Poetics of Politics : Textuality and Social Relevance in Contemporary American Literature and Culture. 9783825375171, 382537517X

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Poetics of Politics : Textuality and Social Relevance in Contemporary American Literature and Culture.
 9783825375171, 382537517X

Table of contents :
Table of Content
Introduction: The Poetics of Politics
Film and Television
Thinking Institutionally: ""Argo, Zero Dark Thirty"", and the Politics of Contemporary Historical Films
On the Formal Politics of Narratively Complex Television Series: Operational Self-Reflexivity and Audience Management in ""Fringe"" and ""Homeland
The Politics of Melodrama: Nostalgia, Performance, and Gender Roles in ""Revolutionary Road MICHAEL BUTTER --
American Basterds: The Deconstruction of World War II Myths in Steven Soderbergh's ""The Good German"" and Quentin Tarantino's ""Inglourious BasterdsDOROTHEA GAIL, RAY CANOY --
The Last Days of American Civilization: The Poetics of Righteous Violence in Bob Goldthwait's Black Comedy ""God Bless America
Poetics of Disaster: Filmic Elements and Traces of Fiction Literature in the ""9/11 Commission Report"": Frames and Functions of a Generic Hybrid SEBASTIAN M. HERRMANN --
Foggy Realisms? Fiction, Nonfiction, and Political Affect in Larry Beinhart's ""Fog Facts"" and ""The LibrarianCAROLIN ALICE HOFMANN --
Testifying by Proxy: A Trauma Studies Approach to ""The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Post-Race Ideology and the Poetics of Genre in David Mamet's ""Race
The Great American Novel and Beyond: Jonathan Franzenand the Legacy of the Culture Wars
"Just as Good as the Real Thing": ""Historiopoiesis"" in Third-Generation Narratives on Slavery OLESYA BONDARENKO --
"Inherently Political": Rancièrian Philosophy and Language WritingSABRINA HÜTTNER --
Politics of Dissent: Reconsidering 'the Political' in Tony Kushner's ""Homebody/Kabul
New Media
Objectivism, Narrative Agency, and the Politics of Choice in the Video Game ""BioShock
"Our Everyday Is Better Than Your Best Day": Spectacle and the Politics of Ambiguity on the ""Tumblr"" Blog ""Rich Kids of Instagram
"The Power of the Story": 'Popular Narratology' in Pentagon Reports on Social Media Use in the Military

Citation preview

sebastian m. herrmann carolin alice hofmann katja kanzler · stefan schubert frank usbeck Editors

herrmann · hofmann · kanzler schubert · usbeck (Eds.) Poetics of Politics

T Druckfarben cyan magenta gelb schwarz

his volume proposes the ‘poetics of politics’ as an analytic angle to interrogate contemporary cultural production in the United States. As recent scholarship has observed, American literature and culture around the turn of the millennium, while still deeply informed by the textual self-consciousness of postmodernism, are marked by a rekindled interest in matters of social concern. This revived interest in politics is frequently read as a ‘grand epochal transition.’ Sidestepping such a logic of periodization, this book points to the interplay between the textual and the political as a dynamic—always locally specific— that affords unique insights into the characteristics of the contemporary moment. The sixteen case studies in this book explore this interplay across a wide range of media, genres, and modes. Together, they make visible a broad cultural concern with negotiating social relevance and textual self-awareness that permeates and structures contemporary US (popular) culture.

herrmann hofmann kanzler schubert usbeck (Eds.)

Poetics of Politics

Textuality and Social Relevance in Contemporary American Literature and Culture

American Studies ★ A Monograph Series Poetics of Politics

Volume 258


isbn 978-3-8253-6447-2

win t e r


a m erica n st ud i e s – a m o n o g r a ph se r i e s Volume 258 Edited on behalf of the German Association for American Studies by

a lf red h o rn un g a nk e o rt le pp heik e pau l

Poetics of Politics Textuality and Social Relevance in Contemporary American Literature and Culture

Edited by

sebastian m. herrmann carolin alice hofmann katja kanzler stefan schubert frank usbeck


w i n ter


Bibliografische Information der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek verzeichnet diese Publikation in der Deutschen Nationalbibliografie; detaillierte bibliografische Daten sind im Internet über http://dnb.d-nb.de abrufbar. This book is part of the Joint Dresden-Leipzig Research Initiative »Selbst-Bewusste Erzählungen«. For more information, please cf. www.narrativeculture.de/poetics-of-politics. Funding for this volume was contributed in part by American Space Leipzig www.americanspace-leipzig.de.

is b n 978-3-8253-6447-2 Dieses Werk einschließlich aller seiner Teile ist urheberrechtlich geschützt. Jede Verwertung außerhalb der engen Grenzen des Urheberrechtsgesetzes ist ohne Zustimmung des Verlages unzulässig und strafbar. Das gilt insbesondere für Vervielfältigungen, Übersetzungen, Mikroverfilmungen und die Einspeicherung und Verarbeitung in elektronischen Systemen. © 2015 Universitätsverlag Winter GmbH Heidelberg Imprimé en Allemagne · Printed in Germany Druck: Memminger MedienCentrum, 87700 Memmingen Gedruckt auf umweltfreundlichem, chlorfrei gebleichtem und alterungsbeständigem Papier Den Verlag erreichen Sie im Internet unter: www.winter-verlag.de

Table of Contents SEBASTIAN M. HERRMANN, KATJA KANZLER, STEFAN SCHUBERT Introduction: The Poetics of Politics


Film and Television ANDREW HOBEREK Thinking Institutionally: Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and the Politics of Contemporary Historical Films


FELIX BRINKER On the Formal Politics of Narratively Complex Television Series: Operational Self-Reflexivity and Audience Management in Fringe and Homeland


ELEONORA RAVIZZA The Politics of Melodrama: Nostalgia, Performance, and Gender Roles in Revolutionary Road


MICHAEL BUTTER American Basterds: The Deconstruction of World War II Myths in Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds


DOROTHEA GAIL, RAY CANOY The Last Days of American Civilization: The Poetics of Righteous Violence in Bob Goldthwait’s Black Comedy God Bless America


Nonfiction BRUNO ARICH-GERZ Poetics of Disaster: Filmic Elements and Traces of Fiction Literature in the 9/11 Commission Report: Frames and Functions of a Generic Hybrid


SEBASTIAN M. HERRMANN Foggy Realisms? Fiction, Nonfiction, and Political Affect in Larry Beinhart’s Fog Facts and The Librarian


CAROLIN ALICE HOFMANN Testifying by Proxy: A Trauma Studies Approach to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Table of Contents

vi ‘Literature’ KATJA KANZLER Post-Race Ideology and the Poetics of Genre in David Mamet’s Race


HANS FRESE The Great American Novel and Beyond: Jonathan Franzen and the Legacy of the Culture Wars


ILKA SAAL “Just as Good as the Real Thing”: Historiopoiesis in Third-Generation Narratives on Slavery


OLESYA BONDARENKO “Inherently Political”: Rancièrian Philosophy and Language Writing


SABRINA HÜTTNER Politics of Dissent: Reconsidering ‘the Political’ in Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul


New Media STEFAN SCHUBERT Objectivism, Narrative Agency, and the Politics of Choice in the Video Game BioShock


SOPHIE SPIELER “Our Everyday Is Better Than Your Best Day”: Spectacle and the Politics of Ambiguity on the Tumblr Blog Rich Kids of Instagram


FRANK USBECK “The Power of the Story”: ‘Popular Narratology’ in Pentagon Reports on Social Media Use in the Military


Notes on Contributors



Introduction: The Poetics of Politics In the introduction to his 2010 book The Passing of Postmodernism, Josh Toth speculates that “[p]erhaps the fall of George W. Bush’s cynical administration [...] and the massively popular rise of Barack Obama’s overtly ‘sincere’ administration [...] finally signals the culmination of a grand epochal transition” (2). Toth’s remarks exemplify a recurrent dynamic in scholarship on contemporary US literature and culture, a dynamic shaping much of the work done in American studies and beyond. First and foremost, they reflect an intense desire to capture the contemporary moment as one marked by a “grand epochal transition,” an end (or ‘death’) of one period and the beginning of another. Whatever the specific terminology employed—‘post-postmodernism,’ ‘late postmodernism,’ ‘digimodernism,’ ‘metamodernism,’ ‘cosmodernism,’ or the like1—the desire to periodize the present runs strongly in contemporary scholarship. Secondly, by tying his argument to two US presidencies, Toth implies that the recent watershed in literary and cultural styles is intimately connected with the realm of politics. Like many other scholars and writers, he suggests that what distinguishes the present period from the previous one unfolds at the intersection of aesthetics and politics. Thirdly, however, he uses a conspicuously cautious language to make this point, extensively reflecting on and problematizing the very gestures of periodization on which he nonetheless builds his argument. In an ironic twist, Toth’s and other critical texts, in their desire to ‘end’ postmodernism and to discover a renewed ‘seriousness’ in contemporary texts, thus become entangled in a very postmodern quandary of periodization, diagnosed by Fredric Jameson as a “crisis” in which the concept and categories of periodization “seem to be as indispensable as they are unsatisfactory for any kind of work in cultural study” (Political Unconscious 13).2 This volume suggests a different conceptual response to the developments in literary and cultural production observed by Toth and others, one that counters the grand récit of periodization with a ‘local’ interrogation of 1


There is a litany of different terms used to describe such an allegedly new epoch. ‘Post-postmodernism’ may be the most widely used term for this phenomenon and appears, for instance, in the studies by Robert L. McLaughlin, Jeffrey Nealon, and Nicole Timmer, but other terms include Alan Kirby’s ‘digimodernism,’ Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker’s ‘metamodernism,’ Jeremy Green’s ‘late postmodernism,’ and Christian Moraru’s ‘cosmodernism.’ Iterating one of his standard moves of postmodern critique, Jameson particularly takes issue with the ‘totalizing’ effects of periodization: “[A]ny rewarding use of the notion of a historical or cultural period tends in spite of itself to give the impression of a facile totalization, a seamless web of phenomena each of which, in its own way, ‘expresses’ some unified inner truth [...]. Yet such an impression is fatally


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the contemporary moment. This kind of local approach to historicization— pursued by a number of recent literary histories like Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s New Literary History of America—programmatically refrains from organizing historical developments into periods, i.e., clearly demarcated, coherent entities whose definitions inevitably resonate with one or the other grand narrative of history.3 Instead, it explores “points in time and imagination,” spotlights that—rather than being enlisted in linear, teleological conceptions of history—are juxtaposed in ways that aim “to set many forms of American speech in motion, so that different forms [...] can be heard speaking to each other” (xxiv). This approach, in other words, abandons the notion of bounded and homogeneous periods separated by turns in favor of a focus on moments at which particular historical dynamisms surface.4 In this spirit, our book seeks to illuminate the contemporary moment that so many scholars agree on as marking a new period, but it does so by focusing on a particular, local dynamism that emerges at the intersections of textuality and politicality in a diverse range of ‘texts.’ It explores the potential of the ‘poetics of politics’ as a conceptual angle to understand American literature and culture around the turn of the millennium. This move circumnavigates the pitfalls of periodization both on the diachronic level (where periodization requires a teleological narrative of historical evolution that often entails highly reductive reformulations of the periods) and on the synchronic level (where periods emerge as homogeneous, ‘total’ entities).5 In addition, exploring the interplay between poetics and politics in contemporary texts encourages more variegated and complex narratives of genealogy than the notorious rhetoric of a break with or a reaction against some prior dominant. The deliberate openness of our terms, ‘poetics’ as well as ‘politics,’ also embraces diverse manifestations of this cultural dynamism—diverse in terms of political valency as well as textual properties such as medium or genre. Lastly, our approach not only affords

3 4


reductive” (Political Unconscious 12). In fact, problematizations of one’s own gestures of periodization seem to have become standard topoi in (periodizing) discussions of contemporary literature and culture. On the most self-conscious end of the spectrum, Christian Moraru, in his introduction to the American Book Review’s special issue on Metamodernism, uses an “automotive parable” to “[convey] the ongoing predicament [...] of the historian of post-Cold War literary-aesthetic traffic,” asking “if this passing equals a neatly demarcated exit and thus the end of an era” (“Thirteen Ways” 3). Cf. Besserman, “Challenge” and especially Patterson for critical discussions of periodization as a method of historical inquiry. Jameson himself proposes the concept of the “cultural dominant” as an alternative to the bounded and totalizing notion of the period, introducing it as “a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features” (Postmodernism 4). The distinction of these two dimensions also owes to Jameson’s discussion of the crisis of periodization (cf. Political Unconscious 13).

Introduction: The Poetics of Politics


these different textual forms a way of “speaking to each other” (Marcus and Sollors xxiv), it also brings together and puts into dialogue the disparate strands of scholarship that have engaged with the contemporary moment. In the following, we will briefly outline our notion of a poetics of politics before more specifically engaging these disparate strands and, finally, introducing the book’s individual contributions.

The Poetics of Politics As an analytic focus, the poetics of politics puts front and center the crossroads of literary and political cultures, of textual aesthetics and political aspirations or effects, and these crossroads loom large in contemporary American culture. It takes its cue, on the one hand, from the many literary scholars who have argued that American fiction around the turn of the millennium has rediscovered politics and shows a renewed interest in addressing issues of social concern. These scholars typically observe that the contemporary moment is marked by an effort to “reenergize literature’s social mission, its ability to intervene in the social world” (McLaughlin, “Post-Postmodern Discontent” 55), and that this project is closely tied to questions of (literary) form. Our approach draws explorative momentum from this widespread observation while avoiding its tendency to fix the poetic dynamics of this rediscovered social role—an effort controlled by the framework of periodization that typically culminates in the question whether contemporary literature has broken with postmodernism. This explorative momentum is, on the other hand, reinforced by discussions in and of contemporary politics that reflect a new interest in matters of (meta)textuality. The field of electoral politics is only one among several political contexts that have recently hosted (self-conscious) reflections on the narrative construction and constructedness of the issues that are communicated there.6 This resonance between a political interest in literature and a poetic interest in politics extends an invitation to broaden the scope of our explorations beyond the perimeters of narrow concepts of Literature (as in fictional writing bound to the medium of print) and Politics (as in tied to political institutions). Indeed, the politicality of texts and the poeticality of politics, discussed individually by so much recent scholarship, become most productive not at these narrow poles but at the crossroads of the poetic and the political, a crossroads that informs texts whose poetics 6

To give just a few examples from very different venues, cf. President Barack Obama’s observation that “the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism” (qtd. in Boerma), Frank Rich’s discussion of the importance of the “true Katrina narrative” for the George W. Bush administration (201), or the US Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual’s assertion that the “most important cultural form for counterinsurgents to understand is the narrative” (United States, Dept. of the Army 93).


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cover a broad range of media and genres and whose politicality unfolds on many different levels. While suspending questions of periodization, the poetics of politics is a conceptual angle that nevertheless affords historicization. It focalizes a dynamism that marks the contemporary moment and that contours an area in which a variety of historical forces come together to fuel US cultural production around the turn of the millennium. In other words, the poetics of politics illuminates a moment at which texts across a broad cultural field (self-consciously) engage with politics and assert their own political relevance while (self-reflexively) confronting the textual boundedness and mediation of political projects and their effects. At the same time, it throws into relief the multiple ways in which contemporary engagements with the poetics of politics are deeply anchored in previous cultural traditions—traditions bound, e.g., to developments of and within particular genres or to particular modes of writing. Indeed, much of the vibrancy of contemporary culture seems to be tied to the ascendancy of particular genres or modes that, in turn, each build on specific histories. Rather than defining a break between the contemporary and what came before, and rather than delineating the boundaries of some homogeneous contemporary period, the poetics of politics illuminates a quality of the contemporary moment that becomes characteristic through its very heterogeneity. Our approach, then, also brings together disparate strands of scholarship that have addressed the contemporary moment, strands that proceed from different conceptual and disciplinary vantage points and that tend to limit themselves to fairly narrow corpora of contemporary texts. Sidestepping the idea that periodization is the ‘proper’ critical response to recent developments in American literature and culture opens up a new metaperspective on the critical moves employed by contemporary scholarship and on the resonances and convergences between them. Such a perspective can both dialogue previously isolated lines of inquiry and reflect on their respective potentials and limitations. It thus serves as a key springboard for the kind of local approach to historically sensitive scholarship this book seeks to advance. These resonances and convergences particularly emerge around the breaks or turns that scholarship invokes to draw a boundary between the contemporary and what came before, the ‘creation myths’ it employs to define the present as a period. We identify three such explanatory narratives that run through scholarship, partly structuring its diversity but also overlapping at times in individual lines of inquiry.

Narratives of Periodization First, there is the narrative—mostly in the context of literary studies—that developments in late-twentieth-century society and culture compel contemporary texts to (re)aspire to social relevance, to “intervene in the social

Introduction: The Poetics of Politics


world” (McLaughlin, “Post-Postmodern Discontent” 55). Some of the scholars who advance this narrative refer to particular events—most frequently the end of the Cold War or 9/11—as triggers for this change, 7 others invoke broader sociocultural developments. In Christian Moraru’s conception of cosmodernism, for instance, it is the accelerating globalization of the late twentieth century that compels changes in literary aesthetics (Cosmodernism 34); for Nicole Timmer, the watershed of post-postmodernism owes to new constellations of subjectivity that emerge at the century’s end (13). The break in literary aesthetics that is traced to these events or developments is typically described in a language that oscillates between the ethical and the political, diagnosing a new sense of ethical responsibility in literature, a new commitment to engage with and intervene in social reality. McLaughlin, as noted above, observes a “desire to reconnect [literary] language to the social sphere [...], to reenergize literature’s social mission, its ability to intervene in the social world” (“Post-Postmodern Discontent” 55). Contemporary post-postmodern literature, he argues, coheres in an aspiration to speak to and about social reality in ways that are both truthful and sincere. Along similar lines, Moraru sees the post1989 literature he subsumes under the term cosmodernism characterized by a particular “ethos,” a dedication to investigate the “relational” dynamics of life in a globalized world (Cosmodernism 55). Finally, Timmer also posits a socioethical turn as foundational for post-postmodernism, describing it as “‘a turn to the human’, [...] [a] focus on ‘what it means to be human today’” (361).8 The narratives of a fundamental break in literature that this scholarship employs need a foil, and for all the scholars just discussed, this foil is postmodernism. Their efforts to define the contemporary as a literary period that is marked by an interest in societal referentiality and relevance, by an urge to sincerely speak about issues and sensibilities of contemporary concern, notably intervene in particular conceptions of postmodernism: 7


Cf. Josh Toth and Neil Brooks’s claim that “if postmodernism became terminally ill sometime in the late-eighties and early-nineties, it was buried once and for [all] in the rubble of the World Trade Center” (3). They also refer to a number of other events that “seemed to herald the end of postmodernism as the reigning epistemological dominant,” such as “December 22, 1989 – the day Beckett died” or “Tom Wolfe publish[ing] his ‘Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel’” (2, cf. also 2-3). The lines of argument advanced by McLaughlin, Moraru, and Timmer reappear throughout scholarship, inflected through different methodological registers. For instance, Philip Leonard’s Literature After Globalization also delineates contemporary literature as a response to “the emergence of [a] global culture” (3). Mary K. Holland is another scholar who traces the end of postmodernism to an ethical turn in recent literature, which—she argues—“displays a new faith in language and certainty about the novel’s ability to engage in humanist pursuits that have not been seen clearly since poststructuralism shattered both in the middle of the past century” (1-2).


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They implicitly forge postmodernism into a period characterized by literature’s disavowal of politics and social referentiality, by writing ‘narcissistically’ concerned with itself, by writing whose pervasive irony prevents it from any serious and sincere engagement with social reality. 9 Critics like McLaughlin reflect a considerable amount of unease about this retrospective (re)definition of postmodernism, caveating and qualifying it as a (necessary) generalization that threatens to gloss over many nuances in postmodern literary production.10 Still, the creation myth of post-postmodernism advanced in this scholarship inherently entails such generalizations, turning not only the contemporary moment but also the frame of reference against which it allegedly reacts into homogeneous literary systems. The homogeneity that is enforced in this case is particularly problematic because it tends to reduce postmodernism to the work of primarily white male writers who reflect an interest in poststructuralist ideas. It purges the canon of American postmodern literature, for example, of the minority writers who both partook of the postmodern literary aesthetic and pursued emphatically political projects in their writing, very much manifesting a “desire to [...] intervene in the social world” (McLaughlin, “Post-Postmodern Discontent” 55).11 Ironically, this purging takes place even in projects that work to criticize an alleged male white bias in postmodernism, projects that thus advance a progressive agenda but that, in doing so, homogenize postmodernism into a project it never was. The framework of periodization that controls this creation myth of the contemporary moment thus entails totalizing effects that, more often than not, work against the gist of the canon debate. What is more, it invests scholarship in erecting boundaries around the distinctiveness of the contemporary, boundaries that are frequently drawn on the basis of haphazard dichotomies—between writerly sensibilities framed as ironic vs. sincere, between self-referentiality and social referentiality. This investment in boundaries and the practices of dichotomization on which it builds not only result in fairly narrow corpora 9

It seems ironic that while Linda Hutcheon, in her seminal work on metafiction, used the term “as a defence” against precisely the notion that metafictional literature was simply self-absorbed (1), the term nevertheless has come to be appropriated to suggest just that. 10 In a symptomatically complicated remark, McLaughlin notes: “[P]ostmodernism, despite its wordplay for the sake of wordplay, its skepticism toward narrative as a meaning-providing structure, its making opaque the process of representation, nevertheless does not as a rule abjure literature’s potential to intervene in the social world” (“Post-Postmodern Discontent” 59). 11 For instance, Robert Rebein, when discussing the importance of minority writers for the emergence of post-postmodernism, implicitly reduces postmodernism to a predominantly white, male, poststructuralist project, noting in particular that Toni Morrison is one of the “writers we would not normally associate with literary postmodernism” (7). Along similar lines, Ramón Saldívar ‘whitens’ postmodernism in an argumentative context where he dwells on the cross-fertilizations between poststructuralist and ethnic strands in post-World War II literature (4).

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of texts that fit the respective conception of the contemporary moment, they also conceal the multiple points of continuity and dialogue between supposedly postmodern and post-postmodern aesthetics and their political valency—continuities that not least reside in the poetics of politics. This fundamental drawback of periodization also informs the second creation myth that emerges in scholarship, a myth closely related to the former one and also circulating primarily in the field of literary studies. In this narrative, it is an exhaustion of literary form that causes breaks between literary periods. This aesthetic logic typically implies a teleological necessity that surfaces, for example, in how Garry Potter and José López emphasize that “a new and different intellectual direction must come after postmodernism” (4). In this line of thinking, the playful language games identified with postmodernism as much as its once “outrageous” and “radical propositions” (4) have exhausted themselves or have become commonplace. Now that “postmodernism as a literary strategy no longer pertains in the way it once did” (Rebein 15), now that it has come to perfuse culture entirely, scholars following this logic see the need for an aesthetic mode that is sufficiently different from this cultural dominant, that has enough of a “subversive edge” (Toth and Brooks 6) to still have an aesthetic effect. Curiously, they often turn to various brands of ‘realism,’ usually inflected via an additional adjective or prefix, as the appropriate response. Whether referred to as ‘critical realism,’ ‘transcendental realism,’ ‘dirty realism,’ or ‘neo-realism,’ this new aesthetic mode, however, is difficult to pin down.12 After all, ‘realism’ as a term evokes both an epoch (marked by literature’s claim to social relevance and an interest in the mundane, the bleak, the everyday) and a literary mode (marked by conventionalized reality effects meant to create the illusion that a story was ‘simply’ about the ‘real’ world), and it alludes to questions of representation where it denotes a (presumed) absence of mediation, a portrayal of the real as it ‘really’ is. In discussions of a new post-postmodern aesthetic, the attraction of realism, then, seems to lie precisely in the overdetermination of the term, in its quality as an alloy of these very different aspects. As Josh Toth and Neil Brooks describe it, a narrative of aesthetic succession often 12 The terminological variety used to describe this mode mirrors the various ways scholarship has devised to label the contemporary period. While Potter and López speak of a ‘critical realism’ related to an earlier ‘transcendental realism,’ Rebein focuses on a kind of ‘dirty realism,’ and Toth and Brooks mention an “apparent shift to a type of neo-realism” (8). The propensity to identify a particular type of realism as marking the contemporary runs through other scholarship as well—for instance, Saldívar “propose[s] the term ‘speculative realism’ as a way of getting at the revisions of realism and fantasy into speculative forms that are seeming to shape the invention of new narrative modes in contemporary fiction” (3), and Mark C. Taylor terms his study to “explore pressing contemporary issues that the nexus of religion, literature, and technology illuminates” in the works of contemporary American writers Rewiring the Real (5).


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casts postmodernism as marked by “ostentatious [...] metafiction,” a foil against which a new realism promises to be simpler, “more grounded (or ‘responsible’)” (5). There is, of course, a particular irony in how this narrative enlists, of all things, an exhaustion of literary form—an idea so fundamental to postmodernism’s beginnings—as the root cause of its demise. Yet there are other ambivalences and unspoken presuppositions in this line of thinking that come to the fore if one abandons a totalizing interest in periodization, ambivalences that stem not least from the effort this narrative expends in keeping apart an older epoch, postmodernism, from the current one. First of all, a logic in which the exhaustion of aesthetic novelty and subversion, its widespread circulation in popular culture and the everyday, necessitates a radical break in aesthetic form presupposes a notion of Art as standing apart from and complementing other forms of cultural expression. Indeed, the question of the elitism of particular aesthetic modes does figure prominently in these debates. Curiously, however, it most frequently makes its appearance in the allegation that postmodernism was an elitist, academic, and, ultimately, writerly project. In this sense, postmodernism often ends up being blamed for two contradictory faults: for being too widespread and popular to still be subversive and for being too elitist to matter in readers’ lives. At the same time, this rejection of the academic reader/writer seems to encourage a ‘resurrection’ of the author as a privileged and revalidated source for the kind of new realism this narrative calls for. 13 Ultimately, however, it is this notion of a new realism where the ambivalences of this narrative figure most strongly. In looking for an aesthetic mode that is markedly different from postmodernism, it often glorifies realism as promising simpler, more mimetic, and more transparent representation. By implication, it characterizes postmodern writing as inherently disinterested in reality and only concerned with representing representation. In doing so, this narrative often seems to respond to and express a deeply ambivalent longing for a presumed ‘state of innocence’ before the crisis of representation that it, simultaneously, knows does not exist. 14 The ambivalence of this desire is expressed in the adjectives and prefixes complicating the realism that is proposed—critical, transcendental, dirty, neo—but it ultimately

13 Cf., for example, McLaughlin’s point: “[T]he challenge of the post-postmodern author,” he expands on a remark by David Foster Wallace, “is to write within the context of self-aware language, irony, and cynicism, acknowledge them, even use them, but then to write through them, to break through the cycle of self-reference, to represent the world constructively, to connect with others” (“Post-Postmodernism” 215). This perspective reads literature after postmodernism as something that will come to us from the serious novels of serious writers, not from the resources of everyday, commercial, or popular culture. 14 Cf. Rebein’s praise of realism as at least “struggl[ing] for clarity and simplicity” (5).

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remains unresolved: an oscillation between postmodernism and realism as a form of searching that cannot come to an end at either pole. The third creation myth takes more diverse forms and is hosted by a greater variety of disciplinary contexts, all of which define the break that demarcates their variously conceived contemporary phenomena on the basis of changes (with)in the media used for cultural expression. Evoking a historiographic model in which cultural change is not simply expressed in but driven by developments in particular media, they diagnose specific transformations in the contemporary media landscape as triggers of categorical, epochal changes in textual aesthetics. Media scholar Jason Mittell provides one example of such an effort to define contemporary textual production as a delimitable period: Focusing on the medium of television, he invokes a framework of “historical poetics” (30) to “consider the 1990s to the present as the era of television complexity” (29). In his perspective, it is especially “[t]echnological transformations” (31) that have provided the impulse for television to evolve new forms of “narrative complexity.” Such digital media “enable viewers to extend their participation in these rich storyworlds beyond the one-way flow of traditional television viewing” (32), thus prompting television to develop textual strategies that (often self-consciously) play with the established conventions of TV narrative. This complexity, delineated as a response to media change, comes to define the contemporary as an “era” in Mittell’s account. Cultural scholar Alan Kirby focuses on the importance of technology and media in a similar manner in his discussion of digimodernism as “the twenty-first century’s new cultural paradigm” that “has decisively displaced postmodernism” (1). He argues that this new period of digimodernism “owes its emergence and preeminence to the computerization of text,” and he ties this new textuality to a number of effects, including “infantilism, earnestness, endlessness, and apparent reality” (1), that, for him, mark digimodernism as a distinct period in cultural production. This pervasive idea that the periodicity of the contemporary results from aesthetic responses to changes (with)in media also informs discussions in literary studies. Especially McLaughlin’s conception of post-postmodernism draws on it, arguing that “[b]ecause the televisual culture has co-opted postmodernism’s bag of tricks to deleterious effect, writers of fiction [...] need to find a way beyond self-referential irony to offer the possibility of construction” (“Post-Postmodern Discontent” 65). Here, too, boundaries are drawn by pointing to media developments—the new competition that television poses to the institution of literature—as triggers of categorical aesthetic change. This third narrative of contemporary periodicity, then, invokes a model akin to a base-superstructure mechanism to draw its boundaries in ways that threaten to totalize complex dynamics of change into formal responses to media-technological development. In this model, developments in the ‘superstructure’ of culture follow from changes in the technological and medial ‘base’ in an almost mechanistic manner, with one determining the


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other. Such models tend to overlook feedback loops between these two spheres and prevent an understanding of the relationship between them as more dialectical. Even more significantly, they often depict cultural and aesthetic development as strictly sequential, as following the more teleological progression of technological change and development. In all its diversity, this scholarship authorizes emphatically teleological depictions of cultural ‘evolution’ by anchoring aesthetic in media change: Invoking this straightforward stimulus-response model helps McLaughlin to frame the contemporary as a period in which the ostensibly old-fashioned novel ‘strikes back’ against the popular media’s incursions into its cultural territory, and it allows Mittell to depict the contemporary as a period in which television has matured to poetic sophistication. In addition, this creation myth seems to encourage a curious insularity of approach: While the change to which most of the scholars point as instigator of an aesthetic watershed is one of media convergence, to use Henry Jenkins’s term, they tend to trace it only in individual media. The inter- and transmedial dynamics of the developments they discuss drop out of sight: The new complexity that Mittell discerns in contemporary television deeply resonates with some of the properties literary scholars identify in turn-of-the-millennium literature; Kirby’s conception of digimodernism, developed on the basis of “‘reality TV’ [...][,] Hollywood fantasy blockbusters, [...] Web 2.0 platforms[,] [and] the most sophisticated videogames” (1), echoes aspects discussed in the contexts of literary post-postmodernism or new realism. Ultimately, desires closely tied to the media that these scholars discuss seem to fuel their use of this narrative of periodicity, informing the boundaries they draw around the contemporary. A broad range of scholarship has felt compelled to attend to the distinctiveness of American textual production around the turn of the millennium, a distinctiveness measured—with varying emphases and from different conceptual angles—both in how contemporary texts work and in how they speak to and about social reality, in their poetics and in their politics. The scholarship discussed above conspicuously narrates this distinctiveness in terms of a recurrent ‘master plot’ that proceeds from the idea of a categorical break with or turn against formerly dominant forms and patterns in American culture—a previous dominant chiefly identified as postmodernism. This master plot, as we suggested, controls the conceptualizations and analytic explorations undertaken in much of the existing research. The creation myths of the contemporary that it begets tend to funnel complex dynamics of change and continuity and of cause and effect in diachronic developments into rigorously bounded and teleologically framed periods. Next to effecting this general drawback of periodization, the master plot’s investment in a radical break of the present with what came before appears to be generated by the very culture it seeks to theorize. Bespeaking a desire

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to ‘be done’ especially with postmodernism, 15 it seems to work through a complex love-hate relationship to the postmodern condition. To pronounce American literature and culture at the threshold of some “grand epochal transition,” in Toth’s phrasing (2), seems to perform the contemporary moment more than to describe it.

Case Studies The following contributions programmatically sidestep this quandary by focusing on the crossroads of the poetic and the political in concrete instances of contemporary culture—on the local dynamics of their interplay in a broad range of texts that, together, afford a diagnostic of the contemporary moment. We have organized them into four clusters based on the media they discuss, a structure that is meant not to separate or divide them but to enable dialogicity and to underscore the extent to which their shared interest in the poetics of politics crosses the boundaries of media, of genre, and of mode. FILM AND TELEVISION Our first section focuses on the ‘classical’ media of popular culture studies: film and television. In all five case studies, four on film and one on television, the poetics of politics is intricately tied to the formal properties of the investigated texts, which typically interpellate a particularly ‘literate’ viewership that is able to read and engage their often intricate politics. Among these formal properties, questions of mode and genre as well as of interand metatextuality constitute common touchstones on which many of our contributions build their argument, suggesting that contemporary audiences are aware of a canon of works and are able and willing to draw pleasure from reflecting on texts and textuality. Andrew Hoberek opens this first section with a contribution on Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Ben Affleck’s Argo. Both films have been extensively discussed for how they speak about the ‘war on terror,’ but Hoberek’s reading concerns a different facet of politicality: Reading both movies as films about institutions, he explores how they position state institutions—the CIA and the US military—as a possible, albeit problematic, counter position vis-à-vis the dominance of neoliberal ideology. Hoberek’s reading taps into a particular contradiction in contemporary American culture. On the one hand, he contends, neoliberalism has effected a wide15 In his discussion of contemporary scholarship on ‘late postmodernism,’ Jeremy Green similarly identifies a “desire to be done with postmodernism, to declare it finished and of purely historical interest, a late-twentieth-century phenomenon that can now be jettisoned” (24).


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spread anti-institutionalism in which institutions generally have come to be disparaged as a threat to the individual. On the other hand, neoconservative discourse during the 1980s positioned the military “as the last good organization” (39). To make this case, Hoberek focuses on the two films’ textuality and on matters of genre specifically. Thus reading Zero Dark Thirty and Argo as a police procedural and a heist movie, respectively, he identifies an ‘institutional realism’ that is “committed to exploring how institutions work” (36). He then uses the latter film to point to a distinct metatextual quality in which both genres allegorize their locus of production, Hollywood, and the film industry’s reliance on procedures to allow large numbers of people to collaborate on a joint project within an institutional framework. The two films, on the surface about foreign affairs, thus use their genre affiliation to address the domestic politics of organizing labor and of forming institutions. Felix Brinker, in turn, discusses the politics that reside in the formal strategies of contemporary narratively complex US television series. Brinker argues that such shows engage in what he calls “practices of audience management” (52) by featuring textual strategies that direct and organize the attention and activities of their viewers. He draws on Jason Mittell’s notion of ‘narrative complexity’ in contemporary TV and on the ‘operational aesthetic’ that Mittell takes from Neil Harris, extending this concept by foregrounding contemporary TV shows’ seriality: In Brinker’s understanding, the operational aesthetic is tied to textual strategies that gear viewers towards a narrative that unfolds serially, helping them to keep and focus their attention on plots that often take place over a period of months or years. In such moments, he argues, these television series also comment self-reflexively on their own seriality, suggesting a ‘preferred way’ of watching serial television. Focusing on the US series Fringe and Homeland as exemplary readings, Brinker furthermore unfolds how politics become visible in these self-referential moments of audience management: Both shows demand a particularly observant, attentive, and media-literate audience that is encouraged to keep watching numerous episodes, which ties into the commercial, capitalist logic of their serial production. In his analysis of these textual strategies, Brinker thus examines the politicality of form in relation to the shows’ spectators and traces the politics inherent in the poetics of contemporary narratively complex TV shows. Similarly interested in a moment of metatextuality, Eleonora Ravizza turns back to film to discuss the politics of nostalgia and gender in Sam Mendes’s 2008 Revolutionary Road. She argues that the film doubly invokes melodrama—as a cinematic genre and as a mode—and that this double reference is crucial to understanding the movie’s conflicted politics, which vacillate between a critique of 1950s gender ideology and a nostalgic longing for an iconic Hollywood decade. Such an ambivalent portrayal of the 1950s, Ravizza asserts, speaks to a more general trend, a “self-reflexive nostalgia” (63) that informs many contemporary portrayals of the decade.

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These portrayals typically relish in the aesthetic appeals, the style, that has become tied to the 1950s, but they also express an acute awareness of the extent to which ‘the Fifties’ are a cultural construct created by all kinds of media texts. For Revolutionary Road, the particular metatextual awareness that is typical of contemporary self-reflexive nostalgia comes to the fore precisely in how the film invokes melodrama: Not only does it employ the mode in its own narrative and cinematic work, it also showcases highly gendered and gendering moments of melodramatic performance by its characters, thus revealing a self-awareness both for the politics of this mode and for the way that the mode can manufacture aesthetic responses. Ultimately, however, the film remains conflicted, Ravizza argues, as both gender stereotypes and gender criticism rely on its treatment of the melodramatic mode. The contribution by Michael Butter discusses Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds as political films that engage with mythical narratives about World War II. Analyzing the intertextual connections these films establish with previous motion pictures, such as the ‘propaganda films’ of classical Hollywood and the ‘dirty war films’ of the 1960s and 1970s, he argues that both films can be understood as doubly political: For one, they consciously take up and rewrite aspects of previous war films and thus engage with the political effects these representations have had. Simultaneously, though, this rewriting is used to criticize how such representations have fostered a war myth used to justify torture and the violation of human rights in the context of 9/11. While quite different on the surface, both films thus engage in surprisingly similar political and textual projects and become part of a contemporary effort to deconstruct mythical narratives of American moral superiority. Both films, Butter argues, are aware of the influence of older cinematic representations in bringing about such narratives. Butter’s comparative analysis thus accentuates how the two films mobilize their audience’s intertextual knowledge to discuss politics in subtle and complex ways, how they relate to the more concrete level of contemporary US politics, and how they metatextually speak of the discursive power of film representations. Lastly, Dorothea Gail and Ray Canoy close this section by discussing Bob Goldthwait’s film God Bless America, a black comedy centering on the killing spree of an everyman character fed up with the moral and civic decline with which he sees himself confronted. Their argument is twofold: First, they suggest that the film offers a serious and committed engagement with signs of crisis in contemporary US society, a crisis especially of the public sphere and civic interaction. Second, they outline how this engagement is uniquely enabled by the film’s recourse to the genre of black comedy, combined with elements of the ‘social problem’ film. In their contribution, Gail and Canoy thus also point to a number of earlier films and TV shows that God Bless America implicitly and explicitly references. Overall, they perform a distinctly interdisciplinary inquiry in their article:


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Exploring the film’s formal strategies as well as its underlying political assumptions, they shed light on the dynamics of political commentary in Goldthwait’s satire from the combined perspectives of aesthetic and sociopolitical critique. NONFICTION The contributions in our second section engage a diverse selection of nonfiction books, a format that seems to have a particular cultural salience in the contemporary moment. Taken together, they complicate assumptions of a straightforward politicality of nonfiction print and outline how recent texts of this genre approach their political projects with an emphatic awareness of their textual mediation. The contributions explore, in different textual environments, the poetic strategies that underwrite contemporary nonfiction’s engagement with social reality and the ways in which textual dynamics affect the politics of nonfiction narratives, thus laying bare the multiple resonances between contemporary writing in the modes of fiction and nonfiction. Bruno Arich-Gerz’s essay begins this section by addressing a truly iconic nonfiction narrative of the contemporary moment, the 9/11 Commission Report. He argues that this text conspicuously diverges from the typical prose of the investigation report and instead draws on textual conventions whose sources range from literary fiction to the thriller movie. Building on previous analyses of the report that already foregrounded its literary qualities, he adds psychoanalysis and trauma theory as well as Jean Baudrillard’s concepts of simulacra and hyperreality as perspectives from which this text can be understood. Ultimately, Arich-Gerz reads the 9/11 Commission Report’s genre blurring as a self-conscious textual strategy that is tied to the heterogeneous sociocultural functions the text was meant to serve—to document the government investigation into the attacks of 9/11 but also to soothe the traumatic wounds left in the national psyche and cope with “the unbearably more-than-real character of the terrorist attacks” (122). Sebastian M. Herrmann continues by discussing two interrelated books by popular writer Larry Beinhart—the novel The Librarian and the nonfiction book Fog Facts—as paradigmatic examples of contemporary texts that negotiate a distinctly post-postmodern concern with social referentiality. The books, he argues, conspicuously labor at finding textual forms that would allow them to seriously engage with social and political reality without falling back to one-dimensional notions of realism. Contextualizing the two books in traditions of political fiction and in the recent wave of political nonfiction, Herrmann outlines how the realm of presidential politics around the turn of the millennium offers a particularly fruitful field for reflections on the political valencies of textual form, and vice versa. His reading centers on the idea of “fog facts” (136), which Beinhart’s books

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jointly articulate. By theorizing and narrativizing fog facts, Herrmann suggests, this pop-cultural novel-nonfiction pair partakes in the kind of metatextual discussions and practices of realism that mark the contemporary moment. His contribution thus points out how political nonfiction self-consciously engages in post-postmodern debates and how it, in turn, complicates understandings of post-postmodernism and a high/pop culture divide in the first place. The contribution by Alice Hofmann tackles another bestselling piece of nonfiction that, unlike the texts addressed in the section’s previous two essays, locates itself outside the context of institutional politics, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book discusses the case of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cells had been taken and multiplied for medical research without the knowledge and consent of either the donor or her family. Hofmann’s article explores the political and ethical stakes involved, both in the case itself and in its depiction by a professional writer in the genre of nonfiction narrative. Using trauma studies as a conceptual backdrop, she proposes to approach Skloot’s book as a testimony by proxy, a text that presents itself as an attempt to testify on behalf of an individual who cannot do so herself. Hofmann’s reading, on the one hand, discusses the formal strategies by which the book pursues its project of vicarious testimony and these strategies’ ethical implications. On the other hand, her reading unravels the political framework that the book’s poetic choices impose on the Henrietta Lacks case, a framework that individualizes questions of injustice and deflects attention from structural causes tied to race and class. ‘LITERATURE’ The third section of contributions looks at the politics of texts that have been traditionally labeled ‘literature’ proper, that is, written works from literary genres such as the novel, poetry, and drama. Through case studies and theoretical conceptualizations, the articles in this section investigate the multifaceted ways in which these ‘classical’ genres all participate in the contemporary cultural production of politically engaged texts. While it is sometimes assumed that the political relevance of ‘old’ literary genres has been challenged by the emergence of new media, the contributions in this section highlight how central politics are to contemporary novels, poems, and dramas. In the process, the articles develop methodological impulses for tracing the political, its complexities, and its (often self-conscious) textual boundedness in texts that, in various ways, exceed the period concepts of postmodernism. In the first contribution, Katja Kanzler discusses the politics of David Mamet’s play Race with regard to the genre of the legal drama. She argues that the text is marked by multiple, contradictory politics towards race: On the one hand, it seems to advocate for the (neo)conservative political dis-


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course of ‘post-racialism,’ while on the other hand, the play also contains a layer of meaning that exposes and deconstructs the discursive and ideological workings of post-racialism. For Kanzler, this second layer of meaning stems from the play’s affiliation with the legal drama. As a genre, the legal drama is not only concerned with the tension between law and justice; in addition, its interest in legal procedures, in trials, and in the narrative and performative work done in the courtroom also lends the genre a politically charged metatextual quality. In the case of Race, the genre’s interest in performance furthermore works to expose the constructedness of race as a social category of difference. Kanzler thus lays bare how politics in the play mainly reside at the intersection of race and textuality, and of genre specifically, and how the political poetics of genre—in this case, the legal drama—can end up complicating a text’s presumed semantic intention. In his contribution on Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, Hans Frese tackles an author whose works have, similar to David Mamet’s, frequently served as a catalyst for discussions of post-postmodernism and the contemporary literary moment—in the case of The Corrections, the novel has often been highlighted as an example of the return of socially conscious realist fiction. Frese argues that Franzen’s disavowal of having written the ‘big social novel’ does not contradict the politicality of his work. In fact, The Corrections’ indeterminate ideological allegiance constitutes both an outcome of and a contribution to the debate around (post-)postmodern literature, hence paradoxically joining the discussion from which its author tries to detach his work. The article’s theoretical framework, which relies on concepts taken from actor-network theory, allows Frese to problematize the literary periodization that serves as a benchmark for the formulation of aesthetic and political agendas that literature is supposed to fulfill, thus shaping the discussion of the canon debate, whose effects are palpable in the reception of The Corrections. Frese calls attention to the concept of literary periodization by reading the novel’s ironic stance towards postmodernism as the author’s disenchantment with contemporary critical theory. At the same time, though, he sees The Corrections’ aesthetic innovations as challenging the scholarly engagement with contemporary texts and points out how the novel can be understood as gesturing towards new perspectives on a politically engaged postmodernism. While the contributions by Kanzler and Frese investigate the political valency of literary genres such as plays and novels through two individual case studies, the next three articles in this section operate more from a theoretical vantage point. Ilka Saal’s contribution explores how contemporary art, theater, and literature engage with the history of slavery. She contends that these recent American texts relate to the traumatic past in a different way than those by previous generations of authors, who, she posits, had a more direct ‘access’ to slavery and relied on mimetic representations. Saal forwards the term historiopoiesis to highlight the performative and selfreflexive nature of creating history through art and to draw attention to the

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ways in which processes of memorizing, historicizing, and imagining merge. In this way, historiopoetic literature and art allow authors to explore a more complex notion of African American history and to recognize the multiplicity of black subjectivities. Specifically, the amalgamation of fact and fiction in third-generation texts about slavery, Saal argues, holds revisionary power and often has provocative effects that differentiate these texts from established renditions of slavery among previous generations of writers. Olesya Bondarenko’s article continues this theoretical focus by looking at conceptions of the political in contemporary poetry. Bondarenko explores the politicality of poems written by authors of the so-called Language group, who started their work in the 1970s and continue to leave their mark in the landscape of contemporary poetry. Language poetry may count as one of the schools of mid- to late-twentieth-century experimental poetry whose politics either have been ignored in purely aesthetic approaches or have been seen as exhausting themselves in forms of Althusserian ideology critique. Bondarenko argues that the politics of Language poetry are much more complex and that dialoguing the work of Language poets with philosophical writings by Jacques Rancière brings this complexity to light. Drawing on Rancière’s conception of a political aesthetic, Bondarenko outlines—in an exemplary reading of two recent poems by Rae Armantrout and Charles Bernstein—how a distinct political valency emerges from this poetry’s aesthetics. These politics, she suggests, go far beyond a critique of the current political order and encompass more variegated, even conflicted political stances and forms of engagement. Thus focalizing a branch of contemporary poetry whose roots reach back into the ‘linguistic-turn’ experiments of ‘high’ postmodernism, Bondarenko’s article highlights how the poetic self-consciousness of these texts enables distinct political potentials. Moving from poetry to theater, Sabrina Hüttner’s essay interrogates the very concept of political theater in this section’s final contribution, asking how the political needs to be reconceived in the contemporary moment. Countering perceptions of an alleged lack of politics in recent theater, she uses Tony Kushner’s drama Homebody/Kabul as a case study to outline the contours of a distinctly contemporary model of political theater. Against the backdrop of a critical survey of approaches to politicality in theater practice and scholarship, Hüttner theorizes Kushner’s version of political art as a ‘politics of dissent,’ as criticizing important issues of the time while at the same time self-consciously acknowledging that such art is always deeply rooted in the culture it criticizes. As Hüttner demonstrates in her reading of Homebody/Kabul, theater that revolves around the politics of dissent neither offers grand political narratives nor aims for direct agitation; rather, it seeks to mobilize critical thinking and to open up spaces for dialogue and exchange. Hüttner’s article thus offers a way of conceiving politicality in contemporary American theater in subtler and more subdued ways.


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NEW MEDIA The final section of case studies turns to texts that immediately emerge from the ‘media revolution’ that has shaped the contemporary cultural moment in such notable ways. Presenting three case studies of digital media culture, the contributions probe into the often ambiguous political valencies of new-media texts. Their discussions highlight not only the extent to which politics in these texts are tied to formal dynamics but also how US culture self-consciously deals with these formal features and their political implications. This concluding set of essays, then, integrates the newest of genres into lines of inquiry revolving around the poetics of politics and the contemporary dynamism they focalize. Stefan Schubert sets off this section with an article that explores an exemplary video game, BioShock. He locates the game’s cultural work in its ethico-political engagement with choice and agency on the levels of content as well as form. Schubert’s reading interrogates both levels along with their interdependencies—on the one hand, the game’s intertextual dialogue with Ayn Rand’s conception of individualism and its notion of ‘rational self-interest,’ and on the other hand, its simultaneous exploitation and metatextual thematization of the video game’s media-specific narrativity, which revolves around the ‘illusion’ of choice and narrative agency. Emphasizing how BioShock politicizes its media-specific narrative dynamics by tying them to Rand’s political philosophy, the article unravels the game’s complex meditations on the inherent politicality of choice and on the ways in which choice and individualism are inevitably situated in contexts of narrative. In Schubert’s analysis, BioShock thus stands as a prominent example of how this popular ‘new’ medium can invite its audience to reflect on notions of choice and agency in video games and beyond. The remaining two essays address the new-media format of the blog in two very different iterations. Sophie Spieler’s contribution analyzes the political valencies of the Tumblr blog Rich Kids of Instagram (RKOI), which collects and reframes digital images that have been uploaded to the photosharing website Instagram, presumably by affluent users for the express purpose of staging their wealth. Spieler is particularly interested in the political ambivalence that results from the blog’s semantic openness: RKOI’s potential to encourage a sincere debate about inequality and social distinction, she contends, becomes obstructed by the formal features of the medium and by the irony on which the blog builds its work. Thus approaching this blog from a perspective of notably ‘post-postmodern discontent,’ her essay investigates the media-specific dynamics that fuel the blog’s evacuation of its own political potential. In this way, Spieler questions the stereotypical new-media ‘mantra’ that the medium of the blog inherently encourages participation and debate, pointing out how RKOI’s poetics complicate its presumed political project.

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Frank Usbeck, finally, presents a case study of how the US military has responded to the emergence of digital media and the Internet, focusing on the discussion of soldier blogs in military circles. Military reports and memos, he argues, conspicuously work with concepts of narrative to engage with the political opportunities offered by the new medium, with its potential to construct and spread a specific ‘army story’ that could help to further military interests. Usbeck’s article outlines how these official army texts discuss stories as powerful political instruments, how they reflect on the constructedness and construction of stories in ways that amount to a practice of ‘popular narratology,’ and how this practice is embedded in military politics. Overall, his contribution reveals changes within military structure and strategy that, to a large degree, were brought about by the emergence of new media and the Internet, emphasizing the impact of new textualities on ‘traditional’ politics and pointing to a deliberate use of poetic strategies in contemporary US political discourse. Our sixteen contributions, covering poetry, blogs, drama, nonfiction, video games, novels, films, and TV, give evidence of how pervasively the question for the poetics of politics structures the current moment in US culture. Moreover, by spotlighting a widespread cultural concern with the political effects of texts and textuality, they do indeed form a local interrogation of the contemporary moment. Taken together, they do not point to some grand epochal shift but, instead, in the breadth of their explorations and in their dialogicity, demonstrate the value of historicizing the contemporary moment without periodizing it.

Works Cited Besserman, Lawrence. “The Challenge of Periodization: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives.” Besserman, Challenge 3-27. ---, ed. The Challenge of Periodization: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives. New York: Garland, 1996. Print. Boerma, Lindsay. “Obama Reflects on His Biggest Mistake as President.” CBS News. CBS, 12 July 2012. Web. 18 May 2014. Green, Jeremy. Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium. New York: Macmillan, 2005. Print. Holland, Mary K. Succeeding Postmodernism: Language and Humanism in Contemporary American Literature. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print. Hutcheon, Linda. Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. New York: Methuen, 1984. Print. Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Abingdon: Routledge, 2013. Print. ---. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. Print. Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006. Print.


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Kirby, Alan. Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure Our Culture. New York: Continuum, 2009. Print. Leonard, Philip. Literature After Globalization: Textuality, Technology and the NationState. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print. Marcus, Greil, and Werner Sollors, eds. A New Literary History of America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009. Print. McLaughlin, Robert L. “Post-Postmodern Discontent: Contemporary Fiction and the Social World.” symploke 12.1-2 (2004): 53-68. Print. ---. “Post-Postmodernism.” The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature. Ed. Joe Bray, Alison Gibbons, and Brian McHale. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012. 21223. Print. Mittell, Jason. “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” Velvet Light Trap 58 (2006): 29-40. Print. Moraru, Christian. Cosmodernism: American Narrative, Late Globalization, and the New Cultural Imaginary. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2011. Print. ---. “Thirteen Ways of Passing Postmodernism.” Introduction. American Book Review 34.4 (2013): 3-4. Print. Nealon, Jeffrey. Post-Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Just-In-Time Capitalism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012. Print. Patterson, Lee. “The Place of the Modern in the Late Middle Ages.” Besserman, Challenge 51-66. Potter, Garry, and José López. “After Postmodernism: The New Millennium.” Introduction. After Postmodernism: An Introduction to Critical Realism. Ed. López and Potter. London: Continuum, 2001. 3-16. Print. Rebein, Robert. Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists: American Fiction After Postmodernism. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2001. Print. Rich, Frank. The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush’s America. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print. Saldívar, Ramón. “The Second Elevation of the Novel: Race, Form, and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary Narrative.” Narrative 21.1 (2013): 1-18. Print. Taylor, Mark C. Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo. New York: Columbia UP, 2013. Print. Timmer, Nicoline. Do You Feel It Too? The Post-Postmodern Syndrome in American Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010. Print. Toth, Josh. The Passing of Postmodernism: A Spectroanalysis of the Contemporary. Albany: State U of New York P, 2010. Print. Toth, Josh, and Neil Brooks. “A Wake and Renewed?” Introduction. The Mourning After: Attending the Wake of Postmodernism. Ed. Brooks and Toth. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. 1-13. Print. United States. Dept. of the Army. The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007. Print. Vermeulen, Timotheus, and Robin van den Akker. “Notes on Metamodernism.” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 2 (2010): n. pag. Web. 9 Sept. 2014.



Thinking Institutionally: Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and the Politics of Contemporary Historical Films Abstract: This paper reads two recent films, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Ben Affleck’s Argo, against the backdrop of a neoliberal anti-institutionalism that has surged in American culture since the 1980s. While both films have predominantly been read for how they speak about US global military power, my argument focuses on a different aspect of their politics: the way that they both imagine state institutions—the CIA and the US military—as realms that allow for well-organized collaborations of large numbers of people. In their positive portrayal of such cooperative labor, both films envision these institutions as possible, albeit problematic, alternatives to the individualism championed by neoliberalism.

The most controversial film nominated for a 2013 Best Picture Oscar was easily Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, depicting the US Central Intelligence Agency’s search for and eventual assassination of Osama bin Laden. A raft of commentators—film critics, journalists, filmmakers, and even US senators—criticized Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal for two main issues: for crafting a narrative that, supposedly, endorses torture as an intelligence gathering technique and for allowing their filmmaking choices to be shaped by the CIA in return for access not usually granted to Hollywood. Glenn Greenwald, then working for the Guardian, was among the film’s most outspoken critics. Greenwald slammed Zero Dark Thirty even before it appeared, arguing on the basis of advance reviews that Bigelow’s movie “glorifies torture by depicting it as crucial to getting bin Laden” and thereby advances the Obama-CIA party line despite the fact that “the film’s glorifying claims about torture are demonstrably, factually false” (“Zero Dark Thirty: New Torture-Glorifying Film”). In a subsequent column written after he had actually seen the film, Greenwald responded to critics of his earlier piece by citing as evidence for his initial claims a website listing quotes from other “reviewers and commentators who made this factual statement definitively about the film – that it depicts torture as valuable in finding bin Laden.” Greenwald then went on to describe the film’s support of torture as a “key factual question” and noted that the reviewers who argued that the film endorses torture were making “factual claims” and not “value judgments” (“Zero Dark Thirty: CIA Hagiography”). While Greenwald in this later column was clearly reacting to critics of his decision to write about Zero Dark Thirty without first having seen it, his (very Greenwaldian) doubling down on his claim provides us with a useful baseline version of what it means to read a text politically. For Greenwald,


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the film’s depiction of torture as part of the process that led to the assassination of the mastermind behind 9/11 constitutes an a priori endorsement of this strategy. Given the “sacred status” of bin Laden’s killing “in American political lore,” Greenwald argues, Zero Dark Thirty’s glorification of torture is reducible to a mathematical formula: “to depict X as valuable in enabling the killing of bin Laden is – by definition – to glorify X” (“Zero Dark Thirty: CIA Hagiography”). This reading of the film goes beyond arguing that it propagandizes for torture to claim that any representation of torture as part of the manhunt necessarily constitutes such propaganda. This is not even, then, really a reading, since it produces a claim that one can make—as Greenwald, in fact, did—without seeing the film. However, one might argue that the relevant distinction in assessing the politics of a work of the imagination is not between facts and value judgments but between facts and interpretations. Evidence that Zero Dark Thirty’s representation of torture does not necessarily constitute propaganda for torture is provided both by others’ arguments against this equation (cf. Sullivan; Moore) and even more convincingly by the fact that Greenwald himself feels called upon, later in his column, to produce an account not only of what Bigelow’s movie shows but of how it shows it. He notes, for instance, that “key evidence – the identity of bin Laden’s courier – is revealed only after a detainee is brutally and repeatedly abused” and that “the film’s pure, saintly heroine – a dogged CIA agent who sacrifices her entire life and career to find bin Laden – herself presides over multiple torture sessions” (“Zero Dark Thirty: CIA Hagiography”). These claims, so far from being factual, rest upon our learned (if often unstated) understanding of how narrative texts work: what is implied when events follow each other in sequence, for instance, or what it means when a character with whom readers or viewers identify participates in an action. Even with this qualification, though, we still remain at a relatively superficial level of political analysis, one concerned with the way in which a work of the imagination can be understood as taking an explicit and more or less readily discernible position on some issue that it depicts. Similar, but more muted, criticisms greeted the other 2012 film involving the CIA nominated for an Oscar (and the eventual winner), Ben Affleck’s Argo. For instance, Kevin B. Lee argued that Argo glorifies the CIA’s role in rescuing a group of US diplomats from the Canadian embassy following the 1979 takeover of the US embassy while disregarding the way the agency “helped create this mess in the first place” and (perhaps the most frequently repeated criticism of the film) treating “oppressed Iranians as a raging, zombie-like horde.” Such debates can be interesting, and in the case of Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, they extend into questions raised by the cooperation offered to filmmakers by the US military and intelligence services. Affleck, for instance, received rare permission to film some scenes at the CIA’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters (Nashawaty). Yet even in this regard,

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the interest lies in what kind of quid pro quo occurred, which is to say, what kind of influence on the film’s messages such cooperation procured. In what follows, I suggest a somewhat different approach to the politics of Bigelow’s and Affleck’s films, one that depends on at least initially bracketing their relationship towards the historical events with which they are explicitly concerned. In this regard, I am influenced by Adolph Reed’s account of another 2012 film nominated for the 2013 Best Picture award, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Reed argues that it is necessary to look beyond the film’s obvious critique of antebellum slavery—a critique whose indisputability might begin to suggest part of the problem with it— and, instead, to focus on the defense of contemporary neoliberal capitalism it projects backward onto its seeming subject. As I will discuss at greater length below, this defense of neoliberalism depends on an individualist ethos committed to the critique not of certain kinds of institutions but of institutions per se. With this in mind, I will argue that Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, despite their support of and by problematic institutions of US state power, stage a residual defense of institutional membership that runs counter to the taken-for-granted tenets of dominant neoliberal ideology. This does not wholly obviate the issues raised by the movies’ intimacies with the national security state, but it does allow us to understand these issues in a more complicated fashion.

*** In his analysis of Django Unchained, Reed takes to task academic and popular critics who praise Tarantino’s film for its affirmative depiction of black agency, contending that the individualist way in which the film frames its protagonist’s agency is in keeping with the distinctly unliberatory politics of neoliberal capitalism. Grouping Django Unchained with Tate Taylor’s 2011 The Help, Reed argues that both movies “dissolve political economy and social relations into individual quests and interpersonal transactions and thus effectively sanitize, respectively, slavery and Jim Crow by dehistoricizing them.” Depicting slavery not as a means of profiting from unpaid labor but as a framework for perversion and brutality, Tarantino also renders Jamie Foxx’s character Django as someone who transcends this system through a triumphant individualism: He cares only about his own wife (Kerry Washington) and pointedly refuses to help another slave being torn apart by dogs because that might compromise his attempt to rescue her. “[D]isplac[ing] a politics challenging social structures that reproduce inequality with concern for the feelings and characteristics of individuals and of categories of population statistics reified as singular groups that are equivalent to individuals,” the movie’s “generic story of individual triumph over adversity” effectively reproduces the ideology at the heart of contemporary neoliberal capitalism:


Andrew Hoberek [T]he imagery of the individual overcoming odds to achieve fame, success, or recognition also maps onto the fantasy of limitless upward mobility for enterprising and persistent individuals who persevere and remain true to their dreams. As such, it is neoliberalism’s version of an ideal of social justice, legitimizing both success and failure as products of individual character.

The problem with Django Unchained, from this perspective, is its “elevation of private, voluntarist action as a politics—somehow more truly true or authentic, or at least more appealing emotionally—over the machinations of government and institutional actors.” In this respect, the movie reflects the extreme anti-institutional message currently mobilized in US (and, we might note, with increasing frequency in European) politics to delegitimate the state’s role in securing social and economic justice, to undermine unions, and to cast austerity as a kind of liberation. So far from offering a concrete critique of slavery as an institution, Django Unchained provides a much more covertly sinister critique of institutions per se—including but not limited to slavery. In a world in which very few people would support the antebellum slavery Django Unchained depicts, the film’s political message slips free of its ostensible subject to implicitly ratify the neoliberal ethos through which contemporary capitalism exploits labor power (by, for instance, delegitimating unions and other organizations designed to maximize workers’ transindividual bargaining power). If this is the case, however, then perhaps there is a different way of thinking about the politics of Argo and Zero Dark Thirty—works that, if nothing else, are distinctly committed to “the machinations of government and institutional actors” (Reed). To dismiss this aspect of the movies because the main characters are CIA agents is, I suggest, the equally problematic inverse of praising Django Unchained solely because its protagonist is a black ex-slave. If Reed’s reading of the film has merit, which I believe it does, then it matters that at least some Hollywood films do not, in fact, embrace an extreme anti-institutional individualism. We can certainly be critical of the CIA as a particular institution, and of the way these films depict it, without ignoring the overdetermined nature of their uncharacteristically positive views of institutional life. In other words, we might suggest that these movies have some investment in imagining institutions and the people within them in a way not strictly reducible to capitalist individualism, and in the current moment, the CIA provides, perversely, one of the few imaginative settings in which this project can be pursued. In this regard, many of the responses to Zero Dark Thirty have noted the intransigence displayed by Jessica Chastain’s character Maya in pursuing a goal that seems to be getting her nowhere. They either cast this intransigence as some sort of obsession or point to the death of Maya’s friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) as the trigger that makes Maya’s quest personal and thus acceptable (cf., for instance, Edelstein; Rea; Wood). However, these responses forget that pursuing unprofitable goals is what noncapitalist insti-

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tutions make possible. That is, whether we understand Maya as a heroic individualist fighting the system or as a committed civil servant working within it depends not so much on the single-minded nature of her quest as on the way in which Zero Dark Thirty depicts her relationship to the institution within which she works. This depiction need not be (and, in fact, is not) wholly positive: It would be as much an ideological fantasy to argue that institutions always support the goals of their individual members as to argue that they always thwart them. Indeed, it is their subtly textured depiction of their characters’ relationships to the institution of the CIA that allows Zero Dark Thirty and Argo to function as allegories of institutional life per se. In this respect, Affleck’s Argo provides a more sanguine version of this allegory of institutional life, depicting tension between Affleck’s version of the real-life agent Tony Mendez and his employers but also choosing a subject—the rescue of American diplomats from Tehran following the fall of the US embassy—that eliminates any shades of ambiguity from the CIA’s activities. Zero Dark Thirty, by contrast, provides the hard-boiled version that is willing to say that institutions also have dark sides, for instance that they make life harder for women within them or that they permit those who are devoted to their goals to perform morally questionable acts like committing torture. This offers a somewhat different way of understanding the movie’s depiction of torture. As mentioned previously, Greenwald and others who focus on the film’s explicit politics argue that Bigelow would not show torture if she was not contending it was effective. Yet within the framework of the institutional allegory, what is fascinating about torture is the way that it foregrounds the ethical tension between the individual and the institution. If Bigelow’s film depicts torture but inserts some ambiguity—as evidenced in reviewers’ disagreements about it— about whether this technique did or did not assist in the discovery of bin Laden, then it becomes interesting precisely as a case study in how members of institutions remain committed to them even when they use ethically questionable and/or ineffective means to pursue their goals. With this in mind, we can begin to see how Zero Dark Thirty and Argo present something more complicated than the neoliberal narrative of the heroic individual’s battle against the stultifying, bureaucratic institution. Consider, for instance, a scene from the former that initially seems to epitomize the agon between the individual and the institution, Maya’s confrontation with her Islamabad bureau chief Joseph Bradley (played by Kyle Chandler, who also plays the similar role of Hamilton Jordan in Argo) about the resources she needs for her pursuit of bin Laden. The two argue about the best use of Maya’s time, with Bradley telling her that she needs to concentrate on stopping terrorist attacks on the US and declaring that she’s “chasing a ghost while the whole fucking network goes all around” her. She replies scathingly: “You just want me to nail some low-level Mullah-cracka-dulla so you can check that box on your resume that says while you were


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in Pakistan, you got a real terrorist.” The fact that Maya accuses Bradley of careerism is telling insofar as it paints him as a bureaucratic timeserver who is simply getting by from day to day, in contrast to her goal-driven individualism. This is not an entirely incorrect reading of this scene— indeed, if Reed is right that neoliberal individualism is so dominant as to be treated as an unquestioned universal, then we should expect it to show up even in parts of narratives that try to swim against this stream—but it is an incomplete one. For instance, we might note that the two characters are, in fact, having an argument not about the good or evil of the organization for which they work but rather about how to allocate resources within it: Bradley favors preventing strikes on the homeland; Maya argues that this merely addresses symptoms rather than rooting out their cause. Moreover, Maya does not strike off on her own, in action-movie fashion—rather, Bradley eventually gives her what she asks for, even if he does so in response to a threat to go over his head. (Here we might note in passing that one aspect of a good organization is, arguably, the presence of checks against the top-down exercise of hierarchical power.) That Zero Dark Thirty is, in fact, deeply committed to institutional procedure is suggested by another scene, the one in which Maya’s friend Jessica dies. While one could, as I have suggested, understand this scene as offering narrative motivation for Maya to continue her quest—Jessica’s death makes this quest personal—this does not explain the relative length of this scene or its explicit support of routinization as an institutional value. The scene is based on the real-life Camp Chapman attack of 2009, in which a terrorist who seemed to be cooperating with the CIA used his access to the camp to carry out a suicide attack. In Zero Dark Thirty, the analyst Jessica believes that she has recruited a member of bin Laden’s inner circle whom she can persuade, through an offer of $25 million dollars, to reveal the mastermind’s location, and she sets up a meeting at an air base just outside Taliban territory. The scene opens with a (by Hollywood standards) lengthy period of waiting for the supposed informant’s car to arrive at the base. This is, I contend, designed to make the audience feel Jessica’s impatience and to endorse her desire to step over procedural speed bumps by telling the security officer to have the base’s gate guards stand down in order to avoid spooking her contact. What follows—the man steps out of his car and sets off a suicide bomb that kills Jessica and everyone else present—obviously supports the security officer’s paean to rationalization: “Procedures only work if we follow them every time.” In this scene, Jessica’s desire to set aside regular procedure—which, in another kind of narrative, would exemplify the neoliberal drive to sidestep stale bureaucracies in the interests of innovation—is what enables the suicide bombing to work. Moreover, Jessica is even more directly allied with the logic of capitalism insofar as she believes that she can turn the suicide bomber on the basis of money alone. In an early scene, she suggests to Maya the possibility of paying al-Qaeda members to switch allegiances,

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an idea Maya dismisses as predicated on an outmoded Cold War logic. Here, however, Jessica believes that she is about to succeed with just this method: She tells one of her team members that $25 million is “persuasive” because that much money “buys a new life.” She is obviously mistaken, and the implication is that in the post-Cold War era, America’s enemies embrace a fanaticism that cannot be countered with money. However, it is worth noting that Zero Dark Thirty adduces money only as a possible means of swaying others—in a subsequent scene, Maya’s former mentor Dan (Jason Clarke) successfully obtains information by buying someone a Lamborghini—and not as the motivator of any of its CIA agents. Maya and her colleagues, no less than their terrorist counterparts, are driven by their own commitments to an ideal. In the Americans’ case, however, the organization provides a mediating structure between terrorist fanaticism and pure economic self-interest. Maya and her CIA counterparts, as well as the SEAL team members who carry out the nighttime raid on bin Laden’s compound, may well be motivated by abstract patriotism, but the film and they themselves primarily treat what they do as a job. The narrative arc followed by Dan is instructive here: The film’s primary CIA torturer, Dan gives up this task when he becomes burnt out and goes to Washington to take a desk job. The film represents this decision not as an unidealistic compromise but rather as a kind of brake on the willingness to cross moral lines in the service of a cause. It is the absence of such a brake in the terrorists’ case that leads them to annihilate not only others but also themselves in the service of their cause. That is to say, the difference between terrorists and CIA agents in Zero Dark Thirty is not the difference between proponents of two opposed belief systems but rather the difference between those who believe too much and those who, by contrast, moderate their commitment to a cause via a simultaneous commitment to institutional procedures. The agents’ proceduralism both makes them susceptible to the lure of torture (through the bureaucratic effacement of individual responsibility) and serves as a brake on such behavior. If this narrows the difference between CIA agents and terrorists to a difference between institutions, the movie’s penultimate act, tellingly titled ‘Tradecraft,’ effaces the distinction between CIA agents and terrorists even further. The tradecraft in question in this sequence is not (or not only) that of Maya and her compatriots, who use their skills to find Osama bin Laden, but explicitly the tradecraft of bin Laden’s own people, whose use of rational procedures to avoid detection at various points alerts Maya to the very thing that it attempts to hide. In its penultimate act, that is, Zero Dark Thirty resolves itself into a contest not between irrationality and reason but between competing proceduralisms. In the process, the movie reveals its genre most completely: While periodically dipping into the territory of the action movie, the spy movie, and the war movie, Zero Dark Thirty is most comprehensively a police procedural. As Christopher P. Wilson has argued, the procedural’s investment in professionalism and routinization must be


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read both realistically and ideologically insofar as the genre is fundamentally invested in the “interstitial position of the police—between law and the exercise of power, between the knowledge they gather and distribute, between their anger at social disarray, the order they must impose, and their own sense of lost proprietorship over our cities” (214). Zero Dark Thirty demonstrates how easily these terms can be transposed onto the ‘war on terror.’ In the context of a police drama such as The Wire, of course, we would recognize the movie’s ambivalence about torture as a standard feature of the genre: Good cops, after all, sometimes do bad things in the pursuit of admirable goals. There is a scene late in Zero Dark Thirty in which President Barack Obama’s national security advisor (Stephen Dillane) asks a CIA representative (Mark Strong) to prove that his organization has, in fact, found the hideout of bin Laden, and the representative tells him: “You know we lost the ability to prove that when we lost the detainee program. Who the hell am I supposed to ask? Huh? Some guy in Gitmo who’s all lawyered up? He’ll just tell his lawyer to warn bin Laden.” Greenwald takes this line of dialogue as additional evidence of the movie’s support of torture, and indeed the description of Guantanamo detainees as “lawyered up” is problematic given the actual nature of the legal representation that has been made available to Guantanamo detainees (“Zero Dark Thirty: CIA Hagiography”). However, this line is also a clear invocation of the police procedural, and in that regard we might do well to remember that in police procedurals such as Law and Order, such legal rules function as necessary narrative complications, a formal reflection of the ethical assertion that while these rules make the job of the police and prosecutors more difficult, they nonetheless have their value. Additionally, it is simply not the case, as Greenwald argues, that “[n]obody ever contests or challenges [the] view” that the loss of torture has made the CIA’s job untenable. In fact, the narrative itself challenges it. The White House representative responds, “You’ll think of something,” and the CIA representative does, returning with a tighter argument. One could thus read this line, in context, as making the opposite point from the one Greenwald claims, which is that torture is indeed unnecessary; moreover, the solution to the problem of US involvement in torture is to establish procedural rules against it. This is to suggest that we may see Zero Dark Thirty’s depictions of torture and other problematic procedures not as propaganda but as a form of what might be called institutional realism. If we understand it as committed to exploring how institutions work, then institutional realism can of course be critical as well as affirmative. Yet it takes to task bad institutions, or problematic components of institutions, rather than institutions per se. In order to do so, it must represent these things. It is possible to argue that Zero Dark Thirty does not, in fact, criticize torture, or that it does not criticize it forcefully enough. However, we cannot claim, as Greenwald does, that simply to represent torture is, in certain contexts, to endorse it.

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If Zero Dark Thirty is thus more complicated than critics like Greenwald would have it, it also presents something different from the anti-statism and anti-institutionalism that Reed tells us to expect from contemporary Hollywood. Reed argues against the cultural studies position “that the mass culture industry and its representational practices constitute a meaningful terrain for struggle to advance egalitarian interests” on the grounds that this view can be taken “seriously only by ignoring the fact that the production and consumption of mass culture is thoroughly embedded in capitalist material and ideological imperatives.” However, while Hollywood films are certainly tremendously expensive and profit-driven, and thus invested in promoting the worldview of the capitalist system, they are also made—as their credits tell us—by large numbers of people laboring in a highly organized manner. One of the reasons that films like Zero Dark Thirty and Argo cannot simply be taken as representations of the CIA, then, is that their representation of organized, professional labor is always on some level an allegory of the labor that produces them. This is even clearer in Affleck’s Argo, whose story of a 1980 CIA operation to ferret US diplomats out of Iran under cover of scouting locations for a science-fiction movie inevitably plays upon the similarities between filmmakers and CIA operatives. Thus, in a line that was deemed central enough to appear in the film’s trailer, John Goodman’s character, the make-up artist John Chambers, tells Affleck’s CIA agent Tony Mendez: “So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot? [...] Without actually doing anything? [...] You’ll fit right in.” In fact, Argo takes this parallel quite seriously. Affleck’s movie assumes the form of another genre of organized activity similar to but distinct from the police procedural: the heist film. The suspense of the heist film derives not from the attempt to find and punish a criminal but rather from the effort to pull off a theft (in this case of people) in the face of both chance and equally capable enemies. To the extent that the operation it depicts is extremely complicated, if not downright baroque, the heist film is even more a genre about work: about establishing procedures, following procedures, and coping when procedures fail. In the case of Argo, these procedures are both literally and figuratively akin to filmmaking. First, Mendez must lay the groundwork for his plan by going to Hollywood and following the steps that one would actually have to follow in order to make a film: finding a producer, buying the rights to a script, holding a script reading, and so forth. Then, in Tehran, Mendez becomes a director of sorts—rather brilliantly insofar as the actual director Affleck is playing a character who is himself acting like a director. Mendez gives the diplomats copies of the Argo screenplay and tells them that they must memorize their cover identities because “[t]he only way this works is if you believe that you’re these people so much that you dream like them.” The group acts out a scene, appearing in the crowded Tehran bazaar to prove to the government that they are who they say they are. A late plot


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twist in which the government decides to cancel the operation can be understood, moreover, as a metaphor for the difficulties, including lost funding, attendant upon making a film. In these ways, Argo treats its manifest content—a 1980 CIA operation— as an allegory for its own process of production. It approaches both the rescue operation and filmmaking as products of the sort of complex, organized labor that takes place within institutions. Reading the movie in this way offers a somewhat different account of one of the film’s main objects of criticism, its depiction of Iranians primarily as members of angry, fanatical mobs. This depiction, given the film’s historical context, is Orientalist to be sure, but to the extent that the movie tends towards a kind of purely formal allegory of organized work, it also functions in another way, as the scene in which Mendez and the six diplomats face the final set of obstacles lying between them and a flight to Switzerland shows. In this scene, members of the Revolutionary Guard interrogate Mendez and the diplomats he attempts to rescue while precious minutes go by and the plane they hope to take out of Iran prepares to leave. This scene, like the ‘Tradecraft’ section of Zero Dark Thirty, depicts what is happening as a kind of chess game. The Revolutionary Guard leader speaks Farsi; the diplomat Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy) counters with his own knowledge of Farsi and talks about the fictional film (which incidentally features a narrative of overthrowing a tyrant bound to be congenial to the post-Shah Iranians); the Guard leader drops his pretense, in a move clearly designed to rattle the group, and in perfect English demands proof that they are who they claim to be; Mendez responds by giving him the number of the fake Argo production company. After the lead guard has gotten through to the fake Argo office (following a tense moment provoked by the US government’s cancellation of the operation), the group is allowed to board their plane. At this moment, the chess game breaks down. When the Guard members find out they have been tricked, they do not, to put it lightly, respond well—crucially, even for their own purposes. A Guard member runs through the airport knocking over civilians, and this and other expressions of anger clearly contrast with the calm self-possession displayed by Mendez when, throughout the movie, things do not work out as planned. The guard’s anger also contrasts with the equally calm self-possession of the Iranian air traffic controller. This suggests that what might look like a kind of racist stereotype of fanaticism—a display of Middle Eastern emotionalism in contrast with Western rationality—can instead be read as an outburst of emotional, disorganized behavior. More importantly, the opposite of this behavior is staying calm and sticking to the plan. In other words, here as in Zero Dark Thirty, what is valorized is not individualism but rather institutional procedure. The way in which Argo functions as an allegory of filmmaking probably helps to account, much more directly than its manifest political content, for the fact that it actually won the 2013 Best Picture Oscar. This aspect of

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Affleck’s film also reminds us that movies are made not only by capitalists but also—more directly—by teams of professionals used to working both within and against institutions. It is this aspect of the production process that makes films capable of delivering not only paeans to neoliberal individualism, as Reed shows with Django Unchained, but also more or less ambivalent depictions of institutional processes.

*** I want to end, as suggested earlier, with the way in which this aspect of popular films does not simply escape, but rather complicates, their more obvious political messages. Why is it that movies like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty can only engage with institutions in the problematic form of the CIA and the US military? One answer is that even as neoliberalism manipulated a general anti-institutionalism to discredit certain institutions seen as inimical to the interests of capital—and Hollywood was by no means innocent here, as Derek Nystrom has shown in his account of the film industry’s adversarial relationship to labor unions during the 1970s—its neoconservative proponents simultaneously propagated a vision of the military as a final bastion of good institutionalism. If, in the 1950s, a general antiorganizational ethos encompassed corporations even more than other institutions (Hoberek) and if, in the Vietnam and Watergate eras, this animus was focused on the US government, especially its military and intelligence branches, then in the 1980s, popular culture returned to the military as the last good organization—a final outpost of the forms of masculine agency that other organizations actively threatened (cf. Jeffords, Remasculinization; Jeffords, Hard Bodies). The neoconservative imaginary of the Reagan era upheld these organizations as ideals even as it pursued a steadfast attack on other institutions that it saw as complicit with the anti-individualist imperatives of the Great Society. As a result, the military remains both beyond question in US culture and, paradoxically, the nation’s most socialist institution (although this is changing, as austerity policy reaches even this frontier). In 2012, in the context of what Greenwald rightly identifies as the almost universally popular assassination of bin Laden (“Zero Dark Thirty: New Torture-Glorifying Film”; “Zero Dark Thirty: CIA Hagiography”), the CIA became a site for a portrayal of institutions at odds with the anti-individualist ethos of neoliberalism. The 2013 revelations about NSA spying on US citizens may have shaken the intelligence community’s tentative toehold in this structure of feeling, but the military (also celebrated in Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of SEAL Team Six, the naval special forces unit that carried out the assassination) remains perhaps the last place where Americans can understand institutions as supporting, rather than simply being at odds with, individual goals. What this means is that a potentially


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anticapitalist interest in the institutional structures through which people might organize their lives can only flourish in an environment that affirms the state’s military and covert operations. The real problem with Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, we might say, is not that these films affirm US state power; it is that they do so by channeling and perverting far more progressive impulses.

Works Cited Argo. Dir. Ben Affleck. Warner, 2012. Film. Django Unchained. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Weinstein, 2012. Film. Edelstein, David. “Epic Pileup: Zero Dark Thirty and The Hobbit Compete for Your Three Hours.” New York. New York, 10 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Apr. 2014. Greenwald, Glenn. “Zero Dark Thirty: CIA Hagiography, Pernicious Propaganda.” Guardian. Guardian, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. ---. “Zero Dark Thirty: New Torture-Glorifying Film Wins Raves.” Guardian. Guardian, 10 Dec. 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. Hoberek, Andrew. The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005. Print. Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994. Print. ---. The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. Print. Lee, Kevin B. “Argo, F—k Yourself: The Year’s Worst Best Picture Nominee.” Slate. Slate, 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. Moore, Michael. “In Defense of Zero Dark Thirty.” Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 25 Jan. 2013. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. Nashawaty, Chris. “Argo.” Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly, 10 Aug. 2012. Web. 19 Apr. 2014. Nystrom, Derek. Hard Hats, Rednecks, and Macho Men: Class in 1970s American Cinema. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print. Rea, Steven. “‘Zero Dark Thirty’ a Brilliant Thriller.” Philly.com. Philadelphia, 4 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2014. Reed, Adolph. “Django Unchained, or, The Help: How ‘Cultural Politics’ Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why.” nonsite 9 (2013): n. pag. Web. 19 Apr. 2014. Sullivan, Andrew. “Watching Zero Dark Thirty.” The Dish. N.p., 15 Dec. 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. Wilson, Christopher P. Cop Knowledge: Police Power and Cultural Narrative in Twentieth-Century America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010. Print. Wood, Michael. “At the Movies.” London Review of Books 35.4 (2013): 19. Print. Zero Dark Thirty. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. Sony, 2012. Film.


On the Formal Politics of Narratively Complex Television Series: Operational Self-Reflexivity and Audience Management in Fringe and Homeland1 Abstract: This article suggests a perspective for the study of the formal politics of what Jason Mittell calls ‘narratively complex television series.’ To do so, it draws on recent conceptions of popular seriality that consider serial texts as constellations of interaction between producers, authors, media technologies, institutions, audiences, and the serial material itself. Within these concatenations of interaction, serial texts employ historically and medially specific formal strategies to bring audience practices in line with the commercial logics that undergird their production and circulation. In the case of narratively complex television series, this paper argues, such strategies of ‘audience management’—which structure and organize the reception practices of viewers and suggest a preferred way of watching television—come to the fore in moments of operational self-reflexivity, i.e., in scenes that thematize and demonstrate the logics of serial unfolding. The article finally discusses some instances of operational self-reflexivity in Fox’s Fringe (2008-12) and Showtime’s Homeland (2011-) to suggest that their formal politics become manifest in the way in which these shows articulate demands for hyperattentive, time-consuming, and textually productive reception practices that chime well with the economic logics of media convergence and the larger context of contemporary capitalism.

During the last two decades, prime-time television dramas’ turn away from strong episodic closure and towards a focus on storytelling across episodes and seasons seems to have coincided with an explicit politicization of their content. Especially shows discussed under the label of ‘quality TV’ have been repeatedly celebrated or dismissed for engaging with openly political subject matters, from the anxieties connected to the ‘war on terror’ (as on Homeland or 24) to attempts to tackle the social ills of contemporary urban America (as on The Wire or Breaking Bad) and dramas set within the power centers of official politics (as, for example, on The West Wing or House of Cards). In addition, even popular programs that at first glance background 1

This article draws strongly on the work of the research unit ‘Popular Seriality— Aesthetics and Practice,’ funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and headed by Frank Kelleter (John F. Kennedy Institute, Freie Universität Berlin). In particular, I would like to thank research unit member Ilka Brasch for sharing her ideas on the ‘operational aesthetic’ (developed in the context of an ongoing dissertation project titled “Operational Detection: Crime Serials and the American Cinema 1910-1940”).


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political concerns in favor of more fantastic content—science fiction or fantasy shows like Battlestar Galactica, Fringe, or Heroes, for example— increasingly engage with matters of power, politics, and political intrigue and develop these motifs in ongoing story lines. This renewed interest in political subject matters seems to be intricately connected to the emergence of what Jason Mittell terms ‘narratively complex television’: the shift in emphasis away from episodically contained story lines towards an ongoing serial narration, which characterizes much of contemporary American prime-time television (cf. “Narrative Complexity”). Due to their emphasis on story lines that cross the boundaries of episodes, complex television dramas can construct richly furnished, expansive storyworlds in which the intricacies of political systems and processes might be more adequately represented than in more traditional episodic formats. Contemporary media and cultural studies have similarly connected the trend towards increasingly serialized storytelling to the turn to political subject matters and discussed how contemporary television series represent, negotiate, or symptomatically reflect culturally shared political concerns and anxieties—for example by investigating issues such as political allegory in Battlestar Galactica, gender representations in Mad Men, or paranoia in The X-Files.2 From a different perspective, reception-oriented media studies scholars have located the political significance of popular shows in the practices of media audiences and focused on the potentials of socially communicative problemsolving processes that become manifest in various online communities. 3 Contemporary approaches to the political dimensions of television series therefore typically seem to frame their subject either as an issue of thematic concerns (often combined with an interest in matters of narration) or as an issue of potentially political audience practices, but both of these perspectives are only rarely combined. When it comes to television, the ‘political’ is either located in the text or in what viewers do with it, but rarely in the relationships and interactions between these two dimensions. In this article, I suggest that precisely such a focus on the interactions between the formal strategies of narratively complex programming and the practices of audiences might allow us to gain a better understanding of the political significance of this type of television series, or, in other words, shed light on their role within (and for) the “orders of social life” (Maase 13).4 My argument here follows in the footsteps of a historical materialist engagement with popular culture that considers television series as commodities—i.e., as commercially produced cultural artifacts whose form and function is determined, on the one hand, by the need to turn a profit in 2 3 4

For examples of this type of television scholarship, cf. Dzialo; Ravizza; Kellner; Hantke. For the relationship of such research to studies of popular seriality, cf. Kelleter and Stein 259-63. Cf., e.g., Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture, especially 26-27 and 206-39. As Kaspar Maase notes, ‘political’ is “was sich auf die polis, auf die Ordnungen gesellschaftlichen Zusammenlebens bezieht” (13).

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order to to remain on air as well as, on the other hand, by their identity as objects of audiences’ recreational media consumption and cultural activity.5 This article therefore explores the ways in which complex television series entangle economic interests and everyday practice, and it does so by drawing on recent conceptions of popular seriality that frame their object not just as a particular mode of narration, but as an organizing principle that facilitates an ongoing interaction between producers, audiences, media technologies, and texts over longer periods of time (cf. Mayer 6-14). From this perspective, audiences’ engagement with television series emerges both as a recreational activity and as a contribution to the continued serial unfolding (and with it, the revenue streams) of specific programs and, consequently, as part of the “everyday practices of production and consumption” that participate in the reproduction of capitalist orders on a microlevel (Edwards 283). In taking up this line of inquiry, and paraphrasing a question raised in Theodor W. Adorno’s essay on “Free Time,” this paper asks: What does ‘watching television’ look like in the age of digitalization and media convergence, and what kind of reception practices does it encourage?6 To answer this question, this article discusses some of the formal strategies of complex series and the ways in which they invite viewers to follow and navigate television programming. In doing so, it proceeds from the assumption that the commercial logics that inform television series express themselves prominently on the level of form, i.e., in the conventions, devices, and mechanisms of serial storytelling that bear on and structure the



In other words, I approach television series as commodities in the sense outlined in volume 1 of Karl Marx’s Capital. As products of profit-oriented production, commodities possess both an exchange value, whose realization on the market is integral to the process of capital accumulation, and a use value, i.e., a concrete utility that is determined by their specific materiality. Use value and exchange value of commodities are dialectically intertwined: Consumers purchase commodities because they are of use; producers, on the other hand, engage in the production and sale of commodities in order to realize their surplus value (cf. Marx 125-31). As commodities in this sense, television shows are both objects of a capitalist enterprise as well as objects of audiences’ recreational media use and prompts for attendant cultural practices. Adorno asks: “[W]hat becomes of free time, where productivity of labour continues to rise, under persisting conditions of unfreedom [...]?” (188). Taking up one of the leitmotifs of the concept of ‘culture industry,’ Adorno argues that recreational activities like the consumption of cultural commodities—watching television, for example—promise a temporary escape from the toils and troubles of the daily routine but simultaneously contribute to the reconstitution of the individual’s capacity to work. Recreational media consumption thus contributes to the reproduction of social reality not only by effecting the sale of commodities but also by reproducing the labor power of individuals and readying them for the everyday routines of work (cf. Adorno, 187-90; Horkheimer and Adorno 108-09).


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reception practices of viewers.7 The politics of narratively complex shows, I argue, therefore become manifest on the level of form as well, in what I call strategies of ‘audience management’—i.e., ways in which this type of programming offers possibilities for specific kinds of audience engagement and thereby seeks to direct, organize, and manage the time, attention, and activities of its viewers. Other than television programming of earlier eras, complex television series not only try to capture the attention of audiences on a regular basis, they also encourage intensified forms of engagement such as the rewatching of episodes, the hyperattentive reading of key scenes, and a number of attendant cultural practices that express themselves in social media. Narratively complex shows employ a variety of formal strategies to encourage precisely such active audience behavior, strategies that shape viewing habits and seek to harness viewers’ involvement and textual productivity for the purposes of the program’s continued serial proliferation. In what follows, I will discuss two recent examples of complex television—Fox’s Fringe (2008-12) and Showtime’s Homeland (2011-)—that both, albeit in very different ways, could be considered ‘political’ shows. Mixing science fiction with elements of the crime procedural, Fringe, not unlike The X-Files before it, presents a fundamentally good social order that is thrown into turmoil by the sinister actions of a vast conspiracy, and it thus subscribes to a worldview in line with what Richard Hofstadter terms 7

In contrast to more traditional cultural studies approaches to television—like the one of John Fiske’s seminal Television Culture (1987)—my approach shifts the focus from a consideration of television as “a provoker and circulator of meanings” (1) to the relationships between economic logics and televisual form. Fiske’s study —which is explicitly not about “television as an industrial practice or as a profitmaking producer of commodities” (13)—lacks a framework to conceptualize televisual seriality and reduces the formal dimensions of television series to codes of signification and representation, and it is thus of comparatively little use when it comes to an examination of the interplay between commercial interests and modes of serial engagement or of the development of reception practices in relation to medial change. Furthermore, while my approach and Fiske’s share an interest in television’s role for the reproduction of capitalist societies, Fiske reduces television’s function in this respect to the spread of dominant ideologies and hegemonic meanings (12, cf. 11-14). As a result, reception-oriented media studies research in the tradition of Fiske often articulates a problematically reductive narrative about potentially resistant consumers that oppose the influence of a power-bloc through acts of creative decoding (cf. Kelleter and Stein 261-62). Instead of juxtaposing the practices of audiences and programs, I consider both as part of ongoing and productive interactions that make television series possible in the first place; additionally, I am interested in more fundamental practices of navigating the television text here, and not in acts of decoding. In my interest to study the formal aesthetics of serial narratives in order to come to terms with their politics, I follow Ruth Mayer’s suggestion that “formal analysis allows us to background, at least momentarily, the categories of personal intention or individual interest and to take account of the generative force of ‘formats,’ ‘structures,’ ‘systems,’ or ‘channels’” (13, cf. 12-14).

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the ‘paranoid style’ of politics. Homeland, on the other hand, presents itself as a psychological drama about espionage and the American ‘war on terror.’ However, instead of developing new readings of their negotiations of political subject matters, this article examines a few short scenes from both shows that, as I argue, serve to manage viewers’ attention and suggest preferred ways of watching television. Drawing on Jason Mittell’s work on complex television and his usage of Neil Harris’s concept of the ‘operational aesthetic,’ I suggest that it is especially in moments of medial and thematic self-reflexivity—that is, moments in which these shows demonstrate both the operations of their serial unfolding and the logics of the diegetic events they narrate—where complex television series put their politics of audience management on display. Fringe and Homeland, like other complex shows, repeatedly produce such instances of operational self-reflexivity in order tell their audiences how they ‘want’ to be watched —more precisely, they articulate demands for a media-savvy, timeconsuming, and, at times, textually productive engagement with the television text. By doing so, they point us to the economic and medial logics of the age of digitalization, in which the distinction between production and reception becomes increasingly blurred. Before I turn to the discussion of these shows, however, I will sketch the conceptual framework that informs my approach to the politics of complex television series.

Popular Seriality, Media Convergence, and Narratively Complex Television Serialization in popular culture is neither a new nor an uncommon phenomenon. As Frank Kelleter notes, popular serial narratives—understood in the narrow sense as commercially produced narratives that encompass more than one installment, that focus on a stable set of central characters, and that are the result of ‘industrial’ production practices characterized by a specialized division of labor and the constant variation of established motifs, pattern, and schemata—have been a mainstay, and perhaps even a dominant form, of popular culture at least since the first half of the nineteenth century (cf. “Populäre Serialität” 18-19; Hagedorn 5). The serialization of content is first and foremost a commercial strategy that constitutes, as Roger Hagedorn puts it, “an ideal form of narrative presentation under capitalism” (12). By unfolding a narrative over more than one installment, serial texts come with an inbuilt promotional function, as “one episode of a serial [...] functions to promote consumption of later episodes of that same serial”—they therefore create “product loyalty” and tend to attract audiences over longer periods of time (5). Due to this potential to accumulate an (ideally steadily growing) base of viewers/readers/listeners, serialized narratives also further the commercial exploitation of their carrier


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media (e.g., newspapers, radio stations, television channels) (cf. Hagedorn 5). Because of these commercial functions, serial narratives typically end only when popular demand decreases to the point of unprofitability, or when other external circumstances make their continuation problematic— classical norms of closure, plausibility, or textual coherence apply to them only to limited extent (cf. Kelleter, “Populäre Serialität” 26-27). What furthermore differentiates serial narratives from other popular forms, given a certain degree of commercial success and length, is an entanglement and overlap of their production with their reception. The fact that earlier installments are typically already being consumed while later ones are still in production endows serial narratives with a specific “recursivity” (“Rekursivität”; Kelleter, “Populäre Serialität” 21) unavailable to nonserialized texts, as producers and authors here can observe, and react to, the popular reception of their products (cf. Kelleter, “Populäre Serialität” 20-25; cf. also Jahn-Sudmann and Kelleter 207). Serial texts (of any period and medium) are thus shaped by a feedback loop between authors and their audiences and are always potentially open to readjustments, revisions, and variations of their elements in response to their reception. While the aforementioned engagement and participation of audiences are distinctive elements of serial texts, the dynamics and trajectories of their narrative unfolding cannot simply and exclusively be attributed to the interaction between producers and consumers. Ruth Mayer, for example, describes seriality as a “principle [that] cannot be traced back to one author, author collective, or instigator” and as a social and material “ensemble that conjoins living beings and technological apparatuses into intricately layered arrangements of interaction” (6, 7). Popular seriality in this sense emerges from a productive concatenation or network of authors, audiences, media technologies, institutions, and the serial texts themselves—in other words, from a constellation in which agency is dispersed among multiple human and nonhuman actors and which “generates itself” through the interlocking and interactions of its constituent entities (Mayer 12; cf. Kelleter and Stein 260-63).8 The concrete formal characteristics and thematic preoccupations of serial narratives therefore cannot be reduced to either the creativity of authors, the commercial interests of producers, the demands of audiences, or the requirements and conventions of their media alone. Instead, the form and content of serial texts are better understood as that which facilitates the interactions between these entities. Serialization thus turns out to be a social practice that organizes and regulates the production, distribution, and consumption of media texts—and within this network, the 8

Mayer’s conception of popular series as ‘machinic constellations’ (following Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology of the ‘machine’ and the ‘machinic’) is similar to Kelleter and Stein’s understanding of popular series as actor-networks in so far as it also sees agency dispersed within a network of different kinds of actors and not limited to human subjects (cf. Kelleter, “Populäre Serialität” 20; Kelleter and Stein 260; Latour 46-86; Deleuze and Guattari 283-89; as well as Raunig 18-34).

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concrete textual form of specific series mediates the demands of the different actors involved and, among other things, links the economic imperatives of producers to the reception practices of audiences. Fringe and Homeland are serial narratives in the broad sense given above, and both are similarly constellations of interaction rather than simply closed-off and self-contained bodies of text. More specifically, however, they are television series that operate within what Henry Jenkins terms Convergence Culture, i.e., an environment in which the digitalization of media technologies central to the production, distribution, and reception of popular culture has resulted in an unprecedented availability of media content and an increased competition between different media channels (cf. 1-25). In the era of media convergence, network and cable television have lost their former status as cultural dominants as they are faced with, as Jenkins calls it, the “migratory behavior of media audiences” that can choose from the almost endless variety of entertainment options made available through online and offline digital media (2, cf. 74-79). At the same time, the constant availability of televisual content through online streaming and downloading services, as well as the widespread use of digital time-shifting and recording devices, has enabled a television experience that has largely emancipated itself from the schedules of broadcasters and cable stations (cf. Mittell, “Narrative Complexity” 31, 35; Lotz 7-17). It is in response to the increased intermedia competition of the convergence era and thanks to the proliferation of digital consumer electronics that what Jason Mittell calls ‘narratively complex television’ becomes possible in the first place (cf. Mittell, “Narrative Complexity” 32; Mittell, Television 10-11). By capitalizing on the possibilities of a digitalized environment, complex series can afford to foreground continuous serial narration over episodically contained plots, effectively blurring the lines between self-contained episodes and ongoing story lines (“Narrative Complexity” 32). As a result of this emphasis on continuous serial storytelling across episodes, complex shows typically accumulate vast amounts of narrative material (characters, relationships, main plotlines and subplots, spectacular plot twists and startling revelations) that continues to be relevant for the further unfolding of the story and that goes on to frame the events to come. The storyworlds of complex shows thus have a tendency to sprawl out and to expand to an epic scope—up to a point where their accessibility, coherence, and transparency hinges on the viewers’ readiness to rewatch episodes, to take notes about plot elements and discuss them with peers, and to consult paratextual reference works about their favorite shows. Many of these activities occur on fan websites, wikis, and other online forums dedicated to the discussion of specific television shows, but other forms of online paratexts—episode recaps and blog entries by television critics, for example, along with the entries on each show on Wikipedia —render shows accessible as well (cf. Mittell, “Sites”; Mittell, “Orienting Paratexts”). At the same time, such audience-produced discourses about


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complex series also function as feedback channels for producers and creatives that seek to optimize the performance of their product: The convergence-era media environment here amplifies the recursive character of serial storytelling as it reduces the time delay between production and reception and makes new layers of viewer’s responses accessible. By connecting to a variety of attendant media practices, complex television series exemplify the economic imperatives that inform convergence-era popular culture and that promote the production of content that provides intensified, long-term immersive experiences to viewers (cf. Grainge 5460; Jenkins 95-96). More than other types of programming, narratively complex shows seek to establish close relationships to viewers who are ready to dedicate large amounts of time and attention to watching their favorite show (cf. Jenkins 72-74), and they facilitate this by articulating demands for regular viewing and particularly alert reception practices—or, in other words, through strategies of audience management.

Operational Aesthetics and Audience Management In addition to their tendency to amass long and complicated backstories, complex shows frequently engage in a self-aware play with the conventions of television storytelling and call attention to their own narrative mechanics (cf. Mittell, “Narrative Complexity” 35; Sconce). Such playfulness can be understood as a result of their recursivity and their commercial character: Since complex television series need to outperform other programming as much as they need to outdo earlier episodes from their own serial history in order to avoid becoming overly repetitive, formally self-aware storytelling can become a means by which these shows distinguish themselves from their competition (cf. Jahn-Sudmann and Kelleter 205-07, 221-22). For Mittell, this aspect of contemporary television dramas, along with their emphasis on a serialization of content across the borders of episodes and seasons, corresponds to a specific mode of watching television: Complex shows, he argues, invite viewers to engage in “an active and attentive process of comprehension to decode both the complex stories and modes of storytelling” or, in other words, call for a split or divided attention to the intricacies of both content and formal aesthetics (“Narrative Complexity” 32). Mittell suggests that this attention to the textual form of television programming represents a contemporary version of what cultural historian Neil Harris, in his monograph on nineteenth-century showman P. T. Barnum, describes as “the operational aesthetic” (Mittell, “Narrative Complexity” 35). For Harris, the operational aesthetic denotes a strategy of framing an object so that audiences are invited to engage it as a potential hoax or complex contraption whose functioning or credibility remains fascinatingly opaque, therefore demanding explanation. Approaching an

On the Formal Politics of Narratively Complex Television Series


object in terms of the operational aesthetic entails a “delight in observing process” (79), an interest in the “[o]utlines and component parts” of an object and the “role they [play] in the operation of the whole” (81). In short, the operational aesthetic courts an engagement with popular culture artifacts that tries to render their inner workings and logics transparent. 9 Complex television, Mittell argues, invites a similar interest by repeatedly producing instances of particularly masterful or spectacular storytelling. Moments like the unexpected plot twists of a show like Lost, for example, would “[call] attention to the constructed nature of the narration and [ask] [...] [viewers to] watch the process of narration as a machine rather than engaging in its diegesis” (“Narrative Complexity” 35). For Mittell, the evocation of this type of audience engagement—i.e., a mode of engagement that pays attention to formal logics, devices, and mechanisms— constitutes the central appeal of narratively complex series and something relatively unavailable, or at least not foregrounded, in other forms of television programming. Complex shows, he argues, rely heavily on such “narrative special effects” and thus invite audiences to marvel at the skillful execution and craftsmanship on display in their favorite programs (“Narrative Complexity” 35). Michael Newman and Elana Levine note how Mittell’s conception of narrative complexity partakes in “discourses of legitimation [that] make particular programs, styles, technologies, or practices the exceptions to the rule of television as a whole” and how it thereby implicitly devalues other kinds of serialized programming (like daily soaps) as aesthetically inferior (18, cf. 163-66). Mittell’s narrowly narratological use of the ‘operational aesthetic’ is arguably the centerpiece in this effort to legitimize contemporary prime-time dramas as an object worthy of scholarly attention, as it singles out a particular facet of reception, labels it as a unique feature of complex television, and then uses it as proof for the artistic merit of this type of programming. Nonetheless, Mittell is correct in pointing out that complex shows actively encourage an operational interest on the part of the viewers. However, by narrowing the concept of the operational aesthetic down to describe a fascination with “masterfully” plotted moments (which he likens to the plot twists of puzzle films like The Sixth Sense), he downplays, or at least does not explicitly call attention to, the relationship


The operational aesthetic, Harris argues, was what led audiences to flock to exhibitions of curiosities like the infamous ‘Fiji Mermaid’ exhibited by Barnum in the 1840s, whose puzzling appearance invited spectators to question its authenticity (cf. 61-89). Barnum’s mermaid turned out to be the stuffed “body of a fish [with] the head and hands of a monkey” (63). As Harris argues, rather than simply claiming the authenticity of this hoax and others, Barnum presented his exhibits as puzzling and questionable specimen whose dubious credibility allegedly even confounded scientists and other learned men—and he invited audiences to form their own opinion (after paying the entrance fee) (cf. 83-89).


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between these moments and the serial character of the shows that produce them (“Narrative Complexity” 38). Consequently, I would like to put forward a slightly different take on the concept here: I think that the operational aesthetic is not only at work in moments of formally aware storytelling but instead is a fundamental aspect of complex shows’ seriality, a mode of reception that constitutes an adequate response to the serial character. ‘Operational aesthetics’ (in the plural) in this sense are manifest in a variety of strategies and devices that serve to orient the viewer within and towards a serially unfolding narrative. Like all long-running serial narratives, complex television series have to provide clues and signposts for the orientation of audiences within a narrative that might unfold over weeks, months, or even years. In other words: Complex shows by necessity have to find ways to invite audiences to reflect on the basic operations and mechanics of their unfolding—and they do so by relying on a variety of devices and strategies that foreground the serial character of the text and that, like an operating manual, suggest a preferred way of watching television series. In what follows, in order to avoid confusion with the narrower meaning of operational aesthetic introduced by Mittell, I will refer to this ‘operational’ dimension of serial storytelling on television—the practices that aim to shape, direct, and manage the reception practices of audiences in order to bring them in line with the serial character of the text—as an aesthetics of ‘audience management.’10 By employing strategies of audience management, series try to set the terms for their reception. This effort derives from the commercial logics that undergird popular seriality: As a cultural form whose central function is the promotion of itself and its carrier media, series aim to engage their audiences repeatedly and on a regular basis. This goal informs the very fabric of popular serial texts and brings their forms into shapes that are conducive to the project of building and continually expanding a base of loyal viewers, listeners, or readers. The narrative break (or cliffhanger) between installments, which, as Roger Hagedorn notes, dates back to the serialized novels of the 1840s (cf. 7), fulfills this function on the most basic level and is hence still a staple of contemporary popular serial texts. On television, the effort to encourage a serial reception manifests itself in a variety of conventionalized strategies that alert viewers to what has happened before and 10 Television texts invite these preferred ways of watching in a manner roughly analogous to the way in which they, as Fiske puts it, “[delineate] the terrain within which meanings may be made and [proffer] some meanings more vigorously than others” (16). By employing strategies of audience management, television series invite certain modes of reception and discourage others. From this perspective, the type of engagement that Mittell associates with the operational aesthetic—the fascinated marveling at spectacular moments of storytelling—is a special case of audience management, i.e., a textual strategy that aims at provoking the reaction of ‘fascination’ and ‘marvel,’ and one that does so by playing with television conventions and undermining audience expectations.

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to what might happen next: For example, devices like the ‘previously on’ segment, which recalls important elements of the backstory at the beginning of episodes of network and cable series, provide redundant information to make individual episodes and scenes intelligible as part of ongoing plotlines. Similarly, what Kristin Thompson calls “dispersed exposition,” i.e., moments and dialogue in which events, character constellations, and conflicts relevant to the plot are thematized and reestablished, serves to render ongoing story lines accessible (65). On the other end of the spectrum, surprising plot twists and moments of heightened suspense, along with teasers for upcoming episodes at the end of episodes, serve to direct the audiences’ attention to the future of the narrative and create expectations for the events to come. Not coincidentally, Lorenz Engell argues that such moments of strategic recollection and ‘forgetting’ (i.e., the reference to yet-unknown future events) constitute the basic operations of television series (cf. 114-21)—without establishing relationships between the past and the future of the narrative, between episodes and seasons, series would be little more than strings of isolated moments.11 By using such conventional devices of orientation, television series articulate the terms and parameters of their serialization on a very basic level: If enough redundant information about past events is provided, viewers might watch episodes in isolation; if the information about past events is notably absent, viewers might be more easily tempted to rewatch earlier installments. Devices and strategies like these by necessity prompt viewers to reflect on the relationship between the parts and the whole of a series, forming the basic elements of serial storytelling on television. They are also unobtrusive: As conventionalized devices, i.e., as products of the long history of serial storytelling, their function for the coherence of serial narratives is typically taken for granted by contemporary audiences and only infrequently draws attention. Nonetheless, these devices and strategies are indices of the way in which contemporary television shows engage their viewers, of how the reception of serial texts integrates with the everyday practices of audiences. In what follows, I will focus on other, more idiosyncratic instances of audience management—i.e., on moments in which complex television series self-reflexively call attention to the medial conditions of their unfolding. The formal politics of complex shows like Fringe and Homeland, I argue, become graspable precisely in moments that foreground their own 11 Drawing on motifs from Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory, Engell claims that television series in this respect mirror the functioning of what Elena Esposito terms ‘operative memory.’ Within Esposito’s terminology, ‘remembering’ (or reestablishing) past events is a means to reduce complexity in order to keep systems functional over longer periods of time. Its opposite, ‘forgetting,’ is an operation that deprives events of a history and recognizes them as new, enabling systems to readjust and change their behavior (cf. Engell 117-19).


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mediality and also advance the plot, in scenes in which a self-reflexive display of diegetic media technologies serves a diegetic function while simultaneously directing the attention of audiences towards a preferred way of engaging with the television text. Here, these shows engage in practices of audience management that go beyond the basic function of orienting viewers within a serially unfolding narrative, as they also promote an active, media-savvy and culturally productive mode of watching television.

Medial Self-Reflexivity, Audience Productivity, and Nonlinear Reception in Fringe and Homeland In terms of narrative strategy, Fringe combines elements of the police procedural with an overarching, fantastic conspiracy plot that unfolds over the course of the whole series. The show follows the adventures of FBI agent Olivia Dunham, mentally unstable scientist Walter Bishop, and Walter’s son Peter, who are recruited into the service of a special branch of the Department of Homeland Security and tasked with the investigation of a series of paranormal occurrences. Most episodes are relatively self-contained, as the protagonists investigate a new ‘fringe event’ every week. Right from the start, however, the individual cases turn out to be mysteriously connected to a larger, world-threatening scheme secretly carried out by a group of rogue scientists. As the series progresses, the protagonists manage to uncover more and more details about this hidden plan (while more and more episodes are dedicated to the development of this central story arc), but the truth always remains elusive and the individual cases never quite add up to a coherent overall design. Fringe’s overarching narrative here adheres to what scholars like Michael Barkun or Mark Fenster describe as the organizational logic of the conspiracy narrative, and it follows an openended trajectory that moves “ineluctably toward closure while continually forestalling it” (Fenster 143, cf. 143-50; cf. also Barkun 54, 101-02). Fringe derives much of its appeal from this continuous refusal to solve the central, underlying conflict between its protagonists and the hidden forces opposing them. It develops it as a “central narrative enigma” designed to foster audience speculation (Sconce 107; cf. Mittell, “Narrative Complexity” 38; Brinker). Within the narrative of the show, one of the factions conspiring against the rightful order of things are the so-called Observers, a group of mysterious bald men in dark business suits and hats who appear at the scene of paranormal events. Starting with a one-second long appearance in Fringe’s pilot, the Observers reliably turn up in each episode, but are usually barely noticeable—in the background of the mise-en-scène, for example, or briefly walking in or out of the frame during crowd scenes and establishing shots. In “The Arrival,” the fourth episode of the series, the

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show acknowledges the omnipresence of these mysterious figures for the first time, as their actions become entangled with a case investigated by the protagonists. Significantly, the scene in which this happens is medially selfreflexive: At the beginning of the second act, Olivia notices the presence of an Observer on two photos taken years apart at different crime scenes and alerts her colleague Peter, along with the audience, to the fact that this could not be a coincidence. Closely studying one of the photographic prints in question—a process which the camera presents to us by framing the photo in extreme close-up, slowly zooming in on it and thereby magnifying the Observer standing in the background of the image—Olivia recalls another appearance of the figure and exclaims: “I don’t believe it! [...] Look! [...] [It’s] [h]im, remember?” She then uses her computer to access another image of the Observer from the FBI database and presents it to Peter, while the camera slowly zooms in on this second photo (which depicts a scene from the second episode of the show), magnifying the figure until the individual pixels of her monitor become visible. This scene is medially self-reflexive in the sense that Shane Denson, in a different context, explains: “It directs attention towards the processes of medial construction at the same time that it serves a constructive medial purpose” (547-48).12 By zooming in on images of the Observer, the show demonstrates some of the functionalities of the analogue and digital imagining technologies that figure centrally in its reception, and it does so in order to recall plot-relevant elements from its past episodes. As a result, this scene not only advances Fringe’s central story line about Olivia and Peter’s investigation of the Observers and their role in the larger scheme of paranormal events, it also frames the preceding episodes as a rich reservoir of potentially relevant signs that could yield further information about the show’s mysteries and invites viewers to dedicate their time and attention to a computer-assisted close reading of the series. Fringe here demonstrates a preferred way of watching television and presents Olivia’s detective work (i.e., her attention to detail, her trained memory, as well as her access to digital databases) as a model for the viewers to imitate. As it turns out, dedicated Fringe viewers needed little convincing to engage in practices of interpretation that mirror those demonstrated by Agent Dunham in the scene discussed above. On Fringepedia, a wiki dedicated to the show, attentive users soon started to discuss the significance of the Observers and eventually documented each of their appearances in meticulous detail (cf. “Observer Appearance”). By the end of the show’s 12 In his essay on “Narrative Complexity,” Mittell references a similar medially selfreflexive moment from Lost as an example for an operational reflexivity that would invite viewers “to care about the storyworld while simultaneously appreciating its construction” (35). While I think that the same is true for this instance of medial self-reflexivity in Fringe, I would argue that scenes like these do more than just invite such a formal interest in matters of storytelling—they also suggest a preferred way of watching television.


Felix Brinker

fourth season, intrepid Fringepedia users had spotted all Observers in the preceding eighty-seven episodes—an impressive feat, given the blink-andyou’ll-miss-it character of most of their appearances.13 In doing so, these committed viewers engaged in the practices of what Jason Mittell calls ‘forensic fandom,’ i.e., an active mode of spectatorship that entails a heightened attention to detail and the readiness to rewatch, take apart, and analyze episodes down to the level of individual frames (cf. Mittell, “Sites”; Mittell, “Forensic”). Fringe and its fans here worked together to promote hyperattentive and textually productive viewing practices as a model of reception adequate to the show, but that is not all: By alerting dedicated viewers to the hidden presence of the Observers, and by encouraging them to share their findings online, the show managed to enroll their cultural and textual production for the purpose of promoting the show, effectively outsourcing a part of its online marketing to active audience members who engaged in the time-consuming creation of content, and who did so unpaid. Fringe’s formal politics here are manifest in the way in which it made its audience work for the benefits of its own continued serial proliferation and accessibility, in how the show transformed the “knowledgeable consumption of culture [...] into excess productive activities that are pleasurably embraced” by those who perform them (Terranova 78). By openly encouraging the creation of such fan-produced online paratexts, the show drafted what Tiziana Terranova terms “free labour”—unpaid and voluntarily given cultural work that provides and manages ‘content’ and that constitutes “an important, yet unacknowledged, source of value in advanced capitalist societies”—into the service of the show’s promotion (73, cf. 73-94). The operational self-reflexivity on display in “The Arrival” served to demonstrate the show’s openness to forensic fan practices to the viewers and encouraged user activity on Fringepedia—and thereby directed their attention towards an economically productive way of engaging with the show. Interestingly, more than a year after the airing of “The Arrival,” Fringe restaged the introduction of the Observers and expanded on their role within the series’ mythology during the second season episode “August.” In two scenes that closely mirror the one discussed above, “August” again has Olivia and Peter study prerecorded media images of Observer appearances and compare them to each other. This time, however, the show mimics the practices of dedicated Fringepedia users even more explicitly, as the characters (during the first scene) study video footage captured by a surveillance camera. As the camera moves in closer to the screen 13 Fringe’s fifth and final season takes place in a future world occupied by the Observers (whose earlier exemplars turned out to be an advance troop sent back in time to test the waters for invasion). Since every episode from this season features Observers in speaking roles, Fringepedia users stopped cataloging their appearances after the fourth season finale.

On the Formal Politics of Narratively Complex Television Series


displaying the footage, Olivia asks her assistant Astrid to “zoom in” as well as to “freeze” the moving images, effectively demonstrating a particular use of digital video technologies that is also a prerequisite to spot the multiple appearances of the Observers hidden throughout Fringe’s episodes. The series here alerts its audiences to the possibilities of a nonlinear mode of reception, demonstrating how watching episodes out of the initial order and closely reading key scenes might yield insights into the show’s mysteries. Fittingly, when the episode continues its discussion of the Observer’s appearances a few minutes later, lab technician Brandon muses that these enigmatic visitors (who have just been revealed as existing outside of “the human perception of time”) understand history by observing it not in a linear fashion but “all at once.” The Observers, he speculates, observe time itself, and only subsequently show up at the most significant events in order to study them more closely (cf. “August”). The model of reception advocated in these scenes is one characterized by a similar nonlinearity—a nonlinearity made possible by similar time-shifting devices like TiVo, content portals like iTunes, and other digital video technologies at the disposal of contemporary viewers.14 As I will show in what follows, similar mechanisms of audience management are also employed by Homeland. Compared with Fringe’s science-fictional conspiracy plots, Showtime’s Homeland offers a more realist engagement with political issues; it also forgoes episodic closure almost entirely in favor of ongoing story lines. The show follows CIA analyst Carrie Mathison, who comes to suspect that recently returned war hero Nicholas Brody has been turned into an al-Qaeda agent during his time as a POW—a suspicion that becomes more pressing as further information about an impeding terrorist attack on American soil emerges over the course of the first season. Brody’s allegiances are early on set up as mysterious and unclear, as Mathison uncovers suspicious behavior on his part: In the pilot episode alone, Brody, who is being monitored via elaborate surveillance equipment illegally installed in his family’s home, is soon caught lying to his wife, receives mysterious phone calls, seems to communicate coded messages through hand signs whenever he appears publicly, and misrepresents facts about his captivity in his debriefing with the CIA. For most of the series’s first two seasons, Brody is Homeland’s central narrative enigma, as the series keeps his allegiances unclear and vague even after his deeper ties with al-Qaeda are revealed towards the end of the first season. Homeland further obscures Brody’s concrete motiva14 Fringe openly encourages such a nonlinear reception on other levels of storytelling as well—in its fourth season, the show even bases the plots of two episodes on the principle of nonlinear narration. The episode “Nothing As It Seems” proceeds from the same premise as the first-season episode “The Transformation” but has the plot play out differently (producing interesting correspondences to the earlier episode); “Letters of Transit” functions as an extended prolepsis, as it takes place entirely in the near-future setting of the fifth and final season, foreshadowing events to come.


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tions and goals behind several conflicting private and public personae: Brody’s image as a public figure that appears on national television not only conflicts with his role as a father and husband who seems to be uneasy about his future, but both aspects of the character stand in an additional contrast to his increasingly puzzling behavior that is revealed through Mathison’s surveillance cameras and microphones. By doing so, Homeland, in its first season in particular, manages to extract dramatic potential from its setting in the extensively mediatized world of our present. In keeping with this thematic interest, Homeland offers several instances of medial self-reflexivity. One example can be found in “Blind Spot,” the series’s fifth episode, in which Mathison and her colleague Saul interrogate a recently apprehended terrorist with the help of Brody. In the second half of the episode, the terrorist unexpectedly kills himself by slitting his wrists with a razor blade of uncertain origin. This turn of events frames Saul as a possible accomplice in the suicide, as an earlier scene showed him in close physical contact with the prisoner. However, it is only after the suicide that this scene becomes doubly significant: Saul shook the terrorist’s hand before starting his interrogation—could he have slipped the blade to him? By raising this question, the episode invites its viewers to rewind their time-shifting devices and to take a closer look at the scenes involving the prisoner and his captors. Yet even closer scrutiny cannot deliver answers here, as the camera frames Saul’s handshake with the prisoner too ambiguously. Interestingly, the interrogation scene as a whole already calls attention to the problem of forced perspective: In it, Carrie and Brody monitor Saul’s interview of the prisoner with the help of a diegetic surveillance camera from an adjoining room. The video feed, played back in black-and-white on a flatscreen monitor, limits their view of the action next door by showing the room only from a single, static angle. The nondiegetic camera that frames Saul’s handshake with the prisoner for the viewers also presents it conspicuously but ambiguously in close-up, from a similar point of view. As the scene continues, the episode cuts back and forth between shots of Saul’s interaction with the prisoner, shots of Carrie and Brody next door, and shots of the surveillance footage on the video screen, presenting multiple views of the same action. In hindsight, however, all of these different perspectives fail to shed light on the suicide of the prisoner, even if closely scrutinized by attentive viewers—what ‘really’ happens remains in the episode’s titular blind spot. Homeland here presents surveillance technology both as a transparent window into the lives of others and as an electronically mediated vision whose limited viewpoint blocks out relevant information, thereby addressing the problematics of mediated experience in a manner that reflects the

On the Formal Politics of Narratively Complex Television Series


show’s broader thematic engagement with the theme of surveillance.15 However, what sets this scene apart from the series’s other, more overt engagements with the subject is the fact that it achieves its significance only retrospectively: Like Fringe, Homeland here courts the nonlinear reception practices made technically feasible by digital video and invites viewers to rewind and scan the television image for clues, but it refuses to yield any insights. Instead, the show points the search for answers to the uncertain future of the narrative, encouraging continued reception of the show. Consequently, the unsolved case of the prisoner’s suicide is taken up again the following episode, in which the main characters are themselves interrogated with the assistance of a polygraph—again without results. Homeland’s instances of operational self-reflexivity function in the context of a model of serialization to which Fringe also subscribes: the model of the American television season, with regular broadcasts of one new episode per week and monthslong breaks between seasons. 16 Following this rhythm of weekly publications of new installments, both network and cable television programming have to capture the attention of their viewers on a regular basis and maintain the hold over it across the time gaps between individual episodes. To achieve this goal, both Homeland and Fringe rely strongly on the conventionalized devices of serial orientation mentioned earlier (dispersed exposition, ‘previously on’ segments, cliffhangers, etc.), but the medially self-reflexive scenes discussed here serve a similar function: They direct the viewers’ attention to other installments in the past or future of the series and contribute to the creation of coherence across the temporal gaps that characterize the initial reception of television series. For example, “Marine One,” the first season finale, opens with the footage of a self-recorded ‘suicide tape’ made by Brody, who will only nar15 “Grace,” the first season’s second episode, for example, reveals that the extensive surveillance equipment installed in the Brody family residence does not cover the garage—the place in which Brody performs his daily morning prayer, a practice that would identify him as a Muslim convert to the CIA agents monitoring him. The first few episodes of the show’s first season furthermore repeatedly present Agent Mathison in front of surveillance screens that also refuse to yield any relevant insights into Brody’s terrorist activities. 16 While the rhythms of serialization are similar for both series, it should be noted that the business models of network and cable television are quite different. Network series are intermediaries in the process of selling audiences to advertisers, while cable stations like Showtime are in the business of selling content directly to audiences and become profitable through returns from subscription fees and ancillary markets. These different business models correspond to somewhat different emphases in serial storytelling: Homeland can rely exclusively on ongoing plotlines because its ratings do not translate directly into profits (cf. Kelleter, “Serien”). Fringe’s episodes, on the other hand, typically provide more closure in order to allow casual viewers to follow the program without paying as much attention to ongoing story lines.


Felix Brinker

rowly avoid killing himself in an act of terrorism later. In this episode, Brody records the video for propaganda purposes, a scene that serves primarily to increase the dramatic stakes for the finale. In the second season of the show, however, the clip resurfaces several times, each time taking on a different function within the storyworld—ranging from evidence for Brody’s implication in a terrorist plot in the second season premiere to a means to force him into cooperation with the CIA in the episode “Q&A” and to an eventual existence as a news item on national television (cf. Mittell, “Ends”). The visual style of the clip, which, as Mittell notes, is “marked as ‘authentic’ [...] [by] the visible viewfinder symbols, [...] blackand-white image, and direct address to the camera,” clearly sets it apart from the normal look of the series and foregrounds its character as an artifact of the digital age, ready to be circulated without loss of quality (“Ends”)—a crucial factor for the video’s circulation within the diegesis, but also a reminder of Homeland’s own location within a digitalized media environment. By repeatedly reusing this footage during season 2, Homeland cleverly combines the recapitulation of crucial backstory with the further development of the plot, thus reducing the complexity of its otherwise sprawling narrative. At the same time, the multiple recontextualizations of the suicide tape reward loyal viewers who are familiar with the clip’s diegetic history with an added layer of significance: Homeland here foregrounds its ‘rewatchability,’ i.e., its capability to sustain repeated viewings and a nonlinear consumption outside of the context of the regular television schedule. Medially self-reflexive scenes like these point us to the fact that convergence-era television shows are no longer ephemeral artifacts circulating only via public broadcast and that their distribution through digital media gives rise to new reception practices (cf. Kelleter, “Serien”). Complex shows like Homeland and Fringe therefore encourage both a steady and a regular reception, and one that pays attention to detail and is ready go back and forth between installments. They promote a mode of watching television that is best accommodated by ‘binge viewing practices,’ i.e., an “uninterrupted, successive viewing of numerous episodes until the limits of bodily resilience” (“das unterbrechungslose Anschauen zahlreicher Episoden hintereinander bis an die Grenzen der körperlichen Belastbarkeit”; Kelleter, “Serien”).

Conclusion What does watching television look like in the age of media convergence? What is the political significance of the ways in which narratively complex television series like Homeland or Fringe attempt to exert control over the reception practices of their audiences, and what is the function of these series within the orders of social life? Like all popular serial narratives,

On the Formal Politics of Narratively Complex Television Series


television series court the active participation and ongoing engagement of their audiences as part of a business model that banks on the viewers’ willingness to return to the text on a regular basis. Complex shows increase the degree of audiences’ involvement and articulate demands for particularly time-consuming and cognitively challenging reception practices that entail nonlinear reception practices and a back-and-forth movement between scenes and episodes, a heightened attention to detail, as well as the consultation—and, at times, the creation—of paratextual materials pertaining to the television text. Addressing these trends, Frank Kelleter argues that the cognitive skills addressed by narratively complex shows resemble those needed in the professional working environments of our present—from “network thinking, situational feedback, [and] dispersed processing of information [to] multitasking and [...] the readiness to no longer differentiate between work and leisure” (“Netzwerkdenken, situative Rückkopplung, verteilte Informationsabwicklung, Multitasking und nicht zuletzt die Bereitschaft, zwischen Arbeit und Freizeit nicht mehr zu unterscheiden”; “Serien”). Watching complex television series might therefore more and more look and feel like work, in particular like the ‘immaterial labor’ that Italian philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato identifies as central for the computerized routines of post-Fordist capitalism and that consists chiefly of the production, handling, and communication of information (cf. 13637). The formal politics of narratively complex programming, then, become manifest in the ways in which they encourage their audiences to dedicate their time and attention to following a program—or, in other other words, in how they manage to fuel their own serial unfolding by capitalizing on the receptive work of viewers. The economic interests that inform narratively complex television series as examples of an unashamedly commercial art form thus not only bear on the meanings and ideological contents of these programs but also impact directly on the everyday reception practices of audiences—and on the way in which they integrate watching television into their daily routines. In this respect, the political agency of complex shows, as I have shown, manifests itself predominantly on the level of form, in the devices and mechanisms of serial storytelling that articulate demands for the active reception practices mentioned above and that suggest these practices as preferred ways of watching television. While always in play, these demands are put on display particularly in moments of medial self-reflexivity—in these instances, complex shows openly thematize their own serial operations and, by doing so, call attention to the reception practices that form the basis for the profitability of such programming within a digitalized and networked media landscape. The scenes from Homeland and Fringe discussed in this article demonstrate complex shows’ tendency to reflect on their own logics and mechanisms of involvement, and they also point us to the fact that the formal politics of contemporary television do not occur behind the backs of easily duped viewers. If the formal politics of complex shows are


Felix Brinker

an endeavor to bind audiences’ attention and productivity over longer periods of time, then this endeavor occurs very much in view of these audiences—who might, in fact, enjoy dedicating their time and work to following and discussing their favorite programs. In any case, in order to come to terms with the political significance of complex television in general, its logics of serial engagement and the devices and strategies it employs to manage this engagement (which are inextricably intertwined with thematic negotiations and representations of political subject matters) need to be taken into account.

Works Cited Adorno, Theodor W. “Free Time.” The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Ed. J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 2001. 187-97. Print. “The Arrival.” Dir. Paul Edwards. Fringe. Perf. Anna Torv, John Noble, Joshua Jackson, Michael Cerveris, and Michael Kelly. Fox. 30 Sep. 2008. Television. “August.” Dir. Dennis Smith. Fringe. Perf. Anna Torv, John Noble, Joshua Jackson, Peter Woodward, and Jennifer Missoni. Fox. 19 Nov. 2009. Television. Barkun, Michael. A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkeley: U of California P, 2013. Print. “Blind Spot.” Dir. Clark Johnson. Homeland. Perf. Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin, James Rebhorn, and Waleed Zuaiter. Showtime. 30 Oct. 2011. Television. Brinker, Felix. “Hidden Agendas, Endless Investigations, and the Dynamics of Complexity: The Conspiratorial Mode of Storytelling in Contemporary American Television Series.” aspeers 5 (2012): 87-109. Print. Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983. Print. Denson, Shane. “Marvel Comics’ Frankenstein: A Case Study in the Media of Serial Figures.” Amerikastudien/American Studies 56.4 (2011): 531-53. Print. Dzialo, Chris. “When Balance Goes Bad: How Battlestar Galactica Says Everything and Nothing.” Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica. Ed. Tiffany Potter and C. W. Marshall. New York: Continuum, 2008. 171-84. Print. Edwards, Jason. “The Materialism of Historical Materialism.” New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. 281-98. Print. Engell, Lorenz. “Erinnern/Vergessen: Serien als operatives Gedächtnis des Fernsehens.” Serielle Formen: Von den frühen Film-Serials zu aktuellen Quality-TV- und Online-Serien. Ed. Robert Blanchet et al. Marburg: Schüren, 2011. 115-32. Print. Fenster, Mark. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008. Print. Fiske, John. Television Culture. 1987. London: Routledge, 1992. Print. Grainge, Paul. Brand Hollywood: Selling Entertainment in a Global Media Age. London: Routledge, 2008. Print. Hagedorn, Roger. “Technology and Economic Exploitation: The Serial as a Form of Narrative Presentation.” Wide Angle 10.4 (1988): 4-12. Print.

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Hantke, Steffen. “‘We Are of Peace, Always’: ABC’s Remake of V, Alien Invasion Television, and American Paranoia after Bush.” AAA: Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 35.2 (2010): 143-63. Print. Harris, Neil. Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981. Print. Hofstadter, Richard. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. New York: Knopf, 1965. 3-40. Print. Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. 94-136. Print. Jahn-Sudmann, Andreas, and Frank Kelleter. “Die Dynamik serieller Überbietung: Amerikanische Fernsehserien und das Konzept des Quality-TV.” Kelleter, Populäre Serialität 205-24. Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006. Print. Kelleter, Frank. “Populäre Serialität: Eine Einführung.” Introduction. Kelleter, Populäre Serialität 11-46. ---, ed. Populäre Serialität: Narration – Evolution – Distinktion: Zum seriellen Erzählen seit dem 19. Jahrhundert. Bielefeld: transcript, 2012. Print. ---. “Serien als Stresstest.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 4 Feb. 2012: 31. Print. Kelleter, Frank, and Daniel Stein. “Autorisierungspraktiken seriellen Erzählens: Zur Gattungsentwicklung von Superheldencomics.” Kelleter, Populäre Serialität 259-90. Kellner, Douglas. “The X-Files and Conspiracy: A Diagnostic Critique.” Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America. Ed. Peter Knight. New York: New York UP, 2002. 205-32. Print. Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print. Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Immaterial Labor.” Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics. Ed. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt. Trans. Maurizia Boscagli et al. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. 132-46. Print. Lotz, Amanda D. The Television Will Be Revolutionized. New York: New York UP, 2007. Print. Maase, Kaspar. Was macht Populärkultur politisch? Wiesbaden: VS, 2010. Print. “Marine One.” Dir. Michael Cuesta. Homeland. Perf. Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Chalk, and Navid Negahban. Showtime. 18 Dec. 2011. Television. Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Ben Fowkes. Vol. 1. London: Penguin, 1976. Print. Mayer, Ruth. Serial Fu Manchu: The Chinese Supervillain and the Spread of Yellow Peril Ideology. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2014. Print. Mittell, Jason. “The Ends of Serial Criticism.” Just TV. N.p., 13 Jun. 2013. Web. 8 Mar. 2014. ---. “Forensic Fandom and the Drillable Text.” Spreadable Media. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2014. ---. “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” Velvet Light Trap 58 (2006): 29-40. Print. ---. “Orienting Paratexts.” Complex TV. MediaCommons, 20 Apr. 2012. Web. 8 Mar. 2014. ---. “Sites of Participation: Wiki Fandom and the Case of Lostpedia.” Transformative Works and Cultures 3 (2009): n. pag. Web. 8 Mar. 2014.


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---. Television and American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print. Newman, Michael Z., and Elana Levine. Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print. “The Observer.” Fringepedia. N.p., 6 July 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2014. “Observer Appearance.” Fringepedia. N.p., 28 May 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2014. “Pilot.” Dir. Alex Graves. Fringe. Perf. Anna Torv, John Noble, Joshua Jackson, Lance Reddick, and Jasika Nicole. Fox. 9 Sep. 2008. Television. “Pilot.” Dir. Michael Cuesta. Homeland. Perf. Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Morena Baccarin, David Harewood, and Diego Klattenhoff. Showtime. 2 Oct. 2011. Television. Raunig, Gerald. A Thousand Machines: A Concise Philosophy of the Machine as Social Movement. Trans. Aileen Derieg. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2010. Print. Ravizza, Eleonora. “The Politics of Nostalgia: Gender Representation in Mad Men.” Poetics of Politics: Textuality and Social Relevance in Contemporary American Literature and Culture. Leipzig. 21 June 2013. Presentation. Sconce, Jeffrey. “What If? Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition. Ed. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. 93-112. Print. Terranova, Tiziana. Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age. London: Pluto, 2004. Print. Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in Film and Television. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003. Print.


The Politics of Melodrama: Nostalgia, Performance, and Gender Roles in Revolutionary Road Abstract: This article will examine the 2008 film Revolutionary Road as an example of a critical representation of the Fifties in contemporary popular culture. Unlike many previous texts, the film distances itself from a more typically nostalgic portrayal and instead complicates gender ideology through the mode of melodrama, the centrality of performances, and an interest in bodies and mental instability. By looking at how the gender politics of the film are informed by its self-awareness as melodrama, I argue that its take on Fifties gender ideology is nonetheless at times complicated by its attempt to stay faithful to the portrayal of the past from a 1950s perspective.

Introduction Revolutionary Road is an example of a rediscovered interest that American popular culture has developed for the Fifties following the turn of the millennium. Distancing themselves from purely nostalgic depictions of the past, texts like The Hours (2002), Far from Heaven (2002), A Single Man (2009), and the TV series Mad Men (2007-), among others, are interested in more complex representations of the past that leave room for a critical approach towards Fifties politics and ideologies. The Fifties 1 have been so often recreated that, by now, numerous different versions of the decade as a cultural construct exist in the popular imagination. In fact, in all of these contemporary texts, a certain awareness of the history of nostalgia for the Fifties is present, which allows for a consciously fictional and highly artificial representation of the decade, a process I refer to as self-reflexive nostalgia. Recent texts distance themselves from the nostalgic construct created by many 1950s sitcoms (e.g., Father Knows Best [1954-60] and Leave It to Beaver [1957-63]) and perpetuated by the TV show Happy Days (1974-84) and by films like American Graffiti (1973). Employing these older texts as a starting point for their representation, contemporary texts, by means of historical distance, are able to critically engage with the Fifties—and particularly its gender politics—in a meaningful way, complicating their portrayal through the criticism of Fifties ideology. In this article, I argue that the mode of melodrama fuels contradictions in Revolutionary Road’s engagement with Fifties ideology, particularly in 1

In this article, I differentiate between the ‘1950s’ as the chronological decade and the ‘Fifties’ as the cultural construct that refers to the period spanning from the postwar period to the Kennedy assassination in 1963.

Eleonora Ravizza


terms of gender politics, fluctuating between apparent criticism and nostalgic reminiscence. I will first introduce the mode of melodrama, its role in the 1950s, and which of its aspects are at work in the film. Then, I will focus on the role of performances and how they, together with a melodramatic style of acting, complicate the representation of Fifties gender roles. Finally, I will examine two aspects—bodies and mental illness—that illustrate particularly well how the film criticizes Fifties ideology, though its gender representation is still, at times, undermined by its nostalgic politics.

Melodrama and Revolutionary Road Based on the Richard Yates novel and directed by Sam Mendes, Revolutionary Road is set in 1955 and centers around Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), a young couple living in the Connecticut suburbs with their two small children. The couple is dissatisfied with their suburban existence and has been unhappy for a while. Frank works as a salesman, cannot stand his job, and has a brief affair with a secretary, Maureen (Zoe Kazan); after studying to become an actress, April is now a suburban housewife and mother, much to her dismay. In an attempt to escape their numb suburban existence, April suggests that the whole family move to Paris. Their friends Shep (David Harbour) and Milly Campbell (Kathryn Hahn) seem quite surprised and do not entirely understand the idea. John Givings (Michael Shannon), the son of the Wheelers’ realtor (Kathy Bates), who is visiting while being treated at a psychiatric facility, is the only one who approves of the Wheelers’ plan and encourages the couple to leave the suburbs. After a brief period of apparent bliss, during which the idea of moving to Europe seems to be the solution to all of their marital problems, April gets pregnant. April, who is crushed by the failure of their plan, has a one-night stand with Shep, who has been in love with her for a long time. Finally, desperate to leave for Paris anyway, she performs an abortive procedure at home and ultimately dies because of its complications.2 Though quite faithful to the book in terms of plot and character developments, the movie adaptation is noticeably more melodramatic, and at times nostalgic, in its representation of the Fifties. Whereas Yates’s novel is considered a “masterpiece of realist fiction” (Hornaday), the film distances itself considerably from a ‘realist’ approach to its original material. 3 The film relies on the cultural associations attached to realism, with its more 2

The film sees the two main actors from Titanic (1997), as well as Kathy Bates, reunited, intertextually providing the audience with a familiar couple to identify with and to root for. In addition, the implicit reference to Titanic, also a melodrama, provides the audience with a certain amount of genre expectations when they watch Revolutionary Road, which, in fact, echoes Titanic’s tragic ending (he dies in Titanic, whereas here, she is the one who dies).

The Politics of Melodrama


masculine-connoted set of values, and melodrama, which is linked to domesticity, emotionality, and sentimentality (cf. Byars 9; Gledhill 132-33). By shifting its focus towards melodrama, Revolutionary Road gives more space to April’s perspective in comparison to the source material. In fact, while the novel is a third-person narration decisively focalized through Frank, the film alternates its perspective between Frank and April, privileging one or the other at different times. For example, the final act of the film—the most melodramatic—coincides with a focus on April as her tragedy unfolds. In terms of the representation of Fifties politics, the film does not stray too much from the book, staying true to how certain topics are treated—abortion in particular. Namely, instead of updating the text to contemporary sensibilities about abortion, the film mostly talks around the issue, having the characters refer to abortion as “it [being] done” and mention that “there are things [they] can do,” reflecting a Fifties approach to the topic.4 In part attributable to the use of melodrama, this approach indicates an almost nostalgic appeal for a time where things were not talked about, attempting to recreate the Fifties as seen in Hollywood films from that time—including their taboos—rather than any realistic reconstruction of the past. As as a genre, melodrama tends to focus on issues of gender and morality, often making ideology visible through genre conventions. Overlapping with the popular genre terms of ‘women’s pictures’ or ‘weepies’ (cf. Cook 60), Hollywood melodrama of the 1950s is usually centered around a main female character and “concerned with gender-identity formation and its relationship to family structure” (Byars 6). Catering to a predominantly female public by focusing on stories of tragic heroines, the family (or domestic) melodrama often features a woman sacrificing her own happiness for another person (Kleinhans 201). Traditional melodrama focuses on the individual and on her dealing with everyday situations and giving them meaning, and it eventually leads to the “dramatic revelation of moral and emotional truths” (Williams 42; cf. also Poole and Saal 2; Byars 8). The genre of Hollywood melodrama, with films like An Affair to Remember (1957) and A Summer Place (1959), often focuses on complicated romances—informed by issues of class and topoi like alcoholism or illness— and generally deals with emotional and physical distress.5 3

4 5

It is not my intention to delve into a discussion about realism. With ‘realism’ in this article, I merely refer to the cinematic mode/genre in opposition to melodrama that privileges a “concern with observation and depiction of character psychology, situations and events” (Hallam and Marshment 6). The word ‘abortion’ is uttered twice in these conversations. However, the couple discusses the issue at length before explicitly saying the word, mirroring fictional representations from that time. For example, in An Affair to Remember, Terry (Deborah Kerr) is unable to meet Nickie (Cary Grant) on top of the Empire State Building as they had planned because she is in a car accident. Uncertain if she will ever be able to walk again,


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Rather than understanding melodrama as a genre, I agree with the definition of melodrama as a “mode of cultural production” at the confluence of “hyperbolic aesthetics and moralistic vision” (Poole and Saal 2), which is characterized by the use of a kind of mise-en-scène and of narrative structures that enable the films to portray the (gender) ideologies of the time as well as to comment on them. In melodrama, the focus on the construction of the scenes, the visual choices (colors, design, etc.), as well as the way actors move and talk is significant because everything the audience needs to know is visible on the surface of things. In fact, melodrama is also known as the mode of excess, as it “exploits excessive uses of representational conventions to express [...] that which language alone is incapable of expressing” (Byars 9). This process is also reflected in the style of acting typical of melodrama, which, since its beginnings on the stage, has maintained some theatrical gestures and overly emotional expressions all through the 1950s, making sure the audience can see (and feel) what the characters are feeling (Hallam and Marshment 6). At its best, melodrama thrives on the contradiction between “conformism to formulaic conventions and conservative imperatives on the one hand, and a vivacious impulse towards affect and excess on the other, which perpetually subverts and transcends the generic rules and conventions that it is embedded in” (Poole and Saal 4). Though not strictly a melodrama in the traditional sense, Revolutionary Road displays a number of characteristics that are in line with a melodramatic mode of representation. Firstly, though screen time is almost equally divided between the two main characters, the film has at its center the representation of April as the melodramatic heroine. However, instead of committing an act of moral sacrifice that will be rewarded by a happy ending (as is the case with Terry in An Affair to Remember), April’s final act is not about morality, but it is rather framed as a selfish choice: She says she cannot have another child, cannot keep living in the suburbs, and chooses to risk her life in order to escape it. Although she is punished for it, in the ideological tradition of female characters who do not fit the patriarchal order, the film comments on its own melodramatic function by showing April’s suffering and the hypocrisy of suburban life. Additionally, “[l]ike all great heroines in melodrama, April Wheeler suffers from the generic assumption that she is somehow special and different” (Nicholls 329), and this assumption extends to Frank as well, as he is the man she chose to be with. Despite living in the suburbs, Frank and April think they she does not contact him, fearing he might feel compelled to keep his promise to marry her anyway, though she knows he does not have the financial means to do so. By keeping what happened a secret, Terry lets him believe she broke his heart and sacrifices their happiness for what she considers the morally right thing to do. Both the accident and Terry’s choice to do the right thing fulfill their melodramatic function and, after Nickie realizes what has happened, ultimately result in the couple finally reuniting in the film’s happy ending.

The Politics of Melodrama


are different than the people around them—“special and superior to the whole thing,” as April reiterates—and they are treated as such by friends and neighbors. However, they do not seem to do anything that is particularly special to distinguish themselves, except deciding to move to Paris, which they will not go through with. Revolutionary Road also offers many moments of melodramatic plot twists, from April becoming pregnant and Frank getting a job offer shortly before they are set to leave for Paris to Frank accidentally finding the rubber tube April bought to perform the abortion, which leads to one of their final (and most heated) arguments. The unexpected pregnancy, in particular, is possibly the most melodramatic of the film’s narrative choices, almost reminiscent of a soap opera twist. In melodrama, as Thomas Elsaesser characterizes it, “[t]he world is closed, and the characters are acted upon” (79); the film even comments on the plot function of the pregnancy through Frank’s colleague, pointing out how their plan has been “[f]oiled by faulty contraception.” The pregnancy, in fact, serves as the catalyst to abandon the Paris plan, which is the only major decision Frank and April made so far. They also discuss how April being pregnant with their first child was “[t]he only reason [they] moved out here,” pointing at another major decision they made because of how events conspired.6 The film is also quite aware of its position on the melodramatic spectrum, since it openly mentions this style in two different occasions. Firstly, Frank refers to April’s failed career as an actress as a “little piece of soap opera” (a genre considered the pejorative form of melodrama), and later, when talking about the possibility of aborting the pregnancy, April insists that “it’s perfectly safe” if done in time and that Frank is “being melodramatic about this whole thing.” In both cases, the comparison to the melodramatic mode occurs in a quite heated argument between the couple, which self-referentially draws further attention to the process. Additionally, both times, the term is negatively connoted, equated with being emotional as well as with being ‘feminine.’ Visually, Revolutionary Road purposefully steers clear of the alluring and nostalgia-inducing images of the Fifties that characterize a number of other texts,7 which, in line with the focus of melodrama on the mise-enscène, aesthetically reflects the miserable conditions of the Wheelers. The film’s look is quite harsh, devoid of color, and visually unappealing: Everything from the house to the furniture and the clothes is a variation of beige, gray, white, and light blue. Even in a scene set at the beach in the middle of 6 7

As I will come back to in the final section of the article, the fact that it is a pregnancy that dooms Frank and April negatively connotes the female body as the cause of their undoing. For a reading of a more visually nostalgic text, which is nonetheless aware of its construction of nostalgia, cf. my analysis of the TV series Mad Men in “‘We Don’t Want Life to Look Difficult, Do We?’: Representations of the Fifties and Self-Reflexive Nostalgia in Mad Men” (Ravizza).


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summer, with Frank and April wearing sunglasses, there is no sun to be seen, no shadows or warm colors, but only various shades of beige. Most scenes are set inside, in the house or at Frank’s office, giving the film a sense of oppressive claustrophobia as well. The couple’s more emotionally troubling weeks also coincide with particularly hot weather, intensifying their emotional response and increasing the sense of dread for the audience. Even the score, characterized by a “pounding monotony” (Dargis), is in keeping with the foreshadowing of their eventual undoing. Overall, the film recreates a version of suburbia that is closer to the bleak desperation of the 1999 film American Beauty (also directed by Mendes) than to the softly lit Technicolor images typical of 1950s melodrama. The colorless representation of the Wheelers’ life serves as a strong visual cue for their unhappiness in the suburbs. Aside from three brief flashbacks,8 only one long sequence differentiates itself visually from the rest of the film, and it coincides with the period following Frank and April’s decision to move to Paris. A montage of images shows Frank hurrying home from work, kissing his wife, and hugging his children on the front lawn while April prepares documents for the trip, both of them happy and smiling: For the first time in the film, they are the picture-perfect 1950s suburban family. By including these moments, the film shows its awareness of the nostalgic potential of the Fifties, which heightens even more the contrast with the rest of the film, but it also presents them merely as a fantasy. The sequence, mirroring the couple’s temporary happiness, is so over the top that it functions as a clear omen of the tragic end. In one of the staples of 1950s melodrama, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), Cary (Jane Wyman), a widow who starts a relationship with her much younger gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson), is shunned by the suburban society around her and by her grown children. The film utilizes both diegetic and extradiegetic strategies to show Cary’s feelings and to elicit the spectator’s emotions as well. For example, a clear distinction in lighting style is visible between the scenes that see Cary and Ron together (softer light, warmer colors) and the scenes where Cary is shown at home—the coldness of the environment mirroring her loneliness and isolation (Mulvey, “Notes” 42).9 However, whereas in traditional melodramas like All That Heaven Allows, 8


The opening scene of the film shows Frank and April meeting for the first time at a party, accompanied by a 1940s love song, as they talk, dance, and begin to fall in love. This is Frank’s memory of their meeting, since it is interrupted by an abrupt cut to years later and to his face, “full of doubt and tension” (Haythe), as he watches April perform in a play. The previously mentioned An Affair to Remember represents a more traditional example of melodrama, in contrast with the work of director Douglas Sirk. Although the couple would eventually be reunited in the end, a Sirk melodrama would also comment on the hypocrisy of certain gender and class conventions and on the morality that goes with it, as it is the case in All That Heaven Allows. Cf. Skvirsky for an in-depth reading of All That Heaven Allows.

The Politics of Melodrama


the visual cues would occupy the place left empty by the lack of verbalization of these feelings, Revolutionary Road provides the audience with additional moments of Frank and April vocalizing their unhappiness, which results in an overly spectacularized portrayal of their suffering and of their already doomed attempt to escape suburban life. In Revolutionary Road, the excess of representing the characters’ emotions, together with certain melodramatic narrative choices and the film’s awareness of a history of nostalgia, complicate the film’s portrayal of gender politics. If, on the one hand, the film offers an anticonformist heroine who cannot bear to live a life already predetermined for her by conventions and society, on the other hand, the ending also partly condemns her for attempting to escape from suburbia, as I will examine below. Additionally, by consciously avoiding a visually alluring depiction of the Fifties, the film embraces a focus on the mise-en-scène as a reflection of the characters’ emotional condition, in line with a melodramatic mode of representation. In order to better examine the gender dynamics at work in the film, I will first focus on the role that performance plays, on how both characters perform gender, and particularly on Frank’s concern with his masculinity. In a final section, I will then look at how bodies are presented and how the subject of mental instability is treated through the lens of gender ideology.

“You’re a Man”: Performing Gender Revolutionary Road’s interest in performances is reflected in an explicit focus on the act of performing as well as on the effort that the performance of gender roles requires from Frank and April Wheeler. Firstly, the mode of melodrama is characterized by a very specific way of acting, with particular attention to overplaying emotions in order to enable the audience to share the characters’ feelings. The acting in the film features a number of key melodramatic moments in which the characters allow their emotions to be seen by the audience while the other characters are not looking, and it includes a few instances that showcase acting as such (performance within a performance). Secondly, the film emphasizes the repeated effort that both Frank and April have to make in order to continuously sustain their assigned gender roles, recalling Judith Butler’s definition of performance as a “stylized repetition of acts” (519). There is a tendency to almost reverse the typical gender roles in the film, with April being more active and decisive while Frank is often characterized by stereotypically feminine qualities, though they ultimately tend to be in line with the gender categories distinctive of melodrama. Overall, gender performance in the film is complicated by the role-playing necessary to fit into the Fifties’ suburban environment, Frank and April’s struggle between adapting to and fighting against it, and Frank’s sense of threatened masculinity.


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Revolutionary Road pursues its interest in performance right from the very beginning, and it does so through a theatrical performance. After the opening scene where we see Frank and April meet for the first time, the film cuts to the ending of a play10 performed by a group of amateur actors —April among them—at the local high school. As the curtain falls, the camera shows a close-up of April’s face, breaking character for a moment, her eyes shifting (possibly towards Frank), her face full of disappointment, embarrassment, and even shame. This very brief moment is only captured for the benefit of the audience, since we do not see Frank or anybody else react to it, and it offers the spectators a privileged glance into April’s emotional state. Moreover, by opening with April on a stage, the film calls attention to the importance of performance in her world and, by having her fail at it, to her inability to keep up the necessary facade of the role of suburban housewife she is supposed to play.11 Despite the less-than-successful result (the audience can be overheard commenting “thank God that’s over” and “she was very disappointing”), as Frank makes his way backstage, friends and neighbors relay only compliments about his “very talented wife,” showcasing the environment of pretense they live in. The main performances in the film are, for the most part, in line with the excess of a kind of acting that is typical of melodrama, as the actors wildly gesticulate and display their emotions as much as they can. Some of the most memorable moments in the film consist of merciless arguments between Frank and April, where they do not hold back in saying what they feel or in hurting each other as much as possible. A good example is their first argument, following April’s disappointing performance on stage, which starts in the car as they drive home and continues on the side of the road. Already set up as a performance—darkness all around them and the car lights shining on them as if they were on an actual stage—the conversation, which started with Frank trying to console April, quickly derails (cf. also Dargis). While they talk and shout at each other, April walks away from the car, Frank follows her, and then they go back to the car, in perpetual motion: The movements and the exaggerated gestures—widening of eyes, pointing of fingers—add a layer of melodrama to the already emotionally charged accusations and insults they throw at each other. Frank points out that he does not “happen to fit the role of dumb, insensitive suburban husband”12 and accuses her of being “sick”; April blames him for having her “in this little trap” in the suburbs and calls him “disgusting.” As the confrontation escalates, April attacks again: “Oh, you poor, pathetic little boy! Look at you! Look at you, and tell me how by any stretch of the 10 The play on stage is The Petrified Forest by Robert E. Sherwood, which features a waitress whose dream is to go to France (Dargis). 11 The film evidently refers to the ‘problem that has no name’ and Betty Friedan’s analysis of the unhappy suburban housewife of the 1950s (cf. Friedan). 12 Even the choice of words (Frank playing a “role”) is reminiscent of the language of theater and performance.

The Politics of Melodrama


imagination you can call yourself a man!” To the threat to his masculinity, Frank reacts violently, raising his hand to hit her but then stopping himself to repeatedly hit the roof of the car instead. Unlike traditional melodrama, Revolutionary Road has its characters express their emotions through words as well as through gestures and facial expressions in a double representation that, at times, results in a conspicuously melodramatic performance, calling attention to the fictional nature of its own representation. In the course of the film, two sequences in particular, both staged by April for Frank’s benefit, are used to comment on how performing is necessary to live in the suburban Fifties, particularly for women. On his thirtieth birthday, after having spent the afternoon with Maureen, Frank comes home to a delightfully staged scene that presents the stereotypical version of the perfect suburban family. Frank walks through the completely dark house towards the beautifully lit image of April and their children standing behind the cake, singing “Happy Birthday” to him. 13 The scene is staged by April to celebrate Frank and, as she later explains, because she had the idea that they should move to Paris. For the first time in the film, April is content and willing to comply with the marital and familial facade because she has found a way to escape it. Similarly, towards the end of the film, after she has already decided to attempt the abortion and following their worst fight, April prepares breakfast for Frank and behaves like the perfect suburban housewife, taking care of her husband, eager to hear about his work, and supporting him in every way. Again, she does not mind putting up this facade because she knows she might die and since she wants to give her husband what she knows he had always wanted. In both cases, the film comments on the role that a woman in the Fifties has to play in order to fit into the suburban world by presenting how much effort it entails for someone who, like April, does not. Just as the construction of their suburban personalities is part of a performance, so is their idea that moving to Paris will fix all their problems. As mentioned, April and Frank both think they are different than other people—special, and destined to great things. This notion is repeated throughout the film, both by them and by friends and neighbors: Their realtor, Mrs. Givings, referring to when she first met the couple, says to April that “[they] were different, [they] just seemed special”; 14 Shep Camp13 Additionally, the scene is shot from Frank’s point of view, so that the audience sees what Frank sees, maximizing the identification with his reaction to the emotionally touching moment. 14 As with the scenes following the play, Mrs. Givings, almost serving as comic relief, embodies the stereotypical suburban Fifties attitude: She avoids and ignores conflicts, only deals with the superficial aspects of life and people, and always attempts to keep situations pleasant. In the short scene with April, Mrs. Givings needs a favor, but social conventions do not allow her to ask bluntly. April, who appears uneasy in the situation, inquires only after a long pause: “Is there some-


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bell reiterates it towards the end of the film, after April confesses that maybe they were “never special or destined or anything at all,” by replying: “Sure you are. You’re the Wheelers. You’re a terrific couple, everyone says so.” In fact, despite everybody saying they are different, there is no substantiation to their claim throughout the film,15 until they formulate the plan of moving away. Frank and April find their friends’ shocked reaction amusing and take it as confirmation that they do not belong in this life, in this place, with these people. April, by pushing the idea of moving to Paris, wants them to be special and knows that they have to do something to keep believing this notion. However, it is nothing but a fantasy—a performance by the Wheelers in order to maintain the illusion that they are indeed special (Nicholls 332). In fact, it is the very basis of the idea when April presents it to Frank: “Our whole existence here is based on this great premise that we’re special and superior to the whole thing. But we’re not. We’re just like everyone else. Look at us. We’ve bought into the same ridiculous delusion.” Revolutionary Road never presents the Paris idea as anything but a temporary solution, a momentary illusion that only postpones the inevitable tragedy. This is evident, as mentioned above, from the film’s aesthetic choices, which exaggerate the visual appeal of the sequence after they make the decision, and by how quickly the idea of moving is embraced by the couple as the change that will save them. In addition to the focus on the importance of role-playing and Frank and April’s struggles with it, another aspect that figures prominently within the film’s concerns about the performance of gender is Frank’s sense of threatened masculinity. Throughout the film, Frank is not presented as the traditional masculine leading man but rather as possessing quite a few qualities that are stereotypically associated with femininity. The character reflects the transformations in middle-class masculinity that were under way in the 1950s: the development of a white-collar “occupational masculinity” (Hoberek 374) and the shift of power relations between gender roles following War World II (cf. Cohan 6). For example, he attempts on more than one occasion to talk to April about their problems and about what is going on, whereas she would rather not “talk about everything all the time.” In a reversal of gender positions, Frank is the one who wants to talk and explore their feelings—“[a]ll I know is what I feel,” as he explains to his wife when discussing the abortion—and April is the less communicative of the two. Frank also tends to be the more emotional half of the couple, especially during their very strong-worded arguments. In thing I can do for you, Helen?” The scene, through Mrs. Givings’s reticence and respect for social protocol, works as a showcase of suburban hypocrisy and, again, of the amount of pretense and effort necessary to fit in. 15 Only brief hints at their being different are seen, e.g., April wanting to be an actress or, while all the other men commuting to New York are reading the newspaper, Frank carrying and reading the New Yorker on the train, serving as a signifier of his superior intellectual interests.

The Politics of Melodrama


the very last one, the night before April will die, they reach a point where April runs into the nearby woods to escape him, saying: “Isn’t there any way to stop your talking? I need to think.” Back at the house, Frank waits for April to come back and looks desperately alone, almost lost without her, finding himself in a stereotypically more feminine position (at home, waiting for the spouse to return). Frank is presented as threatened in his masculinity at different times throughout the film, both at home and at work. Like the typical organization man, Frank works for a big company and, by his own admission, his job is “stupid”; “there’s nothing interesting about it at all.” He catches the train in the suburbs, commutes into Manhattan, and gets into Grand Central Station with a swarm of other men in gray suits, perfectly embodying the Fifties corporate man.16 Frank is not satisfied with his job and makes no effort to be good at it either, believing it to be beneath him and his skills, which in turn elicits constant reprimands from his boss, causing him to feel emasculated. In a conversation with April, as they discuss how great things have been, Frank shares his memory of shipping off to war as an incredibly positive and empowering one: “I was probably just as scared as everyone else, but inside I never felt better. I felt alive. I felt full of blood. Everything looked more real. [...] I kept thinking: This is it. This is the truth.” In the military, Frank could assert his masculinity, and his life had a greater purpose that he is not able to satisfy anymore with a corporate job and a family in the suburbs. Whereas Frank’s masculinity at work is undermined by the futility of his job and by his relationship with his boss, at home, it is threatened by a strong-willed and outspoken wife, who embodies a different version of the traditional Fifties housewife. In the previously discussed scene in which April angrily wonders how Frank “can call [him]self a man,” she wants to hurt him and does so by attacking his fragile masculinity. However, on two other occasions, she does the exact opposite, flattering his masculine ego. As they discuss the Paris idea, Frank doubts that he has any talent at all to discover while they are away, but April reassures him by saying: “You’re the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world. You’re a man.” With her words, April both tries to make up for her previous comment, performing as the wife she knows she is supposed to be, and refers to the fact that being a man in the 1950s is enough to make Frank special (Nicholls 331). To the audience, April’s statement might also be perceived as ironic, an extreme attempt to soothe his bruised ego, telling him what he wants to hear without actually meaning it. In a later scene, after Frank has been talking about how alive he felt during the war, April confesses that she had the same feeling once too, “the first time [he] made love to [her].” This ex16 For the origins of these iconic images of the ‘organization man’ and the ‘man in the gray flannel suit,’ cf. William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man and Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.


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change is followed by the couple having sex on a kitchen counter, again reaffirming Frank’s masculine prowess, as it will result in April’s pregnancy. Just as much as April attempts to improve his sense of masculinity, Frank himself tends to compensate for his less traditional masculinity through his gender performance. Right after being scolded by his boss, Frank is seen offering help to and looming over Maureen, a new young secretary, while she is working. Frank’s body language is telling: He is hunched over her, close and in a dominating position, staring at her face in an almost predatory way, and, right before leaving, he rests his hand on her shoulder, gently tapping it. He then takes her to lunch, gets her drunk, and seduces her that afternoon. The sequence of events alone would be sufficient to understand Frank’s stereotypical attempt to regain his stifled masculinity in his job by seducing a young woman. However, in an overly melodramatic fashion, Frank, after they have decided against an abortion, eventually confesses the affair to April, justifying it as “a simple case of wanting to be a man again after all that abortion business. Some kind of neurotic, irrational need to prove something.” Again, the audience has the visuals to interpret what the characters are feeling, but in addition, their action and the psychology behind it are directly spelled out, in this case by Frank explicitly connecting his feeling of powerlessness after talking about the abortion to his affair.17 The main reason that pushes Frank to reconsider the idea of moving, aside from the pregnancy, is the possibility of a new job, which is offered to him after doing, as he himself describes it, “some dumb little piece of work to get [himself] off the hook” with his boss. For the first time, because there was no pressure for him to fail or succeed since he would be leaving for Paris soon, Frank actually tried to do something at work, instead of simply going through the motions. Frank’s father was also a salesman for the same company, and Frank, as he reveals to Maureen, does not want to end up like him. However, as is evident from the lunch meeting with his possible new employer,18 Frank is in part tempted by the job offer because he would become better than his father, not just a simple salesman, but also, as his potential future boss puts it, because “it’d be a fine memorial to [his] dad.” The idea of legacy, of being part of something his father also belonged to, speaks to Frank’s masculinity: He now sees being part of a company as similar to the sense of belonging and male camaraderie he felt in the army. Unlike April, who has no other choice, Frank has accepted his role, which 17 What the audience additionally realizes (and what April does not) is that Frank also lies about the affair, which started much earlier, not just before the “abortion business” but even before April got pregnant, which further complicates the audience’s sympathy and alignment with the two characters. 18 The restaurant where they meet for lunch is full of men, eating and drinking with other men. By not showing a woman in the whole scene, the film also points to its awareness of the social public sphere as a realm exclusively of and for men.

The Politics of Melodrama


she realizes towards the end: “He’s found his place. He’s just fine. Married, two kids. It should be enough. It is for him.” Despite his youthful hopes of rising above the mediocrity of a company job, Frank, through the new job (and getting April pregnant), has come to accept his position in the patriarchal system (cf. also Nicholls 335). The film presents the failure of the American Dream for both Frank and April, but it also underlines the different consequences for both genders—and how much more problematic it is for a woman.19

Gendered Bodies and Mental Instability: Criticizing Fifties Ideology Two additional aspects where Revolutionary Road shows its often ideologically contradictory portrayal of gender roles are its representations of bodies and of mental illness. Both are also linked to an overall melodramatic interest in the spectacle of female suffering, which undermines the self-awareness that often informs the film’s portrayal of April as a melodramatic heroine trapped by Fifties suburban ideology. I will first look at how the film portrays female bodies and how its nostalgic ideology, at times, informs certain choices. Then, through a close reading of the character of John Givings, I will analyze how the portrayal of mental illness is also informed by a gender bias based on a Fifties ideological framework. The film, in line with movies from the 1950s, is quite limited in its approach to sex, nudity, and the portrayal of bodies in general. The only scene displaying nudity follows Frank’s sexual encounter with Maureen in her apartment. As he is getting ready to leave, Maureen sits up on the bed, covered only by a sheet, and attempts to adjust her messy hair. In doing so, she lets go of the sheet resulting in a brief view of her naked breasts, right before she self-consciously covers herself up. Still very young, Maureen is portrayed as trying to be less naive and more worldly than she actually is, and this moment works to underline that: She tries to act as if what just happened was no big deal, but she is very quick in covering her breasts before Frank sees her. She is performing for him, evident from how she casually asks for a cigarette right after, almost imitating an old Hollywood movie star in the way she sits and moves her head. The scene is complicated by the fact that the nudity is only for the spectator’s benefit, since Frank, though in the same room, has his back turned to her, looking at himself in the mirror as he is getting dressed. On the one hand, the scene seems to point at the freedom that a 2008 film has compared to a 1950s 19 The film engages with the 1950’s preoccupation with the fulfillment of the American Dream by having its protagonists be incredibly unhappy despite their apparent success. However, I will not delve into an in-depth reading of this topic for the purpose of this article.


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film, being allowed to show bare breasts. On the other hand, the nudity serves very little purpose and, being only seen by the audience, functions as an object of the male gaze (cf. Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure” 11-12). Similarly, Revolutionary Road displays no nudity during the two sex scenes that it portrays (Frank and April, April and Shep), which speaks to the film’s attempt to stay close to 1950s filmic and moral conventions. Both scenes are very short, and in both cases, the focus of the camera stays on the couple’s faces. After the Wheelers’ plan fails, April and Shep, left behind by Frank and Milly during a night out, first dance together and then end up having sex in the car. Shep is shown throughout the film as having (at least) a crush on April, and in the car, he even tells her that he loves her. April, however, only seeks to escape her current pain through the sexual encounter, as she replies: “Don’t say that.” The scene of them dancing is possibly the most sensual in the film: It is characterized by dark red lights, slow motion, and the drowning-out of sounds as focalized through Shep’s desire for April. I would argue that it is the only other moment of male gazing, since the emphasis is, for the first time in the film, on April as an object of desire. The choice of having April resist the patriarchal nature of the male gaze again has a dual effect: By not being an object of male sexual desire, April is emblematic of an empowering depiction of a female character, but it also aligns her with the domestic heroines of the Fifties, whose bodies were only signifiers of motherhood and a nonsexual femininity. In fact, April’s body is only ever referred to (and barely shown) in relation to the pregnancy and the abortion. As she is preparing dinner, she says to Frank: “I’m pregnant, that’s all. [...] [T]oday I went to the doctor, and now I can’t even pretend it’s not true,” immediately apologizing with tears in her eyes. It is unclear if she is apologizing for having waited a few weeks to tell Frank or for the fact that she did get pregnant, as if that was her fault—her body betraying her and ruining their plans. Later that night, April, wearing a nightgown, is seen staring and gently touching her belly in front of the mirror, in a gesture full of worry and almost shame, as she looks herself in the eyes and immediately looks away. April’s first reaction is to tell Frank that “there are things [they] can do” and to mention “that girl at school [she] told [him] about,” talking around the word ‘abortion,’ while Frank, though saying that “[they]’ll figure it out,” seems quite shocked at the idea, looking at the calendar to see how long they have left to decide. Additionally, the sequence depicting April performing the abortive procedure on herself is also only implied, again in line with a nostalgic portrayal of taboos. April is seen going upstairs, laying towels on the floor of the bathroom, taking her skirt off, and then closing the door, leaving the audience outside. This is followed by her going downstairs, walking very slowly—possibly in pain—and standing in front of the picture window in the living room, while blood drips along her skirt and onto the white carpet. This is “her final performance [...], the finale of which she stages in front of the picture window, a 1950s icon of domestic

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performance and surveillance” (Nicholls 333), almost as a statement to what has caused her to arrive at this situation. Besides the question of showing and gazing at bodies, mental illness is another significant aspect in Revolutionary Road that demonstrates a certain gender bias within Fifties ideology. In the film, John Givings, Mrs. Givings’ son, embodies an almost contemporary voice as he points to the hypocrisy of suburban living, which the film allows him to do because he is established from the very beginning as mentally ill. John appears in two separate sequences in the film and serves as a sort of Greek chorus, almost a modern-day audience surrogate, who vocalizes the underlying ideology of the Fifties as represented. After being treated with electroshock therapy at a psychiatric facility, he visits the Wheelers, accompanied by his parents, on an afternoon leave from the hospital, and he freely says what is on his mind, without regard for social conventions. For example, when Frank explains that he does not like his job at all, John asks why he still does it, but he immediately realizes that if “[y]ou want to play house, you got to have a job.”20 In his quick reply, John already encapsulates and criticizes the idea of Fifties suburbia: It is about the facade. By using John as a stand-in for the audience, Revolutionary Road uncovers the ideology at work and makes the spectators complicit in the film’s condemnation of it. When he hears of the Wheelers’ plan to move to Paris for the first time, he is the only one who thinks that it is a great idea and praises them for trying to escape “the hopeless emptiness” of suburban existence. The Wheelers are naturally surprised by the first positive reaction to their plan and wonder if “[m]aybe [they]’re just as crazy as he is.” John’s mental illness, though of course treated as a taboo topic by his mother (and society), lets him speak the truth that the contemporary audience knows, and the film treats him as a sympathetic and almost heroic character. Whereas John’s mental issues are equated with the ‘voice of reason,’ April’s hesitation about the pregnancy is spun by Frank as a mental problem that needs to be addressed. In a second visit to the Wheelers, after the plan to move to Europe has been abandoned, John reacts in a quite aggressive way to Frank and April’s backpedaling. He is very upset that they are staying and accuses Frank of having “knocked [April] up on purpose just so he could spend the rest of his life hiding behind a maternity dress.” In an even more direct attack on Frank’s masculinity, he says to April: “You must give him a pretty bad time if making babies is the only way he can prove he’s got a pair of balls.” Frank reacts violently to this comment, trying to hit John, while Mrs. Givings comes between them, justifying his words by maintaining that “[h]e’s not well.” Nothing John says during this visit is inaccurate; he only verbalizes for the audience the few things left unsaid between the couple. Again, John’s mental illness is treated almost as 20 With his choice of words, John also goes back to the notion that performance is necessary in order to survive in suburbia.


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a gift, as if he was able to sense what is happening between Frank and April, uncovering the gender ideology at work. With a similarly undermining function, April is also accused of being mentally unbalanced by Frank in a few different moments. He calls her “sick” during their first fight by the road, when she wants to be left alone, and even more so, he connects April’s eagerness to get an abortion to mental illness by saying: “April, a normal woman, a normal sane mother doesn’t buy herself a piece of rubber tubing to give herself an abortion [...]. All I’m saying is you don’t seem entirely rational about this thing.” Frank postulates that only insane women would want to get rid of a child and also associates April being emotional, a stereotypically feminine quality, with being mentally unstable.21 The argument culminates in Frank suggesting she should see a therapist. Frank turns the discussion about the abortion—one that he does not want to have because a child reaffirms his masculinity and his patriarchal position—into one about April’s mental well-being. Throughout the film, April has not shown any sign of mental illness. She is unhappy, wants to improve her and their situation any way she can, and sees a third child as the final nail in the coffin of their numb life in the suburbs. By engaging mental illness through two characters of opposite gender, and by not providing any evidence that April is, in fact, sick in any way, the film ultimately uncovers the gender bias in terms of the Fifties’ female ‘mental instability’ and the patriarchal ideology that supports it.

Conclusion As I have shown, Revolutionary Road displays a relatively critical portrayal of the suburban Fifties while, at the same time, retaining elements that showcase the nostalgic appeal of certain aspects of the time. Its use of melodrama enables the film to deal with a number of topics not unlike a 1950s text would and, by exaggerating the characters’ emotions, almost makes a spectacle of their unhappiness. Additionally, gender performance in the film is complicated by the effort both Frank and April have to make in order to fit into the suburban environment, visible in their struggle between adapting to and rebelling against it as well as in Frank’s troubled masculinity. However, the film, by functioning as a melodramatic morality tale where the female heroine attempts to escape her condition but fails, allows the audience to relish April’s tragic end as a doomed melodramatic fantasy. On the one hand, through the historical distance and the mostly unappealing visuals, this fantasy, together with its troubling gender ideology, is clearly contained to the past, yet on the other hand, the film’s politics are 21 Frank even goes as far as saying that the definition of insanity is “the inability to love.” He says so after April tells him that she does not love him anymore, which Frank does not believe, telling her: “You’re not crazy, and you do love me.”

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complicated by, among others, its treatment of bodies and mental illness. Through its connection to the overall melodramatic interest in the spectacle of female suffering, Revolutionary Road at times cannot help but undermine its self-awareness of April as a melodramatic heroine who cannot escape the Fifties’ suburban ideology by buying into the gender politics at work.

Works Cited All That Heaven Allows. Dir. Douglas Sirk. Perf. Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. Universal, 1955. Film. An Affair to Remember. Dir. Leo McCarey. Perf. Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Fox, 1957. Film. Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519-31. Print. Byars, Jackie. All That Hollywood Allows: Re-Reading Gender in 1950s Melodrama. London: Routledge, 1991. Print. Cohan, Steven. Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997. Print. Cook, Pam. Screening the Past: Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema. London: Routledge, 2005. Print. Dargis, Manohla. “Two Faces in the Crowd, Raging Against the Crab Grass.” New York Times. New York Times, 25 Dec. 2008. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. Elsaesser, Thomas. “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama.” Landy 68-91. Friedan, Betty. “The Problem That Has No Name.” Making Sense of Women’s Lives: An Introduction To Women’s Studies. Ed. Michèle Plott and Lauri Umansky. San Diego: Collegiate, 2000. 151-62. Print. Gledhill, Christine. “Between Melodrama and Realism: Anthony Asquith’s Underground and King Vidor’s The Crowd.” Classical Hollywood Narrative: The Paradigm Wars. Ed. Jane Gaines. Durham: Duke UP, 1992. 129-68. Print. Hallam, Julia, and Margaret Marshment. Realism and Popular Cinema. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000. Print. Haythe, Justin. “Revolutionary Road Script.” IMSDb. N.p., n.d. Web. 21. Mar. 2014. Hoberek, Andrew P. “The ‘Work’ of Science Fiction: Philip K. Dick and Occupational Masculinity in the Post-World War II United States.” Modern Fiction Studies 43.2 (1997): 374-404. Project Muse. Web. 19 Mar. 2014. Hornaday, Ann. “Movie Review: Ann Hornaday on ‘Revolutionary Road.’” Rev. of Revolutionary Road, dir. Sam Mendes. Washington Post. Washington Post, 2 Jan. 2009. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. Kleinhans, Chuck. “Notes on Melodrama and the Family under Capitalism.” Landy 197-204. Landy, Marcia. Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film and Television Melodrama. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1991. Print. Mulvey, Laura. “Notes on Sirk and Melodrama.” Visual and Other Pleasures. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2009. 39-44. Print. ---. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Print.


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Nicholls, Mark. “Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road and the Talent to Bemuse.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 29.4 (2012): 329-37. Print. Poole, Ralph J., and Ilka Saal. “Passionate Politics.” Introduction. Passionate Politics: The Cultural Work of American Melodrama from the Early Republic to the Present. Ed. Poole and Saal. Newcastle: Cambridge, 2008. 1-25. Print. Ravizza, Eleonora. “‘We Don’t Want Life to Look Difficult, Do We?’: Representations of the Fifties and Self-Reflexive Nostalgia in Mad Men.” Current Objectives of Postgraduate American Studies 14.1 (2013): 1-14. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. Revolutionary Road. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Paramount, 2008. Film. Skvirsky, Salomé Aguilera. “The Price of Heaven: Remaking Politics in All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Far from Heaven.” Cinema Journal 47.3 (2008): 90-121. Print. Whyte, William H. The Organization Man. New York: Simon, 1956. Print. Williams, Linda. “Melodrama Revised.” Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory. Ed. Nick Browne. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998. 42-88. Print. Wilson, Sloan. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. New York: Simon, 1955. Print.


American Basterds: The Deconstruction of World War II Myths in Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds Abstract: This article contends that both Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds are political films in a dual sense. They engage with the political effects of filmic representations by way of referring to and rewriting earlier films about World War II. The Good German does this by staging an intertextual dialogue with Casablanca, Inglourious Basterds by taking on the ‘dirty war films’ of the 1960s and 1970s. Both films, albeit by different means, deconstruct the clear binary of good Americans and evil Nazis that those earlier films projected. They do this in order to comment critically on how the memory of World War II, decisively shaped by the films they refer to, has been used after 9/11 to justify torture, the violation of human rights, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. As they complicate the image of World War II, they implicitly critique contemporary American politics.

Introduction When Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German (2006) was released, no reviewer from either side of the Atlantic failed to mention the film’s indebtedness to classical Hollywood cinema. This is hardly surprising, as Soderbergh stressed in all promotional interviews that his aim had been to “make a film that looked and sounded like an old studio picture, but without the old studio prohibitions” (Dargis, “Spies”). The Good German contains explicit representations of sex and violence, but it is shot in blackand-white and in a screen ratio that approximates the academy format used during the 1940s. Moreover, Soderbergh used camera lenses and lighting techniques from that decade and boom instead of body mics (cf. deWaard 112). The result, though, did not fare well with audiences and critics. The former largely ignored the film and the latter almost unanimously agreed that it was a failure both formally and narratively. J. Hoberman called it “as much simulation as movie” and therefore “fatally insipid,” and Manohla Dargis concluded that “they don’t make them like they used to even when they try” (“Spies”). However, what these critics overlook is that The Good German is not simply a “genre pastiche” (Dargis, “Spies”); it is not merely, as Fredric Jameson has famously defined “pastiche,” a “blank parody” devoid of critical impetus (17). While obviously an homage to the Hollywood cinema of


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the 1940s in general and to Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) more specifically, the film engages critically with the still prevalent image of World War II in American culture as ‘the best war ever’ (cf. Adams). As I argue in the first part of this article, the film challenges the idea of American moral superiority and unselfishness that films like Casablanca helped produce and firmly anchored in collective memory. In fact, The Good German performs this cultural work by constantly quoting Casablanca and deconstructing its clear distinction between good and evil and its agenda of personal sacrifice for the greater good. Hence, the intertextual relationship between the two films, which I explore in detail, is characterized by a considerable ideological tension, a high degree of what Manfred Pfister calls “dialogicity” (“Dialogizität”; 29) in his theory of intertextuality. The Good German’s dialogue with its major pre-text, I wish to argue, exposes the politicality of Casablanca and other 1940s Hollywood films that was apparent to contemporaries but is frequently forgotten today. Soderbergh’s film effectively disrupts these films’ straightforward and clear-cut poetics of politics and replaces it with one that is more self-reflexive and—with regard to both form and morality— more complicated. Accordingly, The Good German has a lot in common with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a film that—apart from the fact that it is also about World War II—may at first sight appear to be completely different in terms of both aesthetics and politics. However, as I argue in the second part of this article, Inglourious Basterds performs the same cultural work. Like The Good German, Tarantino’s film self-consciously engages with the rich history of cinematic representations that uphold a clear distinction between good and evil, ironically driving their agendas over the top by its eventual counterfactual turn when Adolf Hitler and other Nazi grandees are killed by the Basterds in a Parisian cinema. It differs from The Good German in that the films it alludes to and rewrites are not the propaganda films of classical Hollywood but the ‘dirty war films’ of the 1960s and 1970s. Whereas the audience of these films still sympathizes with the American protagonists no matter what they do to their Nazi enemies, Inglourious Basterds complicates this spectatorial stance by persistently blurring the lines between Americans and Nazis. As I will demonstrate, it almost constantly reminds the audience of American crimes against humanity—most notably slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. Thus, the film deconstructs the self-congratulatory image of the United States and its role in world history that the dirty war films project just as much as the films The Good German engages with. Both The Good German and Inglourious Basterds, then, I contend, must be considered political films that “[explore] in great depth the reality of images” (Brown 265), that is, their power to shape our perception of history. Both are highly aware of the fact that the way in which World War II is remembered in the United States has

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been decisively shaped by cinematic representations that celebrate America’s heroic rescue of liberty and democracy. The United States obviously fought for the greater good in World War II, but ever since the end of the war, and especially since the late 1960s, the idealized image of this conflict has served to justify involvement in new and often morally far more ambiguous conflicts. Hence, it is surely no coincidence that The Good German and Inglourious Basterds engage with the politicality of different films about World War II in the decade after the attacks of September 11, 2001. References to the fight against Hitler and the Nazis abounded in the first years after 9/11 and worked to legitimize the ‘war on terror’ by casting the new conflict as a repetition or continuation of World War II.1 By deconstructing the clear distinction between good and evil with regard to World War II and its aftermath, The Good German and Inglourious Basterds undermine the argument that Americans can legitimately resort to torture and other questionable methods and behavior because they employ them for the greater good. As post-9/11 critiques of American politics, The Good German and Inglourious Basterds disrupt simplistic trajectories that contend that because America was on the right side in World War II, it is so in the new conflict as well and must do whatever necessary to defeat the enemy.

“You Can Never Really Get out of Berlin”: The Good German’s Intertextual Dialogue with Casablanca An adaptation of Joseph Kanon’s 2001 novel of the same name, Soderbergh’s The Good German tells the story of American journalist Jacob Geismar (George Clooney), who returns to Berlin in July 1945, from where he reported as a foreign correspondent until 1941. 2 Jacob is to cover the Potsdam Conference, but his real goal is to find his former employee and lover, the Jew Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett). Lena is now a prostitute, and her best customer is Tully (Toby McGuire), whom the US Army assigns to Jacob as a driver. Tully uses his privileges of moving relatively freely through the city’s four zones to make a fortune on the black market. When he is killed, Jacob begins to investigate his murder because neither the Russian authorities (in whose zone the body is found) nor the American ones show any interest in solving the case. During his investigation, Jacob finds not only Lena but also her husband Emil, and he uncovers a number of dark secrets.

1 2

For a discussion of how American culture projected the ‘war on terror’ and other conflicts as the repetition or continuation of World War II, cf. Butter 173-74. Since not all readers might be familiar with the film, I provide a relatively extensive plot summary here.


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During the war, Emil Brandt worked in the concentration camp Dora, where V2 rockets were constructed. A meticulous scientist, Emil calculated how many calories per day inmates needed to be able to work for three months and then die. Even more importantly, however, he has evidence that his superior, the physicist Franz Bettmann, a fictional Wernher von Braun, knew this. Emil wants to surrender himself to the American authorities and testify against Bettmann. The American military governor intends to prevent this by having Emil killed because the Americans need Bettmann to help with their rocket program in the US. Aware that he is in danger, Emil hides in the sewers, aided only by Lena, who, as Jacob learns two thirds into the film, killed Tully to cover her tracks. Lena, though, does not wholeheartedly support her husband but has an agenda of her own. While Emil hopes that his testimony will win him immunity and a passage to the US together with her, she wants to save his life but then go separate ways. Thus, during a meeting with the American criminal prosecutor Bernie Teitel, she agrees to set up an interview between Bernie and Emil and in exchange is promised that she can leave the country alone. While Lena and Emil wait for Bernie, they are attacked by a member of the military governor’s staff. Jacob, who has secretly followed Lena, saves Emil, but only moments later one of Bernie’s men kills Emil. Bernie, it turns out, has made a deal with the military governor: For killing Emil and letting Bettmann go free, he can demand the death penalty for several other Nazi war criminals. Lena is allowed to go to America at the end of the film—but only because Jacob makes a deal with Bernie. He hands over evidence that incriminates Bettmann, and in exchange, Bernie drops all charges against Lena. It is only at the airport when she is leaving for the US that Jacob learns what Lena has done during the war in order to survive. A Jew herself, she worked as a so-called Greifer for the Gestapo, identifying Jews who had gone into hiding in the streets and cafés of Berlin so that they could be arrested and sent to the death camps.3 As this plot summary already indicates, The Good German severely challenges “the ‘good war’ myth emphasizing American altruism during and after the Second World War” (Sprengler 169). All characters, no matter where they are from, are at best morally compromised and at worst utterly selfish; nobody sacrifices their personal goals for the greater good—not 3

The film version considerably intensifies the novel’s critique of World War II myths by increasing the ambiguity of the characters. In the novel, the Greifer is not Lena, who is not Jewish, but another female employee of Jacob’s newspaper; Jacob does not cut a deal but the evidence is forcibly taken from him; and Bernie is a morally upright figure who simply lacks the power to see justice done. Moreover, whereas in the novel, Emil is an unrelenting villain who wants to save his own skin and does not care about his wife—there is no Bettmann and it is Emil whom the Americans want—he deeply cares about Lena and is haunted by his crimes during the war in the film. For readings of the novel, cf. Buhrmann or Ó Dochartaigh. The latter touches on the film version but misses this intensification entirely (213).

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even Jacob. The most likely candidate for the role of the flawless American throughout most of the film, he eventually buys Lena’s freedom against his better knowledge and conviction. The perversion of morality that permeates the world of the film is most pointedly brought to the fore by the meaning of ‘good’ in the phrase ‘the good German.’ From a moral point of view, Emil comes closest to being a ‘good German,’ as he regrets his deeds and wants “the world [...] to hear the truth.” For the Americans, however, this makes him a liability, as they define ‘good’ in a purely utilitarian fashion as ‘useful.’ From their perspective, Bettmann, a Nazi war criminal far worse than Emil, is the ‘good German’ because he has strategic value for them. By highlighting the indifference of virtually all American authority figures —from the military governor to a senator from New York—to war crimes, the film dismisses any idea of American moral superiority. Moreover, the film also contends that this blurring of good and evil is not merely an effect of the chaos that followed the war. Apart from Lena, who openly admits that she was “a Nazi and a Jew” during the war and thus perpetrator and victim at once, most other characters nostalgically remember what Congressman Breimer in a pivotal scene refers to as “the good old days. When you could tell who the bad guy was by who was shooting at you.” The narrative, though, implies that this odd sense of security was merely an illusion, as alliances during the war were just as strategic as they are now that the fighting is at least officially over. Not only is, as Bernie observes once, “[n]obody around here [...] acting like the war’s over.” In addition, the speed at which the Germans become America’s allies and the Soviets its enemies highlights that during (just as after) the war, all alliances are of a purely strategic nature motivated by national self-interest and do not reflect moral positions in any way. In fact, by way of its form— black-and-white images that are often almost seamlessly intercut with archival images of Berlin in the summer of 1945—the film strongly suggests that its vision of the past is far more accurate than that of films that project notions of the ‘good war’ (cf. Müller 89, 95). Accordingly, The Good German’s deconstruction of World War II myths ultimately hinges on its intertextual dialogue with Casablanca, one of the first films that helped produce these myths.4 Released in December 1942, Michael Curtiz’s classic, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, was a conscious attempt to support the war effort, and Bogart’s Rick Blaine is, at least on one level, a personification of America, whose gradual shift from self-interest to sacrifice reflects the country’s move from isolationism to commitment in World War II.5 Heeding the Office of Wartime Informa4 5

No critic has yet explored the dialogicity between The Good German and Casablanca in any detail. Cf. Baker, “Remade” 138-39 and Fuchs for short comments on the ideological tensions between the two films. Rick’s personal attitude and his country’s foreign policy doctrines are obviously synchronized in the film. Whereas the US fought in World War I but then turned isolationist—a move often seen as motivated by disappointment about the postwar


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tion’s demand to produce “properly directed hatred” (qtd. in Doherty 136), Casablanca draws a clear line between good and evil. The evil Nazis are opposed by an unambiguously positive multinational alliance of characters —including ‘good Germans,’ that is, refugees and resistance fighters—that synecdochically represent their nations. Whereas all initially positive characters in The Good German become at least ambivalent as the film progresses, the initially ambivalent characters of Rick and Captain Renault eventually join the fight against the Nazis, thus proving Victor Lazlo, the film’s moral authority, right, who declares in a pivotal scene that “[e]ach of us has a destiny, for good or for evil.” Beginning with the film poster, which almost exactly copies that of the earlier film, The Good German constantly refers to Casablanca. As the similar posters suggest, the later film copies the character constellation of the earlier one, and there are also parallels on the plot level. Moreover, The Good German quotes various lines from Casablanca almost literally and copies the latter’s mise-en-scène and even single shots at various significant moments. To name just a few parallels: Both films revolve around a love triangle; in both films, the protagonists—Rick and Ilsa, Jacob and Lena—have an extramarital affair; in both films, one character—Victor Laszlo and Emil Brandt—is assumed to be dead temporarily; in both films, the married couple has a secret: that they are married in Casablanca and that the husband is still alive in The Good German; in both films, the third member of the triangle eventually decides to help the couple escape and is left at the airport in the end; in both films, the woman at one point threatens her former lover at gunpoint but kisses him only moments later; and in both films, the former lovers meet again in a bar. Invariably, however, The Good German performs what Linda Hutcheon calls “repetition with difference” (Theory of Parody 32), creating the effect of an “oscillation between a past image and a present one” for the viewers (Theory of Adaptation 172). They are reminded of the characters, events, scenes, shots, and lines from Casablanca, but at the same time, they are made aware of the differences between the two films. Like all parodies (in the broad sense in which Hutcheon uses this concept), then, The Good German requires a knowledgeable audience, that is, one that remembers Casablanca quite well. For audiences unfamiliar with the pretext, Soderbergh’s film—and this most probably explains its failure at the box office —is not incomprehensible but unsatisfying. All they see is an extremely world order brought about by the Treaty of Versailles—Rick was a political idealist throughout the 1930s, fighting against the fascists in Ethiopia and Spain and opposing the Nazis prior to the occupation of Paris. By the beginning of the film, however, embittered by Ilsa’s seeming betrayal, he is cynical and selfish. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he declares twice in the first third of the film, once receiving the answer, “A wise foreign policy,” and once being admonished that “[i]solationism is no longer a practical policy.” On Casablanca as a World War II propaganda film, cf. Brabazon; Nachbar; Ray 89-112; and Tunc.

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bleak vision of human nature that the film’s marketing as an homage to classical Hollywood has left them unprepared for. By contrast, an audience sufficiently familiar with Casablanca to understand where The Good German quotes it and where it departs from it is likely to derive a considerably higher viewing pleasure from the film. Most importantly, only such an audience can appreciate how The Good German critically engages with the politics of Casablanca. After all, there are numerous differences between the two films. For example, The Good German complicates Casablanca’s love triangle, since both Tully and Emil Brandt occupy the place of Victor Laszlo for a while and since only one character genuinely loves another one. Jacob never says “I stick my neck out for nobody,” as Rick does twice, but instead tells Brandt: “I’m the one sticking my neck out.” That Brandt is disguised as a French soldier at this moment makes the allusion to Casablanca all the more explicit, because Rick says it once to Captain Renault. More importantly, though, The Good German subverts Casablanca’s treatment of the male lead’s star persona. Whereas Curtiz’s film established Bogart as an outlaw hero whose characters usually start out as selfish cynics and then assume responsibility for others—for example, in To Have and Have Not (1944) or in The African Queen (1951)—Soderbergh’s film sets up the expectation that George Clooney will, as in many previous films, once again perform the role of the outlaw hero but then has his character develop into the opposite direction.6 Rather than listing all of these intertextual references, though, I will focus here on the dialogue between the films’ final scenes, where the dialogicity—that is, the ideological tension between the two—comes to the fore most pointedly. The ending of Casablanca is melodramatic but ultimately uplifting, as Rick manages to convince Ilsa to board the plane together with Laszlo, who shakes his hand and welcomes him “back to the fight.” Rick thus gives up the love of his life, but he is fully aware of the fact that his personal sacrifice is necessary for the greater good. Moreover, he is not alone at the end and, after shooting Major Strasser, walks off into the fog together with Captain Renault, whose dropping of a bottle of Vichy mineral water and covering for Rick indicates that he, too, has finally joined the fight against the Nazis, famously declaring that “this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” The final scene of The Good German is also set in an airport. As in Casablanca, the prop airliner is waiting in the background throughout, Cate Blanchett wears a hat that closely resembles that of Ingrid Bergman, and she and Clooney are blocked and shot exactly as Bergman and Bogart are in Casablanca—with the one exception that they have swapped places. Yet 6

For a thorough discussion of the complex fashion in which Soderbergh exploits Clooney’s star persona in The Good German and other films, cf. Baker, Steven Soderbergh 28-42.


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whereas Rick and Ilsa are with other people, Jacob and Lena are alone on the airfield, and when Lena boards the plane, there is no Louis around to walk off into the fog with—Jacob is utterly deserted. Most importantly, while in Casablanca the couple’s final conversation confirms their relationship despite the separation and makes the time they have shared even more valuable, the final conversation in The Good German destroys the romantic past that Jacob has been striving to relive throughout the story, as he realizes that he never really knew Lena. In this regard, it is significant that The Good German’s final moments quote not only the ending of Casablanca but also the scene set in the train station in Paris where Rick is waiting for Ilsa in order to flee with her before the Nazis occupy the city. Both at the train station in Paris and at the airport in Berlin it is raining heavily, and Lena’s final look back before she enters the plane evokes Rick’s look from the already moving train to the platform where Ilsa has not appeared. In The Good German, Lena’s and Jacob’s eyes meet one last time, but the effect is the same in both cases. The shared past loses its value because Rick thinks that Ilsa has betrayed him and Jacob knows that Lena has used him. In Casablanca, this impression is later corrected, but in The Good German, it is final. Accordingly, the film ends with an extreme long shot that shows that Jacob has already turned away, although the plane is still on the ground. That we never see the plane actually depart is of symbolic significance, as it confirms Lena’s earlier words that “[y]ou can never really get out of Berlin.” It is possible to leave Berlin physically, but it can never be left behind, because there is no escaping the guilt, the selfishness, and the blurring of the lines between good and evil that postwar Berlin prototypically represents in the film. The Good German also expresses this moral confusion stylistically by employing the tropes of film noir. Morally ambivalent characters, among them the manipulative femme fatale Lena, whose character recalls that of Marlene Dietrich in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (cf. deWaard 113), populate an urban jungle in which, because of the specifics of the noir aesthetics, the outlines of objects and people become as blurry as the latter’s ethical categories. Thus, both the plot and the visual style of The Good German are much darker than those of Casablanca. As far as style is concerned, the most important influences on The Good German are the chiaroscuro lighting and the enormous shadows of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). That The Good German takes its cues from this film is quite appropriate, as The Third Man also tells of the disillusionment of an American in a divided city, in this case postwar Vienna, and one of its central characters is presumed dead and hides in the sewers. Indeed, when the camera finally follows Lena to Brandt’s hideout in the Berlin sewers,

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some shots copy The Third Man as closely as the final scene quotes Casablanca.7 There are two reasons why using the noir style is both fitting and effective with regard to The Good German’s agenda of criticizing the dominant American image of World War II and postwar order. First, the classic films noirs of the late 1940s and 1950s can themselves be seen as critical engagements with the overly positive self-image of the United States after World War II. As William Luhr puts it, “[f]ilm noir depicted the contrarian underbelly of American popular culture’s heroic image of itself” (33). Second, Casablanca itself already contains elements of film noir. In a number of scenes, the lighting approximates that of The Third Man, and the city of Casablanca is a place where the rich exploit the poor and the law can be bought. Moreover, Rick regards Ilsa for a while as a femme fatale willing to do whatever it takes to get the transit visas. Additionally, at least when watching the film for the first time, Rick appears for quite some time to be the typical noir protagonist who turns criminal to reach his selfish goals. Only at the end does the first-time viewer realize that he deceives Ilsa and Laszlo to help them escape. By making Lena a real femme fatale and having Jacob eventually betray his initially high principles because of her, then, The Good German highlights the plot possibilities that Casablanca suggests but does not follow through with. Accordingly, the film’s engagement with its pre-text amounts to a veritable ‘rewriting’ of the original that makes it appear in a different light. 8 In the terminology of Pfister, it is a “post-text [that functions as] a meta-text for the pre-text” (“Folgetext zum Metatext des Prätexts”; 26). By reimagining Casablanca as a film noir, Soderbergh’s film draws attention to meanings that are latent already in the original but ultimately contained by its optimistic politics. It highlights that the sacrifice of personal interests and happiness for the greater good that Casablanca dramatizes and the benevolent role of the United States in world affairs that it allegorically stages are not adequate reflections of historical reality but ideological visions that veil what the plot of The Good German brings to the fore: Even in World War II, when the Americans fought on the right side, they were motivated not only by humanitarian reasons but (at least) just as much by personal greed and the protection of their national interests. Obviously, such a bleak evaluation of America’s actions in and after World War II—articulated while American troops were fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq in a 7


On the influence of The Third Man on The Good German, cf. also deWaard 114. As Andrew deWaard (115) and Aaron Baker (“Remade” 139) have pointed out, Soderbergh’s film also refers back to the by now classic neo-noir films of the 1970s, most notably Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). Not only is Jacob’s nickname Jake, which is also the name of the protagonist of that film, but both suffer a facial wound and do not understand what the woman they deal with really intends until it is too late. On the concept of rewriting, cf. Innes.


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‘war on terror’ whose legitimacy was increasingly being questioned at the time—cannot but speak to the present moment. By challenging myths about American behavior in World War II and replacing them with, as the film suggests by its frequent inclusion of documentary footage, more accurate depictions, The Good German offers, as Cynthia Fuchs put it in an early review, an “effective critique of U.S. mucking about in world affairs.” Its critique is so effective because the film not only suggests that the occupations of Berlin in 1945 and Baghdad and Kabul in 2006 have a lot in common but also because it deconstructs the cultural narratives about World War II that still served to legitimize the contemporary occupations of the time when the film was released.

“Am I the Story of the Negro in America?” Inglourious Basterds’s Juxtaposition of German and American History Unlike The Good German, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was a critical and commercial success. There are, however, also dissenting voices. Film critic Manohla Dargis, for example, suggests that the high degree of intertextuality—like all Tarantino films, Inglourious Basterds is “a movie about movies” (Woisnitza 259) in which every shot, line of dialogue, gesture, or character name, so it seems at least, quotes an earlier film or body of films9—works to marginalize the film’s serious subject matter: World War II and the Holocaust. Tarantino, she claims, is “really only serious about his own films, not history” (Dargis, “Tarantino”). By contrast, in his interpretation of the film, Michael Richardson argues that Inglourious Basterds takes history seriously but criticizes it for articulating a conservative agenda: “The film’s message of justified torture and its Manichean worldview is not very far afield from other post-9/11 glorifications of sadism and brutality in the name of a greater good” (108). To my mind, both of these readings are mistaken. Tarantino is certainly serious about film, but—in the case of Inglourious Basterds at least—that is because he is aware of how fundamentally filmic representations shape our views on conflicts past and present. The film certainly speaks to its historical context—as Eric Kligerman observes, “[w]e cannot [...] overlook the relevance of Inglourious Basterds in relation to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the film was released the same week as the C.I.A. report on the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib was made public” (147)—but in a fashion diametrically opposed to what Richardson assumes. The excessive intertextuality of Inglourious Basterds, I contend, performs a critical function very similar to that of the dialogue with Casablanca in The Good German. It self-reflexively comments on and cri9

Cf. Hake 175-81 and Seeßlen 99-138 for thorough discussions of these manifold allusions.

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tiques how earlier films have cemented the notion of American exceptionalism and moral superiority by perpetuating the dichotomy of good Americans and evil Nazis. Additionally, as it persistently juxtaposes German and American atrocities, Inglourious Basterds also exposes how the glorified image of the United States derived from World War II has served to bypass the more problematic chapters of American history and worked to legitimize interventions in later conflicts.10 Inglourious Basterds most obviously engages in a dialogue with the socalled dirty war films of the 1960s and 1970s, like Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), which inspired the Italian Inglorious Bastards (1978), from which Tarantino adopted the title of his film alongside some plot elements.11 Like these films, Tarantino’s movie is about the secret mission of a small group of American soldiers behind enemy lines. Initially, the small group of Jewish American GIs, commanded by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), simply tries to kill as many German soldiers as they can in order to undermine the morale of the Nazi troops occupying France. Halfway through the film, though, they become involved in Operation Kino, a plot to assassinate Hitler and other Nazi leaders at a film premiere in Paris. Thus, the Basterds’ mission coincides with the plans of the French Jew Shosanna, who earlier escaped Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the film’s most important Nazi villain; Shosanna now runs the cinema where the premiere is to take place. She also intends to assassinate the Nazis attending the screening of the propaganda film Stolz der Nation, and eventually her and the Basterds’ plans succeed—but only because Landa, who knows that the war is lost and wants to save himself, switches sides and helps the Basterds. In its final minutes, then, Inglourious Basterds, which at no moment pretends to adequately represent historical reality, takes a more explicit counterfactual turn. Yet the film is, as Todd Herzog correctly observes (275), not a typical counterfactual or alternate history, as it is not interested in the effects that the death of Hitler has on subsequent events. Rather, it reenacts on a larger scale what the older dirty war films did in small: It brings the conflict with the Nazis to a satisfying end. Films like The Dirty Dozen did this by having their American heroes successfully complete a mission cast as crucial for winning the war; Inglourious Basterds does it by having Hitler suffer the execution that he escaped in real life through his suicide. As Georg Seeßlen argues, even though the protagonists in dirty war films are often extremely brutal, employ torture, or kill enemies that have already surrendered, the audience nevertheless sympathizes with them because they ultimately fight for a just cause (cf. 106). Richardson adds to this the observation that the protagonists’ disregard for the rules of ‘civilized’ warfare is justified by the fact that, first, they are usually criminals 10 For readings of the film similar to mine, cf. Barlow; Brown; and McGee. 11 On dirty war films, cf. Seeßlen 99-112.


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who have chosen to participate in the mission in order to avoid prison or execution, and second, “nearly all of them fail to survive.” Their transgressions of the rules might be necessary for “the greater good,” but “to give such soldiers a pardon or other military honors [...] would undermine the legitimacy of the Allied cause” (100). With regard to Inglourious Basterds, Richardson argues that ethnicity replaces the criminal background: It is the Basterds’ “Jewish heritage [...] that functions to temper the brutality of their actions” (102). To a certain degree, this is of course correct. On one level, Inglourious Basterds is, as various critics have observed, a Jewish revenge fantasy that the audience can enjoy because the Nazis get what they deserve—and from representatives of the group that suffered most from them.12 This, of course, is something that happens frequently in American popular cultural representations of the fight against Hitler and the Nazis. The use of excessive violence and outright cruelty is justified by the fact that, as I have argued elsewhere, against an enemy considered to be the incarnation of evil, everything is allowed (cf. Butter 132). However, in Inglourious Basterds, the matter is more complicated. To begin with, the Holocaust is generally not a topic in dirty war films or the World War II combat film more generally, 13 and alternate histories of Jewish revenge are usually not played out in any of these genres. By having the Jewish protagonists of a dirty war film kill Hitler, Tarantino’s movie ironically drives over the top and thus exposes “the greatest fantasy of all, that World War II was fought to defend European Jews against Nazi atrocities” (McGee 189-90). Even more importantly, the film consistently aligns its American protagonists, both the Jews and the Gentile Aldo Raine, with the Nazis. It does so by the specific way in which it represents the violence the Basterds employ and by highlighting that the United States shares with Nazi Germany a history of genocide, racial violence, and discrimination. The excessive brutality of the Basterds is most powerfully problematized in the scene in which Sgt. Donny Dorowitz, the ‘Bear Jew’ (Eli Roth), clubs a German soldier to death with a baseball bat. Not only is the German soldier a prisoner of war and thus, in theory, entitled to be treated according to the Geneva Convention; he is killed for “not doing what would be considered shameful for any American soldier to do, supplying the enemy with information that will put his fellow soldiers at risk” (McGee 188-89). That the audience learns about his motivation for keeping silent and that the reason is one it can hardly disapprove of already distinguishes the scene from similar ones in earlier dirty war movies, where the victims of American violence are usually not individualized and their refusal to cooperate is not justified. Moreover, whereas the victims of American violence often remain anonymous in other films, first this German soldier is individual12 On Inglourious Basterds as a revenge fantasy, cf. Marzoni; Goldberg; Peretz; and Seeßlen 140. 13 On the World War II combat film, cf. Basinger.

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ized by a number of close shots and then the audience shares his point of view as he waits for his executioner to appear. Accordingly, Aaron Barlow is mistaken when he suggests that the scene dramatizes what “might be called the Dick Cheney Fantasy, the belief that torture is effective” because the next German soldier the Basterds question tells them what they want to hear (153). After all, it is an integral part of the “Dick Cheney Fantasy” that the act of torture is justified because American lives are in the balance. This is why the many post-9/11 representations that approve of torture, most notably maybe the early seasons of the TV series 24 (2001-10), usually employ a ticking bomb scenario. In fact, Inglourious Basterds reverses and thus implicitly critiques this scenario, as the torture in this scene does not serve the purpose of saving Americans but of killing more enemies.14 The ‘Bear Jew,’ however, is not the monster his name suggests but an average, even rather good-looking, young American man. Thus, by making neither victim nor perpetrator, neither the German nor the American, a monster, the film “blasts open the binary logic of othering – good and evil, us and them, human and monster – that is adhered to by Landa and Raine alike” (Boswell 176) and that dominates American representations of the conflict until today. This is made almost explicit by Raine’s metareferential comment: “Quite frankly, watching Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to goin’ to the movies.” On the one hand, it reminds the audience that they are sitting in front of a screen themselves and thus disrupts their consuming of representations of violence as entertainment. On the other hand, it foregrounds that such representations of violence have a long tradition in American cinema (as already the Basterds are aware of it), where the usually firm grounding in a clear-cut dichotomy of good and evil has often worked to justify the violence employed by the ‘good guys’ against the ‘bad guys.’ Hence, Raine’s comment ultimately also draws attention to the fact how the film subverts both the strict binary of good and evil and the justification of violence tied to it. Shosanna is also presented as an ambiguous character, a point that Michael Richardson overlooks when he argues that Shosanna’s suffering “lends an air of moral credibility and legitimates the actions of the Basterds beyond their stated project of spreading terror” (102). To begin with, the plotline that revolves around her features a scene that bears a certain similarity to the clubbing of the German soldier. In order to facilitate their revenge plot, Shosanna and her employee and friend Marcel put enormous pressure on the Frenchman who develops their film and even threaten to hurt his family. If this already “complicates our ability to identify with her” (Woisnitza 271), her exploitation of Marcel pushes things even further. She does not care about what will happen to him—an escape plan is never discussed—but “uses [his] love for her to put him into a situation that will most likely bring about his death” (McGee 186). In fact, as Patrick McGee 14 Cf. Kligerman 152 for a similar reading of this scene.


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suggests, her whole behavior throughout the second part of the film echoes “Israeli violence against Palestinians and other Arab nations” (186). For example, ‘her’ cinema is called ‘Le Gamaar’ and thus not only evokes “a possible transliteration of an Arabic word, ghamaar” but can be regarded as an Arab space she has occupied just as the Israelis occupied Palestinian territory during the nakba (184). That the cinema comes with a black servant, Marcel, who is clearly originally from a French colony, supports the reading that Shosanna, like Lena in The Good German, is thus victim of persecution and colonizing perpetrator at the same time. In addition, aligning the Jewish victim Shosanna with the Israeli violence of later decades that was often justified by references to the Holocaust makes perfect sense, as the film also problematizes how the Holocaust has been strategically employed in the United States. If the Shosanna plotline evokes Middle Eastern history after 1945, the Basterds plotline repeatedly recalls the more problematic chapters of American history since the beginning of European colonization. The Basterds’ guerilla tactics and especially their habit of scalping their victims is obviously reminiscent of behavior stereotypically associated with Native American resistance against white settlers, and this link is further enforced by the fact that their leader, Aldo Raine, claims to be partly Apache. That a group of American Jews mimics Native Americans in their fight against the Nazis further complicates any notion of American moral superiority, as it implicitly “equat[es] the Nazi treatment of Jews with the settlers’ treatment of Native Americans” (Brown 256). Inglourious Basterds thus suggests that the Native American genocide was a crime comparable to the Holocaust and highlights how the Americanization of the Holocaust has functioned to erase the memory of this American crime (cf. Novick 15; Stannard 150-53). The blurring of the line between good and evil that results from this parallelization is strengthened by the fact that both the Americans and the Germans symbolically perform the parts of Native Americans and white settlers at different moments in the film. Whereas Raine casts the Basterds as Apaches in the film’s second chapter, in the first chapter, Landa and his helpers are associated not only with the white outlaws of the spaghetti western but also with Native Americans who attack a remote farm. This effect is mostly achieved by way of mise-en-scène. The extreme long shots employed at the beginning of the scene show how isolated the small, simple farm is, which consists only of a little house, and thus evoke notions of the frontier. The eyeline matches—we see the wood-chopping farmer and his daughter and then what they are looking at, namely the Germans approaching in the distance—strengthen this effect, as they echo a scene familiar from countless westerns: The peaceful inhabitants of a farm in the wilderness watch the Indian enemy slowly approach. Yet one of the last shots of the scene, showing Landa’s back framed by the door from inside the house, suddenly evokes the iconic shot of John Wayne repeated several times in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), thus aligning Landa with this

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morally compromised enemy of all Native Americans. In later scenes, then, it is again the Basterds who are cast as Native Americans, with the German soldiers playing the parts of their white and frequently scalped victims. Finally, in the scene set in the cinema, the black-and-white images of the young German soldier (played by Daniel Brühl) taking a last stand in a church tower and killing countless Allied soldiers in the Nazi propaganda film Stolz der Nation echo images of whites fighting off Native Americans in classical Hollywood westerns, exposing and deconstructing the problematic ideology underlying both sets of images. Moreover, the history of slavery and the continued discrimination of African Americans—the major topic of Tarantino’s subsequent film, Django Unchained (2012), which suggests parallels between the plantation and the concentration camp—surfaces at various moments throughout the film. Both when he first addresses the Basterds and at various moments later on, Aldo Raine’s neck scar is clearly visible. Looking like a lynching mark, the scar reminds the audience of the United States’ own history of racial violence exerted by whites against nonwhites, most frequently blacks. However, in line with the film’s overall logic of dynamizing usually fixed binaries of good and evil, Native Americans and whites, or lyncher and lynched, it makes perfect sense that Raine, who is not black, displays the scar. Later on, when parts of the Basterds play the game Identity with a German officer in a bar outside of Paris, the officer’s questions—he is supposed to find out that he impersonates King Kong—and his conclusion —“Am I the story of the Negro in America?”—turn the story of King Kong into “an allegory of slavery in the USA” (Brown 256). In fact, the parallels are obvious: Both the first slaves and King Kong were captured, sold, and forcibly brought to America in order to be economically exploited, and, in the case of male slaves and the ape, severely punished whenever they appeared to come too close to white women. The German’s remarks thus highlight what the US and Nazi Germany “have in common: an imperialist racist tendency” (Brown 257). This parallel is even further developed toward the end of the movie, when Joseph Goebbels personally advises Shosanna that she should not leave the projection of Stolz der Nation to Marcel because he is black and cannot be trusted with such an important task. Accordingly, Marcel functions as what William Brown calls “a signifier [...] of American slavery” (262) and, I would add, of its aftermath. He has to hide in a backroom during the premiere, constituting a spatial arrangement that recalls the American policy of ‘separate but equal’ still in place at that time. Additionally, Shosanna and Marcel of course have to keep their affair—abhorred by the Nazis but considered a crime in many American states back then—a secret, as the Nazis would respond by moving the premiere elsewhere and thus foil the revenge plan. As Seeßlen argues, the fact that the killing of Hitler and the other Nazis takes place in a cinema and that film is literally a medium of their destruction must be understood as a critical engagement with Nazi propaganda,


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which relied heavily on film (161-72). I would suggest, however, that given Inglourious Basterds’s engagement with American film throughout, the scene speaks even more generally to the power of the medium as such to shape our understanding of history and thus to also motivate and legitimize violence. Yet Seeßlen is surely correct that the scene in the cinema “lures the audience into a [...] trap” (“Das Publikum wird in eine [...] Falle gelockt”; 142). The slaughtering of the Nazis by the Basterds in front of the screen replicates the slaughtering of the Allied soldiers on the screen in Stolz der Nation. Inglourious Basterds here, then, brings its deconstructionist work to a climax, as the juxtaposition reveals for the final time that both American culture and Nazi culture habitually represent(ed) the conflict in exactly the same fashion of relying on a strict dichotomy of good and evil. Thus, the film comments both on Nazi propaganda and on the countless American wartime and postwar films that project World War II as a series of heroic and morally unquestionable accomplishments by American soldiers. Not only do the American and the Nazi characters have more in common than is usually acknowledged but both Nazi and Hollywood cinema, Inglourious Basterds suggests, rely “on simplistic binary structures” (Meyer 20). In this regard, the ending of the film is of importance in a sense that has not yet been commented upon by critics and that strongly links Inglourious Basterds to The Good German. The critical impetus of Tarantino’s film does not merely hinge on the juxtaposition of what happens on and in front of the screen but also on the contrast of what happens inside the cinema and outside of it. Inside, the Basterds kill Hitler and the others; outside, Raine and his superiors make a deal with Landa. This suggests that in the cinema, that is, on film, the Nazis are relentlessly punished for their crimes, while morality is never compromised; outside, that is, in real life, obviously guilty Nazis went unpunished because of their strategic value for the national interests of the United States: “U.S. agencies [...], as we now know, really did find a postwar use for former Nazis like Landa” (McGee 191). Of course, unlike Bettmann in The Good German, or von Braun and many others in real life, Landa eventually does not get what he wanted, because Raine double-crosses him and carves a swastika into his forehead to mark him as a Nazi for life.15 Inglourious Basterds is cinema after all.

Conclusion Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, I have argued here, are political films in a dual sense. They engage with the political effects of filmic representations by way of refer15 Personally, though, I suspect that the clever and eloquent Landa will have no trouble coming up with an elegant excuse for this later in life.

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ring to and rewriting earlier films about World War II, and they do this in order to comment critically on how the memory of World War II, decisively shaped by the films they refer to, has been used after 9/11 to justify torture, the violation of human rights, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Why, then, one might ask, do they not make this critique more explicit by directly commenting on the ‘war on terror’? Christine Sprengler, who suggests that The Good German “expos[es] parallels between American involvement in each of the two conflicts [World War II and the ‘war on terror’]” (169), thinks that it does so only “allegorically” (170) because Soderbergh wanted to avoid pressure and indirect censorship from neoconservatives (171). As my reading has shown, however, The Good German’s critique—and the same goes for Inglourious Basterds—is all the more powerful because it does not get caught up in the politics of the day but, by working through older World War II films, tackles the mythical narrative of American moral superiority that legitimizes unlawful and immoral acts until today at the root.

Works Cited Adams, Michael C. C. The Best War Ever: America and World War II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. Print. The African Queen. Dir. John Huston. United Artists, 1951. Film. Baker, Aaron. “Remade by Steven Soderbergh.” Palmer and Sanders 121-42. ---. Steven Soderbergh. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2011. Print. Barlow, Aaron. Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010. Print. Basinger, Jeanine. The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2003. Print. Boswell, Matthew. Holocaust Impiety in Literature, Popular Music and Film. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2012. Print. Brabazon, Tara. “We’ll Always Have Paris? Fighting the People’s War in Popular Memory.” Senses of Cinema 2 (2000): n. pag. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. Brown, William. “Counterfactuals, Quantum Physics, and Cruel Monsters in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.” Dassanowsky 247-70. Buhrman, William D. “Nostalgia and Redemption in Joseph Kanon’s The Good German.” Literature and Theology 22.4 (2008): 475-90. Print. Butter, Michael. The Epitome of Evil: Hitler in American Fiction, 1939-2002. New York: Macmillan, 2009. Print. Casablanca. Dir. Michael Curtis. Warner, 1942. Film. Chinatown. Dir. Roman Polanski. Paramount, 1974. Film. Dargis, Manohla. “Spies, Lies and Noir in Berlin.” New York Times. New York Times, 15 Dec. 2006. Web. 4 July 2012. ---. “Tarantino Avengers in Nazi Movieland.” New York Times. New York Times, 20 Aug. 2009. Web. 24 Mar. 2014. Dassanowsky, Robert von, ed. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds: A Manipulation of Metacinema. New York: Continuum, 2012. Print.


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deWaard, Andrew. “Intertextuality, Broken Mirrors, and The Good German.” Palmer and Sanders 107-19. The Dirty Dozen. Dir. Robert Aldrich. MGM, 1967. Film. Django Unchained. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Weinstein, 2012. Film. Doherty, Thomas. Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. Print. A Foreign Affair. Dir. Billy Wilder. Paramount, 1948. Film. Fuchs, Cynthia. “The Good German (2006).” PopMatters. PopMatters, 18 Dec. 2006. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. Goldberg, Jeffrey. “Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger.” The Atlantic Sept. 2009: 74-77. Print. The Good German. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Warner, 2006. Film. Hake, Sabine. Screen Nazis: Cinema, History, and Democracy. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2012. Print. Herzog, Todd. “‘What Shall the History Books Read?’ The Debate over Inglourious Basterds and the Limits of Representation.” Dassanowsky 271-96. Hoberman, J. “The Good German.” East Bay Express. East Bay Express, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2014. . Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print. ---. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. New York: Methuen, 1985. Print. The Inglorious Bastards [Quel maledetto treno blindato]. Dir. Enzo G. Castellari. Capitol, 1978. Film. Inglourious Basterds. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Weinstein, 2009. Film. Innes, C. L. “The Politics of Rewriting.” A Concise Companion to Postcolonial Literature. Ed. Shirley Crew and David Richards. Chichester: Wiley, 2010. 5677. Print. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. Print. Kanon, Joseph. The Good German. New York: Picador, 2001. Print. Kligerman, Eric. “Reels of Justice: Inglourious Basterds, The Sorrow and the Pity, and Jewish Revenge Fantasies.” Dassanowsky 135-62. Luhr, William. Film Noir. Malden: Wiley, 2012. Print. Marzoni, Andrew. “‘The Villany You Teach Me, I Will Execute’: Vengeance and Imitation in Shakespeare, Marlowe, and the Jewish Revenge Film.” Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Gabrielle Malcom and Kelli Marshall. Newcastle: Cambridge, 2012. 161-73. Print. McGee, Patrick. Bad History and the Logics of Blockbuster Cinema: Titanic, Gangs of New York, Australia, Inglourious Basterds. New York: Macmillan, 2012. Print. Meyer, Imke. “Exploding Cinema, Exploding Hollywood: Inglourious Basterds and the Limits of Cinema.” Dassanowsky 15-36. Müller, Anett. Formen des Archivbildes: Historisches Bewusstsein im zeitgenössischen Spielfilm. Darmstadt: Büchner, 2010. Print. Nachbar, Jack. “Doing the Thinking for All of Us: Casablanca and the Home Front.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27.4 (2000): 5-15. Print. Novick, Peter. The Holocaust in American Life. Boston: Houghton, 1999. Print.

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Ó Dochartaigh, Pól. “Shades of Gray: The Beginnings of the Postwar Moral Compromise in Joseph Kanon’s The Good German.” Representing the ‘Good German’ in Literature and Culture After 1945: Altruism and Moral Ambiguity. Ed. Pol Ó Dochartaigh and Christiane Schönfeld. Rochester: Camden, 2013. 212-26. Print. Palmer, R. Barton, and Steven M. Sanders, eds. The Philosophy of Steven Soderbergh. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2011. Print. Peretz, Eyal: “What Is a Cinema of Jewish Vengeance? Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.” Yearbook of Comparative Literature 56 (2010): 64-74. Print. Pfister, Manfred. “Konzepte der Interaktivität.” Intertextualität: Formen, Funktionen, anglistische Fallstudien. Ed. Ulrich Broich and Manfred Pfister. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1985. 1-30. Print. Ray, Robert B. A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985. Print. Richardson, Michael D. “Vengeful Violence: Inglourious Basterds, Allohistory, and the Inversion of Victims and Perpetrators.” Dassanowsky 93-112. The Searchers. Dir. John Ford. Warner, 1956. Film. Seeßlen, Georg. Quentin Tarantino gegen die Nazis: Alles über Inglourious Basterds. Berlin: Bertz, 2009. Print. Sprengler, Christine. Screening Nostalgia: Populuxe Props and Technicolor Aesthetics in Contemporary American Film. New York: Berghahn, 2009. Print. Stannard, David E. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. Print. The Third Man. Dir. Carol Reed. British Lion, 1949. Film. To Have and Have Not. Dir. Howard Hawks. Warner, 1944. Film. Tunc, Tanfer Emin. “Casablanca: The Romance of Propaganda.” Bright Lights Film Journal 55 (2007): n. pag. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. Woisnitza, Mimmi. “Messing Up World War II-Exploitation: The Challenges of RolePlay in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.” Nazisploitation! The Nazi Image in Low-Brow Cinema and Culture. Ed. Daniel H. Magilow, Elizabeth Bridges, and Kristin T. Vander Lugt. New York: Continuum, 2012. 258-78. Print.


The Last Days of American Civilization: The Poetics of Righteous Violence in Bob Goldthwait’s Black Comedy God Bless America Abstract: God Bless America is a 2012 film directed by Bob Goldthwait. Building on an earlier American tradition of aestheticized cultural despair in film and literature, it depicts the terminal stages of an ongoing crisis of community and civility in the United States. Goldthwait indicts the mass-consumer majority of the population, portraying their descent into a public theater of cruelty and boorish behavior that lies at the root of the decline of civil society. This triggers a violent reaction from Frank, an everyman character unable to tolerate the daily assault on his sensibilities. Reeling from the diagnosis of a terminal illness, Frank goes on a shooting rampage, killing a succession of character types that Goldthwait has picked out of the media environment to illustrate the ‘new normality’—the daily freak show of self-involved, infantile, and aggressive rudeness. This article examines the political and aesthetic assumptions behind Goldthwait’s critique and investigates the rhetorical strategies he employs to carry it out. Bob Goldthwait confronts us through the vehicle of morbid black comedy with the disturbing possibility that mass-consumer democracy has failed, on the moral/aesthetic as well as the political/economic level, to create a culture worth living in. Via the poetics of politics, the film affirms that art can address pressing issues of community without losing the beauty of formal inventiveness.

Introduction Bob Goldthwait is an American stand-up comedian and director who reached a first career peak in the 1980s. Stand-up is a genre in which the politics of daily life—politics in its broadest sense—are often the subject of critique and absurdist ridicule. This aesthetics of politics informs the writing and production of Goldthwait’s film God Bless America, released in 2011. The film is a black comedy that, regardless of how hilarious and surreal the plot becomes, feels like it was made by someone who truly cares and is deeply concerned about the direction his culture is taking. The film follows Frank Murdoch and Roxy Harmon, a middle-aged man and a teenage girl who go on a shooting rampage because they are fed up with the society around them. It draws on familiar cultural associations with the Depression-era story of Bonnie and Clyde, in particular the mythic, irrational depiction of this first motorized serial-killer glamour couple in the eponymous 1967 film. Building on a literary tradition of cul-


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tural pessimism reaching back to Christopher Lasch, Robert D. Putnam, and Morris Berman, Goldthwait’s film links these voices to a separate tradition of traveling serial-killer narratives in other, earlier films such as Natural Born Killers (1994), Falling Down (1993), and Badlands (1973). God Bless America depicts what Goldthwait sees as the last, terminal stages of an ongoing cultural crisis of community and civility in the United States in the early twenty-first century. However, the film approaches the death of the civic sphere from a different angle than movements targeting an amoral and antisocial economic elite (such as Occupy). Through the eyes of his protagonists, Goldthwait instead indicts the mass-consumer majority of the population, portraying their descent into an omnipresent public theater of media-driven cruelty, selfishness, and boorish behavior—a theme in the tradition of American cultural pessimism previously explored in films such as Little Murders (1971), and Network (1976). The accelerating decline of standards of behavior and civility triggers an anguished and despairing reaction from Frank, an everyman character locked into a routine office job who is finally unable to tolerate the daily assault on his sensibilities from everybody he sees around him. Reeling from the diagnosis of a supposedly terminal illness, Frank embarks on a campaign to kill a succession of obnoxious character types that Goldthwait has selected from the current media environment to serve as poster children for what the director perceives as a ‘new normality’ pervading everyday life—a daily freak show of self-involved, infantile, and aggressive rudeness. Frank is joined on his mission by Roxy, a nonconformist, highly alienated high school girl who at first seems a straightforward victim of family abuse but who then actually reveals a far more nihilistic attitude to modern society in the course of the film. Through Frank’s and Roxy’s adventures in killing obnoxious people, Goldthwait dramatizes an extreme but understandable response to the slow death of civic consciousness and a resulting epidemic of public rudeness and self-absorption. This article examines some of the modalities currently active in American life that Goldthwait indicts for having allowed this emotional and behavioral regime to emerge in the last two or three decades: propaganda, fear, and hate as mass-consumer products; a growing national sense of existential crisis; and a cult of self-promotion through mediatized public humiliation and redemptive violence.

Antecedents and Rhetorical Strategies The film takes up the traditions of two genres: the ‘social problem’ cinema, a genre that had its beginnings in the Depression-era 1930s, and the black comedy, which came into prominence by the later 1960s. In their 1988 book Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film, Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner observe that social problem films have “traditionally been a battleground between conservatives and

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liberals regarding such social issues as crime, political corruption, drugs, and youth gangs” (87). By the 1970s, such movies had become mostly vehicles for politically ambiguous or clearly conservative statements, with titles like Dirty Harry (1971) or Taxi Driver (1976). Conservative social problem films tend to portray crime as “the result of an evil human nature, not of social conditions” (87); “[t]he notion of systemic ‘evil’ is alien to it” (89). In the worldview of these films, individuals trying to eliminate crime are not themselves acting amorally, even if they use violence outside a legal context. This position shifts slightly in later films like Falling Down, in which the main character similarly kills people whom he identifies as uncivilized, amoral, and criminal subjects. This time, however, he has to die at the end to restore moral order, because this restoration requires affirming the police monopoly of violence to keep societal order. Interestingly, in God Bless America, the police do not restore moral order by hunting down Frank and Roxy; the police reaction to the duo’s rampage is part of the problem. Network and Natural Born Killers are films that, like God Bless America, indict the media as the main systemic evil enabling this collapse in civil behavior. Goldthwait deploys the same strategy of long monologues used in Network to address the evils of a media-dependent society. Network, however, depicts the beginnings of a sensationalist multimedia environment in the 1970s, whereas God Bless America deals with the consequences of such developments a generation later. Yet the rhetorical arc is similar in both films: The individuals fighting against sensationalism in the media end up creating a media sensation themselves. In Network, the news reporter who ensures high viewer ratings does so precisely because he talks about the media as being corrupt. Natural Born Killers depicts, in even more detail, the sensationalist impact of a camera team as it films a pair of homicidal desperadoes who ultimately stage a spectacular prison revolt. In God Bless America, Frank’s humiliation and then his shooting spree eventually reinforce the same sensationalism he deplores. The other genre on which Goldthwait draws in God Bless America is black comedy, a form in which topics that are terminally unfunny—death, selfishness, hatred, violence, illness, rape, cruelty, malevolence, tragic fate —undergo philosophical exploration via the deployment of absurdity, exaggeration, demented consistency, and other strategies derived from ‘normal’ comedy. Such films undermine viewers’ resistance or skepticism by making them secretly, involuntarily giggle, while simultaneously experiencing massive conscious discomfort at what is actually being portrayed. Theoreticians of the form such as André Breton have located antecedents that go back to Jonathan Swift and Vladimir Nabokov as well as isolated instances in surrealist and other films of the 1920s. Postwar writers and comedians of broad appeal who have been associated with the form include Kurt Vonnegut, Roald Dahl, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, Lenny Bruce, and the Monty Python troupe. The emergence of black comedy as a


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popular English-speaking film genre is generally located in the success of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb of 1964, neatly coinciding with the 1965 publication of a landmark anthology Black Humor, edited by the writer Bruce Jay Friedman. These two works arguably started the mainstreaming of black comedy over the next two decades in American film and television, with early films and television series such as M.A.S.H. (1972-83) as well as a constant stream of successful Hollywood film productions until the present. Goldthwait himself rose up through the ranks of stand-up in a period in the 1980s where black comedy was particularly well-represented; Sam Kinison and George Carlin were also prominent names working in the genre. Yet Goldthwait’s challenge goes beyond the effective juxtaposition of shock and laughter. Audiences for feature films generally understand that such productions are imaginative interpretations or extrapolations, clearly differentiated from the real. Such fictional films contain an inner, constructed narrative which first has to be evaluated in terms of its own logic before relating it to the outside world upon which these narratives reflect. Outside the relatively straightforward framing of the fiction feature, however, lies a conceptually slippery hybrid landscape where forms such as documentaries, docudramas, and ‘docufiction’ jostle for a secure epistemological position vis-à-vis the ‘realities’ they aim to depict. An even more promiscuous blurring of fact and fiction takes place daily in the systematic elisions between real and mediated found in the reality TV and infotainment formats. One result of the blending of the black comedy and social problem genres in God Bless America is a collapse of the clear distinction between a film’s inner logic and its reflection of outside concerns. The result in Goldthwait’s film is an uncomfortable kind of tension between various kinds of ‘realism,’ internal and external.1 This tension is what makes the film as effectively ‘real’ as a documentary, albeit in a different manner. As fictional features, comedy films (black or not) rely on the concept of an underlying inner narrative, as opposed to the stream of consciousness that drives typical stand-up comedy routines. However, in contrast to other kinds of feature films, the inner narrative logic of a black comedy like God Bless America is often unstable. The outer logic, the critique of the real world, on the other hand, is very strong. This discrepancy makes it difficult to choose the analytical register in which to write about God Bless America. While the authors of this article have thus decided to mainly focus on the real-world critique, it will be useful at the start to explore how Goldthwait achieves his blurring of facts and fiction via a closer examination of a key early scene. 1

Perhaps the most effective exploration of both the philosophical and the technical problems involved in these issues lies in the work of the film studies scholar Bill Nichols, in particular Representing Reality and Blurred Boundaries.

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The film starts with the camera’s bird’s eye moving across the permeable interiors of two adjoining units of a condo development. The first unit holds a young family with a crying baby watching TV. In the second unit, Frank, the main character, lies in his bed suffering from a migraine, hearing everything going on in the family’s unit next door. Their inane, loud conversation and the baby’s incessant crying serves as a trigger for Frank’s interior monologue, wherein he laments—from a distanced, critical perspective—the low levels to which conduct, speech, and thinking have plummeted. The unthinkable happens: Frank breaks into the family’s apartment with a shotgun and shoots the loud television as well as the husband watching it. As the horrified wife narcissistically holds up her baby as a human shield for herself, he shoots the (off-camera) infant, blood splattering everywhere and drenching the face of the woman. Meanwhile, Johannes Brahms’s “Lullaby” plays in the background, as white confetti flies around. Over the opening credits, we switch back to Frank, who is revealed as still lying in his bed, having only fantasized the killing of the family. This establishing scene, we would argue, opens up the possibility that the numerous killings that follow later in the movie are similarly ‘imagined’ fantasies, although they are portrayed as ‘real’ in the film’s secondary reality. This initial scene alerts the audience that the film’s narrative is (largely) a certain kind of fiction-within-a-fiction, hewing closely to the filmic surrealistic convention of concretely depicted wish fulfillment.

The Moral Consequences of US Decline God Bless America explores what happens to a culture when the belief that material prosperity resolves all political and existential questions has lost legitimacy. Goldthwait also asks: Can a democracy leave questions of community, value, and citizenship up to the market? He joins other critics such as James Howard Kunstler and Morris Berman in reversing a cherished trope of critical/‘progressive’/leftist US discourse, that of a basically decent population deluded by economic elites and their captive media. Instead, God Bless America suggests, it is the inherent, even natural thoughtlessness, cruelty, self-absorption, and vulgarity of the broad American population itself that enable unsustainable consumerism and cruel cultural triviality at home as well as a hostile, incurious, and predatory relationship to the rest of the world.2 2

In his 2005 book The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler points out the potential for social breakdown in the path dependency of US consumer culture on declining oil production and the consequences of this depletion for future social cohesion and national stability. Morris Berman also takes the breakdown of the American system as his starting point in his recent trilogy: The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed. Berman explores how

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A historically informed critique of this decay (implicit in Goldthwait’s film but insufficiently developed) must locate the origins of the new incivility not in the countercultural change of the late 1960s but rather in the later 1970s, with what Charles S. Maier describes as the replacement of the “Empire of Production” (191) with an “Empire of Consumption” (238). It was then that cultural observers of a conservative bent such as Christopher Lasch and Allan Bloom began remarking on a noticeable decay in mass civic behavior, as opposed to the earlier changes brought by the counterculture. Yet, just as cartoon animals such as Wile E. Coyote from the television programming of this era would overshoot cliffs and still run on thin air for a while before falling down, the geopolitically triumphant United States ended the century on a consumption high fueled by an overfinancialized, dangerously expanded definition of credit-based mass prosperity. Repressed popular anxiety found expression in myths of alien abduction in the X-Files TV series (1993-2002), in hysteria over ‘satanic ritual abuse’ cults running the day care centers where a generation of working parents parked their children, in waves of anti-immigrant sentiment, in the Y2K scare, and in the conflation of ethnic and class paranoia that shaped a ‘war on drugs.’ Although the 9/11 attacks did not cause the decay in civility that Goldthwait explores, they provided an officially sanctioned trigger for expressing longer-term existential unease, even before the economic crash of 2008.

Decay in Civilized Behavior In God Bless America, the entire society, regardless of class or background, appears to the viewer as irredeemably rude, an outward reflection of a people whose inner state is unsocial, selfish, materialistic, scared, and jingoistic. Although the film’s portrayal of Frank’s violent actions as main protagonist encourages a significant amount of distance between him and the audience, in the end, Frank’s perception of an irrevocable collapse into rudeness is also shared by Goldthwait himself as the film’s creator. The film’s truly subversive demand is that, regardless of whatever goes on in politics, the economy, or culture, people should nevertheless behave politely and decently. Yet it is paradoxically in the name of this crying need for decency that Frank shoots spoiled teenagers who humiliate their parents (as well as the self-involved parents who witlessly enable their own humiliation); people who disturb others with cell phone conversations during a movie; audiences who enjoy the humiliation of others in reality or amateur talent TV programs; and, worst of all, people who are actually happy being humiliknowledge and moral values can survive in the coming civilizational collapse— hidden, as in the Dark Ages, in libraries and intentional communities of cultural preservationists or “new monastic individual[s]” (Twilight 136).

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ated themselves on one of these shows, as long as they have the chance of appearing on TV. By rejecting the idea that all these individuals and groups are guiltless victims of media manipulation, the film tackles head-on the question of agency. Seen from Goldthwait’s particular ideological perspective, the film seeks to reclaim the universal idea of individual responsibility away from a political right that, for partisan purposes, claims to monopolize it as a quintessentially American virtue. While it emphasizes the nonpartisan nature of individual responsibility, God Bless America ironically echoes rightist cultural critiques by also indicting all forms of electronic media as complicit in the destruction of decency. In the film, people either speak only about the trivial or degrading content of shows they have seen on TV or take the preselected topics and opinions and the simplistic, unreflective way these topics are handled by the media as the basis for their own personal views and opinions. The result is a society that cannot engage—as the film puts it—in “real conversation[s]” anymore.

The Futility of Parody Apart from its interest in the general categories of infotainment and advertising, God Bless America also has a particular focus on two genres of demotic ‘reality television’ that were very popular in the English-speaking electronic media of the early twenty-first century: comedic stunt shows and amateur talent contests. As part of its internal fictional world, the film features a broad selection of fictional broadcast film segments, which are parodies of mainstream shows in these two genres that actually existed in the real world and were screened between, mostly, 2006 and 2009. On a basic aesthetic and contextual level, commentators have noted that Goldthwait does not need to exert much effort in the making of his own parodies out of real-world TV programming. Ian Buckwalter writes in the film review section of the Atlantic magazine: [The parodies’] targets have real-world analogues who aren’t difficult to pick out. It would be fair to assume that Goldthwait would film the reality show segments and FOX News-style spots as parody-style exaggerations, but the director actually plays these completely straight: They’re simply restaged versions of actual shows. This decision keeps the film grounded in a recognizable world, making it easy to identify which character is standing in for Bill O’Reilly, or Glenn Beck, or TMZ celebrity reporter Harvey Levin. (emphasis ours)

Yet perhaps Goldthwait is faced with a harder task than Buckwalter suspects: How can a form be effectively parodied when it is already the best parody of itself? Perhaps we are at a moment in the life of the culture where the possibilities of parody as a rhetorical strategy are no longer capable of capturing the ever-present (and hopelessly mutated) phenom-


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enon of infotainment in a sufficiently robust critical frame. When this parodistic frame itself has become compromised by cynical media operators as a knowing mode of self-marketing to an equally cynical audience, the ‘genuine’ critic is reduced to simply presenting the unrevised selfparody—thereby running the risk of serving as an echo chamber for the original producers of the content. Goldthwait appears to accept this risk for the sake of his critique.

Rudeness, Materialism, Self-Absorption The film identifies the dumbing down of the media world as the ‘new colosseum’ in which we laugh at other people’s humiliation. 3 This particularly cruel kind of opium for the masses comes along when “a mighty empire starts collapsing,” as Frank puts it to an irritating colleague in a long monologue during a particularly trying day at the office. Frank asks: “I mean, why have a civilization anymore if we no longer are interested in being civilized?” When Frank watches TV or listens to radio, we are immersed in his point of view as he is assaulted by the omnipresent and intrusive rudeness of the programming. We see, for example, an ad for a farting pig ringtone or an ad for a power drink advertised with the slogan “In Your Face!” A parody clip from the Goldthwait-invented reality show Tuff Gurlz is modeled after the real-life MTV reality show Jersey Shore (2009-12). Among a group of females living in one house, some of them minor celebrities of one kind or the other, we see one woman throw her used tampon at another in the course of an argument. 4 Another parody YouTube clip shows kids killing a homeless person by igniting his sleeping bag. In a parody radio show, a speaker suggests that the entire team supporting cycling professional Lance Armstrong should get cancer, so that they win. All these ‘invented’ incidents of parody actually have their almost identical counterparts in real US media. The incident that finally triggers Frank’s shooting spree emerges from his viewing of a Goldthwait-invented parody of a TV reality show, in which 3


The history of debates over the ethical obligations of media channels to avoid showing the humiliation of people in front of the camera is beyond the proper scope of this article. It will be useful to briefly note that media outlets do sometimes require participants in reality shows to sign a consent form, authorizing the show to screen anything that happens in front of the camera, so that their actual programming is legally protected from later litigation. This did not happen in the real Jersey Shore show, but other humiliating incidents have happened there. The throwing of a used tampon in public appears to have first taken place in a more politically confrontational manner in 1992 in the course of a concert by the band L7, thrown into the crowd by the lead vocalist Donita Sparks. The ‘riot grrrl’ musician Allison Wolfe later also staged another such incident (Peck).

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a teenage girl named Chloe insults her rich parents and is worshipped by her fawning circle of school classmate acolytes. The parody show is closely modeled after a real reality show, My Super Sweet 16 (2005-08). The fictional Chloe says “Mother, you look like a whore!” and later “I hate you!” when her parents buy her the wrong car for her birthday. She then starts screaming: “I wanted an Escalade! [...] I wanted an Escalade!” (In the real episode 39 of My Super Sweet 16, aired on June 18, 2007, a real teenager named Audrey Reyes similarly screamed at her mother that she hated her after having received a new Honda Lexus, costing $67,000—because she got it before, instead of after, her birthday party.)5 Frank mutes the TV program to take a phone call from his hostile ex-wife, who is unable to control the explosive temper tantrums of their own daughter. Frank’s exwife bought the daughter a BlackBerry smartphone, although the latter expected the more desirable Apple iPhone. Frank’s child, about six years old, proceeds to yell “I want an iPhone! I want an iPhone!” incessantly during the phone call—which Frank hears while seeing the mouth movements of Chloe on TV. Feeling like they are falling down the deepest of all semiotic rabbit holes, the authors of this article can only conclude: The secondarily fictional ‘reality’ shows of the ‘primarily’ fictional world in which Frank lives are not really exaggerations of the ‘reality’ shows in the ‘real’ world.

Propaganda, Fear, and Hate Speech Goldthwait’s film identifies a particularly unfocused, lazy, and uninformed form of ‘hate’ that has escalated from this foundation of rudeness, self-centeredness, and cruelty to permeate American society and eliminate rational debate. In an early scene in the living room of Frank’s neighbors, the mother of the family instantly reacts to televised accusations that Michael Jackson may have molested young children by saying: “I hate people who say bad things about Michael Jackson”; her husband adds: “I fucking hate haters.” Members of a parody religious cult clearly intended to represent the real-life homophobic Westboro Baptist Church hold up placards reading ‘God hates fags.’ Ultimately, Frank and Roxy also let their own anger out, listing with relish whom they hate and wish to kill: “people who say ‘namaste’ [a Buddhist greeting supposedly popular among aging, self-involved California baby boomers, which Frank explains as “an Indian greeting the hippies stole”],” “people who give high fives,” “adult women


The Daily Mail states about the British version of the show: “In an age of celebrity, where anyone desperate – and rich – enough can get their 15 minutes of fame, the series is a depressing indictment of our next generation’s goals and aspirations” displaying “the crippling excesses of fame and capitalism that have come to symbolise our society” (Hoyle).


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who call their tits ‘the girls,’” “anyone who makes a living spreading fear to the masses,” etc. The three most shocking and hate-filled parody infotainment clips in Goldthwait’s film feature the invented characters Michael Fuller and Stan Kurtz. These characters are the film’s alter egos for the real-life media commentators Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, both closely associated at the time with the pro-conservative real-life Fox News Network. Kurtz makes a racist comment in connection with President Obama: “We have a press that just gives him a free pass because he’s black so he doesn’t have to work hard like the rest of us who play by the rules.” On the screen, we see a poster of Obama in a Nazi uniform complete with swastika and a Hitler mustache. In the real world, that image has shown up, among other instances, on advertisement billboards along interstate highways (“Billboard”). The real Glenn Beck denounced Obama as being racist and antiwhite in the Fox & Friends (1998-) morning show on July 28, 2009 (“Glenn Beck”). The stand-in for Bill O’Reilly, the character Michael Fuller, appears twice. First, he comments on a woman (a so-called Gold Star Mom) who demands the end of the Iraq War, in which her son died: “Just because she lost her son in the war does not give her the right to disrespect all of our brave sons and daughters who are serving our country right now. Frankly, I think her son’s better off dead, because now he doesn’t have to see the jerk that his mother has turned into.” Reporting on the real-life protest conducted by the bereaved mother Cindy Sheehan, which began on August 9, 2005, outside George Bush’s Texas ranch, the columnist Art Buchwald writes in the Washington Post: “It isn’t easy to trash a mother who lost her son in Iraq, but O’Reilly has managed to do it.” In another clip, we see the fictional Fuller in heated discussion with a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, a real-world organization that has taken the lead in protests and legal challenges against state restrictions of civil liberties. Fuller says: “I would much rather lose my rights to freedom of speech than ever have the ACLU defend my right to freedom of speech. The ACLU [...] I think is more dangerous to the United States than al-Qaeda.” In the real world, Gabe Wildau reports on Media Matters: “On June 2 [2004], Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly referred to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as a ‘fascist organization’ [...][,] compared the ACLU to Al Qaeda and announced that the ACLU is ‘the most dangerous organization in the United States of America right now.’” The tone of the film’s portrayal of the media world, of this world’s successive framings in the larger culture, and of its impact on the community feature attempts to avoid overly broad, and therefore ineffective, parody. The nature of the real existing media world in the United States makes this very difficult to do. We see very quick cuts of TV and radio clips that help to drive the plot forward—only slightly altered and taken from real shows and clips. The plot itself, with its climax in a shooting rampage, then feeds

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into the sensationalist reality-TV world criticized by the film itself. The short attention spans, unreflective anger, and other behavior patterns of audiences spellbound by narratives of humiliation and violence in the media are repeated in Frank’s encounters, in which he is repeatedly humiliated, ignored, or disrespected by other people before he shoots them. On the surface, the film therefore seems guilty of what it criticizes— celebrating humiliation, violence, even ‘hate’ speech as practiced by Frank and Roxy and depicting the ‘violence porn’ of revenge fantasies as a realworld topic. When the film’s finale plays out as a spectacular armed attack on the season finale of the parody amateur talent contest American Superstarz, Goldthwait concludes his assault on the system from the inside. He achieves this with a kind of overidentification on the part of Frank and Roxy. As they climb onstage to confront the studio audience, they become part of the show and use the opportunities that hijacking it gives them to speak to a larger audience, an access only made possible by aesthetically participating in this media spectacle.6

Humiliation In his article about “Mass-Mediated Humiliation as Entertainment and Punishment,” Steven A. Kohm points towards a reemergence of shame and humiliation “as central concerns of late 20th-century criminal justice” (189). In addition, he looks at the way these practices have “become increasingly commodified, enacted, and experienced through hybrid forms of mass media that blur the boundaries of reality and entertainment” (188). 7 God Bless America’s take on humiliation, the talent contest American Superstarz, is modeled after the real-life show American Idol (2002-). In Goldthwait’s version, a Latino teenager named Steven Clark is humiliated by the jury after he performs a song in an extremely mediocre way, with awful dance movements and obsequious, cartoonlike bowing to the judges. The jury tells him that he should go into a mental institution; the character, 6


Overidentification is a psychoanalytic term and political strategy defined and explored by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek in his The Plague of Fantasies. It refers to an exaggerated embrace of the outward surface manifestations of the target ideology or individual being criticized in order to strip away a facade of harmlessness and reveal the latter’s inner absurdity or evil. It is perhaps significant that current studies of media-cultural humiliation, such as Amber Eliza Watts’s dissertation “Laughing at the World,” do not reflect upon the real-life reasons why people let themselves be humiliated in front of a camera (one being poverty, the other the hope of big-time success without much investment). Watts’ study only investigates the entertainment value of humiliation as a ‘text,’ interpreting trash TV as a deconstruction of an elite approach and as an expression of democracy.


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as portrayed in the film, indeed appears to be mildly mentally handicapped. The subsequent career of Clark on American Superstarz plays an important part in the plot of Goldthwait’s film. When Frank wakes up after a difficult night, the TV is still running, showing a morning talk show in which people laugh about Clark’s terrible performance. Driving to work, Frank hears a radio program that makes fun of Clark as one of the “retards” they have on the show. Later on in the evening, a show appears on the parody TV channel TMI, where the commentator—the fictional alter ego of Harvey Levin, founder of the real-life TMZ Internet portal—asks his assistants to come up with something funny. Someone suggests Steven Clark making his obsequious bowing move, which the show combines with stereotypical ‘Oriental’ music.8 We hear from other news clips later in the film that Clark attempted suicide after producing a music CD and that the season finale of American Superstarz will feature another of his ‘performances.’ Frank shows up in the studio where the finale is being recorded and broadcast, interrupting Clark’s humiliating performance, this time complete with live band and smirking dancers mimicking his ridiculous stage moves. Frank proceeds to shoot members of the jury and audience, after which he forces other jury members to go on stage and perform the song and dance that Steven Clark had been performing, and he has the audience continue with their booing. Then Frank is interrupted by Clark himself, who tells him: “I didn’t try to kill myself because people were making fun of me. I tried to kill myself because they weren’t gonna put me on TV anymore.” Frank has a dark epiphany. He realizes that far from being a simple victim exploited by a cruel society addicted to spectacle, Steven Clark is himself hopelessly contaminated with the virus of mediatized, dishonest virtual ‘experience.’ There really is no human being left called Steven Clark, but simply a humiliated nonentity going through the motions of portraying ‘Steven Clark,’ a character complicit in his own humiliation. Frank then also shoots Clark. Goldthwait seems to suggest that a final collapse of the difference between exploiters and the exploited has occurred, a collapse that is irrevocable. The real-life story played out slightly differently in the real-life American Idol, where Hong Kong-born contestant William Hung sang out of tune and also performed equally embarrassing amateur dance moves in 2004. After having been dismissed by the jury, he did not leave the stage 8

Musicologists have identified a nine-note passage or motif variously known as the ‘Oriental riff’ or the ‘Asian riff,’ variations of which first emerged in Western popular culture in the 1840s around the stage number “The Grand Chinese Spectacle of Aladdin or The Wonderful Lamp.” Martin Nilsson, who conducted an extensive examination of the theme, however, calls it “‘the musical cliché figure signifying the Far East.’” Nilsson suggests that it emerged in the course of Western efforts to “‘put [Asians] into place’” as the tempo of non-European immigration to the US accelerated in the late nineteenth century. The riff had a long and eventful career throughout the entire twentieth century in movies, popular music, and television.

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humiliated and crying, as did so many other unsuccessful contestants. He insisted that he had tried as best as he could and that he was proud of himself. Katherine Meizel, writing about “The Celebration of Failure in American Idol,” also suggests that “Schadenfreude is not the whole story” (476). She points out that “[i]n failing, those rejected from American Idol succeed in authenticating certain understandings of the American Dream— obligatory ambition, individuality, and the necessity of failure in the process of achievement” (475). Unlike Goldthwait’s fictional Steven Clark, the real-life William Hung did not attempt suicide but instead set up a website, attracted a huge cult following, and successfully produced and marketed his own CD. After massive fan petitions, Hung was put onstage again on one episode of the show titled “Uncut, Uncensored and Untalented.” In this show, backup dancers also mimicked his inelegant moves. Hung knew that he was being mocked; nevertheless, he stressed the material benefits of this special entertainment career.9

Redemptive Violence: Going Postal A final central topic addressed in God Bless America is homicidal violence.10 The film draws attention to the increasingly inescapable voyeurism involved in media depictions of violent gun crime—by ironically indulging in some of the stock mannerisms of the media sensationalism that it criticizes. As the main characters, Frank and Roxy, go about shooting people, on one level the viewer is supposed to be supporting them in their task and sympathizing with the killers. However, a less straightforward self-referentiality in Goldthwait’s presentation of this violence is also possible. This alternative interpretation becomes apparent in a scene in which Frank and Roxy, disguised in clothes reminiscent of those worn in earlier fictional media depictions of the spree killers Bonnie and Clyde, go into a cinema. They watch a film about another, state-instigated instance of mass shooting, 9

As Barbara Ehrenreich has repeatedly shown, the culture of victim-complicit humiliation and persistent ‘victim smiling’ after having been humiliated, or the victim’s pursuit of profit from it, is one of the hallmarks of the neoliberal economy and its perversion of positive thinking. As a compelling example, Ehrenreich points to the propagandistic bestseller Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson. Conceived as a self-help guide for dealing with job loss (and sometimes distributed by companies to their employees right before firing them), it shows how the two featured characters deal with the loss of their cheese. The character Haw “starts to ‘paint a picture in his mind [...] of a pile of all his favorite cheeses’” (117), and he realizes that “‘change could lead to something better’ and is soon snacking on a ‘delicious’ new cheese” (118). Ehrenreich summarizes the message: “When you lose a job, just shut up and scamper along to the next one” (118). 10 For cultural interpretations of violence, cf. Presdee and in particular Squires. Both argue that the irrationality of violence is an expression of resistance against the rationality of modern life (Squires 130; Presdee 77).


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the massacre of villagers by US troops at My Lai during the Vietnam War. Then Frank and Roxy themselves start shooting obnoxious people in the audience who were loud and rude during the film—or who voyeuristically sought to record the in-theater violence on their phone cameras. Goldthwait’s film seems to ask the question: Can deadly violence that is not used for pressing self-defense ever be justified?11 Can violence be righteous?12 God Bless America apparently urges us to identify with Frank and Roxy and their hate, even if we would not go as far and kill the depraved and deeply repellent people they identify as the problem. 13 Mark Ames, examining the reasons for workplace and school massacres, compares such killers with the often delusional and mentally disturbed leaders of rebellions and messianic movements. Without thinking of themselves as political actors, the spree killers nevertheless act against widely understood and resented suppressions, mistreatments, and maladjustments in society for which there is no accepted language. When Ames interviewed a colleague of a mass shooter in a workplace, he expected anger towards the shooter. Instead, the reaction was: “Hell, everybody supported him, everybody understood where he was coming from. His only problem was that he shot the wrong people” (10; emphasis ours). On this basis, Ames identified a trigger for this and many other such workplace massacres since the 1980s: “an unprecedented corporate cold-bloodedness that has overtaken America over the past several decades” (19). However, instead of similarly identifying the socioeconomic squeeze as the reason for Frank’s and Roxy’s killings, Goldthwait’s film blames a freefloating rudeness without explaining where this rudeness actually comes from. As Goldthwait presents it, this ambiguity about the ethics of righteous violence is important insofar as much progressive criticism of the film focuses on the extreme and open violence perpetrated by a character fitting the profile of a critical, intelligent person, probably of ‘progressive’ sociopolitical persuasion. What such critical reactions seem to find problematic is the highly unstable mix of serious real-life critique and imagined hyperbole. This reaction might be caused by the fact that while these 11 The definition of what violence in self-defense means and the complications surrounding these definitions have once again come under close scrutiny after the shooting of the black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. 12 A useful examination of these issues, which, however, remains overly fixated on the overt political connotation of ‘righteous,’ can be found in Larry J. Reynolds’s Righteous Violence. Going beyond the immediate contexts, Reynolds addresses related issues in the framing of left-wing political protest, terrorism, right-wing militia culture, and Christian ‘just war’ theory. 13 Strangely enough, film reviewers (such as Roger Ebert) saw the gun violence as a problem, regardless of the film being labeled a black comedy. A film that similarly can be understood as a comedy and in which the shooting is not considered amoral is Zombieland (2009). In this apocalyptic film, the aggressors are depicted as zombies, and shooting them is not seen as problematic.

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rhetorical strategies are taken from stand-up comedy, for a black comedy, the overall tone of the film itself is far too ‘serious.’

Conclusion In the aftermath of 9/11, much contemporary commentary welcomed the eclipse of a vulgarized culture of relativizing postmodernism and sneering irony, to be replaced by a revitalized emotional regime of positive values, sincerity, and even honest spirituality. Instead, the public culture of the United States in the decade and more since then seems to have developed even more in the direction of paranoid self-centeredness and hostile, provincialized incuriosity. A new, yet old, litany of noncontestable symbols —the flag, the army, the Christian bible—is increasingly matched by a humorless literalism in everyday life. Similar to the way Klaus Theweleit mobilized personal life narratives to construct a compelling vision of the role of violence in the inner subjective worlds of German fascism, Bob Goldthwait confronts us through morbid black comedy with the disturbing possibility that mass-consumer democracy has failed—or, rather, that it contains the seeds of its own dissolution into meaningless spectacle and nihilism. Goldthwait seems genuinely at a loss as to what has become of the United States in our time, when existential crises no longer bring people together but turn them into hatemongers, lost in a media-generated fog of self-regard and infantile vulgarity. The film received a muted response from reviewers in the US.14 Feeding into a preexisting tradition of receptiveness abroad for critical voices in the American ‘wilderness’ (coexisting alongside the separate tradition of European anti-Americanism), it was largely foreign reviewers who bothered to formulate in explicitly political terms what they thought of the wider fundamental logic of the film.15 14 For a disapproving review, cf., for example, Roger Ebert’s blog entry; for a more ambiguous reaction, cf. Ella Taylor’s review “‘America’: A Gleefully Violent PopCulture Pushback” for National Public Radio. 15 Simon Foster, writing for Australia’s SBS, notes that the film shows the “suffocating modern Sodom and Gomorrah that is the USA today” and the “imbalance that has tilted [Frank’s] once-great land from moral compass to immoral touchstone.” He interprets the shooting spree as a fantasized “crusade to rid America of its corrosive yearning for worthless recognition.” He thinks the film’s goal is not to make us all ashamed and to indict everybody, but that it is “most effective as a big, loud ‘f*** you’ to those responsible for breaking the spiritual back and socio-political might of a great empirical democracy.” John Patterson of the UK’s Guardian writes: “If you dug this film up in a time-capsule a century from now it might offer, maybe unwittingly, certain unpalatable truths about the suicidal Tailspin America of today that nobody else is noting. [...] It joins a small but growing genre of obsidianblack, quasi-apocalyptic comedies each diagnosing demented fantasy and suicidal self-deception as characteristic symptoms of the feverish last days of American


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The critic Dmitry Orlov suggests that we will not experience the collapse of American civilization as a dramatic ‘break’ but rather slowly get inured to hearing about more and more people who have died before their time—be it of poverty, human violence, the lack of health care, the loss of basic community services, or due to environmental change. 16 In the end, these deaths will be traceable to a lack of caring. Even if one does not fully agree with Goldthwait’s conclusions about the ultimate sources of American cultural decay—he somewhat simplistically focuses the blame on the media and the individual consumer who reproduces themes and attitudes from it in her own daily life—the earnestness of his film is touching. In a move that comes as a bit of a surprise from a pioneer of the mode of detached, ironic snarkiness that was prominent in US public life at the end of the twentieth century, Goldthwait has produced a ‘message’ film that represents a definitive break with the narcissistic playfulness of vulgarized postmodernism.17 He has brought us a bloody moral fable about the affective consequences of the decline of American self-confidence and existential security for everyday domestic life.

Works Cited Ames, Mark. Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion. From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond. Brooklyn: Soft Skull, 2005. Print. Berman, Morris. Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire. New York: Norton, 2006. Print. ---. The Twilight of American Culture. New York: Norton, 2000. Print. ---. Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline. Hoboken: Wiley, 2012. Print. “Billboard Shows Obama as Hitler, Demands President’s Impeachment.” Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 15 Oct. 2013. Web. 4 Feb. 2014. Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon, 1987. Print. Breton, André. Anthology of Black Humor. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. San Francisco: City Lights, 1997. Print. Buchwald, Art. “Riling Up O’Reilly.” Washington Post. Washington Post, 23 Aug. 2005. Web. 2 Apr. 2014. Buckwalter, Ian. “Ever Wanted to Murder a Reality TV Star? This Movie’s for You.” Atlantic. Atlantic, 11 May 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2014. Ebert, Roger. Rev. of God Bless America, dir. Bobcat Goldthwait. Roger Ebert. Ebert, 9 May 2012. Web. 22 May 2014.

civilisation.” 16 Cf. Orlov’s book The Five Stages of Collapse and an interview with him in a podcast episode of the Extraenvironmentalist website (“Episode #60”). 17 Compare the film Idiocracy (2006), which uses exactly this vulgarized postmodernism to act out its critique.

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Ehrenreich, Barbara. Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. London: Granta, 2009. Print. Rpt. of Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. 2009. “Episode #60: Days of Destruction.” Extraenvironmentalist. N.p., 20 May 2013. Web. 26 Mar. 2014. Foster, Simon. Rev. of God Bless America, dir. Bobcat Goldthwait. SBS. Special Broadcasting Service, 13 Aug. 2012. Web. 6 Feb. 2014. . Friedman, Bruce Jay, ed. Black Humor. New York: Bantam, 1965. Print. “Glenn Beck: Obama Is a Racist.” CBS News. CBS, 29 July 2009. Web. 6 Feb. 2014. God Bless America. Dir. Bobcat Goldthwait. Magnolia, 2012. DVD. Hoyle, Antonia. “The New Cult TV Show about Britain’s Spoilt, Deluded and Demanding Teenagers.” Daily Mail Online. Daily Mail, 6 Jan. 2008. Web. 6 Feb. 2014. Johnson, Spencer. Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. New York: Putnam, 1998. Print. Kohm, Steven A. “Naming, Shaming and Criminal Justice: Mass-Mediated Humiliation as Entertainment and Punishment.” Crime Media Culture 5.2 (2009): 188-205. Print. Kunstler, James Howard. The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Atlantic, 2005. Print. Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: Norton, 1978. Print. Maier, Charles S. Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2006. Print. Meizel, Katherine. “Making the Dream a Reality (Show): The Celebration of Failure in American Idol.” Popular Music and Society 32.4 (2009): 475-88. Print. Nichols, Bill. Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. Print. ---. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. Print. Nilsson, Martin. The Musical Cliché Figure Signifying the Far East: Whence, Wherefore, Whither? N.p., 2006. Web. 21 May 2014. . Orlov, Dmitry. The Five Stages of Collapse: A Survivor’s Toolkit. Gabriola: New Society, 2013. Print. Patterson, John. “God Bless America Is a B-Movie That Hits the Spot.” Rev. of God Bless America, dir. Bobcat Goldthwait. Guardian. Guardian, 30 June 2012. Web. 6 Feb. 2014. Peck, Jamie. “A Brief History of Tampon Throwing.” The Gloss. Defy, 5 Aug. 2013. Web. 4 Feb. 2014. Presdee, Mike. Cultural Criminology and the Carnival of Crime. London: Routledge, 2000. Print. Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon, 2000. Print. Reynolds, Larry J. Righteous Violence: Revolution, Slavery, and the American Renaissance. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2011. Print. Ryan, Michael, and Douglas Kellner. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988. Print. Squires, Peter. Gun Culture or Gun Control? Firearms, Violence and Society. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.


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Taylor, Ella. “‘America’: A Gleefully Violent Pop-Culture Pushback.” Rev. of God Bless America, dir. Bobcat Goldthwait. NPR. National Public Radio, 10 May 2012. Web. 22 May 2014. Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies. 2 vols. Trans. Stephen Conway, Erica Carter, and Chris Turner. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987-89. Print. Watts, Amber Eliza. “Laughing at the World: Schadenfreude, Social Identity and American Media Culture.” Diss. U of California, 2008. Print. Wildau, Gabe. “O’Reilly: ACLU is America’s ‘Most Dangerous Organization . . . Second Next to Al Qaeda.’” Media Matters for America. Media Matters for America, 8 June 2004. Web. 4 Feb. 2014. Žižek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso, 1997. Print.



Poetics of Disaster: Filmic Elements and Traces of Fiction Literature in the 9/11 Commission Report: Frames and Functions of a Generic Hybrid Abstract: Oscillating between the sobriety of a commission document, the attention to detail of a documentary story line, the blockbuster conventions of a thriller movie, and the plot(ting) of conspiracies reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, the 9/11 Commission Report, formally named the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (2004), is a prime example of the blurring of boundaries that stands in the focus of the poetics of politics approach(es) brought forward in this essay collection. This paper discusses the multigeneric arrangement of the Report against the background of existing analyses that take a similar cue (cf. Nadel; Warren) before it develops the first coherent and comprehensive investigation of the attacks—previously inconceivable in factual reality, yet anticipated in numerous works of literary or filmic fiction—on the basis of two paradigms from outside literary studies: (1) trauma theory and Pierre Janet’s notion of ‘narrative memory’ in particular; (2) media and culture criticism such as Jean Baudrillard’s elaboration on simulacra, the hyperreal, and the United States.

Commission reports are usually considered a sort of text whose adherence to writing conventions like a fact-oriented, sober tone and strict nonfictionality is as strong as their distance from formats known from popular culture such as potboiler novels, thriller movies, or graphic novels is vast. By the same token, producers or writers of this text type, i.e., commission members along with skilled staff, will respond with unease if their output is measured against the standards of popular culture or literary criticism. They will, in other words, presumably react as touchy as many historians did when Hayden White suggested that historiography—the expert telling and explaining of past events in the present—follows the conventions and emplotments known from literature (cf. White, Metahistory).1 1

Responses to White’s provocative measuring of historians and their writing modes against the standards of narrative literature, rhetorics, and literary studies range(d) from indignation to a blatant refusal of his approach and a defense of contemporary historiography. A case in point and, at the same time, a lively debate can be found in a 1992 essay collection edited by Saul Friedlander, entitled Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution.” In their respective contributions, Hayden White and Carlo Ginzburg struggle to relate Holocaust narratives, survivor/eyewitness reports, and historiography to concepts such as trustworthi ness, source reliability, and narrative emplotment(s) (cf. White, “Historical

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The surprise bestseller The 9/11 Commission Report, published in July 2004 and officially named Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, is a remarkable exception to this rule. As will be shown, the commission under chairman Thomas H. Kean, vice chairman Lee H. Hamilton, and executive director Philip Zelikow has deliberately paved the way for a reception of its Report in terms of the generic conventions known from popular literature and film. Consequently, the following elaborations will begin with a short demonstration of the Report’s indebtedness to (and use of) elements of popular movies and TV series. Since the analysis of the Report along the lines of literary studies has already been undertaken by two critics (cf. Nadel; Warren), this paper will shortly summarize their findings before it searches for explanations for the commission members’ unusual strategy of mingling bureaucratic prose with elements from suspense novels or films—or, in other words, their poeticization of an originally politics-specific text genre. If Hayden White triggered a hefty debate among historians with the thesis that their stories and histories can well be conceived in terms of literary conceptualizations, this paper finally argues that it is for reasons of political calculation, for the purpose of a collective working-through and maybe even as a reaction to the unbearably more-than-real character of the terrorist attacks, that the 9/11 Commission embraces rather than opposes a reception of its Report as informed by literary role models. Ironically or not, this latter diagnosis might put some of Jean Baudrillard’s presumptions about the hyperreal quality of the contemporary cultural moment—strongly debated by many and downright negated by some after the terror attacks—back into place. Furthermore, the reference to Baudrillard’s theorems as well as the heuristic invocation of the tenets of narrative therapy as a means of coping with the psychologically traumatic underpinnings of the 9/11 occurrences will shed new light on the (possible) broader functions of the Report. Thus complementing the text’s interpretations provided by Craig A. Warren and Alan Nadel, the following considerations highlight the Report’s transfigurations of conventional commission-paper writing by offering familiar frames to an otherwise outspokenly nonexpert readership in times of shock-induced collective disarray.

A Short Case in Point: Filmic Elements in the 9/11 Commission Report Subdivided into thirteen chapters and further enriched with an extensive apparatus of appendices and endnotes, the 9/11 Commission Report has received strong recognition for its literary qualities since its publication —‘literary’ qualities primarily understood here as the recurrent invocation Emplotment”; Ginzburg).

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of elements known from fiction or film scripts. A case in point is the beginning of the first chapter, entitled “We Have Some Planes” (a sentence that was part of an alleged radio communication from American Airlines Flight 11 hijacker-pilot Mohamed Atta to ground control). The introduction of various key characters and settings is clearly reminiscent of establishing shots from a thriller movie: Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States. Millions of men and women readied themselves for work. Some made their way to the Twin Towers, the signature structures of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. Others went to Arlington, Virginia, to the Pentagon. Across the Potomac River, the United States Congress was back in session. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, people began to line up for a White House tour. In Sarasota, Florida, President George W. Bush went for an early morning run. For those heading to an airport, weather conditions could not have been better for a safe and pleasant journey. Among the travelers were Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari, who arrived at the airport in Portland, Maine. (United States, Natl. Commission 1)

Another instance can be found in the final paragraphs of the same first chapter: “This is a new type of of war,” remarks an assistant to his superior at the North American Aerospace Defense Command at two minutes past 10 a.m., i.e., a few minutes after the first of the Twin Towers collapsed (United States, Natl. Commission 46). While the “nameless assistant enters the Report not to provide analysis but to dramatize it,” as critic Alan Nadel concludes in his close reading of the Report (33), the following sentences contain another instrument from conventional fiction and film script writing: the cliffhanger. “He was, and is, right,” resumes the text with reference to the statement about a new type of war: But the conflict did not begin on 9/11. It had been publicly declared years earlier, most notably in a declaration faxed early in 1998 to an Arabic-language newspaper in London. Few Americans had noticed it. The fax had been sent from thousands of miles away by the followers of a Saudi exile gathered in one of the most remote and impoverished countries on earth. (United States, Natl. Commission 46)

These five short sentences not only mark the end of the paragraph, they also conclude the Report’s first chapter. Conventionalized ever since the early sound film era as a means of establishing audience loyalty in serial productions, the cliffhanger—today often associated with Dallas character Cliff Barnes—is resumed at the very beginning of the subsequent episode (or chapter). Likewise, the mysterious Saudi exile in his as-yet-unidentified impoverished country reappears: “In February 1998,” the second chapter starts, “the 40-year-old Saudi exile Usama Bin Ladin and a fugitive Egyptian physician, Ayman al Zawahiri, arranged from their Afghan


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headquarters for an Arabic newspaper in London to publish what they termed a fatwa” (United States, Natl. Commission 47).

Other Elements of Crime: Analyses of the 9/11 Commission Report in Terms of Fiction Literature The cinematic underpinnings of the Report as well as, curiously so, of the oral-history accounts of 9/11 survivors and in situ witnesses from downtown Manhattan and Washington, DC, have not passed unnoticed.2 The two major contributions deserve to be mentioned and paraphrased here: Craig A. Warren and the aforementioned Alan Nadel have meticulously searched the Report for fragments and structures known from film analysis as well as from fiction literature. Approaching the issue from the angle of an empirically oriented readerresponse critic, Warren leaves no stone unturned to demonstrate how the US reading public received the Report as “an improbable literary triumph” and declared it “to be of enduring literary value” (537) due to its interpretative openness and multigeneric character. Thus, readers and reviewers 3 have received it, Warren states, as “simultaneously a trauma memoir, mystery novel, espionage thriller, confessional, legal brief, episodic history, cautionary tale, and work of fantasy” (549). At the same time, Warren pinpoints “the reflective tone of the work” and goes on to interpret this in terms of what literary scholars will quickly be able to identify as Wolfgang Iser’s reader-response criticism, seeing this “reflective tone” as a prerequisite for “the active role [the Report] offered the reader to play in the narrative” (540). Warren’s conclusion is celebratory as far as the overall achievement of the Report is concerned: “By reaching out to their audience with plain and inclusive writing, the commissioners delivered an unmistakable message – that 9/11 not only changed the sound and rhythm of statesponsored prose, but also closed the distance between the American people and their government” (556). Nadel, in turn, refrains from quasi-patriotic assessments and reconciliatory remarks in the direction of the George W. Bush administration. Instead, he analyzes the Report in terms of a cleverly contrived and wellmade text, largely composed and shaped by the commission’s executive director Philip Zelikow and his staff, which is aimed at sedating the American audience in the light of the numerous failures, fateful delays, and dysfunctionalities that facilitated and involuntarily coenabled the terror 2 3

For an analysis of interviews and eyewitness accounts of 9/11 survivors and the frequent invocation of interpretative patterns borrowed from recent Hollywood blockbuster movies, cf. Arich-Gerz. Warren mentions (and cites) two of the reviewers in his article (538); cf. Posner; Benson.

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events. Control over what happened, Nadel says, suddenly disappeared on the morning of September 11; the Report, he goes on, seeks to rectify that by renarrating the events and their circumstances with an “authoritative voice” that “substitutes authorial control for exactly what the report and the people who authorized it [...] lack: control of events” (42). Nadel fuses this particular result of his close reading—and his acid critique of the top echelons in the government and the commission—with the narrative concepts and other characteristics of postmodern writing. As a reader, we never arrive at the truth why 9/11 happened—why it could happen—Nadel sums up in a slightly conspirational manner, because the Report accumulates too many aspects and facets that do not fit into a single, illuminatingly clear and all-explaining picture. ‘Crown witnesses’ from the department of postmodernist literature are invoked as role models for the Report’s textual strategy. Thus, “the Report’s structure is Pynchonesque” (41); it “ventriloquizes Joseph Heller” (38) in a number of absurd reconstructions of absurdly Catch 22-like communications between, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush; or it has its moment of (also typically postmodernist) metafictionality when at one point the alleged “chief author Zelikow appears as a character in his own narrative” (43). At certain points in their analyses, Warren and Nadel go beyond the level of text (or film) analysis and draw—or jump to—conclusions that also include the context of the Report: the commissioners and the US administration of the time as well as the persistently obscuring or reconciling effects, empirically proven or speculatively presumed, that the document supposedly was to have on the ‘American public.’4 The considerations below follow the same lead by pointing at the (possibly calculated) effects and consequences of the abrupt and surprising reassessment of a commission report, usually associated with stilted prose and lengthy elaborations of legal aspects, as a catchy narrative using the tricks and devices of bestseller fiction. (Re)Framing the Report by adding the widely familiar conventions of popular literature and film may at first sight appear inadequate, given the 4

Nadel speaks of “facts that this postmodern pastiche attempt [sic] to obscure” before he relates this to the precluded “conventional closure of a fictional potboiler”—a denial by the text that he interprets as ultimately standing in the service of creating optimism through a “[shift] [of] register from suspense to hope” (45). Warren states, in a reconciliatory vein, that “the popularity of the 9/11 Report grew from its success in wedding the fortunes of a weakened nation-state [...] to the fortunes of a wounded citizenry still recovering from a devastating and unexpected national trauma” (555). Though not tying them as explicitly as here to the fate and fortunes of the nation-state, the collectively traumatic impact of the 9/11 events and the efforts of recovering from it will also be highlighted in the following considerations. In this regard, Warren’s approach indeed displays (greater) similarities (than Nadel’s) with the line of argumentation outlined here.


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disastrous nature of the event, or referent, that lies at the core of the investigations conducted by the commission. The occurrences were just too deadly serious for more than 3,000 people and have inflicted too much pain on those they left behind, one might argue, to be treated in an ‘as if’ manner and thus warrant the vicarious pleasures that fiction literature has in store for its readers. At second sight, however, the allusive use of elements from popular-fiction formats such as thrillers or graphic novels like the one by Jacobson and Colón may find explanation and presumably even legitimation on other levels than the strictly literary or literary-critical ones.5

Framing the 9/11 Commission Report with Trauma Theory and Pierre Janet’s Approach to Therapy One such level is that of psychology and, more precisely, the domain of collective trauma. Clearly, the disastrous events in downtown Manhattan and at the Pentagon had a long-lasting (shock) effect on those who witnessed and survived them, triggering a search for mental relief from the representations they belatedly experience when they consciously or, more often than not, unconsciously are reminded of what happened. At the same time, there are a number of clinically proven approaches to the cure of these mental, memory-specific afflictions (or, since a complete recuperation from a traumatic shock is virtually impossible, for the overcoming, dampening, or otherwise reducing of the intensity of late effects such as posttraumatic stress disorder).6 Connecting the specific challenge resulting from the traumatic nature that the occurrences have had on the minds of its surviving witnesses to the text under investigation, it can be argued that the Report constitutes the first comprehensive and, due to the profundity and earnestness of the commission’s investigations, valid rearticulation of what had led to these very events. Seen in this manner, the Report works through (to speak in Freudian terms) a terror event that had severely threatened the sovereignty of the country and disturbed the identity-founding self-images and self-conceptualizations of its citizens, dependent as they are on functioning and unchallenged memories (as well as a collective memory). Another psycho5


Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón’s graphic novel is a one-to-one ‘graphic adaptation’ of the 9/11 Commission Report. In a foreword, the Report’s editors, Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, gratefully seize “the opportunity to bring the work of the 9/11 Commission to the attention of a new set of readers” and “believe that you will find the story of 9/11 a gripping one, whether in narrative or pictorial form. We hope readers of all ages, especially those unfamiliar with the original report, find that these pages encourage them to learn more about the events of 9/11” (ix). For an overview of the (history of) approaches to twentieth-century mass psychological trauma, which is of relevance here, and of the modes of treating, if not curing, it, cf. Bohleber 808-20.

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analytical approach seems even more apt to catch the potentially curative effects of the Report: Pierre Janet’s, whose late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century clinical observations have gained him postmortem renown for distinguishing between two kinds of memory—“traumatic memory,” which merely and unconsciously repeats the past, and “narrative memory,” which narrates the past as past—and for validating the idea that the goal of therapy is to convert “traumatic memory” into “narrative memory” by getting the patient to recount his or her story. (Leys 105; cf. also Janet, Les médications; Janet, L’évolution)

Seen through the lens of Janet’s therapeutic approach, it seems as if the Report contributes to restituting America’s collective memory by reappropriating the traumatic attack and, very distinctly, refitting it into a narrative form that appeals to a maximum number of citizens. Admittedly, any such assumption retains a strong element of speculation: first, because the usefulness of narrating in therapy for patients suffering from psychological trauma is still an issue of debate.7 Moreover and second, little if any empirical proof exists for the soothing function of a restituted collective memory of the 9/11 occurrences by means of renarrating and literally remembering the traumatic core event. Warren’s valuable reader-response survey seems to indicate, however, that many Americans read, regard, and functionalize the Report in precisely this manner.


Among those championing Janet’s concept are clinical trauma experts and, in the context of memoirs by survivors of disasters, literary and cultural studies scholars. After the rediscovery of Janet as a preeminent, if for a long time unacknowledged, figure in the history of psychology and psychoanalysis in Henri F. Ellenberger’s seminal The Discovery of the Unconscious of 1970, Bessel A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart specified the value of Janet’s approach—which included hypnosis as a useful means for the patient to return to the past event and renarrate it—for their clinical work. Lawrence L. Langer relied on the concept for his analysis of Holocaust survivor memories, arguing—as summarized by van der Kolk and van der Hart—that these “traumatized persons” by and large “experience long periods of time in which they live, as it were, in two different worlds: the realm of the trauma and the realm of their current, ordinary life. Very often, it is impossible to bridge these worlds” (van der Kolk and van der Hart 176). Ruth Leys, in her ‘genealogy’ of trauma concepts, takes a critical stance toward Janet’s recent rediscoverers. Leys argues that Janet’s approach was more elaborate than that and cannot easily be boiled down to the transformation—or repair—of a trauma-challenged memory into a narrative one: “[F]or Janet,” she states, “narrated recollection was insufficient for the cure. A supplementary action was required, one that [...] sounded suspiciously like ‘exorcism’ or forgetting” (116).


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Framing the 9/11 Commission Report with Jean Baudrillard’s Diagnosis of America Another suitable level for the analysis of the Report’s fictional underpinnings and its resemblance to products from the entertainment and culture industry is the framework provided by cultural critic and media theorist Jean Baudrillard. The French scholar, widely known and strongly debated for a set of keywords culminating in the notion of the simulacrum, has more than once provided his view on the occurrences of September 11. The key feature of Baudrillard’s analysis of today’s media-saturated societies is his presumption that reality, i.e., real occurrences taking place in a real setting, have increasingly come to be absorbed in and, ultimately, replaced by their medial correspondent, be it an image, a copy, or a product of the notorious ‘virtual’ reality. The final stage of this development consists of the severing of the connection between a real event and its medial representation—the concept of reference now being obsolete—and the replacement of reality along with its underpinnings of factuality, historical or contemporary, by what he terms the hyperreal, or the realm of simulacra. Associated with the media-engendered hyperreal are the principles of the imaginary or fictional and their preeminent forms and generic formats such as fairy tales, heroic sagas, or utopias (Baudrillard, America 75-106), substituting for everyday, conventional reality. Baudrillard identifies the United States as the most advanced ‘media-saturated’ place on the globe—a diagnosis of the mid 1980s that has subsequently led to lively debates, not least at German and Austrian American studies conferences. “In his travel account America,” the editors of a collection of essays entitled Simulacrum America resume, Baudrillard “describes America as a perfect simulation society, where utopia has come true in everyday life” (Kraus and Auer 1). Or, in Baudrillard’s own words: “America is neither dream nor reality. It is a hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved” (America 28). It does not come as a great surprise that Baudrillard, the cultural critic who identifies America as a case in point for his simulacrum and hyperreality hypotheses, was the first to be challenged by the occurrences of September 11. Contrary to his (alleged) presumptions, ordinary reality violently broke in again, it seemed, when the planes crashed into the buildings; hyperreality apparently dissolved under the pressure of the events; fiction cataclysmically turned into cruel, nonfictional reality when people discovered that a ‘prototype’ such as the blockbuster movie The Towering Inferno of 1974 had been hijacked by those like Mohamed Atta, who stripped the disaster film of its imaginary cloaks. 8 Baudrillard had a hard 8

The Towering Inferno also, and repeatedly, surfaces as a frame (and film) of reference in the oral-history reports of eyewitnesses (cf. Arich-Gerz 168). In turn, the attackers’ preparation for 9/11 included the consumption of popular “movies depict-

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time clinging to his theories, as can be seen from his first and, arguably, not altogether persuasive response: an essay entitled “The Spirit of Terrorism,” published as early as seven weeks after 9/11. “The collapse of the World Trade Center towers is unimaginable,” he defends himself, “but that is not enough to make it a real event” (28). Baudrillard goes on to acknowledge the criticism that will expectedly be raised against his thesis—yet he does so only to turn the tables back against those challenging him and, ultimately, insists on the correctness of his diagnosis: In the present case [i.e., 9/11], we thought we had seen (perhaps with a certain relief) a resurgence of the real, and of the violence of the real, in an allegedly virtual universe. “There’s an end to all your talk about the virtual – this is something real!” Similarly, it was possible to see this as a resurrection of history beyond its proclaimed end. But does reality actually outstrip fiction? If it seems to do so, this is because it has absorbed fiction’s energy, and has itself become fiction. We might almost say that reality is jealous of fiction, that the real is jealous of the image. . . . It is a kind of duel between them, a contest to see which can be the most unimaginable. (Baudrillard, “Spirit” 28)

Interpreting the disastrous events in Lower Manhattan, Washington, DC, and Shanksville in terms of a rivalry between their realness and fiction and concluding that, for once, reality seized the energy that otherwise—at least in America, at least for Baudrillard—remains reserved for fiction, the virtual, or the realm of simulation and simulacra appears quaint and even quixotic. Yet the publication of the 9/11 Commission Report three years later, endowed as it is with precisely those elements that Baudrillard highlights in his cultural diagnosis of America, casts a new and different light on the reconcilability of his radical analysis of contemporary media societies and the events of September 11. In fact, it is the Report itself, one might argue, that resubstantiates, to a certain degree, Baudrillard’s positions. A document produced in and thus speaking from the very center of America, and speaking to Americans in an unprecedented way,9 the 9/11 Commission Report “‘reads like a novel,’” as one of the reviewers studied in Warren’s article concedes (547). As such, it shifts the issue that is at stake, if only slightly, away from its unbearable, collectively traumatic realness and into the direction of its counterpart, the hyperreal, which, according to Baudrillard, is likewise inspired by fictions and the fictional: fictions that are, however, less reminiscent of a utopia (achieved or not) but rather of the dystopian kind.


ing hijackings,” as the 9/11 Commission found out in the course of its investigations (United States, Natl. Commission 157). Cf. Warren’s earlier remark that “[b]y reaching out to their audience with plain and inclusive writing, the commissioners delivered an unmistakable message – that 9/11 not only changed the sound and rhythm of state-sponsored prose, but also closed the distance between the American people and their government” (556).


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Conclusion The follow-up conclusion that the 9/11 Commission Report is itself a token of the United States’ alleged ‘simulacrification’ is too far-fetched, though, and too grossly overgeneralizing to be taken seriously. As much as Baudrillard aficionados, cultural pessimists, and other overt or covert critics of the United States and their people might subscribe to such a view, it must be stressed that the document produced under the auspices of Thomas H. Kean and cowritten by Philip Zelikow and his staff is a multifaceted and multigeneric literary achievement—but one with a clearly recognizable basis of origin: It is and remains a commission report. Its undertones of thriller, mystery, disaster, and other novels or movies as well as their adaptation as a graphic novel are, however, too conspicuous to be disregarded and discarded. They rehabilitate Baudrillard’s diagnosis, harshly criticized as it was after 9/11, without assigning it full and unchallengeable validity. Compared to the dry state-sponsored prose of conventional commission reports, many more American citizens will be familiar with such a narrative form, which allows for interpretations of its function in terms of a comprehensive and comprehensible literal ‘text guide’ for a collective workingthrough of the incisive occurrences in the US homeland. To the degree that its authors had, from the very beginning, anticipated the rich and unanimously positive reception of the Report as not only a piece of nonfiction but a page-turner reminiscent of popular literature, the 9/11 Commission Report writers figure, finally, as the square opposite of numerous historians and their attitude to scholars such as Hayden White, who have pointed and continue to point at the literary underpinnings of most academic narratives of the past. Far from refusing an analysis of their text in poetic terms and in terms of poetics, the makers of the 9/11 Commission Report have invited such readings and have, at the same time, demonstrated that the poeticization of politics is, within limits, a usable, useful, and increasingly unavoidable (or, at any rate, increasingly used)10 instrument.

10 Warren’s study of the Report at one point relates the 2004 text’s employment of conventional popular writing techniques to its forerunners and goes on to claim that precursors do, in fact, exist as far as the catchy mode of writing is concerned. Warren (not related) names the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President Kennedy as a case in point, concluding, however, that “the public never truly embraced [the report] in 1964, and many writers and filmmakers have worked to discredit and even ridicule its conclusions ever since” (550).

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Works Cited Arich-Gerz, Bruno. “‘When the First Tower Collapsed, I Told Them It Was like Pearl Harbor and Titanic Combined’: Film als Deutungsmuster in Augenzeugenberichten von Überlebenden des 11. September.” Amerikanisches Erzählen nach 2000: Eine Bestandsaufnahme. Ed. Sebastian Domsch. Munich: edition text + kritik, 2008. Print. 159-73. Baudrillard, Jean. America. London: Verso, 1989. Print. ---. “The Spirit of Terrorism.” The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2003. 1-34. Print. Benson, Heidi. “‘The 9/11 Commission Report’ Is a Compelling Read. But Does It Deserve a Literary Reward?” San Francisco Chronicle 12 Nov. 2004: E1. Print. Bohleber, Werner. “Die Entwicklung der Traumatheorie in der Psychoanalyse.” Psyche 54.9-10 (2000): 797-839. Print. Ellenberger, Henri F. The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic, 1970. Print. Friedlander, Saul, ed. Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution.” Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. Print. Ginzburg, Carlo. “Just One Witness.” Friedlander 82-96. Jacobson, Sid, and Ernie Colón. The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation. New York: Hill, 2006. Print. Janet, Pierre. Les médications psychologiques. 3 vols. Paris: Alcan, 1919-25. Print. ---. L’évolution de la mémoire et de la notion du temps. Paris: Chahine, 1928. Print. Iser, Wolfgang. Der Akt des Lesens: Theorie ästhetischer Wirkung. Munich: Fink, 1976. Print. Kean, Thomas H., and Lee H. Hamilton. Foreword. Jacobson and Colón ix-x. Kraus, Elisabeth, and Carolin Auer. Introduction. Simulacrum America: The USA and the Popular Media. Ed. Kraus and Auer. Rochester: Camden, 2000. 1-20. Print. Leys, Ruth. Trauma: A Genealogy. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2000. Print. Nadel, Alan. “‘Temperate and Nearly Cloudless’: The 9/11 Commission Report as Postmodern Pastiche.” Spec. issue of Altre Modernità (2011): 29-46. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. Posner, Richard A. “The 9/11 Report: A Dissent.” New York Times. New York Times, 29 Aug. 2004. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. The Towering Inferno. Dir. John Guillermin. Fox, 1974. Film. United States. Natl. Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. New York: Norton, 2004. Print. Van der Kolk, Bessel A., and Onno van der Hart. “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 158-82. Print. Warren, Craig A. “‘It Reads like a Novel’: The 9/11 Commission Report and the American Reading Public.” Journal of American Studies 41.3 (2007): 533-56. Print. White, Hayden. “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth.” Friedlander 37-53. ---. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973. Print.


Foggy Realisms? Fiction, Nonfiction, and Political Affect in Larry Beinhart’s Fog Facts and The Librarian Abstract: This paper reads Larry Beinhart’s novel The Librarian (2004) and its nonfiction companion Fog Facts (2005) as a double attempt at writing that is politically invested in representing reality but that nevertheless is openly aware of the postmodern crisis of representation. In this sense, I read both books as indicative of a broad cultural search for forms of writing that engage their readers’ reality without simply attempting to return to a less complicated moment before postmodernism. The paper situates both books within crucial textual contexts: a broad ‘epistemic panic’ about the facts and reality at the time, a surge of political nonfiction published in response to George W. Bush’s Presidency, and a longer tradition of political fiction. Tracing how the novel struggles with its nonfiction aspects and how the nonfiction book relies on fiction to make its point, I then look at how the two books evoke political affect to have a realist appeal of sorts despite their insistence on the precarious nature of all realist representation. Reading both books as distinctly popular, mass-market products and thus bringing together the debate around post-postmodernism from literary studies with an interest in reading pleasures informed by popular culture studies, I argue that the two books constitute decidedly popular attempts at a new, meta-aware yet politically engaged textuality.

Introduction Reviewing nine contemporary books for the New York Times in 2004, critic Caryn James notes a particular textual dynamic in these texts that manifests in how they, “like many other current political fictions, [...] take a skewed approach to realities too fraught to face head-on” (B29). In her review, James discusses a broad range of authors and formats (from the well-established, serious novelist Philip Roth to the pop culture icon Jon Stewart, from novels to graphic novels to a “goofy mock history textbook” [B29]), and this breadth suggests that these “current political fictions” illustrate a broad textual phenomenon that traverses boundaries of genre, mode, media, and audience. Moreover, James’s review characterizes this emerging landscape of “current political fictions” as marked by a new ‘realism’ that is difficult to pin down. Interested in how these texts constitute “fantasies that lead to a kind of superrealism,” she notes that, paradoxically, these texts, which are about political realities, nevertheless constitute “nonrealistic political fictions” and that the in-betweenness of their mode, their “superrealism,” marks them as particularly “current” (B29). Tellingly


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blurring the books’ (super)realism and their ‘realistic’ qualities, she observes: “Genuinely realistic novels about the politics of the early 21st century probably require more historical distance than novelists have now, but those books are certainly coming” (B29). This paper will take James’s review as a point of departure to discuss two recent political texts, one novel and one nonfiction book, and to investigate in how far they do project a particular form of (new) realism. The question is important because James’s reference to “a kind of superrealism” (B29) dovetails with recent discussions of literature after postmodernism, discussions that not only often diagnose contemporary literature’s renewed desire “to have an impact on actual people and the actual social institutions in which they live their lives” (McLaughlin 55) but that frequently tie this rediscovered ‘politicality’ to a return to some version of realism. 1 Notably, in these debates, realism seems to refer not simply to the literary mode or epoch. Instead, it serves as a presumably commonsensical counterpoint to an alleged postmodern (meta)textual narcissism, and it seems to draw its explanatory appeal more from this function—from emphatically pointing away from text and toward reality—than from having any clearly circumscribed meaning. In this sense, ‘realism’ serves to evoke a text’s ability to refer to actual reality, its referentiality—a facet of meaning that is rather removed from ‘realism’ understood as a mode or epoch. 2 Scholarly debates around post-postmodernism typically tend to read this renewed desire for social relevance as an important artistic project advanced primarily in the ‘serious’ texts of ‘serious’ authors, at times even developed in express opposition against the spreading-out of postmodernism into popular culture. However, looking for how popular, mass-market-oriented texts project particular forms of realism allows to read post-postmodern textuality as a broad cultural concern, not an elite discourse, within the contemporary moment. Accordingly, this paper will take one text from James’s list, Larry Beinhart’s The Librarian, together with its nonfiction pendant, Fog Facts by the same author, and will argue that these two texts can be read as projecting a particular, complex, and precarious form of realism in the sense outlined above. In this, I am interested in how these books make an effort of speaking of their readers’ reality without simply denying the problematic status of facts and in how this project, clearly located ‘after postmodernism,’ ties in with their status as popular texts that must offer particular reading pleasures to their audience. For both, I will show, the political quality of the texts’ subject matter is crucial: Notably, both texts insert themselves into 1 2

Cf. the introduction of this volume for more on these “various brands of ‘realism’” (13). Thus, in James’s review, the texts under discussion are, on the one hand, “nonrealistic political fictions”—they are not meant to be believed literally—but they nevertheless derive their “superrealism” from speaking of actual political realities (B29).

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textual environments marked by negotiations of realness, representation, and politics, and I will use a first section to situate them with regard to these environments. In a second section, I will then look at the difficulties both books encounter as they try to pursue two contradictory goals at once: In that they want to speak of actual politics, political elections in their readers’ lived reality, they claim to represent reality. At the same time, their main concern is the political fallout of the postmodern crisis of representation, the extent to which facts, reality, and representation have become problematic concepts in themselves. This condition, of course, constitutes a major obstacle for any project attempting to realistically speak of contemporary politics, and both books struggle to overcome this obstacle. In a final section, I will thus look at how the two texts use political affect, rather than an ideal of transparent representation, to project a form of metarealism (or “superrealism,” in James’s phrasing [B29]) that both is explicitly aware of the crisis of representation and that nevertheless attempts to speak of and to its readers’ reality. Ultimately, both books, in how they align with the genres of political fiction and political nonfiction, respectively, speak of realism—understood as the ability of representations to reference reality. Both, at the same time, perform a realist project of sorts; yet both are highly conflicted about such realist representation. For Beinhart’s two books, then, the poetics of politics constitute a realm in which a particular attempt at a new meta-aware realism can unfold and where this attempt finds popular resonance.

Texts and Contexts: The Librarian, Fog Facts, and Political (Non)Fiction Before approaching The Librarian and Fog Facts in more detail, I will use this section to first briefly present the two primary texts and to contextualize them within three different textual environments that, I will argue, are all marked by negotiations of realness, representation, and politics. Beinhart’s two books, I will thus show, insert themselves into a discussion about reality, facts, and representation in politics that peaked around the time of their publication. In addition, they engage two different (mass-)publication markets: a vivid landscape of nonfiction books on the misdoings of the Bush administration and a longer, distinctly US American tradition of political fiction. Larry Beinhart’s The Librarian is a novel about a large-scale conspiracy to steal the US presidential election that, in its characters and setting, is closely mapped on the historical moment of its publication, the US presidential election of 2004.3 The book features a Bush-like president, a 3

Beinhart is known primarily for his earlier piece of political fiction, American Hero, which was heavily rewritten into the feature film Wag the Dog. For a reading


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presidential aide openly modeled as a Karl Rove/Dick Cheney mash-up, and a Democratic contender whose characterization implicitly evokes both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry: a female politician with real-life war experience (albeit as a nurse, not a swift-boat commander). In the book, a college librarian incidentally gets implicated in a right-wing conspiracy to manipulate the election and, not least because he simply tries to stay alive, uncovers the conspiracy just in time for the election. This plot serves as a vehicle to talk about a more fundamental epistemic dilemma that underwrites the social and political status quo in the book: the problem that facts do not seem to have the kind of realness and impact they once used to have. To make this point, the novel introduces the notion of fog facts, facts that are known but that, because they have not been properly textualized, fail to have the impact facts are expected to have. As the novel puts in one of its longer explanatory passages: “They are known, but not known” at the same time (64).4 Since the fictional universe of the novel is so closely mapped on the historical and political landscape of the United States of 2004, the book suggests that this problem—the power of such latent fog facts and the difficulty of recuperating them, of turning them into actual, manifest facts—is a central political problem of the real US’s political and social condition of 2004 as well: “In the information age there is so much information that sorting and focus and giving the appropriate weight to anything have become incredibly difficult” (63). This, then, is also where, according to the novel’s basic tenet, the librarian comes in as a protagonist: Schooled in reading, researching, and categorizing, he is the only one able to penetrate the fog of fog facts and to find out the truth. Obviously, Beinhart’s Fog Facts similarly deals with the eponymous fog facts, but it approaches the subject matter from a nonfiction perspective, thus speaking more directly about how these facts and their delicate epistemic status—their being known and not known at the same time—impacts the historical and political moment its readers live in. The book was published immediately after The Librarian, and this publication context gives it the air of being an addendum, a companion volume to the original novel.


that compares American Hero and The Librarian and aligns the former with fullfledged postmodernism, the latter with an ‘exhausted,’ post-postmodern condition, cf. my “Narrating the ‘Crisis of Representation’: The Cultural Work of Conspiracy in Larry Beinhart’s Novels on the Bush Presidencies” (Herrmann, “Narrating”). Notably, the fog facts are introduced with respect to the fictional president’s war record, which is just like the real president’s: Like George W. Bush, the novel’s Augustus W. Scott avoided combat in the Vietnam War by enlisting in a National Guard unit that served in the US. With both presidents, this fact was “not a secret[,] [i]t was known,” but for both, this knowledge had no impact (63). Especially in the context of John Kerry’s unsuccessful bid for the Presidency, left-leaning commentators were frustrated that public perception saw Kerry, who had extensive combat experience from Vietnam, as less of a warrior than Bush, who had shied away from military service abroad.

Foggy Realisms?


The book itself is a comparatively loose collection of different short essays, most of them on contemporary politics, some on propaganda, some on advertising and its role in creating a hegemonic consensus in society, some on literature, and some on conversations the author/narrator had had about these matters with others. It spans a total of eleven chapters and comes with a short nine-page index. The index, in my reading, is not simply a genre marker of the nonfiction book. It also signals an intended (inter)active readership, as does the publication of a nonfiction companion to a fiction novel more generally. The audience both books interpellate is a distinctly literate, bibliophilic one that, reading one book on a subject matter, will actively seek out related books and additional information on the topic. 5 Despite their differences, then, both The Librarian and Fog Facts partake in the same textual project: Both books, on their surface, are engaged in a didactic project that wants to educate their readers about the concept of fog facts and about the fog facts’ impact on the US political system, an aspect I will explore in more depth in a later section. Both books are informed by three different textual environments, and I will use the next few paragraphs to briefly outline these environments. First, in how they tie together questions of politics with questions of factuality, (un)reality, and medial/textual representation, both books are borne of a distinct ‘epistemic panic’ among large parts of the American public at the time, a “panic sense” (Hutcheon 23) that the Bush administration had found ways of bypassing reality.6 This view was expressed most succinctly in a widely received piece by Ron Suskind in the New York Times Magazine in 2004. In it, Suskind ventilates the concern that the Bush administration had left behind the “‘reality-based community’” of journalists and historians, that Bush and his aides had somehow become able to “‘create [their] own reality,’” and that this ability to create an unreal, artificial reality had paved the way to the Presidency, to empire, and to war. Even though the entirety of the article was about the role of faith for the administration, it was this notion of reality as having become decoupled from facts and being subject to the creative capabilities of those in power that hit a nerve. It reflected a widespread concern over the malleability of what counts for the ‘real,’ which sat center stage in US discussions of politics at the time. As political scientist Diane Rubenstein puts it, it thus corresponded to a larger discursive trend in which the semiotic “category of the ‘real’ and its putative 5


As anecdotal yet exemplary evidence of how the book encourages this reading practice, cf. this Amazon customer review, which was once also paratextually published on the (now defunct) website of Beinhart’s nonfiction book: “I read [Fog Facts] together with Noam Chomsky’s Imperial Ambitions [...] interviews, and the two complement one another” (Steele Vivas). The ‘American public’ here obviously does not refer to simply the population of the US but to the body of published opinion at the time, to public discourse, and thus to a vaguely Habermasian notion of the civic/bourgeois public sphere (cf. Habermas).


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erasure or endangerment [...] [had] increasingly become an object of concern in our political culture today” (11). Both The Librarian and Fog Facts thus pick up an existing, vivid discourse about the artificial fabrication of ‘reality’ in politics at the time.7 Secondly, apart from this larger discursive landscape, both books—and particularly Fog Facts—must be read in the context of an impressive proliferation of other politics-oriented nonfiction books that criticized the Presidency (and that often did so by speaking about the administration’s tenuous relationship to truth and reality), many of them rushed to the market to meet urgent demand. From Al Franken’s rather direct Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them to Mark Crispin Miller’s more tongue-incheek The Bush Dyslexicon, from Douglas Kellner’s focus on the beginning of the Presidency in Grand Theft 2000 to Frank Rich’s more retrospective The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush’s America, throughout the eight years of the Bush administration, book after book appeared that lambasted the President and his aides—often but not always for misrepresenting the true facts (about 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, Enron, or anything else) to the American public. 8 Indeed, as John Powers remarks in a review of Frank Rich’s book: By 2006, the intended readers could already “recite the long list of Administration malfeasances like fans at a Neil Diamond concert singing along with ‘Sweet Caroline.’” Yet, to Powers, these books do point at an important dilemma: After years of shrieking about postmodern relativism in the modern university, especially its literature departments, today’s conservatives now embrace the same thing when it comes to politics. Talk about breaking the connection between signifiers and referents. With his disdain for ‘reality-based’ behavior, Karl Rove makes Jacques Derrida seem as stodgy as Andy Rooney.

Notably, like the book he reviews, Powers here ties the current political situation to the postmodern condition, arguing that the Bush administration had perversely adopted postmodernism’s once progressive and antiestablishment tenet of the end of reality to realize its own ideological principles. In this way, the article, published in the Nation, gives evidence of how the debate about postmodernism had spread out into public discourse about politics at the time and of how this spreading-out marked a moment of crisis of the postmodern project noted inside and outside of academia. 7


This epistemic panic peaked during the George W. Bush Presidency, but it has a longer tradition in American culture that can be traced back at least to the Nixon Presidency. For a historicizing analysis of this discourse and its cultural work, cf. my book Presidential Unrealities: Epistemic Panic, Cultural Work, and the US Presidency (Herrmann, Presidential). For a more detailed reading of Frank Rich’s book, cf. my article “‘Ruled by Fiction?’ ‘Real’ Deception and Narrative Truth in Frank Rich’s The Greatest Story Ever Sold (2006)” (Herrmann, “Ruled”).

Foggy Realisms?


Perhaps most tellingly, however, Powers’s article underscores that these nonfiction books constitute a popular genre that, precisely in its nonfiction perspective, offers pleasures (and even fan practices) similar to popular culture—a first hint at the role of affect in the reading of these texts, which I will come back to below. Thirdly, while both The Librarian and Fog Facts were thus released against this backdrop of a soaring market of nonfiction Bush bashings, Beinhart’s novel aligns with the tradition of political fiction, a genre that is often claimed to be distinctly US American and that is, already by way of its subject matter, marked by a precarious realism. 9 Indeed, discussions of the genre often focus on its complex realism—understood, again, not as a literary mode or epoch but as having to do more tangibly with a text’s relationship to reality. These discussions cross disciplinary divides and are led by both political scientists and literary studies scholars. They are fueled by a shared interest in such realism, and the interdisciplinary attraction of the term further expands its potential meanings: Coming from a political science background, James F. Davidson thus highlights political fiction’s ability to “remind us of the extent to which we fictionalize in all analysis” (860). Furthermore, Lee Sigelman points out, as a particular value of popular fiction generally, its ability to serve as a “prism” of reality that can provide important insights for political scientists precisely because of its realism (155), whose particular verisimilitude condenses (political) realities. Conversely, writing from a literary studies perspective, J. E. Vacha similarly focuses his discussion of political fiction on the genre’s relationship to historical realities and suggests to distinguish political fiction’s subgenres by their various forms of referentiality. 10 In both political science 9

In a seminal work on Politics and the Novel, Irving Howe defines the political novel somewhat redundantly as “a novel in which political ideas play a dominant role or in which the political milieu is the dominant setting” (17). Not surprisingly, the genre’s exact parameters thus are difficult to pin down. As George von der Muhll remarks, there are “many unresolved questions,” among them the question of what qualifies as ‘political’ in a novel (23). On the distinctly American quality of the genre, note how the German political science scholar Hans J. Kleinsteuber introduces it to a German audience as something foreign and almost exotic: “As a political scientist, I am aware of the genre of political fiction that has a long and impressive tradition in the US, the oldest modern democracy. These novels play out against a political backdrop, but they nevertheless feature suspense, drama, and even comical moments” (211; my translation). 10 Vacha suggests three different categories of political fiction, each corresponding to a different form of referentiality: the utopian novel, characterized by a “more imaginative” approach; a “realistic approach, which aspires to an accurate portrayal” of political institutions; and the political scenario novel, which extrapolates from real political situations (196). Already the “realistic approach” does allow for some creative license: It is usually set “in and around real institutions and places, though its characters generally are fictitious or, as in the roman à clef, thinly disguised public figures. Since the aim is for verisimilitude, the events must be believ-


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and literary studies, discussions of political fiction thus gravitate toward discussions of realism and referentiality, sometimes triggering an acute concern for the distinction between fact and fiction that then sets off all kinds of genre troubles. As George von der Muhll laments, as late as 1992, semifictional genres have already become widely accepted in other fields: In the context of political fiction, “[d]ocudramas and historical novels no longer seem oxymorons” (24). Beinhart’s two books about fog facts thus engage three different textual environments that all speak of the relationship between reality, representation, and politics: a widespread and vivid public discourse on the manufacturing of reality by the Bush administration; a soaring market of nonfiction books about this Presidency and its lies and other misdoings; and the genre of political fiction, which is traditionally marked by a complex and ambivalent realism.

Incompletenesses, Supplements, and Realisms Inserting themselves into these debates and consciously engaging this particular intersection of reality, representation, and politics, The Librarian and Fog Facts are in themselves precarious and, I will argue, necessarily incomplete projects. Specifically, both books pursue different attempts at speaking about the political realities at the time while simultaneously diagnosing that ‘reality’ has become a problematic category in itself. In this, they encounter limitations that they are unable to overcome and that make them rely on their respective other as a supplement to their own project. This orientation of the novel toward nonfiction and of the nonfiction book toward fiction creates telling fissures between a foregrounding of referentiality and a foregrounding of intertextual or metatextual gestures. I will use this section to discuss these fault lines in the novel and the nonfiction book before using the next section to trace their potential for pointing at a particular form of realism. In the review cited before, James remarks that Beinhart “is better at imagining outrageous plots that slyly allude to current politics than he is at describing characters or situations” (B29). Indeed, there is some merit to the observation: As a novel, The Librarian is not a particularly deep or well-developed piece. A veritable page-turner, its fast-paced plot offers great suspense, but the characters are overdrawn and accordingly lack in subtlety, contradictions, or complexity, the metaphors often are comparaable” (196). The relationship to reality, then, is more complex in the other two. While “[t]he events [...] in the realistic novel are meant to be believed[,] those in the utopian novel [are meant] to be feared or hoped for. Events portrayed in the scenario novel are meant to be acted or reacted upon; it is the propaganda vehicle par excellence” (200).

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tively predictable, and the “situations,” as James calls them, are only a vehicle to the larger plot development. These particularities may be due to the need to complete the novel in time for the election, be it for commercial or for political reasons, and they might also be related to the novel’s genre affiliation.11 More tellingly, however, they may well point to a relationship between the weakness of the character of the librarian—the book’s failure to come up with a deep, round person—and problems in the novel’s overall narrative project: The book wants to make the point that only a librarian can confront the fog of facts, but in the course of the novel, its lead character suddenly turns into a James Bond-like spy, and his ability to unravel the mystery ultimately has more to do with his skills at fighting and spying than with his more bibliophilic powers.12 In the end, the unrealistic “James Bonding” (261) hijacks the book, whose larger project of introducing the fog of facts and of imagining a way of confronting them gets lost in the drive of the narrative.13 This hijacking, in turn, reflects the difficulties of utilizing the underlying conceptual framework for the telling of a story: While there is a long ‘iconoclastic’ tradition of blaming political deception on images—a framework in which a Gutenberg Galaxy-oriented librarian indeed is the right man for the job of recuperating reality—there hardly are preestablished conceptual resources of narrating the end of facts in an authoritative way, a project that necessarily gets complicated by how any narrative of the end of reality inherently threatens to invalidate its own authority as well.14 The imaginative work of the novel, it seems, cannot come up with a character that is able to believably counter this threat, and it thus reverts to the moral fantasies of a James Bond-like spy, a solution outside of the realities of the Bush administration it wants to speak about. If the hijacking of the novel by the James Bond narrative thus apparently keeps its nonfictional, referential, and political project from fully unfolding, its nonfiction companion Fog Facts conversely relies on a 11 Cf. Vacha’s list of frequent “shortcomings” of this “hybrid genre” of the political scenario novel: a “clumsiness of expression which seems to be a hereditary disease of the genre” as well as overly long dialogues and a “tendency [...] to overdo the characterizations and actions to the point of lapsing into satire or parody” (205). 12 Notably, in one of the comparatively few metatextual references, the protagonist does comment on this aspect: “Logic and reason had long ago gone out the window. So I knew I had to throw myself into James Bonding” (261). 13 Ironically, this hijacking of the book is literalized inside the novel when the protagonist takes over a taxi at gunpoint, forcing the driver to help him escape. As for the genre implications of this kidnapping, note how the cabdriver confesses to be “a reader,” a condition akin to a minority identity in the novel’s fictional universe (286). 14 On this notion of an “[i]conoclastic critique,” cf. Jon Simons, who, based on W. J. T. Mitchell’s terminology, diagnoses a discursive tradition of lambasting the rise of deceptive ‘images’ in political discourse (175). Simons argues that this discourse is fostered by intellectuals who have significant “cultural capital invested in typographic culture” (175).


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supplement to make its point. Here, the conventions of nonfiction fail to provide the necessary resources for the story Beinhart wants to tell. Early on in the book, right after introducing the notion of fog facts, Beinhart thus quotes, of all things, from his own novel to prove his point. Reminiscing about how he first came across fog facts, he recounts the writing process for the novel as evidence. Looking for a name for the facts that nobody seemed to notice, he recalls his curiosity that these were all public facts. They were in print. They had been referred to, reviewed, and cross-referenced elsewhere. Yet they seemed to be invisible. I was working on a novel about an election like the one coming up in 2004. It seemed to me that the struggle to pull some of these facts out of the fog [...] would be central to the real campaign. Therefore, they had to be central to the campaign in the book, where it was described this way: “. . . Fog Facts. That is, it was not a secret. It was known. But it was not known. That is, if you asked a knowledgeable journalist, or political analyst, or historian, they knew about it.” (3)

The quote from The Librarian goes on for eighteen more lines and constitutes the (preliminary) end point of the attempt to explain what fog facts are. After the quote ends, Beinhart changes the subject and speaks about the purpose of Fog Facts, the book, without further attempting to explain what fog facts, the epistemically anomalous category, are. Yet it is not only the fog facts that force Beinhart to rely on fiction. Working to give his readers a sense of what ‘real’ facts are in opposition to fog facts, he refers to the TV show Dragnet, a series whose moral fantasy about the solidity of facts he ironically notices but never reflects as problematic in itself. Discussing in how far the official 9/11 report had failed to provide a factually correct assessment, Beinhart explains: “Just the facts, ma’am,” Sergeant Joe Friday used to say on Dragnet, the weekly TV show. Each episode, they told us, was taken from the actual files of the Los Angeles Police Department. A crime had been committed. The police came. They investigated. They found the facts. Those elemental, hard, and singular truths. The criminal was arrested and tried and, invariably, convicted. Based on the facts. At the end of the show, they announced the sentence that had been handed down. Twenty-two minutes, and the world was returned to order. [...] The failure of the 9/11 report is [...] basic [...]. It fails to do what Sergeant Joe Friday would have done. Get “the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” (7-9)

This reliance on fiction to explain, of all things, what facts ‘really’ are is doubly ironic: First, in its nostalgic reference to a 1950s police procedural that made authenticity a major objective of its narrative project, it underscores the extent to which the idea of facts as “elemental, hard, and singular

Foggy Realisms?


truths” has become openly nostalgic to begin with, something that can be reliably established only by thinking about fiction.15 Such a romanticization of “hard, [...] singular” facts, secondly, is accompanied by a number of factual errors that reviewers have pointed out as hurting the book’s overall credibility and as thus making it fail by the standards of nonfiction.16 Indeed, it is other nonfiction books that led reviewers to conclude that [a]t bottom, I agree with much of what Beinhart says. Yet stronger works exist. Joe Conason’s Big Lies, Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud, and the more contemporaneous The Truth (with jokes) by Al Franken come to mind. In the final analysis, readers are better served by such books than this one. (“Book Review”)

In other words, Fog Facts, this anonymous reviewer finds, does not compare well to the other books in the soaring Bush-bashing market mentioned above, and one of the reasons for this shortcoming lies in how it fails to fully conform to the genre requirements of the nonfiction book—with factual accuracy, even in minor details, being one of them. In addition, Fog Facts’ particular incompleteness moves center stage in a passage in which Beinhart attempts to describe the book’s overall purpose and its intended function. In his description, thick with epistemic metaphors, Fog Facts notably is not a completed project but a journey: I live in the country. Sometimes the fog is so thick that you don’t even know where you are. If you’re driving, the beams from your headlights just bounce back at you. Then, as you go around a corner or the elevation changes, up or down, you emerge from the fog and suddenly everything is clear and you say to yourself, ah-hah, that’s where we are. This book is a journey somewhat like that. It’s not a catalog of “fog facts.” Nor is it a thesis. That they are caused by a single thing and this is what we should do to cure it. It touches on several issues, politics, the media, economics, the Bush administration, 9/11, and the 9/11 Report among them. A multitude of books have been written about each. Where that is the case, I saw no point in duplicating those fine efforts. Rather this is a journey in search of those moments where we

15 Beinhart first takes this argument in a different direction, suggesting that, in the aftermath of 9/11, “with all the turmoil and panic,” the Bush administration had attempted to present to the American public a similarly speedy return to order: “In two days the FBI announced the names of eighteen hijackers and a day later amended the list to add one more” (7). Over the following two pages, however, this argument loses focus and ends up suggesting that the 9/11 report should have presented the kinds of facts we know from Dragnet (9). 16 For a list of factual mistakes, cf. “Book Review.” In a further (most likely unintentional) ironic twist, Beinhart’s recollection that Sergeant Friday used to say “Just the facts, ma’am” (7) on Dragnet happens to be one such factual error. The phrase was coined by a 1953 spoof of the TV series and is already a condensation of the more lengthy, less catchy ways in which the series’ lead character asked people to focus on the facts (cf. Rozelle 46).


Sebastian M. Herrmann come around the corner, or go down low, or rise up high, and see some particular thing or some series of events that allows us to say, “Oh, that’s where we are.” (4)

The difficulties the text encounters in expressing its own project, of course, are telling. Rather than clearly defining positively, it resorts to a metaphor that it then does not fully subscribe to—the book is “a journey somewhat like that”—and where it does attempt to name its function and genre more specifically, it can only speak in negatives: “It’s not a catalog [...]. Nor is it a thesis.” The “fog” that envelops the country here first and foremost speaks of the epistemic difficulty of retaining a sense of reality in a society dominated by “fog facts,” but in how it is called on (and fails) to define Fog Facts’ textual project, it also speaks of the foggy line between fictional and nonfictional textual forms. Lastly, the particular incompleteness—not just of Fog Facts but of both books—also informs surprising moments of direct reader address in these texts. Toward the end of The Librarian, the narrator suddenly turns to the reader, claiming that it depends on the reader whether or not the fictional electoral fraud in the novel can be stopped: “It depends on you. Sorry about that. But it does” (431). This direct address is remarkable not only because it signifies another attempt to bridge the gap between fiction and reality but because it seems to acknowledge that there is only so much the book can do by itself. Leaving the outcome of the election up in the air, it quite literally remains incomplete, asking for the readers to contribute their share to a happy ending. Moreover, this dynamic returns at the end of Fog Facts, a similarly incomplete attempt at expressing the matter, with Beinhart addressing the reader: “The subject of this book is ongoing. As I write it, things are changing and I want to add and subtract. Fortunately, we are in the age of the Internet and books need not end when they end. To continue this dialog go to: fogfacts.com” (200). Despite working in different ways, in both books, the direct reader address marks a similar moment in which the text alone does not seem to suffice. Both books, it seems, thus fail to fully complete their narrative project. The Librarian’s novelistic project is hampered by the conceptual framework of fog facts the book needs to relay, not only in how the explanation of this framework interrupts the narrative but also in how the need to stay on message about the fog facts makes the overall narrative vulnerable to the hijacking by the genre of spy fiction. The nonfiction companion, in turn, finds itself unable to authoritatively speak of the real facts without openly deriving its sense of factuality from a fictional idea of what facts ought to be. In both cases, the incompletenesses of the two books point to the very moment in which they try to bring together an awareness for the postmodern instability of the concept of ‘fact’ with an actual political project that matters in their readers’ lived experience.

Foggy Realisms?


Realism, Metarealism, or Interactive Superrealism Rather than merely constituting artistic defects, however, the narrative moments of incompleteness I have just outlined can also be read as projecting a particular form of realism. Where the previous section worked to find and trace both books’ failure to fully realize their project, this final section will propose that this failure speaks of both books’ attempt at a particular form of realism and will argue that this realism lies in how they invite their readers to actualize the narrative with regard to their political reality. However, speaking from a historical moment at which any sense of a presumably transparent portrayal of reality is doubly compromised—one, because facts and reality generally have become questionable concepts, and two, because politics, the books argue, come with their own deceptive realism—the books do not simply promise a realism of transparent referentiality. Instead, their particular realism activates their implied readers’ (partisan) emotions, their political affect, to encourage a mapping of the fictional on the real world, and vice versa. I will trace this dynamic by closely reading responses by two readers for whom, apparently, this particular interpellation has worked and who, in effect, have found their reading experience particularly satisfying. In one such exemplary reader’s report, Peter Block, reviewing The Librarian for Penthouse, thus praises the novel by comparing it, curiously, not against other novels but against the market of political nonfiction described above: “I love it. So much better than the ‘non fiction’ Bush bashes” (qtd. in Librarian). This positive assessment is important for a number of reasons: By writing “‘non fiction’” in single quotation marks, Block explicitly acknowledges that even nonfiction books are a tricky genre to begin with; they, too, are not simply not fiction. More importantly, in measuring the book’s relative merits in relation to the market of Bushbashing nonfiction, Block doubly highlights affect and aligns with one another two distinct emotional responses—the loving of the novel and the bashing of the President. In this, his comment points toward a particular reading practice that looks for pleasure exactly in how a text engages the real political situation in a partisan way. Read thus, the book’s gestures toward its implied readers’ reality are an enabling factor for a particular, affect-driven reception practice. These gestures matter not so much because they transport accurate information about politics or history but because they invite a particular form of engaged reading, a distinct form of immersion that does not work by submersion in a fictional world but by mapping on one another the fictional universe and the lived political/social reality of the reader and enabling a free transfer of affect from one to another. The readers that The Librarian interpellates are thus invited to carry over their partisan engagement in contemporary politics into the fictional universe, and they, conversely, are encouraged to relate the storyworld to their per-


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ception of politics. It is in this transfer that both the novel’s particular feeling of ‘realness’ and its reading pleasures reside. Indeed, Block’s short assessment is not the only indicator of such complex reading dynamics surrounding the novel’s referential gestures and relying on a particularly mobile reading position. In a letter to the author, another reader explains: Dear Larry..... I just finished reading The Librarian. And, interestingly enough, I was in Barcelona on the night of our first Presidential debate (which was only available on European TV at 3:00am – so I missed it) while reading of the debate between Scott and Murphy.....(I hope the debate later this week will have an equally powerful ZAP!!! – we need it!) (qtd. in Houghton)17

What makes this letter particularly intriguing is, again, the agility with which this reader goes back and forth between the fictional world inside the book and the real one in which actual elections take place, an agility that is the result not least of her partisan affect. In its brevity and expressive syntactic style, her letter gives evidence of the permeability of the realityfiction divide in her appropriation of the text and of a dazzling array of different levels and experiences she pulls together in the process: She relates her personal experience of being in Barcelona to the political event of the first presidential debate, and she connects both to the way in which her regret of having missed the real debate is mitigated by her reading about a fictional one. Notably, she highlights the fact—“interestingly enough”—that she replaced or amended the real televised debate, which she missed, with the fictional one, which she ‘attended,’ and she seemingly hopes, seriously or not, that the transmission between reality and fiction also works the other way around: The next ‘real’ debate, she hopes, could have the same game-changing moment as the fictional one. Not least, she does all of that in a letter to the author, thus operating a textual genre that already conspicuously touches on the reality-fiction divide. Both Block’s remarks and this letter to the author thus give evidence of how The Librarian enables and invites a particular appropriation of the text by its readers. In this reception practice, readers effortlessly move between the fictional world of the novel and the real world of politics (and, in the latter example, the in-between world of the heavily staged and scripted presidential debates18). Moreover, while I did not encounter similar readers’ reports for Fog Facts, its textual surface would indeed encourage a similar 17 The authenticity of this letter is near impossible to ascertain. Featured on a webpage that has no particular institutional credibility, it is mentioned by a user named “larry beinhart” (who may or may not be the author of this book), who claims to have received it. For my argument, authenticity makes very little difference, though, since the letter’s imaginative work remains the same regardless of whether it was actually sent to Larry Beinhart, the author, or imagined by a user who chose to use the author’s name.

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mode of reading, particularly for readers of The Librarian who use the nonfiction companion as yet another encouragement to wander between the novel’s fiction and their own political, social reality. In fact, the two moments of direct reader address described above—the call to become active in The Librarian’s fictional election and the call to amend the book in Fog Facts—can be read to evoke a fairly explicit interface not just between the text and its readers but between the reality that is described in the book and the reality that the readers occupy. In both cases, this imagined moment of interaction is thought to complete the books and to bring them to their end, and in both cases, the textual engagement of the readers, their completion of the respective book, is imagined as contributing to desired political ends—be they inside the fictional universe or in the readers’ lived reality. In this sense, there is evidence that the inconclusive moments of incompleteness in both books point toward a particular meeting ground of referentiality, realist appeal, and affect in the context of contemporary political fiction. This aspect, in turn, dovetails with a point Sigelman makes about political fiction more generally. Quoting Peter Prescott, he links the rise of the genre to a more general American reluctance “‘to take our fiction straight without a chaser of education.’ In the ‘Washington novel’—an ever popular genre of popular fiction—verisimilitude is of the very essence” (151). Remarkably, however, he then ties this educating ‘realism,’ expressed not least in the importance of verisimilitude, to an affective dynamic usually found in melodrama: It is paradoxical but often true that, as has been said of melodrama in general, these tales of political intrigue in the U.S. capital simultaneously create an escape from reality (propelling the reader headlong through a breathtaking series of plot developments) and slake the reader’s thirst for reality (providing a People magazine-style close-up view of Washington as it ‘really’ is). [...] This mimetic aspect is the key to the popularity and the political significance of the Washington novel. (151)19

In Sigelman’s take, what matters for the political novel’s realism is not simply its accuracy but its verisimilitude, its ‘felt’ referentiality—mirroring not Washington as it really is but the “magazine-style” version of how “it ‘really’ is.” This textual effect of overemphasizing realness matters because it, paradoxically, allows for a moment of escape from reality. Sigelman’s 18 Note how, if it is anything like the novel, the “ZAP” (qtd. in Houghton) the reader wishes for with respect to the upcoming debate is a disruption of the scripted quality of the televised debate. 19 Note, in passing, how Sigelman also identifies the political significance with the popularity of works of political fiction. Note also how he, like Kleinsteuber above and quoting Peter Prescott, reads the need for a “‘chaser of education’” as something that is typical of a particular national characteristic, typical of how “‘[w]e Americans’” want fiction to be (151).


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remarks point to a particular poetics of political fiction in which the felt referentiality of a text is inextricably tied to its ‘melodramatic’ affective potential and where this intertwining of political affect and reference accounts for both the popularity and the political significance of texts as much as it is a result of the texts’ ‘politicality.’ It is this poetic that informs both The Librarian and Fog Facts. Obviously, ‘realism’ thus constitutes a central category here: central to how the books identify as political fiction and political nonfiction, respectively; central to what they say about politics; and central to how they are read. If James thus notes a “kind of superrealism” at work both in Beinhart’s novel and in other “nonrealistic political fictions” that “take a skewed approach to realities too fraught to face head-on,” her remarks are telling on a number of levels (B29). Clearly, and as noted above, The Librarian does not offer realism in the classical, literary studies sense—a mode of writing that is meant to “give the effect that it represents life and the social world as it seems to the common reader” and that is typically implemented by foregrounding the mundane, everyday reality of (more or less) regular people and by absenting signals of the text’s mediation as much as possible (Abrams and Harpham 334). Yet the novel’s insistence on representing “the social world” is evident in how it gestures toward the readers’ social reality, even if the identification of the novel’s world with the readers’ is enabled not by a particularly disinterested, transparent narrative but by the partisan emotions the text mobilizes. Similarly, Fog Facts’ referential quality, hampered by its reliance on fiction and by its factual mistakes, is restored by the political animus it is able to invoke. This already complex realism of political writing then gets further complicated by the fact that both The Librarian and Fog Facts speak about the urgent problem of the deceptive ‘realism’ of contemporary politics. In effect, they thus charge both their own realist project and their subject matter, the problem of the realism of politics, with a partisan urgency that allows their implied readers to actualize and appropriate the narrative for themselves, sparking not least the imagined moments of interaction detailed above, and this particular dynamic marks the point where they promise to work out as texts. James’s tellingly vague notion of “a kind of superrealism” (B29) thus speaks of a complex realism, an attempt at a metarealism of sorts, that is situated in The Librarian’s and Fog Facts’ shared textual project. Both emphatically claim to speak about their readers’ reality and both, aware of how the precarious nature of concepts like ‘reality’ or ‘fact’ threatens to derail such a project, rely on mobilizing their readers’ partisan emotions as a source of ‘realness’ that, in its felt, visceral quality, presumably stands outside of postmodern relativisms.

Foggy Realisms?


Conclusion To conclude, political writing constitutes an established arena of popular culture in which the fictional and the real mix and in which representation is always already a precarious category. Accordingly, it comes as no surprise that political writing should also constitute a privileged place for the search of new forms of textuality recognizing the power of language and narrative to construct realities and to ‘create’ facts while, simultaneously, insisting on their “ability to intervene in the social world, to have an impact on actual people and the actual social institutions in which they live their lives” (McLaughlin 55). For the two books at the center of this paper, the political quality of their subject matter, I have argued, is crucial because it mobilizes their implied readers’ political affect. This affect is key for mapping the fictional onto the real world (and vice versa) despite both books’ insistence that a straightforward representation of one in the other was impossible. Reading the hybrid desire for a fusion of metafictional awareness with social relevance as a post-postmodern condition and tracing it in popular texts complicates more standard notions of post-postmodernism as a movement restricted to serious writing and important novels by important post-postmodern authors. It highlights the extent to which a search for new forms of textuality, whether it goes by the name of postpostmodernism or by any other, also ‘crosses the border and closes the gap’ between popular and high culture, as Leslie Fiedler diagnosed of postmodernism. More importantly, it complicates perspectives on post-postmodernism as simply a formal response to a formal exhaustion of postmodernism and ties it to larger and broadly felt cultural shifts in American society.

Works Cited Abrams, M. H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. “Realism and Naturalism.” A Glossary of Literary Terms. Boston: Wadsworth, 2011. Print. Beinhart, Larry. American Hero. New York: Ballantine, 1994. Print. ---. Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin. New York: Nation, 2005. Print. ---. The Librarian. New York: Nation, 2004. Print. “Book Review: Fog Facts (2005).” Rev. of Fog Facts, by Larry Beinhart. A Progressive on the Prairie. N.p., 20 Dec. 2005. Web. 16 June 2013. Davidson, James F. “Political Science and Political Fiction.” American Political Science Review 55.4 (1961): 851-60. Print. Fiedler, Leslie. “Cross the Border – Close the Gap.” Playboy Dec. 1969: 151+. Print. Franken, Al. Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. New York: Dutton, 2003. Print. Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge: MIT P, 1989. Print.


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Herrmann, Sebastian M. “Narrating the ‘Crisis of Representation’: The Cultural Work of Conspiracy in Larry Beinhart’s Novels on the Bush Presidencies.” Conspiracy Theories in the United States and the Middle East: A Comparative Approach. Ed. Michael Butter and Maurus Reinkowski. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014. 179-93. Print. ---. Presidential Unrealities: Epistemic Panic, Cultural Work, and the US Presidency. Heidelberg: Winter, 2014. Print. ---. “‘Ruled by Fiction?’ ‘Real’ Deception and Narrative Truth in Frank Rich’s The Greatest Story Ever Sold (2006).” Current Objectives of Postgraduate American Studies 10 (2009): n. pag. Web. 16 July 2012. Houghton, Sarah. “NYT Underestimates Librarians in Book Review.” Librarian in Black. N.p., 18 Oct. 2004. Web. 25 June 2013. Howe, Irving. Politics and the Novel. New York: Horizon, 1957. Print. Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 2002. Print. James, Caryn. “Laughing Instead of Screaming.” New York Times 24 Sept. 2004: B29. Print. Kellner, Douglas. Grand Theft 2000: Media Spectacle and a Stolen Election. Lanham: Rowman, 2001. Print. Kleinsteuber, Hans J. “Tom Wolfe und der Mythos vom New Journalism: Porträt eines Karrieristen im interkulturellen Vergleich.” Grenzgänger: Formen des New Journalism. Ed. Joan Kristin Bleicher and Bernhard Pörksen. Wiesbaden: VS, 2004. 193-221. Print. The Librarian by Larry Beirnhart [sic]. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Jan. 2014. . McLaughlin, Robert L. “Post-Postmodern Discontent: Contemporary Fiction and the Social World.” symploke 12.1-2 (2004): 53-68. Project Muse. Web. 16 July 2012. Miller, Mark Crispin. The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder. New York: Norton, 2001. Print. Mitchell, W. J. T. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987. Print. Powers, John. “Not the President’s Men.” Nation. Nation, 23 Oct. 2006. Web. 30 May 2012. Rich, Frank. The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush’s America. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print. Rozelle, Susan D. “Fear and Loathing in Insanity Law: Explaining the Otherwise Inexplicable Clark v. Arizona.” Case Western Reserve Law Review 58.1 (2007): 19-58. Print. Rubenstein, Diane. This Is Not a President: Sense, Nonsense, and the American Political Imaginary. New York: New York UP, 2008. Print. Sigelman, Lee. “Taking Popular Fiction Seriously.” Whitebrook 149-63. Simons, Jon. “Popular Culture and Mediated Politics: Intellectuals, Elites and Democracy.” Media and the Restyling of Politics: Consumerism, Celebrity and Cynicism. Ed. John Corner and Dick Pels. London: Sage, 2003. 171-89. Print. Steele Vivas, Robert David. “Makes the Case for a People’s Bank-Union-Intelligence Agency.” Rev. of Fog Facts, by Larry Beinhart. Amazon.com. Amazon, 23 Oct. 2005. Web. 7 Aug. 2007. Suskind, Ron. “Without a Doubt.” New York Times Magazine 17 Oct. 2004: 44-51. Print. Vacha, J. E. “It Could Happen Here: The Rise of the Political Scenario Novel.” American Quarterly 29.2 (1977): 194-206. JSTOR. Web. 3 June 2011.

Foggy Realisms? von der Muhll, George. “The Political Element in Literature.” Whitebrook 23-52. Wag the Dog. Dir. Barry Levinson. New Line, 1997. Film. Whitebrook, Maureen, ed. Reading Political Stories: Representations of Politics in Novels and Pictures. Lanham: Rowman, 1992. Print.



Testifying by Proxy: A Trauma Studies Approach to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Abstract: Reading Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) through the lens of trauma theory, this paper argues that the nonfiction book attempts to give an account of trauma on behalf of someone else. I propose the idea of a ‘testimony by proxy’ to understand the text’s struggle with facticity, immersion, and empathy as an expression of genre demands and of the text’s wish to appeal to a popular audience. Differentiating between the book’s form and the factual content of the medical case it relates, my paper draws attention to the (genre) politics of the narration and the author’s problematic ethical position. Reading the text as a trauma narrative unravels its conflicted politics of individualizing the question of medical injustice and deflecting attention from its structural causes tied to race and class.

Reworking a famous case in US medical history, Rebecca Skloot’s nonfiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks received much praise from readers and critics. According to the author’s website, the New York Times bestseller appears on countless college reading lists and is a popular pick with book clubs and drama groups (Skloot, “Teachers”; Skloot, “Reading Groups”). Speaking to its commercial success, an HBO screen adaptation is under way (cf. Cohen). This appeal derives not least from the compelling way in which Skloot unravels the past: In a close-up, personal style, she traces the life of Henrietta Lacks, whose endlessly multiplying cells made medical history. Following in the wake of the current proliferation of nonfiction and expanding biographical writing in scope and time, Skloot’s book testifies to Lacks’s (after)life and registers the traumatic undertones connected to the larger contexts of race and class. Lacks, an African American woman, died of cervical cancer in 1951. A sample of her body tissue was taken unbeknownst to her and proved an invaluable contribution to medicine: Unlike any other previous human tissue sample, her cells never died. Named ‘HeLa’ to ensure the donor’s anonymity, the cell culture was and still is used in myriad medical fields, such as polio vaccination, genetics, and cancer research.1 While the origin of the cell culture had been known to the medical community, Lacks’s family did not learn about the 1

In 1976, Science magazine proudly announced it as “the first established human cell line” (Hsu et al. 392). The publication presented Lacks’s genotype as a result of the comparison of genetic markers from her family, an achievement made possible by the cooperation of her husband and children. However, the family was unaware of both the ongoing use of Lacks’s biopsy after the study was completed and their exact role in it.


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billion-dollar HeLa industry before the late 1970s. By documenting the family’s struggle to come to terms with the past, and concurrently outlining the medical and legal background of the case, Skloot helps Lacks’s daughter Deborah find out what happened to the family’s relative and her body tissue. The story is far from being uncharted territory. Ever since Lacks’s identity was disclosed, journalists and academics have written about the person behind HeLa.2 In contrast to previous renditions, The Immortal Life adopts an intimate point of view, as it presents Lacks’s life and the distress her undying cells cause for her family. Reviews of and scholarship on Skloot’s book have mainly commented on the personal way in which bioethical issues are presented;3 as of now, no critics have acknowledged the role of trauma and its textual representation. Specifically, no one has focused on the way the text unearths Lacks’s life and how it seeks to recuperate the past. In other words, so far, it has not been considered in terms of its form. However, in order to account for the politics of a book that deals with the vulnerability of patients’ rights as well as race and class discrimination, such a careful differentiation between the events represented and Skloot’s narration is crucial. In the following pages, I argue that the book testifies to Lacks’s life and the legacy of her cells vicariously. It does so by providing a personal account on behalf of an individual who cannot tell her own story of injustice and suffering. Giving voice to the events in Lacks’s life and to the distress her afterlife creates for her descendants, the book attests to structural traumatization and to an intergenerational dimension of trauma. It is not only the traumatic nature of these events and circumstances that makes The Immortal Life a ‘testimony by proxy’ but rather, as I will show, the distinct narrative choices and the self-reflexive nods to the genre of testimony. Yet unraveling a personal trauma challenges Skloot not only in terms of form: It heightens her ethical role in the creation of the life story of someone else. This problem of authorization is linked with the controversies over the social issues she addresses, which pressure her to 2


In addition to the reviews and articles I will draw on in my analysis, I want to mention Michael Rogers’s Rolling Stone article “The Double-Edged Helix,” which first revealed the identity of the cell line in 1976, Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary The Way of All Flesh from 1997, and Hannah Landecker’s scholarly work Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies from 2009 to give an impression of the breadth of these texts. For instance, the book was reviewed several times in the Hastings Center Report, a journal published by a bioethics institute: cf. Lantos; Palmer; and V. Sharpe. Moreover, Priscilla Wald comments on HeLa and Skloot’s book in her widely referenced 2011 American Studies Association presidential address, claiming that “[t]he stories of Henrietta Lacks and her cells manifest the desire to ground the concept of the human in biology and the danger of that desire, which [...] promotes the obfuscation of human agency in social practices and institutions” (“American” 202).

Testifying by Proxy


position herself in the political discussions the book partakes in. Hence, approaching it from a trauma perspective illuminates a certain kind of politicality the narrative form enables—one that individualizes the question of medical injustice and conceals the structural disparities tied to racial and socioeconomic inequalities. Skloot works perfectly within the framework of capitalism, fighting for the Lackses’ compensation while ignoring the systemic deprivations that made the infringement possible in the first place. In order to map out the entanglement of narrative form, the ethics of authorship, and the politics of the text, I will first consider the book in the context of the genre conventions of trauma testimony and slave narratives, which help outline a conception of testimony by proxy. This framework will serve as a background for sketching trauma at the content level and will offer a way to understand the book’s idea of redress. Moving from trauma as a theme to the level of form, my discussion will bring to light the ways in which the author struggles to navigate the ethical challenges of a vicarious witness and thus oscillates between empathy, journalistic disinterestedness, and her own presence in the text. Further, I will address the closure the text offers by reading it as an attempt at containing the unsettling past. These dynamics call Skloot’s project into question and provoke a critique of its own involved ethics. Ultimately, the author reduces the political power of her narrative for the sake of telling the story of an exceptional individual.

Theoretical Framework: Testimony and Trauma From a trauma studies perspective, testimonies are first-person accounts that are true to an individual’s lived experiences. These experiences are so severely disruptive that the act of testifying itself often represents a physical and psychological survival. Yet testimony also involves the other side: A listener needs to be empathetic and understanding but at the same time acknowledge the incommensurability, that is, the complete otherness, of the personal story he or she bears witness to. Distance protects from “[u]nqualified objectification,” “narrative harmonization,” and “unmediated identification” with the victim (LaCapra 99). This remove becomes complicated in a proxy testimony, when a speaker assumes a position in lieu of an individual rendered voiceless. The precarious subject positions of both the speaker and the actual trauma victim underline the importance of a distinction between the latter’s factual experiences and their representation. In order to explore The Immortal Life as a vicarious testimony in depth, I will set the critical stage by discussing testimony in the context of trauma studies and the slave narrative. Literary trauma scholarship emerging from the 1990s onward understands testimony as a largely disembodied first-person account delivered via speech and narrative. Often fragmented and nonchronological, it corre-


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sponds to the struggle that the psyche faces in integrating the traumatic experience. The insufficiency of knowing and understanding manifests itself in the ruptures and repetitions that irritate narrative coherence but constitute an integral part of survivor accounts. By giving meaning and temporality to a traumatic experience, testimony is believed to counteract the belated and uncontrollable reactions of the psyche. In other words, “at the same time language about trauma is theorized as an impossibility, language is pressed forward as that which can heal the survivor of trauma” (Gilmore 6). Besides this linguistic paradox, Holocaust scholars, in particular, point out that testimony is a social relation because it rests on mutual responsibilities of the two involved parties: While testimony relies on the absolute truthfulness of the person testifying, it demands empathy and acknowledgment on the part of the listener. Testifying to trauma is a communicative process, as Dori Laub asserts in “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening.” He claims that narrativization gives the nonevent a transmissible form, explaining that “someone [...] testifies to an absence, to an event that has not yet come into existence” (57). In this communication, “the listener to trauma comes to be a participant and coowner of the traumatic event” but “nonetheless [...] preserves his own separate place, position and perspective” (57, 58). Thus made ‘real’ through communication, trauma can be brought into the safe zone of the symbolic order and subsequently be integrated into structures of meaning. Healing therefore depends on the joint transformation of an inchoate experience into a tellable event and culminates, for Laub, in “a reassertion of the hegemony of reality and a re-externalization of the evil that affected and contaminated the trauma victim” (69). An important consequence of this ‘translation’ crystallizes: Testimony depends on an Other, and, as working through trauma necessitates the listener’s participation, it reminds us of our responsibility toward other human beings. That way, the story it carries can teach us a lesson, caution a warning, raise awareness, and remind us of a common humanity. Hence, an ethical relation is produced in the absent place of the event where not even language can function. In The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony, Leigh Gilmore problematizes the testifiers’ insistence on the nonfictional nature of their accounts. She observes that witnesses are held accountable for presenting the events as they ‘really happened.’ From this angle, testimony seems incompatible with ‘art’ or any ornamentation, embellishment, or hermeneutic frame: Because testimonial projects require subjects to confess, to bear witness, to make public and shareable a private and intolerable pain, they enter into a legalistic frame in which their efforts can move quickly beyond their interpretation and control, become exposed as ambiguous, and therefore subject to judgments about their veracity and worth. (7)

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In other words, testimony is considered an unaltered account that provides a gateway to the past. The witness’s claim of ‘I was there’ seems to be incompatible with retrospective changes or creative elaboration. It is also prone to our strict evaluation. In addition to Gilmore’s analysis, it should be noted that this direct access to the past is merely an illusion: As any retelling of a past experience, memories of a traumatic event are shaped by a wide range of factors, such as the person’s perception and cognitive frameworks at the time of its occurrence and later dynamics of forgetting, imagining, selecting, highlighting, and repressing, to name but a few. Trauma testimony can thus never be more—and is never less—than a personal story from the perspective of the victim that demands an imaginative revisiting of a painful event. Overall, the aspects of testimony usually highlighted by trauma scholars —that is, truthfulness, narrativization, the twofold responsibilities, and the therapeutic function along with the political and ethical implications—presuppose a receptive and empathetic audience as well as a particular subject that is testifying. In other words, such a conception of testimony rests on the acknowledgment and the belief in the credibility of that person. This understanding of testimony, however, is put to the test once the person who testifies is considered to be in need of further authentication or is not the person who ‘owns’ the experience in the first place. In a discussion of The Immortal Life in light of such a stand-in testimonial position, another angle from which to consider Skloot’s book comes to mind: its comparability to the slave narrative. This highly conventionalized genre draws attention to the way the contemporary conception of testimony rests on a rational and free subject and thus complicates accounts from more precarious subject positions. Just as slaves’ accounts did not have legal standing in the courtrooms of colonial and antebellum America, so did their printed accounts necessitate white authorization in order for them to become acknowledged. Thus probing the limits of the admissibility of the black eyewitness, slave narratives of the first half of the nineteenth century pursue a twofold project of attesting to an individual trauma as well as formulating a political argument for the abolitionist cause. In doing so, slave narratives allow insights into the underlying assumptions about the testifier and complicate the notion of testimony as disembodied and delivered via speech and narrative.4 It is in the comparable testimonial relations that I see a connection between the highly conventionalized genre of slave narratives and the proxy testimony in Skloot’s The Immortal Life. To be unequivocal, it is not 4

For a legal discussion of slave testimony, cf. Jeannine Marie DeLombard’s In the Shadows of the Gallows, which demonstrates how the slave’s personhood emerges only in the context of crime in colonial America. For more on the undertheorized body as a conceptual blank in literary trauma studies, cf. Lisa Woolfork’s Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture.


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my intention to establish links between the actual personal experiences that are at the core of these texts. Such a discussion is unproductive and veers away from the power relations that govern the narrative situation, which is my interest in this paper. In both instances, a white authenticator is needed for the subaltern perspective to emerge. This marginalized voice, marked by race and class, would have otherwise been denied full access to the public. In contradistinction to slave narratives with their usual editorial prefaces and black subjects testifying to their own experiences, The Immortal Life provides a personal account on behalf of someone else.

Traumatic Content: Lacks’s Life, Intergenerational Echoes, and Skloot’s Idea of Redress The Immortal Life testifies to a life undermined by adverse conditions and troublesome experiences. Its traumas can therefore not be tied to a singular event but rather emerge in a process of accumulation. Since the book also accompanies Henrietta Lacks’s children as they try to come to terms with their mother’s undying cells, it records instances of trauma at an intergenerational level as well. This twofold testimonial project is complicated by the fact that the author barely comments on the structural inequalities that provide the breeding ground for the events in her protagonists’ lives. Instead, the book focuses on the ‘tragic’ success of the cells—deplorable, the book argues, because Lacks’s contribution to medicine has been underacknowledged and unrequited. Even though Skloot chooses not to discuss the role of race, gender, or class, the book nevertheless allows glimpses at the ways segregation and ensuing deprivations contribute to vulnerability and disempowerment, which in their sum must be understood as a constant exposure to trauma—a structural rather than individual traumatization that stems from the shared subaltern experience and that is disconnected from a particular event.5 I 5

Structural trauma in the context of my discussion must be differentiated from the rather universal ‘structural trauma’ Dominick LaCapra theorizes in contradistinction to the specificity of ‘historical trauma.’ For him, it is “related to (even correlated with) transhistorical absence (absence of/at the origin) and appears in different ways in all societies and all lives [...] [and] may be evoked or addressed in various fashions—in terms of the separation from the (m)other, the passage from nature to culture, the eruption of the pre-oedipal or presymbolic in the symbolic, the entry into language, the encounter with the ‘real,’ alienation from species-being, the anxiety-ridden thrownness of Dasein, the inevitable generation of the aporia, the constitutive nature of originary melancholic loss in relation to subjectivity, and so forth” (77). My use of the term is much narrower: I understand it as a deindividualized harm caused by underlying systemic deprivations or by what Saidiya V. Hartman describes as forms of subjection—the continuity of physical, psychological, and economic control of African Americans after slavery.

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will first trace some of the circumstances and events that constitute trauma in Lacks’s life by considering them in light of the legacy of slavery and its subtle forms of subjection. Here, distinctions have to be made between the instances of traumatization the text records, how it interprets them, and what it fails to see. I will then present the Henrietta Lacks Foundation as a way to alleviate the harm the book attests to. Finally, turning to the intergenerational dimension of the story, I will offer a trauma reading of the afterlife of Lacks’ cells as an alternative to the author’s idea of redress. As Skloot tracks Lacks’s hitherto unknown childhood, a sad picture emerges: Southern, poor, orphaned, and black, Lacks was denied the chances of reliable family structures, education, and economic stability. Yet when the author visits Lacks’s hometown in Virginia, interviewees assure her that “race relations were never bad,” but “they also said Lacks Town was only about twelve miles from the local Lynch Tree” (155). Concurrent to these disconcerting overtones, the author still paints a carefree childhood of growing up in her grandfather’s cottage, of hard work that was perceived as play, and of being raised with her cousin, by whom she gets pregnant at age thirteen. One of the few critical voices on The Immortal Life, bell hooks reproaches Skloot in Writing Beyond Race for “report[ing] nonchalantly” on the many instances of inadequate sexual conduct, “evok[ing] a folksy image of down-home black folks with no cares in the world” (84). The author’s insensitivity might be explained by racial stereotyping, as hooks suggests, or by simply overlooking the familial violence and an incomprehension of its larger context. Both the moments of disturbing behavior and the journalist’s blindness to them could thus stem from internalized assumptions about race and class. Christina Sharpe’s Monstrous Intimacies offers a way in which we can understand the text’s presentation of Lacks’s as well as her offspring’s childhood of abject poverty and improper sexual conduct as normalcy. Sharpe argues that slavery produces particular forms of dependency, which are often sexual in nature and tied to the home. They constitute “a set of known and unknown performances and inhabited horrors, desires and positions produced, reproduced, circulated, and transmitted, that are breathed in like air” (3). If, then, greater attention was paid to the legacy of slavery, the strong bonds between the family members as well as manifestations of their dysfunction would appear in the light of the structural trauma of segregation. While the exploitation of Lacks’ sick body seems like an expansion of the discussed racism and its less visible forms that determined Lacks’s life, it is unfair to reproach her doctors for failing to provide sufficient cancer treatment or for co-opting her body tissue, because these were standard procedures at the time, as the author meticulously maps out (228-29). Skloot concedes, however, that the large-scale use of the valuable cells is a different ethical question altogether, as is the recruitment of family


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members to partake unknowingly in further HeLa research. 6 For readers, the utilization of Lacks’s body touches a nerve in post-Civil Rights times, in particular when they learn that the doctor, having discovered the abnormal growth of her cancer cells, “wanted samples from as many organs in her body as possible” after her death (112). Without doubt, Lacks was objectified, her cells became a tradeable good, and her genetic information a source for profit. The issues at stake here are multifaceted and intricate: They concern personhood, patients’ rights, and the legal status of the living and dead body, among others. Concerning the way Skloot patiently walks her readers through this bioethical maze, hooks notes that her “passion and compassion clearly lie with the medical and science community” (85). For instance, the author rejects the idea that Lacks’s exploitation is exceptional or a result of the double jeopardy of being black and female. 7 In contrast, a different angle makes it possible to regard the medical exploitation of Lacks—and, by extension, that of her family—as a form of subjection determined by class, race, and sex. Highlighting the inconspicuousness of such determinants, Saidiya V. Hartman discusses in Scenes of Subjection phenomena in post-slavery society “in which terror can hardly be discerned,” phenomena that “illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle” (4). As everyday practices that do not stand out as singular, extreme events, they may not, at first glance, be recognized as traumatizing, and yet, as they accumulate, they cause a particular vulnerability and psychological stress that must be understood as an ongoing exposure to trauma. More often than not, The Immortal Life overlooks the daily terror of segregation, which acts as the background, reason, or catalyst for its more concrete traumas. From this perspective, the exploitation of Lacks’s body is merely an expansion of the gross racial injustice and its less visible forms. Pirating parts of a patient’s body might have been a perfectly legal, standard practice; it nonetheless evokes slavery’s notorious conflation of person and property.8 6 7


According to Skloot’s research, they assumed the researchers took their blood samples to test them for the cancer that might run in the family (226-29). Addressing the role of race in Lacks’ story in the FAQ section of her website, Skloot points out that the treatment as well as the taking of body samples at Johns Hopkins were not race-related. However, she stresses the factor of economic stigmatization by mentioning that “the prevailing attitude [of doctors] then was that since ‘charity cases’ were treated for free, doctors were entitled to use them in research, whether the patients realized it or not” (“FAQ”). Eventually, Skloot identifies Lacks’s poverty as the main reason for her objectification and promptly connects it to the paradox highlighted throughout the book: “Many of the difficulties Henrietta’s family faced came down to issues of class: their lack of access to education; their inability to afford health care despite the fact that their mother’s cells helped lead to so many important medical advances” (“FAQ”). On the implications of attributing ownership to body tissue, cf. Wald’s “What’s in a Cell? John Moore’s Spleen and the Language of Bioslavery.”

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The focus of the book, however, is elsewhere: Lacks’s descendants, the author laments, have been denied compensation, in terms of both money and a proper commemoration, despite the immense value of her cells. Several scholars have criticized this agenda for ignoring the substantial inequalities at the core of Lacks’s objectification—racial and economic inequalities that operate regardless of an individual’s value for society.9 The critique aims at the compensatory gesture the book offers: The personal story moves the public while it diverts attention from society’s responsibilities. The most visible expression of this dynamic is the foundation that Skloot established to help Lacks’s immediate family members.10 It is here that the political alignment of Skloot’s testimonial project comes to the fore. Since 2012, the Henrietta Lacks Foundation presents itself as an advocate of individuals who have been unjustly treated by medicine, giving donors “a way to show their appreciation [for] such research subjects and their families” (Henrietta Lacks Foundation). Its alleged selflessness is noted by critics such as Larry I. Palmer, who challenges its noble motives: “The foundation, which combines commerce and charity, makes a good marketing device. It allows Skloot to increase sales of her book while sensationalizing the problem of race and health disparities” (c4). Pointing to the hidden financial gains brought in by the foundation, Palmer finds fault in how Skloot paints the book as an investigative project for altruistic purposes. Rather, the foundation makes clever use of existing inequalities. I would add that it effectively increases the sales of the book by making Skloot’s project appear even more ethical than it already presents itself in the text. With similar economic motives in mind, Melissa M. Littlefield and Anne Pollock suspect that the “foundation may very well participate in the same neoliberal logic that informs the contemporary uses of HeLa and of medical care: if you have nothing to offer medicine – or journalism for that matter – it has nothing to offer you” (617). The foundation’s effect of creating good PR and reducing structural problems to individual tragedy addressed by Palmer as well as Littlefield and Pollock is amplified by additional texts surrounding the narrative. 9

Drawing attention to the “deeper issues of institutional racism [...] frequently overlooked,” Wald notes that the “failure to recognize its multiple manifestations has resulted in confusion surrounding the exact nature of the violations in this case” (“Cells” 248). Agreeing with her assessment, Jonathan M. Metzl doubts that we can “recogniz[e] the ‘violations’ produced by social, political, and economic systems” by “listen[ing] to individualized stories” (215). 10 Since the book’s main complaint is that the family never received any compensation, whereas the cells made a worldwide industry possible (as well as numberless careers), the foundation was founded to help cover medical bills and tuition of the Lackses. The scope changed in the following years when, according to the website, it started giving grants to individuals who were unjustly treated by medicine and personally did not benefit from their donations of blood or body tissue (Henrietta Lacks Foundation). This expansion hardly affects the foundation’s limited agenda of helping a very narrow group of people through acts of benevolence.


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These complementary media formats spotlight the singularity of Lacks’s case as well as bringing in money. Apart from the pending HBO adaptation, there are still, as of 2014, ongoing reading and book-signing events with the author and, occasionally, members of the Lacks family. Moreover, the author’s website provides classroom teaching material as well as reading group guides (cf. Skloot, “Teachers”; Skloot, “Reading Groups”). Overall, the conciliatory and instructive gestures of the book, the foundation, and the many paratexts follow one trajectory: The personal story moves the public and appeals to the individual’s generosity to the effect that it diverts attention from society’s responsibilities. Even though it cannot compare with the redress promised by the foundation’s monetary compensation, an alternative interpretative path is worth exploring: More so than by having been denied a share in the proceeds, Lacks’s family seems hurt by the way the cells were bred into an uncanny afterlife. Learning about HeLa two decades after its creation and obtaining only sparse information on the events makes reconciliation particularly difficult for the children. “[T]heir lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells” (9) bespeaks how the omnipresent corporeal remnants are irreconcilable with the untold life story and the missing memory of their mother, resulting in the unprocessed quality of Lacks’ story and the belated affliction of her family. This corresponds to the way Cathy Caruth considers the defining characteristic of a traumatic experience to be not “the event itself” but its delayed and recurring representations in the victim’s mind: “[T]he event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession” (4).11 The HeLa cells literalize this paradoxical time structure of trauma. Closure, then, seems impossible: The cells are both reminders—that is, literal embodiments in the present—and remainders of her body that are circulated worldwide. The book states bluntly that, “[l]ike guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse,” and it seems unaware of the associations with slavery it provokes (5). The cells’ circulation keeps the trauma alive: While her story evokes a trauma of class, gender, and race, her body tissue embodies it for her kin. If one thus takes an 11 The “repeated possession” in the context of the family’s intergenerational trauma is visible in the structure of their discourse, in particular in the alternation of silence and sudden bursts of emotion possibly produced by the troubling material that lies latent until discharged as affect. Readers learn that the Lackses “‘don’t tell stories on dead folks’” and that the children “were afraid to ask” about their mother (147, 138). The oldest son, Zakariyya, tells Skloot that, in order to cope, he “blacked [his childhood] out of [his] mind because of the sadness and hurting” (199). The taboo of talking about their deceased relative contrasts with symptoms of hyperarousal, introversion, and aggression that take concrete form in Deborah’s anxiety (209) and Zakariyya’s record of violence (309). The uncontrollable, emotional turmoil indicative of traumatic experience articulates the belated knowledge of Lacks’ cells and the resulting struggle to make sense of the events.

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intergenerational haunting into account, Deborah’s unpredictability, which the author points out repeatedly, becomes much more comprehensible: She suffers from bouts of depression throughout the book, relies on heavy medication to get through the day, and, in terms of her many illnesses, was told by doctors that “‘everything was all in [her] head’” (319).12 Thus, on the surface level of the narration, Skloot is so invested in presenting an exceptional story that she turns a blind eye to the many irritating moments in her story. Often, these instances are symptoms of shared experiences rooted in the deeper layers of society: institutionalized structures and internalized assumptions about race, gender, and class—traumatic undertones and intergenerational echoes the narrative nonetheless records. The author’s interpretation, in contrast, casts Lacks’ story in terms of its singularity and renders it a misfortune that can, at least symbolically, be alleviated through individual altruistic acts.

Skloot’s Narration: Immersion and Imaginary Closure A close look at the form of the text highlights the questionable dimension of the book’s testimonial project. Specifically, it sheds light on the way the text navigates the demands of life writing and an ethical awareness that the topic and the genre require. After all, however, as a work of literary journalism, it seeks to entertain; consequently, it needs to negotiate between telling the unmediated truth and narrating a compelling story. This balancing act in mind, I will first discuss Skloot’s insistence on authenticity and truthfulness in light of the genre conventions of testimony. Reading the text as an attempt to testify to Lacks’s trauma shows the intricacies of journalistic immersion, empathy, and authority of voice. Finally, my analysis will focus on two aspects that decidedly provoke a critique of the book’s self12 Deborah’s traumatization, even irrespective of the haunting cells and the search for her mother’s story, results from very similar structural inequalities that influence economic, racial, and gender relations that had afflicted her mother: When she lost her primary caregiver at the age of two, family members raised Deborah and her brothers, among them a sadistic aunt and an uncle who sexually harassed the girl (139, 141). The fact that abuse, neglect, and an unstable family background during childhood correlate with the physical and psychological symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder later on in life was first documented in the ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ study published by Vincent J. Felitti et al. in 1998 (cf. also Whitfield). Considered from this perspective, the stroke Deborah suffered, her anxiety, and her many other medical conditions could illustrate how “unhealed grief translates into organic disease” (Whitfield 362). By comparison, bell hooks also comments on the author’s unwillingness to see a connection between the daughter’s early experiences and her later medical and emotional issues, noting that “[t]o recognize fully the impact of repeated trauma in Deborah’s life Skloot would have had to relinquish the colorful darky aspects of her sensationalized thriller” (87).


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proclaimed ethics: the author’s presence in the text and the closure her story imagines. Resulting from almost a decade of research, The Immortal Life relates the untold personal story behind a famous and well-documented case in US medical history. Calling the book “posthumous and posthumanist” life writing, critic G. Thomas Couser points out that it is “not the narrative of a single discrete individual but rather the tracing of two lines of descent— one ‘immortal,’ a peculiar kind of nonhuman offspring; the other all too human” (191). Noting the author’s skillful voice, reviewer Virginia Sharpe praises the book as “a luminous, transfiguring, and true story of a journalist’s quest” (46). On her quest, Skloot mostly refrains from evaluating the characters or their actions. At the same time, she constructs a sense of intimacy. This apparently nonjudgmental closeness is achieved by means of a heavy use of dialogue, which gives the book a documentary quality. Skloot remarks that she has been advised by a family member not to “pretty up how people spoke” (xi) because that would “tak[e] away their lives, their experiences, and their selves” (xi-xii), a gesture intended to strengthen the reader’s sense of the text’s authenticity. Even though the book marks itself as a nonfiction account of the life of a real person, it uses literary strategies nonetheless. This is because biographical writing, just as any other text that reconstructs a real event, involves processes of selecting, arranging, and emphasizing material as well as employing narrative frames, rhetorical figures, and tropes, among other things; it shares its operations with fiction writing. For instance, the author reflects on the birth, the proceedings, and the consequences of the project, this “decadelong adventure” sparked in a high school science class that made her sixteen-year-old self want to “write a book that was a biography of both the cells and the woman they came from” (8). Another instance of the author commenting on her book—a self-referentiality that runs throughout the text—can be found even before the actual narrative begins. An (unpaginated) epigraph by Elie Wiesel signals that the text contributes to the recuperation of a traumatic life: “We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” Holocaust scholar Wiesel here emphasizes the individual experience as a primary means of engaging with history and with the knowledge that emerges from collective trauma. Ushering in a personal account of suffering and growth, his words give gravitas to Skloot’s project and frame it as a self-reflexive testimonial endeavor. It seems that the purported truth of the narrative conflicts with the literary qualities of the text, its self-reflexivity, and Skloot’s personal entanglement in the story. Yet all of these aspects, the insistence on the truthfulness of her writing as well as the implied complications, can be regarded as expressions of the genre conventions. As Gilmore notes, life

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writing is evaluated according to its “veracity” (7) and to giving an immediate and unaltered account of the past. Due to the pressure to convincingly claim an insider’s perspective, these standards are particularly relevant for a biographer like Skloot, who provides vicarious testimony to another person’s life. This can be seen in the preface, when the author asserts that “[n]o names have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated” (ix). Here, she also discloses her research methods, explains specific word choices, and establishes herself as a reporter who adheres to journalistic norms of objectivity and who, “[w]henever possible[,] [...] conducted multiple interviews with multiple sources to ensure accuracy” (xii). To further consolidate her proxy testimony, diverse texts complement the story: First and foremost, photographs of family members, places, and the cells stabilize the narrative, as they transcend the text. In appealing visually, they add another level of aesthetic experience for the reader, enhancing the perceived ‘realness’ of the narrative. Presenting the current situation of those who crossed Lacks’s and Skloot’s paths, the final section “Where They Are Now” similarly anchors the characters’ existence in the world outside the text. Lastly, the notes at the end serve to prove the legitimacy of her references and to substantiate her conclusions. Overall, responding to the demands of her chosen genre, Skloot emphasizes the factuality of her material and the immediacy of her access. The gestures of factual accuracy may thus counteract both authorial immersion and the literary strategy of self-referentiality but they do not necessarily contradict them. Dominick LaCapra explains in Writing History, Writing Trauma that the fictionalization of a trauma allows insights that fact-based historical accounts may not be able to provide: [F]iction may also involve truth claims on a structural or general level by providing insight into phenomena such as slavery or the Holocaust, by offering a reading of a process or period, or by giving at least a plausible ‘feel’ for experience and emotion which may be difficult to arrive at through restricted documentary methods. (13)

Presenting more personal details of Lacks’s life than previous textual renditions have, Skloot’s book allows an affective dimension to emerge: Her proxy testimony encourages readers to have an emotional response as they acknowledge the suffering and the injustice that Henrietta Lacks experienced. For the susceptible audience, the echoes of her trauma reverberate today. This emotional effect is further increased by the presence of the HeLa cells in our everyday world, which the author discusses extensively in the book. Doing so, Skloot presents the ensuing bioethical problem of ownership of body tissue as a concern for us all. Through this well-calculated address to the reader, however, the book attempts a complicated balancing act between the emotional commitment of both the author and


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the audience, on the one hand, and an objective reconstruction of facts, on the other. Pointing out the dangers of substituting the self for the Other, LaCapra cautions against becoming too entrenched in one’s topic: “Objectivity requires checks and resistances to full identification, and this is one important function of meticulous research, contextualization, and the attempt to be as attentive as possible to the voices of others whose alterity is recognized” (40). The documentary and uninvolved way in which Skloot’s project presents itself is thus complicated by the self-referentiality of her writing, the author’s personal investment it reveals, and its skillful enhancement of the emotional appeal of Lacks’ story. Oscillating between empathetic projection and journalistic objectivity, The Immortal Life thus exemplifies the difficulties in testifying to the trauma of another human being. While, as argued before, internal tensions regarding the author’s involvement might be inherent to biographical writing, the narrative situation in Skloot’s proxy testimony becomes more and more intricate as the story progresses. Such complications emerge at the border between subject positions. Skloot, at once an empathetically immersed writer and a professional, second-degree witness, risks a problematic identification because she never knew Henrietta Lacks. Recalling Gilmore’s observation that writing the self automatically raises concerns about legitimacy and truth, Skloot’s account on Lacks’s behalf raises the question of narrative authority. Does bearing witness vicariously presuppose any commonality of gender, race, class, or time? How much otherness can be acknowledged in a reconstruction that is not exclusively but fundamentally an account of a racial trauma? Anticipating the critique of her position as a white journalist writing the biography of an African American woman who died decades ago, Skloot stresses a mutual influence despite existing differences. In particular, she presents Lacks’s daughter Deborah, whose traumatic experiences the author registers in passing, as a woman on par with herself: “We’d form a deep personal bond, and slowly, without realizing it, I’d become a character in her story, and she in mine” (8). Favorable reviews note that Skloot “[v]eer[s] from the road usually trod by journalists” (Boerner 1081), while she does “not shy away from moral complexities, including the journalistic ethics of her relationship with the Lacks family” (V. Sharpe 47). However, looking at the way the very different positions (and stories) of Deborah and the author are equated, a less flattering reading emerges in which Skloot inflates the mutual implication of listener and testifier typical of testimony. The uncommon closeness suggested by the inside perspective and the likeness with the trauma victim aims to authorize Skloot’s voice, but, in fact, it jeopardizes testimony. This is because feeling for the one who suffers, or even projecting oneself onto that person, reduces the Other’s alterity. As Hartman remarks, empathy based on identification “insists upon the other as a mirror of the self and [...] in order to recognize suffering must substitute the self for the other” (20). Take, for example, the very first sen-

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tence of the book: “There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met” (1). It establishes a connection between trauma victim and proxy witness mediated via documents. The journalistic impulse is to diminish this distance, eventually achieving more and more immediacy in the final portion of the book. The quote, in a manner characteristic of the entire text, shows the author as a primary subject in the book, presenting her adolescent self as the girl who “became fixated on the idea of someday telling Henrietta’s story” (8). Both through her narrative voice and as a person in the story, Skloot becomes gradually more visible. The journalistic drive to achieve more immediacy leads to situations in which the roles of reporter and subject of inquiry, witness and testifier, as well as self and Other overlap. To illustrate, the author’s struggle to approach the family is initiated by a phone conversation but comes to a standstill when Deborah refuses a second interview. This does not stop the author from persistently leaving messages “every few days, hoping to convince her” for almost a year (290). When Deborah finally accepts, she permits Skloot to record a much more personal story of the Lackses, thus also allowing Skloot to turn from a narrative voice into a character. From then on, the book suggests, Skloot is almost kin. A vivid example of the conflation of roles takes place when the author and Deborah visit another family member, Gary, who is also a lay preacher. The spiritual transference he initiates “looked a lot like an exorcism” (8), the author remembers later. His words transfer some of the weight of the past onto the reporter: “‘LORD, I KNOW you sent Miss Rebecca to help LIFT THE BURDEN of them CELLS!’ He thrusts his arms toward me, hands pointed at either side of my head. ‘GIVE THEM TO HER!’ he yelled. ‘LET HER CARRY THEM’” (367). The emotional cleansing alleviates Deborah’s pain; it seems to also assuage the author’s feelings of remorse. Seeing the elderly woman severely distraught after learning of the death of a mentally challenged and institutionalized sister she never met, Skloot reflects on her own responsibility: “As I watched, all I could think was, Oh my god . . . I did this to her” (366). In the logic of the narrative, the conversion that follows this insight ‘atones’ for how the journalist has exposed her character to the emotional stress of the writing project. Whereas the cleansing scene colors the author’s work as self-sacrificing, another passage toward the end presents her writing as a heroic act. Accompanying Deborah to her church, Skloot’s multiple roles of journalist, narrator, listener, testifier, and friend become indistinguishable when the author suddenly finds herself urged to tell her story: [M]y throat clenched as Deborah pushed my back to get me moving. [...] I walked to the pulpit and took the microphone from Pullum [the preacher], who patted me on the back and whispered in my ear, “Just preach it in your own words.” So I did. I told the story of Henrietta’s cells and what they’d done for


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Her speech engages the audience emotionally, in a double way: through as well as within the text. As a performance, it seeks approval of her work by the local African American community. The textual record of this self-dramatizing performance aims to increase the credibility of her writing and the high-minded motives of her project and confirms Skloot as a primary protagonist in the story. Unmistakably, the book is as much about Lacks as it is about a heroic journalist writing it. Apart from the author’s presence in the text, its imagined closure further complicates the testimony The Immortal Life seeks to give. The way in which the book narrates the upheavals of Lacks’s life and afterlife counteracts the traumatic inconclusiveness of her untimely death: Narrativization embeds the disjointed information and parallel story lines into a meaningful structure, establishing causal and temporal links between events. For example, the text is composed of three parts, of which the first section depicts Lacks’s childhood, youth, marriage, and sudden sickness; the second one traces the career of HeLa; and the third focuses on Deborah’s quest to learn who her mother was—which echoes the theme of the first part. Yet rather than stopping here, Skloot’s narrative attempts to reach a conclusion of the Lacks case. The book’s push against the interminability of Lacks’s tragedy becomes apparent on the final pages, when Deborah reflects on her own death and draws on the memory of her mother as she addresses Skloot: “I don’t know how I’m going to go,” she said. “I just hope it’s nice and calm. But I tell you one thing, I don’t want to be immortal if it mean living forever, cause then everybody else just die and get old in front of you while you stay the same, and that’s just sad.” Then she smiled. “But maybe I’ll come back as some HeLa cells like my mother, that way we can do good together out there in the world.” She paused and nodded again. “I think I’d like that.” (389)

In this imagined reunion with her mother, the threads of Lacks’s and her daughter’s stories interweave. In painting a peaceful scene that emphasizes the benefit her mother’s life has brought for humankind—despite the unrest her impossible death has created—the text offers a final chapter to her quest. Within the logic of the book, this sentimental gesture provides closure to Deborah’s own trauma story. Accompanying Deborah’s painful discoveries of the vicissitudes of her mother’s life and imagining an ending to her story, the text resonates with the idea that narrative closure enables healing. In fact, many scholars of trauma underscore the importance of bearing witness in narrative form in order to overcome traumatization. Psychological wounds call for narrativization, Laub posits, and “[t]his re-externalization of the event can occur and take effect only when one can articulate and transmit the story” (69).

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The therapeutic value of testimony rests on the stability of the spoken subject; the transmission of the individual’s trauma is here conceived of as a mutual and communicative act that involves two parties. Turning to the specific kind of testimony The Immortal Life gives, we nonetheless discern the therapeutic impulse. The book makes meaning of the events leading to and going beyond Lacks’s early death and primarily gives voice to their traumatic repercussions for her children. The author’s scrutiny and professional privilege enable her to reconstruct a story that could not have been told by those who were directly involved, for they simply did not know what happened to Lacks and her cells. Thus, by voicing both Lacks’s experiences and those of her kin, Skloot’s book performs a therapeutic function: It seeks to advance consolation by telling the ‘true’ story of the woman behind the cells so that “Henrietta would finally begin getting the recognition Deborah hoped for” (276). Moreover, the collective dimension of this testimony implicates more than just the family. It can be traced in the racism, deprivation, and subtler forms of subjection to which Lacks was exposed. As argued previously, the author remains remarkably “silent when it comes to addressing issues of racism and sexism as systems that allowed experimentation with Henrietta’s body” (hooks 85-86). In terms of its politics, then, the book contents itself with bearing witness to the story of an exceptional individual and only indirectly, if at all, works through the broader social issues at stake. Reminding us that each and every one of us has benefited from HeLa, the book chooses to confront readers with a trauma that may literally be incredibly close to their own lives and bodies. The Immortal Life thus invests in presenting the problem as a personal matter—in terms of both Lacks’s tragedy and the reader’s concern and empathy. Bearing witness necessarily means accepting the fragmentary, and thus potentially tentative, nature of an account of trauma. Shoshana Felman notes that “testimony seems to be composed of bits and pieces of a memory that has been overwhelmed by occurrences that have not settled into understanding or remembrance” (5). The professional nature of Skloot’s testimony and her journalistic access to details become apparent in the wide narrative frame spanned by the book, which encompasses Lacks’s childhood, her adult life and death, the legacy of her cells, and how both the family and Skloot herself are affected by Lacks’ story. This thorough investigation and extensive representation builds a coherent narrative that seeks to comprehend her trauma. Yet this completeness of the narrative contests the author’s project: While closure can work as a peaceful ending to a haunting story, it may also prematurely curtail the intergenerational trauma that emerges from Lacks’s tragedy. This is because testimony cannot provide “a completed statement, a totalizable account” (Felman 5). The most striking moment of this containment is Deborah’s conclusion that the beneficial effects of her mother’s afterlife ultimately outweigh the pain felt by the family. It goes without saying that the prospect that the daughter sin-


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cerely feels this way is highly desirable. The narrative choice to finish the book like this, however, has a consoling effect on the audience: For the audience, the trauma victim is now at peace; there is a sense that a burden on society has been lifted. This reconciliation might move readers to support the good cause of Skloot’s project—for instance by donating money to her foundation—but it is an appeal to individual compassion that comes with a price, as Wald, Metzl, and Palmer have noted. In Couser’s words, the book “may raise its own issues as to who profits from the story of those cells” (191).

Conclusion Reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as a testimony by proxy offers an understanding of the way in which the Lacks case and its intergenerational repercussions are represented in Skloot’s writing. Such a trauma perspective allows to differentiate between content and form, or, to be more precise, it draws attention to the (genre) politics of the narration of the facts of Lacks’s and her children’s lives. Uncovering the past and reconstructing the life of the woman behind the famous cells, the book responds to the conventions of life writing at the same time as it is indebted to literary journalism. Even with the best of intentions on the part of the author, tensions necessarily emerge in a trauma story on behalf of someone else. Apart from the vexed question of authority of voice, these tensions become visible in the interplay of journalistic disinterestedness, empathy, and immersion, in the author’s multiple roles in the text, and in the constant gestures of factuality, immediacy, and truthfulness aimed at counterbalancing the literary and narrative strategies of the book. While the book attests to the upheavals in the lives of the individuals it portrays, it shows little regard for the deprivations along the axes of race, class, and gender, which manifest in or are aggravated by the experiences of the protagonists. Blind spots also arise in the moments in which Skloot appears unaware of the intergenerational trauma unfolding before her eyes and of her own role in investigating the details of Lacks’s exploitation. Despite this lack of self-awareness of the effects of her investigative work, her book nonetheless registers Lacks’s descendants’ struggle to come to terms with the obscure past and the sudden physical presence of their mother’s cells. This intergenerational dimension of trauma can be expanded even further: The immortality of the HeLa cells, their unethical commodification, and the race- and poverty-related structural traumatization account for the implication of more than just Lacks’s family in this trauma story—a cultural dimension overlooked in the book. Instead, the author focuses on telling a compelling story that engages readers and appeals to their individual benevolence. Imagining a completeness of the experience, the book offers a therapeutic closure. Arguably,

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attempting to resolve the traumatic story is a risky endeavor and raises the question of its benefit. Perhaps the testimony can assuage the haunting inconclusiveness of Lacks’s tragedy for the family; most certainly, it provides a marketable happy ending. On a cultural level, however, this containment is highly problematic: It curtails the cultural potency of Lacks’ story by deflecting from the structural disparities at its core. Appealing to the audience’s emotions and sense of moral propriety, it elicits a pronounced reaction and leaves benevolence to the individual’s discretion. Moreover, the author’s presence in the text leaves no doubt that the book is equally about the writer as it is about her subject. Therefore, paradoxically, flaws in the project’s own ethics become most visible in the gesture of charity: The foundation serves as a compensation for profits generated not just by the cells but also by their story.

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Lantos, John D. “A Better Life through Science?” Hastings Center Report 40.4 (2010): 22-25. Project Muse. Web. 9 Feb. 2013. Laub, Dori. “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening.” Felman and Laub 5774. Littlefield, Melissa M., and Anne Pollock. “Troubling with ‘the Ethics of the Thing’ in Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Social Studies of Science 41.4 (2011): 609-18. Sage. Web. 3 May 2013. Metzl, Jonathan M. “Structural Competency.” American Quarterly 64.2 (2012): 213-18. Project Muse. Web. 17 Aug. 2012. Palmer, Larry I. “Private Reparations.” Hastings Center Report 40.6 (2010): c4. Project Muse. Web. 17 Aug. 2012. Rogers, Michael. “The Double-Edged Helix.” Rolling Stone 25 Mar. 1976: 48-51. Print. Sharpe, Christina. Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Print. Sharpe, Virginia A. “One Life, Many Stories.” Rev. of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Hastings Center Report 40.4 (2010): 46-47. Project Muse. Web. 14 July 2012. Skloot, Rebecca. “FAQ.” Rebecca Skloot. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. ---. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown, 2010. Print. ---. “Reading Groups.” Rebecca Skloot. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. ---. “Teachers and Students.” Rebecca Skloot. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. Wald, Priscilla. “American Studies and the Politics of Life.” American Quarterly 64.2 (2012): 185-204. Project Muse. Web. 14 July 2012. ---. “Cells, Genes, and Stories: HeLa’s Journey from Labs to Literature.” Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History. Ed. Keith Wailoo, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2012. 247-65. Print. ---. “What’s in a Cell? John Moore’s Spleen and the Language of Bioslavery.” New Literary History 36.2 (2005): 205-25. Project Muse. Web. 10 Mar. 2014. Whitfield, Charles L. “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14.4 (1998): 361-64. ScienceDirect. Web. 25 Sept. 2012. Woolfork, Lisa. Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2009. Print.



Post-Race Ideology and the Poetics of Genre in David Mamet’s Race Abstract: David Mamet’s play Race is overdetermined by the paratexts hovering around it, most notably the essays in which he publicizes his conservative turn. This textual environment accentuates the text’s participation in a contemporary political discourse that social scientists have theorized as post-racialism. Yet Race accommodates more complex and conflicted meanings: I read the play not so much as an advertisement of post-race ideology but as a text that exposes and deconstructs this ideology. I argue that this layer of meaning is primarily an effect of the legal drama genre on which the text draws. The conventions of the legal drama that Race invokes activate meanings in the text that cannot be fully controlled by the backlash agenda articulated in the author’s essays.

Introduction It is not unusual that David Mamet’s writing provokes intense responses. Typically designed to be provocative, in terms of their subject matter as well as their language, his plays and movie scripts have often sparked contentious viewing experiences.1 His drama Race, however, which premiered on Broadway in 2009 with a production directed by Mamet himself, seems to have been even more controversially received than usual for the author. Written in the wake of Mamet’s much discussed conservative turn, the play —revolving around a black woman’s alleged rape by a white man and the efforts of his lawyers to defend him—was frequently reviewed as exhausting itself in provocative language while advertising the author’s recently proclaimed political perspectives. John Lahr, writing for the New Yorker, calls the play an “exercise in contrarian provocation” and notes that “Mamet seems to insist on an unbridgeable divide between black and white America. His play acknowledges the hatred but not the source of the division.” Another reviewer observes that “Race doesn’t so much court controversy as proclaim its contentiousness all the way back to the cheap seats: its four characters [...] spend the better part of 90 minutes shouting at one another in bountifully expletive-strewn Mamet-speak on the subject of race in America” (Doherty). I suggest that David Mamet’s Race is overdetermined by the paratexts hovering around it, most notably the essays in which he publicizes his con1

Ira Nadel’s summary assessment of Mamet’s oeuvre as “[c]hallenging, controversial, abrasive” (266) finds itself amply reflected in the reviews and criticism surveyed by Sauer and Sauer.


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servative turn. This textual environment reinforces and accentuates one dimension of the play’s political semantics: It encourages a reading of Race as a backlash project, as lashing out against the remedies to racial injustice that evolved in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, 2 an approach outlined in the only academic treatment of the material to date, Cynthia A. Young’s discussion of its Broadway production in American Quarterly. Yet the text’s political semantics are less unified than such readings suggest; the play accommodates more—and more conflicted—layers of meaning than an exclusive orientation toward the author’s professed intentions renders visible. My reading aims to shed light on a dimension of Race where the text exposes and deconstructs, rather than advertises, post-race ideology. Consciously bypassing any speculation about intentionality, my discussion will treat this destabilization of post-race ideology as a textual effect and trace it primarily to the legal drama genre on which the play draws. 3 The conventions of the legal drama that Race invokes activate meanings in the text that work against the backlash agenda that presumably informs the text. My discussion of Race thus aspires to be both a case study that probes into a political discourse that distinctly marks the contemporary moment and a case study that possibly explores another dimension of the new relevance of (popular) genres that Andrew Hoberek has diagnosed in different contexts of twenty-first-century fiction (237-41). In the following, I will begin by succinctly discussing the political discourse of post-racialism as theorized in social science scholarship and outline how this discourse manifests itself in Mamet’s essays and his drama Race. I will subsequently turn to the genre of the legal drama and examine its conventions, with a particular focus on those conventions that have been established as instrumental for the genre’s political work. My reading of Race will then proceed in two steps: I will first explore how the genre-specific tropes of social constructivism and legal theatricality activate meanings in Mamet’s text that exceed, if not undermine, the post-race project articulated in the paratexts. Finally, I will discuss how this ambiguation of political meaning is further aided by the ways in which the play inscribes its characters into post-racialism’s structures of interests.

2 3

In addition, the text also deeply resonates with an antifeminist backlash. For reasons of space, I am unable to discuss in greater detail the interactions between discourses of ‘race,’ gender, and class in Race. It is, of course, tempting to ask whether Mamet here wants to demystify post-racialism or whether he does so unwittingly. If the demystification is understood as an unintended effect, it is similarly tempting to ask what causes the discrepancy between authorial intention and its textual implementation. These are discussions my article does not open up (while I would greatly look forward to them). Proceeding from the assumption that any text is polysemic, my article rather aims to tease out a dimension of Race where its text works against the political project it allegedly pursues.

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Post-Race Ideology and the Politics of Mamet’s Race Mamet’s play as well as the essays that hover around it distinctly resonate with a new discourse on ‘race,’ a social discourse revolving around the alleged end of racism in the United States that social scientists have described as ‘color-blind racism’ or ‘post-racialism.’ The former is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s term, who develops it in a sociological study based on a large set of interview data collected in the late 1990s. Bonilla-Silva applies the term to a discourse that “acquired cohesiveness and dominance in the late 1960s” (2) and has received new momentum with Barack Obama’s election to the Presidency. At its core, Bonilla-Silva argues, the discourse consists of “explanations—which have ultimately become justifications— for contemporary racial inequality that exculpate [whites] from any responsibility for the status of people of color” (2). He highlights that color-blind racism works as an ideology, a “political tool for the maintenance of the racial order” (3) that has succeeded the racism of the Jim Crow era. Sumi Cho conceives of post-racialism—the term I will use in the following— along very similar lines. A legal scholar who situates herself within critical race theory, Cho analyzes more formal pieces of discourse than BonillaSilva, contemporary texts from the fields of politics, law, cultural journalism, and scholarship. There, too, she finds a powerful new discourse about ‘race’ that “reflects a belief that due to the significant racial progress that has been made, the state need not engage in race-based decision-making or adopt race-based remedies, and that civil society should eschew race as a central organizing principle of social action” (1594). Cho also insists that post-racialism works as an ideology in contemporary US society, “provid[ing] a common-sense rhetoric and reasoning to fuel the state’s retreat from racial remedies” (1594), most notably from affirmative action. Ultimately, she notes, post-racialism works toward the “redemption of whiteness: a sociocultural process by which whiteness is restored to its full pre-civil-rights value” (1596). Cho identifies four discursive properties or strategies that characterize post-racialism, three of which are of particular relevance for a discussion of Mamet’s Race:4 first, a narrative of “racial progress” that is used to argue that ‘race’ no longer matters in US society (1601); second, invocations of “race-neutral universalism” as an ideal to which politics should aspire—in this context, “[r]acial remedies [...] are cast as partial and divisive, and benefiting primarily those with ‘special interests’ versus all Americans” (1602); and third, a discourse that treats Jim Crow racism and post-Civil Rights racial remedies as essentially the same, drawing a “moral equivalence” between the two as forms of “racialism” (1603). Cho’s findings 4

The fourth property Cho lists more exclusively concerns the fields of legal and political discourse: a “distancing move its practitioners frequently undertake to distinguish themselves from civil-rights advocates and critical-race theorists” (1603).


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significantly overlap with Bonilla-Silva’s, who points to a set of story lines as constitutive of color-blind racism. Central among these is “The past is the past” (77), a story line that works to suggest that “discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities’ life chances” (29). In its various incarnations, then, the turn-of-the-millennium discourse of post-racialism suggests that the US has overcome racism, that the nation’s racist history is thus of no relevance for its present, that racial inequality either does not exist anymore or is the result of individual/cultural life choices, and that policies like affirmative action discriminate in ways that are just as unfair as Jim Crow legislation. Bonilla-Silva’s and Cho’s conceptions of this new brand of racism provide a compelling framework for efforts to understand David Mamet’s essay “We Can’t Stop Talking about Race in America” (2009) and his drama Race, which he announces there. The essay was preceded—and often read in conjunction with—another essay he had published in the Village Voice just a year earlier: “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’” (2008). In this much discussed article, Mamet testifies to his conversion from liberalism to neoconservatism.5 Defining liberalism as the worldview “that everything is always wrong,” he relates his epiphany that “everything was not always wrong, and neither was nor is always wrong in the community in which I live, or in my country.” The essay goes through and dismisses a whole catalog of liberal topoi, affording the writer a foil for a comprehensive neoconservative credo: President Bush and his policies are not so bad—the problem rather rests with government per se, which is inherently inefficient and potentially corrupt (“I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow”); corporate capitalism is a force of good because it facilitates social mobility (he only talks about the upward kind, of course); and the American military is good because it is “made up of those men and women who actually risk their lives to protect the rest of us from a very hostile world.” The essay is a neoconservative confession par excellence: It dismisses governmental policy making in favor of private, market-based solutions to social problems. In addition, it flatly denies the existence of structural inequalities in US society, ignoring how these inequalities inform the very position of privilege from which Mamet writes.6 5


Cf. Vorlicky for a discussion of the essay’s reception. Most recently, the essay received renewed attention in the wake of the publication of The Secret Knowledge, a nonfiction book in which Mamet expands upon the ideas articulated in “Why I’m No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’” Robert Vorlicky’s article half-seriously ventilates the idea that Mamet’s essay, like his writing in other genres, might be designed to provoke: “I wondered if Mamet’s pseudo-polemics, his ‘eye-opening’ confession were a bit of a ‘con’—a beautifully crafted piece that challenged the reader to think for herself or himself” (209). Interestingly, Mamet comes very close to reflecting on his own position of privilege—in term of class, gender, and ‘race’—but then turns away from it, deflecting

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When Mamet tackled the topic of ‘race’ in his New York Times article “We Can’t Stop Talking about Race in America,” the text immediately evoked this recent self-positioning within neoconservative thought. Announcing to work on a play that would become Race, he challenges ‘liberal’ discourses and policies concerning ‘race’ in ways that deeply resonate with the dynamics of post-race ideology. His argumentation adopts many of the discursive frames and strategies that Cho and Bonilla-Silva identified. In a key passage, he insists: [J]ust as personal advantage was derived by whites from the defense of slavery and its continuation as Jim Crow and segregation, so too personal advantage, political advantage and indeed expression of deeply held belief may lead nonwhites to defense of positions that, though they may be momentarily acceptable, will eventually be revealed as untenable.

Concluding that “[m]ost contemporary debate on race is nothing but sanctimony—efforts at exploitation and efforts at restitution seeking, equally, to enlarge and prolong dissent and rancor,” the essay ends by insisting that “[w]e are bound to each other, as are all Americans. [...] And we not only seem to be but are working it out.” This essay, together with Mamet’s confessional Village Voice article, inevitably informs readings of Race, the play that he announces in “We Can’t Stop Talking about Race” as the artistic project in which he wants to develop these post-race ideas. Young’s discussion of the play’s Broadway production reflects such a reading. She argues that “[r]ather than a complex interrogation of black and white racial dynamics, the play is an expression of white, male disaffection in the Age of Obama” (1013). She arrives at this reading by assuming, on the one hand, that the drama’s main characters express the author’s perspective; not only the real author’s perspective, belabored in the above-mentioned essays that she also discusses, but also, to use Wayne Boothe’s term, the implied author’s—the “semantic intention” inscribed in the text (Schmid, par. 34). On the other hand, her interpretation is predicated on the assumption that the text unambiguously establishes the facts of the case around which its plot revolves. This plot concerns charges of rape brought against the wealthy white man Charles Strickland by a nameless black woman and the efforts of lawyers Jack Lawson and Henry Brown—the former white and the latter black, as the text insistently emphasizes—to defend him. Young suggests that Race establishes these rape charges against Charles as false, depicting him as the victim of a post-Civil Rights consensus on racial politics. The agent of his victimization is, in Young’s reading, the nameless woman, who turns out to be a prostitute with whom Charles had had a long-term relationship that he casts as one of love. from the question with an invocation of America’s alleged ‘classlessness’: “Do I speak as a member of the ‘privileged class’? If you will—but classes in the United States are mobile, not static.”

Katja Kanzler


In this understanding of the plot, Charles’s betrayal by his black lover is mirrored by the betrayal of the white lawyer character Jack by his young black colleague/mentee Susan, who, like the rape-victim impostor, exploits to her personal advantage the power that contemporary racial discourse and policies give her, sabotaging her bosses’ defense strategy. In the end, Charles confesses to the rape, which Young reads as a marker of his final breakdown in the face of an overpowering consensus on his guilt. She concludes that, in Race, “white and black people are revealed to be locked in bitter antagonism with white men who are ultimately the casualties of their sneakier black opponents” (1020).

Genre: The Legal Drama If Young’s reading indeed taps into the semantic intention behind Mamet’s Race—and there is much evidence to suggest that she does—I find the actual text of the drama to deliver something much more complex. This complexity significantly owes to the work of genre in the text. As most genres that reach into popular culture, the legal drama is both emphatically present as a genre concept that informs much writing and reading across the media—including that of Mamet’s Race—and it is notoriously hard to define. The sheer amount of scholarship on the text type variously called ‘courtroom drama,’ ‘trial film,’ or ‘legal thriller,’ to name just a few of the terms in use,7 testifies to the genre’s prominent cultural presence. Difficulties in delineating its contours chiefly result from its inherent dynamism and flexibility—it may be feasible to positively define more narrow subgenres of the legal drama, yet the overarching genre resists fixation. Accordingly, its most compelling conceptualizations are the ones that are programmatically loose and open. Film scholar Ross Levi is a case in point: Surveying a series of potential ‘fixed’ definitions and dismissing each as too narrow, he eventually arrives at a conception of the legal drama as narratives that “[have] something to say about the way Americans view their legal system and the players within it” (xiv). It is Levi’s thematic, rather than formal, approach that makes his definition so productive, accommodating the range of protagonists, settings, and plots that characterize the genre. Its protagonists, he suggests, are best conceived of as “players” in the legal system—most frequently lawyers, but at times also judges or jurors. Its plots revolve around the operations of the legal system, often but not exclusively around trials. The openness of Levi’s definition, as those of many other scholars, does not imply that the legal drama is a ‘weak’ genre; 7

Cf, e.g., Clover (‘trial movie’), Machura and Ulbrich (‘courtroom drama’), Levi (‘legal cinema’), or Rapping (‘law series’). In this essay, I use the term ‘legal drama’ to emphasize the genre’s transmedia quality and to avoid the suggestion that the use of a courtroom setting is constitutive of the genre.

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to the contrary, it emphasizes the flexibility that greatly enables the genre’s continuing circulation in American (popular) culture while highlighting that this openness is still anchored in a genre ‘core’ that allows cultural participants to recognize a legal drama when they see one. This recognizability is, of course, key to the dynamics of genre, allowing individual texts to invoke the conventions established by a particular corpus of cultural artifacts. The transmedia corpus of the American legal drama has built a number of conventions, of which I want to highlight the ones that seem to be central to the kind of political cultural work that the genre has shown itself able to do. A significant aspect in this context is the depiction and framing of the legal system that the tradition of the legal drama has established, a tradition that endows the genre with a distinctly ethical and political potential. Several scholars have commented on the ways in which the legal drama explores the law as a paradigmatic space for the definition and enforcement of social order, a social microcosm that metonymically reflects on institutional structures, power relations, and discourses on a larger social scale (cf., e.g., Kuzina or Haralovich). Gregg Crane8 suggests that the legal system offers a particularly rich foil for the interrogation of social structures and dynamics because it combines an ethical dimension with one of historio-political specificity: “The law offers [writers] a particularly attractive and iconic complex of meaning which is simultaneously historically particular and ethically universal” (768). He argues that legal dramas do this work of social critique by juxtaposing legal codes and process—typically marked as historically specific—with ethical conceptions of justice: Texts of the genre, he suggests, tend to revolve around one central question—whether the law “serv[es] the interests of justice” (769). Crane’s survey of American law narratives outlines that the genre’s critical potential has often been used to explore social identity categories—especially ‘race’ but also gender—as constructions that violate the demands of justice, constructions in whose manufacturing and enforcement the law plays a central role. His discussions of texts ranging from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities highlight how the law has been conventionalized as a site that hosts interrogations of the ways in which social structures, power relations, and discursive formations are interrelated. Several other scholars have asked for the strategies by which the genre thus examines the dynamics of social construction, pointing to the narrative and theatrical qualities of the legal process (and of trials in particular) as parameters of the law that legal dramas—themselves narrative regimes (cf. Black 34)—explore, not only in their diegetic representations of the law but also in their own narrative forms. Film scholars David Black and Carol J. 8

Crane’s essay does not work on conceptualizing law-related fiction as a genre. In what could be seen as an even more radically thematic approach, he rather employs a very broad notion of ‘law narratives.’


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Clover are among those who have highlighted how legal dramas “enact the structure and narrative procedures of real trials” (Clover 270), arguing that the genre structurally maps itself on the narrative and theatrical dynamics of the law.9 This mapping lends the genre a distinctly self-conscious quality. As Black observes, because “[l]egal processes, to a large degree, involve or revolve around processes of narration and storytelling” and because “[f]ilms about law are [...] narratives or instances of storytelling[,] [...] films about law are stories about the process of storytelling, or narratives about narrative” (55). This self-consciousness often surfaces in what Julie Stone Peters has identified as the law-as-theater trope, invocations of the analogy between law and theater, trials and theatrical performances (cf. 180) that punctuate much discourse on the law, including legal drama. Selfconscious moments like the law-as-theater trope play a significant role for the genre’s political work. On the one hand, they gesture toward the metonymic quality of the law as paradigmatically related to other sociocultural practices that are narrative and performative in nature. On the other hand, they distinctly activate the audience by aligning them with the adjudicating instance depicted in their storyworlds of law, catalyzing their recipients’ work of interpretation by suggesting parallels to the deliberations and judgments judges and jurors are called upon to make.10 The legal drama, then, has been conceived as a flexible yet distinct and culturally powerful genre. The conventions with which the robust tradition of American legal dramas has associated the genre especially concern its imagining of the legal system as a microcosm that signifies on society at large and that invites both ethical and political reflection. They further entail explorations of the law as a narrative and performative regime, explorations that enable reflections on the construction and constructedness of social categories in the metonymic microcosm of law and that point to the legal drama text’s own narrativity or theatricality in ways that can mobilize critical engagement.


Legal scholar Julie Stone Peters thus defines the theatricality inherent in the law: “[T]he central events of law – trials – [...] are normally performed before live audiences by those specially trained to shed their own identities and ‘represent’ others. Trials are the re-enactment of a conflict [...] whose essential narrative form is dialogue. They exploit iconic props as crucial clues to the unfolding of the narrative, and often rely on space, staging, costume, and spectacle in an attempt to bring back to life the dramatic event they are attempting to recount” (180-81). 10 For a more extensive development of this argument, cf. my article “‘To Sue and Make Noise’: Legal Theatricality and Civic Didacticism in Boston Legal” (Kanzler).

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Social Constructivism and Theatricality in Race Mamet’s Race not just notably partakes of these genre conventions, it also actualizes them in ways that put a particular emphasis on exploring the constructedness of social categories—most prominently of the category of ‘race,’ in its intersections with gender and class and in terms of its ongoing work as a discursive creator of social inequalities. The text’s most poignant move in this context is its choice of setting: Fully avoiding the courtroom that figures as the most typical setting for legal dramas, Race is exclusively set at a law office. Its plot, accordingly, does not revolve around a trial but around the strategizing that attends an impending trial, from the lawyers’ deliberations whether to take the case to the ways in which they develop and adapt their defense strategy as new pieces of evidence continue to surface. Already through this formal choice, the text accentuates the engineering that underwrites the legal process, the extent to which the facts of a case as well as the identities of its litigants are not just there but manufactured, and strategically so. This emphatic constructivism, and the ambiguity that results from it, are further developed by the text’s depiction of the legal system, an aspect of its storyworld that genre conventions, as noted above, frame as metonymic of social institutions and systems of social ordering. The text advances an image of the legal process as defined by uncertainties—concerning the precise events to be judged in court, their meaning, and, crucially, the guilt or innocence of the litigants. The play begins with several dialogues that depict ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ as highly malleable entities in law, framing them not as external referents for the legal process but as its rhetorical products. When, in the text’s opening scene, the client Charles enters Henry and Jack’s office in search for legal representation, he provides Jack with an opportunity to sermonize on the relevance of truth. Upon Charles’s request that he wants his lawyers to believe him, Jack responds: “Belief,” sir, hamstrings the advocate. Who is, then, “anchored to the facts.” I “believe” in the process. Whereby: each side is permitted. To engage an attorney. Does this find the truth? Neither side wants the truth. Each wants to prevail. Does society “deserve” the truth? Alright. Will they get it? Never. Why? As the truth is in doubt even to the litigants. Each of whom will lie first to himself, then to his attorney, and then to the court, to bring about an outcome which he deems just. Which is to say, “victory.” (9)

This passage polemically depicts the law as a system incapable of accessing the ‘truth.’ This incapacity is cast as an inherent feature of the legal process because it is organized as a competition—elsewhere in the play troped as an “alley fight” (8) and as a “war” (26)—whose adversarial momentum overwrites any considerations of truthfulness, to the extent that litigants are prone to self-deception. The legal process, the passage sug-


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gests, is not designed to bring out truth and effect justice; rather, it is designed to accommodate battles that ultimately revolve around social privilege: Depending on the version of the events in the case at hand, the privileges pursued here either concern ownership of money (if we follow Charles’s narrative of his wrongful accusation) or ownership of a black woman’s body. It is not the desire for truth and justice that motivates the agents in the legal process but their desire to win, to accumulate more privileges than their opponents. The lawyers, as the text highlights in a dialogue in close proximity to Jack’s lecture, engage in the legal process with a similar desire for accumulation: Upon Charles’s question why Jack assumes that the rape accusation against him is false, Jack responds: “Because you will be paying us to support that assumption” (8). These passages, prominently located on the drama’s opening pages, provide a powerful framework for the ensuing text. On the level of plot, they emphatically ambiguate Charles’ statements about the events in question and about himself. His own repeated insistence on his innocence as well as his lawyers’ assumption that their client is innocent are framed as rhetorical moves rather than positive facts in the storyworld. By the same token, Charles’ self-representation as a liberal, nonracist person appears as a—possibly strategic, possibly self-deceptive—fiction that the character seeks to advance. Both narratives—of the falsity of the accusations brought against him and of his nonracist identity—are conspicuously marked as discursive practices rather than representations of diegetic truth. Thus framed, the character’s statements reflect the key mechanism of post-racialism, its operation as a discursive regime. On a more abstract level, these passages develop an image of the legal system that, by metonymic implication, signifies on the broader sociocultural dynamics that underwrite post-race ideology. They cast the law as a social microcosm that focalizes the manufacturing of identity categories and that highlights the extent to which the production and circulation of ‘race’ and gender are governed by and serve the maintenance of existing power structures. The functional relationship between the legal system and social power relations is already figured in the metaphor of the battle in which litigants compete for “victory” (9), a trope that characterizes the law as a system driven by the competition for social privilege. Individuals enter this competition on widely unequal terms, as the text emphasizes in its close attention to the characters’ respective positions in social power structures and to their anxieties about downward mobility. This applies to the lawyers, who coyly advertise their “desire for Fortune and Fame” (11), but even more so to their client. Charles’s wealth and fame play a central role in his characterization, and while they may complicate the case, they also clearly facilitate the kind of sophisticated defense that the text has the two lawyers develop. This character ‘owns’ the legal system not only because he is rich enough to hire any lawyer he wants and to offer his accuser money to drop her charges; the text also highlights how the whiteness and

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the masculinity that Charles can claim have a history of mattering in the law. As Henry, the African American of the black-and-white lawyer team, observes: “Fifty years ago. You’re white? Same case. Same facts. You’re innocent” (10). Finally, the text does not merely depict in its storyworld how the legal system more willingly yields to the privileged than to the socially marginalized, it also performs this unequal access in its own form by giving only Charles a voice and a forum for his version of the events, while the woman whom he allegedly raped remains both unheard and nameless. In its diegetic content as well as its form, the text thus constructs the law as a system shaped by and serving existing power relations. In the drama’s storyworld, power is clearly still concentrated in the hands of rich white men.11 Next to the social power structures and dynamics that the text—invoking well-established genre conventions—refracts in the legal system, the law in Race serves as a microcosm in which the mode by which social categories are manufactured becomes particularly visible. The drama stages the law, in polemical intensification of the genre’s familiar tropes, as a system that fabricates truths, facts, and identities by way of narrative and spectacle. It points to these particular discursive practices, suggesting that the law does not command them to ‘represent’ a fixed extra-systemic reality but that it rather ‘makes’ reality through these discursive practices. If this image of the law already offers a telling metonymic reflection on the genesis and work of identity categories in a broader social context, the text’s commentary on the different efficacies of narrative and spectacle in contemporary negotiations of ‘race’ is a particularly acute diagnostic moment. It is primarily the character of Jack who gets to advance this image of the law: “There are no ‘facts of the case.’ There are two fictions. Which the opposing teams each seek to impress upon the jury” (14). By Jack’s analysis, the success of such competing fictions depends on their narrative quality and on the quality of their performative rendition in front of the jury. This analysis is reflected in the defense strategy that the lawyers develop: Jack: The jury has a story. In their head. About what happened in that room. We have to drive that story out of their heads. Susan: How? Jack: Tell them a better story. (26) 11 The presence of a black partner in the play’s diegetic law firm reinforces rather than challenges its projection of a world in which power is tied to whiteness. For one, Henry’s character is clearly secondary to Jack’s, who stands at the center both of the text and of the law firm it depicts. In addition, Henry gets to perform a conspicuous type of mimicry: His function in the drama seems to consist of voicing the most racist positions, from stout opposition to affirmative action (cf. 70) to the ostentatious use of racist invective.


Katja Kanzler

In the case at hand, it proves difficult to find “a better story” because the prosecution’s story is so plausible: A white man rapes a black woman, a powerful and rich man rapes a woman who needs to sell her body for a living.12 The plausibility of the prosecution’s story owes to the work of feminist and African American historiography, which have made public the historical role of rape in American race and gender relations: It is plausible because power relations that reach from American history into the present evoked by the drama are known to entail rape as a tool of dominance and subordination. Tellingly, the lawyers seem to find that it is impossible to compete with this story on purely narrative grounds, and they resolve to attack by way of spectacle, to “put on a better show” (26). The “show” by which they want to win the jury is a restaging of the alleged rape: “Same dress. [...] Woman of a similar size puts on the dress. Somebody. Throws you down. [...] Upon a mattress . . . put a bed in the court” (39). The semantic, narrative function of this “demonstration” (39) is to prove that the sexual encounter between Charles and the nameless woman was consensual —that if Charles had forcefully ripped off the woman’s sequin dress, there would be sequins all over the place, which police reports of the alleged crime scene, at this point in the plot, do not mention. Yet the performance entails a surplus on which the lawyers clearly count: the spectacle of a black woman’s sexualized body and its sanctioned commodification by a white man—a commodification encoded on multiple levels (on the level of the performed plot, depicting a black woman’s rape, and on the level of the performance itself, in which a black female “[m]odel” [40] enacts a sexual scene under the auspices of the white lead lawyer Jack Lawson). The shift in focus that the text depicts, from just “tell[ing] [...] a better story” to “put[ting] on a better show,”13 offers a very instructive reflection on the dynamics of contemporary post-racialism. For the lawyers’ project of challenging the historical narratives unearthed by minority scholarship and activism—a project in the storyworld that deeply resonates with the agenda of post-race ideology—spectacle seems more efficient than narra12 The revelation that Charles’s alleged victim is a prostitute is a contentious moment in the text. I read it as a signifier of the character’s class identity, adding another dimension to the inequality that marks her relationship to Charles. The way in which all the male characters respond to this revelation—tacitly treating it as proof that the event was no rape—adds to the text’s depiction of rape myths as interlocking not only with racism but also with classism. I discuss the concept of ‘rape myths’ in greater detail below. Where I see the text expose this mythology, Young reads the play as endorsing it: “In Mametworld, [the revelation that the woman is a prostitute] renders her unrapeable, literally beyond the category of rape victim” (1016). 13 The shift I see here is less than readily apparent in the text, because the characters seem to use the terms ‘story’ and ‘show’ somewhat interchangeably. The shift does manifest itself, however, in the various ideas for defense strategies that the lawyers ventilate, ideas that initially involve story lines meant to challenge the prosecution on narrative grounds (“it’s a war-story” [26]) but that eventually focus entirely on the spectacle of the “demonstration” (39).

Post-Race Ideology and the Poetics of Genre


tive. Narrative is a discursive mode that relies on the representation of a sequence of events, a sequence that is governed by some sort of causality. Its chief appeal to its recipients is an invitation to decipher the meaning of this causality. It is narrative’s capacity to represent meanings with great rhetorical force that has made it a central discursive mode in various fields, including history, politics, or law.14 Spectacle, by contrast, works through visual stimulation; its chief appeal is affective—spectacle offers “sensebased aesthetic experiences” rather than invitations to “meaning-making, ‘reading’ or interpretation” (Darley 4). Whereas narrative’s primary operation is representational, that of spectacle is presentational (cf. Bukatman 78)—spectacle shows where narrative tells, and in doing so, spectacle ultimately refers to itself as an event, an experience. Several scholars conceive of spectacle as antinarrative in its work, tracing its potential to disrupt narrative to the intensity of affect it can unleash and to its self-referentiality.15 Mamet’s text depicts spectacle as the preferred mode of the twenty-firstcentury post-race (and postfeminist) backlash, a mode that seeks to mobilize opposition against the narratives of the Civil Rights and other emancipation movements by exploiting the antinarrative potential of spectacle, building on the direct stimulation of affect. The particular stimulus on which the characters in the text plan to rely invokes one of the most canonical spectacles in Western culture, “[w]oman displayed as sexual object” (Mulvey 19)—a spectacle that, as Laura Mulvey outlines, has more than proven its audience appeal.16 However, the embedded spectacle in Race never takes place. What stops it short, what prevents it from manufacturing a ‘truth’ favorable to Charles’s position in the trial, are ‘hard’ facts: a revision of the police report and a witness testifying to the presence of sequins at the alleged crime scene. By a similar dynamic, the drama’s ending brings the lawyers’ efforts to fabricate ‘facts’ to an abrupt halt when Charles confesses to the rape. 17 I 14 For an impression of how narrative has become a significant category of analysis for various institutional and discursive contents, cf., e.g., Andrews et al. or Heinen and Sommer. 15 Scott Bukatman traces this theorization of spectacle as antinarrative to Laura Mulvey’s landmark essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”: Mulvey, he notes, conceives of spectacle as “more than an unnecessary supplement to narrative [...]. Because it is precisely not narrative, it therefore lies beyond a narrativelygrounded conceptual schema, and that ‘beyond’ threatens the totalizing coherence of the narrative system. Spectacle, by actively disrupting narrative coherence, threatens the stability of the narrative system” (75). 16 Here, too, the text reinforces its diegetic content through its form: Its genre—drama in general, and legal drama in particular—distinctly resonates with the spectacular. 17 Of course, this confession is as ambiguous as any statement by the character, and Young does read it as fake: “Mamet has the billionaire martyr himself by confessing to a crime he did not commit. Eschewing the vast cultural and financial resources he could use to win an inevitable acquittal, Charles’s liberal guilt demands that he pay for his real and imagined sins” (1020). However, this reading strikes me

Katja Kanzler


read the confession as well as the surfacing of new evidence as moments in which the text has referentiality ‘strike back,’ undermining the poststructuralist sensibilities appropriated by the lawyer characters for their postrace project. The text here vents an anti-poststructuralist skepticism that, as Robert L. McLaughlin observes, circulates widely in post-postmodern culture (50). In Race, this sentiment works to mobilize critical reflection on the ethics of the social practices that the text stages in the microcosm of law, practices that resonate with the ideology of post-racialism.

Agents of Post-Race Ideology These social practices staged by the text are, of course, connected with agents—the play’s characters—whose implication in the structures of postracialism affords another context where the text exposes the ideology’s operations. Significantly, it is not only Charles, the client, whom the text constructs as an agent of post-racialism; it also gradually reveals the ways in which Jack is implicated in the discourse and how—in and through these two characters—post-racialism operates as an ideology. The drama does so primarily by juxtaposing the trial that awaits Charles and the inner-office conflict that erupts as this trial is being prepared, evoking parallels between Charles and Jack and between the nameless victim of Charles’s alleged rape and Susan, the firm’s black female junior associate. Jack’s characterization as complicit with post-race ideology particularly mobilizes critical reflection, on the one hand because he is established as a character who—in contrast to Charles—is very aware of the dynamics and history of ‘race’ in the United States, suggesting that discursive awareness does not preclude racism. On the other hand, genre conventions frame Jack, the lead lawyer, as the character with whom the audience is encouraged to identify. The eventual revelation of his complicity thus also reaches out to the audience, provoking them to reflect on their own ideas about ‘race’—an appeal that the text reinforces through its use of the genre’s law-as-theater trope. The character of Charles actualizes, in almost paradigmatic form, the social position and sensibility that drives, and benefits from, post-race ideology. He represents the position of privilege in contemporary US society, inhabiting a point in the social matrix where the privileges of whiteness, wealth, and masculinity overlap and reinforce each other. The plot confronts him with equally paradigmatic accusations, charges that emphatically evoke the history of US race relations and that frame as a crime what used to be claimed as a ‘natural’ entitlement by subjects privileged in terms of gender and ‘race.’ In his self-representation, Charles as much less compelling than that of the confession as a truthful representation of the events in question, compelled by the appearance of evidence (the sequins) that makes an acquittal highly unlikely.

Post-Race Ideology and the Poetics of Genre


appropriates the discourse of victimhood, fashioning himself as an “innocent” (15) “victim” (13). The statement that Charles plans to make to the press halfway through the plot is additionally telling: “I believe I was wrong . . . I believe we are all brothers beneath the skin. And though I did not legally assault the . . . [...] I believe there has been a misunderstanding, that though the actual facts of the case are not as the young woman stated . . . perhaps, perhaps, on some ‘moral’ level . . .” (43). Anticipating his eventual confession, the statement reflects the character’s increasing difficulties in rationalizing his own actions. His invocation of a “misunderstanding” as well as his attempts to draw a line between a ‘legal’ and a ‘moral’ dimension of rape evoke what feminists scholars have called rape myths, “the mechanism that people use to justify dismissing an incident of sexual assault from the category of ‘real’ rape” (Burt 130). The dynamics of denial and justification entailed in rape myths distinctly resonate with the operations of post-race discourse—a discourse that the passage summons by the trope of “brothers beneath the skin”—in its work of denying the social reality of racial inequality and of authorizing a white hegemony. Charles, then, emerges as a character that not only conspicuously exhibits the social positionality of post-race discourse, but that also exposes one of its key discursive dynamics. In contrast to Charles’s, Jack’s inscription in practices of post-racialism is less blatant, primarily contoured through the text’s paralleling of its two ‘trial’ plots. Jack’s interactions with Susan, the black female lawyer he hired and thinks of as mentoring, are gradually revealed to show parallels to Charles’s relationship to the nameless woman. Like his client, Jack faces accusations of having violated Susan’s privacy in ways enabled by his position of power and informed by the two characters’ social subject positions. In terms of power, the relationship between Jack and Susan is as asymmetrical as that between Charles and the prostitute whom he at one point claims to have loved (10)—both asymmetries that call to mind persisting structural inequalities on the job market. Jack relates to Susan chiefly in terms of her gender and ‘race,’ amounting to a fixation that he rationalizes as professional—as owing to her outstanding potential as a lawyer (54) or as resulting from his business interest in seeking to safeguard his firm against a possible affirmative action suit (69)—but that the text clearly casts as more visceral. Jack’s pursuit of visceral gratification becomes manifest in the violations he inflicts upon Susan, violations that simultaneously exploit and signify his position of power toward her. One violation is of a legal nature: his unlawful investigation of Susan’s private life when she applied at the firm. The piece of information Jack retrieved there, which betrays him by his careless mentioning of it (a private trip to Venice that Susan took without listing it on her employment form), suggests by virtue of its utter irrelevance and inconsequentiality that this investigation exceeded the ‘rational’ demands of Jack’s business interests.


Katja Kanzler

The other violation is explicitly related to the rape case and concerns Jack’s request that Susan impersonate the alleged rape victim in the “demonstration” (39) he plans to stage in court. Let me (re)quote this passage at some length: JACK. Same dress. Exact same dress. Woman of a similar size, you could do it. Woman of a similar size puts on the dress. Somebody. Throws you down. SUSAN. Throws me down? [...] JACK. You could put on the dress. SUSAN. Why? Because I’m black. (pause) JACK. Well, it has to be a black girl. (39-40)

The passage correlates Susan and the rape victim as much as it correlates the alleged rapist Charles and the lawyer Jack, who asks an associate to put on a sequin dress and have that dress ripped off in a mock rape staged in court. This request emphatically signifies on the dynamics of sexual harassment at the workplace: A professional woman is reduced to her (female black) body by her employer. Jack’s use of language in this passage—the shortening sentences, the repetitions—suggests his growing arousal, an arousal that may as much owe to the strategic promise of the projected demonstration as to its erotic promise. The scene resonates with several other moments in the plot that reveal Jack’s routine sexism in his professional interaction with Susan, e.g., his recourse to a sexist trope when explaining his ideas for the defense strategy (“OUR JOB is to create [a particular kind of experience for the jury]. [...] Do that in courting, the woman expresses her appreciation, lifting up her dress; in law they do so, by letting your client go free” [27]). Even more telling is his response to the witness statement that eventually surfaces, indicating that Charles had called his alleged victim “you little nigger bitch” (29) at the night in question. When the lawyers discuss this new piece of evidence, Jack turns to Susan: “Anybody ever call you that, while he was fucking you? Crazy with love?” (37). As with his request that Susan play the rape-victim in court, Jack’s vicarious use of an appellation toward his colleague that combines racist with sexist insults and that immediately invokes the rape deeply inscribes him in the structures of post-racialism. This characterization of Jack greatly affects reading or viewing experiences of the text. For one, it encourages distance toward the character and his statements and actions, which are thus not straightforwardly claimed by the text’s implied author but rather put up for critical interrogation. This is of particular relevance in moments when Jack wields post-race discourse, moments that complement Charles’s naive articulations of the ideology through the political and rhetorical sophistication that the lawyer represents. Jack especially gets to articulate the post-racial topoi that Cho identifies as “Race-Neutral Universalism” and “Moral Equivalence”

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(1600): When confronted by Susan that his investigation of her is illegal, he responds: “Okay, that’s illegal. But on the other hand it’s wrong, you understand? It’s wrong” [sic] that folks of different colors are treated differently under the law. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now” (53). A few moments later, he adds: “[Y]ou tell me that equally, you might not exploit being Black? Or that any human being whatever might not, when pressed, exploit whatever momentary advantage he or she possessed?” (55). The scene in which Jack makes these points notably evokes parallels to a trial—his dialogue with Susan resembles a cross-examination in which she confronts him with his racist behavior and he tries to justify his actions. His justifications take distinct recourse to the discourse of post-racialism, arguing that “race-based policies or remedies” like the affirmative action program that Jack targets are “partial and divisive” (Cho 1602) and “draw[ing] a moral equivalence between ‘racialism’ under Jim Crow which subordinated racial minorities, and the ‘racialism’ of the civil-rights era, which sought to remedy minority subordination” (Cho 1603). In contrast to Charles’s (truthful or strategic) invocation of ignorance and naiveté concerning the history and politics of ‘race,’ Jack presents himself as a character that actively manipulates racial discourse to his personal advantage and, more abstractly, to normalize white hegemony. In addition, Jack’s inscription in post-racialism’s structures of interest unfolds particular force because genre conventions frame him as the character with whom the audience is encouraged to identify. The tradition of American legal drama, as indicated above, has preferred to make lawyers its main characters, and especially the popular legal drama of serial television and fiction has tended to imagine its lawyer protagonists as heroic. 18 Jack’s positioning as the drama’s main character along with his characterization as a ‘savvy’ agent in the world of law raise the expectation that he will play the heroic role in the text, inviting readers and viewers to adopt his words and actions as their own. This identification becomes increasingly difficult to sustain as the plot reveals the racist and sexist dimensions of his character. The gradual quality of this revelation especially works toward involving the audience, progressively provoking them to interrogate their own identification with the character. The text reinforces this appeal to the audience through its use of the law-as-theater trope, a genre convention that, as noted before, builds on the similarities between legal trials and theatrical performances to align the text’s audience with the audience of its intradiegetic courtroom performances, most typically the jury. Mamet’s Race explicitly advances this allegorization of the courtroom as theater, for example when Jack refers to his defense strategy as a “show” and to himself as an “entertainer” of the jury (26). Even more directly, the character all but synonymizes jury and audience:

18 Cf., e.g., Greenfield on cinematic legal drama or Rapping on TV legal drama.

Katja Kanzler


Our job. Is to get them on the jury to accept our new definition of the Group to which they belong. Not ‘the whites’ or ‘the blacks.’ [...] But the new group – which is called ‘the jury.” [sic] Another name for which is, The Audience. We’re going to put on a show. And when we “amuse” them – they may forget, their individual allegiances and, for a moment be conjoined. (41)

This correlation of courtroom and theater, jury and audience in a text that is a drama, meant for theatrical performance on stage, self-consciously addresses its audience as an ‘adjudicating’ instance. It not only cautions them to be weary of how its narratives and spectacles might manipulate them, it also asks them to interrogate their own prejudices and biases in order to pass a ‘verdict’ that is just.

Conclusion David Mamet’s Race provides an interesting case study of the poetics of politics in early twenty-first-century American culture. Situating itself in the neoconservative turn that marks some corners of contemporary intellectual culture, the play engages with the new ideology of post-racialism and its backlash politics. It does so in ways that are markedly complex, if not conflicted: The text presents itself as politically more ambiguous than the paratextually announced authorial intention, accommodating a layer of meaning that exposes rather than advertises post-racialism. I specifically traced this layer of meaning to the conventions of the legal drama on which Race draws—its framing of the legal system as a social microcosm, its emphasis on the narrativity of the law to expose the construction of social categories, and its self-conscious use of the law-as-theater trope. Reading Race in the context of these conventions, I argued, draws attention to the ways the play opens up spaces for critical reflection and mobilizes interrogations of racism’s contemporary inflections.

Works Cited Andrews, Molly, et al., eds. The Uses of Narrative: Explorations in Sociology, Psychology, and Cultural Studies. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2009. Print. Black, David A. Law in Film: Resonance and Representation. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1999. Print. Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and Racial Inequality in Contemporary America. Lanham: Rowman, 2010. Print. Bukatman, Scott. “Spectacle, Attractions and Visual Pleasure.” The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Ed. Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2006. 71-82. Print. Burt, Martha R. “Rape Myths.” Confronting Rape and Sexual Assault. Ed. Mary E. Odem and Jody Clay-Warner. Lanham: Rowman, 1998. 129-44. Print.

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Cho, Sumi. “Post-Racialism.” Iowa Law Review 94 (2009): 1589-649. HeinOnline. Web. 16 Mar. 2014. Clover, Carol J. “‘God Bless Juries!’” Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory. Ed. Nick Browne. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998. 255-77. Print. Crane, Gregg. “Law and the American Novel.” The Cambridge History of the American Novel. Ed. Leonard Cassuto. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. 767-80. Print. Darley, Andrew. Visual Digital Culture: Surface Play and Spectacle in New Media Genres. London: Routledge, 2000. Print. Doherty, Mike. “Race and the Tragic View of David Mamet.” Hazlitt. Random, 12 Apr. 2013. Web. 16 Mar. 2014. Greenfield, Steve. “Hero or Villain? Cinematic Lawyers and the Delivery of Justice.” Journal of Law and Society 28.1 (2001): 25-39. Wiley. Web. 16 Mar. 2014. Haralovich, Mary Beth. “TV Legal Drama Speaks to U.S. Citizens.” Flow 1.7 (2005): n. pag. Web. 16 Mar. 2014. Heinen, Sandra, and Roy Sommer, eds. Narratology in the Age of Cross-Disciplinary Narrative Research. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009. Print. Hoberek, Andrew. “After Postmodernism.” Introduction. Twentieth Century Literature 53.3 (2007): 233-47. JSTOR. Web. 16 Mar. 2014. Kanzler, Katja. “‘To Sue and Make Noise’: Legal Theatricality and Civic Didacticism in Boston Legal.” Education and the USA. Ed. Laurenz Volkmann. Heidelberg: Winter, 2011. 153-66. Print. Kuzina, Matthias. “The Social Issue Courtroom Drama as an Expression of American Popular Culture.” Journal of Law and Society 28.1 (2001): 79-96. Wiley. Web. 16 Mar. 2014. Lahr, John. “Dangerous Liaisons: Tennessee Williams and David Mamet on the Damage That We Do.” New Yorker. Advance, 14 Dec. 2009. Web. 16 Mar. 2014. Levi, Ross D. The Celluloid Courtroom: A History of Legal Cinema. Westport: Praeger, 2005. Print. Machura, Stefan, and Stefan Ulbrich. “Law in Film: Globalizing the Hollywood Courtroom Drama.” Journal of Law and Society 28.1 (2001): 117-32. Wiley. Web. 16 Mar. 2014. Mamet, David. Race. New York: French, 2008. Print. ---. The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture. New York: Sentinel, 2012. Print. ---. “We Can’t Stop Talking about Race in America.” New York Times. New York Times, 9 Sept. 2009. Web. 16 Mar. 2014. ---. “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’” Village Voice. Village Voice, 11 Mar. 2008. Web. 16 Mar. 2014. McLaughlin, Robert L. “Post-Postmodern Discontent: Contemporary Fiction and the Social World.” symploke 12.1-2 (2004): 53-68. Project Muse. Web. 16 Mar. 2014. Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. 14-26. Print. Nadel, Ira. David Mamet: A Life in the Theatre. New York: Macmillan, 2008. Print. Peters, Julie Stone. “Legal Performance Good and Bad.” Law, Culture and the Humanities 4.2 (2008): 179-200. Sage. Web. 16 Mar. 2014. Rapping, Elayne. Law and Justice as Seen on TV. New York: New York UP, 2003. Print. Sauer, David K., and Janice A. Sauer. David Mamet: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport: Praeger, 2003. Print. Schmid, Wolf. “Implied Author.” The Living Handbook of Narratology. Ed. Peter Hühn et al. Hamburg UP, 7 Apr. 2013. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.


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Vorlicky, Robert. “Coming of Age: Mamet at Sixty.” Crossings: David Mamet’s Work in Different Genres and Media. Ed. Johan Callens. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge, 2009. 207-21. Print. Young, Cynthia A. “Race, Rape, and White Victimhood: David Mamet’s ‘Race.’” American Quarterly 63.4 (2011): 1013-23. Print.


The Great American Novel and Beyond: Jonathan Franzen and the Legacy of the Culture Wars Abstract: This paper aims at uncovering implicit interconnections that tie contemporary American literature, here exemplified by Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, to the polarized debates of the culture wars. Even though Franzen expressly wishes to disengage from these discussions and questions the novel’s status as a fullfledged force of social change, a closer examination of the debates of the canon wars and their relation to The Corrections through the lens of actor-network theory reveals that the text’s surface-level ideological indeterminacy can actually be considered a critical reaction towards the fiercely divided political landscape of the US. Lawrence Buell’s take on the ‘great American novel,’ focusing on the inclusionary stance of this previously discredited literary ambition, might constitute an alternative scheme of periodization that more adequately captures The Corrections’ latent desire to partake in political discussions without ultimately committing itself to unambiguously conservative or progressive causes.

Confusion is Next: Franzen and the ‘Big Social Novel’ Around the turn of the twenty-first century, a new crop of American writers started to reconnect to the world around them. According to this narrative of “[c]ultural [h]ealing” (Leypoldt 20), authors such as Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Safran Foer, or Jonathan Franzen have overcome the problematic heritage of postmodernism by reinstating a reader-friendly bias in contemporary fiction via their usage of realist writing strategies and clearly discernible references to their audience’s shared social realm of experience, the United States at the verge of a new millennium and beyond. This entails the promise of a renewed political commitment of literature—if a novel like The Corrections is, in the words of The Observer’s Tim Allen, “as tactile in the world of objects and as alive to the pressures of the present moment as any [novel] I can think of,” then it is tempting to imagine that a political stance towards this world is unavoidable as well. Franzen is a particularly curious case in this respect. First, terms like ‘big social novel’ or even the much maligned moniker ‘great American novel’ have frequently been flung at his breakthrough work by both wellmeaning and more mean-spirited critics, which would seem to confirm that, for better or worse, The Corrections’ success is partly predicated on its confident reappropriation of the novel’s role as a sociopolitical meaningmaking machine whose influence reaches far beyond the confines of the fictional. As much as certain passages of the text itself might (or might not)


Hans Frese

facilitate such readings, these claims are usually also substantiated by reference to Franzen’s so-called Harper’s essay, which he published shortly before he went to work on The Corrections and which is now widely considered a manifesto that signals the return of socially conscious realist fiction. This is where it starts to get complicated. Franzen himself comments on the immediate reception of The Corrections in the introduction of his essay collection How to Be Alone: Interviews typically began with the question: ‘In your Harper’s essay in 1996, you promised that your third book would be a big social novel that would engage with mainstream culture and rejuvenate American literature; do you think you’ve kept that promise with The Corrections?’ To each succeeding interviewer I explained that, no, to the contrary, I had barely mentioned my third novel in the essay; that the notion of a ‘promise’ had been invented out of thin air by an editor or a headline writer at the Times Sunday Magazine; and that, in fact, far from promising to write a big social novel that would bring news to the mainstream, I’d taken the essay as an opportunity to renounce that variety of ambition. (“Word” 3-4)

In other words: Franzen claims that there is a disavowal of social relevance at the heart of the novel, not an embrace of it. How come, then, that so many people see this matter differently than the author himself? He goes on to clarify that the confusion was probably due to the somewhat convoluted nature of the essay in question, but the fact remains that there seems to be a gaping hole between authorial ambition and the public’s take on the thrust of the text itself. Moreover, if one looks for overt discussions of political allegiances within the scholarly reception of The Corrections, there is not much to be found. Instead, much of the academic discussion of Franzen’s work centers on issues that, at first sight, seem safely enclosed within the perimeters of specialized literary criticism—above all, it seems to be of central concern which periodical label to stick onto postmillennial fiction as exemplified by his output. Consequently, one can observe a proliferation of different epochal tags that, alternatively, make Franzen out to be “a good postmodernist” (Edwards 83), a writer of “crackpot realism” (Rohr 92), or a proponent of “softened DeLilloism” (Wood 190). As the diversity and disparity of these provisional attempts at labeling make quite clear, something more complex than a simple resurgence of realist writing seems to be taking place that upsets the process of neatly sorting contemporary writing into boxes. This might be the place where the political reasserts itself—in the words of Thomas Claviez: “If realism as we knew it in fact transported a liberal agenda [...], what new agenda (beside its aesthetic one) – moral, political, or otherwise – may this new kind of literature offer, harbor, imply, or, in fact, actively transport?” (17). In other words: If literary periods are implicitly or explicitly tied up with certain political

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dispositions, then the current academic debate on contemporary fiction in general and The Corrections in particular is complicated by a fundamental confusion as to the actual political allegiances of the texts under scrutiny.1 In this paper, I want to argue that these different instances of uncertainty are no accident. There is a link between the ideological indeterminacy on the surface level of The Corrections, the intuition that something political is happening within those pages despite claims to the contrary on behalf of the author, and the sense that there seems to be a pressing need to investigate its place in literary history. Borrowing key concepts from actornetwork theory (ANT), I will put forward the view that The Corrections steps onto a literary scene that is haunted by the legacy of the culture wars of the 1990s. More specifically, it is precisely the politicized discussion of schemes of periodization connected to the enterprise of broadening the literary canon that has left an indelible mark on Franzen’s work. Its ideological and aesthetic ‘in-betweenness’ constitutes both an outcome of and a contribution to the debate around the overarching question of the potential political agency of (postmodern) literature, thus paradoxically involving itself into a discussion that it tries to disentangle itself from. In order to shed light onto these issues, I will first remark on the culture wars and introduce ANT and some of its basic premises to elucidate the dynamics that govern discussions on the canon. Then, Franzen’s positions will be dealt with in greater detail, drawing upon his essayistic work, Linda Hutcheon’s A Poetics of Postmodernism and, of course, The Corrections itself. Finally, I also want to consider why an appeal to the tradition of the ‘great American novel’ as reconceptualized by Lawrence Buell might offer an alternative perspective on these questions.

The Culture Wars: Performing Dissent First, a few dispatches from the battlefield: On August 17, 1992, Pat Buchanan declared war at the Republican National Convention, “a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” The sociologist James Davison Hunter, who had coined the term in his eponymous work Culture War: The Struggle to Define America one year before Buchanan took to the stage in Houston, warned in 1994 that “culture wars always precede shooting wars [...]. Indeed, the last time this country ‘debated’ the issues of human life, personhood, liberty, and the rights of citizenship all together, the result was the bloodiest war ever to take place on this continent, the Civil War” (Before the Shooting 4-5). Skip to 2009: After years of heated rhetoric and occasional outbursts of physical 1

It is also interesting to note that Claviez apparently implies that a look beyond the aesthetic seems to be necessary in order to settle such question—an assumption that is itself fraught with problematic implications.


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acts of violence, the progressive think tank Center for American Progress declares that a fundamental political shift towards liberal values is taking place in the US that has effectively ended the culture wars: “The culture wars, far from coming back, are likely coming to an end as a defining aspect of our politics” (Teixeira). Around the same time, the conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza claims that this alleged triumph has come at a dramatic cost: “The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11,” he writes in The Enemy at Home, arguing that the rage of the Muslim terrorists was fueled by the moral relativism and profound secularism spread around the world by the US ‘liberal media’ (1). What to make of this bewildering collection of opinions, alleged facts, and sweeping generalizations? At first sight, they seem to feed into the narrative of a deeply divided United States echoed everywhere from the populist documentaries of Michael Moore to George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. In order to assess the place of contemporary writing within this landscape, it is essential to keep in mind two things: First, one literally has to come to terms with the polemic nature of the debates being waged, and furthermore, one has to realize that the tools most commonly employed in present-day literary studies to tackle such questions might themselves be implicated in these discussions. As Richard Rorty points out in his essay “De Man and the American Cultural Left,” many of those academics committed to a poststructuralist-influenced understanding of language and ideology could be described as taking part in an effort to reinvigorate leftist social criticism by deploying new philosophico-literary weapons. This attempt is central to the activities of what Henry Gates has called ‘the American Cultural Left,’ defined by him as ‘a Rainbow Coalition’ of deconstructionists, feminists, people working in gay and ethnic studies, and so on. (129)

Whether one is sympathetic towards this project or not, the fact that there undoubtedly exists a politically charged undercurrent beneath all of those seemingly abstract debates about self-referential signifying systems necessitates taking a step back and trying to scrutinize not only the literary text in question but also the ideologies and practices within literary and cultural studies in order to thoroughly map out the intertwinement of literature, theory, and contemporary politics. This is where actor-network theory comes in. Originally developed to cope with certain problems encountered in science and technology studies, ANT has by now become more and more established in sociology, cultural studies, and beyond, its central concepts being used to illuminate phenomena as diverse as mathematics education in Nigeria or the manufacturing of

Jonathan Franzen and the Legacy of the Culture Wars


aircraft.2 Many of its central tenets do, in fact, focus on the question of how to thoroughly map out the emergence of polarized factions and ‘facts’ especially in polemicized debates. Given the deeply entrenched political landscape of the United States, a theory that has from its very inception been centered on the investigation of controversies not only in the natural sciences but also in other societal spheres such as economics or medicine lends itself particularly well to such an endeavor. Furthermore, ANT explicitly addresses the problem that theories purporting to objectively describe certain states of affairs are more often than not active agents in the formation of (political) groupings. By ‘following the actors,’ ANT places paramount importance on close, even myopic investigations of how general terms and concepts such as ‘the social’ itself or, indeed, the ‘culture wars’ and ‘(postmodern) literature’ are locally produced and performed instead of using them as unquestioned, axiomatic starting points of analysis. 3 In place of monolithic power configurations, Latour and others focus on the individual actors (both human and nonhuman) that are involved in creating such abstractions in the first place in order to trace the emergence of 2


Seminal works include Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern and Reassembling the Social, John Law’s Aircraft Stories, and the essay collection Actor Network Theory and After edited by John Law and John Hassard. The import of concepts from ANT into literary studies that is sketched in this paper has so far not been systematically attempted. This is not meant to suggest that ANT offers a mode of analysis entirely untainted by ontological and epistemological premises (even if especially Latour’s frequently hyperbolic claims often suggest as much). Here, it is useful to recall Winfried Fluck’s doubts on the very possibility of such a disinterested approach: “However, methodological classifications such as historical criticism, gender criticism, or transnational studies remain empty boxes as long as we have not clarified to what purpose and in the service of what premises they are employed. There never existed an approach in the history of the field that had no other purpose than the faithful reconstruction of American literary history” (1). Indeed, ANT carries with it a strong antiessentialist bias that makes clear its relatedness to central poststructuralist positions: “Actor network theory is a ruthless application of semiotics. It tells that entities take their form and acquire their attributes as a result of their relations with other entities. In this scheme of things entities have no inherent qualities: essentialist divisions are thrown on the bonfire of the dualisms” (Law, “After ANT” 3). However, ANT also diverges from certain poststructuralist paradigms—above all, Latour has been very careful to point out that there are potential parallels between the vulgarized notion that ‘everything is made up/relative’ and the rhetorical operations of, e.g., climate change skeptics. Therefore, he argues, it is imperative to “bring the sword of criticism to criticism itself and do a bit of soul-searching here: what were we really after when we were so intent on showing the social construction of scientific facts?” (“Why” 227). At this point, he directs our attention to a shift of focus in ANT—it is not so much interested in the deconstruction of the social but rather in its reconstruction, meaning a close analysis of the processes that were instrumental in setting up or solidifying its institutions, which might then help “to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts” (“Why” 227).


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societal phenomena. These phenomena are not understood to be regulated by vast, hidden forces but are seen as the result of myriads of tiny micronegotiations between the different people, things, ideas, and technologies that are part of trying to uphold often frail, contradictory social assemblages that eventually make up the ‘whole’: When sociologists of the social pronounce the words ‘society’, ‘power’, ‘structure’, and ‘context’, they often jump straight ahead to connect vast arrays of life and history, to mobilize gigantic forces, to detect dramatic patterns emerging out of confusing interactions, to see everywhere in the cases at hand yet more examples of well-known types, to reveal behind the scenes some dark powers pulling the strings. (Latour, Reassembling 22)

The benefit to be gained here is a more nuanced understanding of how certain configurations of power come into existence and are being upheld. Far from being apolitical, such an approach “can [...] trace how assemblages may solidify certain relations of power in ways that continue to affect movements and identities” (Fenwick and Edwards 13). The polarizing and dichotomous statements listed above, then, are the fallout of processes of group formation. Controversies such as those flaring up during the culture wars give us the opportunity to examine how the social is assembled, because groupings have constantly to be made, or remade, and during this creation or recreation the group-makers leave behind many traces that can be used as data by the informer. One way to mark this difference is to say that social aggregates are not the object of an ostensive definition [...] but only of a performative definition. They are made by the various ways and manners in which they are said to exist. (Latour, Reassembling 34)

The understanding of performativity employed here differs a little from what it has come to signify in literary studies in recent years: Latour expressly does not endorse the notion that there is no ‘true essence’ behind social groupings or that they are ‘merely social constructs.’ Instead, he wants to point out “the difference between groups endowed with some inertia and groupings that need to be constantly kept up by some groupmaking effort” (Reassembling 35). The battlefield within the culture wars that directly pertains to the current discussions around Franzen’s work are the so-called canon wars. It is by now an established position that this conflict revolves around the question of broadening the traditional humanist canon. Depending on one’s point of view, this expansion turns it from a tool of oppression into a means of liberation by challenging the dominance of the by now infamous dead white males or it contributes to a general debasement of values and intellectual standards in a misguided spirit of political correctness and egalitarianism. Yet how did these entrenched positions come into being, and at what cost?

Jonathan Franzen and the Legacy of the Culture Wars


According to Latour, controversial processes of group formation involve four main movements that can be traced: first, the emergence of spokespersons, whose job it is to “‘speak for’ the group existence” (Reassembling 31); second, the demonization of the Other, during which “other groupings are designated as being empty, archaic, dangerous, obsolete, and so on” (Reassembling 32); third, the erection of boundaries that are “marked, delineated, and rendered fixed and durable” (Reassembling 33); and finally, the contributions of—broadly speaking—social science and certain forms of journalism that unwittingly help to strengthen the durability of groups via their allegedly neutral investigations and accounts of social formations (Reassembling 33). Applying these processes to the canon wars, the designation alone makes clear that the fourth element of Latour’s scheme is readily observable, since the progressive/conservative dichotomy that enables us to speak about the project of canon revision in political terms is at least partially a product of sociologists and journalists writing about the political landscape. Also note that the mobilization of such terminology—which might be considered a full-fledged actor in its own right—almost necessarily involves the element of ‘translation’—something is added, twisted, distorted in the process: “Translation is [...] what happens when entities, human and nonhuman, come together and connect, changing one another to form links” (Fenwick and Edwards 9). This is an essential feature of the emergence of social assemblages, and a closer look at the canon wars reveals a similar dynamic: In this case, the progressive/conservative divide, which in itself is already the product of translation processes within political discourse, is associated with potentially incommensurable materials (the ‘great books’ and those of authors from the margins), which are then made to align with either ideological position and are thus drawn into a fiercely polarized network of values—the ‘cultural left’ locking heads with “white, heterosexual, male culture” (Hutcheon 35). Works of literature are thus translated into either trustworthy political allies in line with one’s ideological convictions or representatives of the enemy’s positions. This, of course, also leads to the second moment of group formation—demonization. As Franzen’s case will illustrate, the whole process necessarily reduces ambiguities and ideological overlap that would complicate the emergence of a clearly demarcated battlefield. Concerning the spokespersons of the traditionalist wing of the canon debate, revisiting Dinesh D’Souza yields further insights. In books such as Illiberal Education, The End of Racism, or Letters to a Young Conservative, via his work for the conservative think tank Hoover Institution, and during countless speaker engagements, he has managed to set himself up as a spokesperson for those allegedly dissatisfied with the current renegotiation of literary canons. Who are the allies he mobilizes? Predictably, he lists, for example, Allan Bloom’s seminal The Closing of the American Mind to rally support for his position. Another Bloom of note, Harold Bloom, has written


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The Western Canon, which is nowadays often identified with the conservative side of the canon divide within progressive literary criticism. However, witness the effectiveness of processes of translation on display here: Neither Allan nor Harold Bloom actually wanted their arguments to be utilized by the political right—The Closing of the American Mind, for example, contains diatribes against the dominance of the natural sciences or specialized professional education in academia that would put any neoliberal on guard: “Moreover, a great disaster has occurred. It is the establishment during the last decade or so of the MBA as the moral equivalent of the MD or the law degree, meaning a way of insuring a lucrative living by the mere fact of a diploma that is not a mark of scholarly achievement” (369-70). Similarly, Harold Bloom has at various occasions pleaded that he is anything but a conservative and states that “if we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation” (29), an assumption that sits ill at ease with D’Souza’s exhortation that it is essential for students “to learn from the great books” (Letters 56) to improve their character. These observations might be counterbalanced by the exposition of ideological undercurrents in both authors’ texts that actually do speak to conservative sensibilities—the point remains that certain key works of the canon debate that have come to be unambiguously associated with one side of the discussion have ended up in these positions due to processes of translation that have, in effect, reduced or eliminated their inherent ambiguities.4


A closer, myopic look at the formation of the progressive faction of the canon wars quickly reveals that similar processes of translation have taken place here. Rorty’s and Gates’s postulation of a “‘Rainbow Coalition’” (Rorty 129), for instance, obliterates the heated discussions about identity and agency that have taken place within African American studies—the adherents of ‘critical whiteness,’ following in the footsteps of bell hooks and Toni Morrison, have time and again stressed the potential incompatibility of a relativistic understanding of subjectivity with the project of group empowerment. In a related manner, Jon Michael Spencer speaks of a “postmodern conspiracy to explode racial identity” (2). Furthermore, scholars such as Paul Lauter point out how the tendencies towards terminological obscurity and self-involved intellectualism in contemporary theory have obscured the origins of the call for canon revision in the actual political practices of the Civil Rights Movement: “The notion that debate over the canon derives from poststructuralist theory expresses something of the insulation of the academy. [...] [P]art of the importance of the effort to widen the canon is precisely the need to counter the tendency of academics to absorb social conflict into debates, over language and form, for example, that they can more easily control. [...] But revolution is not a linguistic phenomenon” (157).

Jonathan Franzen and the Legacy of the Culture Wars


A Recipe for a Happier and Healthier World Canon wars, then. Fought with which weapons, and to which effect? And how do these controversies relate to contemporary writing? Another look at Jonathan Franzen’s Harper’s essay might help to illuminate these questions. In the following passage, he muses on issues that make it hard for a literary writer to connect to the intellectual life of the day: The therapeutic optimism now raging in English literature departments insists that novels can be sorted into two boxes: Symptoms of Disease (canonical works from the Dark Ages before 1950) and Medicine for a Happier and Healthier World (the work of women and of people from nonwhite or nonhetero cultures). (“Why Bother?” 78-79)

At first glance, these sharply polemical observations place Franzen squarely in the conservative faction of the debate at hand. However, it soon becomes apparent that he is actually in favor of canon revision, 5 even though he acknowledges that there might be the danger that “young writers today feel imprisoned by their ethnic or gender identities” (80). The true roots of his concerns lie elsewhere: He takes issue with a view of contemporary writing that bestows an unambiguously didactic function on literature and, as sketched above, reduces its inherent complexities in order to make its alignment with progressive political agendas as smooth as possible. Yet, as Franzen warns, “the darkness of [Toni Morrison’s] novels is not a political darkness, banishable by the enlightenment of contemporary critical theory; it’s the darkness of sorrows that have no easy cure” (79). In the parlance of ANT, he here insists on the incommensurability of the materials associated together in the canon wars —progressive politics and literature—and tries to unravel this assemblage, not necessarily in the service of endorsing a conservative political agenda but to fully embrace the internal contradictions of fiction. Literature speaks a different language that cannot be translated. In order to truly understand Franzen’s profound alienation from the specter of English departments hell-bent on establishing a patronizingly political view of literature, it might be of use to take a further step back and look at another site from which some of the ideas ridiculed in the Harper’s essay emanate. Linda Hutcheon’s A Poetics of Postmodernism is one of the most influential works in the debate on contemporary fiction, and while Franzen does not explicitly cite this book, it can be considered exemplary of a certain kind of approach to literature (without, of course, completely 5

“Indeed, it can be argued that the country’s literary culture is healthier for having disconnected from mainstream culture; that a universal ‘American’ culture was little more than an instrument for the perpetuation of a white, male, heterosexual elite, and that its decline is the just desert of an exhausted tradition” (Franzen, “Why Bother?” 79).


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identifying it with Franzen’s somewhat cartoonish vision). To understand what Hutcheon does within those pages, I first want to introduce another concept that further illustrates what processes of translation and group formation might entail. Michel Callon identifies the importance of socalled obligatory passage points: Establishing a network involves the performance of oneself or one’s central ideas as an indispensable gateway into the web of interrelations one seeks to establish. A “holy alliance” (70) in support of one’s agenda is formed by selecting certain actors and defining their identities in accordance with one’s goals—a process not unlike the maneuvers of D’Souza outlined in the previous chapter. Once again, it is the moment of translation that is crucially important in setting up power relations that might eventually lead to a stable social assemblage: “But to translate is also to express in one’s own language what others say and want, why they act in the way they do and how they associate with each other: it is to establish oneself as a spokesman [sic]” (Callon 81). This account of power formation accurately describes what Hutcheon does. Broadly speaking, she wants to enroll contemporary writing, especially “ex-centric” authors, in the critique of what is varyingly referred to as “liberal humanist discourse” (68), “liberal humanist notions of universality” (69), or “late capitalist, bourgeois [...] society” (7), and she thus claims that the identity of postmodern writing is in essence determined by a “new didacticism” (51) that ‘teaches’ its audience about, for instance, the relativity of its dearly held humanist values. A Poetics of Postmodernism might also be described as one of the central texts that helped to reconcile multiculturalist and poststructuralist positions. The teleological impulse of Hutcheon’s version of postmodern literature to subvert the existing order of society is explicated by pointing out perceived similarities between its concerns and those of critical theory (cf., for instance, Hutcheon 15-21). As mentioned before, there was a marked skepticism towards the compatibility of both approaches at earlier stages of the canon debate, as is clearly on display in Gregory S. Jay’s following comment: “Although denunciations from the cultural right often lump the canon-busters, feminists, and multiculturalists together with the semioticians and deconstructors, in practice these various movements are radically distinct and often in disagreement” (6). Recalling Callon, Hutcheon thus tries to disassociate certain forms of writing from the camp of those whose main interests lie in an activist approach towards literature and to firmly establish a bond between marginal authors and theory-based criticism by assertively defining the ‘nature’ of postmodern literature. This definition is guided by her own political convictions, namely the sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit notions that something is indeed wrong with the various permutations of “bourgeois [...] society” listed at the beginning of this paragraph, that contemporary authors actually want to ‘teach’ their audience certain lessons about the failures of said society, and that the aesthetic strategies they utilize are in-

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trinsically connected to poststructuralist theory, thus rendering professors of literary studies and their expertise indispensable to the whole project.6 Hutcheon does take pains to avoid simplification and an overtly instrumental view of postmodernism by time and again insisting that she does not intend to subsume individual works of art under ideological beliefs and by pointing out that, to a certain extent, postmodern art is always implicated in what it criticizes. However, this is sometimes thwarted by passages that, in fact, do universalize and directly ascribe unambiguously ‘subversive’ qualities to postmodernism: “Postmodern art [...] asserts and then deliberately undermines such principles as value, order, meaning, control and identity [...] that have been the basic premises of bourgeois liberalism” (13). The supposition that postmodern art first asserts and then undermines renders trivial the issue of truly being complicit in the upkeep of a certain social order: In this and countless other sections of Hutcheon’s text, it effectively amounts to nothing else than first describing your enemy, then taking him down all the more efficiently. The prevalence of such approaches to postmodern literature partly explains why Franzen feels estranged from a vision of contemporary writing that could, indeed, be argued to be rather one-dimensional and utilitarian. In addition, it illustrates why, as sketched at the beginning, the discussion around his work centers on the question of epochal designation—there is a notable unease within this debate that results from the lingering suspicion that something might be slightly off about the concept of postmodernism in the first place, which turns the investigation of the way Franzen might be said to deviate from or conform to this literary tradition into a slippery slope indeed. On a more general level, this also points towards a blind spot 6

This works via exclusion as well: Hutcheon denies access to what scholars like Ihab Hassan previously considered postmodernist literature to be—the work of technically challenging authors such as Thomas Pynchon or Donald Barthelme does not make the cut: “There has been a certain move in criticism [...] to distinguish between two types of postmodernism: one that is non-mimetic, ultra-autonomous, anti-referential, and another that is historically engagé, problematically referential. I would argue that only the latter properly defines postmodernism, according to the model developed here (based on postmodern architecture)” (52). This is another aspect of the debate on canonicity and postmodernism: Essentially, adherents of Pynchon et al. argue that their self-reflexive linguistic experiments exhibit parallels to the concerns of Derrida and others. It has furthermore been claimed that their work is subversive to the same extent as poststructuralism’s challenges to order and hierarchy are. Interestingly, Franzen has also responded angrily to the academy’s championing of this variant of postmodern literature: “[There is the] Fallacy of the Stupid Reader, implicit in every modern ‘aesthetics of difficulty,’ wherein difficulty is a ‘strategy’ to protect art from co-optation and the purpose of this art is to ‘upset’ or ‘compel’ or ‘challenge’ or ‘subvert’ or ‘scar’ the unsuspecting reader [...]. If you’re having a good time with a novel, you’re a dupe of the postindustrial System; if you still identify with characters, you need to retake Postmodernism 101” (“Mr. Difficult” 260-61).

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in scholarly accounts of canon formation: These tend to focus either on the in- and exclusion of individual texts—based either on aesthetic merit or on considerations of race, class, or gender—or on the canon’s general function in the distribution of cultural capital (cf. John Guillory’s application of Bourdieu’s findings). However, as suggested by the case of Hutcheon, there is an intermediary level that needs to be considered as well: It is the scheme of literary periodization itself that regulates entry into the canon. It serves as a focal point for the formulation of aesthetico-political agendas that literature is supposed to fulfill and then turns into an obligatory passage point, a sort of ideological litmus test that works of fiction have to pass in order to gain entry.7 Hence, Franzen’s frustration might not just be a case of worrying over the trivialization of literature in the name of political correctness. It also strongly indicates authorial anxiety: What if he shall not pass?

The Corrections: Maneuvering the Battlefield A brief examination of The Corrections now seems in order. By taking a look at the novel’s depictions of academic and economic issues, I want to argue that the aesthetic strategies chosen to represent these matters, from characterization to point of view, can be considered to be conscious attempts to undercut the kind of politically motivated co-optation so common during the canon wars. The following quote from a critical essay on The Corrections and contemporary fiction by Robert L. McLaughlin can serve as a starting point for this investigation, since it illustrates the challenges that this text poses if one tries to read it as progressive social critique. At the beginning, McLaughlin makes quite clear his Hutcheonesque conviction that “art’s social role is to question, challenge, and reimagine the ideological status quo” (53). Accordingly, he is dissatisfied with The Corrections’ continuous refusal to take clear sociopolitical stances: The result is that the narrative voice continually shifts—and asks the reader to shift along with it—its attitude toward the social world it’s representing and its attitude toward the process of representing that world. This could be interesting if one had the impression it was being done intentionally, but here it seems the 7

This is a vision of literary periodization in which the scholar wields all the power. Drawing on ANT’s insight that nonhuman actors (such as literary texts) might have agency themselves, Rita Felski, one of the few critics who has tried to import Latour’s ideas into literary studies, offers an alternative in which the artwork itself takes a much more active role: “Artworks can only survive and thrive by making friends, creating allies, attracting disciples, inciting attachments, latching on to receptive hosts” (584). This, then, should also be borne in mind, and I hope to show that The Corrections is exactly the kind of text that actively calls for new alliances and associations both within the academic study of literature and beyond.

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result of an author in flux, unsure of how he relates to the world and to his art form. (63)

While the first part of this statement perfectly describes what Franzen does, the second passage amply illustrates a view on literature that for all intents and purposes demands the literary text to unambiguously assert itself as an agent of social change. As I will show, however, the text’s shifting back and forth between different perspectives on the world is hardly an instance of authorial failure but rather a systematic strategy that targets exactly the kind of criticism that McLaughlin practices. It tries to imagine alternative ways of depicting interpersonal and societal issues that do not exhaust themselves in being instrumentally useful (which, paradoxically, renders them political nevertheless). The dynamic that governs The Corrections’ representation of theoretical issues closely related to the postmodern debate is brought to the textual surface in one of the first passages in which readers are introduced to the world that one of the novel’s central characters, Chip Lambert, inhabits: [Tori Timmelman] was a feminist theorist who’d become so enraged with the patriarchal system of accreditation and its phallometric yardsticks of achievement that she refused (or was unable) to finish her dissertation. [...] [I]n a spirit of cor rection, he stuck with Tori for nearly a decade. [...] Not until D—— college had offered him a five-year tenure-track appointment [...] did he fully exhaust his supply of male guilt and move on. (34)

Analytical tools that are conventionally employed in cultural studies (e.g., feminist theory and tropes such as “the patriarchal system”) to systematically investigate textual artifacts are presented in a way that critically reflects upon their institutionalization. Rather than considering them to be objective, all-powerful standards of interpretation, the text depicts them relative to the societal setting in which they are actually practiced—in other words, the academic world. As the quote above makes clear, the narrator’s stance towards scholarly theorizing is characterized by a condescending, ironic, and even outright hostile tone. Nevertheless, this also marks the point of entry of these discussions into the textual universe. We are thus faced with a representational strategy that helps display a certain degree of knowingness as far as practices in the humanities are concerned (thus illustrating that the author does not labor in complete ignorance of intellectual developments around him) while at the same time straining to escape the constraints that ‘politically correct’ ways of dealing with literature seem to pose on the possibilities of storytelling. However, this does not mean that the text simply glosses over issues of gendered power relationships. Passages like the one above are counterbalanced by sections in which especially Chip is exposed as a closeted misogynist whose thorough theoretical knowledge has not led to the slightest bit of true insight—to the contrary, he has managed to turn potentially

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liberating ideas into markers of male privilege, culminating in this very literal depiction of phallocentrism during an affair with his student Melissa: On Monday and Tuesday he dictated large chunks of a term paper on Carol Gilligan which Melissa was too annoyed with Vendla O’Fallon to write by herself. His near-photographic recall of Gilligan’s arguments, his total mastery of theory, got him so excited that he began to tease Melissa’s hair with his erection. He ran the head of it up and down the keyboard of her computer and applied a gleaming smudge to the liquid-crystal screen. (59)

Thus, The Corrections is ever aware of the pitfalls of (unwittingly) succumbing to reactionary patterns of behavior in the context of a heteronormative relationship, but it also displays a skeptical attitude towards the helpfulness of contemporary theory for finding a potential solution to these problems. Indeed, the novel purposefully represents such issues as fundamentally undecidable, facing the reader with the dilemmas and human weaknesses of its central characters without offering a way out. Franzen himself dubs this approach ‘tragic realism,’ which he defines as follows: “I hope it’s clear that by ‘tragic’ I mean just about any fiction that raises more questions than it answers: anything in which conflict doesn’t resolve into cant” (“Why Bother?” 91). Robert Rebein points out that apart from the humanist sentiment detectable in these lines, this statement—and The Corrections as a whole—must also be read as a pugnacious response to what Franzen thinks is wrong with the contemporary literary establishment: “With this crucial formulation, Franzen attempts to separate himself from ideologues of every stripe, but in particular from those po-mo writers and critics whose beliefs have hardened into a rigid orthodoxy of cultural complaint” (210-11). Another level on which this dynamic regulates the novel’s representational strategies is its depiction of economic issues. During a classroom discussion, Chip gets into a heated argument with Melissa. After he fails to engage the students in a critical discussion of a television ad campaign (“You Go, Girl”), he resorts to critical theory to make his point: “Baudrillard might argue,” Chip said, “that the evil of a campaign like ‘You Go, Girl’ consists in the detachment of the signifier from the signified. That a woman weeping no longer just signifies sadness. It now also signifies: ‘Desire office equipment.’ It signifies: ‘Our bosses care about us deeply.’” (45)

To this, Melissa replies: ‘This whole class,’ she said. ‘It’s just bullshit every week. It’s one critic after another wringing their hands about the state of criticism. Nobody can ever quite say what’s wrong exactly. But they all know it’s evil. They all know ‘corporate’ is a dirty word. [...] Here things are getting better and better for women and people of color, and gay men and lesbians, [...] and all you can think about is some stupid, lame problem with signifiers and signifieds.’ (46)

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This scathing indictment of contemporary theory does not leave Chip unbruised. He realizes “how seriously he’d taken his father’s injunction to do work that was ‘useful’ to society” (46). Criticizing cultural and economic phenomena is an activity that is directed towards a telos—in Chip’s case, again echoing Hutcheon, the exposure of intrinsic flaws of the capitalist system and, accordingly, the subversion of the ideological status quo. Until his discussion with Melinda, he had taken the belief that something is indeed wrong with these societal institutions as a given. Now, a disturbing thought enters his mind: “[I]f the great Materialist Order of technology and consumer appetite and medical science really was improving the lives of the formerly oppressed [...] then there was no longer even the most abstract utility to his criticism” (47). Once his convictions and certainties about the status of the world he is trying to criticize are shaken, he loses his sense of belonging and embarks upon a disastrous affair with Melissa, which eventually leads to the end of his academic career. In order to survive, he is soon forced to sell his books by, among others, Habermas, Jameson, Foucault, and Greenblatt for bargain prices (97-98), both symbolically and materially selling out to ‘the system.’8 All of the passages above might suggest that the text generally puts forward a positive vision of economic life and, in addition, a rather negative view of those who critically examine its problematic aspects. Melissa’s description of her parents’ entrepreneurial ambitions lends further support to this thesis: “‘And I just think if you knew how cool it is to start a company, and how great it is when the money starts coming in, and how romantic it can be, you wouldn’t be so harsh’” (52-53). By calling attention to the personal level of economic interaction, she puts into perspective the totalizing, dystopian vision of a globalized economy run by anonymous megacorporations. In a later scene, the text depicts “the radical underground scene” (361) in Philadelphia as a confused conglomerate of leftwingers for whom “any crime of violence or wealth redistribution to which a cop might object could be justified as a legitimate action in a long-running dirty war” (362). Those who resist the dominant order of capitalism are once again represented as narrow-minded advocates of misguided oppositional strategies. Nevertheless, the novel’s attitude towards the many-faceted phenomenon of transnational capitalism is more complex than these examples imply. This becomes especially apparent once Chip leaves the safe haven of academia and encounters a representative of those who, in a very material sense, truly suffer the consequences of ruthless capitalist expansionism— 8

Stephen J. Burn argues that this act of selling out also represents the shift in tone between Franzen’s earlier, more clearly postmodern-influenced novels and the “more conventional” writing style of The Corrections: “Chip’s books make it easy to see one type of writing that Franzen thinks should be rejected in favor of sensuous existence” (92).


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Gitanas Misevičius, a politician from Lithuania who used to be an ambassador to the United Nations, vividly describes the deterioration of his country due to short-term US investment. Having acquired most of the nation’s infrastructural resources—airlines, banks, ports—a temporal crisis of the world market leads American corporations to hastily liquidate their assets within the region, leaving Lithuania in a desolate state: “‘Ouch! Ouch! But interesting, huh? Lithuania’s not being such a successful player, is it? Lithuania really fucked things up!’” (119). Gitanas’s rage then led him to build up a fraudulent website that offers false information about Lithuania’s supposedly blooming economic situation, luring investors to send him money in exchange for “personalized memorials to their ‘heroic contribution’ to the ‘market liberation’ of the country” (135) such as “the legally enforceable right, whilst on Lithuanian soil, to such titles and honorifics as ‘Your Lordship’ and ‘Your Ladyship’ and ‘Your Grace’” (462). Chip jumps at the chance to assist his newly won friend in these illegal operations, putting into practice the subversive theories he so far only advocated on a theoretical level. His emigration to Lithuania then provides him with a firsthand experience of the havoc wreaked by globalization, which, ultimately, reinforces his anticapitalist beliefs rather than ‘correcting’ them. On another, equally skeptical level, the novel is concerned with the representation of the globalized economy as an interrelated network of greeddriven forces that shape both American society and economies abroad, the Lambert family being directly affected: The employer of Chip’s father Alfred, the Midland Pacific Railroad, is acquired and eventually liquidated by the Orfic Group, a company ran by the ruthless Wroth brothers (72-73). The newly merged corporation, renamed Orfic Midland, also plays a vital part in the ruination of Lithuania’s economy (119). Furthermore, readers learn that Chip’s D—— college sports a Wroth Hall (50), which hardens the suspicion that it might also be related to the Wroths’ enterprise. In addition, the law firm Bragg Knuter & Speigh, where Chip works as a part-time proofreader after he loses his job (92), is also responsible for handling a request by the Axon Corporation for one of Alfred’s patents (76). Finally, the trust fund of Melissa’s parents, Westportfolio Biofunds (52), is related to the Axon Corporation as well (175). Apart from Chip’s brother Gary, the central characters themselves are quite oblivious of these apparent connections, conveying the impression of having surrendered to a powerful network of interrelated economic forces bent on rationalization and shortterm profit.9 Hence, the novel’s formal makeup is shaped by various evasive maneuvers geared at avoiding clear ideological affiliations while still trying to 9

Susanne Rohr points out that the text here mirrors the conspiratorial obsessions of classic postmodern texts (or, in Franzen’s words, ‘system novels’) like Gravity’s Rainbow (cf. Rohr 100).

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signal a certain degree of savviness regarding theory and narrative. This way, contrary to Franzen’s express wish to disengage from sociopolitics, his text paradoxically reconfirms the agency and active influence of the novel. To put it more precisely: The debates of the culture wars, ranging from canon expansion to the supposed weaknesses and strengths of the capitalist system, are indispensable to the novel and materially present in its pages, since the fabric of the text itself constitutes an attempt at correcting the supposed wrongs of contemporary academic views on literature and society. It does not completely sever its ties to the world around it but tries to overcome the imperative that such connections need to be accompanied by the espousal of a specific political agenda. The novel might even be described as a text that actively lobbies for a different way of engaging with literature, a work of art that is a full-blown actor precisely because its disenchantment with scholarly orthodoxies in the realm of theory leads to narrative innovations that, in turn, challenge literary studies to develop an updated repertoire of analytic methods to come to terms with this form of contemporary writing. The obligatory passage point of politically engagé postmodernism is thus circumnavigated to open up new perspectives.

Coda: Franzen and the ‘Great American Novel’ A view on literary periodization that makes room for ironies and ambivalences instead of resting comfortably on rock-solid political convictions has been developed in the work of Lawrence Buell on the ‘great American novel’ (GAN). He first points out the obvious, namely that one risks walking on very thin ice when operating with such concepts in an academic context: “[The dream of the GAN] was killed off again with the rise of American literary studies as an academic specialization in the middle half of the twentieth century [...] as a naively amateurish age-of-realism pipe dream” (133). As he still tries to reclaim this discredited tag from reactionary politics, Buell points out some of its more interesting implications: It resides only very partially in the ivory tower of academics, is as contradictory as the works of fiction that it seeks to describe, and houses both inclusionary and critical approaches to questions of national and transnational identity, thus avoiding ideological simplifications. Stripped of its polemical implications, it “bespeaks a continuing desire for vicarious participation, however skeptical, in a work of social envisioning conceived as still, maybe forever, incomplete” (149). From this perspective, Franzen’s association with the term makes sense, since The Corrections essentially tries to escape critical pigeonholing by representing political rifts as parts of a whole to be reassembled, inviting a dialogue on this future assembly while refraining from offering easy answers. That all of this takes place despite Franzen’s explicit retreat from the political illustrates the fact that

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the agency of a novel is, to a large degree, independent of the author once it has established itself as part of the cultural networks that surround us. From a Marxist-leaning perspective, though, the latent pluralist liberalism of this reappropriation might be criticized: In this view, GAN candidates such as The Corrections can be accused of glossing over necessary lines of conflict, thus effectively standing in the way of social change. Franco Moretti, for one, claims that one main function of the nineteenth-century historical novel was “[t]o represent internal unevenness, no doubt; and then, to abolish it [...]: a process that mixes consent and coercion” (40). Seen thus, Franzen’s text first generously accommodates the different factions of the culture wars, then lures in its readers with the deceptive promise of a future unity to be achieved, ultimately slowing down, maybe even grinding to a halt, the long overdue radical questioning of conceptions of self and nation. Such an analysis, however, risks forever rehashing the by now familiar pessimistic notion that literature—especially when commercially successful—cannot be expected to do anything else but stabilize the status quo. Buell’s conception invites us to think outside of these boxes, and it also provides a scheme via which one can appreciate the ideological swerves of The Corrections as a welcome subversion of political dogma: Contra the thrust of academic Americanist criticism since new historicism to pin down canonical texts’ ideological valences and especially the senses in which they might abet dominant political formations, freelance GAN punditry seems at least as interested in how the novels in question disrupt mainstream pieties. (142)

Ironically enough, though, the headline “Great American Novelist” of Time magazine’s 2010 cover story on Franzen (cf. Grossman) was occasioned by the publication of Freedom, a novel that actually does take clear political stances and presents rather unambiguous narratives of mischievous, exploitative businessmen and the environmentally destructive impact of capitalism in mountaintop removal mining. Maybe the precarious act of hanging in the balance that The Corrections tries to perform took too great a toll in the end, maybe the reign of George W. Bush pushed even politically ambivalent writers like Franzen to abandon their agnosticism. It remains to be seen whether the original impulse towards aesthetic and political ‘in-betweenness’ not only in Franzen’s work but also in that of fellow writers like Jeffrey Eugenides will prove sustainable in the end.

Works Cited Allen, Tim. “Now He’s First among Equals.” Observer 25 Nov. 2001: 15. Print. Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon, 1987. Print.

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Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Riverhead, 1995. Print. Buchanan, Patrick J. “1992 Republican National Convention Speech.” Patrick J. Buchanan: Official Website. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. Buell, Lawrence. “The Unkillable Dream of the Great American Novel: Moby-Dick as Test Case.” American Literary History 20.1-2 (2008): 132-55. Print. Burn, Stephen J. Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism. London: Continuum, 2011. Print. Callon, Michel. “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay.” The Science Studies Reader. Ed. Mario Biagioli. New York: Routledge, 1999. 67-83. Print. Claviez, Thomas. “Neo-Realism and How to ‘Make it New.’” Introduction. Amerikastudien/American Studies 49.1 (2004): 5-18. Print. D’Souza, Dinesh. The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society. New York: Free, 1995. Print. ---. The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. New York: Doubleday, 2007. Print. ---. Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York: Free, 1991. Print. ---. Letters to a Young Conservative. New York: Basic, 2002. Print. Edwards, Thomas R. “Oprah’s Choice.” Raritan 21.4 (2002): 75-86. Print. Felski, Rita. “Context Stinks!” New Literary History 42.4 (2011): 573-91. Print. Fenwick, Tara, and Richard Edwards. Actor-Network Theory in Education. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010. Print. Fluck, Winfried. “American Literary History and the Romance with America.” American Literary History 21.1 (2009): 1-18. Print. Franzen, Jonathan. The Corrections. New York: Picador, 2002. Print. ---. How to Be Alone. London: Harper, 2002. Print. ---. “Mr. Difficult.” Franzen, How to Be Alone 238-69. ---. “Why Bother?” Franzen, How to Be Alone 55-97. ---. “A Word about This Book.” Franzen, How to Be Alone 3-6. Grossman, Lev. “Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist.” Time. Time, 12 Aug. 2010. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993. Print. Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War. New York: Free, 1994. Print. ---. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic, 1991. Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988. Print. Jay, Gregory S. American Literature and the Culture Wars. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997. Print. Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print. ---. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993. Print. ---. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30.2 (2004): 225-48. Print. Lauter, Paul. Canons and Contexts. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. Print. Law, John. “After ANT: Complexity, Naming and Topology.” Law and Hassard 1-14.


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---. Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. Print. Law, John, and John Hassard, eds. Actor Network Theory and After. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. Print. Leypoldt, Gunter. “Recent Realist Fiction and the Idea of Writing ‘After Postmodernism.’” Amerikastudien/American Studies 49.1 (2004): 19-34. Print. McLaughlin, Robert L. “Post-Postmodern Discontent: Contemporary Fiction and the Social World.” symploke 12.1-2 (2004): 53-68. Print. Moretti, Franco. Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900. London: Verso, 1999. Print. Packer, George. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. New York: Farrar, 2013. Print. Rebein, Robert. “Turncoat: Why Jonathan Franzen Finally Said ‘No’ to Po-Mo.” The Mourning After: Attending the Wake of Postmodernism. Ed. Neil Brooks and Josh Toth. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. 201-22. Print. Rohr, Susanne. “‘The Tyranny of the Probable’: Crackpot Realism and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.” Amerikastudien/American Studies 49.1 (2004): 91105. Print. Rorty, Richard. “De Man and the American Cultural Left.” Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. 129-40. Print. Spencer, Jon Michael. “Trends of Opposition to Multiculturalism.” Black Scholar 23.2 (1993): 2-5. Print. Teixeira, Ruy. “The Coming End of the Culture Wars.” Center for American Progress. Center for American Progress, 15 July 2009. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. Wood, James. The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel. London: Farrar, 2004. Print.


“Just as Good as the Real Thing”: Historiopoiesis in Third-Generation Narratives on Slavery Abstract: This essay identifies a pronounced paradigm shift in the body of postmnemonic narratives of slavery that have emerged in the literary and visual arts since the late 1960s. Starting in the 1990s, writers such as Suzan-Lori Parks and Jamaica Kincaid, along with visual and performance artists such as Kara Walker and Keith Obadike, have begun to challenge rigorously established figures, tropes, and discourses of white and black history alike and to merge liberally fact and fiction in the fashioning of fresh histories conducive to the formulation of posttraumatic identities. In this, they depart from the poetics of resistance and revision that marked the neo-slave narratives of the 1970s and ’80s. To underline the radically performative and productive stance of this new work and to distinguish it from more conventionally mimetic historiographic praxis, I introduce the term historiopoiesis—the making (poiesis) of history with poetic means. A historiopoetic engagement with the past is the distinguishing signature of what I call third-generation narratives of slavery. Shaped by the convergence of various political, cultural, and theoretical developments, it presents not only a fresh poetic but also a new political approach to the issue of traumatic history and racial memory.

“I got her this ring today. Diamond. Well, diamondesque, but it looks just as good as the real thing” (10), a character named Booth declares in SuzanLori Parks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Topdog/Underdog (2001). The smooth transition from the real to the fake and back again, the blurring of essential differences between the two epistemological entities, is indicative not only of this particular character’s performative handling of a rather oppressive reality but, as I will show in this essay, of Parks’s and other contemporary artists’ engagement with the history and legacy of slavery. Topdog/Underdog features two black brothers, Lincoln and Booth—named so by their father in an inebriated joke—who attempt to achieve economic success and gain social status through various forms of performance and conmanship. Most prominent is the three-card monte hustle, which both brothers consider their ticket to success. In addition, there is Lincoln’s job at a penny arcade as a whiteface impersonator of his presidential namesake, specializing in the spectacle of the latter’s assassination, and there is Booth’s expertise in shoplifting. Booth’s hustling skills also stand him in good stead when attempting to brighten up the brothers’ rather bleak housing situation in a performative refunctioning of two pitiful milk crates as various pieces of missing furniture and when seeking to revive a worn-


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out romance with the help of the above-mentioned “diamondesque” ring. Booth believes that when presented from the right angle, the fake, the make-believe, is “just as good as the real thing” (10). It is in this spirit that both brothers regularly flip through their “raggedy family photo album” (13) in an attempt to revise a strenuous family past, marked by the trauma of parental abandonment, as memories of happy childhood days. To the brothers, it is entirely irrelevant whether these memories are actual or imagined. What matters is that these fake or imagined memories and histories enable them to formulate the posttraumatic identities they need in the present. While, in this particular play, such imaginative engagement with the past and present fails to work out for the protagonists, 1 the playful manipulation of the boundary between fact and fiction, truth and hearsay, history and storytelling proves to be an effective strategy for a number of other Parks characters in coping with the long history of slavery. This history includes the various traumatic experiences of enslavement, the Middle Passage, and enforced servitude as well as their enduring legacies, all of which have shaped African American identities up to the present. Most of Parks’s protagonists prove to be poised performers (e.g., Venus in Venus [1996], Billy Bead in Getting Mother’s Body [2003]), inspired impersonators (e.g., The Foundling Father in The America Play [1994]), skillful storytellers (e.g., Brazil in The America Play), or resolute historiographers (e.g., Aretha Saxon in Imperceptible Mutabilities of the Third Kingdom [1989]). All of them are determined to revise, through verbal, bodily, and mnemonic performances, the generally accepted historical record to their own ends—or to generate their own versions of the past. Self-assured performance is, in fact, one of the two primary strategies in Parks’s endeavor to challenge and reconfigure a dominant historiography that, in the spirit of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, has tended to erase black history or to subsume it under the white sign. 2 “I take issues with history because it doesn’t serve me,” Parks states, “it doesn’t serve me because there isn’t enough of it” (qtd. in Pearce 27). She sets out to remedy this conspicuous lack by a dual process of archaeological recovery (which she calls “diggin”) and imaginative creation (which she calls “fakin”) 1


Arguably, this has to do with Parks’s choice of a naturalist dramaturgy, with which she seeks to demonstrate the detrimental effects of a logic that insists on the reinstallation of clear boundaries between the real and its semblances. The companion play The America Play, dealing with similar characters and issues, presents its protagonists with very different possibilities for reworking the past, precisely thanks to its open dramatic form and nonlinear narrative structure. Cf. also Saal, “Suzan-Lori Parks”; Chaudhuri. According to Hegel, Africa failed to commit to a teleological notion of history as progress, as the gradual manifestation of the spirit, affirming in its place repetition, immediacy, and immanence (99). For a discussion of this claim in the context of African American culture, cf. Snead.

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(America Play 179).3 To her, theater is the perfect place to “make history” (“Possession” 4). In her plays, she makes up the black histories that she cannot find in the official records, for instance by placing a character called the ‘Lesser Known,’ also known as ‘The Foundling Father,’ alongside the ‘Great Man’ and ‘Founding Father’ (The America Play); bestowing agency on Saartje Baartman, the ill-fated Khoisan woman infamously paraded around early-nineteenth-century London and Paris as the so-called Hottentot Venus (Venus); and bringing to life Hester La Negrita, a black single mother on social welfare, as a contemporary Hester Prynne (In the Blood [1999]). With Lincoln and Booth in Topdog/Underdog, she demonstrates what happens to the black subject if he or she fails to break free, in imaginative ways, from historical overdetermination.4 This insistence on the need to challenge what Édouard Glissant has called the “notion of a single History” (93) and to counter its deliberate effacing of subaltern histories by making up some usable histories that matter to present-day black subjects is not unique to Parks but also evident in the works of other contemporary artists, such as the writers Jamaica Kincaid and Fred D’Aguiar, visual artist Kara Walker, and the performance artist Keith Obadike, to name only a few.5 While previous artists, notably the authors of the neo-slave narratives, have, of course, also challenged the single notion of ‘History’ in creative ways, these more recent artists differ in their approach to the past from preceding ones in shifting the emphasis from the attempt to counter and revise canonical history with subaltern narratives of resistance and victimization to the purposeful creation, the ‘making up’ of fresh narratives and iconographies of history in the self-reflexive deployment of various poetic techniques. To stress the radically performative stance of this new approach to slavery and to distinguish it from more conventionally mimetic historiographic praxis, I propose the term historiopoiesis—the making (poiesis) of history through poetic means.6 In what follows, I shall bring into focus a historiopoetic approach to the traumatic past of slavery by tracing its emergence, delineating its distinctive characteristics, and discussing significant examples as well as by theorizing its place within postmodern art and post-soul culture. My goal is to establish historiopoiesis as the key characteristic of a new generational approach to the long history of slavery. As Fred D’Aguiar has pointed out, every generation needs “their own version of the past, to see the past in 3 4 5 6

For a more extensive discussion of Parks’s poetics of “diggin” and “fakin,” cf. Saal, “Of Diggin’ and Fakin’.” For a discussion of the protagonists’ historical overdetermination in this play, cf. Saal, “Suzan-Lori Parks.” For a discussion of their works, cf., e.g., Keizer, “Gone Astray”; Elam; Purk. The term has been used previously on very few occasions (cf. Calame; Jellerson)— however, not in any systematic or comprehensively theorized way, let alone with regard to the particular poetics of producing history in art.

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their own images, words. To have slavery nuanced their way” (126). What we see in the works of Parks, Kincaid, Walker, Obadike, and others (all of them coming of artistic age in the late 1980s and early 1990s) is the resolute attempt to break with established narratives of the past (white and black alike) and to work out new ones—frequently in the liberal amalgamation of fact and fiction.

Generational Paradigm Shifts I see the work of present-day artists on slavery as deeply embedded in what Marianne Hirsch has identified as a ‘postmemory’ approach to a traumatic past.7 With this term, Hirsch refers to a form of inter- and transgenerational memory, mediated no longer by actual recall but “by imaginative investment, projection, and creation” (5). Developing the concept of postmemory in the context of Holocaust literature, Hirsch applies it strictly to the memory of the immediate children of the survivors of trauma, a memory that still bears a spatial and temporal contiguity to the firsthand testimonies of the original experience. With regard to black Atlantic slavery, however, we encounter a transgenerational transfer of memory well beyond such metonymic relations to the past, mediated and structured primarily through the various institutions and media of cultural memory— historiography, literature, and the visual arts foremost among them. 8 The memory of slavery of subsequent generations is hence as much marked by “imaginative investment, projection, and creation” as that of the immediate children of survivors, if not more so. Yet, while Hirsch’s concept of postmemory can be made productive for our understanding of the role of the imagination in twentieth-century cultural productions on slavery, it cannot account for differences within postmnemonic praxis or for the evolution of poetic processes within a postmemory culture. A closer look at select postmnemonic cultural productions in African American culture points us to significant differences within the large body of literary and visual narratives of slavery with regard to both the degree of “imaginative investment” (Hirsch 5) and the uses to which this investment has been put in the course of the past fifty years. Since the late 1960s, we have seen a veritable surge of writings on slavery in American literature.9 While post-Reconstruction and early7 8 9

To my knowledge, so far, only Arlene Keizer has attempted to read neo-slave narratives in light of Hirsch’s concept of postmemory (cf. Keizer, Black Subjects). Cf. A. Assmann 100. Moreover, like Astrid Erll, I consider historiography as but “one mode of cultural remembering,” standing alongside other modes such as “religion, myth, and literature” (45). While my discussion of historiopoiesis here is primarily anchored in the study of literary narratives on slavery, a similar claim can be made for the visual arts, particularly works with a strong narrative or textual basis, the work of Kara Walker

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twentieth-century black literature focused mainly on portraying the contemporary experience of segregation and racism, on rendering modern urban life and rural folkways, a keen interest in slavery emerged fully only with the neo-slave narratives of the 1970s and 1980s, foremost among them the works by Ernest Gaines, Charles Johnson, Gayle Jones, and Toni Morrison. This sea change was, on the one hand, provoked by the publication of William Styron’s controversial novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967); on the other hand, it was prompted by the loss of direct access to testimonies of slavery, since even the last survivors had now passed away (Keizer, Black Subjects 5). Precisely because the living bond to the past was permanently severed and the experience of slavery was increasingly shifting from what Jan Assmann terms ‘communicative’ to ‘cultural memory’ (20-21), the question of how it was to be remembered and how this memory was to shape collective identity took on great urgency. While some authors, like Sherley Anne Williams, merely wanted “to own a summer in the 19th century” (“Author’s Note” 6) through their fictional account of select historical episodes, others, like Margaret Walker, endeavored nothing less than to “set the record straight where Black people are concerned in terms of the Civil War, of slavery, segregation and in Reconstruction” (qtd. in Rowell 23). Together, they shared the desire “to rip that veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to relate,’” as Toni Morrison famously puts it (“Site” 191), to use the poetic imagination to fill in the blanks, to bring out what had remained in the shadows and at the margins of received versions of history. These stories of black history aimed to “make blacks the subjects rather than the objects of historiography” (Koenen 54); they were to function not merely as a corrective but as a “counterhistory” (Byerman 24). As such, stories of slavery significantly contributed to formulating a new notion of black identity. “What we see in [this phase of] African American narrative,” critic Keith Byerman writes, “is precisely the recreation of history as a tale of endless black suffering, and it is in fact this sense of history that serves as the meaning of ‘race’ in these fictions. Blackness in America ‘means,’ in these texts, living and dying in and through a traumatic reality” (6). Black literature’s “decisive turn to history” (Gilroy 222) during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements was to culminate in Morrison’s landmark novel Beloved (1987). Its provocative dedication to “Sixty Million and more” points up its political agenda: to narrate the story of the black holocaust and to establish it as formative for black collective being a case in point. Here, too, we can see an evolution in the treatment of slavery from the works of artist like Betye Saar (e.g., The Liberation of Aunt Jemima [1972]) and Faith Ringgold (Slave Rape Series [1972-73], Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? [1983]), which could be considered the equivalent of neo-slave narratives, to more provocative recent treatments of slavery by artists like Walker but also Glenn Ligon, Laylah Ali, and Michael Ray Charles. For more information, cf. Bernier; Keizer, “Gone Astray.”


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identity. More than that, with the neo-slave narratives, “slavery moved outside group memory to challenge the borders, the rituals and sites, of public memory” (Eyerman 78). Slavery, so Ron Eyerman insists, now became “part of America’s collective memory” (78). The success of the TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel Roots, which aired in 1977 to wide public acclaim, attests to this greater collective awareness. Yet, as slavery has continued to “[haunt] contemporary African American and Afro-Caribbean literature” (Keizer, Black Subjects 1) well beyond this first climax in the neo-slave narratives of the 1970s and ’80s, artists in the 1990s increasingly began to register their frustration with what they considered to be a delimiting definition of blackness arising from the central significance attributed to trauma narratives. Visual artist Kara Walker, in a way, set the platform for renewed discussions of the role of racial history in the contemporary experience of blackness with her carnivalesque restagings of antebellum plantation life, replete with crude stereotypes from the minstrelsy tradition as well as grotesque figures and violent actions. Her black-on-white paper-cut silhouettes, presented with such playful but provocative titles like Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994) or Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a Grand and Lifelike Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern Slavery or “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (Sketches from Plantation Life)” See the Peculiar Institution as Never Before! All Cut from Black Paper by the Able Hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker, an Emancipated Negress and Leader in Her Cause (1997)10 scandalized great parts of the black community, particularly its elder constituents, who felt that Walker’s seemingly uncritical rehearsal of racial and racist stereotypes merely served to revive their demeaning power over African Americans for the gratification of white art dealers and audiences. As artist Betye Saar phrased it quite drastically, Walker was selling the black community “down the river” (qtd. in Shaw 115). 11 At a public lecture, an audience member demanded of Walker: “What about the feelings of black people who fought tooth and nail to halt the production of these kind 10 For a discussion of Walker’s art, cf., e.g., Shaw. 11 When Walker won the prestigious MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellowship in 1997, established artists and critics such as Betye Saar, Howardena Pindell, and Juliette Bowles publicly turned against Walker, charging her with making light of the horrors of slavery and conspiring with the white art establishment against the black community in her irreverent rehearsal of racial and racist stereotypes. Harvard University picked up on the discussion in 1998 by hosting the symposium Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke on the deployment of racial stereotypes. For more information on censorship launched against Walker, cf., e.g., the chapter “Censorship and Reception” in Shaw; Holtzman; as well as [Bowles]. This last article was at first published anonymously in the International Review of African American Art (14.3), but in reaction to a response letter by Walker, Bowles revealed her identity in a subsequent issue (IRAAA 15.2).

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of stereotypical images, and have contributed their lives to changing the world into such a place that you are free to do whatever you want? Those feelings don’t matter?” Walker responded: “Sure, the feelings matter, but my own feelings matter to me, too” (qtd. in Lott 87). While the questioner charges Walker with a breach of moral obligation to her community, her answer underlines the artist’s determination to relate to the past in ways unencumbered by the dictates of the black culture. Walker has not been alone in her unconventional interrogation of racial history and its role in shaping collective identity. Critic Shawn-Marie Garrett, for instance, points to a large-scale ‘return of the repressed’ legacy of minstrelsy in the late 1980s and continuing well through the 1990s in works like George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum (1986), Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1990), Robert Alexander’s I Ain’t Yo’ Uncle: The New Jack Revisionist Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1996), and Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000). As Garrett writes, “the best of this work [...] mocks liberal complacency. It is offensive, or, at best, strange and uncomfortable; it raids history and brings some of its deliberately forgotten scenes to light. It is painful and appalling. It is sometimes hilarious” (32). Yet, in playfully interrogating the representational legacy of nineteenth-century racial stereotypes, it does not aim for easy, moralistic answers (“black is beautiful, stereotypes are cruel and shameful, and whites are to blame” [Garrett 40]) but poses complex questions about definitions of blackness (and whiteness) as well as about racial memory and legacies and their relevance for contemporary individual and communal notions of blackness. Signifying on established tropes, narratives, and figures of the past— mostly in humorous, sometimes in irreverent ways—proves to be one of the main poetic techniques in these more recent narratives on slavery. In Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s definition, ‘Signifyin(g)’ presents a strategy of formal revision that repeats with a “signal difference” (xxiv), often a decidedly “black difference” (xiii), articulated in specific uses of language. While Gates relates this concept strictly to the operations of verbal language, it can be usefully extended to other media of signification as well, such as visual and performance language (cf. Snead). Thus, while Parks’ signature dramaturgy of ‘Rep and Rev’ (repetition and revision, cf. “Elements” 8) foregrounds the authorial deployment of homophones, metalepses, chiasms, metonymies, and allegories12—tropes that “luxuriate in the chaos of ambiguity that repetition and difference [...] yield in either an aural or a visual pun” (Gates 45)—Walker reworks the past in her ongoing refiguration of recurring leitmotifs (such as hoopskirts, shoes, feces, water, and birth imagery) and the construction of rich visual

12 For a discussion of various signifying techniques in Parks, cf. Saal, “Of Diggin’ and Fakin’.”


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allegories anchored in complex intertextual references.13 In repeating with a difference, these signifying practices revise and even reverse established master narratives and iconographies in the act of imitating them—in the process laying bare how power is constructed and maintained in and through verbal, visual, and bodily language and how it can hence also be deconstructed and refigured precisely via these media. Keith Obadike’s eBay performance of August 2001 illustrates the performative force of such signifying techniques quite concisely. Posting his blackness for sale on the digital platform,14 Obadike purposefully evokes the trope of the auction block and the commodification of black bodies but emerges from this particular transaction as “his own agent, a free man of color, willing to determine the worth of his blackness on the open market, unyoked by previous historical constraints even as he invokes history” (Elam 381). In this regard, Obadike’s signifying praxis, as well as that of his peers, effects, according to Harry J. Elam, Jr., not a move past the racial past but a move “past definitions of blackness that delimit creation or that necessitate certain artistic expectations” in order to “[explore] new racial meanings” (381). A second technique, and perhaps the key technique, in the interrogation of slavery and its narrative and visual legacies in this new work is the liberal amalgamation of fact and fiction. While the intermingling of historical fact and literary imagination is, at various degrees, undoubtedly at the heart of any historical representation—be that in literature, historiography, or the visual arts15—it is evident that the more recent narratives on slavery are marked by a heightened degree of postmnemonic imaginative investment. A comparison of Toni Morrison’s artistic interest in the past with that of Suzan-Lori Parks illustrates this shift in degree, which is arguably also a degree in quality, quite succinctly. Notably, both authors see themselves engaged in “a kind of literary archeology” (Morrison, “Site” 192). “On the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply,” Morrison explains: “What makes it fiction is the nature of the imaginative act: my reliance on the image – on the remains – in addition to recollection, to yield up a kind of truth” (“Site” 192). Morrison’s attachment to actual remains of the past is, in a way, exemplary of her generation’s “imaginative act” of engaging slavery. Just as the work of her peers, her writing remains anchored in concrete historical events (e.g., the Margaret Garner case in Beloved, the incident of a slave revolt led by a 13 For a discussion of signifying on leitmotifs as well as cultural, literary, and pictorial intertexts, cf. Vergne; Raymond. 14 eBay closed the auction due to the ‘inappropriateness’ of the item after twelve bids, at $152.50 (Obadike). 15 Cf. Lukács as well as Linda Hutcheon’s work on historiographic metafiction in part 2 of her A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988) and Hayden White’s work on “The Discourses of History” (1979) in this regard.

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young pregnant woman in Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose [1986]) or in the recollection of actual survivors (such as in Margaret Walker’s Jubilee [1966]). Though committed to drawing on the imagination in order to “fill in the blanks that the slave narratives left behind” (“Site” 193-94), Morrison also considers it her “single gravest responsibility (in spite of that magic) [...] not to lie” (“Site” 193). Not unlike Morrison, Parks, too, describes her task as a playwright in the language of archaeology: “locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down” (“Possession” 4). Her works are, in fact, populated with gravediggers (The Foundling Father and Brazil in The America Play, Billy Bead in Getting Mother’s Body) and resurrectionists (The Negro Resurrectionist in Venus, Lincoln in Topdog/Underdog), attempting to retrieve or revive real and imagined ancestors and inheritances. However, in contrast to Morrison, Parks makes clear that in digging for “remains” (Morrison, “Site” 192), her characters are more likely to recuperate not the actual bodies and bones but rather their various discursive reconstructions and mimetic replacements—a bust of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington’s wooden teeth (The America Play), the fetishistic construction of the body of the (Hottentot) Venus by the spectatorial gaze (Venus), the “epistemic violence” (Spivak 251) inflicted by stereotypical renditions of African Americans in American culture (The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World). While drawing on historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Saartje Baartman, Parks does not conceive of her work as history plays but sees them as addressing “the intersection of the historical and the now” (qtd. in Wetmore 134). What is at stake in her “imaginative act” (Morrison, “Site” 192) is not so much the recuperation of the actual past but the interrogation of the mythological shadows official and unofficial histories continue to cast on posterity, as so powerfully illustrated in her rendition of Lincoln and Booth’s ongoing quarrel with the Lincoln myth in Topdog/Underdog.16 Representational legacies are also foregrounded in Kara Walker’s approach to the past. As suggested by her elaborate installation titles (The Battle of Atlanta: Being the Narrative of a Negress in the Flames of Desire – A Reconstruction [1995], The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven [1995]), in examining the legacy of slavery, Walker draws on historical figures and events as well as on slave narratives, historical romance, minstrelsy, and even pornographic works alike. She ascribes this “collusion of fact and fiction” to her “overzealous imagination interfering in the basic facts of history,” so that her work starts as the “sincere attempt to write Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and wind[s] up with Mandingo instead” (qtd. in Armstrong 107). In contrast to Morrison, Walker seems to be more astutely aware of the political nature of filling in the blanks of past slave narratives. Working through slavery, for 16 For a discussion of the play with regard to the Lincoln mythology, cf., e.g., Foster.


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her, does not mean attempting to reconstruct that reality but taking into account the various narrative and visual discourses through which its legacy has been passed on (cf. Reid-Pharr 35). The overt “slapstick sensibility” (K. Walker, “Audio Program”) that marks much of her work is to highlight precisely this awareness of the intrinsic “collusion of fact and fiction” (Walker qtd. in Armstrong 107) in our reconstructions of the past, an awareness that can, according to Walker, be used to “explode a lot of the ideas about race and sexuality and all this identity business” (qtd. in Armstrong 104). In a similar vein, Jamaica Kincaid, in her novels Autobiography of My Mother (1995) and Mr. Potter (2002)—works that have largely been read autobiographically (cf. Bouson; Braziel)—suggests that it matters little to her whether an event in her family history actually happened or happened just like so. Rather, in liberally blending fact and fiction, she imagines genealogies and memories that bestow identity on people who have so far been of little or “no account” (Kincaid, Mr. Potter 121) in the established historical record. In this manner, she not only produces her own family history but, more importantly, also writes a black history of the Caribbean. Such a shift in literary archaeology from an interest in the resurrection and creative reconstruction of the actual “remains” (Morrison, “Site” 192) of the past to an interest in the creative reworking of the discursive and mimetic constructions of these remains suggests that the imaginative investment in the past pursues a very different political agenda in these more recent narratives of slavery. These narratives are not primarily interested in “yield[ing] up a kind of truth” about the past (Morrison’s project; “Site” 192) but rather in working out what we might call, in homage to Bertolt Brecht, ‘ein praktizierbares Geschichtsbild’—a workable rendition of the past.17 In view of this evidence, we might then speak of different artistic generations with regard to the reworking of slavery in twentieth- and twenty-first-century African American (if not black Atlantic) literature and art. I use the term ‘generation’ not in its biological denotation (i.e., as the neat succession of actual survivors of trauma, their children, and their grandchildren), as is the case in Holocaust and World War II studies, from which the term is borrowed (cf. Hirsch; Suleiman). Nor do I deploy it in a narrowly sociological sense, as in Karl Mannheim’s notion of an age cohort sharing a formative historical experience. Rather, the term ‘artistic generation’ is to emphasize shifts in general attitude and in poetic praxis in approaching the trauma of slavery. Such gradual shifts can also entail the coexistence and overlap of second- and third-generation approaches for a period of time. Introducing the concept of an artistic generation to the vast body of African American literature enables us to discern three, rather than merely 17 I here take up Brecht’s notion of a “praktikables Weltbild,” which he seeks to produce via various strategies of defamiliarization (414).

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two, distinctive phases in literary and visual narratives on slavery over the course of the past 250 years.18 This involves a first phase of documenting the experience of slavery and bearing witness to trauma in the original slave narratives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries 19 and a second phase of rendering, in the neo-slave narratives of the 1970s and ’80s, the trauma on a transgenerational and collective level through the postmnemonic imaginative investment of the arts. However, the more recent narratives of slavery20 emerging, above all, in the 1990s point to the formation of a third generation. Largely devoid of emotional involvement and moral judgment, they approach the past with a heightened imaginative investment marked by the liberal collusion of fact and fiction, on the one hand, and the playful signifying on established tropes and narratives of the past, on the other hand, with the help of which they seek to lay bare the discursive constructions of slavery and enable new discourses of the past conducive to the formation of posttraumatic subjectivities. I consider this performative, poetic negotiation of the past, which I wish to describe with the term historiopoiesis, the distinguishing characteristic of a thirdgeneration approach to slavery.

Historiopoiesis, the Postmodern, and Post-Soul The new stance toward traumatic history has been significantly shaped by the narrative turn, marking the critical debates over historiography in the fields of history and literature during the height of postmodernism. Returning to the narrative basis of historiography, historians like Reinhart Koselleck, F. R. Ankersmit, and Hayden White have foregrounded the textual nature of our access to the past. “[F]acts have no reality outside language,” White insists (“Postmodernism” 313), pointing out that the narrative emplotment and troping of historical events (or ‘storytelling,’ as he calls it [“Storytelling”]) continues to be the preferred mode of relaying 18 With the terms ‘neoslave narrative’ (Bell) and ‘neo-slave narrative’ (Rushdy), Bernard W. Bell and Ashraf H. A. Rushdy identify one major paradigm shift in African American literature on slavery. For them, the neo-slave narratives present “modern narratives of escape from bondage to freedom” (Bell 289; emphasis mine) or “contemporary novels that assume the form, adopt the conventions, and take on the first-person voice of the antebellum slave narrative” (Rushdy 3; emphasis mine). When Keizer speaks of “contemporary narratives of slavery” (Black Subjects 2), she does so not in order to indicate a new development but rather in order to open up Bell’s and Rushdy’s concepts to the thematic breadth, generic hybridity, and diasporic reach of contemporary concerns with slavery. 19 For a problematization of the notion of authenticity in slave narratives, cf. Sekora. 20 With the phrase “more recent narratives of slavery,” I slightly modify Arlene Keizer’s term “contemporary narratives of slavery” (Black Subjects 2) in order to differentiate the more recent praxis (since the 1990s) from that of the neo-slave narratives of the 1970s and ’80s, which Keizer includes in her larger umbrella term.


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history. Koselleck speaks in this regard of the ‘fiction of the factual’ (“Fiktion des Faktischen”; Koselleck 153), underlining the generic affinity between the historian and the ‘narrator of literary (hi)stories’ (“literarischer Geschichtenerzähler”; Koselleck 153). White even claims that “there is no substantial difference between representations of historical reality and representations of imagined events and processes” and that (post)modern literature might, in the end, be “more ‘objective’ than historical writing [...] insofar as it features its own modes of production as elements of its ‘contents,’” thereby avoiding to assume the mask of ideology (“Postmodernism” 313). More than that, any ethical impulse in the rendering of history (both literary and academic) needs to be nourished by the “productive imagination”; only then can we “get from contemplation of what is the case to a decision about what I should do” (Preface xi). Literature, so White surmises in the spirit of Aristotle, might, after all, be the more vivid medium for rendering history as the process of “human selfmaking” (Preface xi). The “mutual belonging” (Ricoeur 274) of history and literature has been further established by a number of other critics, most prominently Paul Ricoeur, Dominick LaCapra, and Linda Hutcheon. Especially Hutcheon shows how postmodern fiction has increasingly challenged the separation of the literary and the historical in the form of ‘historiographic metafiction.’ According to her, historiographic metafiction signals “the discursive nature of all reference—both literary and historiographical” (Poetics 119). In this manner, it sets out to “de-doxif[y] received notions about the process of representing the actual in narrative,” underlining that “like fiction, history constructs its object” (Politics 75). Hutcheon includes various examples from black literature in her study of historiographic metafiction in postmodern literature. Yet, as bell hooks cautions us, blackness stands in a rather fraught relation to postmodern thought, since the latter’s antiessentialist stance entails a critique of identity “at a historical moment when many subjugated people feel themselves coming to voice for the first time” (28). 21 Timothy Spaulding as well as Madhu Dubey underscore, in a similar vein, that the metafictional black novel that began to emerge in the 1970s constitutes a “distinctly African American form of postmodernism” (Spaulding 3), for “even as it challenges accepted methods of historical representation, it remains strongly attached to the task of historical reconstitution, thereby withstanding the wider postmodern drift toward referential indeterminacy” (Dubey 783). Even the more ‘speculative fiction of slavery’ (Dubey’s term), such as Mor21 While hooks sympathizes with black theory’s reluctance to contribute to postmodern critiques of identity, she also concludes that “[t]he critique of essentialism encouraged by postmodern thought is useful for African-Americans concerned with reformulating outmoded notions of identity. We have too long had imposed upon us from both the outside and the inside a narrow, constricting notion of blackness” (28).

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rison’s Beloved or Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), remains firmly anchored in some notion of truth about the past, even as it redefines ‘truth’ as “know[ing] the past as something other or more than history” (Dubey 780). The explicit disinterest in truth claims of any kind that is evident in the works of Parks, Kincaid, and Walker, however, does not fall within the purview of Spaulding’s or Dubey’s “distinctly African American” form of postmodern historiographic metafiction. Nor can Hutcheon’s concept of historiographic metafiction fully grasp the performative dimension of historiopoiesis in third-generation narratives, even as it gestures toward the possibility of fresh historiographic production in allowing for the discursive modification of the textualized traces of the past, so that the past might be known differently (Poetics 127). While artists like Parks and Kincaid, even Walker, are without doubt indebted to the postmodern project of laying bare the discursive constructions of history, they also move beyond it in significant ways. Their primary interest is not in challenging the epistemological basis of our knowledge of the past (Hutcheon, Politics 68). Rather, taking their cue from postmodernism’s insight into the textuality of history, they insist that if an event becomes a historical fact by being “named” (Hutcheon, Politics 75), then art can accomplish such illocutionary acts just as well as conventional historiography. In this regard, these artists boldly extend J. L. Austin’s speech act theory to the field of the narrative arts. While Austin denied language used on stage, in a poem, or in any other “such circumstances” the performative force to bring about what it says, considering it “used not seriously” (22), the artists of the third generation seem quite serious about the work their playful engagements with history are to accomplish. 22 Parks considers theater an “incubator for the creation of historical events,” insisting that “as in the case of artificial insemination, the baby is no less human” (“Possession” 5; cf. also Subotnick). In short, if postmodern theory, along with historiographic metafiction, has alerted us to the discursive basis of historical knowledge, then thirdgeneration artists redirect our attention to the uses to which such an understanding of history can be put by the poet-historian. Parks demonstrates this quite succinctly in her play Imperceptible Mutabilities of the Third Kingdom with the character of Aretha Saxon, a belatedly emancipated black woman. Fed up with being misrepresented by the official record in writing and image, she takes hold of the photographic apparatus to establish her own historical record. Reversing the terms of epistemological relations between herself and her former master, Charles Saxon, she now takes his picture:

22 Critics like Jacques Derrida and J. Hillis Miller have also contested Austin’s restrictions on literature.


Ilka Saal ARETHA. Dont care what you say you done, Charles. We’re makin us uh histironical amendment here, K? Give us uh smile. Uh big smile for thuh book. CHARLES. Historical. An “Historical Amendment,” Ma’am. [...] ARETHA. Smile! Smile! SMILE!! There. Thats nice. CHARLES. They’re crying. ARETHA. Dont matter none. Dont matter none at all. You say its uh cry I say its uh smile. These photographics is for my scrapbook. Scraps uh graphy for my book. Smile or no smile mm gonna remember you. Mm gonna remember you grinnin. (53-54)

I see this radical, performative appropriation of the media and of signifiers of historiographic discourse at the heart of a historiopoetic praxis. Moreover, Parks, Walker, Kincaid, and Obadike’s stance on black history bespeaks the attitude of a generation of artists that scholar Nelson George has dubbed “post-soul” (xi) and that, more recently, journalist-critic Touré, in homage to Thelma Golden and Glenn Ligon’s original coinage of the term, has called ‘post-black.’23 Both terms designate African Americans’ coming-of-age in a post-integration society, quite literally “the children of Martin Luther King’s ‘dream’” (Ashe x). Just as the generation of their predecessors had been influenced by a convergence of various sociocultural and political factors (e.g., the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the establishment of black studies programs at universities, the rise of New Left social histories),24 so this generation, too, has been enabled by a confluence of events and attitudes. Mark Anthony Neal, for instance, points to “the change from urban industrialism to deindustrialism, from segregation to desegregation” as well as to the one “from essential notions of blackness to metanarratives on blackness” (3), which marked the post-integration society of the late 1970s and ’80s. Touré stresses this generation’s unprecedented access to educational and professional opportunities (20), while writer Trey Ellis speaks of the formation of a new black aesthetic sensibility (which he dubs ‘NBA’), formed across racial and class lines and marked by the effortless assimilation of the codes of formerly disparate social and cultural spheres in a highly mobile and flexible ‘cultural mulattoism’ (234-35).

23 Taking up the term from art curator Thelma Golden and artist Glenn Ligon, who first coined the attribute in reference to what they diagnosed as a new tendency in black art, i.e., “artists who were adamant about not being labeled as ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness” (Golden 14), Touré expands it on the basis of his interview series with numerous black intellectuals, artists, and entertainers to designate a larger cultural phenomenon (similar to ‘post-soul’), evident not only in the arts but also in popular entertainment and academic criticism. 24 Cf. Rushdy for sociocultural vectors that influenced the emergence of a neo-slave generation.

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The third generation of artists dealing with slavery is very much influenced by these sociocultural developments. Given the radical opening-up of social and artistic possibilities—and, with it, of experience—for African Americans in post-integration society, it is not surprising that emerging artists have repeatedly expressed their frustration with the persistence of delimiting definitions of blackness, particularly in the field of arts (cf. Parks, “Equation”; Walker qtd. in Armstrong 104). Feeling stifled by their parent generation’s insistence on the formative power of a sense of trauma along with its accompanying injunction always to present a unitary and positive image of blackness, they have sought to challenge prescriptive notions of identity and art formulated by their predecessors, foremost during the Black Power and Black Arts movements, in order to liberate their own contemporary interpretations of what it means to be black and what it means to be a black artist (Neal 3). One of their primary bones of contention is what critic Derek Conrad Murray calls the “dogmatic transference” of trauma narratives of victimization and survivorship (qtd. in Touré 22). This is precisely where the work of third-generation artists on slavery sets in. Clearly, for artists like Parks, Walker, Kincaid, and Obadike, the long history of slavery still matters, but it no longer presents an unalterable doctrine. Their goal is to refigure it in such ways that posttraumatic identities can emerge.25 As Parks formulates it quite provocatively: “The Klan does not always have to be outside the door for Black people to have lives worthy of dramatic literature” (“Equation” 19).26 In signifying on established tropes, icons, narrative structures, and discourses and in playfully merging fact and fiction, these third-generation artists effectively lay bare what Hortense Spillers calls the “primarily discursive” construction of slavery (29). Reopening “slavery’s closure,” they hurtle their audiences forward into what she describes as “the dizzying motions of a symbolic enterprise, and it becomes increasingly clear that the cultural synthesis we call ‘slavery’ was never homogeneous in its practices and conceptions, nor unitary in the faces it has yielded” (29). An awareness of such heterogeneity effectively demythologizes the link between blackness and slavery that for many previous generations was considered constitutive of black identity (Eyerman 61). What we see at play, then, in these works is what Spillers would call an insurgent act of overthrowing “‘slavery’ as the privileged text of Afro-American historical movement” (48) and of decentralizing its defining position for black identity. 25 Arguably, contemporary African American writing shares this desire with other ‘third-generation’ literatures, such as Jewish American literature, but also German literature (cf., e.g., Codde; Lensen). 26 Cf. Kenneth Warren’s influential argument that the very premise of African American literature ceased to collapse in the post-segregation era. He proposes the term “literature of identity” (107) rather than African American literature to mark the writing that has emerged since the late 1980s and the 1990s.


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The point in doing so is to open up a space where identities can be constructed and performed independent of a definitive relation to trauma narratives of the past. It is in this regard that the politics of historiopoiesis are entangled with post-soul or post-black identity politics. As Wahneema Lubiano pointedly explains: “Post-Black is what it looks like when you’re no longer caught by your own trauma about racism and the history of Black people in the United States. Then everything is up for grabs as a possibility. [...] You get to use something that produced all that trauma and do something else with it” (qtd. in Touré 21-22). Then the primary task of a postsoul or post-black culture becomes “to identify and explore African America’s vast, complex, multihued field of blackness,” Bertram D. Ashe suggests (xxiv). Given its crucial role in enabling such exploration, historiopoiesis in black literature might also answer bell hooks’s call for a “[r]adical postmodern practice” (25) that recognizes the significance of the African American past while also affirming the possibility for “multiple black identities [and] varied black experience” (28). The histories produced by today’s historiopoets are, in this regard, not just “just as good as the real thing” but maybe even better.

Works Cited Alexander, Robert. I Ain’t Yo’ Uncle: The New Jack Revisionist Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Woodstock: Dramatic, 1996. Print. Ankersmit, F. R. “Historiography and Postmodernism.” History and Theory 28.2 (1989): 137-53. Print. Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. New York: Hill, 1961. Print. Armstrong, Elizabeth. “Kara Walker Interviewed by Liz Armstrong 7/23/96.” No Place (like Home). Ed. Armstrong et al. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1997. 10213. Print. Ashe, Bertram D. Foreword. Platitudes and “The New Black Aesthetic.” By Trey Ellis. Boston: Northeastern UP, 2003. vii-xxvi. Print. Assmann, Aleida. “Canon and Archive.” A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies. Ed. Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010. 97-107. Print. Assmann, Jan. Das kulturelle Gedächtnis: Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen. München: Beck, 1997. Print. Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975. Print. Bamboozled. Dir. Spike Lee. New Line, 2000. Film. Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1987. Print. Bernier, Celeste-Marie. African American Visual Arts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2008. Bouson, J. Brooks. Jamaica Kincaid: Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother. Albany: State U of New York P, 2005. Print. [Bowles, Juliette]. “Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroes.” International Review of African American Art 14.3 (1997): 2-15. Print. Braziel, Jana Evans. Caribbean Genesis: Jamaica Kincaid and the Writing of New Worlds. Albany: State U of New York P, 2009. Print.

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Brecht, Bertolt. “Über das experimentelle Theater.” Ausgewählte Werke in sechs Bänden, Vol. 6. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997. 403-21. Print. Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. New York: Doubleday, 1979. Print. Byerman, Keith. Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005. Print. Calame, Claude. Poetic and Performative Memory in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009. Print. Chaudhuri, Una. Rev. of Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks. Theatre Journal 54.2 (2002): 289-91. Print. Codde, Philippe. “Postmemory, Afterimages, Transferred Loss: First and Third Generation Holocaust Trauma in American Literature and Film.” The Holocaust, Art, and Taboo: Transatlantic Exchanges on the Ethics and Aesthetics of Representation. Ed. Sophia Komor and Susanne Rohr. Heidelberg: Winter, 2010. 63-74. Print. D’Aguiar, Fred. “The Last Essay about Slavery.” The Age of Anxiety. Ed. Sarah Dunant and Roy Porter. London: Virago, 1997. 125-47. Print. Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.” Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982. 307-30. Print. Dubey, Madhu. “Speculative Fictions of Slavery.” American Literature 82.4 (2010): 779-805. Print. Elam, Harry J., Jr. “Change Clothes and Go: A Postscript to Postblackness.” Black Cultural Traffic: Crossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture. Ed. Harry J. Elam, Jr., and Kennell Jackson. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2005. 379-88. Print. Ellis, Trey. “The New Black Aesthetic.” Callaloo 12.1 (1989): 233-43. Print. Erll, Astrid. Memory in Culture. Trans. Sara B. Young. New York: Macmillan, 2011. Print. Eyerman, Ron. “Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity.” Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. Ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander et al. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004. 60-111. Print. Foster, Verna. “Suzan-Lori Parks’s Staging of the Lincoln Myth in The America Play and Topdog/Underdog.” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 17.3 (2005): 24-35. Print. Garrett, Shawn-Marie. “Return of the Repressed.” Theater 32.2 (2002): 27-43. Print. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988. Print. George, Nelson. Buppies, B-Boys, Baps and Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture. New York: Harper, 1994. Print. Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993. Print. Glissant, Édouard. “The Known, The Uncertain.” Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Trans. J. Michael Dash. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1999. 13-95. Print. Golden, Thelma. Introduction. Freestyle. New York: Studio Museum of Harlem, 2001. 14-16. Print. Haley, Alex. Roots: The Saga of an American Family. New York: Doubleday, 1976. Print. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philosophy of History. New York: Cosimo, 2007. Print. Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.


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Holtzman, Dinah. “‘Save the Trauma for Your Mama’: Kara Walker, the Art World’s Beloved.” Les Carnets du Cerpac 6 (2007): 377-404. Print. hooks, bell. “Postmodern Blackness.” Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End, 1990, 23-31. Print. Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988. Print. ---. The Politics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print. Jellerson, Donald. “The Spectral Historiopoetics of the Mirror for Magistrates.” Journal of the Northern Renaissance 2 (2010): n. pag. Web. 14 May 2014. Keizer, Arlene R. Black Subjects: Identity Formation in the Contemporary Narrative of Slavery. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004. Print. ---. “Gone Astray in the Flesh: Kara Walker, Black Women Writers, and African American Postmemory.” PMLA 123.5 (2008): 1649-72. Print. Kincaid, Jamaica. The Autobiography of My Mother. New York: Farrar, 1995. Print. ---. Mr. Potter. New York: Farrar, 2002. Print. Koenen, Anne. “Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Ghost of Slavery.” Beloved, She’s Mine: Essais sur Beloved de Toni Morrison. Ed. Geneviève Fabre. Paris: Cetanla, 1993. 53-66. Print. Koselleck, Reinhart. Vergangene Zukunft: Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985. Print. LaCapra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. Print. Lensen, Jan. “Perpetrators and Victims: Third-Generation Perspectives on the Second World War in Marcel Beyer’s Flughunde and Erwin Mortier’s Marcel.” Comparative Literature 65.4 (2013): 450-65. Print. Lott, Tommy. “Kara Walker Speaks: A Public Conversation on Racism, Art, and Politics with Tommy Lott.” Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire 3.1 (2000): 69-91. Print. Lukács, Georg. Der historische Roman. Berlin: Aufbau, 1955. Print. Mannheim, Karl. “The Problem of Generations.” Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. Ed. Paul Kecskemeti. New York: Routledge, 1998. 276-320. Print. Vol. 5 of Collected Works. Miller, J. Hillis. Speech Acts in Literature. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001. Print. Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987. Print. ---. “The Site of Memory.” Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Ed. William Zinsser. New York: Houghton, 1998. 185-200. Print. Neal, Mark Anthony. Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print. Obadike, Keith. “Keith Obadike’s Blackness.” Mendi and Keith Obadike. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 May 2014. . Parks, Suzan-Lori. The America Play. Parks, America Play and Other Works 157-99. ---. The America Play and Other Works. New York: Theatre Communications, 1995. Print. ---. The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. Parks, America Play and Other Works 99-131. ---. “Elements of Style.” Parks, America Play and Other Works 6-18. ---. “An Equation for Black People Onstage.” Parks, America Play and Other Works 1922. ---. Getting Mother’s Body. New York: Harper, 2003. Print. ---. Imperceptible Mutabilities of the Third Kingdom. Parks, America Play and Other Works 23-71.

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---. In the Blood. The Red Letter Plays. New York: Theatre Communications, 2001. 1110. Print. ---. “Possession.” Parks, America Play and Other Works 3-5. ---. Topdog/Underdog. New York: Theatre Communications, 2001. Print. ---. Venus. New York: Theatre Communications, 1997. Print. Pearce, Michele. “Alien Nation: An Interview with the Playwright.” American Theatre Mar. 1994: 26-27. Print. Purk, Antonia. “Writing Possibilities of the Past: Jamaica Kincaid’s Mr. Potter.” Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 36.1 (2014): 71-86. Print. Raymond, Yasmil. “Maladies of Power: A Kara Walker Lexicon.” Vergne, Kara Walker 347-69. Reid-Pharr, Robert F. “Black Girl Lost.” Kara Walker: Pictures from Another Time. Ed. Annette Dixon. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2002. 27-41. Print. Ricoeur, Paul. “The Narrative Function.” Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981, 274-96. Print. Ringgold, Faith. Slave Rape Series. 1972-73. Oil on canvas. Private collection. ---. Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima. 1983. Acrylic on canvas, dyed, painted, and pieced fabric. Private collection. Roots. Dir. Marvin J. Chomsky et al. ABC, 23-30 Jan. 1977. Television. Rowell, Charles H. “Poetry, History, and Humanism: An Interview with Margaret Walker.” Conversations with Margaret Walker. Ed. Maryemma Graham. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2002. 19-31. Print. Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of Literary Form. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print. Saal, Ilka. “Of Diggin’ and Fakin’: Historiopoiesis in Suzan-Lori Parks and Contemporary African American Culture.” African American Culture and Society Post-Rodney King: Provocations and Protests, Progression and ‘PostRacialism.’ Ed. Josephine Metcalf and Carina Spaulding. Farnham: Ashgate, forthcoming. Print. ---. “Suzan-Lori Parks.” The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary American Playwrights. Ed. Martin Middeke et al. London: Methuen, 2013. 243-60. Print. Saar, Betye. The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. 1972. Mixed media assemblage. Private collection. Sekora, John. “Black Message/White Envelope: Genre, Authenticity, and Authority in the Antebellum Slave Narrative.” Callaloo 32 (1987): 482-515. Print. Shaw, Gwendolyn Dubois. Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print. Snead, James A. “Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture.” Black Literature and Literary Theory. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Routledge, 1984. 59-79. Print. Spaulding, A. Timothy. Re-Forming the Past: History, the Fantastic, and the Postmodern Slave Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2005. Print. Spillers, Hortense J. “Changing the Letter: The Yokes, the Jokes of Discourse, or, Mrs. Stowe, Mr. Reed.” Slavery and the Literary Imagination. Ed. Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987, 25-61. Print. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 243-61. Print. Styron, William. The Confessions of Nat Turner. New York: Random, 1967. Print. Subotnick, Ali. “Kara Walker.” Spec. issue of Make 92 (2002): 25-27. Print.


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Suleiman, Susan Rubin. “The 1.5 Generation: Thinking about Child Survivors and the Holocaust.” American Imago 59.3 (2002): 277-95. Print. Touré. Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now. New York: Free, 2011. Print. Vergne, Philippe. “The Black Saint Is the Sinner Lady.” Vergne, Kara Walker 7-25. ---, ed. Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2007. Print. Walker, Kara. “Audio Program Excerpt: Contemporary Art from the Collection, June 30, 2010-May 9, 2011.” MoMA: Kara Walker: Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. Museum of Modern Art, n.d. Web. 7 May 2014. . ---. The Battle of Atlanta: Being the Narrative of a Negress in the Flames of Desire – A Reconstruction. 1995. Cut paper on wall. Sikkema Jenkins, New York. ---. The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven. 1995. Cut paper on wall. Collection of Jeffrey Deitch. ---. Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. 1994. Cut paper on wall. Collection of Yvonne Force. ---. Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a Grand and Lifelike Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern Slavery or “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (Sketches from Plantation Life)” See the Peculiar Institution as Never Before! All Cut from Black Paper by the Able Hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker, an Emancipated Negress and Leader in Her Cause. 1997. Cut paper on wall. Collections of Peter Norton and Eileen Harris Norton. Walker, Margaret. Jubilee. Boston: Houghton, 1966. Print. Warren, Kenneth W. What Was African American Literature? Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011. Print. Wetmore, Kevin J., Jr. “It’s an Oberammergau Thing: An Interview with Suzan-Lori Parks.” Suzan-Lori Parks: A Casebook. Ed. Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr., and Alycia Smith-Howard. New York: Routledge, 2007. 124-40. Print. White, Hayden. “The Discourse of History.” White, Fiction 187-202. ---. The Fiction of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature, and Theory, 1957-2007. Ed. Robert Doran. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP 2010. Print. ---. “Postmodernism and Textual Aesthetics.” White, Fiction 304-17. ---. Preface. White, Fiction ix-xi. ---. “Storytelling: Historical and Ideological.” White, Fiction 273-92. Williams, Sherley Anne. “Author’s Note.” Williams, Dessa Rose 5-6. ---. Dessa Rose. New York: Harper, 1999. Print. Wolfe, George C. The Colored Museum. New York: Methuen, 1987. Print.


“Inherently Political”: Rancièrian Philosophy and Language Writing Abstract: This article examines both theoretical and poetic writings by several ‘Language’ authors in the context of Jacques Rancière’s concept of the ‘distribution of the sensible,’ which is central to his conceptualization of a political aesthetic. Such an examination is necessary since previous studies on Language writing have not provided a sufficient account of its political character, placing it in very limited philosophical contexts. In particular, this article problematizes the interpretation of Language poetry as ideology critique in the vein of Louis Althusser. Furthermore, it is argued that Rancièrian theory provides a better framework for understanding the political aspects of Language authors’ work. To do so, this article discusses several essays from The Politics of Poetic Form and performs a close reading of two recent poems by Rae Armantrout and Charles Bernstein, which will demonstrate how the Rancièrian apparatus can be instrumental in discussing the poets’ exploration of writing as a political activity.

‘Language writing’ is a functional albeit somewhat misleading term that has been used to collectively denote the work of a number of writers emerging on the American literary scene in the early 1970s, including Bruce Andrews, Rae Armantrout, Charles Bernstein, Abigail Child, Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Susan Howe, Harryette Mullen, Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, and others. Despite having collaborated successfully on numerous projects, the authors grouped under this category exhibit significant divergences in poetic method and style as well as (perhaps less so) in their theoretical preoccupations, which often leads critics to start discussions of Language writing with a disclaimer acknowledging individual stylistic differences between the members of the group. However, the fact that these differences are quite tangible does not invalidate a view of Language as an intersection of individual endeavors that intervene importantly into the poetic and philosophical dialogues of contemporaneity—endeavors by no means reducible to the “linguistic turn” (Aji 342). Apart from their highly innovative poetry, the authors considered here have produced a number of critical essays that contain valuable insights on literature, politics, and society. Theorizations of the political value of writing figure prominently in these programmatic texts, which the scholars of Language poetry often rely on for an interpretative metalanguage—probably the main reason why “Language writing has been repeatedly characterized in terms of its political contours” (Arnold 7). However, the predominant context for discussing this political aspect of


Olesya Bondarenko

Language writing has been that of select Marxist and poststructuralist categories (such as ‘ideology critique’ or ‘critique of the subject’), obscuring what could be one of the most fascinating aspects of these authors’ intellectual legacy (cf. Hartley; Perloff, “Language Poetry”). In what follows, I argue that some of the positions articulated by Language authors and informing their poetic practice from the 1970s on cannot be sufficiently explained in terms of either the “poststructural work of the late sixties and seventies” (McGann 626) or the Althusserian brand of Marxism (cf. Hartley) since they anticipate the more contemporary philosophical reflections on the nature of political art and the role of the writing subject. Several of the more recent studies on Language writing state that the existing accounts of its political engagement as ideology critique are reductive and do not reflect the complexity of the phenomenon (Arnold 3; Nealon 149), which calls for a revisiting of the group’s philosophical affiliations. Specifically, I will consider possible affinities between Language writing and the philosophy of Jacques Rancière, whose seminal work informs the ongoing debate on the relation between the political and the aesthetic. This will help to address the above-mentioned limitations within previous scholarship as well as propose a way of reading Language poetry that does not privilege its ability to serve as a critique over its affirmation of complex philosophical and political meanings. Such a way of reading will also focus more on specific texts and their respective agendas instead of reducing them to subversive effects on a metapoetic level, which critics like Peter Middleton and Charles Altieri already have convincingly argued against. This article will start with a brief discussion of the political as a dynamic philosophical concept in order to explicate its role in the debate surrounding poetry’s functions in society. It will then recapitulate some of the tenets of Rancièrian theory regarding the politics/aesthetics relation and compare them to the corresponding positions articulated in The Politics of Poetic Form, a major anthology of critical essays by Language authors edited by Charles Bernstein. These essays constitute an important part of their oeuvre and, as has been argued, should not be regarded as secondary to the poetic texts (Stephens 16). The article will then proceed to the interpretation of specific poems by Rae Armantrout and Charles Bernstein in an attempt to demonstrate how the Rancièrian framework of the ‘distribution of the sensible’ allows for a more productive reading of Language poetry and its political engagement than ideology critique.

On the Problem of the Political in Literature Before any attempt to address Language writing’s political engagement can be made, it is necessary to lay out some of the considerations for approaching the problem of political literature and to clarify the use of the terms

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‘politics’ and ‘political.’ As has been discussed by a number of scholars, there exists a split within the category of politics (cf. Mouffe; Palonen; Raynaud), which, in my view, has a certain bearing on discussions of political literature and socially committed art in general. Without going into the genealogy of this split, it should be noted that a distinction is in place between ‘politics’ understood as a sphere of human activity and the ‘political’ as a broader concept “distinguished from everyday politics” (Raynaud 804). Unlike ‘politics,’ which is traditionally the object of political science, the ‘political’ belongs to the realm of philosophy (Mouffe 8), although both terms, of course, have been used interchangeably (as in the instance of the expression ‘textual politics’). The ‘political’ as a dynamic philosophical concept is subject to ongoing reconceptualizations; likewise, in literary studies, it has been used in vastly different meanings since there is no agreement as to how literature should partake in politics. However, a certain misunderstanding of the problem of political literature still remains, which appears to stem from the opposition between ‘politics’ and the ‘political’ outlined above: For some, the political value of writing can only be justified if it directly effects change in society or influences public decision making. An objection against this line of thinking can be found both in the theories of Jacques Rancière and in the understanding of political poetry by Language authors, which will be expounded on later. In fact, both Rancière and the group of poets whose works are examined here explicitly reject the idea that literature can have any immediate impact upon political reality, although they insist on the political nature of textual practices. The social effects of writing are by necessity multiple and various and cannot be limited to a single idea of the political work it should perform. A philosopher and a prominent scholar of Rancièrian theory, Gabriel Rockhill takes this idea one step further when he argues that any attempts to define the relation of the political and the aesthetic are inherently problematic, as they rest on the assumption that it is possible to finally determine the ‘being’ of art and politics. Instead of searching for a “privileged meeting ground” of these two supposedly distinct spheres of life, Rockhill claims, it might be more fruitful to consider the various and complex political effects artworks as social objects can produce (“Critique”). It is in this vein that I propose to view Language writing—instead of ascribing a certain politics to this heterogeneous body of texts, I aim to consider how the multiplicity of the political in literature has been explored both in theoretical and in poetic works of select Language authors. It is the Rancièrian thinking of the political/aesthetic that seems to lend itself best to such a consideration, and thus it needs to be discussed in more detail.


Olesya Bondarenko

Jacques Rancière and the Distribution of the Sensible Jacques Rancière, one of the most prominent present-day thinkers, has written on subjects as diverse as history, education, politics, art, and many others. Theorizations of the political/aesthetic relation contained in Rancière’s books The Politics of Aesthetics (2004) and Dissensus (2010) constitute an important part of his philosophy. It is necessary to first provide some background on how the political is posited in the works of the French philosopher. One of the key concepts in Rancièrian thought (which has been eagerly picked up by many art theorists) is that of the distribution of the sensible, which describes a particular order of perception and experience that dominates society at a given time. The ‘sensible’ is construed in the broadest meaning—including but not limited to that which is visible, thinkable, and sayable under a certain social configuration. It should be differentiated from categories like ‘ideology’—in fact, Rancière argues against the Althusserian notion of ideological interpellation. For him, the main problem is not the repressive ideological forces but an established way of perceiving the world that makes certain things obvious or, conversely, unnoticeable (Dissensus 37). Politics, according to Rancière, is the activity whereby subjects participate in the reconfiguration of the sensible, pushing on the limits of the possible—as in the many instances of struggle for political rights, when a repartitioning of the common world is in order. Politics performs the intervention into the visible and the sayable through the process of dissensus (another important category); the dissensual activity of politics in Rancièrian vocabulary is opposed to that of ‘police,’ which holds the present social configuration in place, preventing it from being modified. It is on such an understanding of politics that Rancière grounds his account of the relation between the political and the aesthetic. Traditionally, these have been viewed as two distinct realities having little to do with one another, which Rancière argues against. His radical gesture consists in equating the political and the aesthetic on the basis of the category of the sensible—as politics (in the emancipatory sense) pushes on the limits of what is thinkable and sayable and who can be the subject of speech, so does art, which constantly shifts our perception of the common world. One of the major landmarks of Rancière’s thought is the intuition that art and politics are, in actuality, consubstantial—that is, that they share the same reality as spheres of experience or parts of the ‘heterogeneous sensible.’ Thus, for him, art is “inherently political [...] insofar as it acts as a potential meeting ground between a configuration of the sensible world and the possible reconfigurations thereof,” as Rockhill states (“Politics” 200). This, in turn, leads to another striking conclusion: If all art participates in the process of the redistribution of the sensible, then what has been regarded as political art loses any privileged place it previously occupied due

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to its perceived ability to effect social change. In Dissensus, the notion of politically engaged art comes under sharp criticism: According to Rancière, the idea of critical art is inherently flawed as it “conflates the logic of aesthetic separation and the pedagogical logics of representational mediation and ethical immediacy” (142). Since it is impossible to determine whether or not a given work of art will have an effect on its audience, motivating it to act in ways that are deemed politically meaningful, engaged art does not perform any special political function that would fundamentally distinguish it from noncommitted artistic practices. Rancière argues that all art, whether or not it seeks to serve a social purpose, engages in politics by its own means: The notion of ‘art becoming life’ does not simply foster demiurgic projects of a ‘new life’. It also weaves a common temporality of art, which can be encapsulated in a simple formula: a new life needs a new art. ‘Pure’ art and ‘committed’ art, ‘fine’ art and ‘applied’ art, all equally partake of this temporality. (Dissensus 121)

Language Writing: Reflections on a Political Aesthetic Starting from the 1970s, the community known as Language poets has continued to explore numerous possibilities related to the politics of textual production. Interestingly, some of the lines of thinking present in their theoretical writing anticipate the idea of a political aesthetic outlined above. The group’s anthology of critical essays titled The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy (1990) begins with a preface by Charles Bernstein, in which he lays out key theoretical considerations concerning the topic and states that “the relation of aesthetics to politics needs to be explored anew to answer to the shifting aesthetic and political climates we find ourselves in, whoever we find ourselves to be” (vii). Already in these opening remarks, Bernstein indicates a dynamic connection between politics and art that cannot be fixed and limited to one way of political engagement. This idea is echoed in different ways in several essays in the collection. For instance, Jerome Rothenberg, who is not directly affiliated with the group but contributed to the anthology, in “Ethnopoetics and Politics / The Politics of Ethnopoetics” suggests a view of politics in poetry as a certain moot point, a space of undecidability that nevertheless requires actions and conceptualizations: The poets who live with language & remember the need to resist & remake feel whatever moves they make to be political & charged with meaning in the political sense. Time will determine if the politics are good or bad – if (as I would see it) they contribute to our liberation or our deeper entrapment, but that they are a politics is something I would choose never to deny. (1)


Olesya Bondarenko

Rothenberg’s statement asserts the inseparability of politics from any textual production and the inescapable contingency of any text’s political effect. The thesis of the inherently political nature of poetry serves as a fulcrum for most elaborations on the topic contained in the book; certainly, it can only be presumed if the politics of a given work are abstracted from its specific content. As the anthology’s title suggests, the authors seek to explore the ‘politics of poetic form’ as an alternative to “conventionally progressive literature” (a term ironically coined by Bruce Andrews [23]), that is, writing that is explicitly political in its subject matter and recognized as ‘politically engaged.’ There are numerous ways for writing to partake in politics, which Charles Bernstein mentions in his preface: Besides the politics of poetic form, they can include “the politics of the writing process, the politics of the reading process, [...] the politics of the market (publication, distribution), and the social politics of poetry (group/scene/community/individual and the relation of these to other institutions)” (vii). All of this amounts to saying that literature’s involvement in politics is inevitable; literature does not necessarily need to voice political opinions or aim at empowering the masses. This is quite similar to the line of argumentation used in Rancière’s Dissensus. Furthermore, in an essay titled “Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis,” Bruce Andrews voices concerns similar to those outlined in the previous section about the problematic nature of engaged leftist literature: Conventionally, radical dissent & ‘politics’ in writing would be measured in terms of communication & concrete effects on an audience. Which means either a direct effort at empowering or mobilizing – aimed at existing identities – or at the representation of outside conditions, usually in an issue-oriented way. Socalled ‘progressive lit’. The usual assumptions about unmediated communication, giving ‘voice’ to ‘individual’ ‘experience’, the transparency of the medium (language), the instrumentalizing of language, pluralism, etc. bedevil this project. (23)

Here, Andrews points to what Jacques Rancière will use as his primary argument against engaged art—the incalculability of any given artwork’s political impact on its readers and on society as a whole. His statement, though, specifically addresses literature and the complications that arise when authors try to achieve political effect through writing. The concerns about language and the distrust of its ability to successfully represent the world shared by Language poets are largely related to the specific political and historical context in which they form. Rae Armantrout recapitulates this context in an interview: “We’re baby-boomers who grew up in the era of Vietnam and Watergate. We grew up skeptical. We don’t think language is a clear window through which the world can be presented. Or, if language is a window, we’ve learned that it’s best to examine the glass and the frame” (qtd. in “Chat”).

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It is precisely these concerns about the political misuse of language that motivate Armantrout, Andrews, and practically every other Language author to explore the problematic nature of referentiality in their works. They invest this exploration with distinctly political meaning: If language is what politics and literature share, then poetic interventions in language will amount to a disruption of the existing social order. The political effectivity of such an intervention is predicated on the “idea that thought advances in language and that the borders of the conceivable coincide with the frontiers of the sayable” (Aji 342). Poetry, then, has the most immediate relation to politics; such an approach anticipates the Rancièrian poetic-political consubstantiality, where language acts as an all-encompassing reality of social life—in Lyn Hejinian’s words: “Anything made of words—including a literary work—is socially constructed and socially constructing” (170). Although this linguocentric approach may seem to be in the spirit of poststructuralism, it effectively justifies something that may be less compatible with poststructuralist theory, namely the ability of a writing subject to intervene into the realm of the thinkable. Rather paradoxically perhaps, this idea in Language writing serves as a bridge between the belief in the totalizing power of language and the concept of the redistribution of the sensible, which is the true political process according to Rancière.

Althusser vs. Rancière, or, Against Ideology Critique The political readings of Language poetry have tended to center on its ability to function as ideology critique. In particular, this is the case in George Hartley’s Textual Politics and the Language Poets (1989), which remains a reference point for many scholars. In a chapter titled “Ideological Struggle and the Possibility of an Oppositional Poetic Practice,” the author, following Thomas E. Lewis, attempts to write the Derridean concept of dissemination into Louis Althusser’s account of ideological state apparatuses in order to justify the possibility of an oppositional poetic practice from within the Althusserian framework. It is rather symptomatic that Hartley has to draw on Derrida in order to prove his point; as he himself admits, “Marxism cannot afford to ignore the developments in contemporary theories of reading/writing” (27). In fact, it “cannot afford to ignore” them because the possibility of political engagement by an active subject who opposes herself to a dominant ideology is hardly compatible with Althusser’s theory of ideology. In asserting the possibility of such political agency, Hartley effectively goes beyond Althusser, although he claims to remain within his apparatus. Thus, since Althusser’s theory of ideology seems to be insufficient here, it could be useful to turn to later conceptualizations that are more in sync with the Language authors’ insistence on writing as political action as well as with the political and philosophical complexity of their texts.


Olesya Bondarenko

One such conceptualization, as has been discussed above, is the theory of Jacques Rancière, himself a student of Althusser who came to reject his account of ideology. As the author of Dissensus states in an interview, instead of following in his teacher’s footsteps, he opted for a “more favorable consideration of the value of the political and the linguistic games therein that, according to the Althusserian/Marxist model (and, indeed, with structuralism more generally), were to be treated as ideological artifacts” (Rancière and Panagia 114). In the same interview, Rancière distinguishes between two traditions of thought on language: One of them, as he points out, is the “‘critique,’” which he himself does not follow (Rancière and Panagia 114). It is within this tradition of “interpretive suspicion” that Language poetry has usually been inscribed; however, this ‘suspicion’ makes language an object of incessant scrutiny to the extent that it becomes, as Altieri puts it, “incapacitating” (307). The same goes for ‘dissemination’: If the Derridean concept adequately explains the processes at play in Language poetry, then how are we to deal with those texts that present us with instances of minimalistic description, autobiographical references, or demanding philosophical thought? In the last chapter of his book, Hartley recognizes the need for a reading that would not make Language poets seem as if they “act out of pure negativity” (76); still, this is not consistent with his attempts to discuss Language writing in Althusserian terms of ideology. The presupposition of the ability of the writing subject to act in political ways—that is, the presupposition of agency—connects Language poets to more recent philosophies, from Jacques Rancière to Judith Butler, that reassess the critique of ideology and reconsider the subject in favor of its political powers and the participatory equality of all subjects.

The Reconfiguration of the Sensible in Poems by Rae Armantrout and Charles Bernstein In order to further emphasize the need to start examining Language writing in more contemporary philosophical contexts, it is worth considering several poetic texts by Rae Armantrout and Charles Bernstein from their recent books—Just Saying and Recalculating, respectively. Armantrout has figured less often in those studies that discuss Language poetry as a collective phenomenon; some critics go as far as to claim that she does not fit into the Language category due to her minimalistic approach and attention to the objective world (Burt). However, such claims rest on the problematic assumption that all poets of the group share a common poetics, marked by complete disinterest in the material, the essence of which is supposed to be reflected in the term Language. Contrary to such claims, Armantrout’s poetic project intersects in important ways with the projects of other poets of the group; hence, there is no reason why she could not be considered in

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this common context, with due attention to what makes her unique as a poet and a thinker. Like other Language poets, Armantrout seeks to explore the various political effects that are produced by the process of writing. In the essay “Cheshire Poetics,” she makes an interesting analogy while discussing her poetic method: “This relation [between parts of a poem] is a vexed one. Does the part represent the whole? Is metaphor fair to the matter it represents? Does representative democracy work? I think of my poetry as inherently political. (Though it is not a poetry of opinion.)” (62). Armantrout’s poetics has been a probing into this often tense relation between the semantic and the formal constituents of a text. Most critics agree that her poems rely on the device of parataxis—or, as Marjorie Perloff says using Brian Reed’s term, ‘attenuated hypotaxis’ (“Teaching”). However, the stanzas of her supposedly disjunctive poems are more often than not united by a common concept, though to identify the connection may pose a problem for the reader. The author says in an interview: I like to bring different discourses, different aspects of thought and experience, into contact with one another. That can create a lot of friction, but, for a poem to work, there has to be some sort of cohesion. Sometimes that cohesion can be intellectual, but in other cases in [sic] might be tonal or sonic. (qtd. in Carbajosa)

This intellectual cohesion (which, admittedly, can sometimes be difficult to register) is key for understanding a significant part of Armantrout’s poems. The philosophical and political value that can be derived from the often unexpected connections made in her poetry far exceeds the textual effects that arise as a result of semantic disruptions undoubtedly also present in her work. The poem “Instead” from her latest book titled Just Saying is a case in point. In this text, Armantrout examines the implications of the title word and its corresponding concepts of compensation, substitution, or ersatz. These concepts are explored in various semantic spheres—those of labor, the history of civilizations, the mourning of loss, landscape, and illness, respectively: 1 To each his own severance package. The Inca hacked large stones into the shapes of nearby peaks.

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244 2 The eerie thing is that ghosts don’t exist. Rows of clear droplets hang from stripped twigs instead. 3 Pain brings attention to herself. Spine on Fire! Trail Blazer! (Thinks she’s hot.) Out here slim trunks bend every which (“Instead” 1-20)

In the first lines of the poem (“To each his own / severance package” [12]), we hear clear political overtones of the ongoing struggle for workers’ rights and unemployment benefits in the neoliberal world. The subtle reference to the slogan of the Buchenwald concentration camp (‘to each his own,’ which can figuratively mean ‘everyone gets what he deserves’) creates a darkly humorous effect when the reader connects it to the idea of unfair compensation. The focus of the stanza then abruptly moves to the historical reality of the vanished Inca civilization: The “stones” (4) here apparently act as a substitution for “peaks” (6), although the very mention of Incas rather makes us think of conquest and dispossession, which ties into the broader theme of the poem. The second part shifts into a more recognizably lyrical mode—lines about the loss of a loved person without any hope for a replacement (“The eerie thing / is that ghosts don’t exist” [7-8]) are followed by an imagistic depiction of “stripped twigs” (11), where the “droplets” (10) substitute for leaves. In the final stanza, the reality of pain is ironically blended with fragments of mediatized language such as “Trail Blazer” (16) and “[t]hinks she’s hot” (17) in order to question the possibility of consolation for pain in the world of normative health and beauty (“slim trunks bend / every which” [19-20]). Although the poem consists of a mix of voices and the subject here is not fully developed (referred to as “herself” [14]), what the second and third stanza allude to is the (likely autobiographical) experience of suffering, which inevitably presupposes subjectivity—an argument Perloff previously used to refute claims that

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Language poetry is characterized by the total disavowal of a lyric voice (cf. “Language Poetry”). This poem can be said to be political in at least two ways. Firstly—and this is something that has perhaps received more attention in studies of Armantrout’s works—it creates semantic tensions that, according to the author, are analogous to social organizations where “the part” is not necessarily able to represent “the whole” (“Cheshire Poetics” 62). The parts of “Instead” are interrelated but address subjects of a completely different nature and scale, to the extent that each one appears as self-sufficient—the severance package, the legacy of a lost civilization, and rain on bare tree branches rarely appear in a common context. It is by putting these seemingly dissimilar realities together that Armantrout’s poem disrupts the automatism of perception and redistributes the thinkable by intervening into the sayable, which dictates which subjects can or cannot appear together. Secondly, contrary to the readings that center almost exclusively on the politics of form in her writings, it is important to stress that Armantrout’s texts do not depart altogether from the content-based strain of political literature—rather, they explore different modes of political engagement within the consubstantiality of poetry and politics. Her poems are by no means distanced from social reality, since they often contain recognizable references to issues ranging from “severance package[s]” (“Instead” 2) to the ‘war on terror’ and recent stock market crashes (in her earlier collections, such as Money Shot). It is important to recognize the philosophical work the poem “Instead” accomplishes on the level of content with regard to the political topics it touches upon. Clearly, the text connects the issue of substitution to that of loss; however, the several different instances of this loss, although they are juxtaposed, are not equal: Armantrout foregrounds the fact that some of them are unavoidable and natural (such as the “stripped twigs” [“Instead” 11]) while others are inflicted on a person (or a whole people, for that matter) by the economic system or an imperial military power, in which case there is nothing natural about them, even though the common sense would have it otherwise—“[t]o each his own,” after all (“Instead” 1). The poem thus effectively denaturalizes the obvious, prompting the reader to think again about the issues it brings forth. This seems to resonate with what Rancière says when he discusses his notion of police: Unlike Althusserian ideology—which famously interpellates individuals via something like “‘Hey, you there!’”—it has as its main imperative “‘Move along! There’s nothing to see here!’” (Dissensus 37). Curiously similar processes are at work in Charles Bernstein’s poem titled “Pompeii” from his recent book Recalculating: The rich men, they know about suffering That comes from natural things, the fate that

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246 Rich men say they can’t control, the swell of The tides, the erosion of polar caps And the eruption of a terrible Greed among those who cease to be content With what they lack when faced with wealth they are Too ignorant to understand. Such wealth Is the price of progress. The fishmonger Sees the dread on the faces of the trout And mackerel laid out at the market Stall on quickly melting ice. In Pompeii The lava flowed and buried the people So poems such as this could be born. (“Pompeii” 1-14)

According to Billy Mills, in this poem, Bernstein “satiris[es] the free marketeer’s view that poverty is part of a natural process that lies outside the bounds of human control, much like the flow of lava from a volcano.” As we can see, references to the global economic injustice figure prominently both in Armantrout’s and Bernstein’s texts. Still, it is not the capitalist system itself that is criticized in “Pompeii”—“clearly poetry will not do Marx’s work,” as Charles Altieri points out (307). Rather, Bernstein targets a particular way of perception that is instilled when purely social phenomena (such as economic inequality) are being portrayed as ‘natural.’ The exaggerated image of uncontrollable nature here allows to refer to multiple issues—poverty (the lines “those who cease to be content / With what they lack” [6-7] are particularly sarcastic in this respect) as well as the refusal of large corporations to implement more sustainable practices (“the swell of / The tides, the erosion of polar caps” [3-4]). The sense of danger of global warming is further enhanced by an analogy with fish “on quickly melting ice” (12)—a deliberately mundane albeit sinister image. This culminates in the mention of Pompeii, which acts as a warning, although it involves an ironic metatextual twist (“In Pompeii / The lava flowed and buried the people / So poems such as this could be born” [12-14]). All of this effectively intervenes in the perceptual regime that naturalizes the ‘mishaps’ of capitalism. Overall, this poem relies not on complex mechanisms of subversion that critics like to analyze in Language poetry but on something more obvious, like irony, though admittedly this is only one device in the author’s rich arsenal. Just like Armantrout, Bernstein seeks out various possibilities for intervention in the political through writing that is irreducible to a single privileged way of political engagement.

Conclusion In this article, I discussed just some of the Language poets’ many works, both theoretical and poetic, that can benefit from connecting them to the philosophies of the last few decades, including the seminal theorizations of

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a political aesthetic by Jacques Rancière. Although it has been more customary to view these authors in the philosophical contexts concurrent to the emergence of the group—such as early poststructuralism or Althusser’s writings of the 1970s—certainly Language writing cannot be limited to any of these contexts, considering that most of these authors continue to produce and publish new works: As David Arnold puts it, Language writing “occupies a liminal space between past and present” (1). As it evolved over the years, it came into dialogue with theory produced after 1970—many of those connections are yet to be established. The Rancièrian framework of the redistribution of the sensible, although it may seem as broad as ideology critique, actually allows, as I have attempted to demonstrate, to shift the focus from a single aspect of political engagement (critique) to the multiple ways of producing political meanings, including both the subversive and the affirmative mode as well as a whole array of devices that are at the disposal of poets as masterful as the members of the Language group. As our understanding of what constitutes the political shifts, so do the ways poetry perceives its political role. The multiplicity as well as the contingency of political processes explored by Language authors in their theoretical and poetic works alike should receive more attention from scholars, as it offers broad possibilities for further examination.

Works Cited Aji, Hélène. “‘Writing (as) (and) Thinking’: Charles Bernstein’s Work ‘in’ Language.” Études anglaises 59.3 (2006): 341-55. Print. Altieri, Charles. “Without Consequences is No Politics: A Response to Jerome McGann.” Politics and Poetic Value. Ed. Robert von Hallberg. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987. 301-07. Print. Andrews, Bruce. “Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis.” Bernstein, Politics 23-43. Armantrout, Rae. “Cheshire Poetics.” Collected Prose. San Diego: Singing Horse, 2007. 55-62. Print. ---. “Instead.” Armantrout, Just Saying 3-4. ---. Just Saying. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2013. Print. ---. Money Shot. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2011. Print. Arnold, David. Poetry and Language Writing: Objective and Surreal. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2007. Print. Bernstein, Charles, ed. The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. New York: Roof, 1990. Print. ---. “Pompeii.” Bernstein, Recalculating 65. ---. Preface. Bernstein, Politics vii-viii. ---. Recalculating. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2013. Print. Burt, Stephen. “The New Thing: The Object Lessons of Recent American Poetry.” Boston Review. Boston Critic, 1 May 2009. Web. 7 Apr. 2014. Carbajosa, Natalia. “An Interview to Rae Armantrout.” Jot Down Cultural Magazine. Wabi Sabi, Mar. 2012. Web. 7 Apr. 2014.


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“A Chat with Pulitizer [sic] Prize Winner in Poetry Rae Armantrout.” AltDaily. Pilot, 3 Aug. 2010. Web. 7 Apr. 2014. Hartley, George. Textual Politics and the Language Poets. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. Print. Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. Print. Lewis, Thomas E. “Reference and Dissemination: Althusser After Derrida.” Diacritics 15.4 (1985): 37-56. Print. McGann, Jerome J. “Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes.” Critical Inquiry 13.3 (1987): 624-47. Print. Middleton, Peter. “Language Poetry and Linguistic Activism.” Social Text 25-26 (1990): 242-53. Print. Mills, Billy. “Poster Poems: The Root of All Evil.” Guardian. Guardian, 14 Nov. 2008. Web. 7 Apr. 2014. Mouffe, Chantal. On the Political. London: Routledge, 2005. Print. Nealon, Jeffrey T. Double Reading: Postmodernism After Deconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993. Print. Palonen, Kari. “Politics or the Political? An Historical Perspective on a Contemporary Non-Debate.” European Political Science 6 (2007): 69-78. Print. Perloff, Marjorie. “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject: Ron Silliman’s Albany, Susan Howe’s Buffalo.” Critical Inquiry 25.3 (1999): 405-34. Print. ---. “Teaching the ‘New’ Poetries.” Kiosk: A Journal of Poetry, Poetics, and Experimental Prose 1 (2002): n. pag. Marjorie Perloff. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2014. Ranciere, Jacques. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Ed. and trans. Steve Corcoran. London: Continuum, 2010. Print. ---. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Ed. and trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Bloomsbury, 2004. Print. Ranciere, Jacques, and Davide Panagia. “Dissenting Words: A Conversation with Jacques Ranciere.” Diacritics 30.2 (2000): 113-26. Print. Raynaud, Philippe. “Politics.” Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Ed. Barbara Cassin. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2014. 803-04. Print. Rockhill, Gabriel. “Critique of the Ontological Illusion: Rethinking the Relation between Art and Politics.” Blib. Blib, n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2014. ---. “The Politics of Aesthetics: Political History and the Hermeneutics of Art.” Jacques Ranciere: History, Politics, Aesthetics. Ed. Gabriel Rockhill and Philip Watts. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. 195-215. Print. Rothenberg, Jerome. “Ethnopoetics and Politics / The Politics of Ethnopoetics.” Bernstein, Politics 1-21. Stephens, Paul. “Beyond the Creative/Critical Divide: The Metapoetics of Innovative American Writing.” Diss. Columbia U, 2005. Print.


Politics of Dissent: Reconsidering ‘the Political’ in Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul Abstract: In this article, I will analyze how Tony Kushner’s play Homebody/Kabul (2004), a prescient exploration of intercultural encounters and/or collisions in and with Afghanistan under Taliban rule, shapes and reflects current debates about political art. While a number of critics and theorists have expressed alarm over the supposed apoliticality of American theater since the 1980s, I will instead argue that the ‘postmodern condition’ has made it necessary to rethink and reevaluate political art in general and political theater in particular. In breaking with the transgressive politics of vanguard political art of the 1960s and 1970s, the plays by Tony Kushner “expos[e] processes of cultural control and emphasiz[e] the traces of nonhegemonic discourses within the dominant without claiming to transcend its terms” (Auslander 61). In doing so, they testify to what I will call the politics of dissent, i.e., they take a critical stance on pressing issues of the times while self-consciously acknowledging their being deeply entrenched in the culture they set out to criticize. Homebody/Kabul dialectically engages with fundamental questions of home, belonging, otherness, and (cultural) identity, which, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, have frequently elicited patriotic or even jingoistic responses. By contrast, the play offers a much more nuanced take on Western, specifically American, ideas of democracy threatened by (religious) fundamentalism: It actively encourages a multilingual dialogue rather than patriotic rhetoric and thus literally forces the audience to listen to the multitude of languages and voices. In doing so, it challenges dominant discourses on Afghanistan and the Afghan people perpetuated by Western governments and mainstream media.

In the epilogue of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1995), the “two-part magnum opus that made [his] reputation in the early 1990s” (M. Phillips 4), the gay, HIV/AIDS-inflicted protagonist and reluctant prophet, Prior Walter, addresses the audience with the following words: This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins. (280)


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This scene asks for deeper reflection for several reasons: First, in terms of theater history, it deviates from the typical story line of earlier AIDS plays, like William Hoffman’s As Is (1985) or Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985), in that the protagonist does not succumb to the disease but, instead, survives, albeit ravaged by it. By severing the link between AIDS and death, the play conveys a hopeful message, and in addition, it forcefully declares the HIV/AIDS inflicted (whether gay or straight) as well as all members of the LGBTTQ community an integral part of society to be reckoned with, because “[they] are not going away.” Second, in aesthetic terms, this scene disrupts the illusion of the theater and eliminates the distance between the audience and the dramatic world and its characters. By turning down the volume on the other characters and addressing the audience directly, Prior Walter transcends the theatrical realm and transforms into an objective observer and commentator while staying in character. Thus, he not only becomes a mediator between the stage and the people in the auditorium but he also emphasizes his role as the ultimate authoritative center of the play in that he, in Brechtian fashion, historicizes the events on stage and creates a space for critical contemplation and interrogation. Third, and perhaps most importantly, this scene encapsulates the play’s overall political agenda. Whereas the characters present on stage have already undergone painful personal and political changes in order to become “fabulous creatures”1—the character Hannah might serve as a prime example because she has changed from a conservative Mormon to a liberal, open-minded surrogate mother for the homosexual Prior—it is now up to the audience to follow their example and to do “[t]he [g]reat [w]ork.” Prior’s “bless[ing]” (Kushner, Angels 280) can thus be interpreted as a call to action, an action that has to be completed outside the theater. Although one might be reminded of Clifford Odets’s play Waiting for Lefty (1935), which culminates in the famous call to strike, Kushner’s Angels in America 1

Tony Kushner refers to his theater as ‘theater of the fabulous.’ In an interview with the novelist Michael Cunningham, he explains: “If the great antecedent form of gay theater was theater of the ridiculous [a term introduced by Charles Ludlam], then the new theater that . . . all of us who are lesbian and gay and working in theater now are creating is something that I’m calling ‘theater of the fabulous.’ [...] [O]ne of the things about fabulousness is that there’s an issue of investiture, that you become powerful because you believe yourself to be. In a certain sense, the people in the theater are all fabulous at the moment that Prior, who has become invested by the audience with a moral authority and a kind of a prophetic voice, blesses everybody—they’re fabulous, whether they want to be or not” (qtd. in Cunningham 74). In other words, Kushner suggests that the people in the audience are granted a moral advance because they are enlightened and initiated by the character Prior. However, the decision to act upon this enlightenment, i.e., to change something in the ‘real’ world, is left to the individual spectator. For further information on Kushner’s theater of the fabulous, cf. his essay “Notes about Political Theater”; Haas 194-95; and Klüßendorf.

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is not an agitprop play in the classical sense. Prior’s closing words only seemingly tell or instruct the audience what to do, let alone call for revolution. Not denying the fact that the play ultimately envisions the creation of a liberal pluralist society (Savran 30), it does not devise concrete measures how this utopian ideal should be realized. It deliberately refrains from presenting definite positions and, instead, dramatizes various alternative, at times even contradictory, attitudes and actions. Drawing on the political philosopher Jacques Rancière, one could arrive at the preliminary conclusion that Angels in America relies heavily on the assumption that art is already political or effective politically when it “displays the marks” of “economic, political and ideological domination” (134)—or, to put it differently, that it hinges on the mimetic tradition and its logic, which, according to Rancière, “consists in conferring on the artwork the power of the effects that it is supposed to elicit on the behaviour of the spectators” (136). Following Rancière’s reasoning, the play seems to be caught in a paradox that has haunted political art ever since antiquity, i.e., the antagonism of “representational mediation” and “ethical immediacy” (138), “[t]he aestheticversus-political binary” (Colleran and Spencer 1), the seeing versus the doing. Yet the power of Angels in America as a piece of critical art resides in producing a new perception of the world: as its subtitle suggests, a gay fantasia on national themes, replete with what Rancière calls a “new landscape of the visible, the sayable and the doable” (149). Of course, imagining a different, and perhaps better, world does not guarantee the audience’s commitment to this transformation. The play’s political potential, its efficacy, so to speak, remains unpredictable. However, to quote theater scholar Joe Kelleher, “it may be that the real political value of theatre lies, in part, in this very instability and unpredictability” (24). In this article, I will analyze how a more recent play by Tony Kushner, Homebody/Kabul (2004), a prescient exploration of intercultural encounters in and with Afghanistan under Taliban rule, shapes and reflects current debates about political art. Challenging those critics and theorists who have expressed alarm over the supposed apoliticality of American theater since the 1980s, I will, along with Philip Auslander and others, argue that the ‘postmodern condition’—i.e., the critique of the humanist subject and the consequent doubt in human agency to change and improve social relations (Colleran and Spencer 2)—has made it necessary to rethink political art in general and political theater in particular. For this purpose, I will first recapitulate some thoughts on and definitions of political theater in order to mark the two poles between which political theater arguably oscillates, i.e., personal politics and the body politic. In doing so, I will not only identify major discourses on political theater that are of importance for the present inquiry but also point out those dramatic elements and theatrical constituents that, in addition to the actual theme or ‘story,’ make a play ‘political.’ In a second step, I will focus on selected poetological remarks by playwright Tony Kushner to probe into what Ilka Saal has called “the


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artist’s as well as the art work’s embeddedness in the dominant culture” (178). Kushner lends himself well to this frame of analysis not least because he, a former gay rights activist, avowed leftist, and well-known public intellectual, has most recently collaborated with Hollywood’s guarantor of box office success, Steven Spielberg, on the movie Lincoln (2012).2 Kushner’s theater of the fabulous, moreover, is not only rife with political acumen inspired by Walt Whitman, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, and numerous others, but it is also part and parcel of popular entertainment.3 Despite Kushner’s celebrity status, one could argue that he has not succumbed to the matrix of power exerted by multinational capitalism but that he has rather used the new configurations of mass culture and art, ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism,’ to use Fredric Jameson’s famous phrase, as a source of empowerment. Proceeding from this notion, I will maintain that this artist and his work manage to “expos[e] processes of cultural control and emphasiz[e] the traces of nonhegemonic discourses within the dominant without claiming to transcend its terms” (Auslander 61). In other words, it is my contention that Kushner’s work champions what I will call the politics of dissent, i.e., it takes a critical stance on pressing issues of the times while self-consciously acknowledging its being deeply entrenched in the culture it sets out to criticize. As will be shown, his play Homebody/Kabul dialectically engages with fundamental questions of home, belonging, otherness, and (cultural) identity, which, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, have frequently elicited patriotic or even jingoistic responses. By contrast, Homebody/Kabul offers a much more nuanced take on Western, specifically American, ideas of democracy threatened by (religious) fundamentalism. The play literally forces the audience to listen to the mul2


Ironically, in his 1997 essay “Notes about Political Theater,” Kushner attacks Spielberg as a “reactionary artist” (24) whose coinage of “Forrest Gumpism, aka ‘It hurts to think’” (33), is symptomatic of a domestic policy that, instead of tackling urgent problems like poverty, public higher education, or affordable health care, passionately cares about balanced budgets and tax exemptions for the rich (33). Given this, Kushner’s first collaboration with Spielberg for the movie Munich in 2005 was seen as controversial by many critics (Fisher, Understanding 147). Broadway’s Signature Theater, for instance, devoted the entire theater season of 2010-11 to Tony Kushner and his work. The Kushner-themed season not only saw the revival of the six-hour epic Angels in America but also the New York City premiere of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, an epic play about a dysfunctional Italian American family that centers on suicidal patriarch Gus Marcantonio, his promiscuous gay son, his divorced lesbian daughter, and his nun-turned-Maoist sister. The season concluded with Kushner’s loose adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 1636 visionary The Illusion, a fable of love, magic, and despair. With Kushner’s prominent name on the program, theater aficionados flocked to the theater in droves. Particularly the revival of Angels in America on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary created a hype among the connoisseurs and resulted in a run on the Signature’s box offices (cf. Green).

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titude of languages and voices, and in doing so, it dissents from and challenges dominant discourses on Afghanistan and the Afghan people perpetuated by Western governments and mainstream media. As a result, the play is heavily indebted to democratic ideals such as freedom of speech, equality, and women’s rights, not just in terms of its themes but, even more importantly, in terms of its very medium, the actual theatrical performance on stage, which necessitates an (open-minded) audience. In sum, Tony Kushner’s oeuvre in general and Homebody/Kabul in particular attest to the idea that even overtly commodified art is potentially critical.

From ‘p’ (Personal Politics) to ‘P’ (the Body Politic): The Continuum of Political Theater When it comes to scholarly work on contemporary political theater, one could easily get the impression that critics and scholars, basically anyone engaging in a critical dialogue with this particular field of literary/theater studies, liberally applies the label (or adjective) ‘political’ without giving it any further thought.4 At the same time, however, there seems to be a silent agreement on what constitutes ‘the political’ or, to put it differently, on what makes a theatrical performance political and/or makes it eligible for being categorized as such. Conspicuously absent, for the most part, are definitions of political theater or even serious attempts to tackle this definitional gap. Rather than pinning down the perimeters of political theater, scholars frequently proceed from the assumption that the dramatic script, the production, or the performance they are dealing with is already political or makes comments on politics. Yet what constitutes ‘the political’? What makes political theater stand out—or, to take up Tony Kushner’s pertinent question: “[I]s there an animal called political theater, distinct from other kinds of theater?” (“Notes” 22). In order to provide a tentative answer to this question, I will, in the following, delineate two major approaches to the evasive term ‘political theater.’ While these two approaches seem to firmly disagree on what constitutes the ‘political’ in political theater—scholars like Michael Kirby, for instance, advocate a fairly narrow definition of the term, while theater 4

As a case in point, contributors to the Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary American Playwrights (2013), which features articles on the top twenty-five contemporary American playwrights, invariably file the works by playwrights as diverse as Adrienne Kennedy, Tony Kushner, Terence McNally, Arthur Miller, John Patrick Shanley, Christopher Shinn, Luis Valdez, and Naomi Wallace under the rubric of political theater (cf. Middeke et al.). Notably, ‘the political’ referred to in the respective analyses ranges from gender and identity politics to domestic and foreign American politics as well as geopolitics. As a result, one could argue that the term ‘the political’ is used in a functional rather than an ontological sense in that it ostensibly lends a certain weight and seriousness to the plays under discussion.


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practitioners like Bertolt Brecht and others reject the very idea of nonpolitical theater (thereby including even the most personal issues)—I will maintain that contemporary political artists like Tony Kushner refuse to be co-opted by either camp. Instead, they deliberately cover the entire spectrum of political theater ranging from politics with a minor-case ‘p’ (personal politics) to politics with a capital ‘P’ (the body politic). Of course, the towering figure of the twentieth century and beyond is Bertolt Brecht, who, in his theoretical treatise “A Short Organum for the Theatre,” is intent on defining “a theatre fit for the scientific age” (179). The result is a decidedly political theater that is characterized by accurate and “workable representations of society, which are then in a position to influence society” (186); one that “find[s] enjoyment in teaching and inquiring” (186); one that unveils and tears down (fourth) walls and actively involves the audience (189); one that encourages the audience to dare to think (190); one that, by means of historicization and the method of dialectical materialism, shows the alterability of the world (190); one that does not categorically reject entertainment and pleasure but, on the contrary, enlists them as it sees fit (204). The seventy-seven paragraphs of Brecht’s “Short Organum” consider virtually every aspect of a theatrical production, from stage design, lighting, costumes, and the actors’ pivotal role in activating the audience by means of gest and “A-effects” (193) to the “story” itself, which, according to Brecht, is not only “the heart of the theatrical performance” (200) but also “the theatre’s great operation” (200) and “main business” (202). While the socioeconomic conditions since Brecht have certainly changed and the grand narratives have become obsolete, Brecht’s legacy lives on, and his credo “for art to be ‘unpolitical’ means only to ally itself with the ‘ruling’ group” (“Short Organum” 196) rings as true today as it did more than sixty years ago. Hence, it is not surprising that particularly the idea of the impossibility of nonpolitical art has been adopted by various theater-makers. For instance, the Brazilian theater practitioner, activist, and admirer of Brecht, Augusto Boal, states in the foreword to the poetological manifesto of his ‘people’s theater,’ Theatre of the Oppressed, that “all theater is necessarily political, because all the activities of man are political and theater is one of them. Those who try to separate theater from politics try to lead us into error – and this is a political attitude” (IX). The ‘Latin American Brecht’ envisioned a theater of the people, by the people, and for the people: a theater in which all barriers are eliminated and in which the spectators are no longer merely passive consumers but become (inter)active agents in the theatrical event or, in Boal’s terminology, “spectator-actor[s]” (126). Apparently, for theater to become effective politically, in Boal’s understanding, the spectator not only has to think for him-/herself but also has to act. This is why his theater of the oppressed focuses on action and is concerned with the liberation of the spectators.

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While Brecht’s as well as Boal’s poetics of political theater are based on the assumption that all theater is necessarily political and, even more importantly, that “[d]etermining relations of power also means acting upon those relations” (Kelleher 29), some theater theoreticians are far more circumspect when it comes to defining political theater. In a special issue of The Drama Review on political theater from 1975, Michael Kirby, for instance, writes: Theatre is political if it is concerned with the state or takes sides in politics. This allows us to define “political theatre” in a way that distinguishes it from other kinds of theatre: it is a performance that is intentionally concerned with government, that is intentionally engaged in or consciously takes sides in politics. [...] If a theatre is intended to be political and the intent is not perceived, there is no need to categorize it as a “political theatre.” Thus, if a presentation does not attempt to be political, it is not political. (129)

Apparently, his definition of political theater is a fairly narrow one. It is about politics with a capital ‘P,’ i.e., about the body politic, which is why his concept of ‘the political’ is inextricably linked to the government and the state. He strongly opposes those who claim that all theater is political, which he sees as a confusion of the ‘political’ with the ‘social’ and the ‘economic.’ He even goes so far as to accusing those who maintain that all theater is political of “distorting art into politics” (130). While Kirby admits that all theater exists in a certain socioeconomic context and, moreover, that it is a public art that not does not just involve the audience but is legitimized by it, political theater to him has to be first and foremost concerned with ‘the political’ in its most literal sense. Notably, Kirby uses intentionality as a criterion to define political theater and to distinguish it from ‘pure’ art. Yet I would argue that intentionality is highly problematic when used as a defining factor. Not only is it a very subjective principle but it also suggests that a play’s political intent, however explicit it might be, is unambiguous. In addition, intentionality is predicated on the assumption that the audience, consisting of individual spectators, is a homogeneous crowd willing to accept this particular intent. In essence, Kirby’s approach is not only diametrically opposed to Brecht’s and Boal’s conception of political theater, but to claim that politicality is a matter of intentionality is to ignore that a supposedly nonpolitical play (un)intentionally supports the existing status quo. In contrast to Kirby, who stubbornly insists on the separation of the political, the social, and the economic—a separation that seems to be questionable if not outright wrong because it disregards, among other things, the fact that the “fundamental aspect of postmodern culture,” according to Auslander, “may be the collapse of the distinction between the economic and cultural realms” (59)—theater scholar Joe Kelleher not only acknowledges the range of different understandings of politics but also expands the definition of politics to include both the social and the


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economic as well as the reception and the study thereof. In Theatre and Politics (2010), he states that the term politics “refer[s] to the activities of government and other social systems and organizations, [...] to the study of such activities and systems, [and] to the processes by which power is distributed – and struggled over – in society more generally” (2). Particularly the last point—the distribution of power across social relations, among different groups or classes or interests that make up the body politic —is of key importance for the present inquiry. It draws attention to the fact that a discussion of power (and of the distribution thereof) in society must involve a discussion of hegemony and hierarchy, of access to and denial of power. To return to the examination of the politicality of theater: Not only the aforementioned unpredictability of theater’s effects on the audience but also the difficulties to pinpoint ‘the political’ in relation to the (performing) arts must not result in the total dismissal of the term—or, as Kelleher, referring to late capitalist society’s ready co-optation and commodification of even the most transgressive and subversive arts, polemically puts it: “[P]olitics has been exhausted and radicality dug up at the root and scattered for compost” (51). While I would agree with Kelleher that radicality is more or less unattainable today with virtually no cultural limits left to transgress, it is, in my opinion, all the more important to reconsider the genre of political theater to ensure that the category itself remains relevant. Jeanne Colleran and Jenny S. Spencer have embarked on this mission in the introduction to their collection of essays entitled Staging Resistance: Essays on Political Theater (1998). Like Brecht and Boal, they stand by their assertion that “nonpolitical art is impossible” (1). In stark contrast to Michael Kirby’s rigid concept of political theater, they define political theater as a “cultural practice that self-consciously operates at the level of interrogation, critique, and intervention, unable to stand outside the very institutions and attitudes it seeks to change” (1). Echoing Auslander and others, who conceive of theatrical performances as simultaneously socially implicated and socially critical, they insist to place under the rubric of political theater a range of theatrical activity, from theater as an act of political intervention taken on behalf of a designated population and having a specific political agenda; to theater that offers itself as a public forum through plays with overtly political content; to theater whose politics are covertly, or unwittingly, on display, inviting an actively critical stance from its audience. (1)

While this definition is obviously broad enough to consider virtually any approach to the aesthetic-versus-political binary, it also underlines the difficulties, or perhaps impossibilities, to pin down the exact perimeters of political theater. Yet by defining political theater as a cultural practice, Colleran and Spencer not only reclaim theater’s central role in articulating and rehearsing culture, they also emphasize theater’s relevancy for the

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sociocultural realm. Similarly, Ilka Saal, in her study New Deal Theater: The Vernacular Tradition in American Political Theater (2007), defines political theater as “a praxis that seeks to mobilize its audiences by providing them with a public forum for the discussion of current political issues, for the elucidation of their underlying socio-economic structures and the drawing up of solutions” (26). In contrast to Colleran and Spencer, however, Saal is also intent on reconciling the aesthetic-versus-political dichotomy. Drawing on theater scholar Klaus Gleber, she convincingly argues that [t]he aesthetic is [...] always an explicit function of the political. [...] “Political theater is a stage praxis that becomes political not only in the process of reception, but that understands itself to be anchored in politics already in its very intention, its thematic objective, and the functional use of aesthetic techniques; it is an aesthetics aiming at political effect.” (26)

The political issues or contents dealt with in plays that fall into this admittedly broad category range from seemingly private tensions to public issues acted out on the world stage—or, as Tony Kushner states: “The membrane separating the political and the personal is permeable” (“Notes” 29). By ways of summarizing and evaluating the different approaches to a theatrical performance’s political quality, I propose that we have to conceive of politics as more than the activities or affairs engaged in by a government: as a set of (conscious and unconscious) practices carried out by individual or collective actors to influence and determine the workings of power in society.

“Pretentious Food” and Political Theater: Tony Kushner’s Poetics of Politics Similar to the aforementioned theater scholars and practitioners, who, except for Kirby, use a holistic approach to the elusive character of political theater, Tony Kushner’s dramatic work takes its cues from understanding political theater as a cultural practice. Like Brecht, Boal, Kelleher, Colleran and Spencer, or Saal, he conceives of political theater as a forum for public debate, an enactment of social critique, and a space for imagining alternatives. In an essay entitled “Some Questions about Tolerance” from 1993, he addresses the complex relationship of culture and politics and considers the role art plays in this context. He writes: How much sense does it make to separate Culture and Politics as distinct categories? If culture can be thought of as both the exalted and the quotidian expressions of a people’s life, then all culture is ideological, political, rooted in history and informed by present circumstance. And art has to reflect this, as well as reflect the artist’s desires for society and social change which will, whether revolutionary or reactionary, find expression in the work he or she creates.


Sabrina Hüttner If art [...] has any political impact, and I believe it does, it seems to me that it’s most likely to have it by being effective as art—in other words, that political agendas can’t successfully be imposed on the act of making art, of creation, for all [...] those agendas will invariably surface from within once the art is made. (44)

This is perhaps the most succinct definition of Kushner’s poetics of politics. To him, art—or, to be more precise, theater—can only have political impact if it retains its theatrical quality. In other words, the aesthetic and the political are mutually dependent in Kushner’s understanding. Intent on tackling pressing issues while acutely aware of the difficulties of referencing reality at all, Kushner’s work equally draws on “trash culture” as well as on “high art” (Kushner qtd. in Cunningham 63). Fusing a lyrical language and sense of theatrical magic in the tradition of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill with Brechtian alienation devices, his theater is a culinary delight, albeit sometimes hard to digest. Kushner himself compares his ‘recipe’ for writing good plays to baking lasagna when he says: A good play I think should always feel as though it’s only barely been rescued from the brink of chaos, as though all the yummy nutritious ingredients you’ve thrown into it have almost-but-not-quite succeeded in overwhelming the design. [...] A good play, like a good lasagna, should be overstuffed: It has a pomposity, and an overreach: Its ambitions extend in the direction of not-missing-a-trick, it has a bursting omnipotence up its sleeve, or rather, under its noodles: It is pretentious food. (“On Pretentiousness” 61-62).

Even though Kushner is supposedly catering to the audience, his plays are not meant to induce a comatose state on the spectators. Quite on the contrary, as someone who has a self-confessed fixation on Brecht (qtd. in Weber 108), Kushner wants his audience to simultaneously see the surface and see what is beneath the surface, what shapes the surface (qtd. in Steindler). To stay within the culinary picture, he wants the audience to delight and indulge in the delicacy while retaining an alertness, an insatiable appetite, so to speak, for the individual elements, i.e., the ingredients, where they come from, how they relate to each other, and which role they play in the overall composition. On a more sober note, Kushner feels urged to defend political theater against charges of being inimical to entertainment and pleasure. Echoing Brecht, who was convinced that “[t]heatre remains theatre even when it is instructive theatre, and in so far as it is good theatre it will amuse” (“Theatre” 73), he contends: Theater that isn’t entertaining isn’t worth doing. Theater that’s explicitly political has to be very entertaining and very well done or it will be very easily dismissed. If we do political theater, theater that will be perceived as political, that addresses political issues or addresses issues politically, we are starting out with one big strike against us. (“Notes” 29)

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Unsurprisingly, then, his theater of the fabulous “has to have the jokes and it has to have the feathers and the mirrors and the smoke” (Kushner qtd. in Cunningham 63). In the stage directions to Angels in America, his by far most successful play to date, he envisions “the moments of magic [...] to be fully realized, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion—which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing” (11). Thus, Kushner not only stresses the influence of Brecht’s epic theater but, by showing the wires and avoiding blackouts as well as by invoking gay icon Judy Garland and comparing the Angel’s crashing through the ceiling to a Steven Spielberg movie, he reminds the audience of both the constructedness of theatrical illusion and theater’s embeddedness in the entertainment industry. Likewise, Homebody/Kabul, which will subsequently be discussed in greater detail, is rife with Kushnerian moments of theatrical magic: The female protagonist is miraculously able to speak Pashto even though she has never learned this provincial language. However, at the same time, she is deliberately constructed as a Western everywoman who prefers ‘contactless’ payments with her credit card over face-to-face encounters with actual human beings. Taken together, Kushner not only invites the audience to critically engage with his plays but he also asks them to reconsider their own social status as members of a privileged faction of society that has the economic capital to be able to afford the events presented on stage as well as the cultural capital to be able to process them (Savran 36). Although Kushner has variously declared himself “a political theater artist” (“Notes” 26), he is highly skeptical of the very category of political theater. Informed by his studies of Marxist theories and leftist theater practitioners like Erwin Piscator, his growing up as a gay Jewish boy in Louisiana (and the years of psychoanalysis that followed this experience), and his work as a gay rights activist, he is convinced not only that “the personal is the political” (“Notes” 21) but that “everything is rife with political meaning, is political, that all theater is political: when theater artists assiduously avoid politics, we deny the existence of the political and are making a political statement, committing a political act” (“Notes” 22). As a dedicated disciple of Brecht, he firmly believes that all theater is political. This is why he argues that it becomes meaningless to talk about political and nonpolitical theater, and more useful to speak of a theater that presents the world as it is, an interwoven web of the public and the private [...], or of theater of the left and theater of the right, or theater that negates the status quo and theater that supports it. (“Notes” 22)

Yet Kushner does not discard political theater altogether. Rather, theater to him is inherently political and therefore has to be approached differently, i.e., through the connections it makes, the politics it champions, and the


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world(s) it imagines. Keenly aware of the limits of art and the predicament of being an artist (albeit a politically committed one) rather than an activist, Kushner nevertheless unwaveringly believes in the usefulness and effectiveness of theater, which to him boils down to a “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” (qtd. in Fisher, Understanding 10). James Fisher aptly summarizes Kushner’s poetics of politics as follows: “Kushner eschews labels and works from a dramatic platform advocating progressive change and from an inspirational foundation of knowledge drawn from his intellectual pursuits, politics, and private experiences” (Understanding 2).

(Authentic) Voices of Dissent: Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul (2004) The following analysis of Homebody/Kabul will focus on the interconnectedness of the personal and the political. I will illustrate how Kushner addresses a problem of global dimensions, i.e., the rise of the repressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan, through the seemingly personal story of an unhappy, alienated Western woman, who desperately tries to escape her depressing life by means of a mental journey that, eventually, results in an actual physical encounter with otherness. With this play, Kushner indeed demonstrates that the membrane between the personal and the political is permeable. Above all, Homebody/Kabul exemplifies what I call the playwright’s politics of dissent: The play takes a critical stance on pressing issues of the time while self-consciously acknowledging its rootedness in the culture it sets out to criticize. Given this, the play is decidedly not interested in revolutionizing or even overthrowing the (Western) democratic system, but it encourages its audience “to keep thinking critically, analytically, compassionately, deeply” (Kushner, Afterword 143) about the West’s historical and contemporary relationship to Afghanistan and the rest of the world. Whether this call for mutual understanding and for taking up direct responsibility is answered by the audience is, apparently, unpredictable. Yet, I argue, the play is not so much interested in efficacy or even closure as it is interested in opening up a multilingual (and multidirectional) dialogue of (authentic) voices of dissent. Homebody/Kabul was first produced as a one-act monologue entitled Homebody at London’s Chelsea Theatre in July 1999. It went into rehearsals as a full-length play at New York Theatre Workshop in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. One can imagine the anxious expectations of the audience, who was to see a play that “express[ed] precisely the politics and conflicts that had suddenly burst onto the world stage” (Lavey ix). Although the play neither is set in the US nor does it feature any American characters, it was readily accepted as a parable on contemporary US politics (cf. Juntunen 174). In the climate

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of public mourning, patriotic rhetoric, and retaliatory measures, Kushner dared to stage a decisively antijingoist play that not only questions the West’s, and most importantly the US’s, ways to interact with other cultures but that also humanizes the ‘enemy,’ the alien ‘Other,’ the Afghan people. To counter voices who hailed the playwright as a “prophet” (Fanger), Kushner firmly stressed in a press statement: I didn’t imagine, when I was working on the play, that by the time we produced it the United States would be at war with Afghanistan. My play is not a polemic; it was written before September 11, before we began bombing, and I haven’t changed anything in the play to make it more or less relevant to current events. (Afterword 142)

Later in the afterword to Homebody/Kabul, he adds: “If you choose to write about current events there’s a good chance you will find the events you’ve written about to be . . . well, current” (144). Because of the unfortunate confluence of events and the play’s uncanny topicality, the media coverage was, of course, extensive. Unsurprisingly, the reviews ranged from lionizing the play by saying that one “couldn’t think of a more important drama in the last decade” (Heilpern) to demonizing it as “self-loathing and heavy-handed polemics” (B. Phillips). Homebody/Kabul not only was extended twice in New York, won an Obie Award as Best Play, and toured several US cities, it also hit European stages in Hamburg, Basel, and Dresden (Fisher, “‘Succumbing’” 191). This may not come as a surprise given the fact that its author, perhaps more than any other contemporary English-speaking dramatist, is known for asking inconvenient, momentous questions at transitional moments in history. With Homebody/Kabul, Kushner once again remains faithful to his conviction that “[t]o make political art is always to risk pretentiousness, because you can only ever fail to formulate answers to the questions you pose, if those questions are big enough—and really, if they aren’t, why bother posing?” (“On Pretentiousness” 67-68). The play’s protagonist, the Homebody, unhappily married to the insecure, petit bourgeois computer specialist Milton Ceiling, is introduced in act I, scene I as “sitting on a plain wooden chair next to a table in the kitchen of her home in London” (9) in 1998. Hers is an impeccably wellkept household with everything in its place, which at the outset could be interpreted as a bulwark against the disintegrating world outside. Addressing the audience directly, she appears to be a grandmother-like figure, who tells a “story [that] begins at the very dawn of history, circa 3,000 B.C.” (9), which, because of its formulaic beginning, reminds one of a fairy tale read to children. Yet she is actually reading from an outdated, obscure guidebook named An Historical Guide to Kabul first published in 1965. Like the guidebook, the Homebody herself seems to be outdated and dislocated. To escape from “a state of dreadful stagnation” (Stevenson 764), the


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Homebody resorts to her tendency for logorrhea. As Fisher remarks, “for the Homebody, words are tickets for an imaginary safe passage from her comfortably unhappy life” (“‘Succumbing’” 198). By means of grandiloquent words she allegedly acquired from “read[ing] too many books,” she creates her own world, “[t]he home [...] away from home” (Kushner, Homebody 12, 27). Paradoxically, the home she has made for herself is nothing but an ivory-towerish exile that alienates her from her family—her husband Milton and her daughter Priscilla—and turns her into a dispossessed character, i.e., a body without a home. Her soliloquy, which makes up the play’s entire first scene, consists of her reading from the antiquated guidebook alternating with verbose anecdotes “of private despair spun off from passages in the guidebook” (Minwalla 164), which underline that the “Homebody is deterritorialized because her words come from another time” (Bennett). Since she is convinced that “the Present is always an awful place to be” (Kushner, Homebody 11), she seeks refuge in the past and, most particularly, in an Orientalist account of Kabul, a city that fascinates her because of its unruly past and its palimpsestic history of imperialism. Leaving her comfortable home or, in her words, “broach[ing]” her “borders” (13) in order to buy fancy hats for a party she organizes for her careerist husband, she makes her way to an unnamed London street, “where there are shops full of merchandise from exotic locales, wonderful things made by people who believe, as I do not, as we do not, in magic” (10). This is the first of many instances in the play where otherness and cultural difference are problematized. The Homebody sentimentally longs for an ‘authentic,’ “untouched” (11) ‘Other’ that withstood the corrupting touch of colonization (11-12). However, she has to accept that her desire for encountering the ‘real’ in “the developed and overdeveloped and overoverdeveloped paved wasted now deliquescent post-First World postmodern city of London” (20) cannot possibly be fulfilled. As the Homebody admits: “Ours is a time of connection; [...] the private is gone. All must be touched. All touch corrupts. All must be corrupted” (11). The Homebody’s very own interpretation of globalization and postmodern values has two major consequences: For one, the realms of the private/personal and the public/political are inextricably connected, and for another, the search for authenticity can only ever be a pointless endeavor. Upon entering one of the ‘exotic’ shops, the Homebody encounters the owner, an Afghan refugee, whose hand, to the Homebody’s utter shock, is mutilated: “[T]hree fingers on his right hand have been hacked off” (21). While the merchant’s holding of her MasterCard between his thumb and the remaining finger makes him symbolically participate in the universal exchange process, his butchered hand is indecipherable for the Homebody, who is insufficiently prepared for this graphic display of violence by her guidebook. In a Kushnerian moment of theatrical magic, the Homebody is miraculously able to speak Pashto and she asks the merchant, in his own

Politics of Dissent


language, to relate the history of his hand. Assuming the role of an ethnic ventriloquist, she explains in standard English: I was with the Mujahideen, and the Russians did this. I was with the Mujahideen, and an enemy faction of Mujahideen did this. I was with the Russians, I was known to have assisted the Russians, I did informer’s work for Babrak Karmal, my name is in the files if they haven’t been destroyed, the names I gave are in the files, there are no more files, I stole bread for my starving family, I stole bread from a starving family, I profaned, betrayed, according to some stricture I erred and they chopped off the fingers of my hand. [...] You will never understand. It is hard, it was hard work to get into the U.K. I am happy here in the U.K. I am terrified I will be made to leave the U.K. I cannot wait to leave the U.K. I despise the U.K. [...] [T]he people who ruined my hand were right to do so, they were wrong to do so, my hand is most certainly ruined, you will never understand. (23-24)

However, the Homebody is determined to understand the man’s and, by extension, Afghanistan’s history, and as Framji Minwalla convincingly argues, “[her] characteristic solution is to saturate this unnervingly present body with as many meanings as she can formulate, transforming the merchant into an Afghan Everyman, the archetypal post-colonial refugee” (171). After having purchased the hats, the Homebody hurries home to the alleged safety of her kitchen (26), but the encounter with the Afghan merchant has left an imprint not only on her credit card but also on her psyche. With the disfigured, dislocated hand weighing heavy on her mind, neither can she bear the guidebook’s grand narrative nor is she able to sustain her disinterested existence as a mere armchair traveler. Adopting the perspective of an outsider, the ‘Other,’ she accuses herself of stand[ing] [...] safe in her kitchen, on her culpable shore, suffering uselessly watching others perishing in the sea [...]. Never joining the drowning. Her feet, neither rooted nor moving. The ocean is deep and cold and erasing. But how dreadful, really unpardonable, to remain dry. [...] She does not drown, she . . . succumbs. To Luxury. (28)

This thought is unbearable for her, because the moment of anagnorisis, of recognition, in the Afghan shop has led to a literal sea change in her thinking, and she resolves to plunge into the deep, cold ocean, i.e., Afghanistan, to atone for her contemplative life, which she finds deeply complicit in the violence done to the merchant (Minwalla 172). Listening to Frank Sinatra’s song “It’s Nice to Go Trav’ling” while simultaneously reciting a poem by the seventeenth-century Persian poet Sa’ib-I-Tabrizi, she closes her monologue to embark on a journey, which, because of its unlikely destination and its symbolic dimension, resembles a spiritual pilgrimage rather than a carefree vacation. After her departure, the play shifts from London to the parlous streets of Kabul in a country, according to the Homebody, “so at the heart of the


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world the world has forgotten it” (28). Of course, when the play premiered in December 2001, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Kabul had become household names thanks to the extensive media coverage of the Operation Enduring Freedom launched by the allied forces and the Afghan Northern Alliance. Yet the Kabul envisioned by the play is exceedingly more complex than the picture presented by Western politicians and the media. It is, in Fisher’s words, “the epicenter of a millennial quagmire of violence and religious fundamentalism” (Understanding 72) but also a modern-day Babel, the locale of competing languages, ideologies, and discourses. Against this background, the Homebody, who “performs her identity through language” (Bennett) and thus consciously controls her speech, is silenced and destined to disappear and dissolve into what one character calls “the populated disaster” (Kushner, Homebody 51). When her husband Milton and her daughter Priscilla arrive in the Afghan capital to look for her, they are told by two Taliban officials that “[t]he lady, she have been torn apart to pieces” (Kushner, Homebody 33). While the Pashtun doctor Qari Shah provides graphic descriptions of her mutilated body in “a hybrid language of modern English and scientific, anatomical terms” (Bennett), the Taliban minister Mullah Aftar Ali Durranni accuses the Homebody of disrespectful behavior and ignorance, which, in his eyes, provoked her death. It should be mentioned here that a number of lines spoken in Pashto, Dari, Esperanto, French, or Arabic are not meant to be translated in the actual performance. While they are translated into English in the secondary text of the dramatic script, the English-speaking members in the audience are puzzled by the alien languages and confronted with a cacophony of voices. It is in these scenes that Western hegemony is challenged and destabilized, because the spectators themselves, very much like the Homebody’s daughter Priscilla, experience what it means to be disenfranchised and powerless even if it is ‘only’ because they cannot understand what the characters on stage say. Yet these moments of crisis, of being unable to understand each other, are presented as chances rather than dead ends by the play. What is at stake, then, is to find a common language in which a dialogue can be resumed and in which cultural differences can be negotiated. The official narrative of the Homebody’s death put forward by the Taliban warlords is challenged by the character Mahala, who not only asserts that the Homebody is alive and well but who also shares the startling news that she is now actually a converted Muslim married to Mahala’s husband. Priscilla is introduced to Mahala by the Esperanto poet and local guide Khwaja Aziz Mondanabosh, whose life is threatened by the repressive Taliban theocracy. In contrast to her father, who is paralyzed with fear and prefers staying in the safety of the hotel room, Priscilla, equipped with the only two items that prove that the Homebody has actually ever been to Kabul—the obscure guidebook and a Discman with the notorious Frank Sinatra CD in it—wanders the city in search of traces of her mother

Politics of Dissent


because she is convinced that “she’s scattered all over Kabul. The whole city. It’s her” (60). As the title of the play already suggests, the Homebody and Kabul are symbolically one; they are two sides of the same coin. Yet the city, the Kabuli landscape under Taliban rule, is, like her mother, unintelligible to Priscilla. As for the character of Mahala, she becomes the epitome of the tragic history of Afghanistan. A former librarian, she is a well-read woman of intellect and dignity, yet the constant terror under the Taliban is causing her to forget the alphabet. Like all women in Afghanistan, she is forced to shroud herself in a burqa, but she is further humiliated by her husband, who ostracized her and allegedly exchanged her for the Homebody. Mahala’s Babylonic tirade of hate, in which she not only accuses the Taliban but also the US of having fought the Cold War at the expense of the Afghan people, becomes Priscilla’s very own moment of recognition, her anagnorisis. Although Priscilla repeatedly stresses that she is not American but “English” (85), this cannot protect her from the charges leveled against her and the culture she belongs to. Eventually, Priscilla, who had come to Afghanistan as an inexperienced and biased tourist, matures because of the exposure to and immersion in the foreign culture. As she confesses to her local guide, the poet Khwaja: “Kabul has changed me. I’ve listened” (112). In addition to having listened, she has changed because of the engagement with two Afghan characters whose stories of personal tragedy and victimhood have given the alien ‘Other’ a human face. In Fisher’s words, she “learn[ed] the hard lessons to be learned from this cultural collision” (Understanding 75). Because of her deeper understanding of the ‘corrupting touch’ her mother so dreaded, she can no longer remain passive in the face of the injustices around her. Her personal acts of engagement consist of both trying to smuggle Khwaja’s seditious poems out of the country and giving in, albeit reluctantly, to Mahala’s begging to take her with her to London. This, of course, does not mean that Homebody/Kabul wants its audience to turn into facilitators for Afghan refugees. Rather, what Priscilla’s altruistic action suggests is that the spectators become “spectator-actor[s]” in Boal’s sense of the term (126). The spectators are therefore asked not only to think and feel for themselves but also to act upon these insights. In the play’s last scene, which is set in the Homebody’s kitchen, Mahala is “seated in the Homebody’s chair, reading” (136). However, she is not simply replacing the Homebody, whose fate is uncertain and whose indeterminate physical condition “functions as a metaphor for the political condition of Afghanistan itself” (Stevenson 766). Rather, through the character Mahala’s perilous flight from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to the UK, the play once again foregrounds how the personal is, in fact, the political. Her individual story reflects the story of so many women and men who have to flee their home country in fear for their life. Moreover, by focusing on Mahala and the Homebody’s husband Milton’s clumsy attempts to start a conversation shortly before their flight to the UK,


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Homebody/Kabul imagines a possible solution to the search for a common language: Mahala, who only knows a few English words, and Milton, who, in contrast to Mahala, does not speak French, Arabic, Pashto, or Dari, manage to talk about the dire straits she and, by extension, the Afghan people are in by means of the Dewey Decimal System. Mahala is familiar with this international library ‘language’ because of her former profession, while to Milton, as a computer specialist, numerical sequences are dearer than actual words. Ironically, it is this ‘language’ consisting of binary codes —in Mahala’s words, “one nothing nothing one” (125)—that provides a common denominator and serves as a discussion starter. However, because these binary codes do not leave room for shades and nuances, i.e., they do not leave room for dissent, they also resonate with Mahala’s traumatic experiences in Afghanistan. In the safety zone of the London apartment, it is this newly liberated Afghan woman who most powerfully speaks out against any form of totalizing theory. When discussing the current political situation of Afghanistan with Priscilla, the latter exclaims: “Sometimes I think they’re what Afghanistan needs, the Taliban. Anything anything for certainty. I get the appeal of fascism now. Uncertainty kills” (138). With her retort, “As does certainty. They’re like the communists, the Taliban. One idea for the whole world” (138), Mahala forcefully rejects Priscilla’s defeatist and reactionary thoughts. Although this seems to be a logical reaction given her experiences under a totalitarian regime, Mahala’s condemnation of ideology and her defense of a dialectic between certainty and uncertainty as the only way to make change possible (Stevenson 769) can also be read as a comment on the West or, to be more precise, on the Bush administration’s Manichean thinking, the “black-andwhite certaint[y]” (Fisher, Understanding 80), the ‘us vs. them’ rhetoric so prominent in the aftermath of the events of 9/11. Ultimately, by articulating her dissent, Mahala reminds the audience of the necessity to listen to the undertones and subdued voices in order to allow for a better understanding and a peaceful coexistence in an ever-changing, polyphonic world. All in all, Homebody/Kabul raises vexing questions about ourselves, our society, and about those opposed to our way of life. It draws attention to how the personal is inextricably linked to the political and how the body politic impacts on the individual. While the critique of the West’s historical and contemporary engagement with and scandalous neglect of Afghanistan looms large in the play, Homebody/Kabul is far from claiming to be immune to the attitudes and sentiments it seeks to change. It does not depict the Taliban characters as sympathetic or pitiable victims of Western imperialism. At the same time, however, the play draws a decidedly more complex picture of the current geopolitical situation than the one perpetuated by Western government officials or the media. Given this, the play perfectly exemplifies Tony Kushner’s politics of dissent.

Politics of Dissent


Works Cited Auslander, Philip. From Acting to Performance: Essays in Modernism and Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1997. Print. Bennett, Michael Y. “The Minoritarian Linguist in Translation: Homebody/Kabul’s Answer to Deleuze and Guattari.” Rhizomes 20 (2010): n. pag. Web. 12 May 2013. Bloom, Harold, ed. Tony Kushner. Philadelphia: Chelsea, 2005. Print. Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications, 1985. Print. Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. and trans. John Willett. New York: Hill, 1964. Print. ---. “A Short Organum for the Theatre.” Brecht, Brecht 179-208. ---. “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction.” Brecht, Brecht 69-76. Colleran, Jeanne, and Jenny S. Spencer. Introduction. Staging Resistance: Essays on Political Theater. Ed. Colleran and Spencer. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998. 1-10. Print. Cunningham, Michael. “Thinking about Fabulousness.” Vorlicky 62-76. Fanger, Iris. “Prophetic ‘Homebody/Kabul.’” Christian Science Monitor. Christian Science, 28 Dec. 2001. Web. 5 Apr. 2013. Fisher, James. “‘Succumbing to Luxury’: History, Language, and Hope in Homebody/Kabul.” Fisher, Tony Kushner 190-200. ---, ed. Tony Kushner: New Essays on the Art and Politics of the Plays. Jefferson: McFarland, 2006. Print. ---. Understanding Tony Kushner. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2008. Print. Green, Jesse. “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Himself.” NYMag. New York, 17 Oct. 2010. Web. 31 Dec. 2014. Haas, Astrid. Stages of Agency: The Contributions of American Drama to the AIDS Discourse. Heidelberg: Winter, 2011. Print. Heilpern, John. “Homebody/Kabul Returns to a World That Lost Its Mind.” New York Observer. New York Observer, 31 May 2004. Web. 10 May 2013. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. Print. Juntunen, Jacob. “Repairing Reality: The Media and Homebody/Kabul in New York, 2001.” Fisher, Tony Kushner 172-89. Kelleher, Joe. Theatre and Politics. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2009. Print. Kirby, Michael. “On Political Theater.” Drama Review 19.2 (1975): 129-35. Print. Klüßendorf, Ricarda. “The Great Work Begins”: Tony Kushner’s Theater for Change in America. Trier: WVT, 2007. Print. Kushner, Tony. Afterword. Kushner, Homebody 141-49. ---. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications, 1995. Print. ---. Homebody/Kabul. New York: Theatre Communications, 2004. Print. ---. “Notes about Political Theater.” Kenyon Review 14.3-4 (1997): 19-34. Print. ---. “On Pretentiousness.” Kushner, Thinking 55-79. ---. “Some Questions about Tolerance.” Kushner, Thinking 41-48. Print. ---. Thinking about the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness: Essays, a Play, Two Poems, and a Prayer. New York: Theatre Communications, 1995. Print. Lavey, Martha. Foreword. Kushner, Homebody ix-xi.


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Middeke, Martin, et al., eds. Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print. Minwalla, Framji. “Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul: Staging History in a PostColonial World.” Bloom 161-78. Phillips, Barbara D. “Devils in America: Taliban Lunacy Foreshadowed.” Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones, 21 Dec. 2001. Web. 10 May 2013. Phillips, M. Scott. “The Failure of History: Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul and the Apocalyptic Context.” Modern Drama 47.1 (2004): 1-20. Print. Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Ed. and trans. Steven Corcoran. London: Continuum, 2010. Print. Saal, Ilka. New Deal Theater: The Vernacular Tradition in American Political Theater. New York: Macmillan, 2007. Print. Savran, David. “Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation.” Bloom 15-42. Steindler, Catherine. “Tony Kushner, The Art of Theater No. 16.” Paris Review Summer 2012: n. pag. Web. 5 April 2013. Stevenson, Catherine. “‘Seek for Something New’: Mothers, Change, and Creativity in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Homebody/Kabul, and Caroline, or Change.” Modern Drama 48.4 (2005): 758-76. Print. Vorlicky, Robert, ed. Tony Kushner in Conversation. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998. Print. Weber, Carl. “I Always Go Back to Brecht.” Vorlicky 105-24.



Objectivism, Narrative Agency, and the Politics of Choice in the Video Game BioShock Abstract: In this article, I investigate the video game BioShock for its political and cultural work and argue that it offers a popular platform to discuss the politically charged question of choice, both inside and outside the realm of video games. In a first section, I introduce the game’s basic plot and setting, propose a way to study how video games operate narratively, and briefly discuss the ‘political’ dimension of games in general. Afterwards, I look at how BioShock is influenced by Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, a philosophy that emphasizes the importance of individual choice and self-interest, and I trace this influence specifically in the game’s main antagonist, Andrew Ryan, and its setting, the underwater city of Rapture. With these elements as a basis, I analyze how BioShock engages with the politics of choice, focusing on a major twist scene in the game to demonstrate how BioShock deals with the question of choice on a metatextual level. Reading this scene in the context of the game’s overall narrative, specifically of moral choices in the game that lead to different endings, I argue that the game metatextually connects the political question of choice inherent in objectivism to the narrative and the playing of the game, pointing to the ambivalences inherent in questions of choice, agency, and free will.

Introduction Published in 2007 by 2K Games and developed by Irrational Games, the video game BioShock has been an immense critical and commercial success, having been lauded by scholars and reviewers alike as “the masterpiece of recent gaming” (Tavinor 91) and as a title that can “hold its head high among the best games ever made” (Schiesel). The game’s “immense popularity” (Aldred and Greenspan 483)—having sold more than four million copies (Remo)—is often attributed to two core factors: its engaging story (combined with its general interest in and exploration of how narratives in video games work) as well as the carefully crafted world that it presents and lets players explore, a world that is influenced by Ayn Rand’s political philosophy of objectivism. Accordingly, BioShock has been discussed as exhibiting a “complex, sophisticated and intertextual narrative world” (Kraus 90) and as demonstrating a “complex engagement with broad political ideas” and problematizing “ideologies of individualism” (Tulloch 34). Likewise, scholars regard it as a game that “raises [...] large questions of free will and choice” (Wysocki and Schandler 205) and that


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“simultaneously celebrates and interrogates utopian notions of technological progress and free will” (Aldred and Greenspan 479). Overall, it has thus been praised for combining ‘serious’ political ideas with the ‘popular’ medium of the video game, leading a reviewer of the Chicago Sun-Times to state: “I never once thought anyone would be able to create an engaging and entertaining video game around the fiction and philosophy of Ayn Rand, but that is essentially what 2K Games has done . . . the rare, mature video game that succeeds in making you think while you play” (qtd. in Kraus 91). In this article, I will investigate this highly popular video game for its ‘political’ dimension, that is, for the political and cultural work it does and for the (meta)textual quality of its politicality. BioShock depicts a world influenced by Ayn Rand’s philosophy, which has recently gone through a renaissance in American discourse and which foregrounds the importance of individualism, individual choice, and the pursuit of what Rand calls ‘rational self-interest.’ The game thus deals with both Rand’s actual ideas and the related, more general questions of choice, free will, and agency. At the same time, through its narrative and the mechanics of its medium (the gameplay), it connects both the concrete issues concerning Rand’s objectivism and the related more abstract questions to a metatextual discussion of the nature of choice and narrative in video games: The game performs its ‘political’ ideas (revolving around objectivism and thus the question of choice) on a metatextual level as well (in the agency and the choices that players do and do not have). Before delving into a narrative analysis of BioShock specifically, I will first introduce the game’s basic plot and setting while also briefly discussing how video games’ narrative elements can generally be investigated and to what extent games can be considered ‘political.’ Subsequently, in order to discuss how the game references and criticizes Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, I will look at the influence of her philosophical and political ideology on the character of Andrew Ryan and on the depiction of BioShock’s city of Rapture. Finally, I will uncover how the game engages with ‘political’ questions even beyond objectivism and in reference to video games and textuality in general by analyzing BioShock’s narrative and gameplay in closer detail, specifically discussing the game’s ‘twist’ scene and the choice players have in dealing with the so-called Little Sisters. In doing so, I will argue that BioShock uses Ayn Rand’s political philosophy in order to offer a popular platform for elaborate discussions of choice, free will, and agency, of how much choice or agency one can have in video games—and the self-consciously metatextual quality of this discussion is what moves this question beyond video games as well. While evading a clear answer to the questions it so productively poses, the game points to the ambivalences inherent in agency and choice, emphasizing that ‘absolute’ free will or agency are illusory.

The Politics of Choice in the Video Game BioShock


BioShock, Narrativity, and ‘Politics’ in Video Games BioShock is set in a science fiction/biopunk world in which players assume the role of the game’s protagonist Jack, the only survivor of a plane crash over the ocean, and follow his perspective in exploring an enormous underwater city called Rapture. The game is a first-person shooter, that is, players play in first-person mode, as Jack, seeing what he sees, being constricted to what he is able to experience. As a shooter game, combating many of Rapture’s mostly deranged inhabitants (called ‘splicers’) makes up the majority of BioShock’s gameplay, yet the exploration of the world and progressing through the game’s various levels takes on an almost equally prominent role. In the game’s story, players learn that Rapture was built by the egomaniac businessman Andrew Ryan in the 1950s to escape the apparently looming threats of socialism and the US government’s variant of capitalism with its state-sponsored social programs. Jack enters Rapture in the year 1960 and is assisted by a man called Atlas helping him navigate through the city and fight against Ryan, who suspects Jack to be a spy and sends many of his forces to combat the player. Along the way, Jack finds out more and more about the world of Rapture and how it has been ravaged by the misuse of genetically modifying serums called ‘plasmids’ as well as by a civil war that pitted Ryan against a man called Frank Fontaine, the leader of the opposition to Ryan’s regime, who was killed by Ryan a few years prior to Jack entering Rapture. During the course of the story, players learn what has happened to Rapture and its inhabitants and uncover the truth about many of the main characters, including the identity of their player avatar, Jack. In order to understand how BioShock narratively operates as a video game and how it presents its world of Rapture, I will make use of the narratological concept of the storyworld.1 David Herman refers to storyworlds as the “mental models of who did what to and with whom, when, where, why, and in what fashion in the world to which interpreters relocate [...] as they work to comprehend a narrative” (9). In this sense, the concept of the 1

Discussing video games in terms of narratives and narrativity in general is a longstanding point of contention in the field of game studies. The question whether video games can be understood as narratives—or as having narrative elements—at all has been heatedly discussed as part of the so-called ludology vs. narratology debate. For the purpose of this article, I do not wish to engage in this debate but will instead look specifically at the narrative elements that BioShock undoubtedly has, without wanting to address the formalist question of what games like BioShock ‘are,’ which is what much of the debate is implicitly about. At the same time, however, I will also pay attention to the unique elements of the medium of the video game that complicate more traditional understandings of narrative. For detailed explorations of the early phases of game studies that also include details of the ludology vs. narratology debate, cf., e.g., Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith, and Tosca 189-204; Wolf and Perron 2-13; or Mäyrä 5-11.


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storyworld focuses on the role of readers of a text in “trying to make sense of a narrative” as they “attempt to reconstruct not just what happened [...] but also the surrounding context or environment embedding existents, their attributes, and the actions and events in which they are more or less centrally involved” (13-14). Thus, this concept draws attention to the process of creating an understanding of how the story, the characters, and the setting in a text come together. While storyworlds have ‘traditionally’ been used to analyze novels, the concept can also be employed to investigate how video games narrate:2 As players play through a game, the world that is presented to them instigates a mental process of (re)creating what is being (aurally and visually) witnessed as the storyworld of the game. Focusing on the storyworld of a game—instead of focusing on the narrative—is especially productive because it complements two of the most important narrative characteristics of video games. For one, video games are an interactive medium, that is, they depend on the player’s (physical) input in order to ‘work’ as a game. 3 Although different for every video game, generally, this inherent aspect of the medium leads to nonlinearity in a game’s narrative—a player might decide to venture to a specific part of a game’s world first and then to another, but another player (or the same player in another playthrough) might do it the other way round, experiencing the narrative in a different order. In some games, such decisions or choices will then also lead to different narrative outcomes, for instance to multiple different endings to one game. In this sense, video games often do not have one ‘fixed,’ linear narrative to which one could refer. Focusing not so much (just) on this narrative but on the storyworld and thus on the process of how players construct such a narrative (as part of the storyworld) allows for more flexibility in understanding and analyzing how games operate narratively. Secondly, video games generally place a large emphasis on space in their storytelling (cf., e.g., Jenkins), and the active exploration (not just the witnessing) of space takes up a considerable part of many games. Likewise, how players of a game learn about what has happened in a game’s fictional universe is also commonly transmitted through the careful exploration of parts of the world, and often, such exploration is an optional element of the game, which ties this aspect back to games’ nonlinearity. Ultimately, using the concept of the storyworld facilitates a focus 2 3

Cf. Ryan and Thon for examples of investigations of storyworlds in different kinds of media as well as in transmedia environments. This notion of interactivity is also not without controversy in game studies (cf., e.g., Aarseth 48-49), as is the related concept of nonlinearity, and different terminologies and models for understanding what exactly it is that makes (video) games different from other media have been proposed. Since this is not the place to discuss these in detail, I will instead only focus on how BioShock uses its interactive potential as a video game, which I will accordingly look at in the following chapters.

The Politics of Choice in the Video Game BioShock


not on how players recreate a game’s narrative but on how they recreate a game’s fictional world (as the storyworld) in which that narrative—among others elements such as characters and locations—unfolds, allowing to take space into consideration as an aspect of storytelling. In general, by looking at the narrative and gameplay of BioShock, I also want to emphasize the ‘political’ potential and the cultural and political work of video games in general.4 As a relatively new medium, video games are sometimes dismissed as childish, trivial, not ‘serious,’ or a waste of time (cf. Purchese) and are seen by some as “frivolous, pointless, or unsophisticated things,” as Tavinor summarizes (92). While such normative assessments of video games seem quite unproductive academically, instances of this argument also come up in scholarly discussions, partly perhaps because the allegedly nonserious ‘playfulness’ of postmodernism is sometimes confused with the ‘playing’ inherent in video games, with the activity of ‘play’ in general (cf. Huizinga). 5 Such traces of dismissing video games also appear in discussions of BioShock, visible for instance in the aforementioned Chicago Sun-Times review talking about “the rare, mature video game” (qtd. in Kraus 91; emphasis mine). Similarly, some scholars allege that “BioShock appears an unlikely philosophical text” because it “at first seems indistinguishable from the majority of other first-person shooters” (Packer 210) and that, “[a]t first glance, BioShock might appear to be an unlikely game for deep examination” as it is “primarily a firstperson shooter with a strong undercurrent of survival-horror” (Wysocki and Schandler 200). They do not conclusively explain, however, why one would deem such a game (or any game in general) “unlikely for deep examination” in the first place. While these scholarly allegations of nonseriousness are thus almost always only implicit, the general suspicion remains that video games are not a medium necessarily to be taken serious. By taking a look at the ‘politics’ of BioShock, I want to stress that even if video games always have to be played in order to work as games, this does not mean that playing them is in itself only a ‘playful’—in the sense of nonserious—activity. To the contrary, video games can be seen as a very political medium, partly of course because of its immense commercial 4


For Paul Lauter, looking at the cultural work of a text entails asking how it “helps construct the frameworks, fashion the metaphors, create the very language by which people comprehend their experiences and think about their world” (11; cf. also Tompkins). Similarly, I understand looking at the political work that a text does as investigating how it enables political discussion, how it performs politics, and how it can also be considered ‘political’ on a narrative or textual level—aspects of a text that one could also understand as part of its cultural work. In this sense, many of the arguments brought up specifically against video games are very much in line with similar ‘allegations’ against popular culture in general. Specifically, some of these arguments, which are presumably about video games’ textuality, are, in fact, ‘standard’ arguments against popular culture only utilizing the metaphor of ‘play.’

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popularity,6 which firmly ties it to the consumer logics of production and reception. More importantly, I understand them as ‘political’ in a more abstract sense: The interactive, nonlinear nature of many video games demands an ‘active’ engagement with the medium by its players; it fosters an active audience similar to other contemporary texts that have readers “participat[e] in a text’s negotiation of meaning” (Herrmann, Kanzler, and Usbeck 8), and even inherently so due to the (not just mental but also ‘physical’) interactivity of the medium. In this vein, video games can also be seen as part of new forms of textuality that are being negotiated in contemporary American culture. ‘Playing,’ in this sense, can certainly be a serious and a political activity, as the case of BioShock will demonstrate.

Rand’s Objectivism and Ryan’s Rapture To understand how BioShock engages with Ayn Rand’s ideas of objectivism, I will first briefly discuss some of the most important elements of her philosophy—or at least those elements that are often associated with objectivism and that have made it popular. Rand mainly expressed her philosophy in her novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). Some of the important tenets of objectivism are a belief in rational self-interest, that is, in the pursuit of one’s own happiness, and in the importance of individualism and individual choice. Rand thus sharply criticizes socialism, in which, in her view, the happiness of a collective—of everybody—is foregrounded, and also types of capitalism that include state-sponsored social programs and a redistribution of wealth, both of which are forms of ‘collectivism’ for Rand (Packer 213). Instead, the only form of an economy and indeed a government style that suits objectivism is completely unregulated laissez-faire capitalism in which wealthy members of society are considered ‘productive’ and cannot be obligated to compensate for the less wealthy and supposedly ‘unproductive’ and ‘undeserving’ ones. This political dimension of the more complex overall ideas of objectivism7 is how Ayn Rand is most often evoked in public debates, and it is also the way BioShock’s world has been influenced by it—in a way, one could see this as a popular understanding of objectivism. Rand’s ideas, in whatever ways, 6 7

As Arthur Asa Berger notes, “[m]ost people are surprised to find out that the video game industry is larger than the film industry” (24). Thijs van den Berg, for instance, summarizes other parts of the philosophy as claiming that “reality exists independently from the subject, that this reality is knowable to the subject through a unique perspective of observation and reason that help to determine the subject’s chances of survival. This, in turn, claims Rand, allows us to conclude that the individual, within a social context, has an unalienable right to protect the products of his or her reason so as to maximize chances of survival” (par. 7). The idea of such an ‘objectively’ knowable reality is also where the term ‘objectivism’ comes from.

The Politics of Choice in the Video Game BioShock


are relevant to this day and have recently seen a resurgence in American discourse.8 This influence of objectivism is also visible in the fact that a game like BioShock takes it up as a subject and engages with its underlying ideas. On the surface, objectivist ideas in BioShock are most visible in two narrative elements, the figure of Andrew Ryan and the city of Rapture that he built and that players explore in the game. Players learn about Ryan’s core beliefs and his motivation for constructing Rapture through numerous ways in the game, most prominently via quotes by him displayed throughout the world, through so-called audio diaries with messages recorded by him that players can obtain, and, more directly, as Ryan later communicates with the player character with the help of a shortwave radio. In the beginning of the game, as players navigate Jack through the water and towards a lighthouse after the plane crash, a banner displays the words “No gods or kings. Only Man,” a first indication of the importance of individuals and the rejection of religion and state rule (in the form of monarchy). Subsequently, as players board a bathysphere to reach the underwater city, they hear a recorded voice-over by Ryan further building on these ideas: I am Andrew Ryan, and I’m here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? “No,” says the man in Washington, “it belongs to the poor.” “No,” says the man in the Vatican, “it belongs to God.” “No,” says the man in Moscow, “it belongs to everyone.” I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose . . . Rapture. A city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small.

Ryan’s speech—the first words players hear from him in the game—is also the first of many indications that he believes in objectivist ideas, with Washington, the Vatican, and Moscow metonymically standing for statesponsored capitalism in the United States, religion, and communism in the Soviet Union, respectively, all of which Ryan rejects. His phrasing that “the great would not be constrained by the small” closely mirrors Ayn Rand’s idea of rational self-interest and the privileging of the most ‘productive’ members of society. The rejection of ‘collectivism’ inherent in Ryan’s dismissal of the United States and the Soviet Union and, instead, the focus on individual entitlement and self-determination are the cornerstones of Ryan’s ideology, which also closely mirrors the popular understanding of Rand’s political ideas. Ryan’s ideas are illuminated in similar ways in other instances of the game, and along with them, BioShock also features a few more direct allusions to Rand’s works. For example, as scholars like Joseph 8

For instance, Joseph Packer argues that the “economic recession of 2008 and subsequent government bailouts have brought a renewed popular interest in Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism” (209); likewise, van den Berg notes that “[m]ore recently, Rand gained further notoriety through the Tea Party movement” (par. 15).


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Packer have noted, the name Andrew Ryan is “almost an anagram of Ayn Rand” (213); the character of Atlas refers to the title of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and, at the same time, posters in the game asking “Who is Atlas?” mirror the famous question “Who is John Galt?” in Rand’s novel (215); and “[l]ater in the game the player learns that like Rand, Ryan was born in the Soviet Union and fled to the United States” (214). BioShock engages with the ideas of objectivism not just via the character of Andrew Ryan but even more pervasively through the city of Rapture and by how players go about exploring that city (in which the whole game is set). In the game’s diegesis, Ryan envisioned Rapture as an objectivist utopia, and this influence can be traced by players as they progress through the game. Crucially, compared to the characterization of Ryan, the game is subtler in how it depicts Rapture as objectivist, since players learn about the different locations and inhabitants as well as the history of Rapture only through careful exploration and attention to detail; the game does not ‘force’ these elements onto the player (as would be the case, for instance, if the game explained the city’s history in unskippable cutscenes). Players familiarize themselves with Rapture and its history by paying close attention to the environments, for instance to banners displaying objectivisminspired messages (such as “Altruism is the root of all wickedness”); by overhearing conversations between other characters; and especially by listening to the audio diaries scattered around the city. Many of these elements are optional; for example, some of the audio diaries are quite well hidden within the different levels of the game and can only be obtained if players are willing to stray from the main path of the game from time to time. In this sense, how players narratively explore Rapture can vary in different playthroughs, and accordingly, two players of the game (or one player in multiple playthroughs) might construct a different storyworld of the game, filled with variable levels of information regarding the setting, the characters, and some of the events that have happened before players arrived in Rapture. If players do engage with the history of Rapture, they learn that Rapture was built as a city in which every inhabitant should follow his or her own interest, uninhibited by others, pursuing their own happiness without having to take social responsibility for others—but crucially, the game depicts Rapture after its ‘fall,’ that is, after Ryan’s objectivist experiment has apparently failed. What players witness of his utopian objectivist dream is instead decidedly dystopian.9 The city has been ravaged and plundered after a civil war, and many of its localities have decayed, a decay that is pervasively symbolized by masses of water in Rapture: As Evan Watts 9

Cf. Aldred and Greenspan or Schmeink for detailed studies of BioShock as a dystopia. Schmeink also reads BioShock as part of the alternate history genre; cf. Lizardi for another study that also analyzes the games in the BioShock series as alternate histories.

The Politics of Choice in the Video Game BioShock


points out, “scorched debris, bullet-riddled corpses, and cracks gushing ocean water into the city [...] serve as aesthetic reminders of the failure not just of the structural integrity of Rapture, but of the ideology on which it was formed” (254), and Thijs van den Berg likewise notes the “pervasive presence of seawater that is seeping into Rapture’s submerged buildings” and that “is persistently reminding the player of the fact that Rapture’s structure is failing” (par. 11). Rapture’s laissez-faire capitalism eventually led to ruthless business practices and to the overpricing of basic needs like food and healthcare, quickly turning life problematic for the city’s less fortunate population. Likewise, many essential jobs were unfilled because the entitled citizens of Rapture deemed them beneath them—as the character Frank Fontaine puts it in an audio diary players can find in his apartment: “[S]omebody’s gotta scrub the toilets.” The city of Rapture thus appears as an embodiment of objectivism taken to its extreme, an exaggerated depiction of “the irony of an objectivist utopia running amok” (Tavinor 92). Consequently, this aspect of the game can most evidently be read as a “thorough critique of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism” (Packer 210). 10 The criticism of an (over)reliance on self-interest and individualism, perhaps especially in a time of “renewed popular interest in Ayn Rand’s philosophy” (Packer 209), is one way in which the game can clearly be understood as doing political work, as it can be interpreted as “a rebuke and rejection of Randian thought in a time where it is resurgent amongst American right wing, neo-liberalist and neo-conservative politicians, economists and media pundits” (Tulloch 30). Yet while these engagements with objectivism are already quite sophisticated and at least partly take place beneath the ‘surface’ of the game, BioShock also engages in an elaborate ‘political’ discussion about more abstract and general matters such as choice, free will, and agency in the game’s overall narrative and gameplay, which I will turn to now.

BioShock and the Politics of Choice The most significant complication of how BioShock deals with objectivism and its underlying principles occurs in a scene that happens roughly two thirds into the game, in what is commonly referred to as the major ‘twist’ in the game’s plot. In this scene, after having tried to reach Ryan for most of the game, players finally locate him in his office. Through a window, they 10 However, as Packer notes, the gameplay of BioShock can also be analyzed as engaging with objectivism, and it is an aspect often overlooked (in favor of the narrative elements) in discussions of the game. For instance, he reads the abundance of weapons that are part of the gameplay as “a critique of Objectivism by illustrating that if governments abandoned control over defense and access to guns, those with the most weapons would dominate” (216). Cf. Packer 215-21 and van den Berg, par. 19-22 for a more detailed ‘political’ reading of BioShock’s gameplay.


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look at Ryan calmly playing golf as he explains to Jack the truth about Jack’s identity, which Ryan has recently found out for himself. Ryan ponders whether Jack has come to kill him on his own accord or whether he is just following orders, summarized in his question: “What separates a man from a slave? Money? Power? No. A man chooses, a slave obeys.” Accordingly, he asks Jack whether “a man [was] sent to kill or a slave,” thus questioning Jack’s motives and memories, asking if he has really chosen to do what he is about to do. Through Ryan’s allusions, Jack, along with the player, slowly begins to realize the truth: Jack was implanted with false memories and has been deceived by Atlas to do as he commands, having been genetically engineered to follow any order that is accompanied by the phrase ‘would you kindly.’ This phrase has been used casually by Atlas throughout the game to give instructions to Jack, usually without players noticing—and the last time he used it was indeed when he said: “Now would you kindly head to Ryan’s office and kill the son of a bitch?” 11 This twist reveals that it was no coincidence that Jack crash-landed over Rapture; instead, he was genetically modified by Frank Fontaine, Ryan’s long-time rival, for the sole purpose of assassinating Ryan. Directly after this scene, Atlas reveals himself to be Fontaine, having faked his death and having assumed the alias of Atlas to be able to overthrow Ryan with this elaborate plot. Through this scene and other sources, including some of the audio diaries found afterwards, players will eventually piece together further parts of this revelation, among them the fact that Jack did indeed, as Ryan suggests, hijack the airplane and force it to crash; that Jack was born only four years ago and was genetically altered so that he would age much more quickly; and that he is actually Ryan’s illegitimate son from an affair, having been bought off by Fontaine from Jack’s mother when he was still an embryo to train him as an assassin. The way that these plot revelations are presented to players in this scene constitutes a major moment of narrative instability in the game’s storyworld. That is, so far, even though the game did offer some options in terms of how much of the ‘background’ story of Rapture players experience and thus fill the storyworld with, the identities of the main characters Jack, Ryan, and Atlas all were stable constants in that storyworld, as were the reasons for which Jack ventured through Rapture. This moment of revelation significantly changes all of these certainties abruptly, prompts players to reevaluate and revise major narrative elements, and thus destabilizes the overall conception of the game’s storyworld in so far that, for a while, players cannot be exactly certain what has happened in the game’s plot so far—or who the character they are playing as really is. Significantly, this 11 That the trigger for Jack is the phrase ‘would you kindly’ is also meaningful in the larger context of the game: It is, after all, not an order or a command but instead a politely worded request, phrased as a question that actually suggests a choice (one could technically answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’) when, in reality, Jack has none.

The Politics of Choice in the Video Game BioShock


twist moment is stylized in a fashion similar to such moments in texts that also feature narrative instability: As Ryan questions whether Jack’s memories of his childhood are real or whether the airplane really crashed, players see flashbacks of these events on the screen. Likewise, when Ryan reveals the power of the phrase ‘would you kindly,’ they hear and see Atlas’s repeated utterances of these words throughout the game once again, in quick succession to indicate that Jack is currently thinking back to those moments, slowly realizing, along with the player, that Ryan seems to be telling the truth. This is a common trope in narratively unstable texts, and these flashbacks during such a moment of instability equally occur in films like The Sixth Sense (1999) or Fight Club (1999).12 Similar to those films, the game diegetically achieves such a moment of instability in the storyworld through a constant internal focalization of Jack—whatever players witnessed and seemed to know of Rapture, they saw and experienced through his perspective, and accordingly, they were as clueless about his real identity as Jack himself until the moment of revelation. Rowan Tulloch thus summarizes the twist as “reveal[ing] two parallel manipulations: Atlas’ manipulation of Jack, and the game’s manipulation of the player” (33). This internal focalization is also why players see the flashback images on the screen in this scene, signifying an insight into how Jack visualizes his memories in his mind at that moment. In this sense, the close identification of the point of view with this character constitutes an unreliable perspective.13 This revelation that Jack’s actions—which he thought were expressions of his free will—were conditioned by Atlas’s verbal manipulation has significant implications for the game’s engagement with objectivist ideas and related concerns, as do Ryan’s final speech and his subsequent actions. After his lecture, Ryan uses the phrase ‘would you kindly’ to force Jack to kill him with a golf club, and in his dying moments, Ryan repeatedly exclaims his crude motto that “[a] man chooses, a slave obeys.” Significantly, 12 In the twist scene in The Sixth Sense, viewers learn that the film’s protagonist (Malcolm Crowe played by Bruce Willis) has actually been dead all along, and the flashbacks show previous moments of the protagonist interacting with other characters without those characters noticing him. In Fight Club, the twist reveals that the character Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) is not an actual person but a manifestation of the multiple personality disorder of the unnamed protagonist (Edward Norton), and some of the flashback scenes accordingly show the protagonist in situations in which, previously, viewers saw Tyler. I understand both twist scenes in the two films as constituting major moments of narrative instability. For a more detailed examination of such an instability, which I work on in the context of my doctoral research project, cf. Schubert. 13 Significantly, though, after Ryan’s revelations, the game relatively quickly reestablishes a stable storyworld in which all of these discoveries are privileged by the game as the dominant interpretation of what happened in the game’s plot. This is also similar to how films with singular moments of instability like The Sixth Sense and Fight Club work.


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his belief in the importance of free will and choice go so far that he consciously chooses to die as long as he can expose and mock Jack’s lack of agency in the matter, since for him, only a human being with choice is really a “[hu]man.”14 In the context of the objectivist idealizing of choice and free will, the scene is a pointed exaggeration of this ideology by portraying Ryan as believing that one’s death by choice is superior to a life without choices. Yet the game also develops these thoughts about the supposed importance of choice and agency on a metatextual level: Crucially, players have no control whatsoever in the scene in which Jack kills Ryan. Normally, in the game, players navigate Jack through the various environments and listen as characters sometimes interact with him; this is also how they listen to Ryan through the window in his room while he is playing golf—players can still move around the room they are standing in at that point. However, once Ryan’s initial speech is finished and he starts demonstrating the power of the phrase ‘would you kindly,’ a cutscene is shown: Players now simply have to watch Jack follow Ryan’s orders, without being able to control the character’s movements or actions at all. Cutscenes are commonly used in video games to convey significant parts of the story, but they have often been criticized as quintessentially noninteractive (cf. Klevjer), as “temporarily steal[ing] away the player’s agency” (Tavinor 103), and they are rarely used in BioShock. Switching to a cutscene in this moment to show how the player character Jack brutally kills Ryan is thus a deliberate decision of the game to demonstrate that not only are players unable to choose whether to kill Ryan, they do not even have control over the player character while he is forced to perform these actions—Jack kills Ryan without any input from the player. By generally closely aligning the player’s and Jack’s experience through the constant internal focalization of Jack, the 14 Ryan’s usage of the word ‘man’ to mean ‘human’ is of course telling in itself, since it excludes women from the questions of choice and agency. It aligns with a general lack of female voices in the game, as the positions of power in the struggle for Rapture are mostly filled by men (like Ryan or Fontaine). However, interestingly, while both of these ‘powerful’ men die at the end of the game, the most significant female character, Brigid Tenenbaum, survives, and she is the one who narrates the game’s epilogue(s), a point I will briefly come back to later. Generally, how gender is represented in the game and in objectivist ideas is an interesting topic worth pursuing, but unfortunately outside of the scope of this article. For a brief investigation of gender in BioShock, cf. Watts. Likewise, questions of ‘race’ and ethnicity in the game seem equally productive to engage with further. Most prominently, Ryan’s drastic use of the word ‘slave’ to signify a person who is without any potential for choice or agency (and to thus implicitly claim that slaves are not human) is equally problematic and highly simplistic, especially given the history of slavery in the US. For an insight into how complex and ambivalent such constructions of agency are, cf. Bast, who offers a specific exploration of agency in the neo-slave narrative Kindred that, among other aspects, discusses the complexities of agency in the context of the historical enslavement of African Americans in the US.

The Politics of Choice in the Video Game BioShock


scene also works to transmit Jack’s lack of agency to the player: In the same way that Jack has been revealed to compulsively follow orders accompanied by the words ‘would you kindly,’ the player in this scene is exposed as having no real control over the player character—or the game’s narrative, for that matter. The scene thus makes this predicament metatextually obvious, it consciously ‘mocks’ players for their lack of control in this scene.15 Taking away player control in this significant scene when a large part of the game so far had been about the player’s choices in exploring the world is crucial for the game’s interest in discussing notions of choice and agency. Jack cannot stop himself from killing Ryan because he uses the phrase ‘would you kindly,’ just as Atlas/Fontaine has throughout the game. This revelation points back to how the whole game’s narrative has worked so far: BioShock provides the player with certain choices in terms of exploring the narrative and (actively) constructing the storyworld. Generally, almost all video games strive to create what scholars in game studies often call the ‘illusion’ of choice and narrative agency (cf. Atkins 44; Domsch 42, 90)— players are supposed to feel in control of playing the game and exploring its world. However, I would argue that this ‘illusion’ is actually best understood as a textual effect, as a perception, because players, of course, will never be able to do everything in a game; BioShock’s main story line is linear and ‘fixed.’ Yet through the choices in narrative exploration, the game does offer a heightened sense of this ‘illusion,’ the feeling or perception of being able to influence and choose between things, regardless of one’s actual capacity to affect them. Throughout most of the game, players were effectively under this illusion of choice, of navigating the game’s narrative (and world), while the twist suggests that Jack—and by extension the player—simply followed Atlas’s orders and could not have done anything else. The scene thus metatextually points to the issue of choice and agency in video games in general by basically proclaiming that there is none, only the illusion or perception of it: “[T]he assumption, both of the player-character and of the player, of 15 This ‘mockery’ is also intensified by making players aware of their naiveté in ‘blindly’ following Atlas’s instructions throughout the game. As Rowan Tulloch argues, Atlas’s function in the beginning of the game is similar to that of a tutorial, which players might expect to receive from their experience of playing similar games, since Atlas “guides the player’s actions and choices” by telling the player where to go and what to do, and thus, “like a tutorial or manual for most players he is unquestioningly followed” (29). Not only are players thus encouraged to ‘believe’ Atlas as a character, but on a different, in a way extradiegetic, level, he gains additional ‘trust’ because players assume his role is similar to that of a tutorial, to a ‘neutral’ instance guiding players through the game. Of course, players actually had no choice in following Atlas’s instructions, but the scene in which Jack confronts Ryan can only work as a twist if players were indeed willing to follow Atlas ‘blindly.’


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the ability to exert agency and operate based on choice and free will [...] has been an illusion from the start” (Watts 256; cf. also Tulloch 33). In this scene, BioShock self-consciously plays with the fourth wall, making it very difficult for players to suspend their disbelief. This constitutes a moment of metatextual instability in that the game foregrounds the very fact that players are currently playing a fictional game, over which, in the moment of killing Ryan, they have no control or choice, in turn prompting them to reevaluate how much choice they have had in the game so far at all. 16 This part of the game thus works to metatextually transfer the political question of choice inherent in its objectivism-inspired world and its narrative to the level of the player engaging in the game. While this scene—and the game overall—has been investigated by scholars as a critique of objectivism, when taking a step back and seeing BioShock’s twist in the larger context of its overall narrative and gameplay, I contend that the game is not just interested in a critique of objectivism but more invested in a discussion of the underlying issues of choice, agency, and free will. While the twist reveals that Jack (and players with him) had no choice in reaching Ryan and killing him, it would be too simplistic to go along with Ryan’s dichotomy and to thus assert that players in the game have no choice, that as players of BioShock, “we are ultimately slaves” (Aldred and Greenspan 490)—or even that “games make slaves of us all” (Wysocki and Schandler 206). Instead, Ryan’s politics are not the game’s, and BioShock paints a more complicated and nuanced picture concerning 16 This twist scene has also been criticized by some scholars as a flaw of the game for not giving players a choice in Jack’s actions, yet in my reading of BioShock, this is exactly the point: Taking away player agency in this sequence is a conscious and deliberate decision by the game in order to problematize this very lack. Clint Hocking, for instance, also recognizes that in this scene, “[t]he game openly mocks us for having willingly suspended our disbelief in order to enjoy it,” but he portrays the fact that players “do not have the freedom to choose” as “a serious problem” in the context of the game’s narrative and ultimately as “insulting.” Similarly, Matthew Wysocki and Matthew Schandler lament that “the gamer does not even have control over the moment of confrontation” and state that “[w]hat is problematic [...] is that when Ryan encourages us to ‘Choose or obey’ we cannot. When it comes time to actually consider our options, agency and control have been taken away from us” (204). However, they seemingly fail to see the meaning behind this design, that this is deliberately so in the overall context of the game, that “there is a point to be made by the player’s sudden lack of freedom: they are a pawn in the fictional world of the game” (Tavinor 103), and that thus, in this scene, the game is more interested in a metatextual argument about choice in video games than in actually giving players a choice. In addition, I would also argue that the scene ultimately leads not to frustration among players but, in fact, to pleasure—pleasure through a recognition of how the game has managed to so convincingly ‘trick’ players until the moment of the twist. In this sense, this pleasure derives from the “operational aesthetic,” from “watch[ing] the gears at work, marveling at the craft required to pull off such narrative pyrotechnics,” as Jason Mittell notes in his seminal article on narrative complexity (35).

The Politics of Choice in the Video Game BioShock


choice overall: How it deals with choice on the level of its narrative (and, e.g., via the character of Ryan) is different from how the overall game metatextually depicts choice. As mentioned before, even if players in each playthrough will always have to watch Jack kill Ryan, which areas of the game before and after they explore in detail is their own choice. While certainly a less ‘important’ narrative element than the scene involving Ryan’s death, these choices do lead to some narrative nonlinearity in that the storyworld will consist of different elements regarding Rapture and its inhabitants. Additionally, there is an even more obvious and important choice in the game concerning the fate of the so-called Little Sisters. The Little Sisters are young girls who have been genetically altered and who roam around Rapture to collect a substance called ADAM from corpses. ADAM is used in the production of the powerful plasmids mentioned earlier, which are kinds of serums that can be consumed to gain special powers through genetic modification. While the Little Sisters are harmless themselves, they are accompanied by large bodyguards (called ‘Big Daddies’), and after defeating these, players can choose whether to ‘harvest’ (i.e., kill) or to rescue the Little Sisters. Killing them will grant the player immediate ADAM to be spent on new plasmids, while rescuing them will initially lead to less ADAM but more rewards at a later stage from the character Brigid Tenenbaum, who created the Little Sisters. In addition, the choice of what to do with the Little Sisters influences the ending of the game. In each of the endings, Jack eventually defeats Frank Fontaine, and all of them feature a voice-over by Tenenbaum. However, if Jack saved all of the Little Sisters, the game shows a somewhat sentimental ending in which some of the Little Sisters return with Jack to the surface and live happily together as a family. If all of the Little Sisters were harvested, a much grimmer ending is shown, in which a power-hungry Jack is depicted as consumed by ADAM and in which another scene shows a nuclear submarine arriving close to where the plane had crashed, only to be attacked by splicers coming out of a bathysphere. If some of the Little Sisters are rescued and some are harvested, the ending is identical to the second one, but the tone of Tenenbaum’s voiceover is less one of anger and more one of disappointment. The question whether to kill or rescue the Little Sisters is an interesting moral choice in itself, and it again relates closely to the game’s preoccupation with objectivist ideas and choice in general. As Grant Tavinor notes, “[t]he Little Sisters are the moral center of Bioshock. How the player deals with them depends on [the player’s] moral notions of rights and fairness. Treated as an economic transaction, an encounter with a Little Sister should be seen a pure gain for the player” (104), and in a sense, one could thus see the decision to harvest them as the ‘objectivist choice’ (Packer 218). On the other hand, “[s]aving the Little Sisters does not have the optimal pay-off in the game-world—it is, properly speaking, an act of altruism” (Tavinor 105). Since the immediate gameplay rewards for killing the Little Sisters are higher, Packer thus notes that “[t]he only incentive to save the Little


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Sisters is a moral one. [...] The decision to save or harvest the Little Sisters inverts traditional video game strategy, because the correct choice (assuming the moral choice is correct) is at odds with success in the game” (219). Packer’s interpretation is insightful in pointing out that the choice involving the Little Sisters “acts to highlight the game’s anti-Objectivist message” (219), yet Packer’s reading of the game, similar to that of Miguel Sicart (160), disregards the impact this choice has on the game’s ending: Even though the gameplay reward might be higher for harvesting the Little Sisters, saving them also offers players a narrative ‘reward’ in reaching a ‘happy ending.’ Accordingly, bringing the possibility of reaching different endings through choices in the game together with the twist scene, what is most important about this possibility is that it does offer players some choice (again, of course, within limits) and thus counteracts the implication of the twist scene (and of Ryan) that Jack, and by extension the player, has no choice at all in what happens to him. Especially after the twist scene, players might be surprised in the end to learn that the choice regarding the Little Sisters also leads to different narrative outcomes, that, in a way, there is a narrative ‘reward’ for choosing morally or, more generally, for choosing at all, and that “[w]hat might have seemed to be merely a gameplay mechanic [...] turns out to be crucial to the game’s narrative resolution” (Tavinor 105).17 Thus, overall, BioShock is a complex engagement with the nature of choice(s) and agency in general and in video games in particular. While it certainly includes criticism of an exaggerated emphasis on self-interest as inherent in objectivism, it moves beyond Ayn Rand’s philosophy and sheds light on the question of choice more generally—and particularly on a metatextual level, by foregrounding the notion of how much agency players 17 The choice surrounding the Little Sisters is also interesting for other aspects that cannot be discussed in detail here. For instance, Wysocki and Schandler point out that the choice is flawed and “remains superficial” because when players need to decide, BioShock “tells you that if you make the moral decision, the game, through NPC Dr. Tenenbaum, will ‘make it worth your while.’ Whatever penalty of less ADAM that is created by choosing to do what is right will be offset by some benefit, even if it is delayed” (203). More generally, van den Berg notes that all of the endings still submit to capitalist logic, since even in the ‘good’ ending, “the player’s reward for choosing the common good over personal advancement is to witness the reinstatement of traditional devices of the retainment of capital and means of production [...] if not linked to the individual, then at least within the confines of the family unit” (par. 26). Jessica Aldred and Brian Greenspan likewise criticize this supposedly ‘good’ ending as a “perverse femtopia that misrecognizes itself as a bourgeois nuclear family” (486). For the other ending, van den Berg notes that “the game’s immediate invocation of nuclear Armageddon [...] is the perfect example of how it has become easier for us to imagine the end of the world rather than the end of capitalist economy” (par. 29). For van den Berg, thus, while BioShock is “capable of offering a critique of laissez-faire capitalism, it is never quite able to imagine its disappearance all together” (par. 27).

The Politics of Choice in the Video Game BioShock


have in playing BioShock (or games in general). The twist scene reveals that players barely have any choices, no actual narrative agency in reaching that point in the game, but the different endings of the game depending on previous choices regarding the Little Sisters do offer some agency to players, although again within the limits of achieving a textual effect of an ‘illusion’ of choice. Hence, the game itself rejects Ryan’s strict dichotomy that “[a] man chooses, a slave obeys,” that one either has choice and agency or that one has none, and paints the question of agency as a much more complex and contradictory matter. It casts agency as an ambivalent issue that constantly oscillates between an autonomous, conscious action (or choice) and the influence other people can have on a person implementing this action, which is thus always realized “within a dialectic of enablement and constraint” (Bast 152). On the level of the narrative, Jack’s agency is complicated by the use of the phrase ‘would you kindly,’ but on a metatextual level, of course, his agency completely hinges on the player, who is actually in control of what Jack does—until that control, already restricted by the game’s general ‘illusion’ of choice, is notably and deliberately taken away in the twist scene. This self-consciously metatextual way of foregrounding the player’s lack of agency and control transfers the general question of the politics of choice from the game’s narrative level to the level of those playing the game, interweaving the game’s politics with its textuality. Overall, then, that players have some choices but are not in control of everything—that ‘absolute’ agency is, in fact, illusory—is true for BioShock but also extends to video games in general—as well as to objectivism and similar political ideologies that foreground the importance of individualism and individual agency.

Conclusion In this article, I have analyzed the video game BioShock for its political and cultural work to demonstrate how it engages in a complex discussion of choice and agency in video games and in political philosophies. BioShock references Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism to depict the city of Rapture and its founder Andrew Ryan, and many of the game’s elements can be understood as a criticism of objectivism and, generally, of an overreliance on individual choice and self-interest. Yet BioShock is not simply interested in objectivism specifically but instead uses it to stage a larger, metatextual project of discussing choice and narrative agency in video games in general. The twist scene, which constitutes a moment of narrative instability, is especially significant in self-consciously highlighting this project, but the overall context of the game’s narrative, particularly the different endings it offers based on a moral choice, complicate a definitive reading of that scene as well. Ultimately, BioShock lays bare how the issues of choice and agency are fraught with ambivalence. As a commercially


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highly successful video game, it functions as a popular platform to engage with these questions and ambivalences in the game itself, in objectivism and other philosophies, and in video games in general, thus demonstrating an interweaving of politicality and textuality in the medium of the video game via a contemporary reflection on the politics of choice.

Works Cited Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997. Print. Aldred, Jessica, and Brian Greenspan. “A Man Chooses, a Slave Obeys: BioShock and the Dystopian Logic of Convergence.” Games and Culture 6.5 (2011): 479-96. Print. Atkins, Barry. More Than a Game: The Computer Game as Fictional Form. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003. Print. Bast, Florian. “‘No.’: The Narrative Theorizing of Embodied Agency in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” Extrapolation 53.2 (2012): 151-81. Print. Berger, Arthur Asa. Video Games: A Popular Culture Phenomenon. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2002. Print. BioShock. Irrational Games. 2K Games, 2007. Video game. Domsch, Sebastian. Storyplaying: Agency and Narrative in Video Games. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013. Print. Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon, Jonas Heide Smith, and Susana Pajares Tosca. Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print. Herman, David. Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2004. Print. Herrmann, Sebastian M., Katja Kanzler, and Frank Usbeck. “Participating Audiences, Imagined Public Spheres: The Cultural Work of Contemporary American(ized) Narratives.” Introduction. Participating Audiences, Imagined Public Spheres: The Cultural Work of Contemporary American(ized) Narratives. Ed. Sebastian M. Herrmann et al. Leipzig: Leipziger Universitatsverlag, 2012. 7-15. Print. Hocking, Clint. “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock: The Problem of What the Game Is About.” Well Played 1.0: Video Games, Value and Meaning. Ed. Drew Davidson. Carnegie Mellon U, 10 Mar. 2009. Web. 12 Mar. 2014. Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1972. Print. Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: MIT P, 2004. 118-30. Print. Klevjer, Rune. “In Defense of Cutscenes.” Proceedings of Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference. Ed. Frans Mäyrä. Tampere: Tampere UP, 2002. 191-202. Print. Kraus, Gérard. “Case Study: Bioshock (2007).” Digital Culture: Understanding New Media. Ed. Glen Creeber and Royston Martin. New York: Open UP, 2008. 8691. Print. Lauter, Paul. From Walden Pond to Jurassic Park: Activism, Culture, and American Studies. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print.

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Lizardi, Ryan. “Bioshock: Complex and Alternate Histories.” Game Studies 14.1 (2014): n. pag. Web. 30 Sept. 2014. Mäyrä, Frans. An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture. London: Sage, 2008. Print. Mittell, Jason. “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” The Velvet Light Trap 58 (2006): 29-40. Print. Packer, Joseph. “The Battle for Galt’s Gulch: Bioshock as Critique of Objectivism.” Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds 2.3 (2010): 209-24. Print. Purchese, Robert. “Games a ‘Colossal Waste of Time.’” Eurogamer.net. Gamer Network, 2 Apr. 2008. Web. 12 Mar. 2014. Remo, Chris. “Take-Two: BioShock Hit 4M Units, BioShock 2 Drove Sales.” Gamasutra. UBM, 3 Mar. 2010. Web. 12 Mar. 2014. Ryan, Marie-Laure, and Jan-Noël Thon, ed. Storyworlds Across Media: Toward a Media-Conscious Narratology. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2014. Print. Schiesel, Seth. “Genetics Gone Haywire and Predatory Children in an Undersea Metropolis.” New York Times. New York Times, 8 Sept. 2007. Web. 12 Mar. 2014. Schmeink, Lars. “Dystopia, Alternate History and the Posthuman in Bioshock.” Current Objectives of Postgraduate American Studies 10 (2009): n. pag. Web. 13 Mar. 2014. Schubert, Stefan. “‘Lose Yourself’: Narrative Instability and Unstable Identities in Black Swan.” Current Objectives of Postgraduate American Studies 14.1 (2013): 1-17. Web. 13 Mar. 2014. Sicart, Miguel. The Ethics of Computer Games. Cambridge: MIT P, 2011. Print. Tavinor, Grant. “Bioshock and the Art of Rapture.” Philosophy and Literature 33.1 (2009): 91-106. Print. Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 17901860. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. Print. Tulloch, Rowan. “‘A Man Chooses, a Slave Obeys’: Agency, Interactivity and Freedom in Video Gaming.” Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds 2.1 (2010): 27-38. Print. van den Berg, Thijs. “Playing at Resistance to Capitalism: BioShock as the Reification of Neoliberal Ideals.” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 12.2 (2012): n. pag. Web. 13 Mar. 2014. Watts, Evan. “Ruin, Gender, and Digital Games.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 39.3-4 (2011): 247-65. Print. Wolf, Mark J. P., and Bernard Perron. Introduction. The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. Wolf and Perron. New York: Routledge, 2003. 1-24. Print. Wysocki, Matthew, and Matthew Schandler. “Would You Kindly? BioShock and the Question of Control.” Ctrl-Alt-Play: Essays on Control in Video Gaming. Ed. Matthew Wysocki. Jefferson: McFarland, 2013. 196-207. Print.


“Our Everyday Is Better Than Your Best Day”: Spectacle and the Politics of Ambiguity on the Tumblr Blog Rich Kids of Instagram Abstract: This article explores the political potential of the Tumblr blog Rich Kids of Instagram (RKOI) by examining its most prominent features, seriality and polysemy, with regard to its most effective strategy of distinction: spectacle. Reading the blog’s sites of ambiguity as the locus of its politics, I argue that RKOI transforms a deeply political fact—the unequal distribution of capital and power—into an issue of ambiguous uncertainty. Furthermore, the images are subject to the “[d]ynamics of [s]erial [o]utbidding” (Kelleter and Jahn-Sudmann) and ultimately become caricatures without sociopolitical referentiality. The blog can thus be seen as an example of the neoliberal depoliticization of inequality.

Introductory Remarks Among the first photographs to appear on Rich Kids of Instagram,1 a Tumblr blog launched in July 2012, is a shot of a young man standing next to a bluish-silver Porsche 911 parked at the edge of a canyon. The caption reads “Best birthday present ever. Best friend ever” (evanpow). This photo can serve as an illustration of both what the blog ostensibly aims to do— offer a space for the spectacular staging of the lifestyle of the very wealthy —and what it sometimes (inadvertently?) does, namely to provide an ironic twist to the spectacle by exposing its parafictional nature, thus calling into question the political trajectory of the entire endeavor. The birthday present mentioned in the caption, it turns out, is a Sunday drive in a rental—not, as one might have assumed, the car itself. This example demonstrates the elusiveness of the politics of Rich Kids of Instagram, politics that, in large parts, depend on how the spectators interpret its various sites of ambiguity. In this article, I examine the blog’s textual and aesthetic strategies and the political potential residing in the ambiguity they create. Given its extraordinary lack of decorum, it is not surprising that Rich Kids of Instagram went viral upon its inception. The New York Times, the Huffington Post, and Forbes magazine, among other high-profile media outlets, commented on it with varying degrees of indignation; even the German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung published a short feature on 1 Henceforth, I will use ‘Rich Kids of Instagram’ or ‘RKOI’ to refer to the blog itself and ‘rich kids (of Instagram)’ to refer to the individuals who upload the images to their Instagram accounts.


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the “rich kids” (“[r]eiche Kids”; Himmelsbach).2 After a period of relative quiet, Rich Kids of Instagram made the headlines again in early 2014 as it spawned a reality series, Rich Kids of Beverly Hills, and a book publication, Rich Kids of Instagram: A Novel. The blog’s political potential is undeniable: With an ironic nod to muckraking journalists and photographers like Jacob Riis, Rich Kids of Instagram documents how the so-called one percent (i.e., the wealthiest one percent of Americans) live—or at least how some of them stage their lives online. It does so, however, with a distinctly postmodern playfulness that complicates any political reading: The question of authorship cannot be answered with any certainty, the tension between fictionality and factuality destabilizes any critical reading, the visual display of the photographs in gilded frames is ambiguous, the blog format blurs the line between production and reception, and the inclusion of textual elements such as captions and hashtags further complicates possible interpretations of the images. The blog’s sociohistorical context adds another level of interpretive complexity: Rich Kids of Instagram went online in the wake of the most severe financial crisis in recent history—a crisis that left many Americans homeless or unemployed, unable to pay their bills, mortgages, or accumulated credit card debt. At the same time, high-end luxury goods recovered faster from the recession than any other retail sector: While overall consumer spending remains moderate, Chanel, Louboutin, or Tiffany sales are “zooming” (Clifford). Given this historical framing, the question of whether the blog encourages critical reflection on the status quo of social stratification or instead provides a platform for the shameless self-promotion of the nation’s junior elite and its almost pathologically glamorous lifestyle becomes even more pressing. In light of what has been called a ‘political turn’ in contemporary cultural production, one thus feels tempted to ask whether RKOI invites and promotes or discourages and stifles political debate. Does the blog celebrate or criticize a particular lifestyle? Does it invite or discourage debates about social inequality and the distribution of wealth? Perhaps more importantly, given the blog’s textuality and aesthetics, can these questions even be answered? In addressing these and related questions, I propose to read Rich Kids of Instagram with a focus on the visual spectacle that is its dominant mode of negotiating elite distinction. In order to gauge the politics of spectacle, I focus on two formal features characteristic of blogging: seriality and polysemy. In so doing, I aim to interrogate the ways in which the blog’s textual and aesthetic dynamics inform its political trajectory and its 2 This is just a selection of the fairly extensive coverage the blog received upon its publication: Ginia Bellafante: “Never Mind the Bubbly, Some Can’t Buy Groceries” (New York Times); Dina Gachman: “Rich Kids of Instagram and Twenty-First Century Blues” (Huffington Post); Meghan Casserly: “Should Rich Kids Be Grounded From Social Networking?” (Forbes); Nadine Himmelsbach: “Reiche Kids inszenieren sich auf Instagram: Unser Alltag ist besser als euer bester Tag” (Süddeutsche Zeitung).

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sociocultural referentiality. I argue that, ultimately, Rich Kids of Instagram’s political trajectory is located precisely in the semantic openness and ambiguity the blog generates—much to the detriment of its subversive potential. After some brief introductory remarks on the nexus of visuality and the performance of elite distinction, I discuss in some detail the ways in which spectacle is used in staging the rich kids’ microcosm of privilege, focusing on size, exclusivity, and abundance as the prevalent signifiers of elite status on RKOI. The second section examines the blog’s seriality and the concomitant intratextual references. As a system of cultural signification, the blog generates the rules of its own production; the further the series evolves, the more coherent and self-referential the aesthetics and meanings become. The spectacular visualizations and their sociopolitical impact are thus very much informed by the implications of seriality. I argue that the “[d]ynamics of [s]erial [o]utbidding” (Kelleter and Jahn-Sudmann) lead to a formalization of the spectacle of elite distinction that causes two seemingly contradictory phenomena: On the one hand, the routinization of spectacle ultimately undermines its political potential by neutering its affective impact. At the same time, however, the continuous intensification of serialized spectacle helps to delineate certain aspects of elite distinction more poignantly by encouraging the rich kids to constantly outperform each other. Occasionally bordering on the grotesque, the resulting drag-like performance of elite status produces a certain demystification that could very well be interpreted as a politically potent resignification. In order to complete my reading of the ‘poetics of politics’ of RKOI, I conclude by addressing the polysemic potential that lies in the blog’s multimodality. RKOI’s multiple authorship, its parafictionality, and its multimedial meaning construction together produce what John Fiske calls “space for resistance and negotiation” (391). Ultimately, the politics of spectacle on RKOI allow the text to resist any kind of stabilizing interpretation and to embrace and capitalize on its own semantic openness. The emerging space of ambiguity then in itself facilitates a number of political negotiations that allow for a multifaceted reading of the spectacle of elite distinction and its sociocultural implications, among them the negotiation of the (un-)Americanness of specific paradigms of wealth and the issue of agency in the emerging semiotics of elite distinction.

“#abundance”: The Spectacle of Privilege Visual markers constitute an important dimension of cultural negotiations of class and status in general, and of the elite in particular, prompting Paul Fussell to ask: “How is it that if you’re sharp, you’re generally able to estimate a person’s class at a glance?” (51). Semisatirical how-to guides such as The Official Preppy Handbook (1980) as well as serious guidebooks like


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John T. Molloy’s immensely influential Dress for Success (1975) utilize the visuality of social stratification. Both became bestsellers by showcasing the cultural inventory of elite distinction and implicitly or explicitly promising the possibility of successful class mimicry. Most literature on the visual signifiers of elite distinction concentrates on the subtle and inconspicuous markers of class, such as Ronald Reagan’s infamous “gaping jacket collar” or the polyester level of someone’s clothes (Fussell 62). As part of what Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital,’ seemingly unobtrusive details concerning a person’s wardrobe, posture, hairstyle, or accessories may play a crucial role in processes of social stratification. Access to and knowledge of cultural capital—in its embodied, objectified, or institutionalized form—can thus be seen as one of the key distinguishing features of the elite community (cf. Bourdieu 241-46). The focus of this paper, however, is on the more conspicuous forms of display, namely on the role of spectacle in the negotiation and performance of elite distinction. Spectacle lends itself as a particularly promising and productive lens through which to engage with the creation of elite identities because it is antithetical to the very invisibility of class with which the United States is so often diagnosed. Precisely because of its transgressive nature, the rhetoric of spectacular images can contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the discursive practices surrounding the conceptualization of elite distinction. The photographs uploaded by the rich kids revel in the celebration of affluence and dramatize an almost manic consumption of luxurious goods, ranging from the obligatory Rolls Royce to truffles and Dom Pérignon champagne to excessive binge shopping and private jets. Making visible “America’s forbidden thought” (Blumberg 53), the spectacular visualizations of the rich kids’ ethic of excess thus provide a provocative commentary on the American experiment, particularly in times of economic and social turmoil. THE AESTHETICS OF PRIVILEGE The photo hashtagged “#abundance” can serve as an illustration of the three defining parameters of elite distinction on RKOI: size, exclusivity, and abundance. Uploaded by Peter Brant II, aspiring New York ‘it boy,’ the image shows three wrists adorned by golden, presumably expensive watches and bracelets (peter_brantii). Even though the blog’s photographs are produced by a multitude of individuals, the visual landscapes it generates are surprisingly uniform. RKOI is characterized by a fairly rigid and well-organized system of signs—a semiotics of elite distinction—that connote a very specific type of elite status. The relatively consistent visual language employed by the contributors may in part be due to the intratextual referentiality I will discuss below. The rich kids’ photographs showcase a number of recurrent tropes that, in the course of the blog’s evolution, have been modified, reinterpreted, and

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outperformed. Viewed in its entirety, RKOI seems much like a series of playful photographic variations of this fairly small number of tropes. Central among them are iconic objects or commodities (cars and brandname accessories), ritualized patterns of behavior (partying, vacationing), and a number of fetishized spaces (interiors and exteriors of houses). The visual actualization of the variations is characterized by an aesthetics privileging size, exclusivity, and abundance as its dominant formal principles. To name but a few examples: ‘Size matters’ when it comes to Dom Pérignon champagne, which only appears in oversized bottles that lend themselves to a variety of poses. Size is moreover the defining characteristic of the spectacle of space on RKOI; interiors and exteriors—views of the ocean, gardens, pools, living rooms, indoor cinemas—are without exception characterized by the kind of spatial grandeur that denotes wealth and elite status. Exclusivity is an important feature on both the financial and the cultural level. Not surprisingly, all of the objects, activities, and spaces depicted on the blog are attainable only with the necessary funds. Yet in addition, many of them are also culturally exclusive, as images of limitededition commodities, custom-made products, or restricted-access resorts illustrate. The effects of exclusivity are further enhanced by means of the final aesthetic principle, abundance: Visualizing quantity is the most popular strategy of creating a spectacular image of elite distinction. Thus, the photo captioned “Bringing home the Birkin” (dwachler) does not show one but eight Birkin bags, and the one titled “A little stash of goodies on vacation” (cind888) boasts a total of twenty-five Hermès boxes. The same applies to images depicting jewelry, watches, cars, or black credit cards. The blog in its entirety can be read as a contribution to the search for a register to speak of class. While it is partly successful—it does generate a fairly coherent system of signifiers—it also demonstrates some of the central difficulties inherent in this endeavor. Among them is the uniformity of the imagery that ultimately undermines the meaning of the individual elements as signifiers of distinction. Related to this is the limited semantic reach of the imagery: the complete eclipse—the literal invisibility—of other positions in the socioeconomic hierarchy as well as non-consumption-related aspects of elite distinction. Most significantly, however, RKOI navigates the thin line between mockery and sincerity. Due to the issue of multiple authorship, which will be addressed below, the audience can never be sure whether they are dealing with a sincere self-expression of the American junior elite or rather with an ironic mockery of class signifiers. While this instability makes the overall project of RKOI more intriguing because it cannot be brushed off as either a celebration or a condemnation of elite distinction, it also obfuscates some of the obvious political potential of its subject matter.


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THE SPECTACLE OF ELITE DISTINCTION Regardless of whether one reads the blog as a cynical exposure of “the moronic excesses of teenage socialites,” as the Globe and Mail’s Zosia Bielski does, or, in the company of Jon Caramanica from the New York Times, finds oneself “gently envying” the rich kids’ overindulgence, the blog’s visual landscape is defined by spectacle. 3 Prompting “curiosity or contempt,” “marvel or admiration,” spectacle is an inherently ambiguous concept (“spectacle”). Alan Tomlinson quite fittingly describes it as “Janusfaced” (50), thus pointing toward the ambivalent responses spectacle provokes: We feel drawn to spectacular images; they cater to our sensationalism and satisfy our voyeuristic desires, but we also reject them and turn away in disgust or embarrassment. Spectacle is open to diverse, even contradictory, interpretations and generates great affective power. Thus, it can and does challenge preconceived attitudes and given ‘truths’ about whatever is spectacularly on display—its function, then, can be that of a potential disrupter of ideology. At the same time, the incessant hyperbole of spectacle positions it in close proximity to camp; the affective impact of spectacular images navigates the space between genuine emotions of shock or awe and the hilarity of campy caricatures. RKOI’s visualizations of elite distinction are spectacular not only with regard to what is portrayed but also in terms of how the portrayal is staged. The photographs are extracted from a variety of Instagram accounts, collected by the anonymous authors of the blog, and then put up in gilded frames reminiscent of fine art exhibitions. In marked contrast to the layout of regular Instagram accounts, this setup emphasizes the individuality of each photo, putting forth a claim to uniqueness and exceptionalism. This echoes Roman Jakobson’s poetic function of language by foregrounding “the message for its own sake” (356) and emphasizing the code itself, its form and arrangement—in this case the visual code. This particular staging furthermore encourages the spectator to pause in awe in the face of the extravaganza of wealth on display. Due to its condensed quality, photography as a medium is particularly well suited for displays of spectacle; its compactness positively hurls the spectacle at the viewer. In Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes aptly describes this phenomenon as a kind of violence: “The Photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it, 3 The term ‘spectacle’ evokes French theorist Guy Debord’s 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle, in which he develops the thesis that “[e]verything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation” (3). According to Debord, the spectacle, which he understands as “a social relation among people, mediated by images” (4), causes dissociation from the actual, physical reality of the world. While it would doubtless be interesting to read RKOI as one of the “specific forms” (5) of Debord’s spectacle, I use the term in this article with regard to its more direct meanings as something extraordinary, an exaggerated display with ambivalent qualities.

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nothing can be refused or transformed” (91). This again points toward the transgressive tendencies inherent in the aesthetics of spectacle. The spectacle of distinction arrests the viewers in the instant of looking and thus foregrounds visuality to such an extent that they are temporarily caught in what Irit Rogoff calls a “regime of specularity” (25). The intensity of the experience of spectacle—its temporality, isolation, and uniqueness—enters into an intriguing dialogue with the serial nature of the blog, which will be discussed later. In the context of my paper, then, spectacle refers, on the one hand, to an extraordinary display that may simultaneously provoke admiration and disgust and, on the other hand, to a strategy that accentuates visuality and may be supported as well as undermined by textual elements. Thus, spectacle is a phenomenon that, to use Rogoff’s words, “produc[es] meanings, establish[es] and maintain[s] aesthetic values [...] and power relations within culture” (24). Spectacle is something worth looking at, something out of the ordinary, something provoking a response of some intensity in the observer. THE CULTURAL FRAMEWORK As even the most cursory glance at the contemporary discourse of the elite demonstrates,4 there is no single, unified, or stable aesthetic or narrative paradigm of elite distinction in the United States. On the contrary, the discursive manifestations testify to the heterogeneous meanings attributed to the concept. The various labels employed to refer to the upper strata of society (e.g., WASP, the one percent, the establishment, the nouveaux riches, the ruling class) signify several, at times quite dissimilar, paradigms of elite distinction. The cultural actualizations of these paradigms then work on two different levels: First, elite distinction can refer to the processes by which those who have the necessary knowledge and funds create a certain status, a cultural capital, to use the Bourdieusian term, which confers meanings of superiority, legitimacy, and excellence. Second, elite distinction can refer to the discourse by which an elite is distinguished from the masses and ‘othered,’ as it were, as not being part of it. This dual use of the concept—and the oscillation between self-representation and ‘other4 I conceptualize the contemporary discourse of elite distinction as a multidimensional space comprised of and informed by several knowledge- and opinion-producing forces. Among the primary actors in this discursive network are fictional narratives (e.g., elite campus novels, TV series such as Gossip Girl), sociological studies (e.g., on the elite educational system, private clubs, gated communities, or philanthropy), nonfictional accounts (e.g., the ‘Wealth Matters’ column in the New York Times; the debate during the 2012 presidential campaign about Mitt Romney and Barack Obama and their alleged elitism), satires (e.g., Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide through the American Status System), and self-representational texts (self-descriptions on websites/brochures of elite institutions and inaugural speeches of the institutions’ presidents).


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ing’—pervades the entire negotiation of elite distinction on RKOI and complicates any attempt at a straightforward reading. The visual patterns and codes that connote elite distinction on RKOI are thus part of a specific historical and cultural framework that includes certain values and stereotypical behaviors. Characterized by extravagance, exuberance, and opulence, the visual language signifies a specific style that is situated in the cultural tradition of the nouveaux riches, whose alleged vulgarity and ostentation have been an integral part of the discourse of elite distinction since the Gilded Age, vividly chronicled in the novels of Edith Wharton, Henry James, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others. The tropes spectacularly visualized by the rich kids signify what Thorstein Veblen, pioneer of the study of the American elite, termed ‘conspicuous leisure’ and ‘conspicuous consumption.’ Even though more than a century has passed since Veblen published his treatise on the habits and functions of the leisure class, the consumerism depicted in the photos on RKOI demonstrates that his observations still hold true today. Veblen argues that “[i]n order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence” (29). Furthermore, evidence of wealth, according to Veblen, is of use not only in impressing others but also in “building up and preserving one’s self-complacency” (29), which seems to be the main agenda of the rich kids of Instagram. The two imperatives Veblen discusses in most detail are ‘conspicuous leisure’— the “abstention from productive work” (28)—and the “[c]onspicuous consumption of valuable goods” (53). As the examples given so far demonstrate, these two principles not only underlie the entire spectacle of elite distinction as actualized in the individual photographs but also seem to constitute the primary selection criteria applied by the curators of the blog. After all, the Instagram accounts of most of the frequent contributors include a plethora of less ‘conspicuous’ images that, tellingly, have not made it to the blog. It is in this context that the political work of the blog in making a certain selection becomes most obvious. Furthermore, in this context, it also becomes clear that the visual language of conspicuous consumption and leisure still constitutes a powerful vocabulary in making sense of the lives of the very wealthy. 5 However, the blog’s decontextualization of this semiotics of wealth—there is no space outside of the realm of consumption, no actors not involved in consumerist practices, in short: no visual or semantic contrast of any kind—limits its political potential. Two main conclusions can be drawn from the spectacle of privilege generated by RKOI and the cultural framework in which the blog is situated: 5

It is important to note that the heterogeneity of the discourse allows for a variety of different paradigms of distinction. For a completely different vision of wealth and privilege, cf. Muffy Aldrich’s blog The Daily Prep, which features classic conservative New England imagery.

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First, the foregrounding of consumption and leisure results in a certain depoliticization and trivialization. Of course, the practice, depiction, and critique of conspicuous consumption and leisure are all political in and by themselves. Yet in the context of the blog, the emphasis on consumerist activities ultimately turns the practices of privilege into a kind of cultural identity that is situated outside of or apart from pressing issues of socioeconomic inequality in the United States. RKOI does not visualize where the wealth depicted in its images comes from, or where it really goes. Politically relevant activities of the elite communities are likewise eclipsed. The vision of elite distinction presented on RKOI is thus relegated into the safely cultural, apolitical, and contextless realm of conspicuous consumption and leisure. The second conclusion concerns the cultural framework in which RKOI’s semiotics of elite distinction appears. In the absence of signifiers that legitimize wealth in the United States—the hard work and dedication of self-made men, the weighty responsibility of job creation shouldered by corporate giants, the philanthropic magnanimity of patrons and benefactors, the innovational genius of entrepreneurs—the vulgar ostentation of financial prowess has no redeeming factors. With the unwitting help of its young protagonists, RKOI thus creates an image of un-American wealth; whether consciously or not, the blog seems to provide a glimpse into the world of the spoiled sons and daughters of an undeserving old-world aristocracy rather than showcasing the pleasures awarded by the fruits of legitimate success. In positing the rich kids as exemplars of the ‘undeserving rich,’ RKOI implies the existence of a type of elite distinction more in line with American grand narratives of merit and legitimate success in a free-market society—had they earned the money they so vociferously spend, or were they spending it less conspicuously and complacently or, indeed, more conscientiously, the audience’s judgment perhaps would have been less harsh. This suggests that the problem is not the unequal distribution of wealth per se but rather the grounds for its allocation and the spending habits of those in the upmost percentiles. In addition, it also provokes what Walter Benn Michaels calls a “deeply legitimating disidentification” (193) on the part of the audience. In this reading, cultural manifestations of the superrich allow the “merely rich” (196)—along with the ‘well-to-do’ and everyone else, one might add—to dissociate themselves from the fact of the rampant socioeconomic inequality in the contemporary United States. In so doing, blogs like RKOI seem to create a carte blanche for everyone who does not belong to the one percent—or, as Michaels puts it, it allows them to think that when they “[talk] about the problem of economic inequality, [they are] not the problem, the superrich are” (193).


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Arm Candy and Watch Wednesday: Serializing the Spectacle of Elite Distinction As a continually expanding semiotic system, RKOI is structurally determined by a dynamic similar to what Frank Kelleter and Andreas JahnSudmann call “[s]erial [o]utbidding.” Seriality, according to Frank Kelleter, has become one of the most prominent features of popular cultural practices (“Populäre Serialität” 18). Kelleter defines seriality as the repetition of generically tested and industrially reproduced stories, a repetition that offers continued potential for variation and differentiation (“Populäre Serialität” 22). He identifies two main characteristics that account for the pervasiveness and cultural influence of seriality: First, popular serial formats are continually evolving stories whose production and reception often occur almost simultaneously—they are not originally coherent works that are split up for the purpose of serial publication. Second, the blurring of the boundaries between producers and audiences encourages a degree of audience participation that nonserial formats are unlikely to inspire. Generating feedback loops, the recursivity and selfawareness of serial storytelling invites its audiences to engage in fan fiction, independent productions, heated debates, and other forms of active viewer engagement (“Populäre Serialität” 22-23). However, popular serial formats are first and foremost commercial endeavors and thus in constant competition with each other. This permanent struggle for attention, viewers, and popularity leads to the “[d]ynamics of [s]erial [o]utbidding” (Kelleter and Jahn-Sudmann). Inter- and intra-series competition result in the “repeated intensification of successfully established strategies of distinction” (Kelleter and Jahn-Sudmann). This points to one of the basic paradoxes of serial storytelling: the oscillation between reliability and schematization on the one hand and the pressure of variation and innovation on the other (Jahn-Sudmann and Kelleter 206). SERIALITY AND SPECTACLE Unlike the series described by Kelleter and Jahn-Sudmann, RKOI is not a commercial format. The dynamics of serial outbidding, however, can nonetheless be witnessed throughout the blog’s evolution. Indeed, while RKOI does not compete for money, it does compete for other currencies—traffic, media attention, and the like. Furthermore, the rich kids who actively participate by using the hashtag #rkoi have a vested interest in trumping their peers and predecessors in order to receive more comments, likes, and shares. Though some differences between commercial and noncommercial formats remain pertinent, the basic logic of serial outbidding thus applies to RKOI as well.

The Politics of Ambiguity in Rich Kids of Instagram


RKOI’s most effective strategy of distinction is spectacle. The tension caused by the dynamics of serial outbidding—the interplay of repetitive redundancy and innovative variation—is even further intensified in the context of visual spectacle, for spectacle is by definition temporary, isolated, and unique. Its power lies in its singularity, its exceptionalism, its extraordinariness. In order to repeat spectacle while preserving its affective potential, it has to be modified, enhanced, and made more spectacular so as to prevent habituation on the part of the audience. The spectacle of elite distinction that characterizes RKOI is thus engaged in precisely the kind of inter- and intra-serial contest Kelleter and Jahn-Sudmann define as serial outbidding. However, the impact of the serialization of spectacle is ambivalent, if not downright contradictory—depending on audience practices, serialized spectacle can either strengthen or undermine the blog’s affective and political potential. Starting with the first few entries, the serialization of spectacle on RKOI sets a number of related developments in motion that begin with genuine innovation and end in rigid formularization. The first consequence is innovation in the sense of an extension of the existing repertoire. New subjects, motifs, and sceneries are developed; new captions and hashtags emerge. Serialization leads to innovation because the pressure of pleasing through repetition inevitably yields novel results. The second step can be called modification. The larger the repertoire becomes, the more frequently intratextual references occur. Well-known subjects or poses are revisited and modified, reframed, expanded, or furnished with new textual explications or commentaries. Serial ‘traditions,’ such as ‘Watch Wednesday’ or ‘Arm Candy,’ may develop from the repeated embrace of particularly popular subjects. The guiding principle of all the innovations and modifications is “the logic of one-upmanship” (Kelleter and Jahn-Sudmann), which demands the variation to be more extreme, arresting, impressive—in short, spectacular—than the theme. The processes of innovation, modification, and outbidding ultimately lead to the development of a number of conventionalized shots, for instance ‘person with oversized bottle of expensive alcohol’ or ‘person next to one or several cars.’ The conventionalization lets the visual landscape grow increasingly homogeneous, a process that is further aggravated by the lack of visual contrast—there are, after all, no visualizations of poor or old people on RKOI. Thus, the longer the blog is active, the more rigidly formulaic the visual conventions become. Though it already includes hundreds of photographs, there are only about ten different blueprints or prototypes of representation, most popular and frequent among them houses, vacation spots, private transportation, partying, and commodities. Innovation grows increasingly difficult and the dynamics of serial outbidding invariably yield ever more excessive results. Many of the more recent photographs thus seem like overconscientious and strained exercises in cheap showmanship rather than awe-inspiring displays of spectacular wealth.


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RKOI ultimately formalizes and routinizes the spectacle of elite distinction. The ramifications of this process are twofold and depend to a great extent on the ways in which individual spectators interact with the blog: For those who are but temporary visitors, quickly browsing through a number of pictures, the formulaic nature of serialized spectacle may increase its affective impact. Constantly forced to outperform each other due to the logic of seriality, the hyperbolic visualizations of spectacle increasingly resemble a kind of drag performance. While gender drag (cf. Butler 187) overemphasizes the performance of the gender binary in order to expose its artificiality and contingency, ‘class drag’ (cf. Foster 39) overemphasizes the performance of wealth and distinction. By exposing the performance of distinction as schematic and staged—if not ridiculous and overeager—the (inadvertent?) class drag disrupts feelings of awe and envy that might be provoked by a more subdued staging of wealth. Intensified to a degree close to the grotesque, the images show an almost caricatural paradigm of elite distinction and thus cause a demystification of their subjects. In this scenario, the spectacle of the series yields a politically potent delineation of a certain type of elite distinction. For those who follow the blog over an extended period of time, however, the effects of seriality are quite different. While the initial images might have provoked strong and ambivalent responses—ranging from disgust or envy to admiration or ridicule—the serialization of spectacle neutralizes its affective potential. After the fiftieth Rolls Royce and the two-hundredth bottle of Dom Pérignon, the initial impact is softened considerably. Spectacle ceases to be spectacular when it is serialized and thus loses its self-containment and coherence; the formulaic repetition of spectacular visualizations of elite distinction ultimately renders them rather unspectacular. The serialization of spectacle neuters its affective and political potential and thus diffuses the ambiguity inherent in spectacular visualizations of privilege. However, this conclusion is valid only if the spectator follows the blog or spends a significant amount of time browsing its pages. While this is the consumption practice encouraged and privileged by the setup of the website, there is no guarantee that the entire audience or even a majority of its members actually consume RKOI in this manner. Since the neutralization effect is contingent on the spectator’s actual experience of the serialization of spectacle, it depends to a great extent on audience practices.

From Amused Horror to Gentle Envy: The Politics of Polysemy on Rich Kids of Instagram During the brief time of its existence, RKOI has already triggered a variety of controversial reactions. However, these differences in opinion do not just

The Politics of Ambiguity in Rich Kids of Instagram


lie in the spectators’ attitudes toward the spectacle of privilege. Dina Gachman, writing for the Huffington Post, describes her first response to the blog as follows: “A few friends sent the link to me and I looked through the photos with a little smile, thinking, ‘That’s clever of someone to pose fake pics of rich kids. That’s funny.’ Then I went back to work.” She then explains that she “didn’t realize until much later that the Instagram pics are actually real.” Gachman’s experience suggests that in addition to the ambivalence produced by spectacle and seriality, there seems to be another dimension of ambiguity or semantic uncertainty at work on RKOI. Due to a number of formal features specific to the textuality of blogs, RKOI has to be read as what John Fiske calls a ‘polysemic’ text, meaning that different audiences “can find in it different meanings that correspond to their differing social relations. The dominant ideology is structured into the text as into the social system, but the structure of both text and society allows space for resistance and negotiation” (391). Though a helpful interpretive device, the concept of polysemy is not entirely unproblematic and raises a number of questions. What are the “differing social relations” of different audiences, and what is the “dominant ideology” that is structured into the text? Is there a reliable way of answering these questions without merely engaging in speculation and guesswork? RKOI’s political trajectory, cultural work, and social referentiality depend to a great extent on how the individual spectators position themselves with regard to the questions and uncertainties the text’s polysemy provokes. I propose that a productive way to start finding answers is to locate the sites of polysemy—those textual or aesthetic features that exhibit or contribute to a heightened polysemic potential—and explore the ways in which they construct meaning through the semantic flexibility, ambiguity, and playfulness that is characteristic of postmodern cultural experiments. Only then can the politics of polysemy be addressed adequately. In the following, I single out the three characteristics that have the most decisive impact on the ways RKOI can be read: multiple authorship, parafictionality, and multimodality. MULTIPLE AUTHORSHIP When thinking about RKOI’s polysemic potential, an issue that springs to mind immediately is the unresolved and perhaps unresolvable question of authorship. Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” (1967) notwithstanding, audiences often include the author’s position as a factor in their meaningmaking processes. Situating the blog’s author(s) with regard to the spectacle of privilege and the sociohistorical context in which it appears can exert considerable influence on how its ambiguity is read. RKOI offers an array of possible authors: the individuals who took the pictures; those who are in the pictures; those who uploaded the pictures to their Instagram accounts, thus making them accessible to the public; or the anonymous creators of the blog itself, who collect and, literally and metaphorically, ‘reframe’ the


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photographs. Again, the duality of the discourse of elite distinction becomes apparent: The politics of polysemy reside in the tension between self-representation and ‘othering’ that characterizes RKOI. Judging from the articles on RKOI published in various newspapers and online magazines, the majority of readers perceive the rich kids themselves to be the blog’s authors, or they at least fail to acknowledge that the blog is, in fact, curated. The responses are directed almost exclusively at the content of the images—commentators do not engage with the cultural work of the blog as a mediator between images and audience. In particular the more critical or contemptuous responses focus exclusively on the rich kids as agents of their own self-representation. Gachman, for instance, calls them “vapid, narcissistic jerks” and complains that the “two-dimensional glitz and excess” inspires terror and nausea. Ginia Bellafante describes the audience response as one of “amused horror,” while Alexandra Petri goes even further by claiming that “[i]f you don’t loathe the Rich Kids of Instagram, it’s probably because you haven’t seen the Tumblr yet.” She then interrupts her descriptions of the blog’s spectacle of elite distinction to let the reader know that she is “foaming at the mouth just typing this.” Only very few articles mention that there is another party involved in the creation and promotion of the vistas of privilege on display. A short feature on the website of GQ is among the few texts that at least acknowledge the possibility of irony in the presentation of the pictures (Schwarz). If the rich kids themselves are assumed to be the agents of their visual representation, the blog can be interpreted as a defiant gesture of a spoiled junior elite who not only is indifferent toward its fellow Americans’ economic plight but, in fact, seems to enjoy to remind them of it in a spectacular manner. This seems to be the reading privileged by the media responses. If the anonymous curators are taken to be the agents of the endeavor, however, RKOI could be read in a completely contradictory fashion, namely as a project typical of postmodernity: a merciless parody that recontextualizes and thus resignifies its material, ironically alluding to related types of visual art, e.g., tabloid photography, documentary photography in the tradition of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890), and, of course, fine art put on display in museums. Read in this way, RKOI becomes a postmodern exercise in ironic revisionism whose political trajectory resembles a kind of twenty-first-century muckraking— exposing the one percent as shallow, self-absorbed, and embarrassing show-offs delegitimized by a grave lack of responsibility and decorum. As the indignant voices of journalists and others demonstrate, a fairly common response to Rich Kids of Instagram is annoyance. Most commentators are annoyed with the rich kids’ reckless spending, their arrogance, and their narcissistic ostentation—they are annoyed, in short, with the spectacle of privilege the blog presents. More than anything, however, they are annoyed because they deem the rich kids undeserving. As they did not earn the money they so vociferously spend, their mere existence is an affront to

The Politics of Ambiguity in Rich Kids of Instagram


the meritocratic principle held dear by many Americans; it is offensive, more than that: It is un-American. For some spectators, the anger and indignation even inspire responses to the rich kids—an anonymous Tumblr blog titled Have Some Humility, for instance, juxtaposes photographs from RKOI with haunting images of starving children and other horrors of poverty. For others, the rich kids’ excesses are incompatible not only with American values but also with the spirit of the very medium they use to host their self-celebration, the Internet. Complaining about the rich kids’ attempts to monopolize online attention, Petri makes a case for digital democracy: “The streets of the Internet have always belonged to the 99 percent. It is no respecter of purses. Here, you live by your wits.” Thus, she insists, there is no room for ostentatious displays of wealth. Still other commentators situate their annoyance with RKOI in a larger cultural context. Rebecca Greenfield, for instance, argues that the blog epitomizes everything that is wrong with Instagram, which she calls “a shallow medium” designed solely to enable its users “to feign talent” they do not have. According to Greenfield, then, the shameless self-promotion cultivated by the rich kids is not specific to the one percent but has to be interpreted as a symptom of social media culture as a whole. Following this reading, the drag-like hyperbole of spectacle turns into a cautionary tale for everyone who is tempted to “just [press] buttons to add computer-generated veneers to our mostly mundane lives” (Greenfield). Judging from the fairly homogeneous media reception RKOI has seen— various shades of outrage and indignation—the blog’s textual strategies prevent a successful disambiguation of the question of agency but at the same time encourage its audience to accept the material as authentic selfexpression. The ambiguity and instability that could have served as a locus of a more subversive or challenging politics reside in the background of the blog’s processes of meaning making. With regard to its sociopolitical referentiality, the politics of subtextual ambiguity are ultimately an unfortunate, if not futile, gesture—despite the initial outrage sparked by RKOI, the debates surrounding the blog waned quickly, and the complexity and potential of the project remain largely undetected, the urgency of its meanings ignored. PARAFICTIONALITY The issue of multiple authorship ties in with the tension between factuality and fictionality that characterizes RKOI. Are the photos, as Gachman concludes, “actually real”? Does the spectacle of elite distinction presented on RKOI even exist outside the realm of digital self-aggrandizement or is it a kind of drag performance, a caricature, a hyperbolic masquerade that has no equivalent in the analogue world of social realities? The blog’s semantic fluidity and ambiguous meaning production leave room to question the authenticity and plausibility of the display of elite distinction.


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In this context, art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s concept of ‘parafiction’6 becomes a productive interpretive tool. Parafictional art, according to Lambert-Beatty, “has one foot in the field of the real” (54) and thus blurs the boundaries of the art/reality dichotomy. The blog’s parafictional nature surfaces primarily in two related but distinct questions about its authenticity. The first is directed toward the authenticity of the rich kids themselves. As the previously discussed example of the misinterpretation of the Porsche 911 illustrates (evanpow), all is not necessarily what it seems on RKOI; and as another supposed rich kid, a ‘Mr. Wall Street,’ is exposed as a fraud and con man (Knibbs), questions as to the veracity of the entire project invariably arise. Since no one seems to be able to guarantee the genuineness of the images, one might very well assume—as Gachman initially did—that the blog is populated by frauds. At the same time, however, there are photos of famous people, people with whose lifestyle the spectators are already familiar because of other media outlets, such as the above-mentioned Peter Brant II, who is not only featured on RKOI but who, with his little brother Harry, was also the subject of an indepth portrait in the ‘Fashion and Style’ section of the New York Times (Van Meter). These and other ‘verifiable’ contributors then add to the aura of authenticity that is in large parts responsible for the appeal of RKOI. The second question is directed toward the authenticity of the lifestyle depicted in the photos. In addition to sparking awe and disgust, the spectacle that characterizes the visual language of RKOI may also provoke doubt as to the credibility of the performance of elite distinction. Slogans such as “Our everyday is better than your best day” (collinjohnstone) suggest an element of nonchalance, a snapshot quality, as it were, as if the photos were taken randomly because the rich kids’ everyday lives are so extravagant that they do not need to pose or pretend. Certainly these claims are not meant to indicate that the protagonists spend an inordinate amount of time staging elaborate sceneries of privilege simply to make their audience jealous. However, some of the photos are staged to a degree that must seem artificial, such as a shot of a young man sitting in a bathtub, awkwardly holding several oversized champagne bottles and sporting a golden American Express card in his mouth (thuniss). Judging from the obvious physical discomfort and blatant impracticality of the pose, one has to ask whether this is really what his ‘everyday’ looks like. Again, this echoes the spectacle’s drag-like qualities, and as the examples of misinterpretation and imposture demonstrate, actual wealth is not always necessary to present a convincing class-drag performance. RKOI’s oscillation between fact and fiction, between the ‘natural’ and the artificial, is thus an integral part of its polysemic, parafictional gestalt and invariably leads to ambivalent, contradictory readings. 6

For Lambert-Beatty’s use of the term parafiction as opposed to other usages in literary studies, cf. Lambert-Beatty 54.

The Politics of Ambiguity in Rich Kids of Instagram


Much of the appeal of RKOI’s parafictionality lies in the oscillation between the seeming unrealism of excess and the dynamics of authentication the blog encourages, for instance by providing links to the original Instagram account of individual rich kids. The politics of this instability are problematic, since the reality of the unequal distribution of wealth and income in the United States exists outside of the parafictional betwixt-andbetween RKOI creates—socioeconomic stratification determines American lives regardless of whether the rich kids are real or fake and regardless of whether the spectacle of distinction is authentic or staged. MULTIMODALITY The visual spectacle on RKOI is complemented by concise textual elements that offer additional modes of interpretation and can produce ironic changes of meaning or initiate a dialogue between the photograph and the spectator. By offering another channel of meaning production, the textual elements can either subvert and undermine or strengthen and affirm the meanings created by the visuals. The subheading that accompanies the title of the website describes RKOI’s project and its protagonists in fairly prosaic terms: “They have more money than you and this is what they do.” The blog’s subheading situates RKOI in a specific discursive field that has emerged in the wake of the financial crisis and revolves around the sociopolitical and cultural role of the one percent. In this context, RKOI and similar texts navigate the fine line between making fun of and seriously engaging with questions of legitimacy, responsibility, and guilt, as illustrated by these two self-descriptions of Tumblr blogs claiming to represent the one percent: We have more money than anyone could spend in 4 lifetimes. We’ll give it all to our kids who will likely spend it on keeping your kids from being anywhere near them. We made this mess, we have the money and it’s ours. If you have a problem with that, get a job. (We Are the 1 Percent) We are the 1 percenters. We worked hard to get here. Now people want to disrupt our work and take our money because they do not have what we have. [...] We don’t waste time whining about our problems. We go out and solve them. (1 Percenters)

Similar to RKOI, the texts seem to inhabit a liminal space between irony and seriousness. However, the two examples also indicate a significant difference: While the ‘one percenters’ use an inclusive ‘we’ in their selfdescriptions, RKOI separates itself from both the rich kids and its audience by using the distancing pronouns ‘they’ and ‘you.’ The blog opens up an additional space of agency and positions itself as a mediator, a platform that offers a seemingly unadulterated glimpse into the world of privilege inhabited by the rich kids. The personal pronouns thus add an important layer of meaning and contribute to the blog’s ambiguity.


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In addition, the reading of individual images is informed and, at times, complicated by the surrounding textual elements. Three different formulas or strategies can be distinguished: Most captions straightforwardly support the images’ meanings by describing or commenting on whatever is on display. However, some also blatantly contradict what is shown in the photograph. Thus, the photograph of a young man tanning on a yacht is accompanied by the caption “This place sucks” (quinbarber), and one that shows Harry Brant swimming in an outdoor pool framed by palm trees reads “#snowday this winter is killing me” (harry_brant). Though contradicting the images, the textual elements in these cases function as amplifiers of the visual spectacle. In these examples, the blog’s multimodality thus does not interfere with but rather supports a quick and easy reading of the visuals. They also exemplify the tension between humor and dissociation, because a significant part of the impact of these captions and tags lies in the fact that they articulate the discrepancies between the rich kids and the implied spectators. This strategy of dissociation, often tinged with implicit or explicit contempt or ostentation, is a third textual formula to be found on RKOI: A photograph of four evidently expensive sports cars is titled “Which would you take for the day?” (chasezimmerman), and the caption of a shot of a five-digit hotel bill smugly proclaims: “You stay a month we stay a night” (petermarquez346, “You Stay”). In these and other cases, the multimodal meaning production on RKOI is used to situate the images in a larger socioeconomic context. Text and image together remind the spectators of the fundamental premise of projects like RKOI: For the spectacle of elite distinction to be effective and affective, it must be silhouetted against the background of the undistinguished masses. Since the masses are not articulated at all in the blog’s visual language, they are implicitly or explicitly written in through the use of textual elements such as the ones quoted above. Besides the blog’s subheading and the textual elements surrounding the images, a third and last instance of the blog’s multimodality can be found in the rich kids’ various attempts at cleverness undertaken either by the rich kids themselves or by the blog’s curators. Thus, the photograph of a large cardboard box full of Hermès boxes was tagged “Orange is the new black” (stewartlife12) by the curators, alluding to the popular comedy-drama series set in a women’s prison. Another image showcases a stack of hundred-dollar bills next to a tie and notes in the caption that “[t]he new 100s match my favorite Hermès tie beautifully” (bon_et_copieux). Some rich kids also adopt a somewhat self-critical tone, as indicated by the text accompanying a shot of thirty-three Christian Louboutin shoeboxes: “My dad on the left. I can hear his thoughts ‘who is this monster I created?’” (kanelk_k). These self-critical comments are the exception, however. Most ‘clever’ remarks are akin to the one that offers “Cleaning the bathroom” as a caption for the image of a young man pouring Armand de Brignac champagne into a sink (petermarquez346, “Cleaning”).

The Politics of Ambiguity in Rich Kids of Instagram


As a multimodal text, RKOI enriches and complicates the visual spectacle of elite distinction through the implementation of textual elements. From the subheading to the captions and hashtags, the different semiotic modes sometimes strengthen and sometimes challenge the dominant meanings established by the blog, and they help to situate the images in a larger sociohistorical context. However, the subversive potential inherent in multimodal channels of meaning production is not activated frequently. In the majority of cases, the blog’s visual and textual signifiers function together seamlessly to create a spectacular landscape of moneyed distinction.

Conclusion The objective of this article was to gauge RKOI’s political trajectory by examining its most prominent textual and aesthetic features—seriality and polysemy—with regard to its most effective strategy of distinction: spectacle. The blog’s poetics create various sites of ambiguity, whose potentials of meaning making depend to a great extent on the audience’s engagement with its contradictory formal, textual, and aesthetic dynamics. Because of this postmodern poetics of instability and fragmentation, the blog’s political trajectory remains elusive; the instability and ambiguity that enable all these different responses are built into the very textuality of the blog. The visual landscape itself—dominated by the spectacle of elite distinction—is surprisingly homogeneous. Relying on a fairly small number of tropes, the visualizations are characterized by an aesthetics that privileges size, exclusivity, and abundance as dominant formal principles. The audience’s response, however, is not primarily prompted by the spectacle itself but depends on the effects of seriality and polysemy. It is the spectator’s individual approach to the text—serially or singularly—and her interpretation of the blog’s multiple authorship, parafictional nature, and multimodality that determine Rich Kids of Instagram’s political and affective potential. Though attesting ambiguity as the single stable feature of an otherwise unstable text may not be the most satisfying conclusion for a reading invested in this text’s political trajectory, it might seem, at first glance, to be the only option for Rich Kids of Instagram: The blog’s textual politics allow it to resist stabilizing readings and instead embrace and capitalize on its own ambiguities. Yet what happens when the politics of this ambiguity are interrogated? How does Rich Kids of Instagram’s political trajectory change when the most important sites of ambiguity—the tension between self-representation and ‘othering’ and the oscillation between mockery and sincerity—are read as the very locus of the blog’s politics? The nexus between polysemy, seriality, and spectacle then leads to two conclusions about Rich Kids of Instagram’s politics of ambiguity: The first concerns the instability of meaning created by the duality of the discourse of elite distinction. The


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unanswerable questions of agency and authorship, mockery and sincerity, authenticity and fraudulence create spaces of ambiguity too powerful to be disentangled. Ultimately, this politics of ambiguity relieves the audience of its interpretive responsibility: In the face of such semantic to-and-fro, one cannot be asked to position oneself. Everything is associative, fleeting, and vague, provoking a number of contradictory impressions that cannot be reconciled and thus remain safely neutered in the realm of relativism and ambiguity. Rich Kids of Instagram, then, transforms something fairly unambiguous and deeply political—the unequal distribution of wealth and income in the United States—into something unstable, multidimensional, and directionless, into an issue of uncertainty and multiple meanings. It diverts the audience’s attention from the fact of rampant inequality to peripheral concerns, such as whether the lifestyle depicted in the images is authentic or staged and whether the actors are ‘real’ or impostors. The second conclusion concerns the serialization of spectacle that transforms the semiotics of elite distinction into a drag-like performance of hyperbolic class signifiers. The ambiguity here is that between sincerity and mockery—the audience can never be quite sure whether it is encountering genuine self-expression or satirical ‘othering.’ The exaggerated nature of the spectacular performances could be read as a moment of subversion, or at least subversive potential, since the aweinspiring effects of more subdued representations of wealth—for instance in the advertising industry—are disrupted and since the code of distinction is, to some extent, demystified. However, due to the dynamics of serial outbidding, the spectacle becomes hyperbolic to such a degree that the performance is not only deconstructed but also presented as ridiculous and pathetic. This ridiculousness creates a dissociation between the blog’s protagonists and the actual one percent; in other words, the images lose their sociopolitical referentiality. They become fantasies, caricatures, fictions that signify nothing outside of the realm of digital excess and megalomania. Add to this the “deeply legitimating disidentification” (193) Michaels diagnoses as one of the functions of cultural manifestations of extreme wealth, and Rich Kids of Instagram’s potential to encourage debate about inequality and elite distinction in the contemporary United States is all but nonexistent.

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---. “The Death of the Author.” 1967. Image, Music, Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill, 1977. 142-48. Print. Bellafante, Ginia. “Never Mind the Bubbly, Some Can’t Buy Groceries.” New York Times. New York Times, 21 July 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. Bielski, Zosia. “‘Rich Kids of Instagram’: The Moronic Excesses of Teenage Socialites.” Globe and Mail. Globe and Mail, 13 Aug. 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. Blumberg, Paul. Inequality in an Age of Decline. New York: Oxford UP, 1980. Print. bon_et_copieux. “The New 100s Match My Hermès Tie Beautifully.” Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, 21 Jan. 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Ed. John G. Richardson. New York: Greenwood, 1986. 241-58. Print. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print. Caramanica, Jon. “Pop on Those Prada Shades, Puff Out Your Lips and Say, ‘Puhleeeze!’” New York Times. New York Times, 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. Casserly, Meghan. “Should Rich Kids Be Grounded From Social Networking?” Forbes. Forbes, 13 Aug. 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. chasezimmerman. “Which Would You Take for the Day?” Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, 30 Jan. 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. cind888. “A Little Stash of Goodies on Vacation.” Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, 11 June 2013. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. Clifford, Stephanie. “Even Marked Up, Luxury Goods Fly Off Shelves.” New York Times. New York Times, 3 Aug. 2011. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. collinjohnstone. “Our Everyday Is Better Than Your Best Day.” Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, 26 July 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. 1967. London: Notting Hill, 2013. Print. dwachler. “Bringing Home the Birkin.” Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, 3 Feb. 2014. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. evanpow. “Best Birthday Present Ever. Best Friend Ever.” Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, 17 July 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. Fiske, John. “Television: Polysemy and Popularity.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 3.4 (1986): 391-408. Print. Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005. Print. Fussell, Paul. Class: A Guide through the American Status System. New York: Touchstone, 1992. Print. Gachman, Dina. “Rich Kids of Instagram and Twenty-First Century Blues.” Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 4 Sep. 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. Greenfield, Rebecca. “Rich Kids of Instagram Epitomize Everything Wrong with Instagram.” Wire. Atlantic, 18 July 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. harry_brant. “#Snowday This Winter Is Killing Me.” Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. Himmelsbach, Nadine. “Reiche Kids inszenieren sich auf Instagram: Unser Alltag ist besser als euer bester Tag.” Süddeutsche.de. Süddeutscher, 25 Aug. 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. Jahn-Sudmann, Andreas, and Frank Kelleter. “Die Dynamik serieller Überbietung: Amerikanische Fernsehserien und das Konzept des Quality-TV.” Kelleter, Populäre Serialität 205-24. Jakobson, Roman. “Closing Statements: Linguistics and Poetics.” Style in Language. Ed. Thomas A. Sebeok. Cambridge: MIT P, 1960. 350-77. Print.


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kanelk_k. “My Dad on the Left.” Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, 18 Dec. 2012. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. Kelleter, Frank. “Populäre Serialität: Eine Einführung.” Introduction. Kelleter, Populäre Serialität 11-46. ---, ed. Populäre Serialität: Narration – Evolution – Distinktion: Zum seriellen Erzählen seit dem 19. Jahrhundert. Bielefeld: transcript, 2012. Print. Kelleter, Frank, and Andreas Jahn-Sudmann. “The Dynamics of Serial Outbidding (Überbietung).” Popular Seriality. Free U Berlin, 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. . Knibbs, Kate. “Turns Out Instagram’s Latest Obscenely Rich Braggart, Mr. Wall Street, Is a Fake.” Digital Trends. Digital Trends, 29 May 2013. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. Lambert-Beatty, Carrie. “Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility.” October 129 (2009): 51-84. Print. Michaels, Walter Benn. The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. New York: Metropolitan, 2006. Print. peter_brantii. “White on Gold on White on Gold.” Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, 6 Aug. 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. petermarquez346. “Cleaning the Bathroom.” Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, 13 Jan. 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. ---. “You Stay a Month We Stay a Night.” Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. Petri, Alexandra. “Why the Internet Hates the Rich Kids of Instagram and the Brant Brothers.” Washington Post. Washington Post, 17 Aug. 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. quinbarber. “This Place Sucks.” Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, 4 Feb. 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. 1890. New York: Dover, 1971. Print. Rogoff, Irit. “Studying Visual Culture.” The Visual Culture Reader. Ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff. London: Routledge, 2002. 24-36. Print. Schwarz, Laura. “Rich Kids of Instagram: Posh Posts.” GQ. Conde Nast, n.d. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. “spectacle, n.1” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford UP, n.d. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. . stewartlife12. “Holiday Season Is Starting Early.” Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. thuniss. “Dom and Moet Bottles in the Bath.” Rich Kids of Instagram. Tumblr, 24 July 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. Tomlinson, Alan. “Theorizing Spectacle: Beyond Debord.” Power Games: A Critical Sociology of Sport. Ed. John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson. London: Routledge, 2002. 44-60. Print. Van Meter, William. “The New Princes of the City (There’s Even a Harry).” New York Times. New York Times, 20 June 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. 1899. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print. We Are the 1 Percent. Tumblr, n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. .


“The Power of the Story”: ‘Popular Narratology’ in Pentagon Reports on Social Media Use in the Military Abstract: This contribution explores notions of ‘popular narratology’ in reports, memos, and strategic research papers of the US military and affiliated institutions. It investigates the military’s analysis of emerging social media practices and corresponding efforts to adapt military organization, strategy, and culture to these new technological and cultural phenomena. Employing notions and techniques of constructing and disseminating a narrative that they borrow from literary theory, media studies, and advertising, these texts negotiate best practices to set political agendas and instigate institutional reforms within the military. Providing a cultural history perspective on these recent developments in military policy, this article emphasizes the military papers’ reflections on the textuality of military information in order to reveal their agenda of furthering the military’s interests. It is thus invested in exploring how textual (i.e., ‘poetic’) qualities serve as tools to pursue political goals.

Introduction In January 2008, a group of military leaders, diplomats, intelligence service representatives, and academics from institutions in the United States and Canada met at the US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, to discuss the emerging role of new media in military operations. Based on the case study of Hezbollah’s successful new media, especially social media activities to counter Israel’s military campaign in southern Lebanon in 2006, working groups explored opportunities, challenges, and security threats of new and social media for military forces in the twenty-first century. The participants agreed that, although the Israeli Defense Forces enjoyed a clear advantage in military operations, Hezbollah’s application of new-media technologies, such as the swift distribution of professionally edited information about civilian casualties, helped the organization turn kinetic tactical defeats into strategic advantages during a campaign that was increasingly waged on the Internet. Workshop participants further pointed out that the American military, while adapting to the new information environment in its strategic planning, needed to learn from the Israelis’ setbacks. It had to accelerate its preparations to wage ‘infowar’ against future adversaries and “encourage,” “educate,” “empower,” and “equip” American soldiers “to tell the good news stories” (Murphy 4). The workshop’s executive summary concluded:


Frank Usbeck The U.S. military has increasingly leveraged advances in information technology to gain advantages in the modern battlefield and to tell their story on a macro level, but has just recently begun to exploit the exploding technology realm at the micro level by co-opting the use of YouTube and blogs to help achieve objectives. Clearly, managing the ‘message’ while controlling the necessary technological ‘means’ represent critical challenges in today’s military operating environment. (Murphy 1)

These statements, as well as the more detailed study published later that year (cf. Collings and Rohozinski), fit into a stream of similar texts emanating from various military colleges, strategic centers, and think tanks affiliated with the US military since the mid 2000s. They all acknowledge the role of new and social media in influencing military operations, and they call for adjustments in military culture, organization, and strategy. They negotiate the military’s stance toward its soldiers’ private immersion in such technologies because so-called milblogs and other social media services had become increasingly popular among the troops, gained widespread publicity since 2003, and, consequently, raised concerns about operational security and information control among military leaders. At the time of this writing, the private platform Storming Media lists more than forty such Pentagon reports related to social media, illustrating the social media services’ growing influence on military leadership, culture, and strategic planning. These reports document the ongoing transition period, initiated roughly a decade ago, during which primarily junior officers campaigned to help the Armed Forces adapt to the rapid changes in media technology and to the corresponding emergence of new information channels and cultural practices. Many of these reports, as the examples cited above, urge the military and its representatives to “tell their story” (Murphy 1). They invoke a narrative that the military’s “managing” (Murphy 1) of the message is supposed to convey through social media. In this, they represent a larger trend in contemporary American texts on society and politics to employ notions of ‘popular narratology,’ of ‘narratives’ and ‘stories’ to promote a political agenda. Sebastian M. Herrmann observes that, roughly since the turn of the century, “‘narrative’ has [...] increasingly become a central paradigm in how the American public makes sense of US politics” and that this paradigm draws on earlier traditions of “spin” and “framing” (304). Explicating that narrative switched from a primarily academic field of inquiry to a sociocultural postmodern phenomenon, Herrmann adds that the surging public interest in ‘narrative’ happens at the crossroads of two distinct cultural dynamics: a situation in which public political discourse is being consumed as a product of popular culture, a commodity sold to an audience; and the presence of an audience that is eager and able to engage popular culture from a meta-narrative perspective. (305)

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Following Herrmann’s reading, I understand the Pentagon reports as expressions of such a drive toward popular narratology: By “managing the ‘message’” (Murphy 1), the military seeks to ‘sell’ its political agenda. The reports discuss the textual qualities and strategies of the message as well as their growing awareness of an audience that is “eager and able” (Herrmann 305) to engage this message from exactly such a metanarrative perspective. The military discourse expressed in these reports explicitly analyzes best practices to exploit this eagerness by adapting to cultural practices of social media use, that is, by employing the best possible ‘poetics’ for their ‘politics.’1 This article thus explores how the US military appropriates popular narratology for its discussion and strategic utilization of social media in these reports.2 It argues that vague notions—in some instances even techniques—of constructing and disseminating a narrative serve military planners to further military interests and to instigate reforms through these reports. By way of diverse examples, this study will highlight how the selfreflexive textuality of these military publications helps negotiate policy and promotes military public relations. I will start by briefly providing a cultural-historical context for the influence of information technology on strategic paradigms (i.e., the development of doctrines such as ‘Strategic Communication,’ ‘Information Operations,’ and ‘Inform and Influence’), organizational structure (i.e., the establishment of new departments to address information warfare and public relations), and military culture (i.e., the adoption of cultural practices and related technologies, such as blogs, Twitter, or YouTube, by military personnel, for both private and official purposes). This historical contextualization will convey how the intertwining of technological innovation and cultural change generated both opportunities and threats for military information procedures. Ensuing political debates within the military eventually led to reforms and adaptation. Having thus set the stage, I will scrutinize selected reports from a cultural studies perspective in a close reading to discuss the military’s interest in ‘narratives’ and ‘stories’ as popular-narratological paradigms in military communication and political agenda setting as well as the representation of storytelling in some of the reports’ fluctuating genre conventions. A final section will explore the military leadership’s popular understanding of soldiers as messengers in the 1 2

Although he does not employ the term ‘popular narratology,’ Bruno Arich-Gerz describes a similar phenomenon in his analysis of the 9/11 Commission Report for this volume. My discussion of storytelling in this context developed out of a book project on the cultural work of milblogs, in which I read soldiers’ online accounts as a form of ceremonial storytelling that negotiates war experience on both an individual and a collective level in a public forum (cf. Usbeck, “My Blog Is My Therapy”; Usbeck, “Keep That Fan Mail Coming”). This project is embedded in a Dresden-Leipzig research initiative about the self-reflexive textuality of contemporary American narratives. For more information, cf. http://www.narrativeculture.de.


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reports’ political discourse on how best to exploit individual soldier communication for military public relations.

The Military Adapts to the Information Age During the decade following the launch of the first web browser and corresponding operating systems in 1995, information and communication technology underwent radical changes and affected a growing percentage of the world’s population. Initial teething troubles, such as modem efficiency, bandwidth, user friendliness, and expense, have since been overcome and enabled users to produce and disseminate content on a much larger scale, which made the medium more participatory and inclusive (Smith 1-2). The result of these rapid developments has been termed ‘Web 2.0,’ of which social media services are a critical component. Aside from Web 2.0’s impact on traditional (print) media, participation and inclusiveness on the Internet have generated new cultural practices and affected governments’ communication and relationships with their constituencies. This presumed ‘democratization’ of communication and information caused leaders and strategic planners to muse about its impact on notions of security, public affairs, and the conduct of war from the beginning. To adapt to the expected growth of electronic media audiences and their future exposure to visual representations of war and its aftermath, military strategists amended their traditional twentieth-century doctrine of ‘Fire and Maneuver’ (aimed at amassing firepower that swiftly overwhelms the enemy’s main forces) with ‘Information,’ resulting in the development of the Information Operations paradigm during the 1990s. Information Operations eventually involved all aspects of electronic warfare, ranging from disabling an enemy’s ability to fight to justifying one’s own activities domestically and internationally by way of information technology (Wille 10).3 Media and social theories about the Internet served planners to understand web-based networks and information distribution and to adapt to the resulting cultural practices and organizational patterns. Among these, network theory described new capabilities to organize, to build social ties, 3

The history of these doctrines and their institutions is very complex. Different doctrines and paradigms often cannot be clearly distinguished because of contradictory definitions, overlapping interests, and jurisdictional competition among government agencies and branches of the military. Since the 1990s, administrations have frequently launched new policies and campaigns that contradicted each other and stalled or propelled forward different ideas and institutions. The scope of this study precludes a detailed account of institutional or policy history in this regard. I employ these strategic paradigms, doctrines, and institutions to make the case that social media have become expedient tools to promote notions of narrative and storytelling in US military public relations since the turn of the century.

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and to communicate. One such early analysis for the RAND Corporation, authored by David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla in 2001, stresses that future ‘netwars’ require strategists to move beyond the traditional paradigms to respond to the peculiarities of warfare in the Information Age: Netwar—with its emphasis on empowering dispersed small groups, its reliance on the power of the story, and its suitability to leaderless networks adept at swarming—should call forth a strategic renaissance [...]. Deterrence and coercion will not disappear entirely as tools of statecraft; but, more and more often, suasion will have to be tried, as our understanding of the limited usefulness of force grows ever clearer. (353-54; my emphasis)

The authors add that the current technological developments would serve “democratic state and nonstate actors who thrive on openness” because the new technology tends to favor transparency and that public diplomacy and soft power would, therefore, gain influence in foreign affairs (331). Consequently, such new military paradigms as Strategic Communication and Information Operations were developed to incorporate “suasion,” that is, to employ “the power of the story” (Ronfeldt and Arquilla 354) and add Information to Fire and Maneuver. In the following in-depth discussion of Pentagon reports, ‘openness’ and ‘transparency’ will recur as central elements of the information paradigm geared to influence audiences and build trust, particularly in the wake of President Barack Obama’s ‘Open Government’ initiative of 2009 (Camoroda 6). The new interest in public diplomacy and soft power in the Pentagon led to the establishment of new military institutions and positions to harness this perceived power of the story conveyed by new media. Among these new positions were public affairs officers (PAO) and departments that are in charge of message distribution and public relations (increasingly via social media) but that also serve as contacts for traditional media. Since the implementation of the Strategic Communication doctrine in 2004, sophisticated PAO training facilitated a system of independent communicators, whose tasks and capabilities went far beyond the role of mere commanders’ mouthpieces or “palace guard[s]” (Eder 23) and who worked to “create the structure, processes, culture, and image to communicate the Army’s story” (Eder 24, cf. 21-24). Military communication apparently no longer sought to ‘control’ the message because leaders accepted the impossibility of maintaining total control over one’s own information capabilities, while removing all of the enemy’s, due to the recently revolutionized access to and dissemination of information. Instead, they strove for “effective communication and ‘message stickiness’ [...] with target audiences” (Collings and Rohozinski 2) in addition to continued conventional efforts at protecting information. Most reform efforts were thus geared to turn the ‘army story’ into a ‘sticky message.’ The scope of this study prevents a detailed analysis of the ambivalence and discrepancies regarding ‘truth’ and openness in the reports. However, it


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is critical to consider that, in many instances, ‘truth’ seems to be equivalent with ‘military interests.’ Collings and Rohozinski emphasize that enemy propaganda—which they call the “‘big lie’”—must be countered by “rapid reaction capability that prioritizes documenting, disseminating and speaking the truth,” including videotapes of all military actions and better regulations on declassification to foster speedy responses to one’s adversaries’ ‘false’ claims (4). They add that the government and the Department of Defense must “engage bad news stories honestly and forthrightly” because “[c]redibility demands it” (4). Given Bradley (Chelsea) Manning’s accusations of American soldiers’ unwarranted killings of Iraqi civilians (by illegally publishing classified video footage of said killings) in the context of the 2010 WikiLeaks scandal and the authorities’ massive backlash against both Manning and WikiLeaks, this pledge to honesty appears to be rather naive. Thus, we should not read the military’s new interest in message stickiness and transparency as a renunciation of message control and a devotion to total transparency for the sake of credibility but rather as a marketing strategy. Part of the military’s orientation toward decentralized and web-based communication stems from realizing that not only adversaries, such as Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and, most recently, the ‘Islamic State’ militias, used social media as weapons in information warfare, but that American soldiers’ growing utilization of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube reflected the emergence of new cultural practices in the general population. While military leaders’ and commanding officers’ initial responses to milblogs primarily concerned operational security, numerous sources were quick to point out that, as part of the new generation of ‘digital natives,’ all young soldiers had grown up in a culture of widespread use of electronic media. Reports argued not only that it would be impossible to enforce a ban on social media use for deployed soldiers but that it would backfire, both by damaging soldier’s morale (since they had begun to rely heavily on social media services to stay in contact with their families and friends) and by denying the military a major source of support that the public deemed reliable and authentic (Murphy 4; Collings and Rohozinski 4, 6; Keyes 8, 17, 19; Wille ii). In this respect, particularly reports emerging from the military’s various academic institutions portrayed soldiers as perfect messengers. As the final section of this article will discuss, individual and private accounts by soldiers promised to amplify official military messages, and, being private voices, they served as “third party validators” (Collings and Rohozinski 4) for the military’s official views, lending their credibility as quasi-independent voices to the official ‘story.’ In the following, I will detail how notions of popular narratology, of “tell[ing] the Army story” (Moe 6), permeated these Pentagon reports and, in some instances, even affected their format and style.

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“Leading the Narrative”: Storifying Military Policy Most of the Pentagon reports analyzed for this study facilitate some notion of popular narratology, that is, they present the military’s agenda as a story that needs to be told, shared, and acknowledged, and they are aware that this story needs to be ‘sold’ to the public by appealing to popular interests, that is, by making it sticky. They discuss techniques for both storytelling per se and the promotion thereof, and they strategically consider their audience’s active metanarrative engagement with their story. As several contributions to this volume illustrate, this phenomenon is not unique to military publications but can be found among various political institutions and social organizations during the last two decades. In our case, emerging notions of a military narrative, often termed the ‘army story,’ coincide with changes in military culture due to the Internet revolution. Regardless of whether there is a causal relation between the parallel emergence of the Internet and notions of popular narratology or not, the advantage of employing new media’s technological capabilities and their corresponding cultural practices to share these stories is clear enough. In their 2001 analysis of networks and the prospect of netwars for the RAND Corporation, Ronfeldt and Arquilla make the intriguing observation that “[n]etworks [...] are held together by the narratives, or stories, that people tell” (328). They further elucidate the meaning of narrative for the efficiency of social organization and political activism, saying that the concepts of narratives and stories describe political communication much better than notions of ideology, culture, or politics because narratives provide a grounded expression of people’s experiences, interests, and values. [...] First of all, stories express a sense of identity and belonging—who ‘we’ are, why we have come together, and what makes us different from ‘them.’ Second, stories communicate a sense of cause, purpose, and mission. They express aims and methods as well as cultural dispositions—what ‘we’ believe in, and what we mean to do, and how. (328)

The authors add that web-based networks promote social organizations with flat hierarchies and a high degree of their members’ engagement, and that the common narrative serves as a unifier for these relatively loose networks. All invocations of narrative in Pentagon reports of the following years adhere to this approach and call for changes in military culture and organization, both to emulate the structure and match the communicative efficiency of networks and to prepare for future conflicts in which such nonstate networks would be adversaries of the US. As illustrated in the above quote, notions of narrative serve to discuss identity and belonging and, consequently, self-representation and public relations. Military texts on social media cater to all of these aspects. When Army leaders first considered establishing a presence on Facebook, they re-


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alized that, out of the various sites relating to Army issues already present on the web, none were affiliated with the Army, making them “worried who was telling the story” (Perry 64). They concluded: “If you are not there to communicate your message, someone else will do it for you” (Perry 64). If “‘[i]n the Information Age, success is not merely the result of whose Army wins, but also whose story wins’” (Eder 11; cf. Lawson 20; Ronfeldt and Arquilla 328), then military public relations and a clear and convincing representation of one’s identity become major elements in winning “the battle of perception” (Wille 1), these reports argue. A narrative of identity and belonging needs to address one’s own populace and serve as a unifier against domestic strife. Likewise, it must demonstrate its appeal to international observers and, ideally, even convince neutrals to rally behind the cause. Mari K. Eder suggests such an identity narrative for military public relations, borrowing from American ‘creation myths’ about national character. Her book, borrowing from media studies and advertising, argues that particular stories appeal to Americans “because of culture, tradition, and precedence” and that they instill admiration and inspiration in their audience (13). These stories, she posits, embody the “American spirit” by addressing a refusal to give in, praising rugged individualism and teams forged to overcome hardships at the same time, and by generating heroes on a pedestal for role modeling (13). She invokes frontier mythology and the cultural memory of the cowboy as the proverbial American hero. Comparing ‘cowboy values’ promoted in twentieth-century westerns with the ‘soldier’s creed’ (cf. “Soldier’s Creed”), a pledge of allegiance and performance officially introduced by the Army in 2003, Eder argues that the cowboy “has in the twenty-first century transformed, in both heroic image and reputation, into today’s most visible patriot and role model, the American soldier” (70). Shared ideals, such as loyalty, honor, integrity, selfless service, and duty are universal and serve to motivate other segments of society (e.g., business) as well, strengthening Eder’s argument about the cowboy/soldier as an American role model. Such values and role models appeal to diverse groups because “[t]his pursuit of success and happiness comprises the quintessential American folk story. Folk stories resonate with Americans. These are stories that are recognizable as intricate to the fabric of the American life; they are deeply rooted in the American culture and experience” (73). While Eder convincingly portrays the folk story’s effective tapping into the timeless and universal hero motif, her reference to the cowboy image as such an exemplary folk story seems problematic. Nineteenth-century western novels and most twentieth-century movies followed exclusionary strategies that actually complicate her project of turning the American soldier into an all-American hero. Westerns originally featured only white male heroes: Native Americans usually appeared as othered enemies, African Americans tended to be ignored (although they made significant contributions to frontier and cowboy life [cf. Massey]), and women repre-

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sented civilization and thus impeded the hero’s liberty and independence. It is unlikely that Native and African Americans in today’s military, serving often in overproportional numbers, would identify with the cowboy as a cultural hero or that the average American, imagining a cowboy/soldier, would think of African Americans, Native Americans, or women in this cowboy context (cf. Moskos 17; United States, Dept. of Veteran Affairs 6). Seen from this perspective, values represented in the cultural image of the cowboy are not as universal as Eder claims them to be. Eder’s invocation of popular fiction as well as her reference to American national character and a sense of mission assuming the universality of American values are by no means novel features of strategic American selfportrayals during wartime (cf. Moon; Snow and Drew). What is new is that Eder and other authors incorporate academic discussions on the components and the constructedness of stories into their military contexts and that her book as much as the Pentagon reports on social media debate how to construct the army story to make it most efficient regarding the military’s “aims,” “methods,” and “cultural dispositions” (Ronfeldt and Arquilla 328). Published in the wake of a major reorientation of the International Security Assistance Force’s goals and strategic efforts in Afghanistan, one report advertises the new emphasis on communication by stating that winning a war in the Information Age means “effective ‘information engagement,’” that it can only be achieved through a political rather than merely a military victory, and that the “center of gravity” in these new wars’ efforts has to be public opinion (Collings and Rohozinski 2). In this changed environment, the military can no longer hope to exert total control over information about the war and therefore must aim for “‘message stickiness,’” that is, telling a story more convincing and lasting than that of one’s adversaries (Collings and Rohozinski 2). In order to win over an audience through a convincing and lasting story, as most reports analyzed for this study point out, the narrative must be disseminated quickly, and its success depends on the messenger’s credibility. The military thus employed technology and created institutions for speedy communication structures, it sought to empower its public figures (e.g., commanders and PAOs), and it discussed in how far individual soldiers’ private use of social media could be incorporated into these efforts. The individual chapters of Eder’s book, in essence a ‘how-to’ manual on military public affairs, detail how elements of “simple storytelling” thus serve to sway public opinion (54). Eder emphasizes authenticity (‘realness’ of the story and credibility of the messenger), simplicity (stories should be easy to tell and to remember), and universality (being timeless and appealing to a large audience, as in the cowboy example above, and entailing the aforementioned ambivalence of exclusionary practices in the popular cowboy image) (54). She posits that “whoever tells the story first and fastest leaves a lasting imprint on the public consciousness and gains control of the narrative” and that “‘being the firstest, with the mostest’ in


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terms of initiative” is imperative to achieving one’s goals in strategic communication (53, 33). Imagery from emergency medicine serves to illustrate the role of narrative in journalism and advertising: To Eder, breaking news (immediate reporting about an event) is as critical to dominating public perception of that event—i.e., dominating the narrative —as a speedy first response is to saving an accident victim’s life. She highlights her emphasis on the quick reaction to an event (or injury) by borrowing the term of the “golden hour” from emergency and trauma medicine (53). It is interesting to note that, in addition, Eder draws from bestselling how-to business manuals to explain the applicability of storytelling components, further demonstrating the current popularity of narrative throughout American society: She argues that a message becomes sticky if it reaches a ‘tipping point,’ that is, if it gains a growing audience either by going viral or by continued input through ongoing activism expanding that event, and she draws from the manuals’ suggestions to facilitate military public relations communication (54; cf. Heath and Heath; Gladwell). In order to adapt to changing demographics and patterns of media use, to reach a wider audience, and to circumvent message filtering by the presumably biased mainstream media (Eder 78-80), Pentagon reports increasingly turned to social media services as channels of message distribution and military public relations, hoping “to ‘lead conversations and participate in stories,’ thereby telling the Army story to the public” (Moe 28; cf. Perry 64). They also praised the Internet because it facilitates participatory communication and “dialogue-centric interchanges” between soldiers, their friends and families, and the general public (Perry 64). Although Chondra Perry and other authors stress the importance of ‘presence,’ that is, of telling one’s own story and thus retaining some semblance of control over the message thus distributed, their embrace of social media illustrates their interest in discourse and in reaching out to a wider audience. Interactive platforms in which military officials and individual soldiers disseminate information while both soldiers and the public provide feedback offer such inclusiveness and discourse. Their implementation in military communication serves several functions at once. First, it suggests transparency promised in political campaigns such as Obama’s Open Government initiative and is supposed to engender trust among both taxpayers at home and allies and neutrals abroad (Moe 29-30). Second, it expands the range of those who tell the army story and those who associate with it because flat hierarchies, increased elbow room for commanding officers to communicate on their own behalf, and the audience’s capabilities to offer feedback ensure an amplification of the message. Third, these individual voices lend their credibility to the story, increasing its authenticity for the audience: If messengers are not regarded as official mouthpieces of the institution but are closely enough affiliated with it to provide insider

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knowledge, they confirm the institution’s official statements. Credibility is further increased when the interaction between storytellers/messengers and audience entails critical debate (Keyes 8, 17, 19). The following quote illustrates the interconnectedness of these considerations and is worth citing at length: Social media permits two-way dialogue, which provides a platform for the Army to promote and participate in public discourse. These interactions create impressions that have a cumulative effect on how people perceive the military. Social media helps the military participate in the creation of the overall narrative. The narrative is assembled by users when they create and search for information to deepen their understanding and knowledge, and develop their own interpretations of what transpired. Their interpretations become part of the narrative that is shared with others. (Moe 17)

It is interesting to note that this statement employs notions of participatory storytelling that emerged in academic analyses of fan culture in the last few years. These strategic contemplations on social media understand military public relations as a way to generate a fan relationship between the military and civil society (and an international audience), to entertain these ‘fans,’ and to establish long-term bonds with them. Paul Booth coined the term ‘narractivity’ to describe how fan audiences of television series use social media to network, to build fan communities, and to contribute to the narrative, either by writing fan fiction or by suggesting future plot developments (99-105). Their contributions to fan community blogs and their interaction with the series’ producers thus shape the overall narrative. Todd A. Moe’s above statement on the role of social media for military public relations can be read along similar lines: He describes social media as a tool for the shared construction of the overall narrative to which all users (military public affairs personnel, commanding officers, individual soldiers, their families and peers, and the public) contribute. Other reports go into detail how different social media services can highlight particular interests and aspects, such as the appeal of the spectacular in visual representations of army activities (namely, firefights and explosions) on YouTube. The number of views for these videos are a case in point. In many such examples, the intertwining of representing actual war events with notions of enactment becomes obvious: “These videos tell the Army’s story through actual events played out on screen” (Perry 65). They illustrate how military public relations cater to their audience’s “cultural imagination of war” (Westwell 5), the primarily Hollywood-driven perception of war as a succession of spectacular fights and explosions, enacted by rugged, heroic, and professional soldiers. As this discussion of strategic papers illustrates, the military’s adaptation to the emergence of new media facilitated notions of popular narratology and storytelling, ushering in reforms in organizational structure, strategic paradigms, and military culture. These changes were


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geared to empower the storytellers to convey their narrative (that is, their sticky message), to enlarge the ranks of those who tell it, and to enhance the appeal of the story for its audience. In short, these measures worked to ensure that the military’s story would emerge as the winning one. Yet reflections on folk stories, the spectacular, heroes, and fan audiences did not only come in the form of how-to manuals about storytelling; some of them emulated the setup and style of their templates, blurring the line between talking about the narrative and the narrative as such.

Telling the Story of the Army Story Not unlike the phenomenon of the 9/11 Commission Report Bruno ArichGerz analyzes in his contribution to this volume, some of the military texts discussing social media in a popular-narratology context read like literary or creative nonfiction texts themselves. They, too, incorporate conventions and emplotments (cf. White) both from the text types of official institutional reports and memos and from novels or journalistic reportage and feature pages. The intended audience of Paul R. Keyes’s report Live From the Front and Eder’s Leading the Narrative’s tenth chapter is restricted to the relatively narrow circle of Pentagon strategists, career officers, and students and faculty of military academies and think tanks. However, both these two texts and the 9/11 Commission Report deliberately play with generic conventions. I will discuss these military examples in more detail here to explore the functions of such transgeneric “oscillat[ion]” for the audience, as Arich-Gerz has it (121). Keyes’s thirty-page report on the role of milblogging for military communication begins in medias res with an essayistic prologue before reverting to typical conventions of the report genre. This three-paragraph prologue is separated from the conventional bulk of the report only by an ellipsis. It sets the stage with an exemplary plot that provides a backdrop for the issues discussed throughout the report. Its style resembles journalistic reportage, feature pages, and creative nonfiction, and it sets out to answer most of journalism’s ‘five W’ questions instantly before launching into more details on the background and context of the described event: “Anbar Province, Iraq. His patrol complete, Corporal Jennings returned to the forward operating base with two less soldiers in his team than he started with earlier in the day” (1). 4 Keyes spends a few sentences to explain the circumstances of these two deaths and goes on to detail his protagonist’s routines back at the base in the next two paragraphs:


These five questions are: What happened when and where, who was involved, and why?

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Once he filed his after action report, Corporal Jennings willed his exhausted body over to the camp’s Internet kiosk to continue his daily ritual. Mentally and physically drained, he mustered enough energy to recount the details of the day’s events to inform those back home on the war’s progress. In his mind, this was a duty as solemn as the one he took an oath to uphold when he enlisted. And so he sat down to write his military web log . . . (1)

In these two paragraphs, Keyes describes the protagonist’s blogging as a regular aspect of his military life. Moreover, his narration carries emotional weight to generate an immediate identification with, and empathy for, the protagonist, who represents the growing community of milbloggers. These four sentences encompass the agenda and arguments of Keyes’s entire report: They portray milblogging as an integral part of contemporary soldiering that is no less sacrificial and exhausting and that demonstrates a commitment to the war effort no less than the protagonist’s patrol earlier that day. Given the report’s argumentative stance toward milblogging and its context in the multitude of similar reports, Keyes’s introductory story highlights milbloggers as genuine assets beyond the call of duty and despite the potential risks their individual war accounts pose to operational security. These paragraphs emphasize the physical and psychological strain of battle on the soldiers in order to sensitize military leaders to milbloggers’ contribution to infowar. They describe the protagonist as “drained” and having to “[will] his exhausted body,” barely “muster[ing] enough energy” to write a blog entry after his return to base (Keyes 1). In this instance, the emphasis on hardship serves to highlight the soldier’s commitment: Although exhausted, he feels an obligation to inform the home front about the war’s progress through his blog. This is a signal to the report’s audience of military leaders on two levels. First, the prologue argues that, at a time when information and public opinion have become major elements of warfare, independent soldiers’ voluntary commitments to “telling the Army story” (Moe 28) weigh as much as the physical hardships of battle. It calls for the empowerment of soldiers to serve both as messengers and as fighters. The prologue introduces issues discussed throughout the report—the soldiers on the ground, those who get dirty and tired and lose friends in battle, are perfect messengers for the army story because their accounts are usually very subjective, personal, unpolished, and unfiltered. They are thus perceived as more authentic and credible than media reports on the war. They tell the ‘folk stories’ of individualism, team building, and accepting challenges that Eder relates back to the American cowboy. Their lack of refinery, rough language, and casual descriptions of hardships overcome generate credibility with their audience that official military press releases cannot gain. Keyes thus sees their potential in confirming official statements by adding their subjective bottom-up perspectives, admired for their untarnished openness and directness (8; cf. Roering 105-06).


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Second, the style in which Keyes presents his sample story is in itself a signal to convince leaders of social media’s merits for telling the story despite operational security risks: In this opening sequence, he shows, rather than tells, that bloggers are the better storytellers. This gripping, straight-into-the-fray account of an exhausted, troubled, yet engaging soldier/messenger/storyteller emulates many blogs’ style and thus exemplifies for decision makers in his audience that every day, hundreds of milbloggers5 in Iraq and Afghanistan produce accounts as gripping as this opening, reaching out to millions of people over the Internet with their accounts of commitment to the war’s objectives.6 In addition, Keyes’s claims about what is on “his [Jennings’s] mind” (1) is a typical signal of a narration, namely, of an omniscient narrator in a fictional account: How could Keyes know what was on Jennings’s mind, if not by interviewing him about the event or reading about it in a self-reflective statement elsewhere? Since the report does not provide a reference to the blog, much less to an interview with the blogger, readers are left to assume that Jennings, for all purposes, is a fictional character. Keyes’s opening description of the hardships of war is then coherently woven through the entire text, despite the switch between genre conventions. It supports his argument that depicting hardships, even criticizing the military from within to a certain degree, actually supports the military’s efforts in public relations because personal blogs by military personnel establish credibility, suggest transparency, and, therefore, facilitate trust. Published early in the reform process in 2007, it is obvious how hard the report must argue to convince its initially skeptical audience and push for a change in military cultures of information. Later reports could take an awareness of social media’s potential among senior leaders for granted. The following example from 2011 will document the military’s self-reflection on the progress of its public relations reforms and its ideas about the future results of that process, presented in the form of a speculative account. Eder concludes her book on military public relations with a fictional account originally published on the Army War College website in 2009. Like many of the preceding chapters, this tenth chapter is not coherently interwoven with the remainder of the book, and the lack of reader guidance between chapters makes it quite difficult to realize that here, the mode has changed to fiction. The account begins in reportage style similar to Keyes’s report, which diverges from Eder’s earlier prose. However, the switch to fiction becomes clear only after the third sentence, when the third-person narrator explains in past tense that the narrated time is in the future, in 5 6

The blog site Milblogging.com alone hosted 3,600 blogs and had over 20,000 registered users in 2013. In fact, some blog entries feature literary in medias res openings, others remind readers of the ‘dark and stormy night’ (cf. Temple, “Back from Mission”; Temple, “Memorial Service”).

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January 2015. The scene is set in a briefing room at Fort Knox, Kentucky, describing the meeting of the Joint Communication Board to appoint highranking officers for key positions in departments and units pertaining to military information and public affairs. This chapter is a utopian vision of an effective and professional military communications hierarchy in which career officers receive diversified training and are assigned to a graded system of ever-challenging tasks and responsibilities as they rise through the ranks. Eder develops the character of the board’s president, who, on occasion of the appointment of the Joint Chief of Public Affairs described here, launches into a lengthy recapitulation of military public affairs history: Once on a roll, he would recite the entire history of the fight to win hearts and minds, at home and abroad, while along the way citing every government advance and setback of the past ten years to manage Information Operations (IO), Public Affairs (PA), and MISO [Military Information Support Operations] in a generally recognized and accepted manner. (91-92)

The president’s audience knows about his enthusiasm and “[settled] in” for “at least twenty minutes” of presentation (92). Providing a historical overview for the reader, the fictional scene in the briefing room suggests a group of characters highly content with their accomplishments, albeit a bit resigned about their superior’s enthusiasm for details in his recollection. Despite the scarcity of plot development throughout this chapter, the text’s setting and its major character contextualize the preceding chapters on recent and future challenges and opportunities in military communication. The fictional mode allows Eder to speculate on the future progress of the reform. While a report can only describe goals and estimate future outcomes, this work of fiction facilitates a detailed representation of imagined and hoped-for results and benefits as ‘real.’ Looking into the future, Eder’s tenth chapter imparts a sense of urgency to stay the course and to continue the military’s efforts in her readership—as well as a certainty that current challenges and bureaucratic obstacles will be overcome. The speculative mode helps Eder to finish her story and to ascribe meaning to it, and it thus seems to lend credibility to the current course of action.

“Every Soldier a Messenger”:7 Exploiting Milblogs for Public Relations It is no coincidence that most of the reports discussed for this study were published after 2005, when deployed soldiers’ blogs were already very popular and began facing widespread regulatory pressure from military 7

The title for this section draws from the title of Dennis G. Wille’s 2012 report on private social media use among enlisted soldiers.


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leaders. The first milblogs were written during the military buildup preceding the invasion of Iraq in winter 2002-03. Many of them quickly gained publicity, both because their insider accounts competed with traditional media in terms of speed and accuracy and because their mix of reporting and diary-type posting provided a personal perspective of what it was like to fight this war (Roering 85-87). Most measures to censor blogs and to restrict soldiers’ individual online use were implemented during 2004-05, after a number of blogs had already gone viral (Roering 88-95). Repressive measures continued in fluctuating scope and form until the Department of Defense issued a general, more permissive regulation in 2010 (United States, Dept. of Defense). Many reports discuss this new phenomenon of milblogging and try to gauge its potential and threats for military communication. These reports are thus not simply ‘discussion boards’ to instigate military reform in the Information Age but signals of insecurity and hectic activity among military leaders responding to what many planners initially regarded a security risk from within. The documentation of both the discussions and the security scare make them very rewarding historical documents for exploring the interrelation of technological innovation, corresponding cultural practices, and government policies, not least because they claim that milbloggers are the perfect tools to convey the army story due to their technological specifics and their cultural potential to make this message sticky. It is intriguing to see the first reports struggle to identify the emerging blogs’ public appeal and their repercussions on military security. Craig A. Smith’s 2006 report observes the bloggers’ arguments about upholding morale in the war zone and about their self-proclaimed role as watchdogs of traditional media and weighs them against security risks. He concludes that military leaders could certainly ban such private Internet use by the soldiers, but “at what cost to morale, and would there be a backlash now that the public has become accustomed to this new source of information?” (12). Other authors describe the demographics of young soldiers who bore the brunt of the fighting as part of a new, Internet-savvy generation. These digital natives had grown up with computer technology and were accustomed to using it within their social networks. They could teach senior officers about the merits of web-based information technology. Their immersion in sharing and networking through social media often made them blur the line between ‘private’ and ‘public’ information, making it harder for them to grasp what kind of publicized information actually constituted an operational security risk, but this problem could be redeemed by security training. Generally, report authors trust the digital natives in uniform to work for the overall mission: to hurt the enemy’s interests and to avoid harming themselves and their fellow soldiers (Murphy 4; Collings and Rohozinski x). Most reports immediately pointed out the opportunity to employ the digital natives for the new information-based strategies, which

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is a major reason why initial attempts to ban social media eventually gave way to permissive and monitored channeling. Since enemy information capabilities were believed to have a chance of evading total destruction in an age of networks, Information Operations sought to respond to the enemy’s message and to win by way of the better story, and this story needed efficient storytellers and storytelling techniques. “[T]hird party validators” (Murphy 3), who confirmed one’s own message while (officially) not being involved in the messaging operations, would provide credibility and critical mass to the story. Pentagon reports considered milbloggers to be ideal characters to play that role. Communication strategists observed that businesses thrived even after customers or employees voiced criticism; they concluded that a story lacking any taint was too good to be true and that a little criticism promoted authenticity. Milbloggers, engaging in the archaic soldierly custom of complaining about bad living conditions in the war zone or about inefficient logistics, would thus add critical and seemingly independent voices to the army story while confirming its overall message (Keyes 8, 17, 19). They would not only validate the army story but serve as “‘force multipliers’” in sharing their views with a wider audience than official military statements could (Collings and Rohozinski 4). Most reports agree that “an average soldier’s unpolished opinion is trusted more than a statement made by a military spokesperson. The average soldier lacks an agenda, which makes him genuine” (Moe 16).8 Thus, the troops themselves appear to be “the best ambassadors and [...] the most vocal advocates for the military. The aggregate voice of service members using social media puts forth a positive message that overcomes negative news” (17). In order to mitigate security risks and to bring soldiers’ use of social media to its full potential, the military needed to follow the ‘four ‘e’’ approach to social media use, that is, to “encourage,” “educate,” “empower,” and “equip” soldiers “to tell the good news stories” (Murphy 4). Such thoughts on instrumentalizing soldiers’ private online communication were sometimes expressed in drastic language. In his early report on blogs, Smith analyzes “ways that the U.S. can overtly control them or use them more effectively,” as he phrases it in the (unpaginated) abstract of his study. Building upon the ‘four ‘e’’ catalog, one report explicitly proposes to “[e]xploit digital natives” because through them, the public would be in “‘constant communication with the government’” (Collings and Rohozinski 8

It is unclear whether Moe states here that the average soldier actually has no political agenda to blog about, whether he thinks the public will not suspect an agenda in milblogs, or if he simply implies ‘no agenda that could hurt military interests.’ In any case, he seems to observe correctly that the majority of bloggers is conservative and, while on active duty, largely follows the American military tradition of not engaging in public debates that could be interpreted as a critique of the political leadership (Brænder 114; Anderson et al. 36).


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6, 36). Going beyond a mere permissive stance that allows and, at best, encourages blogging, this report even suggests that digital natives “‘should have as much responsibility to tell the story of what the American Soldier is doing, as to prepare for that next lethal combat. In fact, they should be doing this together’” (Collings and Rohozinski 65). A similar sense of duty permeates Keyes’s opening story of the tired corporal who informs the world about his latest costly patrol in his blog. However, the bloggers themselves seem to have promoted the sense of an obligation to tell one’s story in their response to the Department of Defense’s repression and censorship after 2004-05. Sean Lawson’s analysis reads this debate on censorship between military leaders and bloggers from the perspective of Lloyd Bitzer’s typological model of a “rhetorical situation” (2). It is thus in itself a rhetorical reading of military communication. Lawson argues that bloggers avoided to make First Amendment rights their main argument in the debate to keep from directly attacking their superiors and to present themselves as critical professionals within the institution (and, thus, to remain true to the primacy of politics over the military in American political tradition) (22). With their focus on infowar throughout the debate, bloggers actually demanded to have their credibility and close relationship to their audience exploited for military public relations. As the blog The D-Ring put it: “‘Beyond this connectivity providing a morale boost for troops, it also has significant benefit in helping to tell the military story. [...] By restricting access to YouTube and MySpace, the military is also restricting the ability of any service member to help engage in the ‘hearts and minds’ war’” (qtd. in Lawson 14). This example illustrates that the relationship between individual soldiers using social media and their military leaders is often driven by mutual interests and that, indeed, both military public affairs and individual soldiers contribute to telling the same story.

Conclusion The US military’s interest in social media since the turn of the century served various interrelated goals. As with all important technological inventions, if they were not developed for military use to begin with, armed forces need to investigate implications for future wars in order to ensure their technological-industrial advantage. Since the Information Age had influenced military strategic thinking since the late 1980s, it is only logical that the surprisingly rapid emergence of social media was studied thoroughly, if somewhat belatedly and frantically, among military experts. The new technology engendered cultural practices beyond national borders that revolutionized the access to as well as the use of information. It is also a logical result that the military adopted and exploited such practices to facilitate decentralization and message stickiness among its audience,

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rather than insisting on increasingly impossible top-down, total message control. Whether these changes in communication technology and media practices initiated a shift toward notions of popular narratology—of using ‘narrative’ as a paradigm to make sense of politics (cf. Herrmann)—among political organizations and government institutions or if their emergence simply coincided is a moot question. From the perspectives of both cultural studies and cultural history, it is much more rewarding to investigate how both phenomena continue to reinforce each other, as this article suggests. This approach elucidates the US military’s employment of popular narratology—much like other institutions and organizations—to convey their agenda. Contemporary texts present military and political interests as authentic stories and political actors as credible storytellers. Military storytelling draws from techniques of both fiction and journalism to employ “the power of the story” (Ronfeldt and Arquilla 354), that is, to convey a message as ‘the truth’ through transparency and a sequence of mutually confirming individual voices. The military embraces social media because they provide the technology for efficient storytelling (i.e., message dissemination and networking) and because its story’s audience is familiar with its modes (i.e., decentralization, diversification, and interaction). Adapting to such modes and conventions, military leaders hope to turn the army story into a winning narrative, and they employ individual soldiers to serve as credible storytellers. However, the value of transparency and truth, both supposed to engender message stickiness because a messenger conveys a “sense of identity and belonging” and of “cause, purpose, and mission” (Ronfeldt and Arquilla 328), seems questionable. While some texts call for transparency and truthfulness to build trust in the US military’s intentions on the one hand, they condemn Bradley (Chelsea) Manning’s interpretation of transparency and truth (and, as a consequence, Manning’s publication of classified documents on WikiLeaks) on the other hand (Moe 19; Eder 12-13). These gaps in perception are a case in point. After all, in both storytelling and (military) politics, what is ‘true’ and what is ‘tellable’ lies in the eye of the beholder.

Works Cited Anderson, Bruce, et al. Don’t Tread on My Blog: A Study of Military Web Logs. U of Oklahoma, n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. Booth, Paul. Digital Fandom: New Media Studies. New York: Lang, 2010. Print. Brænder, Morten. Justifying the Ultimate Sacrifice: Civil and Military Religion in Frontline Blogs. Aarhus: Politica, 2009. Print. Camoroda, Susan. Social Media: DOD’s Greatest Information Sharing Tool or Weakest Security Link? US Dept. of the Army. Carlisle: US Army War Coll., 2010. DTIC. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.


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Collings, Deirdre, and Rafal Rohozinski. Bullets and Blogs: New Media and the Warfighter. US Dept. of the Army. Carlisle: US Army War Coll., 2009. DTIC. Web. 24 Nov. 2010. Eder, Mari K. Leading the Narrative: The Case for Strategic Communication. Annapolis: Naval Institute, 2011. Print. Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Back Bay, 2002. Print. Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random, 2007. Print. Herrmann, Sebastian M. “‘To Tell a Story to the American People’: Elections, Postmodernism, and Popular Narratology.” Electoral Cultures: American Democracy and Choice. Ed. Georgiana Banita and Sascha Pöhlmann. Heidelberg: Winter, forthcoming. 303-19. Print. Keyes, Paul R. Live From the Front: Operational Ramifications of Military Web Logs in Combat Zones. US Dept. of the Navy. Newport: US Naval War Coll., 2007. DTIC. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. Lawson, Sean. “Loosing [sic] the Blogs of War.” Sean Lawson. N.p., 2007. 1-30. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. . Massey, Sara R., ed. Black Cowboys of Texas. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 2004. Print. Milblogging.com. Military Advantage, n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2013. Moe, Todd A. Social Media and the U.S. Army: Maintaining a Balance. US Dept. of the Army. Fort Leavenworth: US Army Command and Gen. Staff Coll., 2011. DTIC. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. Moon, John Ellis van Courtland. Confines of Concept: American Strategy in World War II. New York: Garland, 1988. Print. Moskos, Charles. “Diversity in the Armed Forces of the United States.” Cultural Diversity in the Armed Forces: An International Comparison. Ed. Joseph Soeters and Jan van der Meulen. New York: Routledge, 2007. 15-30. Print. Murphy, Dennis M. “New Media and the Warfighter: Workshop Initial Impressions.” CSL Issue Paper Mar. 2008: 1-4. DTIC. Web. 24 Nov. 2010. Perry, Chondra. “Social Media and the Army.” Military Review Mar.-Apr. 2010: 63-67. DTIC. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. Roering, Johanna. Krieg bloggen: Soldatische Kriegsberichterstattung in digitalen Medien. Bielefeld: transcript, 2012. Print. Ronfeldt, David, and John Arquilla. “What Next for Networks and Netwars?” Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy. Ed. Arquilla and Ronfeldt. Santa Monica: Rand, 2001. 311-61. RAND. Web. 20 Jan. 2014. Smith, Craig A. The World Wide Web of War. US Dept. of the Army. Carlisle: US Army War Coll., 2006. DTIC. Web. 24 Nov. 2010. Snow, Donald M., and Dennis M. Drew. From Lexington to Desert Storm and Beyond: War and Politics in the American Experience. Armonk: Sharpe, 2000. Print. “Soldier’s Creed.” The United States Army. US Army, n.d. Web. 4 Mar. 2014. Storming Media. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2014. Temple, Rex. “Back from Mission with a Little Traffic Mishap.” Afghanistan: My Last Tour. N.p., 31 May 2009. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. ---. “Memorial Service for Fallen Hero—SGT Raymundo Morales.” Afghanistan: My Last Tour. N.p., 26 July 2009. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. United States. Dept. of Defense. Directive-Type Memorandum (DTM) 09-026: Responsible and Effective Use of Internet-Based Capabilities. US Dept. of Defense, 25 Feb. 2010. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.

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---. Dept. of Veteran Affairs. American Indian and Alaska Native Servicemembers and Veterans. US Dept. of Veterans Affairs, Sept. 2012. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. Usbeck, Frank. “‘Keep That Fan Mail Coming’: Ceremonial Storytelling and Audience Interaction in a US Soldier’s Milblog.” Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 62.2 (2014): 149-63. Print. ---. “‘My Blog Is My Therapy’: The Sense of Community and Ritual in American Military Blogs.” Journal of Military Experience 2.1 (2012): 271-86. Print. Westwell, Guy. War Cinema: Hollywood on the Front Line. London: Wallflower, 2006. Print. White, Hayden V. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. Print. Wille, Dennis G. Every Soldier a Messenger: Using Social Media in the Contemporary Operating Environment. US Dept. of the Army. Fort Leavenworth: US Army Command and Gen. Staff Coll., 2012. DTIC. Web. 29 May 2013.

Notes on Contributors Bruno Arich-Gerz Bruno Arich-Gerz earned an MA in English studies and a PhD in American studies, with a thesis on Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and readerresponse criticism. He was a Juniorprofessor (assistant professor) at Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany. Currently, he is employed at Bergische Universität Wuppertal, Germany, and works as an author of fiction, a literary critic, and a writer of columns.

Olesya Bondarenko Olesya Bondarenko is a PhD candidate at Kyiv National Linguistic University, Ukraine. She earned an MA in English, German, and comparative literature from the same university in 2009. Her research focuses on the political and philosophical aspects of Language Writing. Bondarenko was on a research visit to John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies in Berlin, Germany, in 2012 and continued working on her project in the US in 2013/14 as a Fulbright visiting scholar.

Felix Brinker Felix Brinker is a doctoral candidate at the John F. Kennedy Institute’s Graduate School of North American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, as well as an associated member of the research unit ‘Popular Seriality—Aesthetics and Practice.’ He holds an MA in American studies as well as a BA in American studies and political science from Leibniz University Hannover, Germany. Currently, he is working on a dissertation project that engages with serial storytelling in contemporary film and television and with the political dimensions of increased audience activity, which looks at the recent wave of cinematic and televisual takes on the comic book superhero. His research interests include the politics of popular culture, popular seriality, contemporary American film and television, media studies, Frankfurt school critical theory, and conspiracy theories.

Michael Butter Michael Butter is professor of American studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany. He is the author of The Epitome of Evil: Hitler in American Fiction, 1939-2002 (Macmillan, 2009) and Plots, Designs, and Schemes:

336 American Conspiracy Theories from the Puritans to the Present (de Gruyter, 2014) and coeditor of, among others, Conspiracy Theories in the United States and the Middle East: A Comparative Approach (de Gruyter, 2014), 9/11: Kein Tag, der die Welt veränderte (Schöningh, 2011), and Arnold Schwarzenegger: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Body and Image (Winter, 2011). He is currently writing a book about the heroization of American presidents from Washington to Lincoln in songs and poems.

Ray Canoy Ray Canoy was an associate professor of modern European history at the University of Oklahoma, USA, until fall 2013 and a visiting scholar at the Institut für Europäische Geschichte in Mainz, Germany, until the end of that year. He currently teaches at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and writes on the interaction between culture, politics, and society in the context of German policing and public order. He is the author of The Discreet Charm of the Police State: The Landpolizei and the Transformation of Bavaria, 1945-1965 (Brill, 2007). He is currently writing a book on the cultural history of the German detective.

Hans Frese Hans Frese studied English and German in Münster, Germany, followed by a two-year period of teacher training. He worked as a foreign language assistant in London in 2004/05. He currently holds a full-time position as a teacher for English and German in Hamburg, Germany. His dissertation project looks at contemporary American literature and the culture wars. His research interests include literary historiography, questions of canonicity, postmodern literature, and actor-network theory.

Dorothea Gail Dorothea Gail completed a doctorate in musicology in 2007 at the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, with a dissertation about the American modern music composer Charles Ives. In 2008/09, she was a visiting professor of music history at the University of Oklahoma, USA. From 2010 to 2012, she was the executive editor for the national music series Music of the United States of America (MUSA) at the University of Michigan, USA, where she also taught classes in the culture of American music. She is currently a DFG postdoctoral fellow in American studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany, where she is working on a Habilitation with the working title

337 “Between Authenticity and the Market: Music, Values, and Subcultures in the United States since the 1970s.”

Sebastian M. Herrmann Sebastian M. Herrmann works as assistant lecturer at American Studies Leipzig, Germany. His recently published dissertation focused on the cultural work of ‘epistemic panic’ about the US president expressed in fiction, nonfiction, and semifictional texts since the late 1960s. He is also the founding head editor of aspeers, the first and currently only graduate journal for European American studies, a teaching and publication project on the MA level he has chaired for four consecutive years serving as head editor for the first four issues of the journal. As a student, he co-organized a conference on ambivalences of Americanization in Central and Eastern Europe and both contributed to and co-edited the resulting volume Ambivalent Americanizations: Popular and Consumer Culture in Central and Eastern Europe.

Andrew Hoberek Andrew Hoberek is associate professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia, USA, where he teaches classes in twentieth- and twentyfirst-century US literature and culture. He is the author of The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work (Princeton, 2005) and Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics (Rutgers, 2014). In addition, he is also pursuing projects on post1960 US fiction and foreign policy as well as contemporary fiction writers’ turn to popular genres. He is currently president of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present, an international organization dedicated to fostering conservation across the arts and between artists and critics, and he encourages interested people everywhere to join the group.

Carolin Alice Hofmann Carolin Alice Hofmann earned her MA degree in American studies, comparative literature, and media studies at Leipzig University, Germany, with a thesis on David Lynch’s Eraserhead read through the lens of Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection. She is the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship and currently a PhD student and graduate instructor in English at the University at Albany, New York, USA. Her doctoral project focuses on trauma and affect in nineteenth-century American literature.


Sabrina Hüttner Sabrina Hüttner holds an MA in English and American studies and economics from the University of Würzburg, Germany (2007), and is currently working as a lecturer at the department of American studies at the University of Würzburg. Her PhD project, entitled “Politics of Dissent: The Political Theater of Tony Kushner, Naomi Wallace, and Christopher Shinn,” examines how popular theater in the United States in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century accomplishes political work. Her research interests are in contemporary drama, performance studies, transnationalism, democracy studies, and the Harlem Renaissance. She has presented papers at various international conferences and contributed to important journals in the field, such as the South Atlantic Review.

Katja Kanzler Katja Kanzler is professor of North American literature at TU Dresden, Germany. Her research focuses on the forms and cultural valencies of narrativity and textuality across different text types, media, and aesthetic contexts, with a particular focus on the poetics and politics of popular culture. One of her current projects—which is part of the joint research initiative by American Studies Leipzig and Dresden, ‘Selbst-Bewusste Erzählungen’—explores how and to what discursive effects legal fictions cast the law as narrative.

Eleonora Ravizza After a BA in communication studies at the University of Bergamo, Italy, Eleonora Ravizza completed the MA program in American studies at Leipzig University, Germany, in 2011. She is currently a PhD candidate at Leipzig University, where she has been teaching American literature and culture to undergraduate students, as well as seminars on the representation of masculinity and of suburbia in films. For her PhD project, she is currently focusing on the cultural work that nostalgia performs and how it complicates representations of the Fifties/Sixties in recent films and TV series. Her research interests include gender in popular culture, intertextuality, masculinity, and queer studies.


Ilka Saal Ilka Saal is professor of American literature at the University of Erfurt, Germany. Prior to returning to Germany, she taught at the University of Richmond, USA, where she received tenure; she also worked as guest professor at Ghent University, Belgium. Her work on American theater, drama, and literature has been published in international journals such as Modern Fiction Studies, Amerikastudien/American Studies, Arcadia, South Atlantic Review, New Theatre Quarterly, and Journal of American Drama and Theatre. Her book New Deal Theater: The Vernacular Tradition in American Political Theater (Palgrave, 2007) won the Book Award of the South Atlantic Chapter of the Modern Language Association (2008). She is also the coauthor/-editor of Passionate Politics: The Cultural Work of American Melodrama from the Early Republic to the Present (Cambridge, 2008). As the recipient of the Feodor Lynen Fellowship for Experienced Researchers of the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation, she is currently working on a monograph on historiopoiesis in the work of Suzan-Lori Parks and Kara Walker.

Stefan Schubert Stefan Schubert is a PhD student at American Studies Leipzig, Germany. His doctoral project investigates what he calls ‘narrative instability’ in contemporary US texts across different media (specifically novels, films, and video games). Since 2009, he has been involved in the publication of the graduate journal aspeers (as coeditor of the third issue and as editorial assistant of subsequent issues), and in 2011, he co-organized the conference “American Pornographies: Consumerism, Sensationalism, and Voyeurism in a Global Context.” Besides looking for instability across a variety of different texts, some of his research interests include narrativity and narrative studies, popular culture (specifically new media and cybercultures), (post-)postmodernism, and video game studies.

Sophie Spieler Sophie Spieler holds a Staatsexamen in German and English from TU Dresden, Germany, and studied American studies as a Fulbright scholar at Fairfield University in Connecticut, USA. Spieler is currently a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. Her dissertation project interrogates the contemporary discourse of elite education in the

340 United States, focusing on the aesthetics of elite distinction and the negotiation of class and merit.

Frank Usbeck Frank Usbeck studied American studies, modern history, journalism, and American Indian studies at Leipzig University, Germany, and the University of Arizona, USA. He earned his Dr. phil. in 2010 with a work on the appropriation of the German euphoria for Native Americans in Nazi propaganda. His thesis won the Rolf Kentner Dissertation Prize of the Heidelberg Center for American Studies in 2011 and will be published with Berghahn Books, titled Fellow Tribesmen: The Image of Native Americans, National Identity, and Nazi Ideology in Germany, in 2015. His current project at TU Dresden, Germany, explores the cultural work of ceremonial storytelling in American soldier blogs (milblogs), which he reads through the lens of traditional warrior ceremonies and contemporary cultural practices of community building and civil reintegration among Native American peoples. Usbeck has published essays on milblogging in a collection he coedited, titled Participating Audiences, Imagined Public Spheres (2012), in the Journal of Military Experience, and in the Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik.