Law, Culture & the Humanities 2012: Panel on “Global Citizens: Violence and the Transnational Subject”

This past weekend in Fort Worth, TX, I was pleased to be part of the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities. This year’s theme was “Representing Justice.” Tweets can be found at #ASLCH.

Audrey Golden, Nicolette Bruner, and I formed a law and literature panel called Global Citizens: Violence and the Transnational Subject, graciously chaired by Marc Roark of The Literary Table. Here are the paper abstracts:

Translating the ‘Self’ from Central and Eastern Europe: Putting Theory to Practice thought the Works of Aleksandar Hemon and W.G. Sebald by Audrey Golden

The second half of the twentieth century has borne witness to forced migration and statelessness in numbers previously unimaginable within modernity. Through the works of Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-American émigré writer, and W.G. Sebald, a second-generation German novelist, this paper looks to the narratives of displaced persons and questions the role literary theory might play in imagining the processes of transnational movement and of internal “self-translation” that emigrants must undertake. This paper conceives a broader and more abstract model of “translation” that looks beyond natural language to include a cultural self-translation, and then asks if such a process is fraught with previously unimagined identity problems, or whether, although stemming from acts of violence, translating oneself might have ameliorative qualities for an individual caught between places, or in “nowhere” spaces.

Corporate Citizenship as U.S. Empire in Richard Harding Davis’s Soldiers of Fortune by Nicolette Bruner

Published in 1897, Richard Harding Davis’s novel, Soldiers of Fortune, describes the travails of a mining company that operates in the fictional Latin American country of Olancho, a thinly-veiled version of Cuba. The hero, filibustering engineer Robert Clay, facilitates the success of the corporation through military and financial interventions in Olancho. Meanwhile, Clay romances and marries Hope, the young daughter of the sole owner of the company’s stock. In this paper, I examine how Davis complicates the boundaries between corporate employer and human employee even as he glorifies the deeply unequal relation between U.S. corporations and the countries they exploited for profit. Corporate imperialism, as represented by the incursion of the U.S. citizen stockholder and his employees upon Latin American territory, becomes more than a matter of domination, but also an illustration of the complex interdependencies between business, storytelling, and violence in the fin de siècle.

Another Vietnam: War, The Archive, and the USS Kirk by Mai-Linh K. Hong

In late 2010, National Public Radio (NPR) aired a special series about the USS Kirk, a U.S. naval ship that was sent during the fall of Saigon to rescue the “remnants” of the South Vietnamese navy. The rescue was accomplished partly by transferring the Vietnamese ships’ sovereignty to the U.S. through a change of flags, a peaceful, quasi-legal transformation that dislodges the conventional Vietnam War narrative of violence and moral failure. Placing this “never before told” redemption story in the context of today’s U.S. war in Afghanistan, my project examines NPR’s historical revisionism and its production of a new visual iconography for the war that has haunted all later U.S. wars. I argue that, with “the archive” a site of suspense in the Wikileaks era, the rewriting of Vietnam must be understood as a response to contemporary anxieties about American imperialism, militarism, and national identity.

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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: “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.