Why calling America an Empire is not Helpful

Amy Kaplan, in her 2003 Presidential address to the American Studies Association, suggests American Studies scholars to think more creatively and critically about what they mean by internationalizing the field of American Studies instead of calling America imperial. Though it is fashionable to say America an empire, Kaplan argues that the fashion to say America an empire is not helpful.

In one hand, the United States shuts itself off for the world it seeks to control. Thus naming the empire has the potential to put American Studies scholars in conversation with critics around the world. As a result, it may help make the contours of U.S. power more visible. On the other hand, the denial and disavowal of empire has long served as the ideological cornerstone of U.S. imperialism and a key component of American exceptionalism. She argues, “The talk about empire conceals more than it reveals and makes certain kinds of utterances unspeakable.”

Kaplan suggests different creative alternatives to make American Studies a better discipline rather than just calling America an empire since the discourse “seemed to say more about the persons using the term than about the phenomenon itself.”

First, she suggests that American Studies scholars expose the imperialistic appropriation of the name America and then turn away from it. Moreover, scholars can not lose sight of the power of America in American Studies.

Second, American Studies scholars have the obligation to study and analyze the meanings of America in their multiple dimensions, to understand the enormous power wielded in its name, its ideological and affective force, as well as its sources for resistance to empire.

Third, American Studies scholars need to study more about the differences among nation, state, and empire, when they seem to fuse and how they are at odds, to think of how state power is wielded at home and abroad in the name of America.

Fourth, scholars need to study how meanings of America have changed historically in different international contexts.

Fifth, she suggests that through studies of political, literary, and cultural images, they must understand how “America” is a relational, a comparative concept, how it changes shape in relation to competing claims to that name and by creating demonic others, drawn in proportions as mythical and monolithic as the idea of America itself.

Finally, American Studies scholars need to create alternative venues for international conversations to show that scholars have visions of American studies and of America.