Journey from “The Center of the World”: On U.S. Exceptionalism and Disgust



With this new contribution by Zoé Samudzi, we continue the dialogue we have been loving having with her for the past few years. Writing from the United States itself, she analyzes the logics and psyche of the particular form of U.S. exceptionalism that a leftist critique solely focused on U.S. imperialism produces. In doing so, she shows us how adoration and disgust of the U.S. are the two sides of the same Americentric coin.

The ending of the Cold War, the collapse (and defeat) of the Soviet Union (and so, in a way, communist statecraft), brought about a relative unipolarity of political power. The years that followed were shaped by theorists and pundits scrambling to forecast the political epoch that would fill the vacuum previously inhabited by tense superpower conflict. Validly criticized for a laundry list of reasons, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) claimed that Western liberal democracy was the “end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution,” and that its “universalization” would be “the final form of human government.” Four years later and in direct response to his former student, Samuel P. Huntington advanced his Kulturekampf-ian theory of civilizational clash: that the post-Cold War political arena would be defined by cultural conflict, represented in their highest developmental form by the civilization. Per his thesis, Western civilization, naturally led by the United States, would be increasingly at odds with the rest of the world cordoned into civilizational clusters. Major contestations (clashes) would come from “Sinic” civilizations (i.e. China), and threats presented by increasingly destabilizing fundamentalist Islam. In “The Clash of Ignorance,” an essay published after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Edward Said rightfully criticized Huntington’s central implication that it is necessary to strengthen the United States such that it sufficiently eliminates any challenge that might undermine its naturalized claim to unfettered hegemonic power.

This thesis of civilizational clash, Said writes, is far more a justification for and reinforcement of jingoism than an analytic that offers any real insight into the global interdependence of allegedly discrete civilizational entities and the temporalities in which they are allegedly situated (e.g. the oft repeated belief in the antithesis between Islam and modernity). Most left analyses in the United States fortunately do not generally take cues from the kind of Orientalism, xenophobia, and perpetual preparation for war that constitutes its foreign policy. But they are nevertheless entangled in U.S. exceptionalisms of another kind.

Traditionally, U.S. exceptionalism is defined by perceptions of the uniqueness of the U.S.’s political system and culture stemming from a distinct collection of liberal humanist ideologies emerging after the renegade breakaway colony’s revolutionary war for independence from a tyrannical British crown. This definition, per the mythos, entitles and even demands that the U.S. duly inhabits a unique role as global moral-political arbiter no matter the cost to the many peoples upon whom U.S.-style “democracy” is being and has been bestowed. Parodic and rejectable as this position and imposition may be, its attendant complementary parts are particularly commonplace in many spaces where this crass justification for the matrix of brutalities known as nation-building—referring to some combination of diplomatic alienation, neoliberal economic policy, military intervention, and/or political sanctions—is not so acceptable.

As U.S. citizens, or at least people living within the boundaries of the U.S. empire, our most readily accessible set of political associations are those crafted within and by its borders, and so are immediately recognizable to us.

Despite how this analysis might potentially be ahistorical, we, for example, tend to export or analogize domestic patterns of racial formation or state politics to make sense of racecraft or other political events abroad. “Anti-blackness is global” goes one maxim, but it is often a rendering of the phenomenon that can fail to move beyond an anti-blackness structured by trans-Atlantic slavery: one that can often neglects structuring of Blackness on the African continent (including Blackness in relation to the trans-Saharan slave trade), as well as in the Pacific, whether Aboriginal Australian or Indonesia-occupied West Papua or other Melanesian people who self-identify as Black and have been racialized thusly.

These impositions of U.S. social and political phenomenologies enable a particular overdetermination of global politics through those U.S. frames. Racism, for example, is broadly constituted (i.e. internationally dispersed and territorialized via Euroamerican and the racializing structures and hierarchies of other modes of colonial domination) but still geospecific in its epidermalization of criminalizing pathologies, allocations of resources, and even designations of humanity itself. Because of the particularities of these processes, as well as their temporal shifts (e.g. certain ethnicities and nationalities migrating to the United States and “becoming” white), it stands that the U.S.’s racial assemblage cannot and should not be globally universalizible despite its analytical functionality. But the explanatory power of a social-political framework is not and should not be to ascribe a universality. Because if racecraft is intimately tethered to a geography and the materialities therein, then it is, more forcefully, nonsensical to attempt to globalize this frame despite commonalities that may emerge elsewhere. This political overreliance, a particular fixation on this frame and all it has structured domestically, also exists in another form: as a kind of adamant disavowal.

Us World Map No Captio

In her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004), Sara Ahmed writes about disgust noting that it “brings the body perilously close to an object only then to pull away from the object in the registering of the proximity as an offense.” In other words, a pendulated response to classic U.S. exceptionalism is to reasonably conceptualize the U.S.’s unnecessary and excessive political overextension as racist, colonial, and unethical. The pendulum swings to the seemingly opposite end: a new overdetermination of political phenomenon or outcome that centralizes the primary badness of the U.S. government no matter the location of the conflict or political crisis and other players involved. Even as disgust reasonably manifests as rejection, an ambiguity is produced that further mystifies the object of the strong feelings that are elicited. Ahmed writes that this “ambiguity relates to the necessity of the designation of that which is threatening”: that a border has to be disturbed in order to be maintained. Paradoxically, then, the stronger the disgust, the more emphatic this border: despite the international pervasiveness of U.S. imperial involvements, its interests and participation becomes a central starting point for the synthesis of any global conflict.

A politics animated by this disdain alone, no matter its political saliency, is not an anti-imperialist position in itself. In fact, a reactionary and almost singularly Americentric anti-imperialism that quickly centers U.S. culpability to the exclusion of other violent nation-state wrongdoers is, itself, a variation of U.S. exceptionalism.

“The U.S. is the worst” bears little functional difference to “the U.S. is the best” in its attribution of omnipotence and omnipresence.

In his critique of famed linguist and political theorist Noam Chomsky, Syrian writer and former political prisoner Yassin al-Haj Saleh took aim at what he described as Chomsky’s analogical treatment of “a provincial Americentrism [as] a sort of theology, where the U.S. occupies the pale of God, albeit a malign one, the only mover and shaker.” This is a perspective, al-Haj Saleh continues, that “tends systematically to minimize the crime of states that are opposed to the U.S.” as though opposition to the U.S. constitutes its own anti-coloniality: as though there cannot be civilian opposition to a national government in absentia of the U.S.’s agitation of existent (or non-existent) political unrest; as though a people’s own government cannot act brutally or reprehensibly without NATO’s intervention serving as the only viably de-escalating political strategy; as though Lenin’s century-old definition of imperialism can sufficiently contend with geopolitical machinations and transformations in the present. Kenyan scholar-critic Keguro Macharia recently tweeted that “war swallows imagination”: that “what has become…unbearable or less bearable, unsayable or less sayable, undoable or less doable because of what war—past and present—teaches us to imagine and unimagine.”

Macharia’s evergreen provocation came two weeks after Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, a military overture whose historical foundations have been heavily eclipsed in the U.S. by the intermingling of Cold War echoes. In many ways, the U.S. has, not wrongfully, come to be synonymic with a global military imaginary. For the majority of the world, it exists as the superpower that drives a geopolitical agenda that forcefully furthers its own political and economic interests (put lightly) and possesses a disproportionately large arsenal of weaponry including a huge nuclear arsenal that it has twice utilized in a show of unnecessary war-ending (and Cold War-commencing) might. On the day that Russia began its invasion, the Transnational Social Strike, an online political platform for global solidarity-building, usefully called on us to reject the binaristic and always seductive calls of nationalism that compel support for either “Russian imperialism or with NATO expansionism.” Both forces, they write, weaponize borders and exploit the vulnerabilities of certain kinds of migrants and refugees while selectively protecting others.

And yet, militarism and imperial imaginaries exist beyond (and sometimes in antagonistic relation to) the U.S.’s own aspirations, even in the globalization of its politics.

Drawing on Zygmaunt Bauman’s idea of “liquid modernity”—a continuation of the political conditions of modernity rather than a rupture and transition into a successor era of postmodernity—al-Haj Saleh describes the Syrian political situation since 2011 as one of “liquid imperialism.” Rather than the classical frame of one imperial power dominating some other state, there are five relatively powerful states with varied global reaches (Russia, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, the U.S.) operating within a single relatively small country, as well as the presence of aspiring imperialists with neither state nor empire among many other forces. This liquid imperialism, too, offers an opportunity for critical expanse: for time and space-specific considerations of popular uprising and the specific histories of the Syrian state’s dynastic leadership, as well as the ideologies and political machinations of a given aggressor state beyond nostalgias and official histories that pinion actions and rhetorics to the long-missed mid-century moments of global decolonization.

Complementary to the borders reinscribed by disgust, Ahmed describes the ambivalence of hatred—its affective bedfellow—by “consider[ing] hatred as a form of intimacy.” As is obviously the case with living in an empire whose entrenchment and tendrilic reach can feel inescapable, this hyper-focused disdain inadvertently reveals an investment in a concept not rooted in a desire for it, but related to the aforementioned stunting of the political imaginary of war. While it undoubtedly aspires towards an end to U.S. hegemony, what would the contours of an Americentric anti-imperialist imaginary look like in the absence of the entity that coheres it?

This deployment of and reliance on the familiar yields a legibility that engenders a political solidarity by making conflict recognizable. But it is a qualified solidarity predicated on, to quote Édouard Glissant, a “transparency aimed at ‘grasping’”—a solidarity proceeding through “a gesture of enclosure” that may, in fact, reject consideration of the political trajectories and materialities of the place in question. This overextension of U.S. frames, the chauvinistic transmutation of some Other into one’s own familiar image, has, per Glissant, resulted from “the worst pretensions and the greatest magnanimities on the part of the West.”

Beyond a clinging to versions of the exceptionalism it purports to reject, this Americentric anti-imperialism nurtures a political incuriousness that actively undercuts the possibilities for sustained and multiplicitous political solidarities on people’s own terms. Instead, we can approach geopolitics from more dynamic and varied analytical starting points. Although billions of U.S. citizens’ tax dollars sustain the Israeli security apparatus, our prefabricated opinions on the viability of a one- or two-state solution matter far less than attending to the diversity of politics articulated by the Palestinian communities and political formations that have been dispossessed and subjugated by Israeli settler colonialism since the beginning of the ongoing Nakba. Similarly, there are an array of leftists in the Ukraine and the former Soviet Union whose simultaneous considerations and critiques of Russian statecraft and European intergovernmental organizations ought to be far more than footnotes in our own attempts to understand Putin’s regional aspirations. Protests in West Papua cannot be approached primarily through concerns about U.S. military incursions in the South China Sea, but rather also through a recognition of ongoing Papuan struggles for sovereignty and self-determination against Indonesia’s colonial military occupation and the preceding structuring violence of Dutch imperialism. There are scores of other struggles across the globe that become less legible if we are not able to easily situate them in relation to U.S. interests, and memorizing them all is an unwieldy possibility. But the least we might do in learning about these struggles is to assume that the United States does not inhabit the centers of their worlds in the same way that it is the center of ours. ■