Towards a Transnational America

Though I’ve never been overly enthusiastic about New Year’s celebrations, the prospect of beginning both a new year and a fresh decade felt weightier and more significant for me this time around. During the anticipatory build-up towards the night of December 31st, I felt, as many do, the impulse to impose improved exercise regimes, implement healthier diets, and establish goals for productivity, self-discovery, and spirituality in the coming year and decade.

However, barely three days into 2020, I felt jolted out of my quixotic goal-setting by the flood of startling headlines concerning the United States and Iran. Before processing my own shock at the news of the attack, vehement political attacks and grotesquely satirical memes captioned with #WorldWar3 overran my social media feeds and text messages. I marveled that, after a mere week’s worth of time removed from the start of the decade, my country seemed to be teetering again on the edge of another dangerous and ominous global conflict. On a broader scale, I felt reawakened to the grim fact that that the America I’ve known since birth has never existed unaccompanied by some form of violence, war, or geopolitical combat with another nation, nor have mainstream American ideologies, practices, or communities ever been untethered to some sort of combative comparison against another culture or country.

Now before I write further, I want to emphatically state that this post is not a commentary or analysis of the conflict at hand nor an attempt to make a political point. I will not speak directly on the particular circumstances between the United States and Iran due to my lack of detailed knowledge and expertise on the matter. Rather, I’m writing this post as a reflection on how the tumultuous first days of the upcoming ten years have reshaped my understanding of America itself, as well as the ways in which I aim to think, read, and write about America in the future. I’ll specifically discuss how wider and more willing adoption of transnational methodologies and culturally interconnective approaches both in American Studies and in the humanities broadly can help prevent wars and conflicts like those brewing today and generate greater global compassion.

For me, the alarming start of the 2020s has reinforced the essentiality of transnational methodologies and hermeneutic approaches in academic study of America. In 2004, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, then the president of the American Studies Association, gave an address titled, “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies.” During her talk she asks the question, “What would the field of American studies look like if the transnational rather than the national were at its center?”[1] Since Fishkin’s address, scholars across the humanities have produced a vast array of answers to this question by pursuing “fresh syntheses and connections” between American and non-American cultures, languages, histories, and literatures. More and more, “comparative, collaborative, border-crossing research” is reassessing the inherent complexities, hypocrisies, and potentialities of America.[2]

As I compare the growing prominence of these methodologies in the humanities today with what I’ve been reading, hearing, and worrying about in the news, I’ve felt an increased resolve to embrace this scholarly attitude in the day-to-day practice and experience of being an American. I wonder whether Americans might, to revise Fishkin’s words slightly, construct a more enriching, empathetic, and peaceful America if we would more often consider how outsiders view the world and our own nation. Might we, with some modifying of Fishkin’s wording, ask the question, “What would America look like if the transnational rather than the national were more centered in our day-to-day behaviors, politics, and relationships?”

I deeply treasure the times during my education at BYU when I’ve employed this cross-cultural, transnational framework, particularly for the way that these approaches have helped me to ask and answer this question on a personal level. One specific experience, which came forcefully to mind as I wrote this post, occurred while reading a 1937 book by two Soviet prose writers, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, titled Одноэтажная Америка or, translated literally, One-Storied America.[3] Ilya and Petrov’s novel details the sights and experiences of a two-month journey the writers took across the Great Depression-era United States. After narrating events such as meeting Henry Ford, visiting communities of marginalized African Americans and Native Americans, and watching a football game, Ilf and Petrov conclude their novel by stating what, by their estimation, is both impressive and troubling for them about America. Among their final observations, Ilf and Petrov describe how “the American . . . possesses a passive nature” in regard to things outside the realm of traditional American politics, industry, and culture.[4] Though Ilf and Petrov note that nothing in America appears capable of “divesting the people of the notion that life must be improved” materially, economically, and industrially, they write that America’s level of intellectual, political, and cultural receptivity and engagement with concepts and peoples outside of itself “does not exceed the level of the average Hollywood picture.”[5]

While studying a cross-country text like Ilf and Petrov’s One-Storied America has prompted many academic questions for me, this idea of passivity has solidified more firmly and personally thus far into 2020. Perhaps the most deeply rooted cause of international or geopolitical conflicts might be Ilf and Petrov’s point about American passivity, our collective inattentiveness towards the intellectual investigation and experiential synthesis of cultures. Thankfully, those of us working in the humanities hold a remarkable responsibility and opportunity to defend, narrate, and express the value and implications of these transnational artifacts, texts, and movements of people, ideas, and art. My hope for America this year and in the decade to come is that we might find more ways to seeing ourselves through the eyes of other nations and cultures. I believe that by doing this more willfully and faithfully, scholars in the humanities can help our citizenry to prevent violence, unrest, and cruelty more than prompt it.

This post was written by Sam Jacob, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.

[1] Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies—Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, November 12, 2004,” American Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 1, 2005, pp. 21.

[2] Fishkin, pp. 18, 21.

[3] Одноэтажная Америка was translated into English and published in the US under the title Little Golden America as a reference to Ilf and Petrov’s earlier satirical novel, The Little Golden Calf.

[4] Ilf, Ilya and Yevgeny Petrov. Odnoetazhnaia Amerika.Azbuka, 2016, pp. 463.

[5] Ilf and Petrov, pp. 464.

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1 Comment

  1. That conclusion and observation from Ilf and Petrov perfectly describes my own experience as an American student, and many others I’ve rubbed shoulders, beginning to understand my passive nature that has kept me from understanding and interest in the worlds beyond our national identity.

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