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Conclusion: The Transnational West

The west is everywhere.

Kris Fresonke, West of Emerson

There’s a bit of the West in all of us.

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In his study The Rhizomatic West, Neil Campbell seeks to define “westness” (41) beyond a national paradigm and considers the West as a “travelling” and “mobile discourse” (ibid. 1) and, with James Clifford, as a “travelling concept” (Routes 4). Paul Giles has asked us to view “native [American] landscapes refracted or inverted in a foreign mirror” in order “to appreciate the assumptions framing these narratives and the ways they are intertwined with the construction and reproduction of national mythologies” (Virtual Americas 2). Similarly, the approach of critical regionalism - a term popularized by Kenneth Frampton (cf. “Towards”) - allows us to focus on the West in its local and global dimensions simultaneously, and to look at the connections between both.

A transnational view would thus, first, privilege the cultural mobility and non-American appropriations of the American West: in Europe, the myth of the West has been affirmed in appropriations of the Western genre for instance by the German author Karl May and the Belgian cartoonist Maurice de Bevere (a.k.a. Morris), whose characters Winnetou and Lucky Luke have become iconic figures. Their re-articulation of the myth of the West is relevant in various cultural and temporal contexts; May’s Winnetou stories are still staged yearly at the Karl May Festival in Bad Segeberg, and are parodied in Der Schuh des Manitu (2001), which to date is the greatest commercial success in German film history, while murals depicting scenes from the Lucky Luke comics series decorate houses in Brussels. Whereas Karl May’s fictional West has been quite thoroughly studied (cf. Schmidt, Sitara; Sammons, Ideology), little cultural studies scholarship so far exists on Morris’s work.

From a different vantage point we may also consider the Western not only as the prototypical US-American film genre but also as, in fact, a transnational genre, as classic Westerns have inspired eastern remakes, and vice versa. Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which is indebted to Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest (1929), in turn is the ‘original’ to Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone’s Per un pugno di dollari (1964), which invested the genre with a new sense of irony and cynicism.

Kurosawa’s films have served as models for American Western films time and again: His Seven Samurai (1954) served as the template for John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960), and Yojimbo was adapted once again by Walter Hill as Last Man Standing (1996). At the same time, the so-called ‘Eastern’ has emerged as a global, commercially successful hybrid that fuses the formula of the Western with that of the martial arts film. In looking at these cultural productions, we may ask ourselves how we can conceive of such a mythic fusion critically in terms of orientalist as well as ‘western’ discourses, and how the myth of the West - either in its agrarian/pastoralist or in its expansionist version - can be transposed and translated into other (sub)cultural and (trans)national contexts; another question would be whether we should consider these translations and appropriations as affirmative or subversive in regard to canonical accounts of the myth of the West.

A transnational view, second, necessitates looking more closely at economic factors and the neoliberal logic that shapes the identity of regions and their international reception/consumption in a globalized world: Critical regionalist scholars have their eyes on processes of globalization that also ‘produce’ regions as marketable commodities, and the West - as (part of) a “corporate geography” (Cheryl Herr, Critical Regionalism 3) - has been such a commodity for a long time. Global enterprises attest to that, for instance the online shopping center New West Mall (newwestmall.com), or Disney, whose theme parks in Anaheim, Bay Lake, Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong include a so-called Frontierland made up of generic cowboys, pioneers, saloons, and other stereotypical ‘Wild West’ features. No explicit mention is made of Native Americans in the parks located in the US, where the so-called Indian Village that had previously been part of Frontierland has been removed. The biggest Frontierland is that in Disneyland Park (Paris), which also includes the so-called Pocahontas Indian Village. In Tokyo Disneyland, it is called Westernland, as ‘frontier’ does not adequately translate into Japanese; ironically, both theme parks in Asia focus on the history of mining in the West - a history that includes the large-scale exploitation of Asian immigrants who were being used as forced labor on the so-called mining frontier - which in the parks however is transfigured and symbolically and economically exploited once more.

A critique of local/global capitalism would have to go back to US expansionism in the West and to agrarianism, which have always been connected by commercial interests that upon closer inspection also demystify the myth of the garden and of manifest destiny, as Thorstein Veblen has noted:

The country town is a product and exponent of the American land system. In its beginning it is located and “developed” as an enterprise of speculation in land values; that is to say it is a businesslike endeavour to get something for nothing by engrossing as much as may be of the increment of land values due to the increase of population and the settlement and cultivation of the adjacent agricultural area. It never (hitherto) loses this character of real- estate speculation. This affords a common bond and a common ground of pecuniary interest, which commonly masquerades under the name of public patriotism, public spirit, civic pride, and the like. (Imperial Germany 334)

The ideology of manifest destiny is certainly an important part of the patriotic spirit Veblen describes. A number of cultural productions, among them the television series Deadwood (2004-2006), have recently addressed the capitalist logic of early settlement, which established still existing structures of economic exploitation in the West and at times outside the borders of the US. Deadwood has been applauded for its postwestern, critical representation of “life within a world ordered entirely around the marketplace” (Worden, “Neo-liberalism” 221), which points to the capitalist logic underlying Euro-American settlement in North America, and from which the standard heroism and nostalgia that continues to be an important dimension of the myth of the West is largely absent. With Daniel Worden, we can interpret the West as a national allegory that connects past, present, and future and that also reveals the violence at work in economic transformations within the larger “incorporation of America” (cf. Trachtenberg’s book of the same title), an incorporation that does not stop at national borders.

A transnational critical regionalist framework, third, also pays new attention to comparative frameworks of analysis. The West and its myth(s) are analyzed from such angles, for instance, by The Comparative Wests Project at Stanford University, which researches “the common histories and shared contemporary issues among Indigenous populations and settler colonialists in Australia, New Zealand, Western South America, the Western United States, Canada, and the Pacific Islands” (comparativewests.stanford.edu). The American Midwest and Ireland have also been analyzed as two regions whose histories have been connected to and shaped each other over a long period of time (cf. Cheryl Herr, Critical Regionalism). Comparative border studies (cf. Sadowski-Smith, “Introduction”) touch upon constructions of the American West and its borders with other regions, particularly those to the south. Russell Ward has probed Turner’s thesis with regard to Australian history and the construction of an Australian frontier narrative in his study The Australian Legend (1958), which may well be seen as the search for an Australian Adam in analogy to R.W.B. Lewis’s The American Adam, published only a few years earlier. From a historical perspective, Edward Watts urges us to study the West (in particular the Midwest) not only as an American region in an intranational context but also as a colony - or “hypercolony” - “within the context of the global European diaspora of the nineteenth century,” as it shares certain features with other Dominions of the British Empire at the time (“Midwest” 166, 169, 174); Watts holds that it

turns more on the scholarly redefinition of what a colony is (and what its relationship to its metropolis is) than on whether the Midwest was ever a colony to the East the same way Massachusetts was a colony of the British Empire in 1776. A colony in the eighteenth century was one thing; in the nineteenth, another. And the Midwest can and should be studied alongside not just the other regions with whom it shares a nation, but also alongside the other colonies with whom it shared a century. (ibid. 187)

Critical regionalism thus calls for an internationalization of the study of regions in the US and for connecting the West as region, fantasy, and brand to concepts of (neo)colonialism and globalization.

 
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