Nicole Poppenhagen & Jens Temmen

Across Pacific and Atlantic Currents: Navigating the Turbulent Oceans in American Studies 

Recent years have seen a rising interest in articulating connections between what is perceived as the established field of Atlantic studies and an emerging transpacific approach to understanding the Pacific region, and in exploring in what ways such a connection would relate to the field American studies and the political entity of the United States. By drawing on the postcolonial foundations of the two disciplines to critically explore the United States’ deep entanglements with the bodies of water surrounding it, this joint approach adds momentum to the continuous decentering and de-mystifying of the notion of the continental nation-state formation as both a linchpin of US national identity and a pillar of the field of American studies. At the same time, bringing together the work by scholars in Atlantic and transpacific studies to articulate a critique of the United States and American studies, holds the tangible danger of performing an imperial move: subsuming Atlantic and transpacific practices under the paradigm of a critique of the U.S. nation-state might not only run the risk of re-enforcing precisely those disciplinary affiliations which the two fields sought to escape in the first place but also result in glossing over the crucial distinctions and the respective postcolonial agendas that characterize the Pacific and Atlantic regions.

Based on our joint work and in an attempt to mindfully navigate the turbulent waters outlined above, our paper will sketch the potential of combining transpacific and Atlantic studies approaches for the critical examination of the United States and American studies. To this end, our paper will draw on themes and topics in the study of U.S. imperialism and diasporic literatures and discuss how these resonate in both fields and their methodologies. Scholars in Atlantic and transpacific studies have examined the central role of Euro-American imperialism in their respective areas of interest. The ways in which particularly U.S. imperialism has shaped and has been shaped by both the Atlantic and the Pacific, suggest a fruitful common ground for a shared critique of U.S. imperialism that does away with traditional and rigid genealogies of expansion and hierarchies of territorial control based on discourses of continentality and overseas expansion. Our reading of these discourses through the lenses of Atlantic and transpacific studies highlights how U.S. imperialism and its postcolonial and anti-imperial counter-movements rely on fluid conceptions of territory, expansion, and the nation-state. In these discourses, the ocean itself, as well as the movement of and across oceans, play a significant role. Particularly diasporic groups in both the Pacific and the Caribbean have often evolved along the routes of Euro-American imperialism. To understand their writings in terms of these oceanic legacies potentially establishes a shared agenda of resistance. At the same time, their articulations and struggles cannot be examined adequately without considering the distinct contexts of the cultural, political, historical, and economic conditions in which they emerge.