The Islandic in the Postcolonial Critique of American Empire

by Oscar Campomanes

This essay arose from the Fall 2017 meeting of UCHRI’s Asia Theories Network, “Island Life.” More essays from the “Island Life” meeting will be released on Foundry over the course of the 2018–2019 academic year.

In what follows, I briefly describe a transdisciplinary and translocal field, Nissology (or alternatively, Nesology), which I have recently engaged, and currently draw from, for a new project in American empire studies and Filipino postcolonial critique. Second, I provide some indicative glimpse of my own current project, which borrows and refunctions some categories established in this field. In this project, I seek to demonstrate the descriptive and explanatory power of the islandic (also, the oceanic, archipelagic) as theoretical categories, in reference to the new and late forms of American imperiality, and in my own postcolonial critiques of them.

“Nissology, derived from the Greek root for island, nisos and study of, logos is defined as “the study of islands on their own terms.”1 This field has multiple centers in unlikely locations, often islandic themselves, and therefore not in the metropolitan ‘mainstreams’ of theoretical and practical knowledge-production, with its active scholars refusing to reproduce center-periphery dynamics in their networks of exchanges (eg. Cyprus in the Mediterranean, Hawaii and Fiji in the Pacific, Prince Edward Island in the North Atlantic, Cuba in the Caribbean, etcetera). Its practitioners often choose to labor in relative obscurity, firmly rooting themselves in their own southern or eastern islandic locales, in an attitude of what may be termed “strategic parochialism,” or deliberate self-insulation. A belated discovery of mine is that Neso/Nissology, in fact, has a Philippine equivalent, whose development is being undertaken in Filipino languages (esp. Tagalog, and some Visayan or central Philippine island vernaculars) to enable it to formulate its own terms and methods that are responsive to, and therefore has aptitude for, Philippine contexts and conditions. Linguistic insularity, in this case then, has the effect of reorienting Philippine critical-theorizing to the local and its own locale, away from the reactant position of citing, or merely responding to, critical theories germinated elsewhere. It is a declaration of intellectual independence. This distinctly Filipino and vernacular strain of global neso/nissology may be nominated as “mga pagsusuri ng Pilipinas bilang Kapuluan-Katubigan” (Philippine archipelagic-maritime studies).2

So why the categorical privilege, and what may be the heuristic purchase, of the island or islandic (the nisos/nesos, globally; the Filipino-Tagalog pulo, the Filipino-Visayan puod, locally)? I can only indicate some of its conceptual and explanatory motility across the disciplines, including in my own project, given space limitations. To conceptualize and comprehend a heterogeneity of global, national, and local phenomena (from cultural/community development to transculturations, from literary/artistic to technological practices/traditions, from late-imperial to postcolonial/decolonial formations, and from economic to ecological questions, to name only several of the field’s most central problematics), various terminological shorthands have been deployed, generating novel, often startling, insights about such various objects of study: “island-form,” “insular figure,” or “island motif” (Balasopoulos); “island effect” (Depraetere); “island tradition” (Stephanides and Bassnett); “literary and cultural islanding” (Baldacchino); and most recently, “island relationality” (Stratford), for some telling examples.3

In the nesological discourses of the literary humanities and beyond, as Stephanos Stephanides and Susan Bassnett point out:

The topos of the island explores and creates bridges between the real and the imaginary as well as crossings between genres and disciplines. Islands are articulated as utopias/dystopias, loci amoeni, Edens, Arcadias, nations, metatexts, stepping stones, cultural crossroads, thus raising questions about the metaphoricity and translatability of culture, desire, displacement, solitude, isolation, exile, insularity, minority and hegemonic cultures, illustrating the creative stimulus that the idea of islands has provided across time and across cultures.

With their comprehensive survey of how the islandic has worked as a concept/trope across a variety of literary texts from antiquity to modernity, Stephanides and Bassnett reveal that “islands have always occupied a powerful place and have been a source of fascination in the literary imagination.” In the nissological discourses of the social and natural sciences, as Christian Depraetere similarly observes, islands are surveilled and studied as “environmental and cultural bellwethers,” recapitulating as they do the basic conditions and sequences for the evolution and reproduction of various life-forms, and key culture-forms such as languages. Seen as “major sanctuaries of biodiversity and places where many communities strive to maintain a vibrant cultural identity,” but given their geomorphological limitations and fragility, island locales are “consequently regarded as vulnerable ‘hotspots’ from both biological and cultural viewpoints.”

So while Neso/Nissology as a “field” for systematizing and codifying critical island studies is new, its basic and organizing category of the islandic is certainly not, having been amply shown to circulate “across time and across cultures,” with Antonis Balasopoulos going so far as to say that in poetics, for example, “an insular geographical unconscious” is often imperceptibly at work. Arguably, the same may be said of Global South/East traditions of thought, especially in specific archipelagic contexts like Taiwan and the Philippines.4 Perhaps it is best to illustrate this truism of an “insular geographical unconscious” through its own independent irruption into our Workshop deliberations at National Taiwan University. With respect to the concept of the “island-form,” I was struck by what Taiwanese artmaker Jun-Honn Kao stated during our 5 March 2017 salon, in which he described his ocular work and the project of tracking/mapping the remaining traces of World War II-era Japanese Imperial Army seizure of the mountain region of Taiwan (“Archipelago Art Trilogy”). He was careful to clarify that he was not so much concerned with “the geophysical nature of Taiwan as an island” as with the island-like form of the Japanese enclosure of this interior part of the country to establish its suzerainty over Taiwan during the period of occupation. The form of the island, then, is invoked metaphorically to conceptualize and make visible the limits and borders of imperial-territorial rule.


Something of this insular unconscious also seemed to have underwritten my own inchoate notion of the islandic at the beginning of my own project some years ago. I immediately noticed the resemblances in form and function between the island territories of the American empire and the fleet of Aircraft Carriers (“floating islands”) that it had built over an extended period of development (and maintains at great cost) to connect and supplement such insular dominions. Consider these two photodocumentary images, juxtaposed: an aerial view of the US island territory of Guam (fig. 1), and a similarly angled photograph of the USS Eisenhower (fig. 2). In one visual sweep of these images, one should be able to see the uncanny isomorphism between the geophysical form of Guam as an island, and the islandic form/function of the Aircraft Carrier.5

Figure 1: Guam

Figure 2: USS Eisenhower

The US Aircraft Carrier, the “capital ship” or flagship vessel of the US Navy since World War II (but especially during the Cold War), has proven eminently useful for the USA in its wars and geopolitical maneuvers as a global seapower and imperial hegemon. Seemingly designed to simulate in form the very islands and island groups in the Pacific and other oceans/seas that constitute the planetary spread and sprawl of the US Empire (as it developed after the conquest of the Philippines), the Aircraft Carrier truly embodies and symbolizes the extraterritorialism for which the USA became known, exceptionally, as “an empire without colonies.” Most of these “extra-territories,” after their respective histories of annexation, were primarily built up and treated as naval-military bases, or in the words of premier naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan in the late nineteenth-century, “coaling stations,” to signify their crucial role in the refueling and repair of US naval ships and vessels of all kinds as these patrolled major sea lanes and were deployed in geostrategic zones or trouble spots around the world. This notion of extraterritoriality was probably what a US Secretary of War meant, when he declared, ca. 1940s., that “[these islands that the USA annexed through various means at various times in the ‘American,’ and now, ‘Pacific’ Century] are not colonies; they are outposts.”6

Reconceptualizing the ‘globalization,’ which is largely maritime or oceanic/archipelagic, that has historically underpinned American imperial desire and designs, political philosopher Carl Schmitt once said that “to imagine a ‘maritime globe’ would seem strange, indeed,” and one could only persist in “speaking naturally of the ‘terrestrial sphere’ or of the ‘terrestrial globe’” if one ignored the fact that “the surface of the planet is three fourths water.” Hence, considering that a mere one fourth of the earth is “earth” or is terra firma, “even the largest continents are but huge floating islands,” in Schmitt’s words. Schmitt’s observation has direct pertinence in terms of the analogy I develop in my project between the two kinds of “islands afloat”—or “island-forms”—by which we can characterize the curious geography and cartography of US neocolonial power: the literal islands or island groups (including the Philippine archipelago) which it annexed for much of the 20th century, and for being so seemingly insignificant in territorial and terrestrial terms could be made invisible and, if allowed to be “afloat,” could only be recognizable as mere “coaling stations” or “outposts;” and the aircraft carriers that move between or among them, as “floating islands,” figuratively speaking, i.e. as these kinds of “ islands afloat” are able to virtually extend or expand American imperial dominion ( in amphibious and amorphous ways) over a much more capacious “maritime globe,” rather than a merely terrestrial one.


  1. Nesology is the preferred term of humanities practitioners of this field (nesos is an alternative spelling for nisos), Nissology for social and natural sciences scholars (I have not seen any explanation for this terminological difference, save that it serves to identify the disciplinal location of any given researcher). For Nesology, see Balasopoulos and for Nissology, Depraetere. For the most lucid, compact, and concise introduction to this field (although conducted through the prism of postcolonial literary and cultural studies), see DeLoughrey. For “the study of islands on their own terms,” see Thomas.
  2. See Ubaldo (2012; 2014) for representative collections of the most cutting-edge work being produced in Philippine neso/nissology. I contextualized this Philippine politics of vernacularization in my own presentation at the Workshop’s second public forum, observing that “much of the most consequential theorizing going on in the Philippines is conducted in the vernacular, so if you do not know your Tagalog, or what its practitioners call ‘intellectualized Filipino,’ then you are unable to interlocute and join in the ongoing vibrant discourses at all.” As I further explained, “Language-choice in which to conduct theoretical discourse is a very important political question [in the Philippines], and its centrality can be briefly explained by the opposition to, and disenchantment with, the hegemony of Anglo-American English in our culture which is correctly perceived to have presented the main obstacle to effective decolonization in the country, esp. in the area of scholarship/research.” Campomanes, “The Concept-Work of Pook (Local, Locale) in Philippine Critical Theory,” Typescript.
  3. In Pacific Islander Studies, these are all preceded, of course, by Epeli Hau’ofa’s now famous formulary of “our sea of islands,” as opposed to “islands in a remote sea,” to reframe and remap South Pacific island communities/cultures. In Philippine Archipelagic-Maritime Studies, the most distinctive concept/term to emerge is the Visayan puod. “Tumutukoy ang matandang katagang ‘puod’ ng mga Bisaya sa isang heograpiko-pulitikal na konsepto….higit na mauunawaan ang nasabing konsepto kung iugnay ito sa isa pang kaugnay na salitang puok” – in my rough translation and paraphrase: apart from referring to ‘island,’ “the ancient Visayan word puod serves as a general geographical-political concept….it can make more sense if followed in its connection to another related word, puok” (“place, corner, territory” but which, as the Tagalog pook, I also translate here as the local, and locale). See Villan in Ubaldo.
  4. It was recently called to my attention that even in Japan, for example, there is a powerful strain of theorizing about the islandic/archipelagic that precedes contemporary global neso/nissological discourses, embodied in the writings of Shimao Toshio and the pan-islandic and Pacific-archipelagic Japan he conceptualized, to which he gave the name Yaponesia; and in the critical historiography developed by Amino Yoshihiko about Japan’s national and political-economic formation in maritime terms. On Shimao Toshio, see Gabriel and Amino. I am grateful to Christophe Thouny for the information, and for sharing copies of these texts.
  5. For a related and fascinating interpretation, through the agency of visual art but concerning the analogy between the Aircraft Carrier and the cruise ship, see the work of Irene de Andrés.
  6. Quoted in Robert C. Kiste, et al., eds. Tides of History: The Pacific Islands in the Twentieth Century. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.