When I tell people here that I am an American studies student at UC Berkeley on a year abroad, I have noticed that I sometimes get the following response: “Oh, awesome,” they react automatically. Then they inquisitively follow up: “American studies … what do you do in that?” And then, often before I even have the chance to quip that my degree is about them, I am told: “You should travel as much as you can! Get out of Berkeley — go and see America”.
If I am in Berkeley, why do I need to leave in order to “see America”? I thought I was already there — Berkeley, California, USA. But I am not from around these parts, so I don’t want to question or disregard the judgment of a local (which Britain has historically shown itself to be rather good at).
Even so, I am intrigued by the recurring cultural phenomenon that somebody can be both in the United States and somehow outside America. Like with Berkeley, I occasionally encounter Americans telling foreigners who have been to visit only Manhattan that “New York City is so unique — you’ll have to travel around more to see what America is really like.”
Even some Americans seem to be unsure of where exactly America resides. The book “Travels With Charley” by John Steinbeck, for example, describes a road trip in the United States, but its subtitle is “In Search of America.” Similarly, in one of my favorite songs by Simon and Garfunkel, appropriately called “America,” the narrator keeps insisting that he is “look(ing) for America,” even though the experiences he describes all take place in the United States.
This metaphorical distinction between the United States and America is rooted in semantics and reinforced by history. The phrase “United States” is a literal denotation of a political system, not a geographic indicator. It simply describes how the 13 original colonies structured themselves: a number of territories granted an indeterminate degree of autonomy from a central federal government. Indeed, several countries have, at various points in their history, included the term “United States” in their official name, including Belgium, Brazil, Indonesia, Venezuela and, to this day, Mexico, or the United Mexican States. These political semantics continued to be fortified over time. Manifest destiny asserted that it was the fate of the growing nation to expand the entirety of North America.
Conversely, the noun “America” has geographic meaning. It was first coined by Italian explorers to describe the remote and mysterious continents that lie far beyond the western edge of their world. For them — and for subsequent generations that invested the New World with a divine significance — America could have represented only an ideal, an aspiration, an imagined space.
I believe that these meanings endure today: “The United States” is the political and social pursuit of the great promise of “America.” When somebody describes a place such as New York City or Berkeley as being outside America, it is because such locations have identities so autonomous that they are seen as being on the peripheries of the mainstream direction in which the United States is heading.
Yet for me, the apparent resistance of places such as Manhattan and Berkeley to the politics and culture of the nation as a whole — their coastal, cosmopolitan progressivism versus the landlocked, rural conservatism of the rest of the United States — means that such locations are more true to the essence of America.
If “America” is that which the United States is perpetually chasing, then America is defined by a constant state of national self-resistance, self-scrutiny and self-improvement. With their histories of activism and opposition to political and cultural hegemonies, the likes of New York City and Berkeley capture what I understand to be the spirit of America.
But a facet of “America” as important as this state of endeavor is its ideological flexibility. This helps me understand the pervasive and pluralist culture of patriotism in the United States. Political figures as disparate as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can both consider themselves patriotic because they are pursuing their respective interpretations of the American project. Trumpian rhetoric, in particular, exploits this to negotiate the striking contradiction of at once declaring America to be the greatest nation on Earth and also condemning U.S. government as being on the brink of tyranny and U.S. society as on the verge of moral destitution.
Although the strength of the nation is so often understood through its economy and military, its endurance stems from this malleability in people’s interpretations of “America.” It can be reshaped to fit the ideology of a politician, the mood of a time or the identity of a place in the nation. “America” is so resilient, malleable and woven with self-contradiction because it is an ideal to be pursued, not attained.
This reassures me, then, whenever I am urged to go beyond Berkeley and “see America.” Though American studies and my year abroad so far have shown me that I will never come close to understanding or seeing even a fraction of this country, they have both taught me that there is no one definitive America to see. Instead, I can only hope to expand the limits of my imagination’s understanding of the possibilities of America — the diversity of ideas, peoples and histories that are all rooted in it. But it is more exciting this way. Nobody will be able to talk about “finding America” in the past tense.