British Association for American Studies


Spaces and Spatialities of Empire – An Introduction

As the United States expanded, first across the continent, and later, overseas at the beginning of the 20th century—expounding an anti-imperialist rhetoric that rejected European models of colonialism—it nonetheless colonized minds, mines, and markets.[i] And yet, despite currency in contemporary discourses that grapple with the many manifestations of US global power and its practices at home and across the globe, few other concepts in US history have proven as impossible as “empire.” In what has turned out to be an enduring war of words, the term continues to elude attempts at mapping it onto the course the United States has taken politically, economically, and culturally. As the American economist Scott Nearing contended ninety-nine years ago, “Many minds will refuse to accept the term ‘empire’ as applied to a republic (1921, 7).” A main outcome of this political duality and the ensuing historical conundrum has been that the intellectual idée fixe that insists on either establishing or rejecting the assertion that the US has ever been, or is, an empire has had a long history too. Aware of the resulting reductionism and endless logomachies across the board, we keep asking, and being asked: “Has the US ever been an empire?” or “Is the US an empire today?” This trend witnessed an unprecedented, if expected, acceleration in the post-9/11 world so much so that, as George Steinmetz quipped in 2005 (340), “bookshelves groan with new treatises on the American empire.” [ii]

In attempts to break through this intellectual standoff and in order to parse the term “empire” in conversations on US history (but also to save bookshelves from collapse), recent scholarship in both history and cultural studies has placed the bulk of its emphasis on raising alternate, equally poignant questions. These questions depart, in substantial ways, from examining US “empire” as one wholesale entity (that can or cannot be compared to other empires) in favour of attending instead to the intricately tangled, more productive frame of “imperial”. To “look at ‘imperial formations’ rather than at empire per se,” Ann Laura Stoler contends, “is to register the ongoing quality of processes of decimation, displacement, and reclamation (2013, 8).” In conversations about US history, for instance, asking whether US rhetoric, policies, and practices have been imperial has helped bring the focus back to both the variety and nature of American power exercised across the globe as well as drawn attention to the effects US policies and actions have had on spaces and natural and human resources. It has also further pushed the study of US imperialism up close, not as one exceptional, unitary polity, but as an eclectic organism that has grown out of a composite of opposing forces. This has led in recent years to a more nuanced and focused examination of the imperial disposition, processes, performances and de-formances that have been subjacent to US power exercises domestically, regionally and globally, both in the past and today.

Spaces and Spatialities of Empire: The Analytics

A resulting, equally fruitful solution that has evolved out of studies that attend to what Stoler refers to as the “technologies of imperial rule” (2013, 8) is a frame that pays heed to the ways the analytical standpoint formed in the wake of the spatial turn joins forces with post-colonial criticism in the study of empire. Revisiting older questions of colonisation, territorialisation, and the conquering of distances, given further shape in recent works such as Amy Kaplan’s “Where is Guantánamo?”, the international American studies project How Far is America From the World, and Alyosha Goldstein’s Formations of United States Colonialism, this approach aims at revising the ways we examine spaces and spatialities not only as subjacent to our understanding of imperial projects and processes, but also as the very frame that hosts, enables, or disrupts other technologies of imperial rule. Joining these rich lines of conversation, what is at stake in Spaces of Empire is to underscore the fact that the new wave of research on the history of US empire has to pay attention both to re-appropriation and re-configuration, along with domination and the occasional re-creation of physical and geographical spaces (such as the violent conversion of Native American land to US national territory, erection of incarceration sites, or re-creation of the “spaces of other”, for instance in the form of “human zoos”) as well as to the imagination, romanticisation, representation and negotiation of empire in meta-geographical, material, or intellectual spatialities such as film, games and fiction as spaces of imagination or protest poetry and street demonstrations as spaces of negation.

Manila. A respite from war in the sanctuary of peace: American soldiers asleep in Binondo church after the fighting, Vol. 43, no. 2211, pp. 443. General Research Division, The New York Public Library. (1899-05-06). Manila. A respite from war in the sanctuary of peace Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/b7c60880-cc5d-0134-63b5-00505686a51c

The analytics adopted here involves departing from the study of classic topics, including the Westward Movement, Indian Removal, and the overall moveability and malleability of the empire’s frontiers. Instead of studying the US empire as an ever-expanding, contiguous imperial expanse, Spaces of Empire labours to break down and make accessible what would have otherwise resulted in endeavours that deal, rather cautiously, with the United States as a singular empire of global dimensions, a wholesale entity to understand which we have no way but to discuss it in terms of the terminology (like empire or hegemon) that we have always had at hand. Indeed, from this perspective, attending to the question of space is far from limited to sweeping queries that map the ever-expanding US empire as a world power that has insisted on marking and re-marking the borders of what it understands as space under its sovereignty, as “homeland”, through acts of displacement and appendage. Instead, the analytical disposition at work here aims at studying the dual relationship the United States has had with various territories (and their inhabitants) that have come under its rule—at once expanding and empowering but also disrupting and troubling the imperial order from within.

Scenes during the occupation of Cuba. Spanish barracks and American camp, Guantanamo, Cuba, 1898. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (1860 – 1920). Scenes during the occupation of Cuba. Spanish barracks and American camp, Guantanamo, Cuba, 1898 Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-b36f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a9

At the same time, in the study of the spaces and spatialities of empire in its multitudinousness, the US empire is approached as an imbricated pluriform that not only produces, disrupts, confuses and violates, but also as an intruding force that is shut out, subverted, or turned down in spaces of resistance. From the very interiors of American homes and churches to schools and college campuses; from digital game-worlds and social media to the entertainment industry and US military bases across the globe; from periodical press and cartography workshops to overseas colonies, quasi-colonized spaces, inland reservations and internment camps; from laws that endorse the establishment of off-shore incarceration sites and border walls to literature, music, and art—the US empire can be studied in a plethora of spaces, spatial tangles and spatialities. This includes pondering the construction, but also demolition, the re-purposing, but also deformation and desertion of a conflation of the American and the non-American, the imperial and the anti-imperial, in spaces and spatialities that are further complicated by the human and environmental elements, interests and incentives that they entail. This further involves a vocabulary and an analytics that grapple with the ways empire has been constructed, promoted, refurbished, documented, ludified, corroborated and confirmed. At the same time, this entails attempts to understand the contexts in which the imperial has been disrupted, resisted, and revolted against, as well as the study of the many and varied (meta-)geographic spatialities created on the way.

Map showing Indian reservations in the United States west of the 84th meridian, and number of Indians belonging thereto, 1883. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. (1884). Map showing Indian reservations in the United States west of the 84th meridian, and number of Indians belonging thereto, 1883 Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/78067590-9ee7-0134-8510-00505686a51c

The Essay Series

In and out of these (meta-)geographical materializations, Spaces of Empire puts forth an analytics that does two things: at the same time that it addresses the imperial as the spatial (or at least as spatially enabled), it views US power not as exceptional, but as constitutive of an eclectic, evolving complex of imperial formations that are among, in conversation with and in relationship to each other. As the essays in the series demonstrate in various, sometimes contrary ways, the objective behind proposing this analytics is to intervene in the study of spaces and spatialities of empire by interrogating the power dynamics at work in those sites, human or territorial, natural or intellectual, that are not commonly associated with empire in the mainstream study of the subject. Grappling with the illusory nature of the subject in various ways, the essays in the series push this analytics in diverse directions as they re-visit the many sites of construction, representation, romanticisation, justification, negotiation and negation that have given shape to our current conceptions of the US Empire.

By examining spaces and spatialities that attend to the historical, literary, cultural, (meta-)geographical, political and aesthetic practices and perceptions of empire, the essays labour to survey the fates and formations of American empire as it has unfolded over the course of almost three centuries. While some of the essays in the series take as their subject of study the imbricated masses of bodies, natural resources, border areas, etc.—spaces of vulnerability—that have been penetrated, re-ordered, paralyzed, demolished or immobilized by the imperial, others grapple with spaces where the United States took stock of its own spatiality and was confronted with its own national/imperial identity. Some other essays interrogate the erection of ad hoc spaces at the service of the US empire, while others study metageographies of empire—intellectual, popular, and aesthetic spaces where the empire is imagined, glorified, contested. At the same time that they map some of the least attended sites of empire—works that direct attention either to the rhizomatic formations of the empire in the Barbary or to narrativization of imperial violence in popular media—these thematically and temporally diverse essays intersect in their attentiveness both to the breadth and the blind spots at the heart of the study of spaces and spatialities of empire: the elusiveness and unmappability of the formations and technologies of empire.


[Tom Sawyer Abroad], “Map of The Trip made by Tom Sawyer Erronort.” Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. (1893). [Tom Sawyer Abroad], “Map of The Trip made by Tom Sawyer Erronort.” Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/ef4ed070-29fc-0132-b8dc-58d385a7b928

As the first essay in the series, Mischa Honeck takes as his subject “the overlapping frontiers of empire and childhood in US history” in a study that zooms in on summer camps as “social spaces in which the hard realities of empire and the soft influences that masked and maintained them converged.” Attending to the “allegedly anti-colonial modes of expansion”, Jens Temmen focuses his essay on the disenfranchised voices of those colonised by the United States as they actively negate the legal foundation of US expansionism in ongoing waves of dissent such as protests across the Pacific against its militarization, the #NoDAPL protests against the Dakota Pipeline at Standing Rock, and the Kanaka Maoli protection of Mauna Kea against the construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT). Attending to the intersection of the imperial and theological, Philipp Reisner looks at the narrative of exodus at the heart of the construction and European settlement of New England in a broader transatlantic space of (British) empire and, later, as “a tool to justify later imperial US American discourse”. The study of the role Christianity played in the early republic is complemented in Reisner’s review essay where he examines recent scholarship on the Catholic Church, its belief in a global Christian mission and its bonds with American expansionism.

“Keeping Disaster at Bay: Securing the Climate Threat in “America’s Mediterranean” by Sarah Earnshaw interrogates the most recent of US imperial performances in relation to the construction of a Caribbean climate threat, reading the Caribbean as a historical space of empire “where disaster is naturalized”. In an essay dedicated to the investigation of the tensions at work between the idea of empire as “a bastion of democracy and freedom” and a space of enslavement and violence, Mandana Chaffa turns to contemporary American poetry as an aesthetic space of disillusionment, wrath, and protest, or, in her words, “an underground network … a safe house” from which to make sense of the multiple imperial lives of the United States. Examining the spaces of imperial tension in the Barbary, and in an essay on captivity narratives published soon after the American Revolution, Elena Furlanetto turns to the Algiers as “loci of confusion”—spaces where American captives encountered, and were troubled by, a reflection of themselves as a young republic and an empire.

Examining the contradiction at the heart of “the simultaneous destruction and construction of space on Vietnamese soil” during the Cold War, Jannik Vandre’s essay focuses on the ways the US empire erected itself a space and a spectacle in early Vietnam War movies by presenting itself as the architect of spaces of order and democracy—spaces that were built on the ruins of already habitable villages and towns. Offering a close reading of the digital game BioShock Infinite, Stefan Schubert writes about the digital gamescape as a platform not only to ludify imperial practices but also to recreate and re-narrate the course the US empire has taken to expand and exploit. Finally, Carmen Dexl examines the so-called “live human exhibits” and ethnic villages at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago as an ad hoc stage where the imperial logic was performed by “imported” performers from far-off corners of the world. As Dexl argues, while reproducing the logic behind Jim Crow laws ruling the spatial regimentation of US society itself, the commodification of the othered, displaced bodies coincided in these spaces with the spatialization of racial differences between the metropole and the colony that distinguished the White City from the Midway Plaisance.

Overall, as the promoter of an analytics aware of limitations and disagreements in defining and discussing spaces and spatialities of empire, and as a series that invites a wide number of forays into the interiors of American homes, spaces across the Middle East, in post-WWII Europe, and in Cold War Latin America, along with the human and environmental aspects of space more forcefully, Spaces of Empire is a project that has roots in the belief that the necessity to study American exercises of power throughout almost three centuries of encroachment, expansion, and violent encounters does not diminish only because we have not yet agreed on our vocabulary. [iii]


[i] I would like to dedicate this series to the memory of Amy Kaplan, who, in both writing and teaching, taught generations of Americanists to think of empire not as a mere intellectual endeavor but as the “daily reality” of life lived by millions in spaces erected and implicated by its anarchic and violent spatialities.

[ii] Just within four years since the September 11 attacks, we saw a rush of scholarship and journalism on the subject. Max Boot, then a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, published The Savage Wars of Peace in 2002, in which he vehemently invited American policy-makers and the public alike to review their historical baggage and go imperial. Early in 2003, Michael Ignatieff called for an imperial turn in the long-term belief in American exceptionalism: “What word but empire describes the awesome thing America is becoming?” In 2004, Deepak Lal wrote In Defense of Empires mainly in defense of the American Empire. On the other end of the spectrum, David Harvey delivered his Clarendon Lectures on the nature of the American Empire right before the War against Iraq started. And Amy Kaplan continued on the path she had started in the 1990s by publishing incisive works on American Empire, including The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture in 2005.

[iii] I thank the contributors to Spaces of Empire for their incisive engagement with spaces and spatialities of the US empire. I am also grateful to the former and current USSO editors, Ruth Lawler, Amanda Niedfeldt, and Siân Round for their persistent support in the past few months and for their unfailing dedication to critical interrogations of what brings us all to an online platform such as the USSO, that is, the United States.


Works Cited

Boot, Max. Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Johnson, Chalmers. The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004.

Goldstein, Alyosha. Formations of United States Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

D’haen, Theo, Paul Giles, Djelal Kadir, and Lois Parkinson Zamora. How Far is America from Here? Selected Proceedings of the First World Congress of the International American Studies Association, 22-24 May 2003. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005.

Harvey, David. The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Johnson, Chalmers. The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004.

Kaplan, Amy, and Donald E. Pease. Cultures of United States Imperialism. Durham: Duke University Press. 1993.

Kaplan, Amy. “Violent Belongings and the Question of Empire Today: Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, October 17, 2003”. American Quarterly. 56.1 (2004): 1-18.

——. “Where is Guantánamo?” American Quarterly 57.3 (2005): 831-858.

——. The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Lal, Deepak. In Defense of Empires. Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2004.

Nearing, Scott. The American Empire. New York: The Rand School of Social Science, 1921.

Steinmetz, George. “ Return to Empire: The New U.S. Imperialism in Comparative Historical Perspective.” Sociological Theory 23.4 (2005): 339-367.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

About the Author

Author of Citizens and Rulers of the World: TheÊAmerican Child and the Cartographic Pedagogies of EmpireÊ(forthcoming with the University of North Carolina Press), Mahshid Mayar is an assistant professor of American Studies at Bielefeld University, Germany. In her current research, Mahshid interrogates the politics and poetics of silence and silencing in a book project that attends to the political, the historical, and the aesthetic in contemporary US erasure poetry. Her research and teaching interests lie in protest poetry, new empire studies,Êhistorical childhood studies, C19 US history, andÊcritical game studies. Mahshid has held fellowships at the University of Georgetown, Washington, D.C., and at Amherst College, Massachusetts.

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