US anguish and introspection

Comparative American Studies

April 21, 2006

The publishers of Comparative American Studies describe it as "a new international journal that extends scholarly debates about American studies beyond the geographical boundaries of the US, repositioning discussions about American culture within an international, comparative framework". The disciplines covered include literature, film, the visual arts and popular culture. Politics, the social sciences and history also feature, "particularly as these fields impact on cultural texts".

An editorial in the first issue asserts that the journal's aims and scope reflect a "widely perceived need" among scholars "to reposition the study of America hemispherically and internationally, rather than according to the older agendas of area studies that held sway in the middle years of the 20th century". The journal's advisory board includes academics in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, India, Italy, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa and the UK and the US. An issue devoted to "Canada and the Americas" notes that "Canada has long been overlooked in scholarship about the Americas", but adds tartly that this neglect "is only exacerbated by Canadianists' withdrawal from hemispheric conversations".

The titles of some articles are informative and descriptive: "Ida B. Wells and her allies against lynching: a transnational perspective"; "Political education in post-Second World War Germany and the American South"; and "Selling or buying American dreams? Americanisation and Australia's interwar advertising industry". But others exhibit the obscure and prolix features of much postmodern scholarship. A special issue on "Worlding American studies" included such gnomic titles as "Globalisation, spectral aesthetics and the global soul: tracking some 'uncanny' paths to trans-Pacific globalisation" and "Post/past-Orientalism: Orientalism and its dis/re-orientation". The "abstracts" of these arcane titles do little to further understanding. The authors of the preface to "Worlding American studies" declare that it aims "to formulate a 'worlded' version of American studies to deal with emergent complexities of Asia/Pacific as well as North-South trans-America flows and imbalances characterising today's empire of neoliberal globalisation". They go on to assert that "this issue (will) help to forge a 'cross-roads' vision of US area studies refracting North/South/East/West transactions, theorising comparative discrepancies, trans-oceanic linkages, and a cultural studies refiguring of the transnational field-imaginary".

The article itself is a lumpy mix of convoluted prose and facile asides:

"The USA - simultaneously the world's most loved, hated, feared and admired nation these post-9/11 days - has to negotiate this terrain of conflicted cathexis and phobic dominion as global superpower."

The text of Djelal Kadir's presidential address to the First World Congress of the International American Studies Association - "Defending America against its devotees" - includes a coded health warning that American studies "is a complex system in which we perforce operate, now as agents, now symptomatically, but rarely as ostensibly in our performance and in our critical assessments as we now find ourselves obliged to work.

Ostensibility is the inexorable fate of all public discourse, not as strategic alibi necessarily but because, as critical assessors of the public spheres in the American hemisphere, we now realise more than ever that nothing is what it seems, and means even less than what it says".

Comparative American Studies began promisingly but has become introspective and theoretical. It is unlikely to appeal to "traditional" Americanists, who will continue to find more digestible essays and reviews in the less anguished but equally innovative Journal of American Studies .

John White is emeritus reader in American history, Hull University.

Comparative American Studies: An International Journal

Editor - R. J. Ellis
Publisher - Sage
Price - quarterly Institutions £297.00 Individuals £41.00
ISSN - 1477 5700

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