The Fiction of Politics and Politics of Fiction
International Colloquium of American Studies, Olomouc, September 1-6, 2002
This contribution proposes a reading of some myths and fictions of American politics and culture through the "9/11" events, the ensuing military action they triggered, and the cultural changes worldwide they entailed. I wish to root my intervention in literary and cultural documents, mostly American, but also European, to discuss the impact of the brutal irruption of death onto the American cultural landscape. My presentation will offer a reading of texts but also of photographs and architectural structures through which I want to illustrate how fictions of American politics have been inscribed in the physical landscape of the nation, as well as in the cultural and political landscape of the nation. I intend to use the contrast between Europe and America to suggest that death-although it is everywhere to be seen, from Hollywood films to the rising application of the death penalty-has been evacuated from many aspects of American political and cultural fictions. This is certainly not to say that American culture suffers from a form of blindness that prevents it to see death. It may be, on the contrary, that American culture suffers from an excess of knowledge, and that the trust in that knowledge and technical expertise resulting from a long scholarly, political, and institutional experience have placed death in a cultural blind spot. This is precisely the spot on which this presentation will seek to focus.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the third film in Sergio Leone's
"Dollar-Trilogy", was released in 1966 in Europe and a year
later in the USA. It became an instant box office success on both sides
of the Atlantic as well as in Asia and catapulted Clint Eastwood to
international stardom. In addition, the "Dollar-Trilogy" boosted
the sagging U. S.-American production of Westerns for a while, and in
Europe spawned a boom of "spaghetti Westerns" that brought
forth close to 600 movies between 1965 and 1975. Today, The Good,
the Bad, and the Ugly is considered a 'classic' in its genre.
I am a black writer struggling with and through a language that
can powerfully evoke and enforce hidden signs of racial superiority,
cultural hegemony, and dismissive "othering" of people and
language which are by no means marginal and completely known and knowable
in my work.
While Toni Morrison has from the very beginning signaled the political
work she undertakes in her texts, with each novel the discussion has
become progressively more sophisticated. The Bluest Eye (1970)
concerns the capricious perniciousness of Aryan canons of beauty and
the devastating effects of internalized colonization; Sula (1973)
deals with the female pariah and the conflict of self and society; Song
of Solomon (1979) examines the sterility of middle class materialism
and the loss of a "black" identity; and Tar Baby (1983)
continues the critique of an assimilation which culminates in the loss
of the "ancient properties."
The scholarship on John Barth has revealed multifarious aspects of the novelist's creative and aesthetic virtuosity. Some critics discuss the existential issue in Barth's fiction (for example, the trilogy of The Floating Opera, The End of the Road and The Sot-Weed Factor). Some others explore with a postmodern approach how Barth has dealt with the intricate relationship between language, text, being and the construction of subjectivity and thus undermined the long-held presumption of a transparent, correspondent relationship between language, text and the world. The third category of Barthian criticism centers on how Barth appropriates, parodies and recycles literary conventions and genres, biblical allusions, Greek myths and even American Indian myths so as to create multiple narratives in his postmodern fictive world. The polyphonic heterogeneous narratives produce constant dialogue for inter-illumination, reciprocal re-examination and mutual subversion and, accordingly, challenge the notion of canonic discourse, text, reality and historiography. Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, Chimera, The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy are the major texts that the second and third types of the Barthian scholarship have examined. The influence of the story-telling artistry of One Thousand and One Night on Barth's development of an idiosyncratic narrative craftsmanship is the concern of the fourth group of the study on Barth. Chimera, The Tidewater Tales and The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor are the novels that catch the critic's eyes. The last type consists of the controversy, impact and inspiration that Barth evokes with his essays on postmodern aesthetics. Barth's The Friday Book and Further Fridays-collections of the novelist's essays, prefaces and interviews-are the primary source for discussion and debates. However diversified the Barthian scholarship is, critics unanimously hold that Barth is an apolitical novelist even if he has begun his career-simultaneously as a university professor and professional writer-with The Age of Anxiety, through Cold War, The Age of Subversion, the postmodern movement and down to the present. This project however aims at an examination of Barth's three novels, The End of the Road (his early novel), Giles Goat-Boy (his genuine creative but ignored or misunderstood novel) and Sabbatical: A Romance (his late novel) so as to foreground the political part of Barth. A study of The End of the Road shall expose Barth's implied but sever criticism of the academic for their failure to fulfill the mission designated in Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The American Scholar." Focus of this project shall lie on Barth's bulky novel Giles Goat-Boy to explore how Barth has combined postmodern narrative techniques and science fiction to inscribe his attack on the blindness of the intelligentsia (of both sides in the Cold War) in losing their conscience, turning themselves into the tools of the bureaucrats, abusing science and allegorically making mankind a Frankenstein. A study of Sabbatical will illustrate Barth's overt and pointed portrait of the spooky and dehumanizing espionage network that renders men under constant surveillance and deprives men of mutual trust. All together, this exploration shall construct a John Barth of politics. Besides, this project will apply Louis Althusser's notion of ISAs (ideological state apparatus) and Michel Foucault's power theory to demonstrate how Barth has survived in the turbulent historical and political context of the 50s and 60s as he has maintained his intellectual and literary conscience in resisting administrative bureaucracy-both the university's and the government's-and calling with his creative quill for man's dignity and prevention of self-destruction. That is to bring to the fore the politics of John Barth. The objective of this project with an illustration of the politics of John Barth and John Barth of politics is, firstly, to uncover the political part of John Barth, secondly, to correct the general presupposition that Barth is apolitical and, ultimately, to make a new opening to the Barthian scholarship and invite more discussion and understanding of Barth's complex and difficult fiction corpus.
For the creators and consumers of various popular cultural forms, the strains of living during the cold war warped ordinary notions of some of the most basic human emotions, especially love. As diverse as they are bizarre, Cold War love songs range from the Cold War carpe diem to unsettling celebrations of strange love in its atomic, radioactive, spiritual, and militant manifestations, including the strangest love of all: human love and relationships imagined under the shadow of attacking bombers or missiles whizzing over the North Pole. Images of untroubled teenagers in love, lovers willing to climb the highest mountains or swim the widest seas, and lovers collapsing into each other's arms and croon "I think we're alone now," without that sense of solitude being imagined in some post-apocalyptic wasteland, still abounded in popular music throughout the Cold War era. Not surprisingly, however, the knowledge that most of the northern hemisphere could be dead within a matter of minutes pressured many songwriters into newly urgent lyrical strategies. "Iron Curtains and Satin Sheets" will be an effort at classification of the varieties of emotional response to the threat of nuclear destruction. By following the contours of those responses, we can also get a glimpse of the warping effects the Cold War had on the populations that endured its terrors.
In this paper, I would like to analyze the political implications of a change-of-identity or metamorphosis in Kafka's story of that name (and his fiction in general), and Body-Horror director and cinematic auteur David Cronenberg's remake of the 1950s Sci-Fi classic The Fly, against the theoretical background of (mainly) Deleuze and Guattari's concept of 'minor literature.' When Seth Brundle, having mutated into the insect-humanoid hybrid 'Brundlefly,' announces, "I want to be the world's first insect politician," he does not propose a clear-cut political program; yet the fiction of insect-politics itself might offer a glimpse at the kind of (non-essentialistic) 'materialism' Deleuze and Guattari propose, and hints at the political relevance of what they describe as the endless process of 'becoming.' Such a program, I argue, might differ markedly and in various ways from the scenarios of totalitarian ant-states or bee-states as portrayed in such catastrophe scenarios as in movies such as e.g. Them! (1954) ... On the contrary - it is not the hierarchically structured, 'armoured' body-politic that is at stake here, but a kind of 'nomadic' alternative: a body-politic 'in process,' based not on an (however illusory) wholeness, but on 'singularities without identities,' on pragmatic de- and reterritorializations; not on 'closed structures,' but on the openness of relational networks - on a 'minor politics.'
The paper investigates into the question how the ways of representation
of the political scene turn into simulation. The audibility and visibility
of politics is almost exclusively restricted to the representational
field of the media, and the ecstatic characteristics of communication
create an imaginary representation of the political affairs. The reality
of the political activity is therefore masked by the rhetoric of the
visible but simulated network of different forms of representation.
As a result, the perceived images of politics are taken to be evidence,
the boundaries between fact and fiction coalesce and the transparent
nature of these boundaries give space to the rise of the hyperreal that
characterizes the representation of politics.