Blue Water. A Thesis


The historical framework that Bruce Robbins draws up for rethinking ‘the newness of the New World as opposed to the oldness of the Old World’ is a cosmopolitan rather than a transatlantic one, though Robbins is concerned not only with cosmopolitanism in space, but in time, too. Moving from a consideration of the political work done by the notoriously bizarre ‘Blue Water Thesis’, according to which only sea-based conquest would count as colonialism, Robbins asks what happens if we do not limit our critical work to studying modern colonialism, but include non-European, pre-modern colonialism into the picture. This is what he means by cosmopolitanism in time—a ‘radical expansion in the time frame’ that inevitably ‘ends up undermining our moralized geographies’. Such unsettling of time-honored historical and moral categories is of course open to the charge of allowing America to forgive itself for its empire building, which considered on a much larger time scale, may appear just as bloody and immoral as older, non-American and non-European imperialisms. On the other hand, this might be a risk worth taking. Rethinking America in a much longer unit of time is a way to escape from the grips of American exceptionalism, and a way to remind ourselves that America may not be ‘meant to be the glory and instructor of the world’.

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Published : 2015-05-01

RobbinsB. (2015). Blue Water. A Thesis. Review of International American Studies, 8(1). Retrieved from

Bruce Robbins
Columbia University, New York  United States

Bruce Robbins—B.A., Harvard (1971); M.A., Harvard (1976); Ph.D., Harvard (1980), Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at the Columbia University in New York—works mainly in the areas of nineteenth and twentieth century fiction, literary and cultural theory, and postcolonial studies. He is the author of Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State (Princeton, 2007), Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (NYU, 1999), Secular Vocations: Intellectuals,
Professionalism, Culture (Verso, 1993) and The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below (Columbia, 1986; Duke, 1993). He has edited Intellectuals: Aesthetics, Politics, Academics (Minnesota, 1990) and The Phantom Public Sphere (Minnesota, 1993) and he has co-edited (with Pheng Cheah) Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling beyond the Nation (Minnesota, 1998) and (with David Palumbo-Liu and Nirvana Tanoukhi) Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture (Duke, 2011). He was co-editor of the journal Social Text from 1991 to 2000. His most recent book is Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (Duke, 2012). A companion volume is in the works to be entitled The Beneficiary: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Inequality. Bruce Robbins is also currently working on a documentary on American Jews who are critical of Israel.

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