Saturday, December 26, 2009
Modernity erupted into the social as a disruption of custom/tradition/ habit. In its place, it suggested new habits (more rationally conceived, more efficient), new attitudes towards what life is TRULY about, new modes of “finding one’s way in the world.” The activities comprised by this “finding” presume a new kind of subject: for starters, someone who can distinguish between work and pleasure, thought and emotion, private and public, and so forth until we realize that these categorical distinctions mask other, more perverse and complex binaries ---the line that separates nature from culture, for example; or the distance and tension between social order and social change. All these negotiations (between boredom and excitement, compulsion and innovation, etc.) play out in the terrain of something intellectual from the 19th c. through the early 21st c. call “everyday life.”
But in calling out this object of study, intellectual traditions have evoked a lot more than simply a description of repeated or recurrent activities (brushing your teeth, taking the bus, listening to your iPod, sitting at a desk in a uniquely decorated office cubicle, eating a Lean Cuisine micro waved lasagna for lunch, texting your girlfriend, etc.).
According to Ben Highmore, author of The Everyday Reader (Routledge 2002), everyday life can be mapped (as an object of study) according to a certain number of polarities / dualities, tendencies or orientations.
One possible sketch of these tendencies might look something like this:
Particular / General
Agency / Structure
Experience / Institutions
Feelings / Protocols
Resistance / Power
Micro / Macro
Implied in the study of everyday life is also the study of “everydayness” –what it illuminates, or obscures, how it can be a “good” thing, or a drag, how it is a refuge from stuff that really hurts or irritates, or it is the thing itself that provokes that irritation.
On the other side of the fence….always, seductively rearing its head, the possibility of “something” that crashes the ordinary and sends us to the extra-ordinary (like the Aretha Franklin song, something or someone, that just “sends me’).
In this seminar we will tackle:
1) the raw material of everyday life itself (as stuff, plot, and trope: i.e. the ontology of the thing itself)
2) the intellectual traditions that have claimed “the study” of this object (i.e. the epistemologies)
3) the mechanics of “striking a pose” as students/readers of 1 and 2 above (i.e. the metacommentary generated by exercises of reflexivity; a philosophical bracket to grant ourselves permission to play with the dialectics of being, and so forth........)
Monday, May 4, 2009
It is often difficult to get the majority of students to appreciate that their opinions have (in some cases falsely) been influenced by a system of politics and government that has co-opted the bodies language, and terrain of an entire people (immigrants), and turned it into a threat. The effect that this co-opting has on real people -- my students for example -- is that they unknowingly begin to think about immigrants in terms of apathy or fear, instead of human compassion. It's a jarring wake-up call when students are forced to confront, and possibly dismiss, these ingrained ideas, one that they either embrace or reject passionately.
Last semester I assigned my students to read Jimmy Santiago Baca's (pictured left) "Coming into Language," a standard essay that is featured in the course's book, Writing as Revision. I assigned this reading with the goal of showing the students that even in the most extreme of cases, a person is capable of deriving enjoyment, solace, and identity from writing and language. What I didn't anticipate was that my students would take our discussion and turn it into a dicussion about race, rights, and illegal immigration. Many of the students were reluctant to even trust Baca -- a Mexican criminal, who writes this from his experiences in prison -- as a source. They felt he was blaming his situation on the system and refusing to take responsibility for his actions. Some students, of course, were persuaded by his story and had a kind of revelation. They were touched by the humanity that Baca brought to minorities and to prisoners. Others had a stronger reaction.
The class discussion was a heated one. Students on both sides were trying to convince students on the other side. Students who sympathized with Baca attempted to argue that Baca was in many ways a victim of the system. He hadn't learned to read or write at a young age because of his race and his social background, and that when given the opportunity and education, he made a name for himself. The other students were unable to see past their own (in my opinion, limited) view of the world. It was very difficult for them to understand such a foreign point of view. They received a good education, they had privilege, and they were taught from a young age that if you just tried hard enough, you would succeed. These ideologies just did not gel with the story that Baca had to tell them, and most refused to step outside the box of pre-conceived notions.
Overall, it was a good learning experience for me as a teacher, and the next time I teach that text I will be more prepared to handle this issue. The vehemence on both sides seemed to come out of nowhere for me. All I could do at the end of that class period was hope that some of the students who were so passionate on both sides had listened to the other side and absorbed some of it, and while Inda's text was a helpful lens for me to read, I'm not sure it would be helpful to my students. I find it hard to believe that freshmen would sit back and accept Inda's argument that their thoughts and ideas about illegal immigration have in large part been shaped by an impersonal system.
I haven't given a lot of thought to bigamy or polygamy besides when I first learned those terms, but reading over this article gave me some intuition about how I truly felt about the matter, why it is outlawed, and why people and cultures are fighting against those laws. Though I do see the merit in a mostly streamlined system, it gave me thought about what laws are slowly destroying cultures that have settled within America. Or does America need to make these laws to create a culture of its own? We are the cultureless country--or are we the opposite? We have an abundance of culture. Only, we are all so different, we cannot make a whole. Regional differences, religious differences, tribal and cultural and linguistic differences. All here. Our history is mainly Christian, in that, our Constitution and our "country" was fought for and "settled" (I use this term loosely) by Christian men. But. Did that mean the lasting ideas, our lasting laws, our lasting ideals, were necessarily that? I would like to think there would be more flexibility, something more grounding than that, and perhaps more open. I'm not sure if I have said this all like I would like to, so I'm looking forward to discussing it in class.
4 May 2009
[Although this may seem a stretch, I’m going to link this week’s subject, immigration, with something that goes on in my daily life. It is a stretch, but give me a moment.]
Back on November 21st, Marcia Marma, the English Department’s “Program Assistant” for the Graduate Literature Program, emailed out a notice from one of my classmates who was having to give up her job as Research Assistant to Professor Annette Kolodny, because she had accepted a position in Louisiana at The Southern Review. The notice read:
Attached is a posting for a research assistant position with Professor Annette Kolodny. I encourage you all to apply. Annette is great to work with, the work is interesting, and you'll learn a lot about research and publishing. Annette is looking for someone with an interest in American literature who can start in early December and who can commit for at least a year. You'd be working with her on a book project.
I'm leaving the position because I've just accepted a job at The Southern Review in Baton Rouge, and I'm moving December 15th. Please feel free to call or email me with any questions.
The official job description read:
Professor Emerita Annette Kolodny is seeking a part-time research assistant beginning December 1, 2008 and continuing through—and likely beyond—December 1, 2009. The position offers an invaluable opportunity to learn professional research skills, the skills required for publishable writing, and how to prepare a book for publication by working with Professor Kolodny to complete her current book project In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and American Popular Culture, under contract to Duke University Press. The ideal candidate would be a graduate student with interests in American literature and particularly Native American literature and popular culture. The student must have excellent English language skills, excellent research skills (both in the library and online), and some experience in preparing manuscripts for publication. The student will need a laptop and an automobile and must be willing to meet with Professor Kolodny at her home (about a fifteen-twenty minute drive from campus). Professor Kolodny will employ this graduate student privately (not through University funding but through her own personal funding), so the position will represent extra employment above and beyond the student’s employment with the University of Arizona.
I answered, blowing my own horn of course, suggesting to Dr. Kolodny that I would be one primo RA. I figured the $12 hourly would be pizza money. I downplayed the fact that I was probably only five years younger than she. I did check her out, of course. She’s a heavy hitter. An important late-twentieth century feminist critic. She’s got her own Wikipedia entry (it turns out that I have a Wikipedia entry too, but on more careful review it is actually for L. Jay Caldwell, the Colgate football coach from 1893-1895). One facet of Dr. Kolodny's expertise and fame has to do with the land and its literary feminization. Her entry in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism fills 23 pages, the personal headnote alone being 3 pages long (2143-2165). She is a heavy hitter.
So, I show up. I soon learn that Dr. Kololdny, to many, is a kind, compassionate, caring, faithful, and devoted friend and colleague. I also discover that she can be annoying, infuriating, conceited, filled with hubris, devoid of patience, tactless, irascible, and mean-spirited. To me she is direct, precise, careful, and doesn't tolerate much b.s., but is willing to listen to my editorial suggestions, even accepting an occasional one. Over the last several months I have actually refined my writing style, starting sentences with conjunctions, eschewing some commas, and incorporating more readable quotations. I have also learned to follow instructions exactly, not striking out too far on my own.
Her husband, Daniel Peters, is a novelist, apparently of Middle American historical romances, at least judging by the titles: The Luck of Huemac (1981, 422 pp), Tikal (1983, 657 pp), and The Incas (1995, 1057 pp). These are all available through amazon.com. He seems to be working on his fourth, which Dr. Kolodny alludes to occasionally. He's also a big sports fan, whereas his wife has zilch interest. He's also got a hair and scalp situation going that he could pass for Bozo the Clown. Nice guy, though, really nice guy, and fully devoted to her care, well-being, and happiness.
Dr. Kolodny has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was a teenager, and is now so crippled and deformed, that she can barely walk, her arms have about one-half the range-of-motion of John McCain’s, and her fingers and hands have assumed a permanent and disabling ulnar drift. She undergoes aggressive and regular treatment for this, but is a poster girl for courage and grit. That’s where I (and Cara and several others before me) come in.
It’s actually great work. I function as an amanuensis. I take dictation directly from her into my computer, I write emails and letters for her, I do bibliographic and biographical research, I edit, I check out books and track down articles, I print, I deliver. I think I even may have provided some outside insight and feedback to her project. The hardest part of this gig is the time frame. Temporally, I am a lark. I usually get out of bed between 4 and 5 am, though I shoot for 3:30 in the summer. I’m in bed by 8 or 9. Because of her illness and her therapy sessions she says she rarely awakens before noon and often works through the night until near daylight. That would be 12 hours off from my clock. So once a week I work for her between 7:30 and 10 or 11 or 12 . That would be p.m. I’m pretty groggy by the time I go home.
This book she is now writing connects directly to this week's subject: immigration. In a nutshell, Dr. Kolodny is showing how Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas subverted the American national narrative the leaders of our country were attempting to write in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Founding Fathers, and other heavy hitters over the next century, very much wanted the United States to have a white foundational myth-story. Columbus, a swarthy Italian in the hire of the Spanish, was not the ideal candidate for our national hero. What was needed was a blond, blue-eyed Nordic type. Think Leif Erickson. Furthermore, it was important to show that the “Indians” whom the “northmen” found here were not aboriginal to the region. To some degree, they succeeded and Dr. Kolodny is now carefully and deliberately deconstructing this myth. Her book is being written for both the lay public as well as professionals.
This past week we have been working on William Gilmore Simms. He was a South Carolinian who besides being a prolific author of historical romances, published a popular, history textbook, The History of South Carolina from its First European Discovery to its Erection into a Republic (1844) that remained in use for almost a half-century. In it, for example, and in articles published in Magnolia; or Southern Monthly, he argued fervently for the idea that the burial mounds and tumuli found throughout the south were not the remains of extinct Indian tribes, but rather were the remains of white cultures that had been destroyed by living savages (today we know this to be wrong: they are very, very old remains of very, very ancient aboriginal cultures). Dr. Kolodny quotes extensively from Simms, e.g. “suddenly, the fierce red men of the south-west came down upon them in howling thousands, captured their women, slaughtered their men, and drove them to their fortresses:—how they fought to the last, and perished to a man! And, in this history, you have the history of the Tumuli, the works of defence and worship—the thousand proofs with which our land is covered, of a genius and an industry immeasurably superior to any thing that the Indian inhabitants of this country ever attempted.”
So the connection here is immigration, but in this case who immigrated where and when. I have read extensive portions of her book, but it keeps growing like Topsy. Suffice that she is showing carefully and definitively that those folks who insist that “northmen” first came to this continent in the tenth or eleventh or twelfth centuries and established permanent colonies (Vinland), and who are thus ancestral to the white races of America are, to put it coarsely, full of shit.
Immigration seems forever to be a cauldron of narrativity. Even today, the ethnohistory of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, is struggling with the issue of who has primacy, and so who has legitimacy in the region. Such a task of partitioning and compartmentalizing within nations is, in the end, counterproductive. I shall be interested in how Dr. Kolodny's book addresses this.
I had a form of this concept in mind over the past few weeks due to some of my students who have been penning responses to selected writings of Teddy Roosevelt. In some of these pieces Roosevelt asserts that people who want to be called Americans have an obligation to "be American," in the sense that they should lay aside prior cultural/national allegiances in order to become "Americanized." My students have been voicing amazement that immigrant rhetoric can be traced as far back in American history as Roosevelt's time.
What I have come to realize throughout this semester is that the everyday is unfailingly tied to processes of legitimation. As a minority, I have come to expect certain processes that demand I legitimize Connie's Everyday to other people. As a woman, I expect to have to legitimize my stance on child-rearing, marriage, interactions with other women, etc. As a college student, I expect to have to legitimate my positions on topics about which I knew little before my years of higher education. As a doctoral student, I expect to have to justify my areas of professional focus to colleagues, mentors, and even my family.
Heck, I even find myself legitimating the weeks I've spent away from my Weimaraners back home in North Carolina--TO those two dogs, mind you. As I prepared to walk into the airport yesterday to board a plane back to the desert, I found myself explaining to those two unhappy faces WHY I had to leave and exactly when I would be back home. Now, I'm the first to admit that I tend to treat my dogs as if they are people, but I would argue that this isn't the real reason I took time to legitimate my activities to a couple of dogs. Rather, there is an ineffable human need to locate, identify, quantify, and legitimate our ordinary existences. We seem to feel a need to create a position for ourselves that is justified and appropriately contrasted to some level of the non-legitimate. WHY we feel this way I cannot begin to conjecture. But what I do know is this: Human beings are not alone in positioning the everyday in relation to others. We can trace similar processes in the activities of animals and their relationships to other beings and the landscapes which they inhabit. Perhaps then there is an everyday that transcends species--the writings of Donna Haraway would seem to offer ample evidence of this position. Haraway suggests that the everyday of humans and dogs frequently intersect in ways that argue against strict lines of them/us experience, as the contact zones where species meet are themselves argument against hard and fast rules of human and animal engagement. Yet she also argues against simply "celebrat[ing] complexity," asserting that we should instead "become worldly and [ . . . ] respond" (When Species Meet, 41).
This, then, is my final thought on the current semester of learning: Although Haraway's discussion relates very specifically to dog/human interactions, I think there is much insight in her comment above. In a practical sense, this thing we term the "everyday" is itself less a celebration of complexity as it is a system of actively encountering the world and responding to those encounters. This process of response is what creates our everyday--both those parts of our everyday that we control ourselves and those parts that represent the responses of those around us. We cannot, in any real sense, "make" an everyday as individuals, except in isolation from others (and I'm certainly not advocating the hermit route); rather, we make the everyday collectively and collaboratively--humans, companion species, other species, all of those living forms that impact, support, complicate, and enrich our everyday experiences.
It's been a pleasure exploring ideas with all of you this semester. Best wishes to each of you in your future work and beyond.
P.S. I am thoroughly jet-lagged as I write this, so please excuse any rough wording!
Shah did address the portrait of Don Sing's pitiable wife who marshaled sympathy by playing the role of the "worthy and helpless dependent woman" (128). The role of power in this instance is debatable. One one hand, it was clearly a show of submission and sympathy, extorting gender stereotypes that both cultures involved could connect to. On the other, by playing into these stereotypes, Don Sing was released while the two men arrested with him were not. The goal of the sympathy letter was fulfilled which, arguably, is a sort of power.
What Shah did not address adequately, however was how the case of Soledad Garcia Jubala was also a case of a weak woman appealing to a gendered stereotype to gain pity. Her attorneys appealed on behalf of the "Dona Ana county widow" (133) and her poor fatherless children. Again, the woman in the situation used a traditional stereotype in order to get her way and win the case. Nami Singh did not use this defense to legitimize her own marriage but attempted to use only primary proof that a divorce had not taken place. It is a sad but apparent truth that proof is trumped by an emotional appeal. This essay was a sad confirmation, to me, that the judicial system is a stage show. Whoever can cry the biggest tears, play the stereotype the most sympathetically, wins the case. Razzle dazzle 'em.
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Of the three essays examining immigration and the law, Inda’s was the most compelling because it exposed the ugly nature of exclusionary tactics and the technology of power that Foucault terms “biopower.” The concept of presenting Third World immigrants as a threat to the cultural unity of the nation and likening it to Nazi policies seemed at first a bit extreme to me, but the more I thought about it and read the valid points made by the author, I see how easily the rhetoric of hate and mistrust can bolster a cause of exclusion that is inhuman and can lead to the elimination of a perceived threat--even here in America. As Ina explains, “Biopower thus implies nothing specific about what is to be done with those bodies construed as dangerous. One possibility, of course, is extermination. However, more typical of modern states is the practice of multiplying for some the risk of death or of subjecting dangerous bodies to marginalization, expulsion, and rejection.”(p. 139)
So often the statistics we are presented only show the crimes committed, the garbage left on the immigrant trails, the drug traffickers who are paired with a common laborer, and the drain on our local and state economies, but rarely do we hear of the statistics that show how immigrants contribute to society, whether they came here under legally sanctioned means or not. As a nation of immigrants, we all have family stories of such triumphs over adversity, including many of us going to school and getting our degrees when those in our families before us could or did not. What would it have been like if our own families were denied access to the opportunities we have been afforded? Inda’s article made me more cognizant of an agenda that is far more organized and directed as an agenda of fear and hate than I realized.
Most of us are all products one way or another of some kind of immigration or outside/inside status, and each and every one of us has heart-felt stories of our families and the struggles they underwent to get to this country and to make something of their lives. Why is it that we choose to ignore those statistics and focus on the elements of fear? Inda presents a very clear case of how such points of the argument have steered our legislation. It is not just economics that drives the immigrant flow these days—it is as much a product of generations of families that live on both sides of the border and shared memories and activities of those people who feel a connection to both countries. But economics would be enough to compel people to come here, and that’s the point being made—if a population feels their economic superiority is threatened, they will go to any measure to ensure their hegemony, but they will use every means at their disposal to discredit and reduce the immigrant to nothing more than an invader. Recently, the news reported about how bad the economy was in Europe and that many immigrants were returning to their home country because there were no economic advantages to stay in their adopted country. As the Mexican economy grows and with it more opportunities for its citizens, will be potentially see an exodus out of our country? And what would that do to our economy and our flow of labor? We are at once accepting of a cheap labor source and outraged by the presence of “outsiders” wanting the same services we enjoy. We seem to have a very short cultural memory.
5/2/2009, 5:30 a.m.
I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I walked into Mimi’s room last night. Having not been in
I think that the difference between the narrative that I’m constructing here, the similar ones that I’m sure my father and his siblings are writing for themselves, and the narrative(s) of biopolitical exclusion that Inda discusses in his essay is not simply one of scope. It has something to do with the two meanings of passing: one having to do with a performative identity and the other with a traditional euphemism for death. The logic may be similar – the family is finding a way to deal with my grandmother’s death by narrating the difference between her conscious life and the physical life that expired, and the nation narrates a difference between its legal or cultural existence and the lives that are treated as excess and deported; my grandmother’s life is dissolving into our memories of her, but in a way already has passed materially into the lives of those who are her genetic descendants, and the person of the sovereign (the king) dissolves in a biopolitical nation-state into the sovereign existence of a people, which is then protected in the same way that his body once was. However, in some ways I think (or want to say) that the purposes of the parallel narratives are different. They’re both a preservation of self, but one is cognizant of the material history to which it relates, and the other is not. My attempt to begin working through the experience of watching my grandmother die is conscious of my material relation to her, whereas the narratives of American national identity that criminalize migration are not conscious of the historical causes of the particular patterns of that migration (to use the terminology emphasized by De Genova in his article on deportation). We might say that the current form of the United States and its concurrent narrative of self were birthed by the process and effects of westward expansion and colonization that we read about in Philip Deloria’s book, as well as by the forceful transfer of what is now the southwestern portion of the United States from the hands of the Mexican state (also constructed through a process of colonization, though different in important ways) into those of the U.S. government and its sovereign population. The fear that the narratives of “illegal immigration” depend upon are a fear of passing away. Instead of a physical expiration though, this passing would be a passing into a different identity – which, if we were to work through the logic, would point out that the national identity (or individual identities that make it up) are performed, though passed off as essential. The liminal lives of migrant workers are not valued, while the liminal life of my grandmother was valued, even as she passed away and was unconscious of what was going on around her, her family was intent upon narrating the experience in a positive way that included her as a meaningful participant in the event. Thus my father and his siblings engaged in a narrative not of biopolitical exclusion (as sovereign decision makers withdrawing support and allowing death), but of understanding and release. In contrast, the biopolitical decision of the sovereign as described by Inda is one in which passivity and aggression become indistinguishable as the nation state actively ignores its own historical constructedness and fragile legitimacy: It enacts deportation but does not give witness to the effects. On the other hand, the moment that I witnessed and participated in (and still am, in a way) was one in which I’ve been forced to confront and work through the fragile construction of “me” through identification (material and otherwise) with my grandmother. This recognizance pushed me through what I think was initially an impulse for purity through disavowal when I first arrived, and I was eventually able to briefly embrace her and then say goodbye. This type of recognition of ultimate sameness and the contact that it allows between two apparently different forms of the same life (human) is what is missing in the immigration policies and politics of the
-- Andy DuMont
-- Andy DuMont
I found myself thinking a lot about my family history while reading this piece. My brother has recently started researching our ancestors and has found the logs from Ellis island where my great great great grandfather and grandmother came to the country. At that point, I'm not sure the designation of "legal" or "illegal" even had any weight. I try to imagine what it would have been like for them and totally fail. What I do know is that they left the East Coast to escape a very nasty anti-Irish sentiment. They had the sparsely populated mid-West to escape too. Modern immigrants don't have that luxury.
I often do find myself uncomfortable with the lack of distinction between "legal" and "illegal" immigrants in pieces such as this though. Mostly because I think it's important to note the different ways those labels have been constructed and the differences and similarities that members of those two groups might have. I think that a more focused dialogue about who tends to be a "legal" immigrant and who tends to be an "illegal" immigrant (at a national level) is necessary to reform immigration law into something actually useful. The current approach obviously isn't working.
- Josh Zimmerman
For example, in the Las Cruces case, the category of "Hindu marriage" became synonymous with deviance (infant marriages, polygamy, illegitimacy, etc.); in fact, a judge found that the "sanctioning of 'Hindu' marriages disputed the 'standards of morals in every Christian nation'" (124). But in the Gate, WA, case the same category of Hindu marriage was used as a substitute for--as a category nearly synonymous with--white, heterosexual marriage. The defendant's status as a civic-minded married man was used to generate sympathy for him and his wife. Hindu marriage was invoked as an assurance of morality, not as a mark of deviance, as had happened in New Mexico.
I'm engaged to be married this summer, and so the intersection between legal and intimate definitions of love and commitment is definitely on my mind. Shah suggests that this intersection is a kind of triangle between one's innermost nature, one's sexual relations and one's relationship to property and the material world. The frustrating and confusing thing is that in exercising our choice and agency concerning intimacy, we do not get to control the social meaning ascribed to our choices. In choosing to be in a monogamous, heterosexual marriage, I am inadvertently part of the performance of legitimacy and de-legitimacy that privileges one kind of relationship. My frustration is similar to that provoked by the first Berlant article we read early in the semester. She used Foucault's capillary model of power to show that power is embedded in ideology through the procedures and mechanisms of State and everyday living. I think Shah would agree with this description of power--that law, in adjudicating intimacy, is less about proclaiming edicts and more about a process of ascribing meaning to behavior and relationships. So the question remains: how do we exercise agency and enjoy intimacy within a web of power and spectrum of taxonomies? How do we perform change? Shah shows that "Hindu marriage" was not a static category in the U.S. during the 1930s, so what can we do to open up and destabilize rigid, unjust and heterosexist definitions of marriage in our current age?
Friday, May 1, 2009
Monday, April 27, 2009
As she states earlier, the idea of “nation” is essentially a mental construct rather than a definition of borders or physical landscape. She writes, “Modern citizens are born in nations and are taught to perceive the nation as an intimate quality of identity, as intimate and inevitable as biologically-rooted affiliations through gender or the family.”
But since this idea of “National Symbolic” depends on the citizens’ participation in the building of meaning and the making of myth, the government institutes plans, events, and laws that reinforce the importance of nation above all else. This comes into play in particular in the lives of immigrants, past and present. Berlant writes, “This is the American utopian promise: by disrupting the subject’s local affiliations and self-centeredness, national identity confers on the collective subject an indivisible and immortal body, and vice versa.” But as she examines in Hawthorne’s critique, this utopian promise is ultimately a fallacy. The nationhood they are given is no more immortal or indivisible than their own cultural, personal, and familial bonds, which in most cases are more crucial in shaping and honoring their individual identity.
This examination reminded me of an aspect of my manuscript, where I explore the effects of assimilation in Cajun culture. The following excerpt ruminates on this idea:
My mom gave up trying to teach me her first language when I was still an infant. It was just too hard, she said. My dad didn’t understand the language, and she was living a long drive away from the rest of her family. I think that it was more than that though. I think that deep down, there was a voice inside her that said it was not okay for her to speak it.
My mom’s first language was French. It wasn’t the flowery, sweet French spoken in movies with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron pirouetting across the screen or by black clad bohemian writers smoking in Parisian underground cafes. Hers had the guts of the swamp and the balm of the bayou behind it. My mom is Cajun and her French was too. It was a language soft and wispy enough to lullaby babies asleep in too hot, mosquito-filled Louisiana summers. But it was loud enough to make yourself heard over the accordion-playin’, fiddle-twangin’, guitar-pickin’ loudness of the band at the local fais do do. It was sultry and sweet, brash and bold, and it was theirs...and hers... for a time. But it was never mine.
My mom’s first day of school, she told me, the words all stopped. It was just after the last putters of FDR’s long drive of a presidency, but his words still carried the sound of his fully fueled Plymouth. “There is room for but one language in this country,” he had said on the radio across miles of American terrain, “and that is the English language.”
Many diverse ethnic communities throughout the United States were asked to give up their rich heritage in return for promises of liberty and freedom, in return for being an American. Here, we’ll take your French, your Gumbo, your Crawfish Etouffée, and we’ll give you English, rifles for war, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
The repercussions of assimilation resounded in the classroom where my mom sat for the very first time. She and a roomful of five-year-olds were told, in a language they had never heard at home and barely heard at all, that they were not to speak French anymore. English, the moving lips said, was the only language they were to communicate in from now on. From that first day, children, dressed in clothes sewn from red-gingham and blue-flowered cotton feed sacks, sat listless in class, unable to understand either their lessons or what the teachers were asking them to do. Some teachers were compassionate, whispering translations in little ears. Others were not. Little boys and girls were shamed, trickles of urine running down their desks because they did not know how to ask permission to use the bathroom in English and were not listened to when they asked in French. This was despite the fact that most of the teachers were locals who spoke the language themselves.
Speaking French was forbidden anywhere on the school ground. If some little girl was overheard outside during playtime disobeying the rule, the afternoon would find her writing “I will not speak French at school” hundreds of times on the chalkboard or kneeling on dry corn kernels in the back corner of the room.
In those classrooms in small town Southwest Louisiana, it was instilled in students that speaking English was equal to being well-educated, to being smart. And in swift chalk lines on the blackboard and the hand-waving dismissal of their words by teachers, these young minds were forced not only to abandon their way of communicating but to deal with the effects of knowing that they were now smarter than the rest of their families- their tanties, their parans, their mommies and daddies.
It was in those small flip-top desks that my mother lost a piece of who she was. She lost a piece of where she came from, and it’s a piece I’m still trying to discover.
"This is the American utopian promise: by disrupting the subject's local affiliations and self-centeredness, national identity confers on the collective subject and indivisible and immortal body, and vice versa."(Berlant 49)
Alexander noted in his post that he believed himself to be the only student who had to prepare for reading Berlant's The Anatomy of National Fantasy by first reading Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, but he was wrong. I, too, had never read the novel. Somehow in my otherwise very thorough high school and collegiate education, I managed to avoid it. I thought this a blessing; I'd heard terrible things. Much to my surprise I found I enjoyed it very much, and that even better, I connected to it in a way that I hadn't for most of the readings in this class. So while Berlant's writing seemed obtuse and frustrating to no end, my strong connection enabled me to power through, and for once, gain understanding with a piece of theoretical writing.
While reading the novel (rather hurriedly), I had a sense of something under the surface, that Hawthorne was trying to tell us something about ourselves. I think that Berlant hits it on the head when talks about the American amnesia that afflicts most of us who are under the thrall of the National Symbolic, as she calls it. Like many of the previous posts, I too thought that the Statue of Liberty was the perfect symbol for which Berlant to rest her argument. In the novel, Hawthorne presents us with protagonists whose enemy seems to be their own villainy and sense of guilt, but by the end, you realize that Hawthorne is saying something much different. Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale toil under the oppression of their sins for seven years, but the novel ends with their freedom. Their Puritan community had used Hester for all this time as a symbol of what not to be, or as Berlant notes, "the penal machine is a sign of social positivity as collective identity is generated by the scaffold's operation" (59). The whole novel is built around a community who gains its sense of the National Symbolic in a series of negations: don't do this, don't be that, or else. On a more simple level, Hester acts as a deterrent, and as a reminder of their own positive identity as a community of saints (of which Dimmesdale represents their hypocrisy in thinking themselves so above Hester). Adultery is bad, we are not adulterers, thus, we are good.
The ending of the novel aims to historically reconfigure, almost to reclaim, a sense of national identity, one that is not built upon blind nationalism and persecution of the dissending (like Hester and her symbolic spawn), but is instead built upon a critical consciousness. Hester, Pearl, and Arthur find absolution in freedom from the system that takes their sin and defines their whole lives by it, while the rest of the sinning population (who have the good fortune not to get caught) gets away with it. Berlant writes:
"But because this formal transfiguration of citizens into the juridico-utopian public sphere slights the scene of everyday life relations and consciousness, that scene ultimately provides the material for a counter-memory among 'the people' which is individual, familial, collective, and historical: the libidinous ground on which Hawthorne's critical nationalism is founded." (98)
The revelation of Arthur Dimmesdale's private shame, both within the novel's story and the framework of the novel in relation to its readers, the American public, provides an instance of clarity and contradiction within an otherwise unified and "perfect" system of obeisance. Berlant argues that without this sort of story in our national consciousness, we become a nation of blind nationalists, seeking solace in the "immortal body" of our fantasy and never questioning both its foundations and its secrets, which our lost to our amnesiac minds. I think this is why stories are so important to all cultures, so that they can wake us up and reclaim individual stories and differences outside of the "appropriate" symbolic consciousness.
While reading her section on the Statue of Liberty, I also couldn't help recalling the end scene of the 1986 animated film An American Tail. The film features Fievel the Jewish Russian mouse whose family has immigrated to the United States for a land of freedom, hope, and no cats. Of course, they learn by the end that no place is that perfect and that utopia they were dreaming of is literally a "no-place." The mouse family sought to escape the harshness of their everyday life in Russia, only to find that nothing much is different in America. The final scene of the film features Fievel reuniting with his family, having vanquished the enemy, and the brand new Statue of Liberty has just been constructed. If that isn't a perfect representation of that immortal body she represents, then I'm reading it wrong. Just watch it for yourself, you'll see what I mean:
"United We Stand" was America's slogan for emerging from a disaster, yet the media around that slogan twisted it to be the slogan for being American. Suddenly, the very idea of Americanness changed, like it has before and will do so again. When this country began, to be American meant different things, like it does today. But those were centered around the true idea of freedom, that is, not being ruled by a monarch or another country an ocean away. People fled here to escape persecution, social and religious. Our Americanness was written down on paper, in the Constitution.
Nowadays, I feel like though our country has aged, has settled, has been made up by cultures around the world, the government and media still has the sway to create the picture of a true American. How may we come up with our own ideas and own solutions to why we are American when people try to hand us plates and try to force feed their own ideas?
I believe that this may be straying from Berlant's path here, but in my everyday, I do not always think about my nation. I know I am lucky to live here as compared to other places, but I do not think that it is essential to my everyday to think about what I can do to be a better American. It seems one can shortcut that problem by substituting "person" for "American". Perhaps that will fix our identity crisis.
Dispatch from the 2009 Arizona History Convention in Prescott: A Study in Stereotypes and National Identity
26 April 2009
The Trip, Outbound
[Thursday, 23 April: I drove, my wife Diana rode shotgun, and in the backseat were my 86-year-old mother and her 88-year-old friend Lillian, a former-judge. Just for fun, I chose the long way, via Ajo, Gila Bend, Buckeye, and Aguila. 7½ hours.]
On the first leg, the Border Patrol was out in impressive numbers. Half-way to Ajo we saw a lanky guy with dusky skin and a bandana around his head run across the road from south to north. Obviously, an illegal I commented. As we approached, he signaled to someone on the other side of the highway, arm extended, wrist extended 90º, palm facing away. The other illegals, I said. Maybe an Indian someone else said. This is a bad stretch of road, she added. I looked to my left as we sped by. There was a pick-up in the scrub pulling a trailer full of horses with a half-dozen other guys all in cowboy hats standing around. There goes the stereotype for you. Just a bunch of hard-working cowboys.
A dozen or so miles later two Border Patrol wagons were parked on the south side of the road. Four officers were herding a bunch of lanky guys with dusky skin into their vans. Just after we passed by a third Border agent pulled up behind the others. Stereotypes confirmed. Illegals.
Fifteen minutes later a we passed a Border Patrol truck pulling onto the highway from a dirt track to the right. It followed us several hundred yards back and I wondered if those guys could give speeding tickets. Just as we approached Why a lanky man with dusky skin but no bandana around his head ran across the road from the left. Another cowboy? I asked. To be honest he looked pretty Indian and spaced out and after all, there was a casino just a couple of hundred yards up the road. In the rearview mirror I saw the Border Patrol pass the spot, slow, then turn around and stop on the other side of the road. Stereotypes in action again.
After a not real good lunch in Ajo we headed north. Before long we came to a string of speed limit signs, slowing us from 65 to 55 to 45 to 35 to 25 to 15, then a bunch of cones, a rank of stop signs, and a raggedy trailer off to the right. A red-headed kid in a green uniform came out and walked across the road and put out his hand, arm supinated, palm toward me. I came to a stop so that he was lined up not with my window, but the back of the trunk. I was feeling cute. I thought he had blond hair, my mother thought it was red. No one else could remember.
Where did you come from? . . . Tucson
Where are you going? . . . Prescott
Taken aback momentarily, why did you come this way? . . . because I wanted to.
He looked nonplussed. All of you American citizens? . . . uh huh
Earlier, for about 45’, my mother had seemed to be asleep. She had on sunglasses so that when I looked at her in the mirror she was just sitting there, upright and still. Later, as Diana and I were trying to get to sleep in our hotel room in the Hassayampa Inn, I asked her if my mother’d been asleep. She admitted that for a moment there she’d wondered if maybe she had just simply died, sitting there in the backseat. Morbid, yeah, but then we started wondering what would have happened if she had been dead and if the Border Patrol guy had asked each of us to show him some ID or, worse, to get out of the car? What would we do? Or, even if that hadn’t happened, what do you do if you suddenly realize you have a corpse in the backseat? We drifted off to sleep, uneasily.
This is one of these events where quality of the presenters can be pretty iffy. They usually fall into one of several categories:
a) The Hobbyist: a former school teacher from Back East, now retired to Arizona and doing a little parlor sleuthing on local history (lots of train robberies, outlaw stories, and Indian raids)
b) The Relative: a longtime resident doing a little library work on family genealogy or local history: the ______ Ranch; my great aunt, _______, a pioneer seamstress; or, railroadin’ on the Tucson, Cornelia & Gila Bend. Hard to fault these sweethearts.
c) Doing what comes natural: a retired lawyer doing some fact history on a peripherally notorious legal case: the notorious Whiskey Row showdown, the Sycamore Canyon Indian ambush, etc. This can be any ex-professional: cop, teacher, doctor, architect, you name it.
d) The student: a budding young academic historian doing a class project and encouraged by his/her teacher just to submit a paper and see what happens.
e) The character: a guy dressed up in a huge cowboy hat, concho belt with massive turquoise buckle, and boots to the mid-calf talking about outlaws and sheriffs as if he might be the latter, but really wants to be the former.
f) The super-specialized expert: Sewing needles used by late 19th century Mormon settlers in northeastern Arizona. Inevitably these talks end up being catalogues of minutiae.
g) The professional: the rarest breed of all, a real historian who can actually use and analyze specific event to illustrate some broad(er) theme.
Examples of this last category were two Friday morning papers read in a double session titled The New Deal/Depression in Arizona: “The New Deal Impact on Native American Art” and “Boys and Men of the CCC: Gender Constructions and the Great Depression.” I mention these two because I sat in on them. Each seemed to touch on matters of everyday life and stereotype. The first lady handed out a flier for her soon to be published book (by the U of A Press) A New Deal for Native Art: Indian Arts and Federal Policy, 1933-1943, that contained lots of words like romanticism, indigenous, Other, commodification, colonization, transcultural. The second lady, just completing some sort of a degree in history from NAU actually spoke out-loud words like hegemonic, patriarchy, masculinity, feminization, self-hood, interiority, role stratification, and of course gender construction. When you read or hear this kind of jargon you know you are in the presence of someone serious.
The point of the former paper was that as U.S. Indian policy changed during the twentieth century from conquest to sequestration to assimilation, so too did attitudes about Indian art. In general, the emphases of Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes, and Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, were to promote the dignity of Indian-ness but they chose to foreground the fantasy ideal of the pre-contact Indian, rather than the Indian-of-the-present. I’ve got to get her book. $48 after the conference discount. The second talk described how the ideals of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century masculinity were impacted by the realities of the Depression (e.g., men no longer had the role of primary bread-winner). The Civilian Conservation Corps was established to rebuild American infrastructure, but had the serendipitous (maybe, or maybe just the side-) effect of restoring the ideals of American masculinity as well.
I sat through far too many of the A-F category talks for the rare G presenter. Judge Lillian footed dinner Friday night. I had Cornish game hen. Others had scallops or prime rib or ravioli. This was at the Sheraton/Yavapai Indian Casino (now there’s a whole other set of stereotypes).
The alluring raven-tressed waitress at a nearby eatery (Sweettart Café) had noli me tangere and a deer tattooed on the volar surface of her left forearm. She wore all black with a simple, knotted black cord necklace and bracelet and black eyeliner. Asking people about their tattoos is almost always a great ice breaker. I learned this by talking to heroin addicts at the methadone clinic where I work. She said it came from her favorite poem, one by Thomas Wyatt. So I looked it up back in the room, on the free WiFi. Wyatt (1503-1542), it turns out, was one of Anne Boleyn’s many suitors (and maybe lover), at least until Henry VIII moved in on him. So, he wrote this for/about her:
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more;
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow; I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about,
“Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”
When I asked her about it two days later, she blushed and said that she thought of herself as her own Caesar. She lives by herself, up a nearby canyon, in a derelict cabin she’s fixing up, owned by her folks. Her father’s a golf pro. She doesn’t play golf. Never did.
The Trip, Return
We took the Interstate home. At the rest stop just north of Casa Grande four sets of Indians had spread blankets out under the veranda and trees, with rows and rows of reasonably priced and attractive trinkets for sale. One guy was offering “white turquoise.” I had never seen this before but according to the December, 2000, Rockhound Gazette it was discovered in a turquoise mine on the Shoshone Indian Reservation near Battle Mountain, Nevada in 1993. An assay proved it to be true turquoise. To quote the Gazette, “It was not until 1996, however, that it was finally made into jewelry. The Shoshone Indians are not known for jewelry work and, as a consequence, the Shoshone sell or trade the white turquoise to the Navaho in Arizona who work it into jewelry. Because white turquoise is as rare as the white buffalo, the Indians call it “White buffalo” turquoise. Turquoise gets its color from the heavy metals in the ground where it forms. Blue turquoise forms where there is copper present (most Arizona turquoise). Green turquoise forms where iron is present (most Nevada turquoise). White turquoise, where there are no heavy metals present, turns out to be rare. To date no other vein of white turquoise has been discovered anywhere else. When this current vein runs out that will be the last of it.” That got me to thinking about a great idea for a paper: “The Economics of Native American Roadside Jewelry Merchandising.”
The trip took only 3½ hours, including that stop. Everyone got back alive. Without added jewelry.
One other point that was interesting in my reading is an essay referring to Hawthorne, a notebook entry written by him states, “Is truth a fantasy which we are able to pursue forever and never grasp?” This search for truth is found throughout The Scarlett Letter, but particularly involves Pearl and the identity of her father. The townspeople and Chillingworth desire to discover the answer, but it remains a mystery. Hester Prynne bears the burden of this secret and is measured and hurt by this judgmental society. There is a connection between this idea of pursuing the truth and society’s desire to pursue happiness. Berlant makes references to the idea of happiness several times throughout her critique in regards to the political, collective life. She writes, “Happiness, which Americans are fundamentally defined as in righteous pursuit of, is the result of being able to separate everyday from national life” (199). She continues on to say that Americans have to forget their personal memory in order to preserve the national identity. On the one hand, Hester participates in this by teaching Pearl indirectly about the political arena they live in and what the expectations are in this society, and on the other hand, she finds her own type of happiness in her everyday tasks and life. Perhaps the pursuit of truth and national identity occur in a more sporadic timeframe and in various arenas, but the pursuit of happiness occurs every day in the rituals of daily life. Kristin
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Filled with apparently lost souls and misguided intentions, Hawthorne’s Scarlett Letter seems to be interested in the play between surface appearance and interior composition. Consider the following passage from the chapter “The Interior of a Heart,” in which the narrator describes Reverend Dimmesdale’s reflections on the visions that appear before him in his fanciful misery:
None of these visions ever quite deluded him. At any moment, by an effort of his will, he could discern substances through their misty lack of substance, and convince himself that they were not solid in their nature, like yonder table of carved oak, or that big, square, leather-bound and brazen-clasped volume of divinity. But, for all that, they were, in one sense, the truest and most substantial things which the poor minister now dealt with. It is the unspeakable misery of a life so false as his, that it steals the pith and substance out of whatever realities there are around us, and which were meant by Heaven to be the spirit's joy and nutriment. To the untrue man, the whole universe is false--it is impalpable--it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. (97)
We know that Dimmesdale’s suffering comes from his knowledge that his exterior life does not match the interior knowledge of his past actions. Thus, we might say that the visions that appear to him are a manifestation of his desire to be free from the torment laid upon him by his own duplicity. Yet, he sees through the unsubstantial visions to the actual objects that make up his world, which are ‘solid in nature.’ The book and table are solid, by nature of being physical objects. However, we might also read the phrase to indicate that they are solid objects in the natural world, meaning that the translucent visions might have a real existence in the supernatural world. Not only does this play on the solidity of nature open up something beyond the material world, it fixes that something in the objects placed before the Reverend in his study.
The more significant of these objects, in the light of this interweaving of nature and the supernatural, is “the brazen-clasped volume of divinity.” The OED gives a figurative definition of brazen as “hardened in effrontery; shameless,” which by the example from 1853 that follows , seems to have a particular relevance to religious or social matters. The clasp, also according to the OED, can connote the “act of surrounding or comprehending and holding.” Therefore, the bronze clasping upon the physical book not only indicates the reverend’s brazen attempts to maintain a grasp upon his professional life as his private sins betray it, but also the presumptuous attempt by a book to comprehensively contain knowledge of the divine. As a symbol of Dimmesdale’s professional and spiritual life the book takes on a symbolic meaning that stretches it between the material and the immaterial world of his visions. Thus, when the narrator moves on in the next sentence to remark that these visions were “the truest and most substantial things the poor minster now dealt with,” he does so ironically, since the book and its writing are equally ethereal. In other words, focusing on the psychological reading of Dimmesdale’s torment allows us to understand only one aspect of his character. Caught between his public and private lives, he begins not only to doubt the truth of his sanctioned beliefs, but also to create an alternative reality out of the abscesses in his mind.
I then go on to argue that the tortured reverend functions as a kind of romantic hero in the novel. This use of the concept of romance is fairly specific; it comes from reading the form of the novel as a tension between realism and romance, defined not as romantic love necessarily, but as an innocent means of reading the world. The classic example that we started this other class with was Don Quixote in Cervantes’s novel of the same name. The night’s madness in that work places him outside the normal realm of logical understanding of the world, but by doing so Cervantes demonstrates (among other things) that all other forms of structuring the human world are equally delirious – they just happen to be more widely accepted. Thus, the innocence of the romantic hero conceals and simultaneously reveals an insight into a different form of truth. By arguing that Dimmesdale can be read as a part of this tradition, I’m attempting to identify something similar to what I think Berlant is noting when she discusses the tension between utopia and the law.
She locates this tension in the problem of creating national unity that subsumes or assimilates local differences or idiosyncrasies. These fragmentary locations, or even individuals gain wholeness through participation (or, we could say, interpellation) in “an ‘Imaginary’ realm of ideality and wholeness, where the subject becomes whole by being reconstituted as a collective subject, or citizen” (24). This collectivity relates to “a larger simulacrum of wholeness” that she sees in the Statue of Liberty. The statue, she argues, functions as a “national dialectical image,” that “works in a utopian way to create multiple spaces that coexist in time despite contradiction, without threat of annihilation” (25). These contradictions occur in a similar space to the one that identify in the passage from my earlier essay: Dimmesdale’s awareness of his own indiscretions with Hester creates the space in his mind that allows him to begin questioning not only his spiritual beliefs, but the solidity of the objective world in which he lives. The permeability of the two worlds with respect to each other implies a kind of dialectical relationship, not unlike the way in which the law and utopian vision of America relate to each other. Berlant notices two possible readings of utopia: one that the nation is formed already as “utopia incarnate, the already realized fulfillment of the assurance of universal sovereignty postulated by Enlightenment political thought” or the other in which “an imperfect formation constituted by a promise for future fulfillment [is] imminently in the state of perfection but to be achieved within history” (32). The coexistence of these two possibilities seems to be where her use of the word fantasy is important, since it refers to the functioning of a system of thought that calls itself into being by making it seem as if it always existed; America was virgin land, but the natural promise of that virgin land was that its future form was always already contained within its natural form. The historical latency of this preformed identity is created after the fact of its own realization. In other words, cause and effect are inverted: the effect in the present day creates the space to read its own cause in the past. This movement effectively erases prior versions of remembering the past, clearing the space for this new narrative to supplant them. Like the readings we did at the beginning of the semester that discussed the nostalgic remembrance of something that did not carry meaning in its enactment but in its remembrance, this formation of Americanness identifies the promise of its present existence in the past, thereby securing the continuity of its future. The problem with the law in its relationship to this dual meaning is that it attempts to solidify the utopia of American – encode it legally. This role assumes a temporal freeze in which the unity of utopia exists in one form past and present. However, as she notes elsewhere, the power of national fantasy lies prominently in its ability to subsume difference. This assimilative function depends on adaptability to some degree, and the permanent encoding of national identity in law potentially stops this process. On the other hand, it is precisely this desire for stability and an encoded, mutually intelligible national identity that drives the assimilative process of change in the first place. What this tension means, I think, in the everyday lives of American citizens is something that shows up in Dimmesdale’s tortured attempt to find peace in his own liminal existence.
In the chapter on madness (3), Berlant describes a countercultural effect of the law (the letter of the law, as she puts it, playing on the meaning of Hester’s A). “For Prynne, Dimmesdale, and Chillingsworth,” she writes, “magical thinking takes on new forms of unreason: the state of law is a state of madness, in which juridical transfigurations of the body and the mind induce species of insanity” (100). This unreason emerges in Dimmesdale’s questioning the solidity of the objects surrounding him, but it also occupies the juridical space in which the solidity of the social order is constructed. Even though “the spaces beyond reason” are “images of how the law itself works to establish a certain reign of reason that locates reason’s antipode,” “they are also forms of counter-memory” (100). Therefore, while these moments of madness or insanity seem as though they point out a problem with the individual’s conception of time and space, they actually exist as fissures in the totalizing narrative of national fantasy. The tendency of the law is to assimilate them, making them become the images of the law that Berlant refers to in the quote above. However, they also have the potential to indicate that this kind of indirect challenge is not only possible, but, it seems, inevitable. Referring specifically to the way in which the national symbolic order is constructed around the image of the female body, she puts it rather succinctly at the end of the first chapter:
If one direction of Hawthorne’s refusal of the sunny Symbolic order is to construct an ever shifting set of terms within the context of the promised symbolic resolution that characterizes utopian thought, the other is that new models of political and everyday life are always being produced, even within the utopia of textuality. And so the still-colonized viewer of American history must do the same, seeing out of the corner of the hymen, like an asterisk, pointing her in another direction. (55, 56).
Even though Hawthorne’s writing works within the symbolic structures that it attempts to question, thereby feeding their subsumption of difference (locality or individuality), the exposure of different possibilities can also be valuable in itself. Like the protagonists of Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places, the citizen of Berlant’s America can find herself subjected to and also a subject of this utopic fantasy, but still discover meanings that evade the sanctioned version of reality. Therefore, Dimmesdale’s untruth that dissolves the reality of the universe is not necessarily reserved for a few, since the nature of national identity creates a space in which our lives are led, but does not determine the way in which we interpret them.
[Passages from The Scarlett Letter quoted from the Norton Critical Edition, ed. Leland S. Person, 2005].
-- Andy DuMont
Lauren Berlant explains that “America” is an assumed relation and an explication of collective practices within the political space of the nation (including a “tangled cluster” of juridical, territorial, genetic, linguistic, and experiential) that bind us together in the space of the “National Symbolic.” Berlant explains that “national fantasy” is the term to describe how national culture becomes local—through images, narratives, monuments, and sites that circulate through personal/collective consciousness. Stated and unstated literal and metaphorical meanings shape national form, and the landscape paintings of the nineteenth century (and subsequent mass-produced images of the land) were loaded with literal references to beauty, bounty, wilderness, the sublime, and progress as much as the metaphoric connotations that encouraged Manifest Destiny, decimation of native populations, and rampant development. By personifying the nation as a woman further reinforced the notion of desire and of possession.
The chapter, “America, Post-Utopia: Body, Landscape, and National Fantasy in Hawthorne’s Native Land,” most resonates in its parallels to how the landscape in the visual arts was used metaphorically for the construction of National Fantasy. As the author explains, early American utopian nationalism developed a fundamental antagonism between the National Symbolic, which emphasized the dream of collectivity and unity, and pragmatic political discourse. (p. 33) Prior to the mid 1800s, landscapes followed Jeffersonian ideals of the nation as a peaceful, agrarian utopia, with a similar dream of collectivity and unity. Pastoral and woodland scenes dominated the time as if to reinforce the collective will of a people and the leaders of the day. Yet, as the political and capitalist aims shifted to a more aggressive push for dominance in the world market and political realm, artistic intentions also shifted.
The new landscape paintings depicted the Native Americans as helpless primitives instead of the noble savage, and the landscape itself was imbued with new metaphoric associations with power, technological advancement, and the total settlement of the wilderness areas of the country. The land was something to conquer and exploit—to ravage as if it were a gendered, receptive, and fertile ground. Berlant explains that one of the three elements in Hawthorne’s creation of the National Symbolic through the articulation of subjectivity and landscape is the construction of the narrative linkages between landscape, historical time, and sexuality.(p. 35) But while Hawthorne represents the image of woman as the caretaker of national history through “images of grotesque, ancient women,” most symbolic figures in the visual arts saw the image of national identity as either a woman of the earth, dressed in Greek toga or as a dignified Native American woman, and later as a cultivated, finely dressed lady. She explains that the image of the decrepit woman is an unacceptable and improper source of national culture, but the only available source of what is valuable about “our” collective past—intentional devices to reveal the anxiety about the discrepancy between the value of “private” historical knowledge and its grotesque origins.(p. 36)
Historical landscapes are invested spaces, a locus of memory intended to recall or reinforce the intersection between the everyday and the momentous, all wrapped up in a package that serves to codify our national fantasy. The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and many other natural wonders in America are gendered symbols of American greatness presented as spectacle. Historic sites, marked by the recollection of what happened on a particular spot rather than a physical/visual wonder, are also spectacle constructs meant to reinforce a collective identity and establish a shared history. As Berlant remarks, “This is the American utopian promise: by disrupting the subject’s local affiliations and self-centeredness, national identity confers on the collective subject an indivisible and immortal body, and vice versa.” (p. 49) Thus, the landscape becomes a politicized symbol of nation hood and a vehicle to make history vital by shaping it into something that transcends its subjectivity and temporality. Hawthorne critiques the production of American “national” identity, but for the visual arts, such deconstruction does not appear until modernism replaces representation and its symbolic content with the anarchy of abstraction.
Because a lot of Berlant's language in her analysis of Hawthorne baffled and irritated me, I chose to focus in on her discussion of the Statue of Liberty. Her quote early on that "the statue's stability as a point of national identity depends on her body being indivisible, like America," (23) immediately made me think of the ending scene from the original Planet of the Apes. Charlton Heston realizes only after seeing the half-submerged decaying body of the Lady that he was on Earth the entire time. For his character Taylor, an American astronaut, there couldn't be a more appropriate symbol for both decaying national identity and his feeling of decaying humanity after being treated as a lesser creature throughout the film. As I thought about it, I can't really come up with a symbol that could have been used in the Statue's place as effectively.
The statue's body has been brought to its literal knees and past them, lowered from its impressive height and broken out of immortality by a steady decay. While I don't entirely buy the extent to which Berlant draws out the statue's sexual availability from her national availability, I think her point about the immobility connected to her immortality can also be connected to the iconic last scene. Unable to protect herself, she fell along with the human race, a symbol of their inability to win the war and the end to the utopian dream she represented.
One of the primary themes in Planet of the Apes was meant to be the social critique of humanity and how inhumane it appears when applied back to us. This ending scene with the destroyed image of national pride automatically then points to the American quest for dominance and the civilizations that have been and are demolished along the way. For a passive symbol, the Statue of Lady Liberty represents a legacy of violence. The demolished frame, then, could represent not an end to utopia but an end to violence. Maybe some element of that sentiment was there in Zaius' last line: that Taylor was off to find his "destiny".
She intended to give a gendered and post-nationalist (or whatever we should call it) reading of the Scarlet Letter and in this I think she succeeded. The Law (capital 'L') as a masculine domain, and the feminine counter-memory... all that was convincing. In particular I thought her understanding of little Pearl as the Anima of the protagonist was interesting. I, for one, was quite surprised that Hawthorne chose to give his herione a daughter rather than a son - think of the uncountable instances in stories, myth, and fiction, where the zyzygies father/daughter and mother/son appear! I too thought that Hawthorne probably attempted to forge a closer unity between the parent and the child by his choice of gender than what is common in narratives with mythic potention, such as The Scarlet Letter. Berlant seems to agree.
Berlant quite early posits her agenda: she wishes to give an account of a national fanstasy, meaning, the process by which "national culture become local" (p. 5). To me this sounded identical to the sociological project of the now-not-so-famous French marxist thinker Louis Althusser. In one of his most discussed concepts of 'interpellation', Althusser seeks to establish the process that makes subjects out of individuals, such as when a police officer shouts out "hey, you!" This is an ideological marker in that a political system is embodied in the very act of calling out to a specific subject. There is, in Althusser's mind, no ideology without subject, and no subjectivity without ideology. Isn't this something of the same Berlant seeks to achieve in her reading of Hawthorne??
If it is, I can only say that this was not exactly what I got away from reading The Scarlet Letter. My impression was how an early puritan community in the New World was fumbling a little bit in the dark in trying to forge out a political system out of what was hitherto exclusively religious practice and belief. Of course, with catastrophic consequences for Hester Prynne, but still not exactly a well-ordered and carefully crafted legal expression. Dimmesdale, and the other characters, I felt, were insecure, doubtful, and so forth - not exactly suitable candidates for ideologicla interpellation.
Berlant, on the other hand, seemed to draw a close association between the State (capital 'S') and the letter 'A' emboridered on Hester Prynne's bosom. Numerous places she equates the punishment inflicted on Hester with the "State" (for instance, p. 32; 69; 94; 97, to mention but some very few). Again, I didn't feel the presence of a unitary and coherent state system, or a utopian vision of nationality when reading Hawthorne as Berlant suggests. Do Americans read Hawthorne differently than me, perhaps??
On to the text itself. I couldn't help but read this book through the lens of Sarah Vowell's recent (and excellent) "The Wordy Shipmates." Both books are concerned with the ways in which national identity is constructed through the creation of mythic figures, inter and intra community conflicts and the emotions and predilictions of a lucky few authors and leaders.
I was particularly taken with Berlant's description of the response of Puritan women to Hester's punishment when she says, "Not only do women not display a proper attitude toward the law, their very presence in the public sphere violates the narrator's sense of propriety" (107). This idea of "attitude" toward the law is actually a key part of Vowell's work, in particular her retelling of the life of Anne Hutchinson. Besides the possible delusions of grandeur she suffered from, Hutchinson's real sin in the eyes of the magistrates of the colony seems to have been her belief that the law applied equally to both men and women and that the law must be clearly explicated to be effective. Her sham trial before the magistrates highlighted that the culture envisioned by the men of the colony did not have the ideological space for a woman shrewd enough to speak back against the law itself, to challenge whether her "crimes" were crimes at all.
It is this expansion of women into the "public" sphere that seems to tie in most tightly to our exploration of the everyday. What is fascinating to me, however, is that Berlant's observation is both about women's presence in a public sphere and their attitude towards artifacts within that sphere. Yes, men were uncomfortable with the presence of women in matters of the law. More importantly (for me at least), men were uncomfortable not only with the expansion of women's bodies into the public sphere, but with the expansion of their minds into a public sphere. The very fact of their opinions on the law creates a disruption in the fabric of the Puritan everyday.
And there was nothing the Puritans feared more (Winthrop in particular) than disruption.