Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Six degrees of Abd al-Qader

Bookforum links to my piece from the "Utne Reader," which was reprinted, last month, from the spring issue of "Bidoun."


Friday, September 10, 2010


A while ago, I started writing an essay about the film Field of Dreams, predicated upon the notion that one of its signature lines—“If you build it, he will come”—was an almost perfect distillation of the fetishism at the heart of contemporary American capitalism. In Field of Dreams, the main character is a farmer named Ray Kinsella, an ex-hippie who spent much of his youth trying to get away from the farm, and from his father. As the film opens, Ray is working in the fields when he hears a voice whisper the words quoted above. Rather than questioning his mental competency, Ray concludes that he must build a baseball field in the middle of his corn, and that, if he does, Shoeless Joe Jackson will “get to come back and play ball again.” Which is more or less what happens. Ray builds his baseball field, Shoeless Joe shows up, and the farm becomes a hot ticket for all the Major Leaguers in the afterlife. This sort of cornball fantasy is really only the set up for a more earthbound story about Ray, his family, and their farm, which they are in danger of losing, particularly after Ray sacrifices much of his acreage—and their savings—to build the field. At the film’s denouement, the town banker, Ray’s brother-in-law, tells Ray that if he sells his land, the bank will let him keep his house. Ray is about to sign off on the deal when his daughter suggests that they can make the field over as a tourist attraction, where people can come, watch a game, “and it will be just like when they were little kids.”

There is, of course, more to the story, but you get the point. Field of Dreams is, in part, an allegory for the farm crisis of the 1980s, perhaps the first generalized economic crisis of the post-Keynesian era. That crisis was brought on by the credit-fueled expansion of US farming operations during the late 1970s, itself predicated upon the opening of the Chinese market to American produce following Nixon’s normalization of US-Chinese trade relations in 1972. The opening of that market made for relatively high commodities prices throughout the 1970s, yet when it closed, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, commodities bottomed out, and many farmers were unable to maintain their debts. For all practical purposes, the farm crisis of the 1980s all but killed the family farm in the United States. While benevolent patriarch family farmers often continue to work the land, agribusiness corporations now control the majority of their produce, leaving those families who managed to hold onto their farms in a state of perpetual economic peril.

Of course, Field of Dreams is also an allegory for how rural America “got out” of that particular economic crisis. Although not everyone can build a baseball field in the middle of their corn, a generation of rural policy makers and business interests has taken Field of Dreams’ utopic sense of wish fulfillment as a viable model for social and economic development. “If you build it, they will come,” has translated into, “Use state revenues to build and promote privately-owned tourist destinations, on the off chance that people will show up, pay big, and continue coming back.” This is the same reasoning that sees second- and- third-tier cities in the American rust belt building extensive downtown conference centers—again at taxpayers’ expense—or that underwrites the ubiquity of gaming and casino culture throughout the United States. It is a narcotic train of thought, one that imagines an exchange of money for the promise of experience, sensation, affect. In Field of Dreams, the promise is of a simpler time, a gentler America, thoroughly in possession of its rural roots. That this gentler America corresponds to the rural community of a pre-farm crisis, pre-Watergate US is born out in a sequence where Ray quixotically time-trips to 1972, and by and large, it is this simpler America that the entrepreneurs of rural tourism have sought to evoke. Family farms, for instance, may no longer exist on paper, but if you want to revel in the myth of rural American plenitude and rootedness—what Sarah Palin likes to call “the real America”—they are there to find. In most cases, however, what you’re looking at is a museum piece along the lines of Plimoth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg. Although Midwestern farms still perform an important social function, in terms of their resonance within the within the wider field of American culture, they are less substance than simulation.

The essay in which I expected to explore these themes never quite came together, in large part because other projects got in the way. It is, however, something that I thought to return to, as I try to clarify some of the commitments and questions that I began to allude to in the final passages of my previous post. When I started writing about Field of Dreams, a largely unexplored element of the story, something I hadn’t thought about before, began to occupy my attention. Whatever its larger allegorical valences, Field of Dreams is, more or less explicitly, the story of Ray, his father, and the conflicts that defined their relationship. In Field of Dreams, that conflict is mediated through baseball, and by Ray’s rejection of his father’s passion for the game. Hoping to realize his dreams through his son, Ray’s father makes baseball practice into a chore, eventually leading Ray to abandon the game and, in due course, his father. Now that he is a father, and now that his father is dead, Ray regrets this childish disavowal, so much so that he will follow the mad pronouncements of “the Voice” in the hope of redeeming his father’s childhood hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson. This quest ends, of course, not with Shoeless Joe’s return, but with the mysterious appearance of Ray’s father—young and hopeful, unaware of his son, his life, or the conflict that eventually consumed their relationship. The film closes with Ray and his father playing catch, symbolically healing the rift between them.

Father-son conflict is certainly nothing new in literature, and it’s perhaps the general ubiquity of the theme that kept me from thinking about it in the terms offered by the film. In Field of Dreams, however, the conflict between Ray and his father stands in for a more generalized, intergenerational tension between the children of the baby boom and their parents; this conflict, in turn, becomes the vehicle by which economic upheaval is read, culturally. The swift, deliberate, at times cataclysmic, unmaking of the Keynesian state is here presented as an opportunity to resolve the conflict between these generations, a conflict that had once been posed, in far more radical terms, as a critique of the culture of unexamined privilege, abundance, and conspicuous consumption enabled by American military, political, and economic hegemony of the post-war era. Like Reaganite and post-Reaganite political discourse, in general, Field of Dreams rewrites the oppositional culture of the New Left and the greater Sixties as a moment of unaccountable, irrational, ultimately regrettable excess, and the film does its best to discipline that regrettable exuberance by framing it within a teleological narrative of American progress. This is captured, at the end of the film, when James Earl Jones—playing a character based not even loosely on J.D. Salinger—delivers a stirring aria on the dialectics of American history. Baseball, he avows, is America’s only constant; all else is flux. Where the New Left understood the material abundance of the United States in the post-war era as an unprecedented opportunity to critique the uneven distribution of poverty and wealth around the world, in Field of Dreams, this critique is rendered banal—childish, even. The oppositional culture of the 1960s becomes nothing more than a temper tantrum, a concentrated burst of adolescent outrage over uptight parents and suburban conformity.

What’s interesting about this is just how painfully uninteresting it is. The question is no longer how many roads a man must walk down; it is, rather, how many times we have to retrace our steps. American culture since the 1960s has been obsessed with the 1960s, and we have replayed this decade over and again, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. At this point, the 60s are less a time, a place, a sociocultural location, or even a commodity fetish: they are a kind of infinitely flexible parable of cultural flux, one that can be bent to any number of purposes, any number of ends. Politically, the fetishization of the 1960s began with Nixon and was formalized by Reagan, neither of whom could have attacked the regulatory and state apparatuses that supported Eisenhower era American prosperity head on, but were more than capable of doing so once “regulation” and “big government” were made over as inheritances from the New Left. Nixon and Reagan inaugurated the notion of “necessary adjustment” versus “predatory reformism” that is now so successfully mined by shills like Glenn Beck. As many have noted, these latter-day attempts, by the Right, at capturing the moral authority of history of the civil rights movement play upon already existing divisions within the coalition that constituted that movement. This is one of the reasons why Martin Luther King (that is, King prior to 1966) has been so roundly celebrated by the state, to the exclusion of more troublesome—though arguably more important—figures like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, or Ella Baker. The problem, of course, is that it is actually impossible to understand King’s spiritual and political project outside the terms of social and cultural dynamics within that movement; just as it would be impossible to understand Malcolm X outside the context of global movements against colonialism, movements that, in the greater Muslim world, often took the form of ecstatic, Islamic revivals. Within the statist history of the period, however, King and X get to play Good Negro/Bad Negro, as barely realized metonyms for “good reform” and “bad radical.”

During the 2008 election, there were hopeful signs that this delusional retelling of the 1960s was coming to a close: signs made all the more hopeful after the historical abuses of the 2004 election, when John Kerry’s exemplary Vietnam war record was held up as evidence of his unfitness to be Commander in Chief, while Bush’s draft-dodging frat house bawdies were made over as proof that he was true red, white, and blue. When John McCain and Sarah Palin tried to smear Obama by linking him with William Ayers, a founding member of the Weather Underground who had, up until 2008, been a fairly obscure figure in the history of the New Left, Obama very calmly countered that he was barely in his teens when the Weather carried out their violent campaign of property destruction. McCain could, of course, claim the moral authority of having served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, and having been tortured as a prison of the Viet Cong, but given the unavoidable fact of Obama’s age, he could not make the election into a referendum on the 1960s, as Bush had with Kerry. Although many attempts were made to pin Obama to radical New Left proxies like Bill Ayers and Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s very literary sensitivity to historical narrative allowed him to reframe these points of contention on terms more congenial to himself. Indeed, had anyone in the McCain camp bothered to read Dreams of My Father, they might have realized that Obama was operating in a different register, one that—it now seems—is perhaps more Reaganite than was first apparent.

Since the election, of course, the 60s have come back; although at times, to be honest, it seems as if the Right won’t be content until they have helped themselves to the entirety of the Left revolutionary tradition. (When, for instance, did the American Right become “red,” as in, “red states”? And remember during the health care debate when they were trying to claim that Hitler was an arch-Leftist? Apparently Adorno need not have exiled himself to LA after all.) Whether it’s Sarah Palin claiming the mantle of feminist, or Glenn Beck positioning himself as a dream Martin Luther King had been dreaming, there has been a somewhat concerted attempt, on the erratic populist front of the American Right, to mobilize the legacy of the 1960s. In this case, however, what we have is an attempt to purge that legacy of its excesses, as well as its latter-day manipulation by those perpetual bogeymen of Right-wing politics, the revisionists. In some part, this is probably because Comrade Obama is so freakishly adept at working these angles himself; at the same time, I think it speaks to the aging of the electorate, and the queer sense of political marginalization that now occupies much of the boomer generation. For a very long time, the boomers and their concerns have been at the center of the national narrative, and even though they continue to exercise hegemony over the very institutions that shape our culture and our politics, on at least one level, the 2008 election was a strange wake-up call, a presentiment of political impotence, if not physical mortality. This was perhaps more apparent during the primaries, when, after Obama began to pull away from the pack, the Clinton campaign started making noises about “the youth” upsetting their plans, violating the carefully negotiated succession of power within the Democratic Party. (I’ve since talked to many Clinton staffers, still bitter, who continue to spin this line.) What was odd about the variable of “youth” in this equation, however, was that it seemed to be defined as almost anyone under the age of sixty. I was an Obama supporter, 2008 was my fourth presidential election, and I am by no means a rash or unsubtle political thinker. Indeed, I turned thirty the month that Comrade Obama won the nomination; although I am by no means old, in the idiom of the 1960s, this makes me too old to trust.

We’re stuck on this track because of the fundamental melancholia of boomer culture, forever locked in self-referential contemplation of the lost object of its youth. It has become something of a commonplace that there are two 1960s. There are the 1960s before the Kennedy assassination in November 1963, an optimistic time that belonged, really, to the 1950s. The other 1960s, the one that we are better acquainted with, began after January 1964, with the British Invasion, escalation in Vietnam, the murder of civil rights activists in Mississippi, and the church bombings in Montgomery. Boomer culture is trapped in solipsistic contemplation of the trauma of 1963-64, as evidenced by any number of pop cultural touchstones treading lightly over the pleasures of the Eisenhower era. As early as 1973, George Lucas tapped into boomer nostalgia and cemented the notion of 63-64 as watershed by setting his second feature, American Graffiti, in the lost idyll of 1962. American Graffiti helped create a vogue for period films as nostalgia pieces, and perhaps its most important contribution to this now extensive genre was the soundtrack. Composed entirely of pop songs from the late 1950s and early 1960s, Lucas’s film was not the first to eschew the traditional film scores—this is another innovation that he picked up from Kubrick—but it was the first to use a soundtrack of recycled pop to evoke a period. The pop soundtrack is now an almost unavoidable component of commercial film and movie marketing, a slyly calculated means of establishing a affective resonance between media outlets and amplifying the emotional appeal of a given product. The soundtrack marketing phenomenon allows even films that are not plugged into nostalgia culture to establish themselves as nostalgia pieces, commercially ordained signposts announcing themselves as the cultural sensibility of a particular moment in time.

All of which is to say that the vogue for nostalgia that has distinguished American popular culture since 1973 is symptomatic of what Eric Lott has called, in his blistering critique of post-68 liberal political thought, boomeritis. For Lott, boomeritis describes the revulsion for radical commitment evinced by many members of the generation of ’68, those who, for whatever reason, reject aggressive modes of radical critique and direct action as inherently damaging to the goals of “legitimate” protest movements. (The widespread excoriation of the Weather Underground is a good example of this; while there are obvious limits to the course of violent property destruction pursued by the Weather, and the organization might be faulted for not being strategic enough in the ways in which it utilized violence, most critiques of the group are wholesale, and often blame the organization for discrediting the anti-war movement, as a whole.) Lott finds this mode of self-legitimizing political thought in a variety of thinkers who were formed by the protest movements of the 1960s, including, but not limited to, the self-appointed eminence grise of the 1960s, Todd Gitlin. What is particularly important about Lott’s critique of boomeritis is that it begins to suggest all the ways in which the revolution of the 1960s, incomplete though it may be, has been made over as the cultural logic by which the state effects its reproduction—the logic, in other words, by which the self-anointed political class reproduces is hegemony over a state project that has come to see democracy and citizenship as liabilities. This state project treats democracy and citizenship in much the way that it treats the history of the 1960s: instead of principles or ideals to which we strive, they are made over as nostalgic reveries to be consumed, along with the rest of the consumer goods that now occupy and organize social life.

What happens to revolution when it becomes the narrative by which the capitalism consolidates its hold over the state? And what happens to the history of revolution when it becomes the object of melancholy self-immolation, the thing that prevents the realization of revolutionary potential? We are fast approaching the limits of this self-referential cultural formation, the point at which it will no longer be possible to sustain the delusional fantasy that finds us living in a past that never was. The holodeck culture of wish-fulfillment imagined by Field of Dreams, in which one can imagine the resolution of the social and cultural contradictions of capital in and through the delirious immateriality of money, has reached its limit. The question now is what can be salvaged, given the ways in which the nostalgic contemplation of the past has poisoned our culture, our history. Where do we start? How do we begin again?