Oxymoronic efforts to put up imperial borders

The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of US Culture

May 21, 2004

In 1901, the US Supreme Court adjudicated a vexing constitutional question: were import duties payable when American businessmen in Puerto Rico brought goods into the US? By a narrow margin, the court determined that import taxes were indeed owing. Under US occupation, Puerto Rico was nevertheless deemed "foreign to the US in a domestic sense, because the island had not been incorporated into the US, but was merely appurtenant thereto as a possession".

Through this exercise in classificatory ingenuity, the judges attempted to manage tensions between US imperial practice and America's insistently anti-colonial self-image, legislating the island's subordinate status while resisting its description as "colony". Their effort to uphold American integrity left Puerto Rico poised in vulnerable limbo: "both 'belonging to' but 'not a part' of the US".

The oxymoronic conceit "foreign in a domestic sense" provides Amy Kaplan with her point of departure: "that domestic metaphors of national identity are intimately intertwined with renderings of the foreign and the alien, and that notions of the domestic and the foreign mutually constitute one another in an imperial context". Through insightful readings of texts from film to fiction, travelogue to memoir, Kaplan writes empire into the cultural history of the US, and America into the transnational history of empire.

With a keen eye for contradiction, Kaplan shows how the endeavour to maintain boundaries - between US and world, domestic and foreign - works constantly against its own undoing. Literally and figuratively, US imperial ventures have brought "foreignness" home, while making Americans at home abroad, with mutually unsettling consequences. Borrowing her title from W.

E. B. du Bois, she explores the interplay between empire's will to impose order and its propensity to generate disorder; its simultaneous erection and erosion of borders.

Du Bois has bequeathed the volume more than its title. Not only does Kaplan devote her final chapter to a detailed engagement with his neglected Darkwater , she also espouses his practice of adopting unfamiliar vantage points from which to decentre well-worn narratives. This entails resituating icons of American authority - such as Mark Twain - in imperial context, and challenging the location of America's "imperial moment" in the years immediately following the war with Spain over Cuba in 1898. Moving back to the 1840s and forwards to the First World War, Kaplan disrupts the bifurcation between "overseas empire" and "internal expansion". And where other authors have traced an arc from the American West to Southeast Asia, Kaplan makes the history of slavery as central to her reworking of empire as the legacy of "Indian-hating".

Much of this material (on "manifest domesticity", imperial romances and Citizen Kane) has been published before in essay form. As a coherent whole, the volume makes a substantial contribution to the broader intellectual project of de-exceptionalising a state that has long been given to simultaneous assertions of its singularity and universality: standing apart from the world, yet also standing for it. With "the anarchy of empire" all around us, it is hard to deny the timeliness of Kaplan's intervention.

Susan Carruthers is associate professor of history, Rutgers University, New Jersey, US.

The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of US Culture: Amy Kaplan

Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 261
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 0 674 00913 4

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