From College Literature 31, no.3 (Summer 2004)
Giles, Paul. 2002. Virtual Americas : Transnational Fictions and the Transatlantic Imaginary. Durham : Duke University Press. $64.95 hc. $21.95 sc. xiii + 337pp.
In Virtual Americas, Paul Giles picks up where his last book-Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730-1860-left off. The two books together demonstrate remarkable scope: Virtual Americas covers representations and refractions of British culture by authors ranging from Frederick Douglass to Thomas Pynchon.
Virtual Americas explores, with immense insight and breathtaking speed, both familiar and relatively obscure texts (such as Herman Melville's Clarel and Thomas Pynchon's nonfiction essays, which, Giles notes, "because they have not yet been collected in one volume, are rarely read together as a group" (229)), as well as theoretical texts ranging from Jürgen Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action to Theodor Adornos Negative Dialectics. Giles studies Douglass's awakening to national consciousness during his international travels to Britain and Ireland; Melville's simultaneous mockery of British authoritarianism and American reinscriptions of British hierarchies; the way in which Henry James's "surrealist" visualizations reconfigure European values by interpreting their metaphors materially; Robert Frost's transnational displacement of nationalistic "political fetishism" (147); the perverse fetishisms that Lolita has in common with area studies; the demystification of British forms and American transcendentalism in Thom Gunn and Sylvia Plath's expatriate poems; Pynchon's reconfiguration of local and American spaces in fictions refracted by British settings and characters; and, finally, the ways in which British cultural studies and American studies can interrupt one another's ideological assumptions by working as "ludic images of their opposite." (268) The speed with which Giles negotiates so many texts "dislocates" us not only from the nationalist frameworks of "area studies" but also from the common tendency to identify an author with a handful of canonical works: many of the chapters span the entire careers of the authors they examine.
However, the very range of Giles's work may raise eyebrows in readers skeptical of a critical framework that can generate two books published in consecutive years, which cover nearly three centuries of literature in (or, rather, "between") two national traditions. Giles's argument about the refractive mirroring that aestheticizes, refracts, dislocates, empties out, and virtualizes (the frequency with which he varies and doubles up such terms-as when he speaks of Vladimir Nabokov's "tone of inversion or detachment" (168)-seems to belie their vagueness) both British and American cultural contexts seem almost too versatile. Although his brilliant readings make his choice of authors appear quite natural, he never discusses his principles of selection. Why Melville and James, rather than Edith Wharton, or the Mark Twain of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court? Why Robert Frost, and not T.S. Eliot? The flexibility of Giles's scope is even more evident in the easy way in which the book's subtitle slides between "Transnational Fictions" and "The Transatlantic Imaginary": Melville's narratives of the South Seas and the Holy Land, the "transpacific" scenarios that arise in Vineland and Frost's "Once by the Pacific," and Vladimir Nabokov's Russian origins seem to fit too easily into Giles's account of a primarily transatlantic transnationalism. This conflation of the transnational with the transatlantic is most evident in the implicit equation that Giles draws between British decadence and Cold War xenophobia: "[Frost's] style of cold war modernism in the Steeple Bush poems, predicated on the attraction and repulsion of antagonistic opposites, involves a metaphorical externalization and partial suppression of those self-consciously decadent elements that inspired his early work" (150, emphasis added). And even transatlantic influences are interpreted in constrained terms: for the most part, Giles treats only British and American writers, leaving out accounts of Southern European intertexts on the one hand and the transnational literature of the "black Atlantic " on the other.
But with respect to the Anglo-American writings he takes on, Giles's individual chapters have much to offer even to those readers who find his occasional lack of geographical specificity suspect. For, in addition to his broad claim that transnational perspectives enable (mostly) American and (a few) British writers to attain an aesthetic distance that "virtualizes" the values and traditions of both nations, Giles also provides persuasive and detailed arguments about transnational histories of reception and literary influence. The first line of argument examines, for example, the excisions of Herman Melville's anti-monarchic and supposedly "blasphemous" passages from Moby Dick and the 1956 obscenity trial of Lolita in Britain . Of the latter episode, Giles provocatively remarks that "there is...a close affiliation between legal censorship and the academic practice of area studies, because both depend for their efficient operation on the identification of discrete communities, enclosed areas, to which some homogenizing, ethical idea can plausibly be attached" (175). The book's analyses of transatlantic intertextuality can be just as provocative: while he occasionally provides new readings of familiar filiations-such as Melville's reworking of John Milton, or Robert Frost's relationship with Eliot-Giles also presents some striking and persuasive juxtapositions: Frost, it turns out, was also profoundly influenced by the sinister and at times psychopathological decadence of Algernon Charles Swinburne and Thomas Hardy; and James looks forward to European surrealists artists like André Breton and Marcel Duchamps, insofar as his writing reflects upon the "world on the edge of mass mechanization [whose conditions] were to form the basis of surrealist aesthetics a few years later" (92). The book's combined interests in intertextual analysis and transatlantic geographical crossings thus produce much more surprising results than the expected catalogue of American anxieties about British influence. Not only were many of the American writers reviewed, censured, and even censored in Britain, but a writer like James anticipates (and perhaps even influenced) European movements like Surrealism, and all of Giles's literary examples contain implicit critiques of British as well as American society.
Just as Giles's link between James's double vision of America and surrealism's materialization of modernist metaphors turns an apparent anachronism into a source of immense interpretive leverage, his overall metaphor of "virtualization" demonstrates that contemporary critics of cyberspace and virtual reality (he cites Robert Markley and N. Katherine Hayles, among others) can help us to reframe literary history and area studies in transnational terms. But although his terminology often resonates with work in digital culture, Giles emphasizes the visual aspects of "virtualization": "It is as if the observer were seeing native landscapes refracted or inverted in a foreign mirror. . . . Such mirror images deprive the objects reflected of their traditional comforts of depth and perspective, illusions by which their claims on natural representation are traditionally sustained" (2). Indeed, cameras, mirrors, and other forms of "diplopia" or double vision occur at significant moments in many of Giles's textual examples; perhaps the most remarkable of these arises when Humbert Humbert decides to adapt to the English custom of driving "on the queer mirror side" of the road, thus denaturalizing American customs and embodying an unassimilable and unaccommodating foreignness (qtd on 165). Giles provides suggestive readings of such mirrors and cameras, but given his reliance on a visual metaphorics of diplopia, perspectivism, and refraction the book would benefit from an extended account of visual media such as the nineteenth-century stereoscope (which seems to be a concrete embodiment of "diplopia"), twentieth-century innovations in camera technology, and the world wide web. Besides his discussion of surrealist painters, Giles provides only passing accounts of topics such as Thom Gunn's "camera style" and Sylvia Plath's early poetic meditations on the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico.
But although they lie beyond the scope of his wide-ranging and often provocative study, topics such as literature's relationship with the history of visual technologies and transatlantic intertextualities that fall outside of Anglo-American circuits nevertheless resonate suggestively with Giles's arguments. In the final analysis, Virtual Americas should be praised rather than blamed for leaving so many loose ends: after all, no single study could possibly encompass so many subjects and so wide a geographical field, and Giles's incomplete discussions of visual media, virtual reality, and the Inns-pacific imaginary open up dialogues with other critical projects while indicating new ways in which scholars can engage with questions of visual perspective, Anglo-American anxieties of influence, and transnational literary history
| [Author Affiliation]
Hsuan L. Hsu
University of California , Berkeley
| Burrows, Stuart: Virtual Americas: Transnational Fictions and the Transatlantic Imaginary
Modern Fiction Studies (Dept of English, Purdue Univ., West Lafayette, IN) (Baltimore, MD) (50:3) [Fall 2004] , p.742-744.
Paul Giles. Virtual Americas : Transnational Fictions and the Transatlantic Imaginary.
"National histories," Paul Giles elegantly advises us at the beginning of his new book, "cannot be written simply from the inside" (6). Giles's adoption of a comparative model is not surprising-just last year he helped found the journal Comparative American Studies-and Virtual Americas is an important contribution to recent attempts to read American literary history from outside traditional parameters. Impressive in scope-moving effortlessly from Frederick Douglass to French surrealism, Robert Frost to Gayatri Spivak-Giles's study takes as its subject the ways in which American literature was shaped by "a transatlantic imaginary, by which I mean the interiorization of a literal or metaphorical Atlantic world" (1). One way of reading Virtual Americas would be as a supplement to Paul Gilroy's Black Atlantic, the text that could be said to have initiated recent interest in transatlantic crossings and collaborations. And when Giles expresses his impatience with identity politics, which he claims too often arise out of outdated notions of the nation-state, he echoes Gilroy's attempt to move beyond what The Black Atlantic calls "the unsatisfactory alternatives of Eurocentrism and black nationalism" (186).
That Giles should draw our attention to the debt owed by American texts to European political and aesthetic debates is perhaps surprising when we consider recent critical interest in hemispheric studies, Pacific Rim discourse, and the African diaspora. Yet Giles's approach has much to offer. His opening chapter, for example, makes the case that Fredrick Douglass's autobiographies were "dependent on a transnational, comparative consciousness" (30), a consciousness Douglass developed through immersing himself in the work of the British antislavery movement during a two-year stay in England in the mid 1840s. Douglass believed the plantation system partly owed its power to the slaveholder's ability to represent his fiefdom as the world, so that the plantation believed itself to be "a little nation of its own" (31). Making common cause with other victims of oppression, such as the victims of the Irish famine, allowed Douglass to expose the isolation and parochialism of the peculiar institution.
If Douglass's representation of the horrors of slavery owed more than has been acknowledged to the British abolitionist movement, Herman Melville's novels of the mid-nineteenth century greatly benefited precisely from their author's ability to "swerv[e] away from the traditions of English literature." Thus, Giles argues, "the subversive qualities of [Melville's] American idiom involve the ways it parodies or intertextually revises those cultural expectations associated with the British heritage" (73). Yet, as he reminds us, quoting Melville biographer Hershel Parker, the initial "revival of Melville's reputation was almost exclusively a British phenomenon" (47). Indeed, Virtual Americas makes the convincing case that Matthew Arnold was as important to Melville's later work as Hawthorne was to his earlier, which accounts, Giles suggests, for why Melville constantly associates aestheticism with America and moralism with Britain . As he points out, The Confidence-Man is deliberately global in its orientation, constantly employing a rhetoric of comparison that stretches far beyond the confines of the Mississippi River .Giles's most daring argument concerns Henry James's The American Scene, which he reads as a kind of forerunner to the European surrealistic texts of André Breton and Guillaume Apollinaire. In surrealism, he notes, people assume the characteristics of objects and objects assume the characteristics of persons, a form that could certainly be said to characterize James's 1905 account of his return home. Whether this is enough to justify calling James's late style surrealist is open to debate, but what is intriguing about Giles's reading are the links he establishes between the aestheticism of the 1890s and the Dada movement of the 1920s. Giles's determination to forge such unlikely connections aligns him with critics such as Susan Hegeman and Walter Benn Michaels, both of whom have made powerful arguments for modernism's complex relation to American nationalism. And while not all of Giles's comparisons are equally convincing, they are all in the service of a rather laudatory aim, the attempt to overturn the recent hostility to literary form in American Studies. Virtual Americas ends with a return to that most unlikely of Americanists, Theodor Adorno, and specifically to that critic's concept of negative dialectics. Giles praises Adorno's attention to the politics of literary form, and his study is at its most impressive, I think, when it allows us to see both the material reality and the self-authorizing fictionality (what it calls virtuality) of American literature's nationalizing narratives.
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