chapter  18
12 Pages

Un-American exceptionalism in the disciplinary field: From unmeltable ethnics to flexible citizens


This article addresses the role that Postcolonial Studies has to play in the rerouting of American Studies away from its roots in US nationalism, and so complements Nirmala Menon’s call (in this volume) for a more provisional, contingent and nomadic textual canon. While Menon’s discussion remains largely grounded in national literatures, her argument supports a further call for disciplinary de-nationalization. Postcolonialism offers an intellectual perspective that is necessarily cross-national and comparative; thus, postcolonial scholars have developed strategies for discussing issues and concepts such as exile, displacement, diaspora, migration, nationhood, and hybridity that enable us to cut through the pervasive and obfuscating American ideology of white supremacy to see what is at stake

when we study the nation on its own terms. What we see clearly from a postcolonial perspective is the ethical dimension of an academic discipline that places US nationalism at its centre and takes the white nation state as its fundamental organizing principle. It may be objected that, in fact, American Studies has grown and diversified to a point where it is no longer a single discipline, and the field of American Ethnic Studies could be invoked as evidence of this plurality. However, the organization of Ethnic Studies into hyphenated sub-disciplines, which replace nationalism as the object of study with cultural nationalisms, intensifies this ethical issue. By pursuing a ‘mono-hyphenated’ understanding of ethnicity, the subdisciplines of American Studies such as Asian-American, African-American, and Hispanic-American Studies replicate patterns of white supremacy by conflating identity with putative origin, affiliation with filiation, cultural difference with racially marked difference. A refusal of multiple ethnic and national identifications is structurally inscribed in the sub-disciplines of Ethnic Studies and this refusal reproduces existing structures of power and control that are grounded in the white nation state.