In the United States the study of transnational immigrant populations, a growth area in all relevant academic disciplines, focuses on exactly the same areas as the wider job market: Latin America, Africa, Asia. The overarching rationale for this is that transnational and transregional considerations now take priority over social phenomena understood as relevant primarily within national and area boundaries. But the categories we actually study, as distinct from the rhetoric of non-place-specific analytic frameworks, are defined by a national criterion: the U.S. census. A well-known strategy of colonial domination, enumeration of social types “helped to ignite communitarian and nationalist identities that in fact undermined colonial rule” (Appadurai 1996, 117). In the contemporary United States enumeration also forms the basis of political activity. Over the past decade there have been hundreds of job openings for the study of American immigrant communities, virtually all of them structured around U.S. census categories. The reasons for this are complex. Some of the rapid increase in positions that study those particular American immigrant communities can be accounted for by changes in academic culture. Students are increasingly viewed as paying customers (rather than the products of academic business) who must be satisfied; because more of the customers are now of Hispanic, Asian, or African origin, courses must be offered that are tailored for those markets. The logic of this pattern is hardly free of national considerations. The groups in question are the most rapidly growing ethnic populations within the United States. A truly global analytic framework would demand greater attention to such places as the Middle East, South and Central Asia, Oceania, and Europe. But the zones of ambiguity (according to the enumerative categories of the census) are not necessarily slated for greater institutional investment. “Globalization” is less about an interconnected world than it is about the complex ways that the world is apprehended from the United States.
Middle Eastern immigrant communities—invisible in the U.S. census, and almost equally so in terms of institutional investment—are the focus of two chapters in Mass Mediations. Andrew Shryock’s “Public Culture in Arab Detroit” makes a powerful case that even relatively mobile transnational communities still must contend with a powerful imperative to reterritorialize—to become rooted in a place and in national institutions. Anthony Shay’s “The 6/8 Beat Goes On” looks at popular music in the Iranian community of Los Angeles. Although motives for relocating to the United States are complex in both communities, as is the class and ethnic makeup of both communities, the Iranian community of Los Angeles can be properly described as an “exile community” (see Naficy 1993), the members of which cannot necessarily maintain movement back and forth from the country of origin to the United States. The population of Arab Dearborn, by contrast, has much less difficulty maintaining contact with its countries of origin. In the short term the result is that Iranian Los Angeles possesses a higher degree of autonomy in media production than Arab Dearborn. Shay notes that entire genres of Iranian popular music essentially moved offshore after the Islamic Revolution, and the market for this music is the Iranian-American immigrant community as well as Iran itself. Traditional vernacular genres and “classical” music (insofar as such distinctions can be applied to Iranian music) as well as modernized variants of Iranian music flourish in Los Angeles. The decisive factor in this autonomous Iranian production in the United States is the considerable sense of isolation the community feels as a result of the political reality of the Islamic Revolution.
In Dearborn modern Arabic music (and indeed most media content) comes from its countries of origin, while another segment of the local cultural scene depends on local (American) financing. Shryock shows how American financing is contingent on certain types of cultural content: culture that invokes a sense of the “folkloric” (rather than the modernity constructed by most Arabic cultural products in the Middle East); and Arabic culture presented in English. Whether the two communities, Iranian Los Angeles and Arab Dearborn, can preserve the sense of cultural difference essential to theories of transnationalism depends largely on a continued influx of immigrants. In Dearborn modern Arabic media and cultural products appeal mainly to first-generation immigrants who still speak Arabic. Iranian Los Angeles is a newer community—substantially a post-1978 community—and is also more affluent than Arab Dearborn. These factors give Iranian Los Angeles certain advantages in maintaining a cohesive community outside of national institutions. Whether this remains true for second and third generations of Iranian immigrants is an open question. But the juxtaposition of the two communities presented in Shryock’s and Shay’s chapters does not suggest a generalizable pattern of transnational or globalized culture outside the influence of a steadily withering nation-state.