Annotated Bibliography for ‘The American Effect’ Exhibit Catalog Part I – III

Sean was a consultant to the curator on the exhibit ‘The American Effect’ at the Whitney Museum — click here to read about his work on that exhibit — and also wrote the annotated bibliography below.


“An imperial or world power doesn’t remember all its little battles.  But the local people remember.”

V.S. Naipaul wrote that about the British in Asia during the time of empire, but he might have written it more recently about America.  Since 1990, when the United States emerged from the Cold War as the lone superpower, it has been engaged in an endless series of little battles – literally, in such military engagements as Iraq and Somalia, and figuratively, through the social, political, cultural, and economic means by which a great power shapes the world. Only the biggest and most significant of America’s actions in the world are retained in the memory of the superpower but every one of them, no matter how small or accidental, is remembered by the people whose lives were changed by them.

It is not only the memories of shared history that differ, but also the ability to record that memory.  American media is the de facto world media, from CNN and The New York Times to MTV and Hollywood.  The determination of what is newsworthy and what inconsequential, what credible and what biased, is made by Americans in Atlanta or New York or Los Angeles and not Vietnamese in Hanoi or Congolese in Kinshasa.  When the weak want to make themselves heard, they must do so through the television channels, newspapers and radio stations of the powerful; the same views articulated in their own media go largely unheard beyond their borders.  As a result of this asymmetry, the United States is able to project its image of itself across vast distances, while the reflection that returns of what others think of it is fainter.  Often, the echo that can be heard is America’s own voice speaking for others, in the form of American pundits anticipating the views of ‘Europe’ or the so-called Arab street; much can be learned from these American mediators, but also much lost.

Power insulates, as well as deafens, so for long periods of time the divergence between what America says of itself and what others say of it can seem of little consequence – indeed, even go unnoticed – until events intervene to make clear its critical importance.  September 11th was such an event, and what follows is a subjective guide to the literature available in English about America’s presence in the world.  The most recent edition is cited, unless otherwise indicated.

I. On Mediation
The relationship between political or economic power and the articulation of history emerged as an area of inquiry in both Europe and the non-Western world, but for different reasons.  In Europe, it derived from cultural theory and semiotics, which examined the symbolic power of language and knowledge; in the non-Western world, it derived from the lived experience of colonialism, when most of the ‘official’ histories of the world were written by the colonizers.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
First published in 1959 and still the landmark novel of decolonization in Africa, it tells the story of a wrestler named Okonkwo and the elaborate moral codes that govern village life in Nigeria.  On the final page, the novel switches to the perspective of a British colonial officer who reveals that the story of Okonkwo would be relegated to perhaps a paragraph in the official history of Nigeria that he is writing.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon, 1980.
The pioneering French theoretician of the nature of power in society, Foucault focuses primarily on the workings of social institutions such as hospitals, prisons and schools, but has influenced a generation of scholarship in fields ranging from literary criticism to educational reform and development studies.  This collection serves as a good introduction to the theory that binds his disparate works.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1979.
Draws on Foucault’s theories of the relationship between power and the acquisition of knowledge to argue that the academic discipline of Oriental Studies, which is a broad field of scholarship that began with European colonial exploration of the Middle East and Asia, is more a tool of imperialism than a field of disinterested intellectual inquiry.  Controversial and widely influential.

II. America’s View of its Place in the World
In broad terms, the political Right tends to regard America as an exemplar nation and a defender of freedom around the world, while the Left tends to think of it as a hypocritical power that frequently fails to act on the values it advocates.  As often with apposite types, both views are accurate at different times and in different settings.  But this division between exemplar and hypocrite reflects the general divide between Right and Left in domestic politics; a third dimension of the spectrum – a critique of liberal democracy itself as a challenge to traditional values and social cohesion – that is commonly voiced in developing countries is largely absent from America’s debate about its place in the world.

Chomsky, Noam. Umbrella of U.S. Power: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Contradictions of U.S. Policy. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.
This small pamphlet by the archetypal Leftist Noam Chomsky surveys the world, examining case after case in which American policy fails to adhere to the standards set by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concluding that Americans’ ignorance of its government misdeeds is largely willful.

D’Souza, Dinesh. What’s So Great About America. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2002.
An India-born American who served as a White House domestic policy analyst under Reagan, D’Souza brings a naturalized citizen’s fervor to the case for America’s role as a force for good in the world, largely through the dissemination of technology, capitalism, freedom and democracy.

Halberstam, David. War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals. New York: Touchstone Books, 2002.
The Pulitzer prize-winning journalist’s examination of America’s relationship to the world in the 1990s, from the lingering effects of Vietnam and the resulting discomfort with the use of force abroad to the American public’s appetite for entertainment rather than international news.  The picture that emerges is of a uniquely powerful but deeply insular nation that has come to regard the world as irrelevant.

Huntington, Samuel. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Touchstone Books, 1998.
When it first appeared in 1993 as an article in Foreign Affairs it was called “The Clash of Civilizations?” and posited a highly controversial thesis: that after centuries in which the dividing lines of conflict were first among princes, then nation states and finally ideologies, culture might be the next great source of conflict.  In America the debate it sparked was about how civilizations are defined and whether they can change through modernization and trade.  By the time the article appeared in book form it had lost the question mark, unwittingly reflecting the debate the article had provoked in the Islamic world, where it was taken to be prescriptive not descriptive and a roadmap to Muslims becoming the ‘next enemy’ after Communism.

Johnson, Chalmers. Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. New York: Owl Books, 2001.
Using case studies from America’s long-standing presence in Korea, Japan, and elsewhere, Johnson contends that the consequences of American policy are more profound than most Americans realize, in part because their attention is only intermittently focused on the world while the world’s attention is constantly focused on the American presence in their midst.  The defense of freedom, he argues, has largely been a cover for empire building.

Nye, Joseph S., Jr. The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
A former assistant secretary of defense and now dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Nye argues that after September 11th America must grasp the responsibility of its overwhelming power to engage more fully with the world, shaking off its tendency towards unilateralism.

III.     Americans Writing About the World
American correspondents and scholars write a great many books about the world that have nothing to do with America; some, like those below, have the American effect weaving through the story of their countries of study.  For American readers of such books, the world can seem a discouraging place full of war, menace and tragedy; the more mundane daily reality of small struggles and private hopes that most people in the world experience rarely merits a book contract in America.  The work of Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist, is an exception.

Anderson, Jon Lee. Guerrillas: Stories from the Insurgent World. New York: Grove Press, 2003.
Although Al Qaeda is thought to have ushered in an age in which non-state actors become the primary channel of political discontent, Anderson’s firsthand interviews over the last decade with guerillas (many of them fighting American or American-backed policies) make clear that insurgent groups have long played a significant role in political conflicts.  The interviews also hold a clear policy lesson: force alone is rarely enough to defeat insurgency.

Anderson, Jon Lee. The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan. New York: Grove Press, 2002.
Anderson covered the mujahideen in their battle against the Soviets and was one of the first Western journalists to return to Afghanistan after September 11th, when he did much of the reporting included here.  The result is a book that is able to take a long view of America’s involvement in the country, as well as offer a veteran correspondent’s insight into the challenges of covering a war zone and the effect that has on the story that gets out.

Bowden, Mark. Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999.
This is not a book about the long Somali civil war, but about America’s brief intervention in 1993 that ended with 18 Americans dead and the televised humiliation of an American serviceman dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.  The conclusion Bowden draws is that the Task Force Rangers exhibited great heroism in undertaking their mission in difficult circumstances; the conclusion much of the world drew is that the American tolerance for fatalities in battle is so low that the lone superpower will avoid sustained engagement in any conflict zone.

Geertz, Clifford. After the Fact. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
An eminent anthropologist’s look back at forty years of study in Morocco and Indonesia.  Masterfully written and endlessly insightful, the book deals with America only obliquely but reveals the wrenching and often disorientating transformation that traditional societies – frequently berated by American policy-makers for not changing enough – have gone through in the last half-century.

Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
In 1994, the Rwandan Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis in a hundred days, mostly with machetes and other low-grade weapons in intimate slaughter.  Gourevitch’s account is primarily about the experience of living through such a time and the history that divides the two groups, but it is also a searing indictment of the Belgian colonizers (who fetishized the supposed differences between Hutu and Tutsi), the French (who sheltered the Hutu killers after the Tutsis overthrew the government) and the Americans (who were shaken by the Somalia embarrassment in 1993 and resisted calling the bloodletting a genocide for fear doing so would oblige them to intervene).

Hedges, Chris. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. New York: PublicAffairs, 2002.
The veteran foreign correspondent for The New York Times draws on his experience covering wars in the Balkans, the Middle East and Latin America to consider the way in which war invigorates those who engage in it by giving them a higher cause to which to dedicate their lives.  To those caught in the middle of war, it is the destruction and brutality that is most evident.

Continue to Part IV – VI >>