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Transnationalism and Anti-Globalism Johannes Voelz

College Literature, Volume 44, Number 4, Fall 2017, pp. 521-526 (Article)

Published by Johns Hopkins University PressDOI:

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COLLEGE LITERATURE: A JOURNAL OF CRITICAL LITERARY STUDIES 44.4 Fall 2017Print ISSN 0093-3139 E-ISSN 1542-4286© Johns Hopkins University Press and West Chester University 2017



The recent resurgence of nationalism in the United States finds expression in a whole vocabulary, made up of slogans, rallying cries, and buzzwords. Most prominent among them may be “Make America Great Again” and “America First,” but there is another buzzword—anti-globalism—which is particularly suggestive of the conundrum transnationalism faces in the Age of Trump. The term anti-globalism results from an act of rhetorical appropriation and resignification, and as I want to suggest, the idea of transnationalism plays an important role in this repackaging effort.

Anti-globalism recalls the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s and early 2000s, but this resonance brings out the differences rather than similarities between the two: where anti-globalization was concerned with a critique of the economic system, anti-global-ism attacks what is perceived as a larger ideology of globalism that allegedly promotes free trade as well as cultural and racial mixing. From the view of the leftist anti-globalization movement, globaliza-tion was driven by the institutions that backed the Washington Con-sensus (such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the US Treasury), global corporations that exploited the waning sovereignty of nation-states, and national governments that colluded with the forces of global capital, for instance by entering into inter-national free trade agreements, such as the North American Free

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Trade Agreement. The targets of that earlier movement were there-fore the profiteers and structures of economic globalization.

This economic understanding of globalization opened up a space for alternative conceptions of globalization that could compete with the economic version. It is no coincidence, therefore, that it was also in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the academic field of Amer-ican Studies turned to the transnational as an emerging paradigm.

American Studies entered its transnational phase by engaging in profound soul-searching about the possibilities of altering the object of study seemingly prescribed by the field’s name (see, for instance, Janice Radway’s 1998 Presidential Address at the American Studies Association, titled “What’s in a Name?”). Although rather diverse manifestos appeared in quick succession, there emerged a consensus that sticking to the nation form was a sign of ideological backward-ness, whereas transcending the nation held out the potential for pro-gressive change. From the get-go, transnational American Studies aimed to transcend the nation on two different conceptual planes: first, on the level of methodology, where transnationalism in essence meant adopting a particular perspective; second, on the level of the object of study, where transnationalism referred to phenomena that went beyond the limits of the nation. This blending of method and object of study meant in effect that the transnational wasn’t some-thing one could neutrally observe, describe, and chart. Rather, studying the transnational meant affirming the transnational. This is because the approval for the new method jumped over, as it were, to an approval of the phenomena studied. If, in other words, the transnational perspective of scholars was greeted as the successful overcoming of critical parochialism, then phenomena embodying the transnational were themselves to be commended. This valua-tion guided the choice of what was to be studied: Preferred objects included oppositional social movements that traversed national boundaries, aesthetic forms that traveled beyond the confines of the nation, and ideas that circulated in similarly unbounded ways (clearly, this list is not meant to be comprehensive). In short, transnational American Studies provided the opportunity to salvage a “globaliza-tion from below” (to use a phrase popular with the anti-globalization movement), and to favorably contrast it to both nationalism and eco-nomic globalization (or “globalization from above”).

One of the problems faced—but rarely addressed—by propo-nents of transnationalism emerged from this differentiation of eco-nomic and cultural globalization. Did the idea that these two forms of globalization are principally different really hold up? Didn’t both

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visions of globalization rely on some of the very same images: flows (of goods, people, ideas) as something natural, borders and bound-aries as artificial? Wasn’t there, in fact, a deep affinity between the longing for cultural transnationalism and the ideology of economic globalization, despite the political differences that seemed to keep them both neatly separated? I have argued elsewhere that conceptu-ally (though not politically) transnational American Studies is indeed indebted to economic globalization, and that it is nonetheless advis-able to pursue the project of transnationalism, albeit in a self-re-flexive manner (Voelz 2011). But rather than revisiting this debate at this point, suffice it to say that the question of transnationalism’s oppositional purity emerged from the somewhat tenuous conceptual framework shared by the anti-globalization movement and transna-tional Americanists: globalization, according to this framework, had an economic and a cultural aspect, which were to be seen as opposed to one another.

Quite some time has passed since the early 2000s. By now, aca-demic transnationalism in American literary and cultural stud-ies has been solidly institutionalized. Think only of the Journal of Transnational American Studies, the recent Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature, edited by Yogita Goyal (2017), or the founding of the “Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies” at the University of Mainz, Germany. Meanwhile, pre-dictably, the hype that initially attended the “transnational turn” has faded rather quickly. The anti-globalization movement, on the other hand, has largely run out steam, mostly because center-left parties across North America and Europe failed to support it; they embraced neoliberal reforms instead, a decision which has cost many of them a good share of their votes. (One could add that the move-ment only petered out after the demise of Occupy, or that, in fact, it has survived in places like Spain, where Podemos has managed to transform the protest against neoliberal globalization into party politics—but these are nuances that don’t change the big picture.) Along with the overall decline of anti-globalization came the rise of anti-globalism (itself a movement of transnational scope), and thus the seemingly miraculous transformation of a left-wing into a right-wing movement.

How in the world could that happen? In moving the critique of globalization across the political spectrum, anti-globalists have rejected the foundational premise of anti-globalization and academic transnationalism: they refuse to differentiate between two differ-ent kinds of globalization, be they “from below and from above,”

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“cultural and economic,” or simply “good and bad.” As London-based blogger Jacob Stringer has aptly summarized it on “[Anti-]Globalisation refers to certain processes in the interests of corporate trade. [Anti-]Globalism refers to a global outlook, bor-ders too open, a feared mingling of cultures, implied dangerous liai-sons with aliens” (March 26, 2017). Anti-globalists, in other words, have tied the critique of economic globalization to xenophobia, rac-ism, and a disdain for global elites, and have thus conceptualized economic and cultural globalization as hanging together.

Anti-globalists’ longing for cultural isolationism, it must be admitted, has rendered the economic dimension of anti-globalism strikingly toothless. It is as if they offered cultural anti-globalism as a solution to the problems caused by global capitalism: their implied economic platform seems to be limited to the call for protectionism (the economic dimension of “America First!”) and the hope for more high-paying manufacturing jobs. In Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild (2016) has recently shown just how deeply the Tea Party members and Trump supporters she inter-viewed in Louisiana are invested in the free market, and how much they detest the welfare state. Their critique of economic globaliza-tion spares multinational corporations (even if these corporations, like the petrochemical companies in Louisiana, ruin the environ-ment and cause a virtual cancer epidemic) because they are seen as the older siblings of small businesses run by local entrepreneurs.

Though the anti-globalists’ mix of economic and cultural anti-glo-balism may be rife with logical faults and moral deficiencies, their triumph should not be simply dismissed as racist and xenophobic (though it is that, too). Instead, their rise should prompt scholars of transnationalism to reflect on the involvement of the idea of the transnational in the political struggle that divides the United States and, increasingly, other countries in which right-wing populism has taken hold. In this context, it becomes newly significant that transnational Americanists have tended to politically identify with the transnational formations they study and that they have thus, as described earlier, conflated method and object of study. As a result of this conflation, academic transnationalism has come to embody the idea of globalism targeted by the anti-globalist agenda. Econom-ically, transnationalism encapsulates the privileged status of a global elite (here, transnationalism refers to the scholars) and culturally, it raises fears of migration, hybridity, and the demise of white hege-mony (here, transnationalism refers to the phenomena studied). Seen in this light, the idea of globalism embodied by transnational

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American Studies becomes a tailor-made point of attack for what John Judis, in The Populist Explosion (2016), has described as the tri-angular scapegoating of right-wing populism. Right-wing populism is triangular in that it claims to defend “the people” against two per-ceived enemies: the elites (situated above) and undeserving “others” (situated below).

The challenge of anti-globalism, then, is not only that it rejects transnationalism’s starting premise of the two kinds of globaliza-tion, but, more crucially, that it brings to light the degree to which transnationalism is itself involved in the divisive struggle currently rocking the United States. This challenge, I think, can be seen as a welcome opportunity to generate a new kind of knowledge from within transnational American Studies. It calls for an approach that is more self-reflexive than the identificatory stance taken by many scholars of transnationalism so far. Rather than starting from the presumption that studying transnational formations means helping to fight the good fight, transnational American Studies could begin to chart how the transnational itself has become a currency, or capital, in the struggle for symbolic advantages in a starkly divided society.

This isn’t to devalue the study of transnational formations, but rather to come to realize that embracing and valuing the transna-tional is a maneuver that helps secure symbolically advantageous positions. This is the case both in the academic field of American Studies, which has long been organized around a moral economy of political engagement, and in the larger public sphere of the United States. The idea (taken from Bourdieu) is not that we consciously try to amass as much symbolic capital as possible—as if we were rational-choice actors in the field of symbolic capital—but instead that trying to carve out for ourselves a recognized position in the field of transnational American Studies is what it means to “have an investment in the game” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, 98). The same goes for the other side of the divide: the embrace of anti-globalism speaks to the specific value of the ideas and princi-ples captured by the term transnationalism in the broader political discourse of the United States. Here, too, the currency of the idea of transnationalism has a particular valuation. The fact that we may think of this value as “negative” when used by anti-globalists begins to suggest that taking stock of transnationalism as a currency helps us capture its political existence. I am suggesting, in other words, to incorporate a self-reflexive and relational sociology of the trans-national into the program of transnational American literary and cultural studies.

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One of the welcome ramifications of such an extension of Amer-icanist transnationalism, it seems to me, would be to overcome the harmful dualism of nation and trans-nation. Ultimately, this dualism suggests that by turning to the transnational, we will have to learn to stop worrying about the nation-state. But Trump’s rise to power should make it apparent that American Studies needs to be able to provide explanations of what goes on inside the United States. The truly surprising suggestion to be taken away from the rise of anti-globalism is this: a self-reflexively and relationally revamped transnational American Studies may provide a necessary tool for coming to terms with the nationalist resurgence.


Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loïc Wacquant. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociol-ogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goyal, Yogita, ed. 2017. The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press.

Judis, John. 2016. The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics. New York: Columbia Global Reports. Ebook.

Radway, Janice. 1999. “What’s in a Name? Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, 20 November, 1998.” American Quarterly 51.1: 1–32.

Stringer, Jacob. “Why did anti-globalisation fail and anti-globalism suc-ceed?” Open Democracy. March 26, 2017. Last vis-ited: May 28, 2017.

Voelz, Johannes. 2011. “Utopias of Transnationalism and the Neoliberal State.” In Re-Framing the Transnational Turn in American Studies, edited by Winfried Fluck, Donald E. Pease, and John Carlos Rowe. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

JOHANNES VOELZ is Heisenberg-Professor of American Studies, Democracy, and Aesthetics at Goethe-University Frankfurt, Ger-many. He is the author of Transcendental Resistance: The New Amer-icanists and Emerson’s Challenge (UP New England, 2010) and The Poetics of Insecurity: American Fiction and the Uses of Threat (Cambridge UP, forthcoming 2017).

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