well as scholarly imagination of what it means to be an American than the one sounded by Frederick Jackson Turner in the presentation of his paper on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, July 1893. As it is well-known, Turner's thesis counteracts the so-called germ theory that maintains, as C. Merton Babcock emphasizes, that "civilized man took the seeds of culture with him into the West" (29). Instead, Turner resorts to the thesis that American identity has emerged from the frontier experience and the process of taming the frontier in particular.
In Turner's rendering the frontier turns into a trope that signifies an 'in-between space' between cultures. Reconstructing early American colonial history, Turner defines the frontier as a front line which embodies the clash of culture and wilderness in particular. As front line the frontier does not represent a static concept. Rather, defined as a contact zone between Native Americans and European immigrants, it symbolizes a flexible and changing spatial dimension along whose lines transformation occurs. Metaphorically, Turner describes results of the frontier encounter as an alteration process in which European immigrants adopt behaviour and customs of the Native Americans and become transformed accordingly.
In the beginning, as Turner stresses, "[t]he wilderness masters the colonist" (32). Yet, in Turner's understanding of the process of colonization, the colonizers succeed in changing the wilderness gradually. As a result of the interaction of different cultural value systems and codes of behaviour, a new American identity arises. As he puts it: "[...] the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines" (32). Such independence is clearly associated with a mixing of the races. Thus, Turner maintains that "[i]n the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics" (37).
Turner clearly signifies on Crèvecoeur's text, when he introduces another spatial trope to define American identity as a 'composite nationality'. Similar to Crèvecoeur's 'middle ground, Turner resorts to the notion of the middle region as the ideal place for defining America. More than the former Turner emphasizes difference and juxtaposition, though:
The middle region was less English than the other sections. It had a wide mixture of nationalities, a varied society, the mixed town and country system of local government, a varied economic life, many religious sects. In short it was the region mediating between New England and the South, and the East and the West. It represented that composite nationality which the contemporary United States exhibits, that juxtaposition of non-English groups, occupying a valley or little settlement, and presenting reflections of the map of Europe in their variety. (39)
While the frontier represents a space of transformation, the middle ground turns into a space of assertion. What we encounter in Turner's text is a shift from a conception of open space to the notion of spatial closure. Whereas Crèvecoeur juxtaposes both Turner displays a clear movement from one to the other. The closure occurs precisely because Turner feels at ease reinscribing a clear definition of American cultural identity into a colonized middle region. What happens is that the process of Americanization and colonization is seen as completed. The problem that arises is that the future development of American culture cannot be addressed by either the frontier, because it no longer functions, or the middle ground which, as an original meeting-place, has become a closed space in particular through its associations with 'valleys'. The middle ground is described as a mediating, yet closed location where various regional and cultural influences interact. Turner's references to the four geographical directions may signal the cultural contributions of Asians and Asian Americans in the West as well as those of Mexicans in the West and Southwest, not to mention the African American heritage in the South. And yet Turner's model of a composite nationality in the middle ground does not explicitly address such particulars. If it mentions aspects the nation's composition it remains within the boundaries of a European heritage as most powerful colonizing force. Neither does it address potential shifts within such composite nationality. Overall, Turner selects European cultural sources which fuse in his understanding of what it means to become "Americanized." Native American cultural aspects may be at the very roots of an early identity formation, yet they turn almost invisible, as the process of Americanization continues.
The effects of the spatial trope of the middle ground are reminiscent of James's vision of a homogenizing middle ground in Letters From an American Farmer. But there is a greater, though hardly specified, emphasis on difference in Turner's rendering when cultural heterogeneity becomes subsumed under the idea of a composite nationality. That ethnic and cultural heterogeneity merges into a unifying process, when Turner resorts to the middle region as selected space for an American core identity, illustrates an overall preference for coherence in 19th century intellectual thought in America. Forcing the idea of national and cultural unity, thinkers like Ralph W. Emerson rely on synthesis primarily. Appointing the American Scholar as spokesman for a culturally unified America, Emerson can appeal provocatively: "We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe" (217). In Turner's definition of American identity, too, cultural unity is envisioned. Moreover, a strong anti Anglo-Saxon stance becomes discernible in particular. His model not only defines America as distinct, coherent and different from Europe, it particularly describes it as non-English. Thus it anticipates non-nativist tendencies in the modernist period.
Horace Kallen, Randolph Bourne and the Modernist Discourse
A strong fear that coherent patterns of American culture are subverted by outside cultural forces permeates the thinking of conservative critics in the beginning of the 20th century. According to them, immigration turns into a major challenge for a united America. As we approach World War I and also within the period in between the World Wars, nativists point with alarm at immigrants ghettoed in cities like New York and Chicago as a threat to American nationality and culture. They push for political and legal solutions accordingly. Playing upon the angst about alien ideologies such as socialism and communism, nativists succeed in severely reducing further immigration through legislation in the early 1920s. Among the historians, nativist-minded scholars are eager on presenting America as immune to threatening ethnic, cultural and class impulses emerging from the cities' ghettoes, thus propagating visions of a still intact national and cultural unity. In order to counteract foreign influences, they put greater emphasis on models of agrarian idealism as developed by Crèvecoeur and Jefferson and on the idea of the frontier (Turner).
Different from the optimistic vision of unity fostered by nativist-minded historians, cultural critics like Van Wyck Brooks criticize the lack of national consensus and also express their fear that American national culture would run the risk of dissolving under the pressure of immigrant influence, as the following statement reveals: "All manner of living things are drifting in it, phosphorescent, gaily colored, gathered into knots and clotted masses, gelatinous, flimsy, tangled" (191). Lamenting the absence of national and cultural unity, Brooks expresses his view of America as a space fluid within and porous along the boundaries, hence on the edge of losing its contours. Obviously, his statement also reveals a desire for cultural stability as expressed through the middle ground metaphors of earlier examples.
Due to increasing immigration, albeit, new and different conceptions of culture begin to emerge that draw upon metaphors which define America as a territory incorporating multiple spaces which represent ethnic and cultural differences transcending a nationalist stance. Although most of them still cling to Emerson's progressive orientation in time, they depart from closed homogenizing concepts of space considerably. Both Horace Kallen's and Randolph Bourne's writings should be regarded as antinativist responses since they cherish the heterogeneity and vitality they detect in the ethnic diversity within the United States.2 In the face of numbing Anglo-Saxon uniformity they develop models of culture which transcend existing theories of the melting pot. Their thinking, moreover, needs to be seen within the context of an Americanist avant-garde that "advanced racial and linguistic diversity as a wedge in its campaign against English and New Englandish domination [...]," as Michael North explains (135).3
Both Kallen and Bourne dismiss the notion of a solidifying middle ground. Instead they emphasize migration and immigration to explain the development of American culture. Both focus on multiplicity within the United States and dissect America into smaller units of ethnic and cultural difference. America as a spatial construct becomes departmentalized and diversified within in Kallen's concept and liberated from national boundaries in Bourne's rendering of America. What combines both views is a dynamic perspective of American culture allowing for greater diversity and change.
As a response to petty Anglo-Saxon chauvinism toward new waves of immigrants in the early modernist period, Kallen develops a vision of American society based upon the preservation of differences. In his essay "Democracy versus the Melting Pot: A Study of American Nationality" (1915) he criticizes the homogenizing aspirations of white Anglo-Saxon thinkers such as Edward Alsworth Ross at the time. In the latter's call for "respect for ancestors" and "pride of race" he detects traces of conservatism violating not only the idea of the natural rights of men but the basic principles of American democracy as well (68). Kallen resorts to a musical metaphor to promote a rethinking of earlier models of the melting pot, when he uses the trope of the orchestra to emphasize the necessity to let differences become more audible and visible within the cultural set-up of the United States. Drawing upon such musical metaphor, he is capable of embracing contraries and differences within his cultural conception of the United States, as the following quotation illustrates:
As in an orchestra, every type of instrument has its specific timbre and tonality, founded in its substance and form; as every type has its appropriate theme and melody in the whole symphony, so in society each ethnic group is the natural instrument, its spirit and culture are its theme and melody and the harmony and dissonances and discords of them all make the symphony of civilization, with this difference: a musical symphony is written before it is played; in the symphony of civilization the playing is the writing, so that there is nothing so fixed and inevitable about its progressions as in music, so that within the limits set by nature they may vary at will, and the range and variety of the harmonies may become wider and richer and more beautiful (92).
Kallen resorts to the trope of the orchestra to illustrate the multicultural potential of American society. An orchestra consists of various spatially separated but united-in-action subgroups of musicians usually divided according to types of instruments such as string and percussion. Such division transferred to a cultural level signifies a side-by-side existence of differences. Separate cultural entities coexist but also interact. Besides the utopian element that penetrates Kallen's vision of an ideally progressing American society, he does not neglect the tensions emerging from the coexistence of various cultural and ethnic groups. The discords and dissonances mentioned in the above quotation are part of the dynamics characterizing a society that allows its ethnic groups cultural autonomy as concerns language and modes of cultural and artistic expression. In direct opposition to nativist attitudes, immigration and the processes of cultural transformation evolving from it represent the propelling force in Kallen's vision of American culture (87-88). Putting emphasis on change and progression, he radically counteracts the conservative stance of the Anglo-Saxon American critic calling for a fixed homogeneous culture based upon Anglo-Saxon values and outlook only.
Mobility turns into a central factor shaping Kallen's explanation of American culture, its origins and transformations. At the very roots of America he locates the westward expansion emerging from the urge of the descendants of the British colonists to trek across the continent. More willing to explore and move than say the French and Germans, they establish "tiny self-conscious nuclei of population" in their wake (70). Thus, according to Kallen, they manage to set ethnic and cultural standards for the rest of the country (70). While he locates the causes for an Anglo-Saxon cultural dominance in the will to expand spatially, he also relates the changes of such dominant pattern to aspects of another mobile force moving in from the outside. To Kallen, it is the steadily increasing impact of various ethnic immigrant groups which transforms the cultural set-up of the United States radically in the 19th and 20th century. He creates a cultural pluralism paradigm that envisions American society as a federation culturally enriched by the distinct contribution of various ethnic groups.4 Alfred Hornung points out that this model should be seen as an alternative to European nation states and thus contradicts the critical stance of Walter Benn Michaels who locates within the idea of nation and nationality a matrix uniting nativist and antinativist viewpoints (cf. Hornung 1999, 548-49).5
Kallen introduces a pattern of small units of space which represent distinct ethnic communities. He refers to the Jewish quarter in New York to illustrate autonomy and self-consciousness in culture. And he lists various cultural institutions to make his point: "It has its sectaries, its literature, its theatre, its Yiddish and its Hebrew, its Talmudical colleges and its Hebrew schools [...]" (87). In addition, he locates similar aspirations in the everyday life of the Creoles in the South, the French Canadians in the North, the Germans, the Irish, and the Pennsylvania Germans (83). What emerges is a mosaic of ethnically and culturally different communities. In Kallen's concept of American culture, they keep their individuality thus adding up to a "federation or commonwealth of nationalities" (88).6 America as a nation comprises a multiplicity of nationalities and ethnicities. While Kallen emphasizes mobility he does not relate such concept to a change in cultural identity. Rather he refers to a double process of assimilation and dissimilation as concerns the "Americanization" of the immigrant. What changes is not the identity itself but the process of its formation. Assimilation, in Kallen's understanding, signifies economic adjustment. Once the immigrant is economically assimilated he or she will begin to return to the ethnic cultural heritage to focus on difference. As Kallen puts it,"ethnic and national differences change in status from disadvantage to distinctions (88)," as soon as economic integration has been achieved.
Kallen's cultural concept is closely aligned with ideas of separate cultural spaces within America. Though distinct they remain linked to each other through the English language, mass media, popular cultural expression and democratic ideals. Those connections do not lead up to the emergence of a nation as closed entity. Kallen discards the idea of a new "American Race" (81), too. Instead he resorts to the trope of the orchestra to emphasize the necessity of heterogeneity for the social realization of democratic ideals. After all, as he puts it, "America is a word: as an historic fact, a democratic ideal of life, it is not realized at all" (79).
Similarly Randolph Bourne calls for a redefinition and correction of the melting pot ideology which he associates with the Anglo-Saxon cultural discourse. Not only does Bourne maintain that the melting pot failed due to the resistance of immigrants to assimilate in the way expected, he, moreover, regards it as an ideological construct based upon cultural and ethnic integration which prevents American society from unfolding its true democratic potential. Bourne, instead, envisions a concept of America which goes beyond its existing geographical boundaries. His America is not a national but a transnational construct. He redefines what the process of Americanization should stand for and appeals to the young generation of intellectuals at the time as follows:
It is not to fear the failure of democracy. It is rather to urge us to an investigation of what Americanism may rightly mean. It is to ask ourselves whether our ideal has been broad or narrow-whether perhaps the time has not come to assert a higher ideal than the 'melting-pot.' (Bourne 94)
Bourne uses the two terms "broad" and "narrow" to define ways of thinking. Both are essentially spatial and allow him to place America into a dialectical pattern of transnationality versus nationality. For Bourne the ideal of the melting pot is too closely aligned to the concept of a single nation. Instead he depicts America as a political territory in transit and open for future cultural exchange.
Intellectual and geographical boundaries converge in Bourne's thinking. The true American, to him, is cosmopolitan. And his link to American geography and politics may only be temporary. For Bourne the migratory alien is capable of adopting the American democratic spirit just like the citizen and the immigrant are. No spatial boundaries are drawn to define what it means to become or be American. Ideally the migrant becomes a messenger for spreading a democratic spirit which transcends petty nationalism within and outside the United States.
Nevertheless the United States occupy a central space within in Bourne's transnational vision. As opposed to a Europe in turmoil during World War I, Bourne regards America, framed by the Atlantic as well as the Pacific, as the ideal geopolitical setting for the development of transnational thinking. The absence of a true national culture bears advantages, too, because it permits, as Bourne puts it, a "federation of cultures" (100). And we hear echoes of Kallen's orchestra, when the former divides America into separate colonies preserving cultural autonomy within. To each colony he attributes a centralized cultural nucleus: "Each national colony in this country seems to retain its foreign press, its vernacular literature, its schools, its intellectual and patriotic leaders [...] (98). What emerges is an America of nations.
Negotiating the national and the transnational, Bourne creates a view of cultural identity in process. The dynamics are propelled by his method to juxtapose and superimpose closed and open concepts of space. Whereas the colonies stand for rather homogeneous ethnic groups within a clearly framed communal context, migration within and beyond the boundaries of America signals a continuing process of "heterogenizing" America and of "democratizing" the world by means of intercultural exchange. A model of ethnic and cultural coexistence emerges which goes beyond the idea of the nation state.
Contemporary Paradigms: The Example of the Asian American Cultural Discourse
The period after World War II brings along a steadily growing awareness of cultural and ethnic differences within the public discourses of the United States. The Civil Rights movement turns into a propelling force for establishing questions of racial and ethnic injustice as central political issues. Artistically as well as politically, minority groups voice their claims in the turbulent decade of the 1960s. Especially due to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act major shifts occur in the ethnic landscape of the United States. We witness an increasing diversity in terms of communities along the lines of religion, ethnicity, and class. The new complexities and dynamics emerging in the context of modern transportation, new means of electronic communication, transnational labour, and new (at times "anti-American") nationalisms have transformed not only the notion of cultural origin and new home but also the idea of America as a multicultural society.
While Kallen and Bourne can definitely be seen as important predecessors to contemporary views of American culture, the latter are primarily inspired by postcolonial theories of space and identity. Whereas both Kallen and Bourne open up the concept of space within and beyond the territory of the United States, they are less concerned with identity formation within border areas primarily regarded as contact zones. Contemporary models of culture, yet, focus precisely on notions of place as an imaginary construct in between cultures to give voice to experiences of cultural identities in transit. Accordingly, they more consciously reflect and foreground the ideological power behind spatial tropes and critically reflect their myth-making potential. Embedding the meaning of places in dialogical contexts, they also counteract notions of American exceptionalism.
Place is no longer conceived as a fixed and closed entity. Rather it reflects the geopolitical understanding of space as developed by critics such as Doreen Massey. She develops a sense of space which counteracts traditional ideas of place as having essential identities and linking place with community automatically (Massey 1994). In Massey's view, multiple, open and global identities characterize a place in contemporary times. Not surprisingly then, she emphasizes the constructive nature of place, as her following explanation reveals:
The uniqueness of a place, or a locality, in other words is constructed out of particular interactions and mutual articulations of social relations, social processes, experiences and understandings, in a situation of co-presence, but where a large portion of those relations, experiences and understandings are actually constructed on a far larger scale than that what to define for that moment the place itself, whether that be street, a region or even a continent. (Massey 1993, 66)
Massey reminds us that places are ideologically loaded embodying meaning beyond their geographical presence in the here-and-now. In her endeavour to redefine space she shares Henri Lefebvre's emphasis on the political and ideological nature of space.7 But what is more significant for contemporary perspectives on space is her link between place and time. Places are bound to change.8 And, as imaginary constructs, places gain their unique character from "particular interactions", be they personal, political, intercultural. Such construction of place and the shifting cultural identities associated with it are strongly influenced by multiple forms of migration today, be they tourist, politically or economically motivated.
Contemporary cultural critics like Gloria Anzaldúa and Juanita Tamaya Lott have put an emphasis on shifting cultural identities related to changes of place. Their views of American culture largely derive from postcolonial thoughts about the interrelation of local and global experience on the one hand, and poststructuralists views of identity formation as social constructs and performative acts on the other. Homi K. Bhabhas' theories about the inseparability of the local and the global and "the emergence of the interstices" (Bhabha 1994, 3) as well as Judith Butler's notion of the performativity of identities within a given social framework (cf. Butler 1990, 146-48, Butler 1993, 10-23, Bhabha 1997, 125) lure behind the border discourses addressed by contemporary critics of Asian American Studies such Lott, Chu, Ho, and Lee.
In the writings of these critics the notion of space is related to forms of transculturations in general and to the cultural context of the United States in particular.9 Their emphasis on the movement through space puts American culture into a fairly new context, though. America may actually be just one place among many, though economically and politically more powerful than others, to shape parts of shifting individual identities. America itself represents a space in transit and entwined within a larger cosmopolitan spatial network of global travelling, working and living. Next to transatlantic discourses (Gilroy, Hebel, Lenz), transpacific perspectives developed by Asian American studies offer new insights into America as a multicultural nation with global branches.
In terms of space, Lott's interpretation of Asian American culture rests upon a breaking up of homogeneous ethnic unities still very much emphasized in Bourne's and Kallen's concepts. Chinatowns, for instance, represent no longer safe ethnic harbours for newly arrived immigrants. Rather, they have turned into shifting meeting grounds for immigrants, people in transit and in business exposing a complex and rich ethnic diversity within. Place becomes a site of change and interaction. It is no longer used as a trope evoking myths of fixed identity, neither is it envisioned as a locale in which differences fuse into a melting pot, nor is it perceived as a new frontier of exceptional cultural status and development. Similarly, the category Asian American can only be understood as a unifying label under which a constant crossing of ethnic and cultural boundaries takes place within and beyond the United States. As Lott emphasizes:
Just as "Asian American" is gaining common usage as a pan-ethnic category relative to other groups, Asian and Pacific Americans are emphasizing their heterogeneity. This diversity is not only by ethnic groups but by a multiplicity of identities. While a pan-ethnic or racial category is acknowledged by Asian Americans, such a category is not viewed as a replacement or substitute for specific ethnic groups. For now, identity as a racial category continues to persist, even after several generations. It coincides, however, with several other identities. (Lott 91)
What Lott has in mind are cross-marriages in between ethnic communities of Asian and Asian American descent. Hence, communities formerly thought of as separate spatial units see their boundaries dissolving. Categories of differentiation such as ethnicity and race become further diversified. A Filipino American may marry a Korean American, a Japanese may get engaged with a Filipino Korean American.
Displaying a scholarly awareness of such recent multicultural complexities, Asian American critics like Wendy Ho, Rachel C. Lee, and Patricia Chu look at America from a transnational and transcultural perspective. Ho, for instance, underscores the political relevance to analyze the formation of multiple identities in changing and globalizing contexts: "To explore the complex site of the recovery and formation of multiple identities in open-ended, non-essentializing or totalizing grids is a political necessity" (111). And she continues: "To do so is not a naïve, individualistic celebration of free-floating dislocation, homelessness, or hybridity" (111). Aiming at critics of postmodernism and postcolonial theories in particular, she concludes: "It is not a touristic luxury for some of us, who intimately inhabit these sites" (111).10
Contemporary Asian American critics cherish the notion of space as multiple locations in which very different agents may shape the individual process of identity formation. Rachel C. Lee assures us, though, that transcultural approaches do not replace a critical concern with nation and national cultures. Rather they add a new critical dimension. As she puts it, "[t]hese alternative frameworks do not displace the older nationalist problematic but occur side by side with it" (11). Hence, closed concepts of space, as suggested by the idea of nation, stand side by side with concepts of multiple locations, when Asian American critics redefine America in times of globalization. A scrutiny of America as national culture must coincide with a look at America's role in the process of globalization. Lee's approach goes hand in hand with Amy Kaplan's call to revise American multicultural critique by relating internal tropes such as ethnicity to "the global dynamics of empire building" (Kaplan 15).
As my selective historical survey of concepts of American culture(s) shows, space as a key trope has shaped the formation and changes of cultural patterns over the centuries. Exploring the critical use of spatial metaphors helps not only expose diversity where unity has been taken for granted, it also reveals the dynamics at work in transforming multiplicity into unified patterns (nation, state, region). Contemporary critical uses of space focus on the crossing of borderlines primarily. Hence they intensify looks across cultural, national, and continental boundaries. African American and Asian American Studies programs in particular have pinpointed to the necessity of placing American culture into transcultural and transnational contexts. As students, teachers and scholars of American culture(s) we are thus asked to look anew at and beyond the territory of the United States to come to terms with America.
Space redefined as a geopolitical construct along and beyond national and cultural boundaries helps us renegotiate America as national culture, its interior multicultural dynamics and its impact on today's forms of transculturations. Such concept of space calls for contextualization. Each place gains meaning through its conscious relatedness to other places. As a result more suitable spatial tropes may emerge within a frame of consciousness that acknowledges that places and cultures cannot be captured in static, nation-centered models and myths. Rather the former need to be redefined within processes of interaction with other outside places. Spatial tropes then gain dialogical rather than myth-making significance and thus are much better suited to remap and renegotiate America as important, yet not exclusive cultural force within a network of global interdependence. Such conception of space may well function as a guideline to lead American studies into a truly transatlantic as well as transpacific network of intercultural research.
1 Cf. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (New York: Routledge, 1964), 107-16.
2 Both Kallen and Bourne belong to a group of young New York intellectuals in the early decades of the 20th century. For a historical and analytical account of this young generation of thinkers see Thomas Bender, New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City (New York: Knopf, 1987), 206-61.
3 For further reading dealing with ethnic, cultural, and artistic diversity and the discussions and struggles involved in the early decades of the 20th century in the United States I recommend Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1995) and George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard Uuniversity Press, 1995).
4 Horace Kallen's cultural pluralist paradigm has functioned as a model for postcolonial views on culture in particular. So Asian American critic Patricia P. Chu emphasizes Kallen's importance for correcting the Anglo-Saxon conformist model "which equated successful Americanization with the Renunciation of minority cultures" (8). In Patricia P Chu, Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000). For further discussions on ethnic persistence and evolution see also Stephen S. Fuguta and David J. O'Brien, Japanese American Ethnicity: The Persistence of Community ( Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991), 14-28, and Werner Sollers, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 20-39.
5 See Alfred Hornung, "The Un-American Dream," Amerikastudien / American Studies 44.4 (1999), 545-53, and Alfred Hornung, "The Birth of a Multicultural Nation: Horace M. Kallen's Cultural Pluralsm," Transatlantic Encounters: Studies in European-American Relations, eds. Udo J. Hebel und Karl Ortseifen (Trier: WVT, 1995), 347-58. Walter Benn Michaels, on the contrary, stresses the point that the ideas of nation and nationality would even unite such opposite thinkers and their cultural concepts as Kallen's and Charles W. Goulds'. See Walter Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (Duke: Duke University Press, 1995), 6.
6 Susan Hegeman points out that the overt emphasis on heterogeneity in the 1920s discourses on the concept of culture changed in times of Depression due to a newly emerging longing for national unity. As she explains,"this new cultural vision emphasized both the internal coherence of cultures and differences between cultures" (129). Culture as a concept, according to Hegeman, functioned as expression of national unity as well as a medium to compare and contrast differences.
7 See Henri Lefbvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).
8 As she explains, "[i]t is not that the interrelations between objects occur in space and time; it is these relationships themselves which create / define space and time" (Massey 1994, 263).
9 I use the term "transculturations" here to describe processes of cultural changes across national boundaries. For the role of American Studies as paradigmatic for transnational discourses see Lenz, Günter H.. "Toward a Dialogics of International American Culture Studies: Transnationality, Border Discourses, and Public Culture(s)." Amerikastudien/American Studies 44.1 (1999), 5-23.
10 Her criticism addresses critical stances like that of Frederick Jameson who emphasizes that contemporary societies are shaped by an understanding of culture "increasingly dominated by space and spatial logic" (25). Drawing upon spatial metaphors, Jameson criticizes postmodern culture which to him represents "a view of present history as sheer heterogeneity, random difference, a coexistence of a host of distinct forces whose effectivity is undecidable" (6).
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