Abject Masculinities: Animals, Empire, and Boyhood

expression_of_the_emotions_darwin_dog_03Abjections

In Julia Kristeva’s formation, the abject is a magnetic force that troubles the distance between subject and object. As she says, it “draws me toward the place where meaning collapses.” In this intimation of psychic collapse, the abject both represents the threat that meaning is breaking down and structures our reaction to such a possible breakdown. As Kristeva reminds us: “It is…not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order, what does not respect borders, positions, rules.” Thus, the corpse, excrement, human defilement, mutation, and animality all mark the abject; to Kristeva they are horrors that highlight the instability of a distinct human totality. I begin with Kristeva’s conception of the abject to access an epistemological tension that drives this paper; the psychic and ontological border constructed between human and animal and Justin Torres’s exploration of an alternative hybrid borderlands. It is not my intent, then, to put forth an analysis in which “the abject” is deviance or pathology, but rather an analytic that espouses difference beyond binary opposition.

“We wanted more.” Justin Torres’s We the Animals begins with the booming requests of a brotherly collective, the opening pages clamoring towards a crescendo of desires, becomings, and identifications. It is the collective “we” that cries out these claims, a three-headed fraternal being. By the end of Torres’s work, however, the seemingly conjoined triplets, “we”, have fragmented, leaving the narrator and youngest of the three alone. What do we make of this opening vignette in Torres’s story? How does Torres from the onset of his work toy with our ideals of identity, subjectivity, and individuality? And lastly, what are the violences Torres highlights that an abject perspective allows us to access?

We the Animals is the story of three brothers, the sons of a young white mother and Puerto Rican father, living in upstate New York. The boys are wild and unruly, our first introduction to them, their list of demands, the aforementioned wanting more. Torres here is purposeful in linking wildness, animality, and adolescent boyhood, evidenced by the epigraph of his novel, a quote from Plato’s text The Laws, which reads, “Now a boy is of all wild beasts the most difficult to manage. For by how much more he has the fountain of prudence not yet fitted up, he becomes crafty and keen, and the most insolent of wild beasts. On this account it is necessary to bind him, as it were, with many chains.” The resistance to boundaries of normative gender, sexuality, life, and “humanity” Torres depicts in his young narrator, depicts both the abject possibilities of childhood and the disciplinary mechanisms aimed at reinforcing those very same boundaries. By playing with the genre of the bildungsroman, or coming of age story, Torres highlights the teleological mechanisms of masculinity, while also subverting them.  

For instance, when the narrator in We the Animals climbs into a hole his father has dug, he imagines it as his grave, his naked body “half submerged in puddle muck.” The narrator becomes his own corpse, decomposing before our eyes, immersed in mud and earth. After coming to peace in this space between life and death, however, the narrator is ripped from this in-betweenness by the sound of his families’ laughter. “All four of them…swaying with laughter like trees…weeping with laughter, saying ‘Look at him, just look at him! Just look at that baby!’” The abject, then, is the undoing of the Self as well as, the possibility for something less static. A kind of being bound to death, whether through an actual amalgamation with the earth, the implied rupture of the self in animalistic schizophrenia, or the fatalistic imageries of the narrator’s queer childhood.

These variegated deployments are primarily perpetuated in Torres’s text through the trope of the hybrid, of which the narrator, a mixed race adolescent boy figures prominently. Animalia, moreover, in its identarian and metaphorical collisions with the normatively human, serves as a structure and performance that also maps gender onto the boy’s body. In a scene at a lake, when unable to swim, it is the narrator’s un-goldfish-ness that feminizes him, allows for his mother to clamor over him, pushing him deeper into the depths. Unlike his father, who “generally made it his business to learn everything that had to do with survival”, the narrator is affixed to his mother’s inabilities, in this instance the incapacity to swim. As this particular story demonstrates, bestial representations in the text are not monolithic. The performance of masculinity via the hybridized animal is as much an affective mode of labor as one of imagery and while the normative impulses to embody the masculine (become the goldfish, the survivor) are encouraged, they are simultaneously rebuked. For if to access the masculine through the animal provides a pathway to manhood, it similarly withholds that very possibility. Every attempt to become the goldfish or by extension the father, by the narrator is unattainable; he is in the language of We the Animals a mutt, a mongrel, a hybrid; an amalgamation “in between.” Thus, his overtly-sexualized adolescent body operates as symbol and warning, performing the rites of manhood while denied its benefits. This is as much a work, then, on the child, the becoming, or failed man, as it is on human-animal hybrid moments. It is my aim to document the wildness afforded male adolescence  

 

Death Drive, Jouissance, and Abject Masculinities

In his work No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, scholar Lee Edelman argues, “the Child has come to embody for us the telos of the social order and come to be seen as the one for whom that order is held in perpetual trust.” To Edelman, a politics of childhood, in which reproductive futurity is paramount, structures a social conditioning whereby queer personages are figured as harbingers of death. He elaborates, “queerness, by contrast, figures, outside and beyond its political symptoms, the place of the social order’s death drive: a place, to be sure, of abjection expressed in the stigma, sometimes fatal, that follows from reading that figure literally.” Within the text, too, we find this abject geography mapped onto the children’s bodies. In the “Trash Kites” chapter, Manny, Joel, and the narrator set off into the woods “finding freedom” where they eventually come across a large empty field where they build kites out of trash bags and string. It gets late and clearly the boys have considered sleeping outside, backpacks and sleeping bags in tow, when their father arrives and “didn’t wait to get home but beat Manny right there in the field…punched his face, punched his crotch. Manny went crazy, hooting and hollering “Murderer!” over and over.”

This scene is an important one, not only because of the location, the boys have ventured beyond the limits of acceptable space, the field several miles away, and time, nighttime, but also because of the violence enacted by the father. It is Manny, as the oldest and therefore most responsible, who is held accountable for their foray into the wilderness, who receives the beating. His father’s punishment stakes the boundaries of normative space and time, as it is not that the children have ventured into the wild that draws his anger, but the length of time they have done so and the necessity of his intervention as disciplinary apparatus. If, as Edelman claims, “the Child… marks the fetishistic fixation; of heteronormativity: an erotically charged investment in the rigid sameness of identity that is central to the compulsory narrative of reproductive futurism.” Then the actions of the father in Torres’s work in this scene can be read as a means to forcibly assure that identity. And while it is Manny who receives the beating, it is the narrator who becomes the ultimate perpetrator. “Murderer!’ he [Manny] screamed at our father, but no one was dead. He crawled over to where I stood, grabbed my sleeve, looked into my eyes. ‘Murderer!’ he said. ‘But who’s dead?’ ‘Me,’ he said. ‘Me, I’m dead! And my children.’” Manny crawls to the narrator freshly wounded from his encounter with their father and proclaims his own death and the father’s guilt. As much as this could be the potential overreaction of a child desperate to circumvent guilt, the prior actions of the father, and indeed this scene, seem to indicate the very real possibility of death. Moreover, Manny’s lamentation is of both his life and his reproductive life. His father, in punching both his face and his crotch, seeks to destroy the possibility of reproducing deviant action, repudiating any queer or abject endeavor before they fully adhere. The trench chapter, which comes just before this one, has seemingly alerted the family, and especially the parents, to the narrator’s odd behavior, something that must be stamped out, foreclosed. Perhaps this is also why Torres has Manny crawl to the narrator, an animalistic and subjugated locomotion, to declare his (the narrator’s) own death, as “the ‘pathetic’ quality he projectively locates in non-generative sexual enjoyment—enjoyment…that in the absence of futurity [is] empty, substitutive, pathological.”

 

Borders and Permeability

Thus far I have sought to document the “instances” of abjection in Justin Torres’s We the Animals that play with normative ideals of childhood and the boundaries of humanity. These occurrences, however, not only rely on a logic that performatively bounds human embodiment, but also on conceptions of interiority and exteriority, that when juxtaposed similarly threaten the breakdown of subjectivity. As Judith Butler argues in Gender Trouble, “What constitutes through division the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds of the subject is a border and boundary strenuously maintained for the purposes of social regulation and control.” To subvert or perforate that boundary, then, is tantamount to an act of anarchy. Thus, to continually revel in the abject, to experience jouissance in one’s confrontation with death for example as the narrator does, is to throw a whole set of social controls into disarray. This is why the boys are continually chastened by their parents, particularly the father, when approaching or infiltrating that borderlands.

There is, however, a problem as one might suggest, with this figuration, for if the penetration or perforation of inner and outer, especially when concerning the body, forms the basis of the abject, and if the abject represents an affront that requires correction, then what is to be made of the incredible permeability of all bodies? Each of the characters confronts the abject in Torres’s work, and yet it is the narrator who is ultimately punished. As Butler succinctly argues, however, “this sealing of its [the body’s] surfaces would constitute the seamless boundary of the subject; but this enclosure would invariably be exploded by precisely that excremental filth that it fears.” Butler’s assertion makes clear the impossibility of a vacuum-like embodiment, or identity for that matter, but she also highlights another crucial point; that everyone must confront the abject, that we all experience the perforations, penetrations, and excretions projected onto the narrator as vile, filthy, and animalistic, attributed to his hybrid racialization and sexualization. This brings me back to one of my original interrogatives that this paper aimed to address, the role of space/time specificity in performances of abject masculinity. But if the abject is a vile enemy we all must face, it should be a battle that one quickly escapes and enjoyment should not be the affect one is experiencing in such a confrontation.

And yet, there remains a certain stickiness to abjection, that in facing it, regardless of whether in jouissance or horror, it lingers. Kristeva warns us of the magnetic power of the abject, yet here I am more concerned with its staying power, specifically the haunting affects of abjection. The mother’s rebirth scene is a perfect example of this, though there are many others throughout the text. Immediately prior to her “birthing” the three brothers have decided to imitate the comedian Gallagher and repeatedly smash tomatoes all over the kitchen. When they run out, they move to their mother’s lotions, “so that when the mallet slammed down and forced out the white cream, it would get everywhere, the creases of our shut-tight eyes and the folds of our ears.” The “white cream”, seemingly ejaculate, coats their eyes and ears, another instance of the abject collisions between interiority and exteriority. Right after this their mother comes into the kitchen telling them, “You look like when you slid out of me.” It is at this point that she asks to also be reborn, to reenact her birth through and alongside her children.

Seemingly, Kristeva is right, we are drawn, as the mother is, towards the abject as a necessary confrontation. Birth, as the passage from the mother into individuality, if not immediately subjectivity, and from interiority to exteriority, the very literal reason for being is one, enormous abject event. As Kristeva argues, “We may call it a border; abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it—on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.” Therefore is makes perfect sense that the referent the mother, the narrator, and Torres all continually return to is birth. If, “the abject marks the moment when we separated ourselves from the mother, when we began to recognize a boundary between ‘me’ and other, between ‘me’ and ‘(m)other.”’ Then, the constant reprisal of “birthing” in the text evinces both a yearning for the return to the mother as object and the danger in doing so. Birth and death highlight the dual work of abject: the threat and maintenance of subjectivity, constant reminders of the moments before and after personification when we were simply objects.

After the scene in the basement where the narrator and his brothers view the tape of the molestation (possibly incest), we see that the brothers are no longer the inseparable unit they once were. Their fragmentation becomes more evident in the following chapter, an unspoken amount of time later, when they boys are drinking and smoking in the woods. In this short period the two older brothers have changed immensely in the eyes of the narrator. Their collectivity breaks down not simply as a result of age, but from a recognition of otherness in queer/hybrid/abject sexuality. Speaking about their mother’s insistence that they hang out with him, Joel says, “I told her it ain’t like we’re all still playing in the same goddamn sandbox, woman.” They have distanced themselves from him, preempting the complete dissociation that is soon to come. The narrator at this point walks away, as “they called and called and cackled, and the trees echoed with their noise. Shit, let them bark. Maybe it was true. Maybe there was no other boy like me, anywhere.”

There is, then, the question of (arguably) the most important scene in the book, at the bus station. The narrator has just revealed a truth that has been cropping up periodically throughout, his desire to be utilized by older men. He has been for some time roaming around the nearby bus station, unable to act on the desires he so desperately wants to enact. We should view the videotape scene, then, not as a “light bulb” moment where the narrator discovers his repressed sexuality in the visual representation before him. Instead, this is merely one in a series of queer events that mark the narrators abject difference. It merely provides him with a language, a toolkit to explore a more explicit instantiation of the animalities that we have seen him embody throughout the text. We know, as he does, that these actions will ultimately be his unmaking, an undoing that will forever banish him from the realm of normativity. This is why we understand his exuberance in the climactic moments following his encounter with the man on the bus. He says, “I wanted to stand before a mirror and look and look at myself. I opened my mouth and stretched my voice over the buzz of passing cars. ‘He made me!’ I screamed. ‘I’m made!’” His making is a multiplicitous endeavor, however, in that he is made, as creation, as coercion, and as recognition. This making is the final act of abjection, the sexual act that is his undoing.

 

Biopolitics and Spatiality

There is indeed, then, a biopolitics of the domestic(s). Not only is the child managed by the mechanisms of state power, but as previously mentioned, the home/institution is where these possibilities are worked out. The child, then, is an apparatus of affective labor that drives multi-scalar affective biopolitical economies, the governance over which works on the macro population level as well as the micro level. In this register temporality is paramount. As Foucault argues in The History of Sexuality, “the sexualization of children was accomplished for the health of the race” seeking to annul the “epidemic menace” of unrestrained sexuality “that risked compromising not only the future health of adults but the future of the entire society and species.” It is this constant comprehension of the future that cathects the child and supposes the biopolitical possibilities of the abject, always contingent on time. For while the momentary lapse into wildness or the animal could have psychic benefits, as outlet for desire. A prolonged encounter with the abject renders the Self unfathomable and just as importantly, unmanageable and/or detrimental to the future health of the domestics. At the moments of heightened abjection, as perceived by his family, the narrator is brought back into the family/home, and after the ultimate transgression, his fantasies of queer making/unmaking he is permanently housed, caged as a zoo animal in a state mental institution.

For these reasons the narrator is at once imbued with stasis and transience. What is the child if not the quintessential necrocitizen, (im)mobilized for national purity, sanctity, and innocence, yet devoid of usable rights, frustratingly static. The boy’s body is a body that is free to envision life, yet shackled to its disciplinary constraints. This negation of the non-normative is effectively a death sentence, the narrator forever banished to a wild permanence of continually embodied animalia. But, we have seen this before. His mother pleads with the narrator to “stay six forever” to remain with her.  The forcefulness to contain (constrain) foreshadows his later imprisonment. After being caught, his diary exposed, the narrator sits in the tub being bathed, thinking “Hear the way she says it, the boys, how quickly and fully the son in the tub is excluded from that designation; how badly the boy wishes to be out there with his brothers, doing as he is told.” The narrator has not only been cleaved from the fraternal “we”, but made a spectacle before them, an object both of disdain and comedy. Similarly, recall earlier in Torres’s work when he is submerged in the grave his father has dug, which he believes is for him. The narrator is largely, and strangely at peace in his grave, “I felt a great distance from the house, from Ma on the couch and my brothers and Paps…I allowed myself to lose all bearings, and a long, long time passed before I wished my wish.” There are several things worth mentioning at this juncture, first is the recognition of difference from his family by the narrator. Here difference is calculated as distance, he is at peace not only outside the home, but in the murky depths, cloaked in the abject.

 

“In the Playroom”: The Aesthetics of Affect, Trauma, and Childhood

“In the Playroom”: The Aesthetics of Affect, Trauma, and Childhood

Photographer Jonathan Hobin’s “In the Playroom” is an acclaimed series of staged photos reenacting traumatic events with children posed as it’s subjects. Hobin’s photographs actively recreate tragedies such as 9/11 and the death of Princess Diana as “childish” scenes, utilizing toys, costumes, and child models. It is through the lens of Hobin’s work I aim to interrogate the contemporary national (re)construction of memory around the traumatic; highlighting the complicity of the media in harnessing children for affective work. There has been considerable backlash to “In the Playroom,” from which Hobin, as well as the children’s parents, have received hate mail and death threats; most of which center on their use of children in such “shocking imagery. This, I believe, highlights the power that the figure of the child wields. Moreover, placing children as the propagators and victims of heinous violence has the dual effect of both infantilizing the acts themselves and demonstrating the heightened affective power that violence involving children engenders. It is this question of how children are figured in contemporary media discourse that I aim to interrogate, specifically in relation to trauma and memory. The “unquestioned” innocence of childhood is often wielded as a shield to political-cultural hegemons, making undebatable issues such as those depicted in Hobin’s work; national security, sexual violence, and racial inequality to name only a few. My aim is to recalibrate these figurations and the make apparent the dynamic and multifaceted systems of power that constitute an aesthetics of childhood today.

Cathy Caruth in her introduction to the anthology Trauma: Explorations in Memory, argues, “the traumatized carry an impossible history with them.” Therefore, the psychic force of a traumatizing event is such that it instills a collapse of understanding in that moment. Because of this Caruth asserts that the event itself is only first experienced after its actual occurrence. In essence it is assimilated only belatedly. Taking Cathy Caruth’s conception of the traumatic to heart, I believe that Jonathan Hobin’s work constitutes an aesthetics of trauma “after the fact”, that both questions and colludes with dominant nationalist sentimentalities. For “In the Playroom,” experience of the event itself is not a precondition of depicting the traumatic. Instead, it is precisely because these children have no direct experience whatsoever of many of these tragedies that their staging is so powerful.

For example, when Hobin was asked in an interview for Vice magazine about the children’s own understanding of the events, he replied, “Sometimes the kids just get it. Like the 9/11 picture. Even though they are three or four years old, they saw the twin towers and said, “I’ll hold the airplane, this is where the plane hit the building.” The mother was stunned. These symbols have worked their way into our subconscious.” The childrens’ recognition operates as what Marianne Hirsch has termed postmemory, “the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before.”

What is most intriguing to me, however, are the political-ethical aims that traumatic imageries are mobilized for. I believe that both Hobin’s series, and the dominant cultural images they ape, utilize children as both figures of, and, spectators to, national tragedy; as objects to be “saved” in both regards. While many of Tobin’s images seek to illustrate the horrors of U.S. intervention abroad, his supplementation of Canadian/American children, particularly, in the place of Middle Eastern torture victims is telling. These children are the perpetrators and the victims in his photos, thereby making invisible those who have actually been tortured or murdered. These evocations of trauma displace an originary mode of violence done by North American bodies by re-presenting North American children as the victims of violence. When Hobin says, “I am trying to break down the notion that childhood is a time of innocence.” this would seemingly be supported by Hirsch’s assertion of the traumatic possibilities of postmemory. Children (as well as adults) are inundated by images ready-made to highlight the violences to and of the nation. Hobin simply assembles them together. Yet it is precisely this lack of innocence that energizes the affective power of the images.

These tragedies depicted first in traditional media coverage and later by Hobin highlight the ways in which perceptions of collective loss are made visible for those traumas the US has suffered and invisible for the neocolonized. As Judith Butler has asserted in her work Precarious Life,

A national melancholia, understood as a disavowed mourning, follows upon the erasure from public representations of the names, images, and narratives of those the US has killed. On the other hand, the US’s own losses are consecrated in public obituaries that constitute so many acts of nation-building.

Depictions of children, particularly in-and-around “The War on Terror” evince a kind of national melancholia surrounding tragedy that emboldens zealous nationalisms and obviates the imperial and historical genealogies of the national traumatic event. This political work of trauma, moreover, can be projected forward into the future, with each subsequent generation both educated in a nationalized sense of loss for the un-experienced event, yet affected nevertheless, as we see in Hobin’s “In the Playroom.”

To conclude, Hobin’s work, though seemingly articulating an alternative to the kind of melancholic sentimentality of the traditional national image of tragedy, nevertheless  reinforces the trope of North American as victim and elides childhood agency. Here the child is always an object of ideology, the medium through which an ethics or epistemological truth is disseminated. Children are never agents of truth, meaning, or experience, but rather ciphers to be mobilized and decrypted, symbols to be developed, subjects-in-waiting. We are constantly presented with imageries of tragic past events, e.g., the twin towers of 9/11 or the deaths of Jean-Benet Ramsey and Princess Diana. These iconic images, however, are often mobilized in service of something heinous, to restrict civil liberties, to demonize and shame young women’s sexuality, and/or to commit atrocities in neocolonial endeavors of enormous scale. Cathy Caruth has said that “to be traumatized is to be possessed by an image or event.” If the image of the child is constantly figured as indicative of a collective trauma that supports such brutal undertakings, as I believe it is, then we must banish those demons that engender violence without forgetting them; we must mourn the past but not enslave ourselves to it.

Undergrad Paper

Capitalism and Identity in the 1980s

            The 1980s, to many, represented a nostalgic time of excess and identity. The question of identity was a recurrent theme throughout the literature and literary theory of the 1980s. The belief that one was living in a wholly different era was particularly engaging to many, and is represented in the acknowledgement of a postmodern society. What postmodernism exactly constituted, however, was up for debate, leading to a great deal of speculation into what the postmodern implied about society and its relation to the individual. Capitalism’s role in the postmodern seems quite magnified, many authors and literary critics saw consumerist ideologies and callousness in the name of professional advancement as watermarks of a capitalist infiltration of the postmodern world. Rather than submit to this, however, many rejected these standards and sought to expose the subtleties of this through satire, metaphor and use of multiple thematic elements rejecting the principles many had heralded as normative.  Therefore the question I pose is this: How did authors and literary critics reject the tenets of capitalism and consumerism in addressing the theme of identity in the 1980s?

1980s culture is often subject to the whims of collective ideological nostalgia, one draws a picture of what the eighties was based on a set of truisms about the decade. This perception is not necessarily one that is accurate, and a current idea of eighties identity would certainly differ from a contemporary one. Murray Siskind, in Don Delillo’s White Noise, echoes that idea in saying, “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn” (Delillo 12). He continues, “We see only what the others see…we’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception” (Delillo 12). Murray’s statements speak to both our nostalgic ideals of the eighties, and the question of identity in the eighties, as both are created by external forces largely outside our control.

The question of identity at the time was an integral one, something that plagued a great deal of postmodern writers and thinkers. To address the question of identity, many turned to the socio-economic sphere, citing capitalist influence as fundamental in the creation of a postmodern identity. Frederic Jameson in his essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society describing postmodernism as “a periodizing concept whose function is to correlate the emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order” (Jameson 129). The very basis of postmodernism, for Jameson and others who shared his views, represented a fundamental difference from the past, both culturally and socially, through the impetus of extenuating economic factors. The importance of the perceived impacts of capitalism, such as: consumption, commodification and alienation, contributed to a literary fascination with those themes and their impact on identity in the eighties.

Perhaps the most outlandish and eccentric of these writers to understand the impact of capitalism on identity was Kathy Acker in Great Expectations and Empire of the Senseless. Both of these novels reject the facets of normative consumer identity and search for an alternative through several of Jameson’s indicators of postmodernity. The first, pastiche, is evident through Acker’s affectless utilization of plagiarism in both of her novels. The chapter entitled “Nightmare City” from Empire of the Senseless and the beginning lines of Great Expectations plagiarize Charles Dickens and William Gibson respectively. Jameson gives license to this in stating; “elusive plagiarism of older plots is, of course, also a feature of pastiche” (Jameson 134). This is integral to understanding the motivations behind the use of pastiche by Acker, who demonstrates Jameson’s “death of the subject” in her various implementations of plagiarism. Essentially, Acker’s utilization of plagiarism as pastiche serves to illustrate the loss of individualism, especially the loss of stylistic individualism. Jameson states, “When the stylistic practices of classical modernism, is over and done with, then it is no longer clear what artists and writers of the present period are supposed to be doing” (Jameson 132). Acker took this idea and twisted it to fit her own attitude towards identity, championing an alternative to both the stylistic individuality that epitomized modernism, as well as the normative collective values of a capitalist society.

The second ideal of Jameson’s postmodernism that heavily impacted the literary community’s rejection of both modernism and capitalism was called schizophrenia. Whereas pastiche was a spatial phenomenon, Jameson describes schizophrenia as “the break-down of the relationship between signifiers” and the schizophrenic “is not only ‘no one’ in the sense of having no personal identity; he or she also does nothing” (Jameson 137). Schizophrenia, therefore, represents a degradation of temporality, creating an ever-present world in which “The schizophrenic is thus given over to an undifferentiated vision of the world in the present” (Jameson 137). Both Acker and Jameson depict a world devoid of differentiation, one in which information is constantly being bombarded on the individual so as to overwhelm them entirely, much as the pace, content and discontinuity of both Empire of the Senseless and Great Expectations. As the narrator states in Empire of the Senseless, “Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified” (Acker 12). Acker is demonstrating the ability of literature to negate the trends of society through meaning, as Jameson states utilizing the theories of Lacan, and wholly separate from the signifier that meaning.

Acker’s utilization of the postmodern disintegration of the relationship between signifier and signified, word and meaning, is evident in another passage from Empire of the Senseless which states “They tore the subject away from her subjugation to her self, the proper; dislocated you the puppet; cut the threads of meaning; spit at all mirrors which control” (Acker 12). Here Acker is echoing the Jamesonian tenets of schizophrenic states of postmodernism in her attack on “that which homogenizes and reduces, represses and unifies phenomena or actuality into what can be perceived and so controlled” (Acker 12). Paul Auster makes the same argument in his story City of Glass, in which the relation between word and meaning is also challenged. Stillman questions, “What happens when a thing no longer performs its function?’ and continues later stating, “Because it can no longer perform its function, the umbrella has ceased to be an umbrella…The word, however, has remained the same” (Auster 93). This is a trend that is deeply troubling to both Auster and Acker, and each presents a world that is seriously concerned about the effect of such alienation on the question of identity.

Paul Auster’s City of Glass makes apparent the degradation of language and indicators of Jameson’s schizophrenia as well. Stillman likened them to the predicament following the fall of man in committing original sin. He wrote “Names became detached from things; words devolved into a collection of arbitrary signs; language had been severed from God” (Auster 52). This is likely an assessment of the problems of postmodern culture in the eighties and another contributing factor to the ever-present question of identity. If names have become arbitrary in the postmodern world, no longer connected to meaning, then how can one evaluate the self and create identity? This is a question that plagued postmodern literature, with several possible solutions. The rejection of the principles that postmodernism created afforded the ability to create one’s own identity, a theme prevalent within Auster’s City of Glass. Continually, an exposition of the external forces that seemingly made individuality in identity impossible was another possibility, one championed by Acker in both Great Expectations and Empire of the Senseless. Auster also utilizes this formula, however, and demonstrates the impact of the external on identity, in the universal interchangeability of his characters, “the writer and detective are interchangeable” (Auster 9).

Another thematic element of postmodern literature that addresses the relationship between identity and capitalism, and summarily rejecting it, is the use of sexual exploitation. The image of capitalism as defiling of humanity is utilized by several authors through various sexual metaphors. Thivai, in Empire of the Senseless states, “Being a whore means you separate sex and feeling. Sex is an activity as meaningless as is money” (Acker 92). Acker makes the connection between sex and money, while also illustrating the effect that money has destroying human emotion. The narrator later states, “for most sexual activity now caused physical illness and death…The pangs of death drove him to abandon the cause of such pain, his sexuality. Being a romantic, Xovirax chose to remain faithful to his strongest orgasm or abandonment of identity” (Acker 64). Sexuality for Acker is the genesis of a great deal of pain and suffering within her novels, hence its associations with death. More intriguing, however, is the correlation that Acker makes between senseless sexuality and identity. The characters that are subjected to affectless sexual exploitation, usually at the hands of perverse misogyny, are alienated from the world and unique identity.

White Noise also addresses the theme of sexuality’s connection to the financial, with Babette saying of her affair, “I was remote. I was operating outside of myself. It was a capitalist transaction” (DeLillo 194). This reading, however, seems to slightly differ from Acker’s in that Babette perceives her actions as being external, ethereal even, with no connection to the self. Unlike Acker, however, this is not through the imagery of rape or prostitution. Instead, it is under the guise of adultery that this sexual commodification is created, creating a transaction akin to pseudo prostitution, in which sex is exchanged for goods and the humanity of it is stripped away.

The rejection of eighties materialism is evident throughout the literary works that embody the postmodern spirit. Acker’s Great Expectations is one such example with the narrator digressing “American culture allows only the material to be real (actually, only money, those who want to do art unless they transfer their art into non-art i.e. the making of commodities, can’t earn money and stay alive” (Acker 77). Acker is pointing out the faults that the postmodern world has created in humanity, whilst simultaneously seeking to undermine them in their exposure. Jay McInerney seems to be heralding a similar point in his novel Bright Lights, Big City in stating, “Objectively you know that Elaine is desirable, and you feel obligated to desire her…You will learn to compound happiness out of small increments of mindless pleasure” (McInerney 52). This is a clear augmentation of Acker’s ideals about the absurdity of the so-called “ordinary” life and a call for its rejection. These refutations of materialism and its overt correlation to capitalist doctrine, demonstrate the resolve with which many exuded in bringing them to light.

In DeLillo’s White Noise, shopping is utilized as a metaphor for the excesses prevalent in American society in the eighties and demonstrative of the interconnectivity of identity and commodity. Jack, early in the novel, decides to go out shopping with his family largely on a whim and in doing so feels “I was one of them, shopping, at last” and “I began to grow in value and self regard” (DeLillo 83). The senses of belonging and elation that are created in Jack as he is shopping seem to satirize the meaninglessness of identity in the postmodern world if it is solely based on materiality.

A common component found in the postmodern dialogue against the evils of capitalist infringement on identity formation is the utilization of corporation and brand names when naming objects. Instead of simply referring to an object, say a car generally, specificity and branding become the norm. This is likely an additional exposure of extent to which advertising and capital have permeated language and subsequently even our identities. DeLillo, in White Noise applies this theme liberally with the novel’s main character Jack Gladney watching his daughter sleeping intently only to hear her speak the words “Toyota Celica” (DeLillo 155). To Gladney, however, this is a revelation, “It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform” (DeLillo 155). The impact of advertising in White Noise has gone beyond the social, pervading the privacy of home life, altering our conceptions of language and even found its way into our dreams. This is not a phenomena limited to DeLillo, however, Acker also uses this tactic in Empire of the Senseless, “Du Pont and Union Carbide, Goodyear and Uniroyal, Exxon and Kaiser” (Acker 35). The ubiquity of Corporate America was revolting to Acker and DeLillo though certainly contributory towards the postmodern aesthetic of its rejection. As Acker emphasizes, “Capitalism needs new territory or fresh blood”, indicative of the violent imagery associated with the capitalist mechanisms that forced identity on the population (Acker 33).

The external influence on identity also seems to play a major role in the postmodern assessment and oftentimes rejection of capitalist normality. Abhor, in Empire of the Senseless, is a character that embodies this sentiment entirely. She states, “the I who was acting was theirs, separate from the I who knew and whom I had known” (Acker 33). Abhor echoes this later in saying, “You’re what I make you” (Acker 42). This represents the power that external influences that finance, government, culture and society all wield over the individual making it a virtual impossibility for Auster’s vision of self-created identity.

Lewis Lapham in his book Money and Class in America wrote, “Whether lawyer, politician or executive, the American who knows what’s good for his career seeks an institutional rather than an individual identity. He becomes the man from NBC or IBM” (Lapham 163). Lapham is bolstering the ideologies within postmodern literature previously discussed. It became a necessity, not even a decision, in the postmodern world to adhere to external signifiers in order to survive. The advent of larger conglomerates and corporate structures all are indicators of a loss of control over identity. What Auster, Acker and the others were attempting to do, therefore, was create an understanding of that control and bring about its eventual destruction. This is also evident in White Noise in which the role of the individual in the relation to the whole is discussed as Gladney reflects, “To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone. Crowds came for this reason above all others. They were there to be a crowd” (DeLillo 73). What DeLillo seems to be saying is that it is inherently easier to allow you identity to be influenced by countless external forces, however, is such a meaningless life really worth living?

DeLillo, Acker, Auster and Jameson would all agree, that the forces surrounding us impact our identities significantly. The role that capitalism plays in that identity creation is significant, one of several looming “airborne toxic events” with the power to shape society and identity as they see fit. Instead of accepting that, however, postmodern critics and writers, instead offer alternatives to a plasticine existence. Auster’s ideal of a self-created identity is juxtaposed with the interchangeability of population. DeLillo presents a world of branding and commercial immersion whilst mocking the absurdity of consumerism. Acker flaunts authority with a visceral raptness of text still exposing the seedy underbelly of proliferated capitalism. Each of these authors operates under some of the basic tenets of Jamesonian postmodernism while simultaneously rejecting the normalities of the postmodern world. The postmodern aesthetic, as presented in the aforementioned literature and criticism, presents a bleak picture of the world in the eighties. Each, however, yearns for a sliver of hope to escape the control, as the final lines of Acker’s Empire of the Senseless subsume, “And then I thought that, one day, maybe, there’ld be a human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn’t just disgust” (Acker 227).

Exams Reading Schedule

Week 1 | Readings

  1. Foucault, Michel.  The History of Sexuality Vol. I

  2. Haraway, Donna. 1991. A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. In Simians, cyborgs and women: The reinvention of nature, 149-181. New York: Routledge.

  3. Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema

  4. Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth

  5. Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, C. J. Arthur, and Karl Marx. 1972. The German ideology. New York: International Publishers.

  6. Freud, Sigmund, and Peter Gay. 1989. Selections from: The Freud reader. New York: W.W. Norton.

Week 2 | Readings

  1. Butler, Judith.  Gender Trouble:  Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.

  2. Derrida, Jacques, and Marie-Louise Mallet. 2008. The animal that therefore I am. New York: Fordham University Press.

  3. Williams, Raymond. 1958. Television: Technology and cultural form. New York: Schocken Books. —. 1977.

  4. Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

  5. Bronner, Stephen Eric, and Douglas Kellner. 1989. Critical theory and society: a reader. New York: Routledge.

  6. Lacan, Jacques. 1966. The mirror-stage as formative of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience. In Ecrits: A selection, translated by Alan Sheridan [1977]. New York: WW Norton.

Week 3 | Readings

  1. Berlant, Lauren.  The Female Complaint.

  2. Hayles, Katherine. 1999. How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

  3. Debord, Guy. 1971. The society of the spectacle, translated [1973]. Detroit: Black & Red.

  4. Caruth, Cathy. 1995. Trauma: explorations in memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

  5. Althusser, Louis. 1969. Ideology and the ideological state apparatus. In Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays, with introduction by Frederic Jameson, translated by Ben Brewster [1971]. New York: Monthly Review Press.

  6. Kristeva, Julia. 1986. Powers of horror: An essay on abjection. In The Kristeva reader, edited by Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press.

Week 4 | Readings

  1. Anzaldua, Gloria.  Borderlands/La Frontera:  The New Mestiza.

  2. Wolfe, Cary. 2003. Animal rites American culture, the discourse of species, and posthumanist theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  3. Manovich, Lev The Language of New Media

  4. Eng, David L.  Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America (2001)

  5. Barthes, Roland. 1957. Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers [1972]. New York: Hill and Wang.

  6. Abraham, Nicolas, and Maria Torok. 1986. The Wolf Man’s magic word: a cryptonymy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Week 5 | Readings

  1. Collins, Patricia Hill.  Black Feminist Thought:  Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.

  2. Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer phenomenology: orientations, objects, others. Durham: Duke University Press.

  3. Metz, Christian The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema

  4. Songtag, Susan. 1977. On photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

  5. Baudrillard, Jean. 1981. Simulacra and simulation, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser [1994]. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

  6. Abraham, Nicolas, Maria Torok, and Nicholas T. Rand. 1994. The shell and the kernel: renewals of psychoanalysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Week 6 | Readings

  1. Crimp, Douglas Melancholia and Moralism:  Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (2002)

  2. Bogost, Ian. 2012. Alien phenomenology, or, What it’s like to be a thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  3. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (2nd enlarged edition, 1979)

  4. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1999. A critique of postcolonial reason: Toward a history of the vanishing present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  5. Benjamin, Walter. 1968. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn [1968]. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

  6. Gordon, Avery F. 2008. Ghostly matters: haunting and the sociological imagination. Minneapolis, Minn: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Week 7 | Readings

  1. Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish:  The Birth of the Prison

  2. Shukin, Nicole. 2009. Animal capital: rendering life in biopolitical times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  3. Ellis, John. 1982. Visible fictions: Cinema, television, video. New York: Routledge.

  4. Stoler, Ann. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things, Duke University Press, 1995.

  5. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. The field of cultural production: Essays on art and literature, edited by Randal Johnson. New York: Columbia University Press.

  6. Lacan, Jacques, 1966. The signification of the phallus. In Ecrits: A selection, translated by Alan Sheridan [1977]. New York: WW Norton.

Week 8 | Readings

  1. Freud, Sigmund. Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria

  2. Virilio, Paul. 1997. Open sky. London: Verso.

  3. Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games

  4. Schwab, Gabriele. 2010. Haunting legacies: violent histories and transgenerational trauma. New York: Columbia University Press.

  5. Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. 1980. A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi [1987]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  6. Freud, Sigmund. 2005. On murder, mourning, and melancholia. London: Penguin Books.

Week 9 | Readings

  1. Grewal, Inderpal and Caren Kaplan.  Scattered Hegemonies:  Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices.

  2. Ruti, Mari. 2006. Reinventing the soul: posthumanist theory and psychic life. New York: Other Press.

  3. Bogost, Ian. How To Do Things With Video Games

  4. Blanchot, Maurice. The Writing of Disaster. 1986. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 1995.

  5. Derrida, Jacques. 1967. Of grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak [1976]. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

  6. Baudrillard, Jean, and Iain Hamilton Grant. 1993. Symbolic exchange and death. London [etc.]: SAGE Publications.

Week 10 | Readings

  1. Grosz, Elizabeth.  Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism

  2. Braidotti, Rosi. “Posthuman, All Too Human: Towards a New Process Ontology” Theory, Culture & Society December 2006 vol. 23 no. 7-8 197-208

  3. Turkle, Sherry. 1995. Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

  4. Caruth, Cathy. 1995. Trauma: explorations in memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

  5. Eagleton, Terry. 1991. Ideology: an introduction. London: Verso.

  6. Derrida, Jacques. 1995. The gift of death. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Week 11 | Readings

  1. Halberstam, Judith.  Female Masculinity.

  2. Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus “What’s Wrong With Posthumanism?” rhizomes.07 fall 2003 http://www.rhizomes.net/issue7/callus.htm

  3. Warner, Michael  Publics and Counterpublics (2002)

  4. Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed experience: trauma, narrative, and history. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

  5. Foucault, Michel. 1971. The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences. New York: Pantheon Books.

  6. Žižek, Slavoj. 2008. Violence: six sideways reflections. New York: Picador.

Week 12 | Readings

  1. hooks, bell.  Feminist Theory:  From Margin to Center.

  2. Agamben, Giorgio. 2004. The open: man and animal. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

  3. Mulvey, Laura. 1988. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In Visual and other pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

  4. Eng, David L.. “The Value of Silence.” Theatre Journal 54 (2002): 85-94.

  5. Freud, Sigmund. 1953. Civilization and its discontents, translated and edited by James Strachey [1961]. New York: WW Norton.

  6. Chow, Rey. 1989. “Walter Benjamin’s Love Affair with Death.” New German Critique no. 48: 63. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost

Week 13 | Readings | No more Posthuman readings

  1. bell hooks, Black looks: Race and representation. Toronto: Between the Lines.

  2. Virilio, Paul. 2010. The futurism of the instant: stop-eject. Cambridge [Eng.]: Polity Press.

  3. LaCapra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2001.

  4. Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The black atlantic: Modernity and double consciousness. Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press.

  5. Gramsci, Antonio. 1975. Prison notebooks, edited by Joseph A. Buttigieg, translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg and Antonio Callari [1992]. New York: Columbia University Press.

  6. Eng, David L., and David Kazanjian. 2003. Loss: the politics of mourning. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Week 14 | Readings

  1. Irigaray, Luce.  This Sex Which is Not One

  2. Kittler, Friedrich. 2009. “Towards an Ontology of Media.” Theory, Culture & Society 26, no. 2/3: 23-31. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost

  3. Virilio, Paul. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception . 6 th ed. Trans. Patrick Camiller. London & New York: Verson, 2000.

  4. Guattari, Felix. 1996. Soft subversions, edited by Sylvere Lotringer. New York: Semiotexte.

  5. Castronovo, Russ. 2001. Necro citizenship death, eroticism, and the public sphere in the nineteenth-century United States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Week 15 | Readings | No more Death Readings

  1. Kristeva, Julia.  Tales of Love.

  2. Lorde, Audre.  Sister Outsider:  Essays and Speeches.

  3. Mitchell, W.J.T. “The Panic of the Visual: A Conversation with Edward W. Said.” Boundary 2 25, no. 2 (Summer98 1998): 11. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost

  4. Greenberg, Judith. “The Echo of Trauma and the Trauma of Echo.” American Imago 55.3 (1998): 319-47

  5. Hall, Stuart. 1993. “Encoding, decoding.” In The cultural studies reader, edited by Simon During, 493-507. New York: Routledge.

  6. Blanco, María del Pilar, and Esther Peeren. 2013. The spectralities reader: ghosts and haunting in contemporary cultural theory.

Week 16 | Readings

  1. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky.  Epistemology of the Closet.

  2. Mitchell, W.J.T. “Interdisciplinarity and visual culture.” Art Bulletin 77, no. 4 (December 1995): 540. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost

  3. Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera lucida: reflections on photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

  4. Hall, Stuart. 1985. The rediscovery of ideology: The return of the repressed in media studies. In Subjectivity and social relations, edited by Veronica Beechey and James Donald, 35. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

  5. Harvey, David. 1989. The condition of postmodernity: An enquiry into the origins of cultural change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Week 17 | Readings

  1. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty.  “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.”

  2. Williams, Raymond. 1958. The long revolution. London: Chatto & Windus. —. 1974.

  3. Edkins, Jenny. 2003. Trauma and the memory of politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  4. Feldman, Allen. “MEMORY THEATERS,VIRTUAL WITNESSING, AND THE TRAUMA-AESTHETIC.” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 27, no. 1 (Winter 2004 2004): 163-202. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost

  5. Lyotard, Jean-François. 1984. The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  6. Žižek, Slavoj. 1989. The sublime object of ideology. London: Verso.

Tentative Reading Lists

Gender and Sexuality

  1. Feminist Genealogies

    1. Anzaldua, Gloria.  Borderlands/La Frontera:  The New Mestiza.

    2. Berlant, Lauren.  The Female Complaint.

    3. Butler, Judith.  Gender Trouble:  Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.

    4. Collins, Patricia Hill.  Black Feminist Thought:  Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.

    5. Crimp, Douglas Melancholia and Moralism:  Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (2002)

    6. Foucault, Michel.  The History of Sexuality Vol. I

    7. —– Discipline and Punish:  The Birth of the Prison

    8. Freud, Sigmund. Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria

    9. Grewal, Inderpal and Caren Kaplan.  Scattered Hegemonies:  Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices.

    10. Grosz, Elizabeth.  Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism

    11. Halberstam, Judith.  Female Masculinity.

    12. hooks, bell.  Feminist Theory:  From Margin to Center.

      1. Black looks: Race and representation. Toronto: Between the Lines.

    13. Irigaray, Luce.  This Sex Which is Not One

    14. Kristeva, Julia.  Tales of Love.

    15. Lorde, Audre.  Sister Outsider:  Essays and Speeches.

    16. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky.  Epistemology of the Closet.

    17. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty.  “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.”

  2. Posthuman Critique and the Other

    1. Haraway, Donna. 1991. A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. In Simians, cyborgs and women: The reinvention of nature, 149-181. New York: Routledge.

    2. Wolfe, Cary. 2003. Animal rites American culture, the discourse of species, and posthumanist theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    3. Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer phenomenology: orientations, objects, others. Durham: Duke University Press.

    4. Derrida, Jacques, and Marie-Louise Mallet. 2008. The animal that therefore I am. New York: Fordham University Press.

    5. Bogost, Ian. 2012. Alien phenomenology, or, What it’s like to be a thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    6. Shukin, Nicole. 2009. Animal capital: rendering life in biopolitical times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    7. Hayles, Katherine. 1999. How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

    8. Virilio, Paul. 1997. Open sky. London: Verso.

    9. Ruti, Mari. 2006. Reinventing the soul: posthumanist theory and psychic life. New York: Other Press.

    10. Braidotti, Rosi. “Posthuman, All Too Human: Towards a New Process Ontology” Theory, Culture & Society December 2006 vol. 23 no. 7-8 197-208

    11. Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus “What’s Wrong With Posthumanism?” rhizomes.07 fall 2003 http://www.rhizomes.net/issue7/callus.htm

    12. Agamben, Giorgio. 2004. The open: man and animal. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Media & Violence

  1. Visual Culture & Critical Theory

    1. Manovich, Lev The Language of New Media

    2. Metz, Christian The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema

    3. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (2nd enlarged edition, 1979)

    4. Debord, Guy. 1971. The society of the spectacle, translated [1973]. Detroit: Black & Red.

    5. Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema

    6. Ellis, John. 1982. Visible fictions: Cinema, television, video. New York: Routledge.

    7. Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games

    8. Bogost, Ian. How To Do Things With Video Games

    9. Turkle, Sherry. 1995. Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    10. Warner, Michael  Publics and Counterpublics (2002)

    11. Williams, Raymond. 1958. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. London: Chatto & Windus. —. 1961. The long revolution. London: Chatto & Windus. —. 1974. Television: Technology and cultural form. New York: Schocken Books. —. 1977. Marxism and literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    12. Mulvey, Laura. 1988. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In Visual and other pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    13. Virilio, Paul. 2010. The futurism of the instant: stop-eject. Cambridge [Eng.]: Polity Press.

    14. Kittler, Friedrich. 2009. “Towards an Ontology of Media.” Theory, Culture & Society 26, no. 2/3: 23-31. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost

    15. Mitchell, W.J.T. “The Panic of the Visual: A Conversation with Edward W. Said.” Boundary 2 25, no. 2 (Summer98 1998): 11. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost

    16. Mitchell, W.J.T. “Interdisciplinarity and visual culture.” Art Bulletin 77, no. 4 (December 1995): 540. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost

  2. Theorizing Violence, Trauma, and Media

    1. Eng, David L.  Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America (2001)

    2. Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth

    3. Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

    4. Songtag, Susan. 1977. On photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

    5. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1999. A critique of postcolonial reason: Toward a history of the vanishing present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    6. Stoler, Ann. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things, Duke University Press, 1995.

    7. Schwab, Gabriele. 2010. Haunting legacies: violent histories and transgenerational trauma. New York: Columbia University Press.

    8. Blanchot, Maurice. The Writing of Disaster. 1986. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 1995.

    9. Caruth, Cathy. 1995. Trauma: explorations in memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    10. —. Unclaimed experience: trauma, narrative, and history. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    11. Eng, David L.. “The Value of Silence.” Theatre Journal 54 (2002): 85-94.

    12. LaCapra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2001.

    13. Virilio, Paul. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception . 6 th ed. Trans. Patrick Camiller. London & New York: Verson, 2000.

    14. Greenberg, Judith. “The Echo of Trauma and the Trauma of Echo.” American Imago 55.3 (1998): 319-47

    15. Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera lucida: reflections on photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

    16. Edkins, Jenny. 2003. Trauma and the memory of politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    17. Feldman, Allen. “MEMORY THEATERS,VIRTUAL WITNESSING, AND THE TRAUMA-AESTHETIC.” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 27, no. 1 (Winter 2004 2004): 163-202. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost

Cultural Studies and Critical Theory

  1. Antecedents

    1. Althusser, Louis. 1969. Ideology and the ideological state apparatus. In Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays, with introduction by Frederic Jameson, translated by Ben Brewster [1971]. New York: Monthly Review Press.

    2. Barthes, Roland. 1957. Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers [1972]. New York: Hill and Wang.

    3. Baudrillard, Jean. 1981. Simulacra and simulation, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser [1994]. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

    4. Benjamin, Walter. 1968. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn [1968]. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

    5. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. The field of cultural production: Essays on art and literature, edited by Randal Johnson. New York: Columbia University Press.

    6. Bronner, Stephen Eric, and Douglas Kellner. 1989. Critical theory and society: a reader. New York: Routledge.

    7. Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. 1980. A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi [1987]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    8. Derrida, Jacques. 1967. Of grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak [1976]. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    9. Eagleton, Terry. 1991. Ideology: an introduction. London: Verso.

    10. Foucault, Michel. 1971. The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences. New York: Pantheon Books.

    11. Freud, Sigmund. 1953. Civilization and its discontents, translated and edited by James Strachey [1961]. New York: WW Norton.

    12. Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The black atlantic: Modernity and double consciousness. Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press.

    13. Gramsci, Antonio. 1975. Prison notebooks, edited by Joseph A. Buttigieg, translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg and Antonio Callari [1992]. New York: Columbia University Press.

    14. Guattari, Felix. 1996. Soft subversions, edited by Sylvere Lotringer. New York: Semiotexte.

    15. Hall, Stuart. 1993. “Encoding, decoding.” In The cultural studies reader, edited by Simon During, 493-507. New York: Routledge.

    16. —. 1985. The rediscovery of ideology: The return of the repressed in media studies. In Subjectivity and social relations, edited by Veronica Beechey and James Donald, 35. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

    17. Harvey, David. 1989. The condition of postmodernity: An enquiry into the origins of cultural change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

    18. Lyotard, Jean-François. 1984. The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    19. Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, C. J. Arthur, and Karl Marx. 1972. The German ideology. New York: International Publishers.

    20. Žižek, Slavoj. 1989. The sublime object of ideology. London: Verso.

  2. Theory and Death

    1. Abraham, Nicolas, and Maria Torok. 1986. The Wolf Man’s magic word: a cryptonymy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    2. Abraham, Nicolas, Maria Torok, and Nicholas T. Rand. 1994. The shell and the kernel: renewals of psychoanalysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    3. Gordon, Avery F. 2008. Ghostly matters: haunting and the sociological imagination. Minneapolis, Minn: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    4. Kristeva, Julia. 1986. Powers of horror: An essay on abjection. In The Kristeva reader, edited by Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press.

    5. Lacan, Jacques. 1966. The mirror-stage as formative of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience. In Ecrits: A selection, translated by Alan Sheridan [1977]. New York: WW Norton.

    6. —. 1966. The signification of the phallus. In Ecrits: A selection, translated by Alan Sheridan [1977]. New York: WW Norton.

    7. Freud, Sigmund. 2005. On murder, mourning, and melancholia. London: Penguin Books.

    8. Freud, Sigmund, and Peter Gay. 1989. The Freud reader. New York: W.W. Norton.

    9. Baudrillard, Jean, and Iain Hamilton Grant. 1993. Symbolic exchange and death. London [etc.]: SAGE Publications.

    10. Derrida, Jacques. 1995. The gift of death. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    11. Žižek, Slavoj. 2008. Violence: six sideways reflections. New York: Picador.

    12. Chow, Rey. 1989. “Walter Benjamin’s Love Affair with Death.” New German Critique no. 48: 63. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost

    13. Eng, David L., and David Kazanjian. 2003. Loss: the politics of mourning. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    14. Castronovo, Russ. 2001. Necro citizenship death, eroticism, and the public sphere in the nineteenth-century United States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

 

National Melancholia: Homeland, Childhood, and Terror

Late at night on March 11, 2012 U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales left combat outpost Camp Belambay and entered several homes in the Panjwai District of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Over the course of two separate trips he murdered sixteen villagers, burned several of the corpses of those he had just slain and returned to his base whereupon he confessed to the killings. Amongst the dead were nine children.[1] While much of the coverage focused on Bales himself, the articles ceaselessly searching for some latent predisposition in his past actions, each report specifically highlighted (as I have) the child victims. In a Huffington Post Op-Ed, commentator Dan Obeidallah cites the curious, yet commonplace, inability of the American media to see any Afghan civilian regardless of age beyond their victimhood. He states, “We need to hear about the hopes and dreams that the parents held for the eleven murdered children. We need to know if the children played soccer or were good students in school.”[2]

Obeidallah’s harsh criticism of the coverage of the aforementioned “Kandahar Massacre” stands (in his figuration) in opposition to the “flattening” coverage of most Afghan deaths, a treatment which one could easily imagine, whereby a news report states that a determinate number of civilians were killed by American forces “accidentally.” The tally of the dead operates as the victims’ sole recognition, a menial counter ratcheting steadily upwards.  Yet there is an erasure in both accounts that necessitates further examination. While the “mainstream” accounts that Obeidallah rails against refuse any differentiation among Afghan dead, his own work, rather than critiquing the crippling systemic effects of U.S. occupation (or Bales’ actions for that matter) solely wishes to recuperate the lives of the dead as imaginable tragedy. Through the attachment of the dead children to idyllic norms, school and soccer, the American reader can envision the loss of their own child, thereby reaffirming the horrors of loss while sidestepping the question of accountability altogether. It is almost as if, in the Baudrillardian sense, the death of a child looms so large as to disarm one’s recognition of the circumstances leading to the death of the actual child.[3] In acknowledging this lack, I aim to purposefully situate and politicize the child in the context of media representation of the “War on Terror,” specifically enunciating a politics of melancholia immanent in such depictions.

In the Showtime series Homeland, which first aired in 2011, one finds an intriguing counterpart to the Kandahar Massacre and further evidence of the importance of childhood to U.S. occupations abroad. Homeland revolves around two central characters, Nicholas Brody, a marine held hostage in Afghanistan for 8 years, and Carrie Matheson, a CIA field agent suspicious of his allegiances. Throughout the first season the audience is made to question Brody’s ties to terrorist leader Abu Nazir and a coterminous plot against America in which he may or may not be involved. The series’ reliance on children/childhood, however, is crucial to the logic of the show, as well as to its critical reception. Brody’s own children, Dana and Chris, loom large in his decision-making and ultimately prove essential to Brody’s willingness to play the terrorist or not to play the terrorist. Similar to the real life events of the Kandahar Massacre, the killing of Afghan children, and the culpability for their deaths is also a motivating factor for the show. Ultimately, however, the critique that Homeland provides is akin to the response of Dan Obeidallah’s editorial, the evil actions of singular persons or institutions. My aim, then, is to examine the processes of a national melancholia at work in newspaper and television news coverage, and the series Homeland and in doing so excavate a politics of shame and guilt that both sustains and undermines U.S. occupations abroad.

It is therefore primarily through the mediated lens of Homeland that I engage with the question of how depictions of childhood intersect with contemporary U.S. imperial interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan in a melancholic register. In doing so I aim to both demonstrate the importance of age-centric scholarship, by refusing a depiction of children as merely passive ciphers to be decrypted and highlighting the very importance of that trope, as well as illustrating the significance of serialized representations of childhood to affecting real world decisions. To evince the importance of childhood and national melancholia to the perpetuation of the War on Terror I will do the following. First, I will introduce Freud’s concept of melancholia as a means to read the cultural logics of Homeland and U.S. foreign policy concerning Iraq and Afghanistan. The “losses” of the post 9/11 era in their myriad forms are well displayed in Homeland and in the real world rhetoric of fighting terrorism. Next I will highlight the ways in which those perceptions of loss are combatted by projecting causality onto an Other, more specifically the figure of the terrorist. Children in this scenario are productive to the “remedy-ing” of melancholic sentimentalities and their representations aim to justify occupation abroad. Finally I will turn my analysis back to the U.S. to showcase that narcissistic evocations of trauma are really “about” the multiplicitous shames of U.S. intervention overseas. Here the child is not a comforting presence that assuages guilt and justifies occupation, but rather haunts the American imaginary and in which attempts to banish these specters only result in the reinvigoration of violence.

Situating Melancholia

Religious ideology, economic incentive, and national security are each broad themes constantly returned to by political pundits and media correspondents as the definitive impetuses and justifications for U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, children and their media figurations, too, are central in justifying both the “War on Terror” and U.S. occupations abroad.  There is, however, a definitive differentiation in how children of each of those nationalities are represented. Indeed in digging deeper, one finds that the apparent apolitical-ness of the child (non)actor is a blatant fiction and that variegated imageries of literal or imagined children are integral to all contemporary politics, as Lauren Berlant has argued, and especially the War on Terror.[4] Therefore, it is my intention to showcase the national, racial, gendered, and psychological presumptions and figurations of melancholia and childhood that also prove central to U.S. military occupations under the guise of “The War on Terror.” In doing so I will specifically explore instances of violence and/or death involving children and pregnant women to highlight the productive and melancholic affects mobilized in such circumstances. Expressly, I will utilize Freud’s conception of melancholia to explicate the nationalized impetuses to war, the national yearning for lost “superpower-ness”, the projection of “backwards-ness” onto Iraqi and Afghani governments and citizens, the possible future loss of viable markets/natural resources and the affective role of children in narratives of the war on terror. [5] These episodes of the melancholic, depicted on screen, intersect with tropes of reproduction and childhood in several crucial ways.

First, is the role of shame and/or guilt as manifestation of national melancholia in fictional representations of U.S. occupation(s) through depictions of childhood. I argue that imageries of dead children or violence enacted towards children have a dialectical relationship with the “war effort” domestically and abroad. Terrorist actions that kill children work to “justify” U.S. occupations (think of the white man’s burden and/or patriarchal programs of Third World “development”). Conversely, drone strikes, friendly fire, and off target missile attacks, when shown, propagate feelings of national shame/guilt for complicity in the deaths of children. Moreover, the lack of definitive military “successes” in Iraq and Afghanistan elicit a specter of failure that only sustains the melancholic sentimentality of the war on terror.

To Freud, “the melancholic’s erotic cathexis in regard to his object has…undergone a double vicissitude: part of it has regressed to identification, but the other part, under the influence of the conflict due to ambivalence, has been carried back to the stage of sadism.”[6] In this process, the ego constantly seeks out another object to replace the lost one; children as only one “object” in a long list of substitutions that justify occupation, i.e., WMD’s, harbored terrorists, Saddam’s atrocities, etc. and inflicts punishment on the perceived cause of object loss, or the object itself.[7] Therefore the military assaults on Iraq and Afghanistan emanate not only from the explicit actions of those regimes, but from the narcissistic projections of a U.S. attempting to recuperate loss. As Judith Butler has asserted in her work Precarious Life,

A national melancholia, understood as a disavowed mourning, follows upon the erasure from public representations of the names, images, and narratives of those the US has killed. On the other hand, the US’s own losses are consecrated in public obituaries that constitute so many acts of nation-building.[8]

 

There is also, of course, a third avenue of representation (or non-representation I suppose) in the depictions (or lack thereof) of “collateral damage” being shown on screen. This “visibility” of the relationship between childhood, mourning, and identification is played out on an individual level in the first season of Homeland. The main character Nicholas Brody, upon witnessing the death of Issa the son of terrorist leader Abu Nazir, who Brody has been living with and teaching English, returns home unable to return to his normal life. It is the destruction of Issa in a U.S. drone strike that plagues Brody in the U.S. and catalyzes his ambiguous relationship to terrorism that drives the plot of Homeland. And yet this is an imagery rarely seen in depictions of the U.S. projects of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Serving as the central interrogative for her work, Precarious Life, Judith Butler asks, “Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, What makes for a grievable life?”[9] It is precisely because Afghan and Iraqi casualties, excepting the congratulatory coverage of a vilified terrorist, are not made visible, and because of the hyperbolized humanity of American citizens that certain lives are mourn-able and others are not.

Projecting Superpower Temporalities

“We’re about projecting American power now…you wanna play softball spy games go join the Germans or the French.”[10] David Harewood the Director of the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center in speaking to Middle-East Division Chief Saul Berenson on Homeland chastises Berenson after Saul has critiqued Harewood’s okaying of a drone strike in Iraq that killed 82 children. Harewood’s remarks are indicative of what he terms a new era in American foreign policy, one that Berenson, a relic of the old pre-9/11 CIA is ill-equipped to manage. Projecting American power, as Harewood terms it and as utilized in “real” U.S. foreign policy works in several registers. First is the military coinage of “power projection,” which, according to the U.S. Navy’s Science and Technology Strategic Plan, “strives…to enhance the ability of naval forces to damage, seize or destroy enemy forces at extended ranges… at a speed, rate and distance that defeats any adversary’s ability to conduct effective operations against us despite his use of mobility and deception to neutralize our efforts.”[11] Technological advantage becomes one way to effectively demonstrate U.S. superiority.

This projection works in accord with a more theoretical notion of projection that will serve as the central interrogative of this section, a concept of projection emergent from psychoanalytic theory and driven by desire. Glossing Lacan, Dino Felluga says, “At the heart of desire is a misrecognition of fullness where there is really nothing but a screen for our own narcissistic projections. It is that lack at the heart of desire that ensures we continue to desire.”[12] What we can productively glean from this statement about the Lacanian idea of the Gaze is that the images, ideas, identities, and ideologies that American media project onto the Other (in this case those who stand in the way of America; i.e., terrorists) are really desires and anxieties immanent to Americans themselves. September 11th operates as one such event that “necessitated” the projection of American power abroad. The attacks of 9/11 are constantly wielded not only to explicate the “evil” of terrorist regimes abroad, but also to display the U.S. in the role of the victim. As George W. Bush argued in his Presidential Address on September 20th, 2001,

Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment. Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom — the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time — now depends on us. Our nation — this generation — will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.[13]

 

Both the Harewood and Bush speeches are meant to elicit a sense of righteousness in carrying out acts that each knows will result in “collateral damage.” Harewood continues his diatribe, berating Berenson for threatening to go to the New York Times with a video of Harewood and Vice President William Walden authorizing the strike on a school where it was believed the Al-Qaeda leader Abu Nazir was headquartered. He says, “Telling the world we killed 82 kids would endanger every American soldier on the ground…you would essentially be handing Al-Qaeda the biggest recruitment tool since Abu Ghraib.”[14] The rallying cry of Bush’s speech becomes a vicious secret, a necessity of war.

And yet what do these projections of a dialectical American power/victimhood tell us about a “new” epoch of nationalized anxiety, emergent from the moment of 9/11 as Harewood and Bush seem to imply? Is it productive to differentiate between the concept of mourning and that of melancholia in classifying these anxieties? Freud argues that melancholia “may be the reaction to the loss of a loved object…The object has not perhaps actually died, but has been lost as an object of love…In yet other cases one feels justified in maintaining the belief that a loss of this kind has occurred, but one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost.” He continues saying that the melancholic individual may recognize “whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him.”[15]

This is crucial, for if we are to extrapolate a nationalized melancholia from Freud’s conception of an individual pathology we must also locate what Lacan calls the objet petit a (unattainable object of desire) the lost object mourned and obsessed over. And yet also, to Freud, the melancholic being feels no shame, in fact, “one might emphasize the presence in him of an almost opposite trait of insistent communicativeness which finds satisfaction in self-exposure.”[16] For Bush this “object” is seemingly the virginal, unpenetrated American past before the “great harm.” Indeed for Harewood as well, the superpower-ness of America suffered a loss, or a least a trauma during 9/11 that necessarily must be recuperated. Thus, the lacks of American vitality and security are projected abroad and re-appropriated through the occupation of the supposed perpetrators. Homeland provides the ability to read a national anxiety or melancholy on screen and locate some of its key markers. As Freud and Lacan would argue, the loss afflicting the melancholic needn’t even be “real,” but rather could also be a perceived loss or an anxiety over a possible future loss. In this way a childhood futurity (or foreclosure of the possibility of a future) can be mobilized in service of an imperial America.

Homeland is just one of a litany of television shows that take the War on Terror as their central theme. The most commonly cited American show addressing terrorism is the Fox show 24, which actually aired in Fall 2001 contemporaneous to the September 11th attacks. Similar shows include: The Grid, Person of Interest, Rubicon, and the U.K. series Spooks. Airing in 2011, Homeland comes at a moment in which the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are “winding down.” Together with the presence of numerous serialized precursors to the show, the timing of Homeland necessitated a different approach than those waylaid by the aforementioned programs. The lessened-presence of the wars and the facilitation of imminent U.S. exit from both Iraq and Afghanistan facilitated an alternative portrayal of U.S. militarism abroad. In common with each of the previous American shows, however, Homeland both expounds a melancholy immanent to the post 9/11 era and relies on a logic of American innocence (figured in the child).

Dana Brody is the 16-year-old daughter of Nicholas Brody who is the main character and central figure of ambiguity that propels the anxious plot of Homeland forward. Upon Brody’s return Dana becomes his sole confidant. He is distant from his wife, his son, and his former best friend who has effectively replaced Brody as father figure, Mike, a fellow Marine. Speaking to Dana he tells her that the thought of her “kept him alive” while in captivity.[17] This relationship proves crucial to the narrative of the first season, as Dana is the one most attuned to how “different” Brody appears to be after returning. Once we are presented with the “fact” of Brody’s terrorist affiliations Dana’s character also becomes suspicious of her father and the oddity of his behavior. Brody, growing increasingly nervous in anticipation of the imminent attack he must carry out has several run-ins with Dana that threaten to blow his cover. First, Dana almost catches him loading a suicide bomber vest into their car on a family trip to Gettysburg. Next she walks in on him in the garage engaging in a Muslim call to prayer, at which point he tells her about his conversion to Islam, leading her to say, “Dad you’re scaring me.”[18] In the final scene before Brody departs for a speech by the Vice President, Dana attempts to enter the room, while he is putting the vest on. These scenes are crucial to Brody’s ultimate decision on whether or not to explode himself, killing the Vice President who authorized the strike on Issa’s school and gaining revenge for the deaths of 82 innocent children.

It is Dana’s concern that softens Brody’s resolve, leading him to question whether or not he should carry out the attack. Ultimately, the plan unfolds as Nazir has hoped, with Vice President Walden, members of the Defense Department, and Brody all in a safe room together, the vest attached to Brody’s body ready to detonate. And Brody makes his peace with god and goes through with it, or at least he attempts to. The trigger mechanism fails, leading to a horrified Brody heading into the bathroom to attempt to fix the wiring and carry out his attack. During this time, however, Carrie Matheson has gotten to the Brody household where Dana is alone and alerts her of her father’s intentions. Dana at first refuses to call her father, but once Carrie is dragged away by the police she calls him. At this point Brody is about to trigger the device for a second time. She says, “I had to hear your voice…she [Carrie] said you’re a terrorist,” to which Brody mumbles, “I’m not” and Dana starts cracking up telling him “Promise me…you have to promise me you’re coming home, dad…I need you. You know that?”[19]

 

Dana’s interaction with her father ultimately results in his inability to set off the bomb he has strapped to his chest; leading him to abandon the revenge plot he has been a part of since the drone strike on Issa’s school. We have seen that Brody was willing to detonate the bomb prior to Dana’s phone call, so her earlier concerns had not swayed his choice. Brody cannot, however, bring himself to betray his daughter so egregiously after her pleas to come home. It is her voice and his recognition of the destruction of his family that would result from his actions that talks him down. As one review puts it, “he’s still just a man who loves his family and thinks he’s doing the right thing, however messed up that thing is.”[20]

Brody’s willingness to “do the right thing” is what allows the viewer to ultimately empathize with him, even if his tactics are unthinkable. In the beginning of the season finale episode, “Marine One,” we see Brody’s confession video, a pseudo suicide note that seeks to justify the actions he is about to undertake. In front of a home video camera in black and white we see Brody in full Marine attire talking about how he was “held for 8 years…tortured…and held in isolation” he continues, “People will say I was turned into a terrorist…I love my country…my action today is against…liars and war criminals…This is about justice for 82 children whose deaths were never acknowledged and whose murder is a stain on the soul of this nation.”[21] Brody’s turn to terrorism is absolved through the justice seeking measures he has undertaken on behalf of the Iraqi children he saw die. More than angry, Brody is ashamed of those in power of the country he fought on behalf of in Iraq. The destruction of children and ultimately of the one he was closest to, Issa, are the losses that have affected him the most, corrupting his integrity and leading to his affiliation with Nazir. Somewhat ironically, the show knowingly plays on the deaths of children and the tremendous ability to “propagandize” their deaths and mobilize support, whether for or against U.S. forces. In fact, Nazir is known to be an especially ruthless terrorist particularly because of his fondness for bombing women and children.

Brody has in fact, lost quite a bit. His family has fallen apart, he has lost 8 years of his life, and importantly, he has seemingly lost his identification with his American-ness. If we read Brody as a simulacrum of melancholia, particularly one that serves as synecdoche for the nation, his justifications become more apparent and more acceptable. Brody is unmoored from a normative notion of U.S. identity; he has converted to Islam, cannot perform sexually with his wife, and almost engages in a suicide attack. And yet he is nevertheless an ardent patriot to the end as his confession tape purports. Similarly, in a way the U.S. too has been “trapped” in Iraq and Afghanistan and has suffered losses of both military personnel and time. Like Brody, as well, the U.S. has engaged in unseemly acts, but always with the nation’s best interest at heart. It important then, in making this connection between Brody and the nation that he ultimately admits his intentions in the second season, whereby instead of being hauled off to Guantanamo or exposed to the public, he joins the CIA in their efforts to thwart Abu Nazir. Brody is incorporated into the very apparatus he originally sought to undermine, his transgressions effectively erased opening the possibility for catharsis.

Gender, Violence, and “Protecting” the Weak Abroad

If Brody espouses the melancholic sentimentality of the U.S. through his attachment to Dana and the loss of Issa, then he also demonstrates an attempt to recoup those losses. Part of the brilliance of Homeland is in how it showcases the extreme measures untaken by Brody, Nazir, and the CIA in the name of “justice.” Each plays at hero by mobilizing the figures of innocence, namely women and children, to justify their actions. The “heroic” rationale for war is of course not new to the U.S. It has been harnessed endlessly as a paternalistic validation of American interests from the Wild West to the shores of China and the Philippines. What I argue is new, however, is the melancholic attitude with which America’s latest imperial endeavors, Iraq and Afghanistan are teeming. As Gayatri Spivak has noted we once again see “white men, seeking to save brown women, from brown men.”[22] Importantly, however, we must now add several addendums to Spivak’s revelatory pronouncement, primarily that white women are also leading the charge and that children too “need” saving.

A radio address given to the American public on November 17, 2001 by First Lady Laura Bush proves an apt corollary to my discussion of Homeland and the greater cultural affects of the mobilized child. In the speech she denounces the oppressive regime of the Taliban, envisioning a brighter tomorrow heralded by the new American presence.[23] Her address cites the backwardness of a regime that sought not only to curtail the rights of women and children in Afghanistan, but was also engaged in a full frontal assault on the American people. As she argues, “Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror — not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us.”[24] By framing the war as one of liberation and civilization, Bush places an anti-war stance outside the realm of possibility, for if the war is in fact a “War on Terror,” to be critically opposed to intervention is to support (or at least tacitly accept) the brutal suppression of women and children.[25] I mention Bush’s address in order to highlight the purposeful utilization of women and children as victims in need of rescue and thereby as justificatory mechanisms for war.

The image of the woman-hating Islamo-terrorist is not a creation of the writers of Homeland, though their portrayal of Nazir and several others certainly bolstered it. Following the events of September 11th, First Lady Laura Bush’s radio address similarly addressed the woman and child victims of the oppressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan. She states, “Afghan women know, through hard experience, what the rest of the world is discovering: The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists. Long before the current war began, the Taliban and its terrorist allies were making the lives of children and women in Afghanistan miserable.”[26] Bush’s characterization of the Taliban served not only as a moralizing gesture that condemned the governmental policies of Afghan leaders, but also paved the way for a justification of the contemporaneous U.S. invasion of the country.

By making women and children the central victims of Taliban oppression Bush (amongst others) allied family rights groups with liberal women’s rights groups, a coalition of support heralding “women’s rights” through an assault on Islamic society. Hilary Clinton, in a speech a week after First Lady Bush’s maintained a similar argument, stating, “The mistreatment of women in Afghanistan was like an early warning signal of the kind of terrorism that culminated in the attacks of September 11. Similarly, the proper treatment of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan can be a harbinger of a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic future for that war-torn nation.”[27] As Bush further asserts, “the plight of women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control.”[28]

These statements not only obscure a history of American inaction in addressing women’s rights abroad, as well as erasing any lineage of American intervention in Afghanistan that impacted the attacks of September 11th, but also place Islamic society in the past and the U.S. as a beacon of modernity and its corollary, freedom. As Judith Butler has argued, “Islam is conceived as not of this time or our time, but of another time, one that has anachronistically emerged in this time.”[29] This conceptualization is found in Homeland as well, with Carrie Matheson the genius, white, American, CIA analyst continually juxtaposed with oppressive Muslim men. As the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has noted,

The US and her allies tried to legitimize their military occupation of Afghanistan under the banner of “bringing freedom and democracy for Afghan people”. But as we have experienced in the past three decades, in regard to the fate of our people, the US government first of all considers her own political and economic interests and has empowered and equipped the most traitorous, anti-democratic, misogynist and corrupt fundamentalist gangs in Afghanistan.[30]

 

The women of RAWA highlight the “need” of US interlocutors to showcase their liberatory justifications for war, whilst actually being responsible for the very foreclosure of those possibilities in Afghanistan. The temporal circuitry of justification gets at the melancholic attempts of U.S. officials to recuperate a pre-9/11 world, one in which the U.S. was effectively ignoring the misogynist practices of the Taliban. As a U.S. State Department report on the Taliban’s treatment of women decries, “Restricting women’s access to work is an attack on women today. Eliminating women’s access to education is an assault on women tomorrow.” [31]

As Judith Butler has argued, “When a bleeding child or dead body on Afghan-soil emerges in the press coverage, it is not relayed as part of the horror of war, but only in the service of a criticism of the military’s capacity to aim its bombs right.”[32] Butler’s assertion gets at an integral biopolitical differentiation being made between an American life and the life of an Afghan or Iraqi life. While the State Department, Laura Bush, and Hilary Clinton might clamor for the rights of women under brutal regimes those figures exist only as abstractions, as ghosts to conjure when the projects of war demand their presence. Because while the brutalized victim might serve as an appropriate justification for military intervention, the actual value of those individuals lies only in their ability to be manipulated. A case in point is the shocking declaration by Madeleine Albright in 1996 of the worth-less-ness of a half million Iraqi children. Her interview on 60 Minutes went as follows:

Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it? Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.[33]

 

Albright’s statement is no aberration, however, and finds an apt parallel in a decision made by Vice President Walden. As the then Director of the CIA, he authorized a missile strike on a terrorist target in a highly populated area, which eventually turned out to be the school that Issa attended, spurring Brody’s extremist affiliations. To justify the strike he tells the room that “the potential collateral damage falls within current matrix parameters.” The logic of  “collateral damage” works to dehumanize the potential victims of a U.S. missile strike, emboldening our sense of Walden’s evil. He continues in saying, “If Abu Nazir is taking refuge among children he’s putting them at risk, not us.”[34] Walden’s double move is a perfect encapsulation of the necessity of victimization as a key strategy in justifying the War on Terror. While obscuring the value of an Afghan or Iraqi life as a means to “get the target,” he then immediately demonizes Nazir for his lack of respect for human life.

One cannot help but think of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney being invoked in the characterization of Walden. Bush, in his speech entitled “The Iraqi Threat” utilizes a similar rhetoric, highlighting the imminent threat of Iraq to the U.S. homeland and to the Iraqi people. He states, “America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”[35] The specter of Saddam Hussein is likewise raised and vilified as a means to project villainy. Bush continues, “On Saddam Hussein’s orders, opponents have been decapitated, wives and mothers of political opponents have been systematically raped as a method of intimidation, and political prisoners have been forced to watch their own children being tortured.”[36] As we have seen previously, women and children become the primary figures through which violence is justified, their innocence acting as rationalization for military intervention.

The wars of Iraq and Afghanistan have in a sense not measured up to the “good” occupations of WWII. Albright and Bush both cite WWII events and characterizations to rally support for the American cause, the justifiability of an immense loss of life in the name of the greater good. However, one could scarcely even hear the word occupation escape the lips of American policy makers at the onset of the Iraq War.[37] The unspeakability of “occupation” today is directly linked to a problematic present in which the ease of identifying the enemy is made more difficult. Speaking after President Bushs’ speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Japan in WWII, one naval officer stated, “You fly over a house in the day and you see these children come out and wave, and then you fly over the same house at night, and there are anti- aircraft guns in the backyard.”[38]

The problem with the critique that Homeland offers of the Bush/Cheney rationale is that it reifies the same ideals of American exceptionalism that Bush and Cheney are propounding. Bush/Cheney/Walden/Harewood operate as evil individuals in an otherwise ethical enterprise. Homeland offers no significant criticism of the CIA or national security apparatus. Likewise, Brody is similarly recuperated as a moral character through his affiliation with “real” American ideals, family and democracy. It is these “forgotten” principles that serve as the objects of national melancholia continually yearned for by Brody and Berenson. This liberal critique attempts to incorporate the women and children victims of terrorist tyranny to alleviate that melancholy. However, as we shall see, the specter of the terrorist is not so easily banished and continues to haunt the American psyche.

Ghosts of American Exceptionalism

Melancholia is an extended manifestation of loss. If, as I am arguing, the actions and reactions of U.S. media and state foreign policy constitute a national melancholia two questions arise. First, what are the losses that have proved so damaging to a collective psyche? And second, how can one temporalize this current state of being the U.S. seems so consumed by? Has America been melancholic since its inception, or can the phenomena be traced to a more recent causality? Though I would assert that a level of melancholic sentiment has constantly pervaded U.S. thought, the post 9/11 era seems particularly fraught. Thus far I have attempted to showcase one such iteration of loss centered around an imagery of childhood, read through the mediated lens of Homeland. Yet seemingly, there is more to this story. The “War on Terror” is not a monolith, it is not unchanging or unwavering. At the time of Homeland‘s release in 2011 that war was in its 10th year and the U.S. had already “departed” Iraq. Likewise, Afghanistan (save for a flare up in coverage around the time of Osama Bin Laden’s death) has hardly been visible.[39] If not apparent, or even readily viewable, how can one situate loss at the forefront of contemporary U.S. treatment of the “War on Terror”? Indeed, if I am arguing for the obsessive kind of loss that melancholia evokes, where is it to be found?

My assertion is this, that loss, especially in the “late” stage of the war in Afghanistan and a “post-war” Iraq, emerges from a spectral presence, less visible, yet no less potent. Iraq and Afghanistan effectively haunt the U.S. This is recognizable not only in the cathartic “need” to document the wars in narrativized fiction, vis a vis Homeland, but also in conjuring up a “post”-Iraq ideology in news coverage and political punditry. Therefore, Iraq, or more often, the occlusion of Iraq, functions as manifestation of American loss, particularly through the recuperative affects ascribed to the image of the child. Here, Homeland particularly instructive, not only because of the moment it arrives (right after the death of Bin Laden and contemporaneous to the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq), but also due to the imagery it mobilizes.

I have mentioned briefly the effect of Issa’s death on Nicholas Brody, “radicalizing” him and leading him to almost carry out a suicide bombing in Washington D.C. What merits further inquiry, however, is that scene’s complex connection to loss and how Issa prefigures Brody’s national-izable melancholic sentimentalities. This scene also demonstrates what avenues of critique open up in a post-war time period. To Brody, the death of Issa at the behest of the CIA is unacceptable collateral damage in the context of the war. It is important to note that in Brody’s taped suicide message he is in full Marine dress, mentioning several times his dedication to the true ideals of the United States as well as his ardent patriotism. His character is juxtaposed, with Vice President Walden, whose mobilization of “collateral damage” is to illustrate its necessity and acceptability.

Even though Brody has converted to Islam and strapped a bomb to his chest he ultimately does not carry through with his terrorist action. And yet, Issa remains a everlasting presence for both Brody and the television audience exactly because of his death. I mentioned earlier the timeliness of Homeland and here it seems most forthcoming. To show the “costs” of war for Iraqi and/or Afghan citizens, especially children, seems a dangerous proposition in the midst of war, both due to the backlash from those populations and for the domestic response to the deaths of innocents. The Iraq War, however, is supposedly over, opening up the space for the “visceral” critique that Homeland provides. But what does this critique truly give us? Rather, more than just showcase the brutalities inflicted by both sides, Homeland precisely places those atrocities in the past. The past-ness of the Iraq War and U.S. responsibility therein, demonstrate the “safe-ness” of the critique that Homeland offers, yet also highlight the continual need to exorcise the demons of past occupations. It is of the utmost importance then, that the drone strike on Issa’s school takes place several years earlier in a flashback and within Iraq.

Drone strikes today take place, for the most part not in Iraq, but in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan in escalating rather than decreasing numbers.[40] Homeland, in fact seems to be utilizing an agglomeration of drone strikes on Afghan and Pakistani schools as referents in visualizing the strike on Issa’s school, thereby transposing the violence of current actions into and onto the past in locating Iraq as the site of U.S. atrocity.[41] Moreover, drone strikes likely represent only a fraction of civilian deaths as a result of the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, with some 130,000 non-combatants lost to those wars.[42] The omnipresence of the drone seems to signal, however, at least a latent cognizance of the horrific legacies of the war, particularly in highlighting the loss of life to so-called “precision” technologies. Here the “accidental” deaths of children, when reported upon, loom large in the American imaginary. Issa is a ghostly presence in Homeland just as the hundreds of children lost to U.S. military action are; each weighing heavily on the minds of the American public. It is not enough to argue that most people simply don’t know about the loss of civilian life because of underreporting, lack of air-time on the news, etc. Instead that knowledge is almost always there, driving the melancholy of U.S. imperial foreign policy. It is implicit to the current and recent projects of war. Media formulations of just-cause and terrorist possibilities are mere inoculations against the psychic trauma of complicity.

A very recent news report by the new show Vice, on HBO, makes this readily apparent. The interviewer, Shane Smith, a co-founder of Vice, travels to Afghanistan to speak with some failed suicide bombers. The episode, entitled, “Killer Kids” charts the Taliban discovery that “using a new transportation device for high explosives has proven very effective against the occupation. They’re using children.”[43] The heinousness of utilizing children on top of the horror of suicide bombing proves hard to watch, with two interviews conducted with Afghan teenagers who failed to successfully detonate their suicide vests. But like most coverage of violence in Afghanistan, the episode fails to cite the kids killed by U.S. actions. I mention this in no way to excuse the despicability of the Taliban coerced violence, but instead to showcase the acceptability of Afghan loss of life in relation to American life. Responsibility is one of the many ghosts that haunt the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, a lingering complicity visualized in the imagery of dead children. As Shane Smith’s closing remarks illustrate, those revenants so often bear the mark of a divisive logic of modernity, he says, “we have video chat, we have Facebook, we can reach mars, and I found myself thinking; this is our 21st century? This is out modern age? Where children are used as transportation devices, for dynamite”?[44]

             I have argued that imageries of dead children or violence enacted towards children have a dialectical relationship with the “war effort” domestically and abroad. Through Homeland one can see the logic of a national melancholia that runs through not only narrative fiction, but news media and political rhetoric as well. Contrary to Freud’s pathology, however, this instantiation of national melancholia has not rendered its subject inactive. Instead the melancholic sentimentalities expressed through the various media I have outlined are productive affects. A politics of loss has emerged in which the United States constantly wields the image of the child, domestically and abroad as a primary object to be saved. Rather than only document the numerous perceived losses that the U.S. has suffered, I have instead, examined the narcissistic impulses of foreign policy and the idealistic projections they work to recuperate. Yet the ghosts of the past are not so easily banished, the lingering uncertainties following the attacks of 9/11 of economic exploitation, of religious and racial demonization, and of the collateral damage the U.S. has inflicted throughout the world weigh heavily on a collective conscience. It is only in awakening new specters onto which those anxieties can be projected that the nation can shift its gaze, but we never truly forget, and Issa is forever present.

 


[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/10154872 ,

[2] Dan Obeidallah, “What are the Names of the People Massacred in Afghanistan” 03/20/2012

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dean-obeidallah/what-are-the-names-of-the_b_1362265.html

[3] Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra is especially useful here and the paper would probably benefit from a more in depth treatment of his work.

[4] Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Durham, NC : Duke University Press, 1997)

[5] My utilization of the melancholic emerges from Freud through some updating via David Eng, Melanie Klein, and Julia Kristeva.

[6] Freud, Mourning and Melancholia, 250-251.

[7] Freud, Mourning and Melancholia

[8] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso: New York, 2004), xiv.

[9] Judith Butler, 20.

[10] Homeland, Season 1, Episode 12.

[11] “Power Projection and Integrated Defense Focus Area”

http://www.onr.navy.mil/About-ONR/science-technology-strategic-plan/Power-Projection.aspx

“there is elegance in killing a million-dollar cruise missile with directed energy for the price of a gallon of fuel.”

[12] Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Lacan: On the Gaze.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.

http://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/psychoanalysis/lacangaze.html

[13] George W. Bush, Address to the Nation Washington, DC September 20, 2001 http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/speeches/09.20.01.html

 

[14] Homeland, Season 1, Episode 12.

[15] Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” 244.

[16] Freud, 246.

[17] Homeland, Season 1, Episode 3.

[18] Homeland, Season 1, Episode 12.

[19] Homeland, Season 1, Episode 12.

[20] “Homeland: “Marine One” Review” Scott Collura

DECEMBER 19, 2011 http://www.ign.com/articles/2011/12/19/homeland-marine-one-review

[21] Homeland, Season 1, Episode 12: “Marine One”

[22] Gayatri Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 303.

[23] Importantly the radio address came only weeks after the coalition invasion of Afghanistan following the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

[24] “Radio Address by Mrs. Bush,” November 17, 2001

http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=24992

[25] Of course Bush’s framing of the war was not absolute and certainly did not occlude opposition, yet it is telling that at the time 8 of 10 Americans supported a ground war in Afghanistan. http://www.gallup.com/poll/5029/eight-americans-support-ground-war-afghanistan.aspx

[26] Laura Bush. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=24992

[27] Hilary Clinton, “New Hope For Afghanistan’s Women” November 24, 2001

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,185643,00.html, http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/6185.htm

[28] Laura Bush, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=24992

[29] Judith Butler, Frames of War, 110.

[30] “From Afghanistan to Syria: Women’s Rights, War Propaganda and the CIA”

http://www.globalresearch.ca/from-afghanistan-to-syria-womens-rights-war-propaganda-and-the-cia/5329665

[31] http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/6185.htm

[32] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso: New York, 2004), 6.

[33] 60 Minutes (5/12/96) http://fair.org/extra-online-articles/we-think-the-price-is-worth-it/

[34] Homeland, Season 1, Episode 12

[35] George W. Bush, “The Iraqi Threat” Cincinnati, OH October 7, 2002 http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/speeches/10.7.02.html

[36] George W. Bush, “The Iraqi Threat” Cincinnati, OH October 7, 2002 http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/speeches/10.7.02.html

[37] John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq. (New York: W.W. Norton), xxvii-xxviii.

[38] James Sterngold, “Bush likens situation in Iraq to WWII / Fate of democracy at stake, he insists in speech to sailors” August 31, 2005. http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Bush-likens-situation-in-Iraq-to-WWII-Fate-of-2644186.php#page-1

[39] John Hanrahan “The war without end is a war with hardly any news coverage” August 10, 2011, http://www.niemanwatchdog.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=background.view&backgroundid=569 and Sherry Ricchiardi “Whatever Happened to Iraq?” June/July 2008  http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=4515

[40] Covert War on Terror, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/category/projects/drones/, http://www.livingunderdrones.org/report/

[41] Christian Rice, “Is America Like Adam Lanza? U.S. Drone Strikes Have Killed 176 Children in Pakistan Alone” http://www.policymic.com/articles/20884/is-america-like-adam-lanza-u-s-drone-strikes-have-killed-176-children-in-pakistan-alone, http://www.livingunderdrones.org/report/#_ftn3

[42] Spencer Ackerman, “Afghanistan, Iraq Wars Killed 132,000 Civilians, Report Says” http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/06/afghanistan-iraq-wars-killed-132000-civilians-report-says/

[43] Vice, Season 1, Episode 1 “Killer Kids” Air date: April 5, 2013

[44] Vice, Season 1, Episode 1 “Killer Kids” Air date: April 5, 2013

New Historical Temporalities

The old axiom about history goes something like this: history, or more precisely the discipline of history traces change over time, tracking the key indicators of that change and inferring something about a given society from the data. It used to be that the historian charted history as progression, to demonstrate the old evils of the past and their steady transformations. This ideal of progressive history started to crumble in the 60’s with the rise of cultural and social histories as the primary modes of critique, unburdening the historian from his (unfortunately most likely his) elitist vantage and locating the impetuses of change at the bottom as well as at the top. What could also be termed the egalitarian turn of the 60s carries into today in which a kind of postmodern supposed self-awareness reminds us of the bad old way of doing history and instead clamors for a scholarship that assails the progressive narratives of the past. Their day of reckoning has finally come, tear down the walls of discipline, nation, and identity and thou shalt be liberated. And yet. It persists. Are we truly unmoored from the linearity of antiquated historical analysis? Or is it simply a self-assuring ruse made to reaffirm the continued radicality of the academe in an age of corporate take over in the university system? Beyond the politics of neoliberalism and its intersections with higher education, I believe there is a more fundamental problem plaguing the discipline of history, a more noxious, cantankerous ailment that we supposedly cured years ago. The progressive narrative of history has not disappeared, in fact it has grown stronger in its subtlety. We now take for granted the ridiculousness of a progression toward inevitable world peace, gender equality, economic stability, etc. and yet the latent beast still rears its ugly head unendingly. This is not invisible. There is no conspiracy on the part of the JAH or OAH or any governing body of historical inquiry. Yet, it is so normalized as to evade question or concern.

One could then pose the question about discipline, is this a problem relegated to history? Is english, or American Studies, or political science hopelessly foundering in the muck as we are? To an extent the answer seems to be yes. For while the transformations of the 1960’s undermined the loci of analysis for historians as well as some of their theoretical bases, it held in place and even concretized the idea of history as a critical analysis of the past and solely of the past and even more as an analysis of the past necessarily some distinct and distant amount of time removed from the event. As if to be too close to the event (in whatever way really, temporally, racially, etc.) was to undermine one’s credibility in understanding. Yes, here i refer to the heinous head of objectivity that we supposedly assailed years ago. Our post-structuralist kinsmen and kinswomen instructed us to herald the ways of subjectivity! And we listened. Or at least those of us who could bother with theory did. But it was not enough, and the perils of proximity remained. Sure some of the old maxims fell by the wayside, inverting themselves even (while past histories sought kinship with the participant observer, today it seems that one can only do the work of “their” group, i.e., women must study gender, gays and lesbians must undertake queer theory, etc., so that we have come to a point where it becomes obvious what one “does” by their socio-cultural background, in and of itself a frightening reification of stable identity). Yet, time (ironically) remained a constant. If one wishes to publish a work of history or engage in historical analysis it must be located (importance of location!) in the past, some 20 years or so. If one wishes to do “contemporary” scholarship that is the work of some other discipline (in an era of interdisciplinarity! And at a time when these specialized disciplines are falling by the wayside in record numbers!)

So what is my problem with this system of scholarship, then? Besides the obviously problematic of factionalizing scholarship (gender studies, african american studies, etc) It also degrades the quality of analysis being put forth. To be blunt for clarity’s sake, History is not linear. History is not progressive. History does not solely reside in the past. History is impacted by its own ideas of the past, present and future.

Here then, is the crux of my plea. While the discipline of history still yearns for a paper-thin dimentionality I seek a history of multiple axes, not only of identity (a problematic I will delve into later), but of temporality. Those historical actors of the past we are so keen to interrogate, to get at “what life was really like for X, in insert year, in insert location” do not dwell only in that time or place, nor is our conception of them stable today. History must become (as it always already is) an assemblage of numerable pasts, presents, and futures, a sea-change that undermines the very ideological basis of the discipline itself.

Mourning and the Other: Excess, Debt, Exchange

What are the productive possibilities of mourning, can mourning operate as both a politics and an ethics? To Freud mourning is infinite, a fetishized object that necessitates ownership, something to be imperialized. The substitution is a constant, an endless chain, which seemingly is the effect of a narcissistic satisfaction derived from each next iteration of attachment. Loss, then, even in the Freudian construction of mourning is both selfish and violent, a circuitous undertaking, that seems inescapable. Emerging from an understanding of Freudian mourning can one recuperate mourning as a productive political action? The previous vignette sought to seek a way out of bare life by means of a sacrificial mourning. Perhaps a similar logic might wield the linguistics of economy to theorize a productive politicization of mourning.

To Baudrillard, death is a simulacrum, an anti-economy that is couched in a logic of debt. The cultural construction of death in his formulation relies on this logic of debt, in which the normalization of a separateness of life and death underlies the inequities of capital. The great faults of leftist politics, then, have been their clamoring for access to the means of production. Their fault is a failure of Marxism par-excellance that has refused to acknowledge the code as the great producer, not the worker or the factory. Labor in this system is merely a ritual, a going through the motions that reproduces the symbolic mechanisms of hegemony, a ritual that relies on a rationality that compartmentalizes and excludes the dead. One is meant merely to survive. As Baudrillard says, “little by little, the dead cease to exist. They are thrown out of the group’s symbolic circulation. They are no longer beings with a full role to play, worthy partners in exchange and we make this obvious by exiling them.”

Derrida argues in The Gift of Death that “One must give without knowing, without knowledge or recognition” for if “it [the gift] is touched by the slightest hint of calculation, the moment it takes account of knowledge…or recognition…it allows itself to be caught in transacting: it exchanges, in short it gives counterfeit money.” A kind of mourning that sacrifices that which is most dear, “without knowledge or recognition” would be necessary to enact a form of justice that Derrida calls for. Pure ontological mourning, however, which Derrida argues is always the modus operandi of mourning, always seeks to localize and to ontologize and cannot pass muster. The mourner in this configuration calculates in their desire to make the dead static, to keep them in the grave and no where else. Perhaps the closest approximation of an uncalculating mourning is what Derrida calls for in Specters of Marx, which would espouse a Derridean form of justice one can glean letting the ghosts of the past speak. This would provide a perfect soundboard for that hauntology, in which the voices of phantoms, so often construed in the passive sense, made out only as victims, are allowed to project their experiences to a future they have in another sense been denied.

The idea of the calculation, of exchange, and what Derrida and Baudrillard both refer to as debt in its relation to death presuppose an economy (or in Baudrillard’s case an antieconomy) of life and death. In particular, Derrida’s invocation of the gift and sacrifice are instructive. In this vein Derrida asks “What is the relation between se donner la mort and sacrifice? Between putting oneself to death and dying for another? What are the relations among sacrifice, suicide and the economy of this gift?” As Derrida argues, the gift of death is not a transferrable object, nor can one escape their own eventual death. The way death is mobilized, however, particularly around a sense of absolute duty can become a means of recuperation. Derrida via Kirkegaard asserts,

Absolute duty…implies a sort of gift or sacrifice that reaches toward a faith beyond both debt and duty, beyond duty as a form of debt. This is the dimension that provides for the “gift of death” which, beyond human responsibility, beyond the universal concept of duty, is a response to absolute duty.

 

Bataille argues something similar in his work Death and Sensuality, instead mobilizing death as the foremost fulfillment of an economy of excess. To Bataille, a general economy of excess, whether through the transgression of eroticism or the unsettling of a boundedness of death subverts the logical order of capital. Likewise a Baudrillardian concept of reversibility also acts as a means to subvert the normalizing logic of the code, to repudiate the hegemony of debt and instead recognize the work of symbolic exchange, particularly in and around death. Thinking through life and death in economic terms, even if only to refuse the disciplinary mechanisms latent therein, allows one to also formulate alternative politicizations, namely in and around mourning and responsibility. What Derrida, Bataille, and Baudrillard give us that Freud does not is a means to escape the narcissistic and/or pathological consequences of mourning/melancholia and instead see the possibilities in the gift, in excess, and in recognizing the code.