Place, No-Place, and the Transnational Stage: “Minor” Works by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams

In his 1993 classic To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature, Eric J. Sundquist pays careful attention to texts many critics view as “minor,” such as Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition and Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. As Sundquist reminds us, we miss much when we focus only on “major” works by canonical American writers, including, often, American literature’s insistent cultural heterogeneity and its fundamentally transnational character. It is in this light that I have been thinking about some plays I read recently.

In the 1940s, Tennessee Williams established his gift for rendering the local on stage: the characters and social dynamics he introduced in The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire continue to populate our imaginations when we think of the American South and New Orleans. His spatial metaphors still resonate: the streetcar that rushes us headlong through life; fragile characters trapped in a menagerie of societal constrictions. Written in the shadow of World War II, Williams’ highly successful family dramas might be seen (superficially) as reflecting a turn inward, a privileging of the domestic over the global at a moment of anxiety about America’s role abroad.

But Williams’ sense of place was more expansive than most remember. In Camino Real, first staged in 1953, Williams creates a surrealistic no-place that is alien yet familiar, fitting for this prescient allegory of American imperialism and state repression. In the first of sixteen “blocks,” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, looking bedraggled, arrive in a Spanish-speaking town “that bears a confusing, but somehow harmonious, resemblance to such widely scattered ports as Tangiers, Havana, Veracruz, Casablanca, Shanghai, New Orleans.” After consulting a map, Sancho notes that the Camino Real (Anglicized) and the Camino Real (Spanish) meet in a dead end. Soon arrives the protagonist, an American named Kilroy who sports a jeweled belt spelling out “CHAMP” and a pair of golden boxing gloves. The audience follows Kilroy as he travels the Camino Real, encountering desperate characters of varying nationalities. In this play, unlike in Williams’ more well known works, tensions and contradictions within American society are projected vaguely outward onto the global stage (so to speak), resulting in a play filled with abstraction and symbols, rather than crystallizing into a concrete narrative of dysfunction in the domestic sphere.

Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist play The Emperor Jones, first staged in 1920, stands out as another allegory of empire and identity that has since been overshadowed by the playwright’s realist family dramas, which include Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh. Brutus Jones, an African American who speaks entirely in minstrel dialect, has made himself ruler of an unnamed Caribbean island, and now faces an uprising. He escapes into the forest, where he encounters a series of frightening, surreal scenes that reflect the traumatic history of race in America. Like Camino Real, this play also creates an unspecific foreign setting as a way to explore both the moral ambiguities of U.S. actions abroad and the deeply rooted conflicts that characterize American identity at home. Over the years, the play has been criticized for its racist imagery and characterization, but has also been interpreted by anti-racists as a cynical commentary on American race relations. It is a significant work insofar as it highlights the global or transnational aspects of American cultural history, particularly with respect to race.


CFP: “Occupied: Taking up Space and Time,” March 22-24, 2012

Seems quite a few graduate conferences this year are tackling interdisciplinary themes relating to space! Indiana University–Bloomington’s Annual Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference seeks papers on the theme of:

“Occupied: Taking up Space and Time”

We are issuing a Call for Proposals for scholarly and creative submissions for an International Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Conference entitled “Occupied: Taking up Space and Time” to be held at Indiana University – Bloomington from March 22-24, 2012.  This 9th annual conference is hosted by the graduate students of the IU Department of English.Recent calls to occupy space for indefinite durations have provoked us to consider what it means to occupy or to be occupied both spatially and temporally.  The current position of “occupy” as a political buzzword confers a multiplicity of new meanings onto a concept already charged with complex histories and forms.  This conference seeks to explore the cultural significance and interrelations of its many meanings and implications, from mental pre-occupation and obsession, to the physical spaces we occupy (locked bathrooms to occupied nations), to the ways in which we spend or take up time.  Tracing the theoretical, formal, and political implications of this issue necessitates a variety of methodologies and disciplinary perspectives, so we particularly welcome interdisciplinary approaches considering any time period. Below are some suggestions for possible topics. This list is by no means exhaustive; rather, we hope these ideas might inspire some exciting new thoughts related to the theme:

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CFP: Graduate Colloquium on “Indigenous Spaces,” February 15, 2012

The newly created Collaborations on Indigenous Studies Project (CISP) at Columbia University is accepting paper proposals for its first graduate student colloquium:

Indigenous Spaces:

Pushing the Boundaries of History, Bodies, Geographies, and Politics

A Graduate Student Colloquium

Presented by

The Collaborations on Indigenous Studies Project (CISP)

Columbia University

February 15, 2012

We invite graduate students to submit proposals for a graduate student colloquium on the theme of Indigenous Spaces: Pushing the Boundaries of History, Bodies, Geographies, and Politics, to take place at Columbia University in the City of New York on February 15, 2012. Contributors are encouraged to think about ‘indigenous spaces’ that connect indigenous communities, bodies (understood in a broad sense), histories, geographies, and academia.

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CFP: “Exploring I–Lands: Borders, Identity and Myth,” March 16-18, 2012

The University of Virginia Department of English Graduate Conference seeks paper proposals from graduate students in all disciplines. Featured speakers will be Lorna Goodison and Jahan Ramazani. Abstracts are due January 21, 2012.

“Exploring I–Lands: Borders, Identity and Myth”

March 16-18, 2012

Borders abide and abound—between disciplines, between languages, between periods, between persons, between genders, between communities, between generations, between the self and the world. They define us in both liberating and limiting ways. This conference will investigate how borders and barriers are made, broken and refashioned, giving special attention to individual and national identities and the mythologies that inform them. Just how impermeable are such borders? Is there an unshakeable human drive to draw them?

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On Walls and the Spectacle of Sovereignty

My oral exams are scheduled for late January, which means the past month has been a frenzy of reading and the next three promise to be equally busy. The bright side is that my program gives us a lot of freedom in formulating reading lists, so one of mine is a rather idiosyncratic theory list focusing on race, global studies, law, and spatial theory—my small effort to chip away at the walls, so to speak, between the disciplines that have informed my studies.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of reading Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (MIT Press, 2010). The book begins with a meditation on the recent spate of global wall-building that paradoxically coincides with supposed weakening of nation-state boundaries. The most well-known examples are the winding Israeli West Bank barrier and the exorbitantly expensive (and ineffective) high-tech “fence” that now separates the U.S. from Mexico. Brown notes astutely that these walls are meant not really to strengthen borders between nations, but rather to keep out certain non-governmental, transnational forces perceived as a threat to sovereignty—yearning would-be immigrant masses, illegal drug trade, terrorism. Moreover, these walls serve a significant symbolic function: they are “iconographic of” and spectacularize the idea of sovereignty for a privileged population anxious about its porous cultural and political borders. Of course, to say that walls are spectacles of sovereignty is not at all to diminish their material, often destructive consequences, which have been many.

Reading Brown’s book reminded me of my visit to Germany this summer. Having only one day to spend in Berlin, I headed for the East Side Gallery, a kilometer-long section of the Berlin Wall that has been transformed by artists into an “International Memorial for Freedom.” I also walked through the bizarre historic site of Checkpoint Charlie, a former crossing point between the Soviet and American sectors, where a man dressed as a Cold War-era U.S. soldier still stands guard for photographic purposes. At both sites, I participated in the usual rituals celebrating the spread of democracy and economic freedom: that is, I took pictures (exercising my right to an individual point of view) and purchased postcards (participating in both transnational communication and the commodification of nostalgia). As Brown points out, something about walls offends the liberal worldview and westerners like to vaunt their demise, even as we deploy new walls for the “protection” of democracy.

Irony aside, the visits were actually quite moving for me, as I thought of the East Berliners who had risked (or lost) their lives trying to escape political oppression and economic stagnation, as well as my own family, which left Vietnam as boat people when I was a baby. I, like the average American, eschew romantic notions of how life would be better under communism (though my reasons might not be ordinary). Nevertheless, I know there are limits to the liberal tearing down of walls: in uncritically celebrating the spread of “freedom,” we risk forgetting the burdens we force on those living outside the walls we continue to build. It is true that freedom isn’t free—but Americans are usually not the ones who pay.


Mapping Native American History with Hopi Landscape Portal Software

Many thanks to @giantpandinha for tweeting the Hopi Landscape Portal, a new historical mapping project by Wes Bernardini of University of Redlands. Bernardini’s program, which uses ArcGIS Explorer software, allows users to explore 3D reconstructions of 32 Hopi villages. According to an Indian Country article,

Bernardini has been working with the Hopi for the last decade on mapping the ancestral villages. He uses conventional archaeological data as well as Hopi traditional knowledge to get a clearer picture of the past.

“Everything in my work started with, and continually goes back to, Hopi oral tradition,” he told ICTMN. “It was the clan migration traditions recounted to me by Hopi colleagues that first helped me to see that archaeological ideas about Hopi migrations were incomplete, and each visit to Hopi adds new pieces of information that help me to see the archaeological record in a new light.”


Teaching Property Law and Race: “Integrating Spaces” by Brophy et al.

My recollection of law school property class consists mostly of trying to fit a lot of archaic terms for ownership interests onto the one-page cheat sheet we were allowed for the exam. No fault of my professor, who made feudal language as interesting as it could be.

It was not until much later that I realized how truly fascinating property is. In a country where people used to own people, how can the law’s legitimation of a human’s attachment to something be anything but fascinating?

Today’s law students might come to this realization sooner, thanks to a practical, wide-ranging  book by Alfred Brophy, Alberto Lopez, and Kali Murray. Integrating Spaces: Property Law & Race (2011) is a casebook-style text that covers the many ways race and identity have shaped and continue to shape property in the U.S. It is intended as a supplemental text to help law professors integrate issues of race into their first-year property courses. Each chapter consists of a concise, clearly written overview of the issues and several illustrative cases.

Here is the table of contents:

Part I. Race in the Making of Property Law

Chapter 1. Origins: Possession and Dispossession in Property Law
Chapter 2. Property Rules and Slavery

Part II. Race and the Remaking of Property

Chapter 3. Racial Regulation of Public Spaces in the United States
Chapter 4. Discrimination and the Sale or Occupancy of Real Property

Part III. Race and Contemporary Property

Chapter 5. Redefining Housing and Neighborhood: Civil Rights and Its Impact on Property Law
Chapter 6. Contemporary Common Law Property
Chapter 7. Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in an International Perspective

I hope this much-needed book catches on.