According to a comprehensive study of the year 2018 published in the journal Democratization (“State of the World 2018”), democracy is in decline around the world. A retreat in democracy implies a weakening of the conditions that make it possible; that is, a drift towards autocratic rule, a disregard for the rights and protection of minorities, the curtailment of civic freedoms such as the right to assembly and to critical dissent, and a lack of commitment to the rule of law. As the report by Lührmann et al. makes clear, this retreat has been ongoing for at least a decade—as attested to by the breadth and depth of debates and publications on the matter in recent years—and is taking place primarily, though not exclusively, in democratic regions, most notably in Eastern and Western Europe and the United States. In this context, the recent surge of right-wing populisms in Europe and the Americas, and the ascendancy of political leaders like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, Jair Bolsonaro, and Viktor Orbán (among others), together with the Brexit debacle, can be read as indicators—rather than sole instigators—of a broader and slow-burning crisis with economic, ecological, and social strands but that is, fundamentally, political (Fraser 11). Mirrored on both sides of the Atlantic, it is a crisis of liberal democracy as a shared system of values and beliefs; in other words, a crisis of transatlanticism. If we understand the transatlantic project as the political and cultural imaginary that was actively developed by the United States and Europe in the postwar period of the twentieth century and that led to the articulation of discourses of Europeanism, liberal democracy, and the investment in a set of ideals shared across the Atlantic, looking at the crisis through a transatlantic lens can offer insights into common challenges and opportunities and help to imagine alternatives for the future.
As European Americanists, our outlook on the United States has always had an inevitably “transatlantic” perspective, a kind of de-centered approach that is deeply conscious of the historical, political, economic, and cultural points of connection—and divergence—nurtured by this Atlantic bond, and especially so as Americanists working from Ireland. As Liam Kennedy notes, there is an added level of complexity in US-Irish relations, as “Ireland has long had to carefully triangulate its interests and relations between the UK, Europe and the US” (“Atlantic”), spiritually torn between the values of European social democracy and the American model of minimal government intervention and free market economy. Furthermore, Kennedy notes, Ireland and its American diaspora have always existed “in a dyadic relationship in which each seeks meaning about itself in the other” and while “these mirrorings have never been in synch they are particularly disjointed at present” (“Atlantic”). The unfolding of Brexit and the election of Trump have simply underscored that, as Irish and Europeans, we are directly interpellated by a paradigmatic shift that is forcing a reexamination of what had been, until very recently, sacrosanct Western values: if the Trump administration shocked us with its inhuman treatment of migrants and asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border, the botched European response to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, with thousands of “non-persons” dead in the water or crammed into inadequate refugee camps in border states, edges close to its moral equivalent. The EU’s outsourcing of the migrant crisis to a non-EU state—Turkey—that needs to earn merit points in order to join the club is a cynical trade-off that has resulted in the flagrant violation of the most basic human rights at the Turkish-Greek border. Within the borders of Ireland, the “strange, cruel system” (Gessen) of direct provision as the adequate response to those seeking asylum also offers food for thought about the gradual but inexorable retreat of liberal values across Europe. And as Trump continues to call for the building of the wall and to make America great again, the European space is also gradually contracting, with the resurgence of discourses of ethno-nationalism that are equally fueled by national fantasies and idealized notions of (lost) heritage and identity, at odds not only with a pan-European project but with a globalized world where the idea of the “nation-state” had seemed to effectively fall into disuse (Pease, “National”).
This changing geopolitical environment has raised fears at the heart of the European Union, especially regarding the impact it may have on elections, immigration, integration, and the EU’s multiethnic cohesion, and it has been duly identified as one of seven societal challenges in the EU’s H2020 strategy (“Europe in a changing world”), which calls for work and research that help promote more inclusive, innovative, and reflective societies. From the hard sciences to the arts and a wide range of disciplines, it is a challenge that demands multidisciplinary approaches if we are to imagine a shared present and future. If anything, the untimely Covid-19 pandemic has further stressed those pressure points, with the curtailment of civil liberties and the imposition of draconian and restrictive measures on populations sparking intense and necessary debates about Western democracy. At the same time, it throws into relief a lack of European cohesion and solidarity in the response, which may potentially spur new waves of euroscepticism. If there is any room for optimism at all, this global emergency is proving to be fertile ground for political and philosophical reflection, but it has also added a new layer of complexity and urgency to what is the already complicated task of making sense of a paradigmatic shift as it happens. And this is precisely why, as Kennedy suggests, “critical analysis and informed understanding of the worlds around and beyond us” (“Connecting”) is more necessary than ever if we are to offer cogent responses about what it all means and how it may play out.
As part of a larger research project at the UCD Clinton Institute that aims “to consider political, economic and cultural disruptions in transatlantic affairs and how Irishness is positioned and performed in relation to these” (Kennedy, “Atlantic”), my own research focuses on twenty-first-century literature in order to consider how the fields of literature, cultural studies, and politics can work together not only to map this crisis of shared values but also to contribute to imagining the joint futures of Europe and the United States.  If we understand politics as the articulation of necessary imaginaries and narratives, turning to literature when the very grounds for analysis are shifting can prove to be an insightful way to shed some light onto a crisis that is both ontological and epistemological. Literature and politics offer a special synergy: the notion of the “radical imagination” in political sciences, which can be described as the “political act of thinking into existence alternative worlds that have not yet been granted social sanctioning or recognition” (Bieger et al. vii) finds easy translation into the field of literary studies, where the “literary imagination” is a productive space that offers the mechanisms, pace, and insight for making sense of unsettling moments of transition when, as Fraser notes, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” (7).
It is particularly in moments of crisis that the literary imagination is often evoked—think, for instance, of the high number of literary debates and book recommendations that mushroomed after the election of Trump, all offering to make sense of what was for many a shocking and confounding event. As Bieger, Saldívar, and Voelz contend, “We cannot understand the reality of the real without mediating it through the imaginary” (Bieger et al. xi). In this sense, my research understands literary practice not exclusively in terms of aesthetics but as cultural praxis. By locating literary texts within a politicized framework of interpretation, and by being attentive to the textual, discursive, and contextual aspects that create both the texts and their interpretations (which in turn conform to existing power relations), we can glimpse what these practices “do in the world” (Grossberg 57). But more importantly, and as the Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon has been arguing since the election of Trump, literature can help us to “imagine the unimaginable,” which is exactly the opposite of making a case for reality as it used to be, of politics as usual, of long-standing and complacent narratives of the self. After “what could not happen very much happened”—Hemon is referring to Trump, but it could be Brexit, the migrant crisis, the global pandemic—there is often an impulse “to scramble for the ontological blankie of reality, of reality inertia” (Hemon), but literature has the potential to help us imagine the unknowable, the untrodden paths, the wildly speculative scenarios that we dare not conjure up.
How can a transatlantic approach to twenty-first-century literature contribute to these imaginings and what does it mean for Irish American Studies? In a globalized and digitized world where the flows have been radically altered but nationalisms are still making a comeback, studying contemporary texts in their transatlantic relation to one another, from Ireland and Europe to the United States and back, offers an ideal arena to engage in a “dialectic between local and global” (Giles 6) that can offer a better and deeper understanding of the points of divergence and convergence, as well as gathering the experience of both shores into a globalized context. Reading transatlantically implies effectively disengaging the study of literature from the ideological underpinnings and requirements of national frames of analysis, avoiding the centering of any one national narrative in the act of reading texts through and across each other and beyond the limits imposed by categories such as “national” literature and culture. In the case of American literature, a transatlantic approach may contribute to what Hemon sees as one of the most urgent tasks, if literature is to stay relevant: “discovering ways to imagine what is beyond this America, as it appears in its future and its present, which means that it might have to imagine itself as being something other than American.” As Hemon notes, “for American literature to survive, it might have to undo its Americanness,” that desire for “confirmation of that which always is.”
Within Ireland, a wave of contemporary literature is flourishing that is bold, radical, original, and often female. How do these works speak to a globalized present and how do they help us to imagine the future? By challenging fictions of stability and “rootedness” while simultaneously being attentive to contexts and histories, a transatlantic mode opens up wider possibilities for the multilateral analysis of literary, cultural, and societal developments that take place on a wider geographical plane and whose relation to one another goes well beyond the category of mere “influence.” In turn, this mode of reading can contribute to renew and actualize the modes of interpretation in the field of American Studies, promoting the potential of transnationalism as an illuminating “frame of reference for thinking about western societies uncertain about their national and ethnic futures” (Pease, “Re-mapping” 4). By producing critically-informed readings of contemporary American and European literature that are responding to this crisis of transatlanticism, we can offer insight into systems of representation, the articulation of structures of power and knowledge, and how these can be re-imagined through literary fiction in the twenty-first century. Furthermore, and as scholars in Irish American Studies (with all the ambiguity and complexity that the term affords), we are uniquely positioned to contribute to the ongoing process of de-centering American Studies, thinking about where and what “America” is, and where it could be moving forward, while at the same time thinking about the common challenges faced by the United States, Ireland, and Europe.
This work was supported by the Irish Research Council under the Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship program (GOIPD/2018/11).
Bieger, Laura, et al., editors. The Imaginary and Its Worlds: American Studies after the Transnational Turn. Dartmouth College Press, 2013.
Fraser, Nancy. The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born. Verso, 2019.
Gessen, Masha. “Ireland’s Strange, Cruel System for Asylum Seekers.” The New Yorker, 4 June 2019, www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/irelands-strange-cruel-system-for-asylum-seekers.
Giles, Paul. Virtual Americas: Transnational Fictions and the Transatlantic Imaginary. Duke UP, 2002.
Grossberg, Lawrence. “The Cultural Studies’ Crossroads Blues.” European Cultural Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 1998, doi:10.1177/136754949800100105.
Hemon, Aleksandar. “Writing the Unimaginable.” Alternative Realities conference, 14 Dec. 2019, UCD Clinton Institute. www.ucdclinton.ie/previous-events/alternative-realities-new-challenges-for-american-literature-in-the-era-of-trump.
Kennedy, Liam. “Connecting the Dots: Writing about the US in the Age of Trump.” UCD Clinton Institute, 6 Mar. 2020, www.ucdclinton.ie/commentary-content/connecting-the-dots-writing-about-the-us-in-the-age-of-trump.
—. “Atlantic Disruptions: Ireland and the US.” UCD Clinton Institute, 17 Mar. 2020, www.ucdclinton.ie/commentary-content/atlantic-disruptions-ireland-and-the-us.
Lührmann, Anna, et al. “State of the World 2018: Democracy Facing Global Challenges.” Democratization, vol. 26, no. 6, 2019, pp. 895-915.
Pease, Donald E. “National Narratives, Postnational Narration.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 43, no. 1, 1997, pp. 1-23.
—. “Re-mapping the Transnational Turn.” Re-framing the Transnational Turn in American Studies, edited by Winfried Fluck et al., Dartmouth College Press, 2011, pp. 1-46.