For one thing, for much of my life as an academic active in American Studies at the University of Amsterdam, one continuing theme has been my study of the many ways in which American and European cultures have cross-pollinated and the ways in which cultural influences were received or resisted.
Part of my interest was in issues of Americanization of European cultures or of European anti-Americanism, on either political or cultural grounds. Some chapters in my book clearly reflect that interest, while also critically revisiting it. Issues of politics and power have forced themselves upon my mind most directly in the opening and concluding chapters of the book, on the George W.
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Bush administration first, on the Obama administration later. The chapters were written against the backdrop of general mood-swings, both in the U. There is one more general aspect of transnationalism, though, that I only became aware of while writing the book. In my earlier writing on American popular culture, I tried to answer questions as to what accounts for the lure and appeal of American popular culture, at home and abroad. In my latest book, though, I found that my interest had moved to the darker side of popular culture and public spectacle, even in such extreme varieties as lynchings.
I also found, more clearly than ever before, that there are forms of trans-nationalism inherent to the train of thought of the human mind. Addressing spectacles and parades as forms of public entertainment, I noticed my mind wandering from circus and side-show artists parading through American small town Main Streets, to dignified Jewish citizens being forcibly paraded through German cities on the day following Kristallnacht the night of the shattered glass to the merriment of German onlookers, and back from there to the many photographs of public lynchings in the American South, with jolly and grimacing bystanders posing for the camera.
The most notorious among this latter corpus are photographs to do with the Ku Klux Klan. After a long spell of quiescence, it reemerged into national prominence in the s, reaching an all-time peak membership in —a year, incidentally, that saw the dedication of various Confederate memorials, including the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stunningly, in our present day and age, it brought American fascists back in the streets, marching under the banner of a virulent nativism, of a vicious fear of being removed from the pedestal of their proper place in society.
It also brought to the minds of people watching these images on TV older visual repertoires dating back to Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and similar racist clashes elsewhere. I thus found, more clearly than ever before, that there are forms of transnationalism inherent to the workings of the human mind. I became increasingly aware of my own thought processes while putting its results down on paper, in other words: my thinking reflected back on itself.
If there is a methodology here, it is one that may remind us of phenomenology , as introduced by German philosophers like Edmund Husserl in the late nineteenth century. Images of the Nazi holocaust in their turn called up pictures in my mind of atrocity photographs as they had circulated in the United States after the war. Similarly, in a piece about anthropological shows or human zoos as they were also called, immensely popular in the late nineteenth century, my argument shifted to the way that our current tastes and sensibilities now forbid us to enjoy what was popular entertainment only a century ago.
Buffalo Bill was the supreme master in almost instantly translating recent American frontier history into spectacular entertainment. This is the more remarkable coming from a man who was a leading voice in the international campaign protesting atrocities perpetrated in the Belgian Congo.
There he could see through the self-serving lies of Belgian colonialism. To him there were no continuous visual associations connecting the two settings. To our modern post-colonial mind, it may be easier to move between repertoires of visual representation. It is not only a matter, though—and I wish to emphasize this—of a process of visual associations forcing itself upon our minds.
Following the same logic, the train of associations can also be linguistic, where an argument applying to one historical situation calls forth similar arguments applying to different situations. From his new refuge, he became aware of the historical parallels between mob behavior in Germany and the American South and the logic behind it. In what would become a classic study in mass psychology, published in exile in Amsterdam, the author saw his analysis of processes of mob behavior confirmed in both settings, in an amazing act of creating intellectual distance to current events even as they had such immediate dramatic relevance to his own life.
What I am trying to convey is that the transnationalism that one can see happening here, is almost like a chimera, with one image shimmering through another one, as if in a palimpsest. History does form palimpsests, covering one layer of images with later ones, as if on the wall of an old house with one painted advertisement not quite covering a preceding one.
It is also an exhilarating experience, a sense of being literally transported in an exercise of transnationalism. Transnationalism, as here conceived, is a mental process as well as an intellectual exercise that we may use to resist the attractive force of exceptionalism. To give it that thrust, we need to take it away from its private, almost aesthetic, qualities.
We can indeed enjoy these, intrigued by the flow of images as it runs before our inner eyes, following its own associative logic. But more is needed to turn it from a mere solipsistic act, not unlike the pleasure offered by the virtual worlds of a 3-D helmet, into an intellectual perspective. A measure of analytic control is needed to guide the associative flow and make it serve the point and purpose of an argument. If the point is to confront transnationalism and exceptionalism, one obvious first step would be to zoom out from any specific instance of exceptionalism and to see it as just one case among many others.
This is precisely what Obama did, conceiving of American exceptionalism as a specific case within the larger category—the larger genus —of national exceptionalisms. Hovering above the fray, in the manner of the true transnational mind, he showed American exceptionalism its place. The vehemence of the reaction to this perspective affirmed the rival reading of American exceptionalism as purely sui generis , as being one of a kind. This is what Daniel Rodgers made clear in his revisit of the concept of exceptionalism. In this extreme version, American exceptionalism comes to stand in logical opposition to transnationalism.
In that version too, it turns from an analytic perspective into a national ideology, no longer open to disinterested discussion and intellectual debate. It becomes a password in the heated national debate setting insiders apart from outsiders. As such it is only the latest stage in a national pastime as old as the American nation, at whatever stage of its historical formation. Transnationalism, then, appears as an unlikely contender for national self-reflection in the United States at its present stage. It is too relativistic, too ironic, to sustain and reflect the current national mood.
For the time being it may well have to pull back inside the walls of academia. It may be a while before the United States finds a president as open-minded, as cosmopolitan, as the one who served two full terms in the White House, from to Skip to main content Skip to sections.
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Open Access. First Online: 30 July Yet it would be wrong to see Obama as merely paying lip service to the word exceptionalism and all it stands for in summary of a larger American creed. Many have been the occasions, from his early presidency on, where we can see Obama revisiting the concept, not just to pay tribute and be done with it, but to consider the options it gave him to be an educator of the nation, to bring a degree of complexity to a word that too often was used as a facile trope.
The way Obama used the word was very much in the vein of what Sacvan Bercovitch called the American Jeremiad, a specific form of public speech that reminds the audience of its high calling while pointing to the many ways in which it is still falling short. Listen to Obama, in We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.
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