One of the first questions posed to me on taking the leadership of the II three years ago was whether Canada counted as international. Shouldn‘t, someone else asked, Native American nations within the USA count as international? What about the diasporas of other peoples now residing in America? Why isn‘t American (US) culture counted as part of international studies? These are good questions that deserve more reflection, for international conditions and the scholarship accompanying them have changed.

    As the intellectual extension of US foreign policy, international studies initially focused mainly on how the US could figure out the rest of the world.[1] In recent decades, however, this perspective has changed. Programs in American culture are no longer so “natio-centric” as they seek to figure the constitution of America through its global flows of peoples, cultures and goods. [2] The relationship between diasporas and nation making is also shifting, as “long distance nationalism”—the power of the diaspora to articulate their “original” nation‘s meaning—has grown more significant. [3] Native peoples within the USA and especially Canada have their respective sovereign territories and cultures, and have made new claims to “first nation” identification with others in analogous positions across the world.[4] As security concerns deepen, the boundary signifying Canada‘s political distinction grows more congested. Simple notions of “them and us” are hardly adequate to reflect the varieties of global engagement and the acknowledgment of diversity that underlie interest in the international. But it would also be wrong to assume that American interests in diversity and studies of the world beyond the US are only variations in the exploration of cross-cultural relations.

    Globalization is easily figured, for example, in terms of the extension of US culture and politics. That‘s most evident for those who would envision Americanization as globalization‘s prototype,[5] but even for those who would criticize globalization, American starting points also are apparent. The workshop on sacred spaces and heretical knowledge here had this presumption as a major object of focus,[6] but the U-M has long been working to establish different methods to make explicit how national presumptions work in configuring the international. Ironically, we made more progress on that question when a traveling seminar on cultural politics landed in the US last May.


    Held in Ann Arbor May 5-10, this seminar compared cultural politics in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the US, and featured work by 12 American, Polish and Turkish graduate students. This was the final of three workshops planned under the auspices of a Ford Foundation grant, that build on a U-M tradition of “traveling seminars”—holding workshops in several venues in order to provide different contexts and frameworks for exploring theoretical issues with colleagues from other places. This series of workshops used three basic methods to explicate the limits to and values of grounding in existing historiographical and cultural contexts, and the benefits of translating those problematics to other grounds not typically acknowledged in the analysis.

    The first method represents the standard workshop fare in which round-table discussions focused on student papers. [7] The second method is unusual within area studies, however, for it explicitly juxtaposes thematically linked but regionally varied projects to allow each presentation to serve as a different frame of reference for approaching others. For example, the third session compared icons of nationhood—the cultural location of women in debates about the Polish nation, the globalization of a commodified Turkish folk dance and the ways in which Mong cultural expression is used to denote Tatar national identity.[8] The juxtaposition of these very different icons highlighted assumptions in analysis that would go unmarked within the papers‘ standard analytical frames.

    For example, Polish women‘s position is hardly commodified in the same way as the Turks‘ Sultans of the Dance, but like the dance, Polish women‘s location in comparative discussions is frequently read through a global lens that makes the particularly Polish cultural politics of gender difficult to articulate. At the same time, however, one should be cautious in searching for that distinctive national expression, and appreciate the conditions under which it is acknowledged as inauthentic but still one‘s own. The spectacularly successful Sultans of the Dance presents Turkish ethnic, Kurdish and other artistic expressions as if they are mutually interchangeable, in a certain kitschy style that apparently seduces as it repels its more highbrow cultural consumers. Mong song is hardly globalized and seems to approximate more closely than other expressions that sense of authenticity beyond translation. However, its use as a vehicle to maintain distinctions from Russian-ness and to socialize youth into nationally appropriate mentalities is hard to read from a neutral grounding. To treat as inauthentic is to diminish its power; to treat as authentic invites disciplinary doubt in a postmodern age.

    The third method makes explicit the context embedded in national presumption. Until our Turkish colleague, Ayse Öncü, asked why we visited Auschwitz during our Polish seminar, I never doubted it as an essential part of knowing Poland. However, the question appears profound because that kind of recognition of past horrors is not such a prominent part of the Turkish monumental landscape. Context clearly cannot be taken for granted, and that goes for the US too.

    The May workshop went beyond a familiar Ann Arbor insularity to consider cultural politics typically beyond view. Beginning with an evening lecture on Detroit history, and followed by a tour and interview with leading grass-roots activists from Detroit‘s history and present, both U-M scholars and colleagues from abroad learned about striking innovations in cultural politics, embedded in the movement from socialist revolutionary politics into postmodern green politics and agricultural instruction for teenage mothers in downtown Detroit.[9]

    Two days later, we shifted focus from African-American grassroots struggles to the development of an Arab-American organizational success story in Dearborn—the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS). Created to provide social support, ACCESS is also increasingly the voice of Arab and Muslim America in the glare of a war against terror and new suspicion of Islam. Through visits with both members of the Midwest Chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and an imam who is a leading voice in articulating Muslim America‘s place, the challenge of reading cultural politics locally in light of global transformations became readily apparent.[10]

    Indeed, these experiences shattered the presumption that being American, or living in Ann Arbor, provided significant contextual expertise about the “area,” and powerfully reinforced the significance of thinking about grounding, translation and expertise not only across the world but within America itself.

    Those frames of centrality and marginality are not simply ones of American presumption, however. That became readily apparent in the interpretation of globalization‘s cultural politics when Kitchen Prayers was performed in Istanbul.


    Glenda Dickerson, director of the Center for World Performance Studies,[11] conceived and directed three previous openings of Kitchen Prayers in Ann Arbor in December, March and May, 2002. Between July 10 and July 19, 2002, she and her troupe—Walonda Lewis, Denise Lock, Kim Staunton Ramsey and Lisa Richards, with the assistance of Kenneth Daughterty— performed in Istanbul.

    Kitchen Prayers began as an American reflection on September 11, 2001, and a consideration of the kinds of losses that others throughout the world have experienced through violence. It brings together classical tragedy, ethnography and contemporary headlines. It is an especially woman-centered reflection; it focuses on how war, disease and violence affect mothers and their children across the world. In America it began with the particular experiences of five women on stage as they recalled the losses and fears they experienced on September 11. Glenda in particular worried about her daughter; Anitra was at the time of the attacks traveling on the A Train beneath the Towers. Anitra survived, but of course many did not, including Yvette Adams, a Black service employee who worked in WTC that day.

    These performances privilege African American perspective, experience and loss. For example, in the final performance in Istanbul, the troupe returned to an earlier presentation, drawing the headlines from the obituaries of the Black fathers, sons, brothers and husbands who also were firefighters lost on September 11. While applauded in Istanbul, this privilege was not obviously so comforting in an American context. I recall one reaction from the first performance in Ann Arbor– “why does Glenda conceive this in solely African-American terms? Wasn‘t this a loss felt by everyone? Shouldn‘t we be together in this?”

    In many ways it was hard for Americans not to feel together after 9/11; the extent of loss overwhelmed every citizen. But sometimes I thought that the emphasis on the unity of suffering was overdone. Shortly after the attacks, the US Ad Council issued a commercial on television, with a variety of faces and a variety of accents all proclaiming,“I am an American.” One could feel the progressive charge in this effort—to do what was possible to remind bigots that Americans are of every faith and color, and that no American should be at risk of hate crimes based on an imagined association with terrorists. But it also had another effect—to say that we are all the same when it comes to American citizenship. While true in law, this unity is based on certain powers and privileges of race, religion, class and gender. Glenda‘s play has been a startling reminder that we could be united under a different umbrella, with African American women in charge, filled with a different notion of power rooted in a deep spirituality, a faith of survival, of knowing sorrow as a part of life and of knowing joy regardless.

    Taking this play beyond the United States presents several challenges. First, in non-English speaking environments, one has to find a suitably versed English language audience. Our hosts, Sabancı University and Boğazi ç i University, could organize these networks of English-speaking audiences. Second, this audience should have sufficient American experience to recognize the distinction of the voices being articulated, speaking of their own loss but also working to connect to the struggles of others.

    Glenda and her colleagues prepared extensively for Turkey, reading a great deal about the country and its culture before their trip and then meeting with various circles of women after arriving. Out of respect for their hosts, they elaborated the play extensively beyond the slight references to Turkish women‘s suffering in an earlier version of the play. They retained a section that evoked women‘s hunger strikers in Turkish prisons but also articulated various perspectives on the place of the veil, and on secular assumptions more broadly. They retained their major focus on Africa, including the power of Esther Okloo, a woman entrepreneur isn Ghana, who taught other women how to find their survival in economic power and independence. Concluding that lesson of empowerment, the performers sang a few lines based on three words, “we are wonderful,” radiating a genuine warmth fueled by internal resolve and joy in self-respect and accomplishment.

    Of course there are important cultural differences of which the performers and their American colleagues may not be aware. After the final performance, we discussed with colleagues that it‘s impossible, within a Turkish context, for women to sing, or even to say, that they themselves are wonderful. Culturally appropriate humility prevents it. While I might also find difficulty in issuing such a phrase, I nevertheless can myself feel empowered by it, seeing in my friends and colleagues on stage an inner strength that can be acquired by proximity to that celebration. Perhaps, as my sociology colleague Fatma Müge Göçek, herself an American and Turk both, from the University of Michigan and at home in Istanbul, wondered, might Turks also begin to celebrate more, and be less critical of themselves and one another?

    I am working more to analyze the play and its reactions, but it is productive here to mark an extraordinary moment in the final performance where the African-American context, so prominent in the original performances, appeared to be lost. One young Turkish woman asked whether one could really say that those people lost in the World Trade Center were “victims”? She said she abhorred violence, nationalism, and was herself an advocate of human rights across borders, but then she stated in a matter of fact manner that these people were casualties of war. The cast was shocked. Denise told her that but for a last minute change in plans on September 10, she would have been just such a casualty. Our Turkish inquirer responded that this was unconvincing; accidental locations happen. After all, those killed at the wedding in Afghanistan just a few weeks earlier were also innocent, and the commentator suggested, may be even more innocent because they were not associated with the superpower setting the terms for war.

    To most, if not all, Americans it is inconceivable that those who died on September 11 in any way deserved their fate, regardless of their association with the superpower. Perhaps this young Turkish woman finds that this acceptance of American power‘s insufficiently discriminate violence justifies the victims of 9/11. My Turkish friends assure me that this is an extreme position, and that Turkey is America‘s best friend in the Muslim world. But they also say that many Turks find the American presumption to redefine the world in the wake of 9/11, especially as war looms in Iraq, to be the underlying world problem. This feeling makes the distinction of African-Americans rather slight in the overall scheme of things.

    This extreme disjuncture of sensibilities born of a particular conjuncture builds on more enduring cultural politics. For Glenda and her cast, nothing they say can be torn from the experiences of Black people in the West, in their origins as slaves, in their struggle to be free. But in the performance‘s failure to critique the West, and in the appropriation of Turkish materials without sufficient expertise, many Turks found a familiar Orientalist disposition. To appropriate the Turkish story in this way plays the Orientalist card, one observer told me, regardless of their position in America. The safest strategy would have been for the troupe to stay within their experience, to represent only themselves or the category they are perceived to embody, and to share those representations across the world.

    That‘s possible, and common and ideally designed for creating epistemic communities with more or less common understandings of the world with varying languages at home. Maybe it is best to only represent oneself, for it provides the surer ground of cultural ownership, and it enables safe affinities to be recognized, rather than to be proposed. But that method also suppresses some of the more difficult conversations that ought to be engaged. Kitchen Prayers in Istanbul certainly prompted new conversations about the politics of race and gender, within the US and across the world, while refashioning presumptions embedded in the cultural politics of globalization itself.


    One central reason for having a distinctive emphasis on the international in US universities is because of the power of American presumption not only in casting the US, but also in shaping the world conditions in which other peoples find their possibilities. In this sense, one of the most critical dimensions of area studies remains vitally important. To a considerable extent, therefore, even as studies of the US become themselves more open to the nation‘s global formation, we should also work to overcome our own natio-centrism in casting our studies of the world.

    However, it is also important in this study of the world to bring the complexity of American cultural politics into other cultural politics. American power inserts itself across the world, and is refashioned in those places as something to be emulated, demonized and certainly codified. As we consider international and area studies, it seems mightily important, as the cases above suggest, to increase US-grounded expertise about other parts of the world. But it is also important to consider how the complexity of US cultural politics figures in the rest of the world, and of globalization itself.

    One might begin this consideration at a mundane level, and ask about how students who come from abroad to learn in US universities also learn about this nation‘s complexities. How might professional and disciplinary learning taking place in various places across the university come to be implicated in a larger conversation about academic and political responsibility before global publics? Might one also take this further into a scholarly realm, and consider the various methods of research and performance that elaborate perceptions of US starting points?

    Area studies not only supplements global questions with local knowledge; it also powerfully reframes the questions asked by considering whose presumptions are built into the global articulation and marginal story. While there are also many Americans who will not accept the notion that innocent deaths like those at the Afghan wedding are ever justified, there are equally many if not more Americans who will accept “collateral damage” as the unintended consequences of war. US universities need to develop the capacity to understand world regions not only in the terms of how they fit, or don‘t fit, with US sensibilities but also in terms of the cultural politics articulated elsewhere. While some might be content to declare “globalization is US,” in either praise or critique, it hardly serves as a useful academic orientation given the complexity of the contest over the meanings of each, and the forces that make cultural politics work

      1. For a marvelous consideration of this point and related ones, see the comments around “The Future of International Studies: Academic Research in a Changing Global Context”, Social Science Research Council, April 24, 2002, to be published in a future issue of their Items and Issues. return to text

      2. See for the example the work of Atlantic Studies Initiative and Imagining America return to text

      3. Famously put by Benedict Anderson, “Long-Distance Nationalism” pp. 58-76 in The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World London: Verso, 1998. return to text

      4. See for example Claude Denis, We Are Not You: First Nations and Canadian Modernity Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1997. return to text

      5. Thomas L. Friedman The Lexus and the Olive Tree (New York: Anchor, 1999/2000) discusses this analogous notion of “Revolution is US”. return to text

      6. See the essays on this workshop in this issue of the Journal. return to text

      7. For a complete list, see return to text

      8. Authors of these papers included Urszula Chowaniec, Bedirhan Dehman and Helen Faller. return to text

      9. Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998 and return to text

      10. Andrew Shryock, “New Images of Arab Detroit: Seeing Otherness and Identity through the Lens of September 11”. Visual Anthropology 104(3)(2002):1-22. return to text

      11. See return to text