L. Timmel Duchamp
|Posted on Thursday, March 13, 2003 - 06:38 pm: |
An recent editorial by Ann Kibbey, the Executive Editor of the online journal _Genders_, titled "Gender and the American Ideology of War," takes note of how narrative politics works not only in literary texts but in the political imaginary of the public sphere. (See <http://www.genders.org/g37/g37_kibbey.html>.) Kibbey begins by reporting that one of the larger signs she saw at London's peace demonstration on Feb.15 urged "Stop Mad Cowboy Disease." Kibbey characterizes this admonition as a "European reference to the Bush administration and its ideology of war," but I saw the same words on many a home-made sign at the Seattle demonstration held that same day. People everywhere are conscious of the White House's continual resort to the Hollywood-western cowboy narrative for its rhetorical imagery. George II's administration is not the first administration to have used it; the Reagan White House often talked about America's "Riding Tall" & deliberately staged photo-ops of Reagan on his ranch, splitting logs But the Reagan administration's preferred Hollywood narrative was _Star Wars_, in which they could cast the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire" & the US as on the side of "The Force."
As Kibbey points out, the White House's posing the story of US foreign policy as Hollywood western begins with Bush's "Wanted Dead or Alive" Bin Laden poster and includes the White House's presumption that the US is the sheriff & most of the rest of the world is, basically, the wild, wild west, in which gold & oil & water & every other resource is up for grabs (which is to say, not the recognized possessions of the inhabitants who happen to occupy the land). The media, of course, assist in promoting this imagery by characterizing the "story" of the US's desire to go to war as the "Showdown" or "Standoff" with Iraq (or, as a variant, Saddam Hussein). But Kibbey's most interesting insight into the administration's use of this narrative is her discussion of Bush's "Father Knows Best" speech on the Monday following the massive anti-war demonstrations of Feb. 15 in the context of the White House's having cast the US public as the helpless (female) victim of the story:
"As we ought to be aware, the ideology of gender and the ideology of genocidal violence are intertwined in the Western. The parallel action that typifies the conclusion of the Western (and other U.S. `action movies') has generally been characterized only by its racist polarization of populations, which creates an artificial binary opposition that is resolved through the physical annihilation of one side by the other. But there is another dimension to it: The polarization of gender roles that is intertwined with it. What Americans seem slow to realize is the repugnant role in which they have now been cast, that of the female victim who must be rescued and saved by the male hero, a female victim whose role is to be helpless, mute, and passive, immobilized by fear as she awaits the outcome of the chase. Such rescues are in no way about social justice. They are artificial `temp tasks' (Sergei Eisenstein's wonderful phrase). The tempo task actively closes off ethical and political issues. That is its purpose. With the inception of the tempo task-- `time is running out'--, morality is located in the sidelined female victim, whose role is not to act morally, but to merely personify and symbolize morality. She passively awaits the outcome of the genocidal violence whose purported aim is to rescue her. This is why we are now being told to hunker down in the cabin, wrap ourselves in plastic sheeting, put duct tape over our mouths, and await the outcome of the horrific violence that is being perpetrated ostensibly to `save us.'"
Kibbey remarks that having cast the US public in this feminized role, Bush can then easily use the anti-war demonstrations ("the cries of the helpless victim in need of rescue") as an opportunity for strutting his own "masculine heroism." Her key point, though, is that this narrative, complete with "tempo task"-- which, as many USians have noticed with some bitterness, is eagerly propagated by US "news" organizations-- serves to obscure the moral & political questions we are in urgent need of considering as well as the reality of the massive loss of life and damage to the culture and society of Iraq caused by the first Gulf War and compounded by twelve years of sanctions so inexcusably vicious & heartless that repeatedly the UN officials appointed to administer them have resigned in protest, & by the US's use of depleted uranium weaponry in Southern Iraq. "The mad cowboy," Kibbey says, "is merely a weapon of mass distraction."
I've long been interested in narrative politics. I've long struggled against the invisible pressures that narrative forms insidiously exert on the writer. The lesson here, I think, is that we need to find new ways to tell this "story." When used to figure real events, the Hollywood western, the police procedural, the terrorist threatening the packed stadium all serve as red herrings, distracting us from the larger context-- historical, political, economic-- which alone can help us understand not only what is happening & why it is happening, but also what our own moves now should be-- & that we do, indeed, *have* moral & political moves to make since we aren't, after all, actually *in* a Hollywood Western.
L. Timmel Duchamp
|Posted on Sunday, March 16, 2003 - 10:56 pm: |
I've just read another article written by a feminist scholar that takes notice of how the Bush Administration is casting the general US public-- men & women both-- into the role of a passive victim that needs saving (& avenging). It makes sense, of course, that feminists should recognize a pattern that has often & often been used to keep women in "their place," frightened & mute, now that the mass media & unelected officials who rule us are applying it to a large mixed-gender mass of people. In the article, "Reverberations" (_differences_ 13,3; Fall, 2002), Joan Wallach Scott shows this pattern being applied by the White House (& particularly by Laura Bush, who made a radio address on the subject in November, 2001) to the women of Afghanistan (who from many accounts are now arguably worse off than they were before the US's assault on & occupation of that country). Scott writes:
"The justification of the war in Afghanistan in terms of the salvation of women had a broader resonance; it not only reconfigured a complex geo-political engagement (in which oil pipelines, among other material issues, play no small part) into a simple battle against terrorism; it also used recognizable gender references to articulate power relations between protector and protected. As feminists, we are rightly skeptical of turning our fate over to those who promise protection, who justify their actions (whether aggressive, repressive, or merely taken without consultation) in the name of our security. (Indeed, one of the criticisms of the Taliban was that they justified their treatment of women as `protection.') As Iris Young has argued, the central logic of this kind of protection is masculinist, and it assumes `the subordinate relation of those in the protected position. In return for male protection, the woman concedes critical distance and decision-making autonomy.' Extending the analysis, Young argues that however benign it seems, state sponsored protection denies the role citizens ought to play in democratic societies."
Scott then quotes from an unpublished paper-- "Masculinist Protection and Feminist Citizenship: A Critique of the Security Regime"-- that Iris Young (a philosopher) presented at the Conference on Women and Citizenship, held at Washington University in April, 2002:
"Through the logic of protection the state demotes members of a democracy to dependents. State officials adopt the stance of masculine protector, telling us to entrust our lives to them, not to question their decisions about what will keep us safe. Their protector position puts us, the citizens and residents who depend on their strength and vigilance for our security, in the position of women and children under the charge of the male protector. Because they take the risks and organize the agency of the state, it is their prerogative to determine the objectives of protective action and their means. In a security regime there is no room for separate and shared powers, nor for questioning and criticizing the protector's decisions and orders. Good citizenship in a security regime consists in cooperative obedience for the safe of the safety of all."
My only quibble with Young's analysis is that I don't believe that it's possible to talk about "citizenship" in a "security regime." Citizenship is about active participation, not passive obedience. Let's not pull our punches here: when "members of a democracy" are "demoted" to "dependents," they're no longer citizens of a democracy, but subjects of an authoritarian regime. A security regime in which a host of powerful agencies & persons & bureaucracies are not bound by law to respect the rights of individuals ("human" & otherwise) long known to be essential prerequisites for democratic government may *call* itself a democracy, but we need not collaborate with such a lie when talking about it ourselves.
|Posted on Monday, March 17, 2003 - 12:55 am: |
Your post, Timmi, got me thinking about antecedents to Scott's argument and to the state of affairs it describes. Critiques of "the logic of protection" go back to Chuang Tzu and are well-exemplified by Einstein's great essay, "Why Do They Hate the Jews?" in which he makes a strong case for subjugation-in-the-guise-of-protection as the most effective part of the Nazi program. But the "justification . . . in terms of the salvation of women" reminds me of nothing so much as Birth of a Nation.
L. Timmel Duchamp
|Posted on Monday, March 17, 2003 - 05:14 pm: |
Ah, yes, the practice of lynching African-American men using the "protection" of white women as the pretext. Scott's article wasn't exclusively focused on the logic of protection, which is why, I suspect, she didn't cite such antecedents. A lot of interesting work could be done mining this topic & drawing connections to our current, very complicated situation in which several previously parallel threads of peril are being tangled into one great, Gordian knot most people won't even think of trying to untangle.
Could you elaborate a little on "the logic of protection" in Einstein's essay? I'm not familiar with it. Who was it that the Nazi's program was supposedly protecting?
Although I haven't read "Why Do They Hate the Jews?", I have read Einstein's "Why Socialism?"-- & am now wondering if he wrote other political essays with interrogatory titles.
|Posted on Monday, March 17, 2003 - 05:49 pm: |
This is all fascinating and deeply compelling. I've learned a lot just reading it. This is an issue that I've thought about with regard to my own work in the past to some extent, and which I am unsure I have fully resolved.
What I despair at, in the political arena, is that a majority of Americans still seem unable or unwilling to think about these issues, or to be critical of what the media provides as images, symbols, and narrative.
|Posted on Monday, March 17, 2003 - 07:05 pm: |
Timmi-- Thanks for prompting me to pull out the 1954 Einstein collection, Ideas and Opinions, published by Crown (the house that now gives us Ann Coulter). I find "Religion and Science: Irreconcilable?" as well as "Is There a Jewish Point of View?" in addition to the two we mentioned. Also "What Is the Theory of Relativity?" which is perhaps not so much a political essay. Leafing through the Einstein volume, I just noticed a passage headed, Congratulations to a Critic, which I assume comes from a letter or a telegram that he wrote: it runs, "To see with one's own eyes, to feel and judge without succumbing to the suggestive power of the fashion of the day, to be able to express what one has seen and felt in a trim sentence or even in a cunningly wrought word --is that not glorious? Is it not a proper subject for congratulation?"
I find the passage moving, but also wish that more of those in the critical profession aspired to be worthy of that congratulation.
To return to your question --his initial point in "Why Do They Hate the Jews?" (1938) is simply the ease with which "a class or clique aspiring to absolute rule over a people" can attain their goal through promising to protect the people in question from a supposed threat. He memorably depicts the calculated use of ressentiment by the German leadership:
"The shepherd boy said to the horse, 'You are the noblest beast that treads the earth. You deserve to live in untroubled bliss; and indeed your happiness would be complete were it not for the treacherous stag. But he practiced from youth to excel you in fleetness of foot. His faster pace allows him to reach the water holes before you do. He and his tribe drink up the water far and wide, while you and your foal are left to thirst. Stay with me! My wisdom and guidance shall deliver you and your kind from a dismal and ignominious state.'
"Blinded by envy and hatred of the stag, the horse agreed. He yielded to the shepherd lad's bridle. He lost his freedom and became the shepherd's slave."
No doubt this was not a novel political insight, but it made a big impression upon me in my yout'.
On the subject of killing African-American men, recall that one of the white kids who killed the black youngster in Howard Beach claimed that he was also working from a protection-of-injured-womanhood narrative: he said he'd seen Spielberg's movie of The Color Purple and been revolted by the way black men treated women! Among the many ironies there, I thought, was the fact that Spielberg does like paternalistic stories in which a poor defenseless people is saved by a Great Man, but The Color Purple really doesn't strike me as one of those stories. I think it's another case of a person shoehorning a complex narrative into a predetermined schema.
|Posted on Tuesday, March 18, 2003 - 01:01 pm: |
This is a very interesting discussion. I'll have to take the time to track down the articles and essays all of you have mentioned.
Your discussion really rang a chord with me in light of the discussion I had with a co-worker this morning about Bush's speech last night. I missed the speech, but was she was quite angry with what she called the "maleness" of Bush's focus. She said it felt like Bush was describing a showdown solely between the men of America and Saddam Hussein's men, his sons.
|Posted on Tuesday, March 18, 2003 - 01:48 pm: |
You made me beat you, I didn't want to do it,
I didn't want to do it...
Blaming the victim seems standard argument from any kind of power junky ?
When manipulation fails, force is the next step ?
God knows I tried to persuade you by other means and now you drive me to this ?
|Posted on Tuesday, March 18, 2003 - 09:55 pm: |
Michael, I think you've put your finger on a major Duchampian theme here --one that seems more and more glaringly relevant in the light of the Limbaughesque tone that U.S. discourse has taken on (claiming victim status for the oppressor --which is a related strategy-- became an astonishingly popular pastime in the wake of 9-11: I heard a liberal academic who'd been arrested years earlier for protesting the Vietnam War say, "Yeah, yeah, we did terrible things in Chile and elsewhere: I don't need to hear about that ever again," with the implication --given the context in which he made the remark-- that the U.S. had somehow gained an armor of virtue and innocence that justified everything it did).
I just received a soon-to-be published essay containing a paragraph that makes a chillingly relevant point about the very issue that you raise:
"In 1992, I taught Corydon in an upper level graduate/undergraduate seminar in the University of Massachusetts on 'Representations of Male Sexuality,' which looked at several of Gide’s other novels as well, along with novels by D. H. Lawrence and Robert Musil. On the near side of that transition period [roughly speaking, the Sixties], when I reread Corydon, I had no trouble at all following Gide’s argument. More to the point, neither did any of my graduates or even the classes three undergraduates. Corydon’s [formerly] 'impenetrable argument' is a clear exposition of an oppressive technique today known as 'blaming the victim.' It is a strategy that almost every liberation movement—including the early black abolition movement—has had to work its way through. 'Blaming the victim' is, of course, short hand for the strategy the oppressor mounts against an oppressed group by saying, 'Look, if you didn’t struggle so hard and just accepted your condition, you wouldn’t be so unhappy. All your problems really stem from yourself—from your trying to fight against a situation that isn’t really all that bad.' This argument had been used against slaves; it had been used against women; and in 1911, it had already been used against the existing homophile movement. Gide had taken it on himself, as part of a social project, to show it up for what it was. But the one position from which you cannot follow the argument is if you have been sincerely hoodwinked into believing the problem is your fault—if, indeed, you are a victim. Gide (and presumably any number of his readers) could understand this in 1911. Any bright undergraduate could understand it in 1993. But some rather considerable intelligences, if not intellects, were baffled by it from c. 1959 to 1966—which is simply another sign of the extraordinary practical change in the reigning structure of discourse the years from sixty-eight through sixty-nine represented, when essays and analyses of 'blaming the victim' became commonplace, not only in academic discourse but in the daily press, so that relatively ordinary readers were already familiar with the general idea."
I say chillingly relevant because the author of that passage reminds us that it's possible for a substantial concept to vanish rather rapidly from the repertoire of ideas, categories, and schemata that we use to make sense of what we see around us. It suggests that the very ability to see and name the victim-blaming process as such was obliterated by the 1950s, such that the essay's author (and James Baldwin) found Gide's novel impenetrable and had to wait for the political events and intellectual ferment of the late Sixties for it to regain its comprehensibilty. I think that might be one of the concepts that, thanks to a number of different reactionary forces, the reigning structure of discourse is in the process of losing once again.
|Posted on Monday, March 24, 2003 - 08:54 pm: |
Perhaps the gender issues in the background of this illegal war, the hypermasculine posture of the President and his cronies, explains why I found the following video presentation so enjoyable. It truly brightened my weekend, and in between protest rallies I found myself clicking and clicking on this link to watch this duet over and over again.
|Posted on Wednesday, March 26, 2003 - 09:01 pm: |
Here's another masculinity parody, aimed at Powell's Coaltion of the Billing: <http://home.nc.rr.com/jape77/enlarge>
L. Timmel Duchamp
|Posted on Saturday, March 29, 2003 - 06:36 pm: |
Since starting this thread, I've been trying to pay attention to the narratives used to report, analyze, & discuss the war. I say *trying* to pay attention since most of them just slip under my narrative radar, likely because they're so banal an aspect of the journalistic genre that it's easy not to notice them. The exception to this, now, for me personally, is the Hollywood western narrative, simply because Kibbey's editorial has made me hyperconscious of it. Interestingly, I've found that both pro- & anti-war speakers & writers are making use of it. Among the latter, I recall reading (on either the first or second day of the war) that a woman in a large demonstration in Indonesia carried a sign the reporter described as a "Wanted Dead or Alive" poster for Bush. I presumed this was a reference to Osama Bin Laden's being so targeted by the Bush administration. & just yesterday, William Pfaff's opinion piece for the _International Herald Tribune_ titled "Riding Alone into the Sunset," tapped into the Lone Ranger television series:
Since in Bush ideological circles, more war is what we need, in
order to right the world and make it a better place, the president
would waste his time going to the United Nations with his projects.
Americans are on their own now, Lone Rangers, riding toward the
On the pro-war side, an article by Peter Baker (dateline: "Camp Viper," in Southern Iraq, March 27) quotes a US military commander's chief of staff employing the Hollywood western narrative:
Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, the top Marine commander in the region, visited Nasiriyah the next
day to inspect the battlefield and came close to two or three gun battles himself, according to
his chief of staff, Col. John Coleman. "It's the Wild West there," Coleman said. "We control what we want to control, but it's not a very safe place."
It's been a long time since I've seen a western, so I'm unclear as to whether the guys wearing white hats & packing six-shooters (or even the US Cavalry) ever have to worry about running out of food & water. I'm quite sure that civilians, in the form of wagon trains, of course, were subject to such perils. But running out of food & water is a good deal less glamorous than "coming close to two or three gun battles." The Marines in the supply convoy are down to one MRE a day & a single bottle of water, which would be pretty dire, even if they weren't in a hot climate. This sounds more like a colonial war story, to me, set anywhere in Asia or Africa in the 19th-century, where the colonizers' forces run into the usual problems with hostile natives & an inhospitable climate they hadn't accounted for when planning their strategy for conquest.
Star-Trek narratives have been occasionally popping up. At the Federal Building in Seattle last week, a pro-war demonstrator who'd been mobilized by a radio station carried a sign declaring "Pre-Emption Is Here To Stay: Resistance Is Futile." Apparently the guy carrying the sign thought that positioning the Bush Administration (& maybe even the US as a whole) as the Borg isn't such a bad thing. (I wonder that he didn't at least remember that the Federation not only *did* manage to resist but even pried the already "assimilated" Jean-Luc out of the Borg's clutches.) But then at an anti-war rally in the same location a few days earlier, one of the speakers told us anti-war activists that the "Force Is With Us." I can't say that I was particularly crazy about being positioned with Luke Skywalker.
|Posted on Monday, March 31, 2003 - 02:07 am: |
I just came across Susan Faludi's Times piece on how lousy a cowboy GWB is: <http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/30/opinion/30falu.html?th>. My interest was piqued by her point about the utility of myths to America: she seems to be saying that, true or not, these idealizations give us something to measure ourselves against and aspire to. Libertarian commentator Jim Henley recently commented, after a number of nuanced arguments, that the reason we don't sanction the use of torture is that "We're the fuckin' United States of America." Although he acknowledged the value of a commentor's suggestion that he adopt the more general "Because we're fuckin' human beings." Both are quite obviously and self-consciously idealizations: if I'm not mistaken, U.S. courts have in the past refused to prosecute the "outsourcing" or "rendering" of torture to Latin American governments. But when I hear arguments to the effect that "we" kicked the Vietnam Syndrome in Waco, when we realized that it was not necessary to be covert or ashamed about governmental operations that massacred men, women, and children; and when I see the pride with which our forces are taking now in having done things like this <http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/29/international/worldspecial/29halt.html>, the "That's not what we do" myth, with all its aspirations and idealizations, becomes very attractive.
L. Timmel Duchamp
|Posted on Monday, March 31, 2003 - 04:59 pm: |
I have deep misgivings about the tactic Susan Faludi employs in "An American Myth Rides Into the Sunset." She charges George W. Bush with having "declared war on a foundational national myth" through his administration's use of the Hollywood-cowboy narrative, cites Theodore Roosevelt as her authority on what she calls "the cowboy charter," & touts Roosevelt's Harvard classmate Owen Wister's "The Virginian" as "the urtext" of the "cowboy myth." She seems not to understand that myths are slippery, pernicious stories that evolve & are liable to be utilized in unpredictable & totalizing & oppresive ways. "Mythologies," she claims, "are essential to defining who we are and, more importantly, who we want to be." Myself, I tend to associate mythologies with stereotypes & racist, sexist, & classist simplifications. "Defining who we are" is exactly what Bush & Ashcroft & their buddies are about both at home & abroad. To put it int he simplest terms: I don't *want* to be defined-- & I certainly don't want national (or other) values necessarily associated with my identity to flow from a *myth.*
The invocation of the cowboy narrative by a British Lance Corporal who was among those fired upon by a low-flying US pilot outside Basra shows just how irrelevant Wister's "urtext" is to the Hollywood-cowboy narrative. In today's Times/UK, the three wounded British soldiers who survived the attack describe in horrifying detail the behavior of a US pilot who fired on a properly identified & marked British tank & spewed gunfire at every human being in the area (including a twelve-year old boy), & even made a second, return run to take a second shot at the British tank unit. One of the survivors called the pilot "a cowboy out on a jolly." (We have to wonder whether the pilot's brain had been fried by the amphetamines US pilots are routinely fed, something the article discreetly omitted to mention.)
Faludi wants to restore what she calls the *original* myth (as if myths ever come in that flavor!)-- as opposed to the living, breathing & therefore constantly contested narrative that for better or worse seems to be intelligible to a wide variety of speakers. Just as Bush & Cheney "dutifully worked [their] way through the Western cliche checklist" (as Faludi observes), so the wounded Lance Corporal and the peace protestors holding up signs demanding an end to "Mad Cowboy Disease" take issue with the value system that the "Western cliche checklist" implies and endorses. What one needs to do with this cowboy narrative is pay attention to how it is deployed & wrestle with the values it takes for granted-- *not* purify it for inspirational (quasi-religious) purposes.
Roland Barthes' essay "Myth Today" (which provides a semilogical analysis of how myth works) offers clear warning of the dangers of embracing myth (as Faludi thinks we ought to do):
"For this interpellant speech [i.e., myth] is at the same time a frozen speech: at the moment of reaching me, it suspends itself, turns away and assumes the look of a generality: it stiffens, it makes itself look neutral and innocent. The appropriation of the concept is suddenly driven away once more by the literalness of the meaning. This is a kind of *arrest*, in the legal sense of the term. . . On the surface of language, something has stopped moving: the use of the signification is here, hiding behind the fact, and conferring on it a notifying look; but at the same time, the fact paralyzes the intention, gives it something like a malaise producing immoblility: in order to make it innocent, it freezes it. This is because myth is speech *stolen and restored*. Only, speech which is restored is no longer quite that which was stolen: when it was brought back, it was not put exactly in its place. It is this brief act of larceny, this moment taken for a surreptitious faking, which gives mythical speech its benumbed look."
What the continual contestation of the Hollywood-cowboy narrative does is refuse the "neutral and innocent look" that treating it as myth would impose on us. As I see it, we need the means of contesting the terms of the administration's discourse more desperately now than we ever have. Purifying this narrative & freezing it into myth won't help those of us wishing to dissent from the dominant perspective.
|Posted on Monday, March 31, 2003 - 07:52 pm: |
What first impressed me about Faludi when she came into the public eye was her pedantic rigor: she seemed determined to isolate and debunk all the antifeminist cant and spin that had accumulated in the public sphere in the mid-eighties. Her chief rhetorical move was, "No, it doesn't say that." I've often been heartened when I see someone aptly using such a move, even when it's used to debunk false claims about Scripture. Fred Clark, notably, has been tireless in demonstrating how the administration's and its supporters' claims about this or that Christian text are not consistent with that which is written (talk about religious purposes!). Ruth Ginsburg keeps pointing out to Fat Tony Scalia that there's a Ninth Amendment written in the Constitution.
Faludi strikes many false notes in the editorial under discussion --if you're denouncing an aggressive imperialist, you don't invoke Teddy Roosevelt as an ideal, for heaven's sake-- but seeks to drive home the point that the "cowboy" trope used by both the Shrub's detractors and supporters makes no sense. She makes a questionable claim that the cowboy ethic is indeed an ideal of virtue (my point about its attractiveness was to agree with her that it's a lot better than what we see happening in reality), while portraying the cowboy in his most conservative manifestation, as a skilled company man with a filial loyalty to the boss.
What I think Faludi's got ahold of, without developing it, is the incongruity of using the Hollywood cowboy trope at all. What do the characters played by Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Warren Beatty, or Alan Ladd --haunted, solitary, anticorporate figures who are forced by circumstance to give up their renunciation of violence one last time and then to die or to remove themselves from human society because they can't be integrated into civilization-- have to do with the pResident or the pilot in question? Mike Hammer or Scarface seem to be more accurate "myths" for such men: if they're heroes out of Westerns, the Westerns are Dr. Strangelove and The Killer Inside Me. Bush and the implementers of his agenda take on the paraphenalia of the Western hero jjust as effectively as John Rambo takes on the paraphenalia of the hippie.
The answer that you've been developing throughout this thread is of course that it's not about the story's protagonist or the Western's traditionally valedictory tone: it's about the "values it takes for granted." Virgin land, dastardly villain, innocent homesteaders in need of protection, hapless citizenry who don't know when to defend themselves, native population divided into good and bad Indians, climactic showdown in which the villain's cravenness makes it necessary to resort to violence, triumph of the frontier family or lamentable but inevitable takeover of the land by big business. Such an overdetermined narrative could have just about anyone fill in the blank space reserved for the hero, even (if it comes to that) a guy who's pretty blank himself.
L. Timmel Duchamp
|Posted on Thursday, July 03, 2003 - 07:33 pm: |
I recently read a volume edited by Jutta Weldes titled _To Seek Out New Worlds: Exploring Links between Science Fiction and World Politics_ , which undertakes to find insight into International Relations by reading science fiction (which for most of the essays in the book means film & television sf, not sf literature). An essay by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Daniel H. Nexon, "Representation is Futile? American Anti-Collectivism and the Borg" discusses the limitations of intelligibility that sharply circumscribe political representations in mainstream discursive spaces in US culture & politics. The authors assert that these limitations affect US foreign policy itself:
`Politicians attempt to sell specific foreign policies to the public, one another, and key constituencies by crafting stories about world politics that imply particular courses of action. What kinds of narratives an audience will accept limits what public policies officials can pursue, and similar constraints also restrict the creators of other products for mass consumption, such as films and television programs.'
The authors place greatest emphasis on the importance of political narratives appealing to a "mass audience" (viz., the anti-democratic version of what "citizens" are: namely, a passive mass audience needing to be satisfied in certain superficial ways), but the officials themselves need first to appeal to themselves, individually, as well as to their groupthink (as the authors note in the quote above). Is it likely that among themselves they tell narratives different from the ones they tell the public? I can easily imagine a variety of stories told in different policy circles about, say, the Iraq war, stories considered too sophisticated (or realpolitick) to be floated publicly. & yet there must be some overlap with the stories told to the public, since to presume otherwise would be to posit an elaborate, formal conspiracy (which would make no sense to me).
In fact, a glance back at recent presidents shows that what seems to work best "politically" (i.e., for winning approval in simplistically-worded polls) is an official's speaking & thinking in narratives that exercise an immediate, unthinking appeal that does not demand reflection or less than "common sense" understanding. Reagan did this superbly; Bush I did it poorly; & although Clinton sometimes departed from his immediate predecessors' narratives, he, too, deployed narratives the public understood at the instant he spoke them. Bush II may constantly be putting his foot in his mouth (like his father), but he gets away with it just as Reagan did. The hubbub over Bush's invitation to Iraqi insurgents to attack the US's occupation force is a case in point (that I will return to in due course).
Interestingly, Jackson & Nexon assert that US foreign policy has a "master narrative":
`American foreign policy. . . . is not simply justified in terms of preserving the security of the United States, but, at the same time, as necessary to safeguard the very existence of freedom and liberal democracy in the world. Indeed, no matter what the specific policy recommended, the notion that the United States has a "manifest destiny" as the embodiment of freedom and liberty is a constant theme in American political discourse. It may justly be termed the "master narrative" of U.S. foreign policy, part of "a whole *matrix*, a manner of interpreting the space and time of America" (Stephanson, _Manifest Destiny_, p.5). This theme runs through the statements and major speeches of most American presidents and continues to this day.'
This master narrative, of course, serves to rationalize & disguise & make palatable the US's never-ending stream of invasions & incursions & meddling in the affairs of countries around the world. & as Jackson & Nexon point out, this master narrative usually strikes "many observers" as "grossly hypocritical" because US foreign policy has (since long before my birth) "actively supported illiberal and oppressive regimes throughout the world, and even covertly intervened to overthrow democratic regimes." "If such policies were justified on the grounds of simple *realpolitick* rather than liberal morality, the United States might appear significantly less hypocritical. But principles of *realpolitick* are fundamentally illiberal, and thus difficult to justify to the American public."
Jackson & Nexon note that one rhetorical strategy that has worked successfully to sell foreign policy to the US public is the characterization of the enemy as an "evil individual or group":
`As Kevin Phillips remarks, "Americans like to personalize war, to give the enemy a human face. It's probably a reflection of American individualism, and it certainly goes way back [in American history]."
. . . . Not all wars have such singular personifications-- neither Korea nor Vietnam did-- and they vary in importance, but they also represent one way of resolving the tension between the belief that most people in the world are really just like Americans, and yet many are willing to die in wars fought against the United States. Personalizing an enemy also makes for better drama than fighting against faceless masses.'
Opponents of the war against Iraq criticized Bush & his administration's demonization of Saddam Hussein (which succeeded the demonization of Osama bin Laden when focus on the latter became an embarrassment to Administration claims that the war in Afghanistan had been a triumph over al Quaeda) as a means for personalizing a war that would be not against a single individual (Saddam Hussein) but against a population numbering mostly children. Bush's "Wanted Dead or Alive" rhetoric obscured the fact that the billions of dollars of "smart" deployed in "Shock and Awe" killed & destroyed the property of people who were not only not Saddam Hussein-- "THE enemy"-- but of people who were subject to Saddam Hussein's dictatorial power. Most bizarrely, Bush combined the personlization of the war (i.e., claiming he-- standing in for the US public-- was fighting Saddam Hussein, not the people whose lives & property he was actually destroying) with the narrative of "liberating" the country he was destroying (but then the trope of the village that has to be destroyed to be "saved" is a commonplace bit of cognitive dissonance that has been with us since the Vietnam war). Iraqis cannily picked up on the theme of "liberation"-- which from all accounts they understood from the get-go as a cynical piece of propaganda meant not for their but for the US public's consumption-- & immediately began the now-familiar demand that having done the "job" (i.e., removed Saddam Hussein from power), the US should now get the hell out of their country. But of course since the assault on Iraq was never about "liberation" (any more than it was ever about the imaginary weapons of mass destruction Bush & Blair together invented), the Bush administration is not about to succumb to the narrative it found briefly convenient to excuse a war that the vast majority of persons living on this planet demonstrably & vehemently opposed.
So then yesterday, a bit hot under the collar over the mounting casualties belying his strutting performances of victory on May 1, Bush drew out his six-shooters & brandished them in Make-My-Day style: "There are some who feel like that [sic] conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is: Bring them on. We have the force necessary to deal with the situation."
A number of critics jumped on him for making an open display of his indifference to the safety & hardships of the men and women serving in Iraq. A sensible person might see this statement as yet another example of Bush putting his (as always ungrammatical) foot in his mouth. But in an article for Reuters, Steve Holland quotes Brookings Institute scholar Stephen Hess as saying that "many Americans like what they hear from the president." & I think Hess is right. What strikes me about this outburst is that Bush has once again managed to personalize the war. But instead of personalizing the enemy, he's personalizing the occupation. In the wake of the remark I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear the Bush administration generally & L. Paul Bremer in particular begin casting themselves as a Clint Eastwood figure trying to clean up a corrupt & unruly town in the wild, wild West.
The facts, after all, are irrelevant to political narratives. It all, really, just comes down to finding a story people can get into.
|Posted on Wednesday, July 09, 2003 - 09:09 pm: |
Okay, then, LTD: you've shown some degree of mastery in identifying the stories ("myths" in the Roland Barthes sense) in which governmental claims that would otherwise seem to be completely stupid or nonsensical make "sense" for the Busheviks' purposes. How would you deal with Ari Fleischer's "I think the burden is on those people who think he didn't have weapons of mass destruction to tell the world where they are."?
L. Timmel Duchamp
|Posted on Friday, July 11, 2003 - 03:20 pm: |
Wow. I don't pay much attention to Fleisher's constant stream of disinformation, but this statement-- is that *really* what he said???-- is one of the best examples of obfuscatory rhetoric I've ever seen. Demanding that people who doubt the existence of an object or relation reveal its location is puerile & dishonest doublespeak. It's a bit like a jealous husband demanding of a private investigator he's hired to spy on his wife to reveal the identity of a purported lover the investigator has discovered to be a phantom of the husband's jealousy. How can such a statement possibly make sense to anyone?
But perhaps what you're asking is how Bush supporters might receive such a statement. I think it's important to understand just how unlikely it is that most people will work out the logic in the statement (given its convoluted syntax) & thus realize they've been treated to doublespeak. What they *will* hear, though, is the word "burden," which has a certain resonance that many auditors can be counted on to pick up. In pre-war Bush Administration-speak, the US government claimed that the *burden* was on Iraq (a) to prove it did not have weapons of mass destruction, & (since the Bush Administration claimed that it *did* have WMD) (b) to reveal the location of the WMD. Of course proving that one did not commit a crime is often very hard to do (which is why in most modern Western judicial systems due process demands that the defendant be presumed innocent until proven guilty). Probably the main intent of the Bush Administration's insistence that proving the nonexistence of the weapons was Iraq's burden was to establish the US as the moral arbiter or judge of all other sovereign nations. In Fleisher's doublespeak (quoted above), he is deliberately linking pre-war Iraq (& Saddam Hussein) with those who doubt(ed) that the Iraq government still possessed WMD. If the "burden" (which was really two contradictory burdens, (a) & (b) listed above) was previously on the Iraqi government-- which no longer exists-- it is now on those who doubted that the Iraqi government had WMD. Most people will agree to elide the two terms (i.e., Iraqi government & doubters of Iraqi WMD) as well as the two contradictory "burdens," in which case they'll hear the statement as simply shifting the original "burden" onto the doubters-- where both possible "burdens" are in play at once.
So. If that's clear as mud, it's not *my* fault.
L. Timmel Duchamp
|Posted on Monday, July 14, 2003 - 08:56 pm: |
Over the weekend I read an article on Fritz Lang's _Rancho Notorious_, in which the author, Florianne Wild, argues that Lang, forced by MGM to make a Western, took his revenge on Hollywood's "ideology of cinematic `realism'" by offering an allegory undermining the standard good guy-bad guy binarism. The article's opening paragraph speaks to this thread:
"Perhaps to a greater extent than in any other film genre, the classical Western of the 1930s and 1940s is characterized by binary oppositions, which help to build constellations of meaning. The Western avoids grey areas in favor of a well-marked white-hat/black-hat ideological binarism of protagonist and antagonist. The genre may indeed have served to furnish contemporary audiences with a needed symbolic realism that allowed them to re-synthesize what was contradictory in their lives: the greater the contradictions in our behavior, the greater the need for a fantasy that might resolve them. Twentieth-century capitalism increasingly regulated the behavior of the male human subject and placed restraints upon him. He became a polite, clock-watching, productive citizen. At the same time, it became more difficult to attach villainy to a human face: where once those afflicted with the deadly sin of greed might be singled out and their miserliness condemned, now they were firmly and invisibly embedded within capitalism as its very cornerstones. The classical Western, then, provided a spectacle of greed and villainy that were clearly identifiable in a distinct individual or group, whether bandits, ranchers, or town merchants." ("Rewriting Allegory with a Vengeance: Textual Strategies in Fritz Lang's _Rancho Notorious_." MOSAIC 35,3: 25.)
I found this paragraph interesting, though in some parts a bit obscure. Why are the greedy ones the "afflicted?" (The idea of the "deadly sin of greed" being a disease, rather than a value-laden description, is new to me.) I'd like to see some of the connections between the sentences that are implied worked out, between, for instance, the restraints placed on "the male human subject" & the difficulty of "attaching villainy to a human face." I do think, though, that Wild may be offering us some insight into why the demonization of "enemies"--depriving them of "a human face"-- makes for a particularly powerful spectacle with almost irresistible appeal for the US public.
According to Wild, _Rancho Notorious_ shows its protagonist "good guy" becoming morally indistinguishable with the "bad-guy" antagonist by the end of the film. Interestingly, it was made in 1952, hardly a year in US cultural history known for its tolerance of moral ambiguity.
The first issue of _The Believer_ (March, 2003) offers an essay by Jim Shepard, _Badlands_ and the `Innocence' of American Innocence" with the subtitle "Featuring Martin Sheen as Donald Rumsfeld and a Voice-over by our Laconic Complicity" that focuses on the character of the "Western Hero" by way of Terence Malick's 1973 _Badlands_ (the "hero" of which is played by Martin Sheen). Shepard says that _Badlands_ "was--and still is--amazing for its insight about the ways in which a kind of hopelessly shallow romanticism, leached down from pop culture, intersects sinisterly with--and in fact, may even help *enable*--sociopathic behavior." Interestingly, Shepard notes that the heroes of Westerns bear share a few traits with sociopaths:
"The Western hero is fundamentally anti-social. That's why we love him. He makes his own rules. That's why we love him. But those are also, we notice, characteristics of villains and sociopaths. The Western hero doesn't think; he just acts. That's why we love him."
Shepard also suggests that "the aspect of the Western hero that may hold the most appeal. . . . for America, may be his essential inarticulateness. The Western hero doesn't trust words. What's he say when asked why he does what he does? That a man has to do what a man has to do."
"For how many years now in our national consciousness has John Wayne been pretty much the gold standard when it comes to images of easygoing and self-assured masculinity? And what was he selling, exactly? Partly, at least, the way real men turn *can't explain* into *won't explain*. The way real men disdain explanations. Explanations are for school-teachers, shopkeepers, the emasculated. Check out Donald Rumsfeld's face, in his next press conference, when he's asked to pursue the logic of one of his statements."
Shepard also notes the role that Westerns conflate a lack of sophistication with "innocence":
"And speaking of innocence, _Badlands_ as it proceeds becomes more and more interested in another of our preoccupations, in terms of our self-image as Americans: our insistence upon our essential innocence. Part of the reason we've been willing to accept being stereotyped as not very sophisticated is because of the way *unsophistication* nestles right up against *innocence.* Think about our conception of ourselves, in terms of our foreign policy: we may screw up, we may blunder about, but we also mean well. Any harm done to others is either unforeseen or couldn't have been avoided. Our hearts are in the right place, even if we act as though they aren't. That's quite a claim, when you think about it: Our hearts are in the right place, even if we act as though they aren't."
Hmm. I suppose it may be this kind of thinking that encourages us to regard what used to be considered "villainy" as an "affliction" of the "sin of greed." But note, it's only "our" (unsophisticated) hearts that are in the right place, just as only declared "enemies" (foreigners, both heads of state & ordinary immigrants, but not war criminals like, say, Henry Kissinger who, however great his "sophistication," can still be excused as "meaning well," simply because he's an American & therefore intrinsically "innocent") can be demonized & cast as villains devoid of a "human face."
To quote Wild: "the greater the contradictions in our behavior, the greater the need for a fantasy that might resolve them." The idea that US presidents typically engage in military actions primarily to distract the public did not originate with _Wag the Dog_; it's been around for a long, long time now. Perhaps US "foreign policy" may be regarded as (among other things, presumably) a medium for enacting "a needed symbolic realism that" allows us "to re-synthesize what [is] contradictory in [our] lives." Foreign policy, after all, only becomes a problem for US presidents when material reality shatters the illusion that it's all just a television fantasy (i.e., when too many innocent Americans are sent home in body bags).
L. Timmel Duchamp
|Posted on Tuesday, September 30, 2003 - 12:50 pm: |
I've just read an interesting essay by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.-- "Science Fiction and Empire"-- in Science Fiction Studies 30,2 (July, 2003) that makes me wish he'd been on the political sf panel at WisCon 27, since its panelists devolved into a rather naive discussion of the differences between current political sf in the UK & the US (using a narrow, male-dominated selection of texts, where authors like Rebecca Ore & Maureen McHugh weren't even mentioned, much less seriously considered). Csicsery-Ronay posits that sf "has been driven by a desire for the imaginary transformation of imperialism into Empire, viewed not primarily in terms of political and economic contests among cartels and peoples, but as a technological regime that affects and ensures the global control system of de-nationalized communications. It is in this sense that Empire is the fantastic entelechy of imperialism, the ideal state that transcends the national competitions leading toward it." Csicsery-Ronay looks at the different forms & sensibilities sf has taken in the US, UK, Germany, Japan, Russia, & France as related to the character of these countries' particular "imperial moments" & notes that the essential role that technology has always played in imperialist regimes is often overlooked.
A few of his comments about Empire are rather, er, resonant with the current moment. For instance, "Empire seeks to establish a single overdetermining power that is located not in a recognizable territory, but in an ideology of abstract right enforced by technologies of control. Its characteristic space is horizontal, expansive, and limitless; it exhausts and suspends historical time, pragmatically (i.e., cynically) taking up topological justifications from the past and the future as the occasion demands. Its goal is the management of global conflict, "world peace." Empire continually reproduces and revitalizes itself through the management of local crises, and indeed by the transformation of potentially global challenges into administrative conflicts. It eschews dialectics and transcendence (which are inherently destabilizing) in favor of constant intervention..."
"SF artists," he says, don't necessarily seek to serve the empire. "Most serious writers of sf are skeptical of entrenched power, sometimes because of its tyranny, sometimes because it hobbles technological innovation." But he doesn't really explore the relation between the "serious sf writer" and the forms & narratives & icons of sf (which would, I suppose, be the work of a book exploring his thesis). About the icons of sf, he writes, "Clearly, sf is identifiable by the icons it uses: the spaceship, the alien, the robot, super-weapons, bio-monsters, and the more recent additions, wormholes, the net, the cyborg, and so on. It is not difficult to link these to colonialist and imperialist practices. They represent the power tools of imperial subjects, the transformations of the objects of domination, and the ambiguities of subjects who find themselves with split affinities. In these terms, sf's icons are abstract modern universals, free of any specific cultural marked differences. Yet when we view or read sf of different national styles, we feel marked differences." He then characterizes how these stylistic differences result in distinctly different deployments of these icons-- but says that "there are also clear signs that these currents are converging, precisely because of the delight in diversity that Negri and Hardt consider characteristic of capitalist globalism."
Although I wish the article had been longer & had taken up a close reading or two as case studies, I recommend it to anyone interested in the politics of narrative.