Brian Russell Roberts and Michelle Ann Stephens, eds. Archipelagic American Studies. Duke University Press, 2017. 496 pages. Kindle $18.12. Paperback $31.95. Hardcover $114.95.

Natalie Catasús

This review was previously published in issue 35 (October 2020) of sx salon: a small axe literary platform


Archipelagic American Studies marks an important contribution to the study of cultures of islands, archipelagoes, and spaces traditionally conceived as peripheral. In their introduction, editors Brian Russell Roberts and Michelle Ann Stephens define the archipelagic turn in American studies as “a turn toward approaching islands, island-sea assemblages, and littoral formations that goes beyond colonialist tropes” (11). They call for scholars to “decontinentalize” the way we think and write about the Americas and to recognize that the spaces that comprise them “have been persistently intertwined with, constituted by, and grounded in the archipelagic” (17). The volume prompts readers to reconsider notions of the archipelago as a purely natural geographic phenomenon, arguing that archipelagoes are in fact discursively constructed by the maps, writings, and other media that seek to represent them. One of the book’s primary and most compelling arguments is essentially a literary one: if archipelagoes are discursive constructions, we must examine and analyze the discourses that perform this work. At the same time, the tension between the metaphorical and the material persists throughout all the essays as the contributors grapple with how to treat the archipelago as a discursive construction without diminishing the material impacts of systems of empire, genocide, and slavery. Archipelagic American Studies offers no simple answers to these questions, nor perhaps should it. To bridge the gap, the contributors deploy meticulous close readings and careful historical analyses that document and argue the material impacts of the metaphorical world imagined by humans.

The featured essays successfully model what an archipelagic approach to cultural objects can look like. An archipelagic approach refuses to be bound by traditional disciplinary allegiance. The essays thus draw on multiple methodologies, from literary and cultural studies to geography and sociology. It is, however, valuable to consider the impact of Édouard Glissant’s theories of the poetics of Relation and archipelagic thought, which serve as touchstones throughout the volume. In the afterword, Paul Giles writes that Glissant’s theory “has probably shaped the ‘archipelagic turn’ more than anyone else’s” (427). In his essay, J. Michael Dash similarly reminds readers that Glissant himself conceived of archipelagic thought in juxtaposition with (rather than in contrast to) continental thought (360). To do otherwise would betray the importance of relational and nonbinary thinking. Though it certainly operates according to a Glissantian logics of Relation, archipelagic thought perhaps even more explicitly concerns itself with spatial relations and geography, and it demands a sensibility to the power dynamics and the material causes and effects of those relations. An archipelagic approach, then, is necessarily comparative and operates between traditional disciplinary boundaries. Implied throughout the collection is the call not only to study islands in a relational manner, but to approach continents relationally as well. Taken together, they form open systems of connected spaces and places.

As the editors note in their introduction, the book itself represents its own sort of archipelagic formation. It is comprised of nineteen chapters and an afterword by contributors with expertise in fields that include sociology, geography, environmental, and island studies; visual arts and literature; ethnic and indigenous studies; and cultural and postcolonial studies, as well as Latin American, Caribbean, and Pacific studies. The editors’ introduction offers a thorough overview of the intellectual history of archipelagic thought and functions well as a stand-alone essay for readers looking for an introduction to the concept. Keeping with its archipelagic methods, the rest of the volume, which is structured in seven parts, is organized thematically rather than by region or linguistic tradition.

At first glance the thematic section titles may pose a challenge for readers seeking to home in on one topic or region. In fact, most of the chapters exceed the boundaries of their assigned section, and one could imagine recategorizing them under different themes without radically disrupting the volume’s structural integrity. This is not to suggest that the organization is arbitrary; the sections remain cohesive even as individual essays speak across boundaries. For example, the core concepts outlined in part 1, “Theories and Methods for an Archipelagic American Studies,” are reframed in part 2, which challenges given geopolitical frameworks by reconceptualizing maps, histories, and literatures of spaces such as Guam, the black Atlantic and Pacific, and the Spanish Americas. Meanwhile, part 3 focuses explicitly on the impacts of imperialism in such spaces, and part 4 addresses modes of anticolonial resistance. Part 5 turns to archipelagic ecologies and archives to explore the material and metaphorical relations among humans, refuse, and the natural world. Part 6 focuses on the representation of the tropics in performance media (echoing concerns that emerged in part 2’s chapter on US-American covers of calypso songs). Part 7, with its explicit focus on global politics and capitalism, frames archipelagic thought in terms of diaspora, labor, and gender. The result of this thematic organization is that readers will inevitably stumble across connections they might not have previously considered, and this is one of the successes of the collection. Notably, several essays discuss the Caribbean—with its histories of colonialism, slavery, and creolization—as a hotbed for archipelagic thinking and then explore connections between the Caribbean context and indigenous ontologies emerging from Pacific archipelagic spaces. The individual chapters themselves are consistently well-structured, such that a reader can quickly get a gist of the argument and the objects of study to see if a given essay will be pertinent to their interests.

While the book has received praise for its contributions to American studies and nissology, it is also worth highlighting its value within the field of Latinx studies. Archipelagic thinking is at its core a comparative method, and the volume will be of particular interest to scholars eager to break out of a nation-bound model and explore alternate frameworks for analyzing borders and boundaries. Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel’s essay is exemplary in this regard. She examines the underexplored connections between Central America and the Caribbean by close-reading colonial maps that describe the Caribbean as the “Mexican archipelago.” This allows her to recover the maps’ historical and ideological underpinnings. She then puts this analysis in conversation with contemporary fiction to demonstrate how these seemingly disparate materials speak to the Caribbean’s multifaceted and continuously changing formation as a colonized and decolonizing archipelago.

Despite its efforts to decentralize the United States, the book remains US-oriented and is notably sparse in its inclusion of essays related to Central and South American archipelagic spaces (Martínez-San Miguel’s is an exception). This orientation is perhaps somewhat inevitable, since the book’s project to decontinentalize American studies requires it to take up the legacies of US imperialism in particular. In addition to reading about Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s theory of the repeating island in this context,[1] scholars of the hispanophone Americas will benefit from from the comparative approach Susan Gillman skillfully models in her essay on José Martí, José Rizal, C. L. R. James, and W. Adolphe Roberts. Gillman demonstrates how a consideration of the Philippines as the westernmost part of Latin America opens up possibilities for comparing anticolonial and anti-imperialist archipelagic literatures.

While the essays in the volume engage extensively with the aftermath of historical disasters such as slavery, colonialism, and the genocide of indigenous peoples, it has less to say regarding so-called natural disasters such as the hurricanes and earthquakes to which many islands, archipelagoes, and coastal regions have been vulnerable. Published in mid-2017, the book notably predates Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico. Despite the absence of essays that take up ecological disaster as their primary focus, future scholarship on Maria and human-environmental disaster will benefit from the sort of archipelagic analysis contributors to this volume have brought to their discussions.

Archipelagic American Studies is, overall, an important intervention in and beyond the discipline of American studies. Its remapping of the United States and the Americas at large as an archipelagic formation is a bold gesture that has implications for the many fields concerned with spaces where land and sea meet and with the peoples and cultures that inhabit them. The book is a necessary read for anyone interested in “decontinentalizing” scholarship related to empire and nation.

[1] See Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, trans. James E. Maraniss, 2nd ed. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).

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