For some time, scholars across the humanities and social sciences have been building a stronger and stronger case that culture and society should be thought across—and not within—national borders. Key figures in left thought in Britain, like Tom Nairn, Raymond Williams and (perhaps most famously) Benedict Anderson, analyzed what came to be post-nationalism with powerful persuasion, to the extent that most solid social and humanistic study has become comparative studies and more and more literary study is becoming comparative literature of some type. In this sense, those new studies of nationalism added a geopolitical element to traditional comparative literature, something like the way postcolonial studies infused older “commonwealth literature” with political commitment. As borders lost their salience, those old ways of studying literature as British, American, or Chinese lost their hold over literary research, even if curricula sometimes still cling to their traditional structures.
Anderson was particularly fascinated not just with the imagined and ethereal nature of nationalism, but also with its paradoxical power to move and inspire individuals to sacrifice so much for its ideal. In the United States, I have argued, nationalism in the post-national era has taken a specific path, built on an equally striking paradox. As life here has become ever more globalized—in terms of economics, consumption patterns, travel, language, culture, literature—important definers of our culture have become increasingly domesticated. A good example of this is on American university campuses where research is built on international exchange of various types, even as university administrators roll back language requirements and funding for the study of languages.
Another example is American politics. I attempted to describe, critique, and expose America’s domestication problem in an academic study that took its final manuscript form months before the election of Donald Trump as president, so although the study focuses on the 20th and 21st centuries, it never mentions his name. Although he represents a rupture from certain traditions in American culture, he is also the culmination of decades of the domesticating trend in the American public sphere. During his first term, no issue has been too transnational to be turned into a means to challenge his domestic rivals. Neither China, Israel/Palestine, the Koreas, Cuba, Yemen, the European Union, Russia, nor any other global space have any significance under this regime other than as fodder for talking points to propagate on the government’s preferred domestic mainstream and social media outlets.
Although here in the United States it is not spoken of this way, the current pandemic seems almost scripted to expose the dangers of our domesticating impulse. Two of the worst early outbreaks were in countries—China and Iran—our government had gone out of its way to antagonize. Halting flights and building walls seemed to do nothing to slow down the spread, and it eventually emerged that test kits, protective gear and other basic material depended on globalized supply chains—often traceable back to the very hot zones of the virus like Wuhan or Milan. Global cooperation around the pandemic’s politics, science, and manufacturing seem crucial. (The number of essays in U.S.-based prestige journals arguing that the Trump administration has dismantled the U.S.’s standing as the leader of the world have spiked with the pandemic.) Finally, the quotidian experience of self-quarantining has turned into a uniquely transnational experience in the sense that this odd abrupt change in lifestyle has taken effect almost everywhere all at once, and with not very much variation, so that we contact relatives on other continents and find them also washing their hands, trying not to touch their faces, and holding to or defying instructions not to leave home. For these reasons, multiple attempts by the Trump administration to erase the global victimizing of the disease and find a ‘foreign’ target to blame these events on have failed so far.
The study of comparative literature has never been particularly nationalist, but interest within the field in broadening its transnational component and in testing new and better tools for reading across ever widening palettes for global comparison has increasingly infiltrated almost every discussion. The field’s traditional emphasis on continental Europe has been exposed as narrow and unsustainable. Now when comparative literature scholars practice their métiers, they are inevitably considering a wider swath of the global—and doing so in increasingly innovative ways. This means that comparative literature scholarship is needed in the United States more than ever as an antidote—or at least a challenge—to the domesticating impulse that obfuscates the highly globalized nature of our culture. But this also places a great responsibility on us not to take the easy route but rather to deal with the problem of the global in all the complexities it forces upon us both before and after Covid-19.
For example, merely producing a language to discuss the transnational at this moment feels almost insurmountable, because of the many paradoxes that arise even without going beyond points skimmed across in these musings. Nationalism is both an imagined category and one of the most powerful motivators of the contemporary citizen; the United States is as integrated in the economics, politics, and culture of the globe as it has ever been, even as its politics and media culture have become savagely domestic; processes of globalization have become more and more inclusive of elites and states even as they have become less and less inclusive of classes and communities. These paradoxes demand our attention as scholars. That leads to the final paradox: focusing on globality without leaving home.