Visual Essays

America in the World:
Images of America, and Discourses of “Americanization” and “Anti-Americanism”

This new multi-year research initiative by the International Forum for U.S. Studies began in the Spring of 2003. The project brings together scholars from several countries, working in trans-national collaborative teams to conduct on-site research. In addition to typical academic outcomes, like articles, books, and conferences, we plan to develop web-sites and other modes of communication and dissemination of ideas and findings.

Despite the enormous amount of academic energy currently expended discussing issues of “globalization,” relatively little work has carefully analyzed the distinctions and overlaps between these ideas and processes called “globalization” and those dubbed “Americanization.” This project seeks to intervene in and contribute to those large debates by engaging in ethnographic research, discourse analysis, and political and economic analysis which compares the situation in specific countries.

We are interested in how the symbolic notion of “America” circulates within specific national and subnational contexts. (We use the word advisedly instead of “the U.S.” not to indicate all of the Americas, but rather to try to capture the symbolic power of the word when it is used to indicate the imaginary of “America.”) Of what does this imagined construct consist? How does this differ in different countries? Among various groups within countries or arrayed across national boundaries? We propose that “American Studies” as a discipline should include the study and analysis of these multiple imaginaries so that the object of study includes the multiple “Americas” that circulate in the world.

We are also interested in how ideas, people, modes of social organization, commodities, and cultural practices perceived as “American” circulate outside the U.S. national context. And finally, we are interested in analyzing how these first two issues are related to a third: discourses and actions that are named, perceived, or promoted as “anti-Americanism.” Of what does this term consist in specific national or subnational contexts outside the U.S.? Under what circumstances, and with what effects, for whom, are particular discourses and actions named as “Anti-American?” How does the power of this term relate to the circulation of images, ideas, and discourses about the U.S., and to the circulation of U.S.-identified commodities, cultural practices, and ideas or organizational structures?

These are some of the issues and questions we are engaging with colleagues from Germany, South Africa, and elsewhere.

This current Web Exhibit is one part of this larger project, one which takes advantage of the visual capabilities of the Web. Our aim is to offer a specific case study of the visual discourse of political critique as a mode of considering the questions above. The photographic images assembled here are of protests against the U.S.’s foreign policy in Iraq as it is performed by groups of activists in Capetown, South Africa. While this exhibit cannot by any means capture the full range of South African opinions about U.S. foreign policy, it does allow us all to begin to engage with the complex process of understanding how images of the U.S. circulate, and how concepts of who and what is “American” are mobilized in specific, historical and geographical contexts abroad.