The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture

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The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture  
cover
Author(s) Amy Kaplan
Publisher Harvard University Press
Publication date 2005-03-15
Pages 272
ISBN 0674017595

The tentacles of imperialism have reached far and wide. Similarly, the consequences of imperial expansion extend to imperial powers. The resulting effects often emerge in numerous ways, not least among them in cultural production. Focusing on the cultural productions of popular fiction, film, media, and recognized authors, Amy Kaplan’s The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture challenges the “traditional understanding of imperialism as a one way imposition of power in distant colonies” calling attention to “ambiguities and contradictions of imperial relations in the formation of national culture.” (1) Kaplan explores the influence of international struggles for imperial domination on “representations of American national identity at home,” (1) meaning that “domestic metaphors of national identity” remain connected to “renderings of the foreign and the alien.” (2).

Kaplan opens with debates over Puerto Rico’s status noting how numerous leaders feared bringing the island nation into the national sphere because of its nonwhite population. Rather than view the Puerto Rico case in the context of the international, Kaplan points out that it eventual inclusion as a territory related to concerns over degradation to U.S. citizenry and family. The eventual solution made Puerto Ricans “foreign” in the “domestic sense” (“As “alien races,” Puerto Ricans were rendered “foreign” in the “domestic sense” by their perceived resembleance to alien races deemed to be incapable of self government at home.” (10)) much like Blacks under Jim Crow. (“The category of the “unincorporated territory” held out the possibility of absorbing new members into the family while deferring this possibility to the indefinite future.” (11)). By doing so, the U.S. made American imperialism a legitimate defensive act. Not necessarily in the case of Puerto Rico, but more broadly, American officials justified imperial ambitions as a means to protect U.S. interests and “defend/save” a weaker nation from anarchy (i.e. restore order and impose “democratic govt” that one day might enable the colonized to rule themselves, “benevolent assimilation.”). Racialized discourse served as a central theme in the debates, however , “racialized analogies that empire deployed at home and abroad created dissonance as well as resonance, as they mutually defined and destabilized one another.” (10) The “nightmare” of imperialism ironically related to its successes, the further the U.S. pushed outwards the more it would have to find ways to incorporate non-white peoples which introduced the foreign removing the domestic. Imperialism served to disrupt the imperial power in numerous ways, “’the anarchy of empire’ … suggests ways of thinking about imperialism as network of power relations that changes over space and time and is riddled with instability, ambiguity, and disorder, rather than as a monolithic system of domination that th every word ‘empire’ implies.” (14). The more America expanded its exceptionalism to the world shattered the “coherence of national identity, as the boundaries that distinguish it from the outside world promise to collapse.” (16)

The Anarchy of Empire notably attempts to juxtapose imperial expansion with domestic debates over Jim Crow, segregation, slavery and Reconstruction. It also utilizes gender as a lens through which to explore the various ways masculinity and femininity served to legitimize expansion. For women, as numerous historians have noted, imperial adventure provided a space for their civilizing influence. Domesticity as promoted through imperial adventure, “extended not only to racially foreign subjects inside and outside the home, but also to the interiority of female subjectivity …” (43). By extending the “female sphere”, it no longer remained a bounded or rigidly ordered interior space. Domesticity’s double meaning as an interior home space and a domesticating of the wild fit well into imperial ambitions. If men’s actions drove imperialism, women’s innate moralism legitimized its results, “Not a retreat from the masculine sphere of empire building, domesticity both reenacts and conceals its origin in the violent appropriation of foreign land.” (50). [some notable quotes from chapter 2 - “Domestic Discourse, I argue, both redressed and reenacted the anarchic qualities of empire through its own double movement: to expand female influence beyond the home and the nation, and simultaneously to contract woman’s sphere to that of policing domestic boundaries against the threat of foreignness.” (28)/ “”Manifest Domesticity” turns an imperial nation into a home by producing and colonizing specters of the foreign that lurk inside and outside its ever shifting borders.” (50)]

Mark Twain emerges as one of Kaplan’s central foils. For Kaplan, Twain interest lay in his relation to America through empire or as Kaplan argues, “In his journey to Hawaii in 1866, Twain both displaced and discorved the origins of his own divided national identity at the intersecting global routes of slavery and empire.” (91) Kaplan’s Twain found his “homespun” qualities woven from “the tangled threads of imperial travel …. Twain’s career writing, and reception as a naiotnal author were shaped by … the routes o transnational travel, enabling and enabled by the changing borders of imperial expansion.” (52). While visiting Hawaii, Twain appeared consumed by death and disease. He recognizes the devastation brought to natives via European disease but often engages in various forms of erasure that cloak the imperial history. Kaplan suggests Twain engaged in Imperial nostalgia “the longing to salvage an imagined pristine, pre-colonial culture by the same agents of empire – missionaries, anthropologists, travel writers – who have had a hand in destroying it. Imperialist nostalgia disavows the history of violence that yokes the past to the present.” (56). Imperial nostalgia might free Twain from considering the interconnections between empire and slavery. Though attempting to erase or forget much of the imperial history surrounding him, Twain remained keenly aware of the economic issues that might benefit US interests promoting a steamship lne to Hawaii and its sugar production. American intervention for Twain served “as liberation from the stranglehold of Old World empires, Twain represented Hawaii as a passive arena and lucrative reward for the contest between American and European powers in the Pacific.” (63). Feminizing Europe and masculinizing America left indigenous Hawaiians void, non actors in their own history. Hawaiian women occupy spaces in Twains mind relating equally to disease, death, and sexual licentiousness. For Kaplan Twains views on native women “turns both the bodies of native women and the remains of the dead into exotic sites for the projection of colonial desire, sites apparently frozen in time and divorced form the historical stuggles ofver colonization in wich his journey is enmeshed. Twain’s eroticization of Hawaii renders colonial desire as a kind of necrophilia.” (66). The displacement of responsibility for the spread of disease is neatly reassigned to native women rather the European missionaries and explorers. In history of colonial struggle, Twain could not resist connecting such travails as reflective of America’s recent difficulties with slavery. In his later writings, Hawaii remained a central factor in how Twain confronted the “legacy of slavery in post-Reconstruction America and the history of imperialism and capitalist development abroad.” (88).

Theodore Roosevelt and the “yellow press” emerge no less unscathed than Twain. Though crediting newspapers for exciting American desires for war in 1898, Kaplan redirects her examination to look at film and the historical novels of the 1890s. Imperial films provided a way to create a linear narrative form with images. For natives this meant erasure, invisibility, and incompetence as nonwhite forces found themselves portrayed as lazy, incompetent or simply vacant. Just as “spectacle” had been a necessary aspect of imperialism’s gendered civilizing process (men had to compete or struggle under the feminine gaze to give both meaning in the imperial context), films provided audiences ways to view and think about imperialism and its occupied subjects. Viewing the films themselves removed women and others from their domestic spheres, “If the spectacle of war provided a safe way for women to enter a public sphere of global mobility, in turn the oppositional potential of this public sphere might have been harnessed and disciplined by the activity of watching war films.” (160). Teddy Roosevelt realized the importance of spectacle in his attach on San Juan Hill. Reports that black soldiers saved his rough riders from certain annihilation received at best a luke warm response from the future president. To illustrate this mentality, Kaplan explores Roosevelt’s paternalist attitudes toward black soldiers. He acknowledges them as Americans but subordinates them to second class status. Cuban agency found itself obscured by film and media reports as native actors were ignored or portrayed as detached, non-participants in their own war of liberation. [this has to do with U.S. formulations that suggested only the U.S. could have successful orderly revolution, that US imperialism brought law and stability to such regions ]. Kaplan carefully points out that not all colonial subjects and minorities received monolithic treatment by men such as Roosevelt, “Roosevelt … suffered a double vision: on the one hand identifying African Americans with, and on the other hand differentiating them from, the imagined unassimilable Cubans, Filipinos, and Puerto Ricans.” (138) [that’s not to say he didn’t connect oppressions though he wouldn’t have described them as such, “The links between disenfranchisement in occupied Cuba and the Jim Crow South point imperialism as the exporter of the domestic color line and recontexutalize racism at home as part of a global imperial strategy of rule.” (138)]