Someone—at least a copy editor—must have read Emory University president James Wagner’s recent “From the President” piece in the Emory magazine. Entitled “As American as…Compromise,” someone must have made sure that everything was spelled properly, that there were no grammatical solecisms, and so on. Someone read this piece before it was published, a someone who probably didn’t say, “Hey, maybe it’s not a good idea to derive a political ethos of compromise from the U.S. constitutional compromise that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person in apportioning state representatives. Maybe this history can in no way justify your desire to defund the liberal arts.” Maybe he or she couldn’t speak up—an editor or employee at a university PR office doesn’t have quite the same amount of power or clout as the president, of course. Or maybe he or she didn’t have any problems with Wagner’s choice of examples. Maybe he or she thought Wagner’s piece showed the serviceability of U.S. history for our political present—a time when money is scarce, after all, and decisions about value have to be made. Whatever the case, we know that Wagner’s zany, crazy use of a fraught example did not leap immediately and transparently from his brain to the page. Rather, Wagner’s piece was the product of multiple forms of collaboration, of socialized symbolic production—from the Emory homecoming panel wherein an anonymously and indirectly cited “distinguished” alum first suggests the exemplarity of the three-fifths compromise to the less distinguished, less-well-paid editor or PR employee whose eyes scanned the release for errors and did not note the most glaring error on the page. We too are now Wagner’s collaborators, debating the merits of his choice of examples, snarking about him on Facebook and Twitter, and writing fantastic blog posts about the ideological blockages structuring the compromise in historical fact and as contemporary example. We too now participate in the social production of the exemplary. Exemplarity, then, is not a status objectively present in historical events, persons, or things. “So far no chemist,” Marx writes, “has ever discovered exchange value either in a pearl or a diamond.” Neither will the chemist—or historian, for that matter—discover the “example value” of an historical object in the object itself. Such value is produced by and circulates through diffuse social networks of institutions and discourses.
It’s the diffuse and social nature of the production of the exemplary that accounts for the rapid and voluminous responses to Wagner’s comments. Over the past few years, but reaching a fever pitch in 2012/13, Yankees have increasingly dedicated themselves to the proposition that the antebellum period possesses unique explanatory power for the political dynamics of our present. We shouldn’t be misled into thinking that the antebellum period always and naturally exists as a symbolic repertoire for getting a handle on our present. Bush-era U.S.A. was not so invested in the exemplarity and symbolic power of the antebellum. Certainly Bush paid the requisite homage to Lincoln and whatever, but the symbolic dominant and the primary axis of allegoresis was theological in orientation. Indeed, Bruce Holsinger argues that Bush-era symbolics amounted to a form of “neomedievalism,” wherein the present became legible through cultural codes derived from some imagined medieval world (“crusades,” for instance, or the emergent interest in feudal sovereignty as a mode of thinking states in a globalized world). Just a few years later, we have come to inhabit a new symbolic and discursive formation, one that we might call “antebellism.” Antebellism equips its advocates—from Barack Obama to Steven Spielberg to your uncle who is currently wading through Team of Rivals—with an allegory with which to map the political constellation of the present. My point here is that if Wagner’s choice of example was in some fashion inevitable (and I’ll make this case indirectly), so too was a quick and voluminous response. We’re all keyed into the antebellist register. We have all—right and left—formed a discursive compromise to think the present through the examples and symbols afforded by antebellum history.
Antebellism is a product of, and a hermeneutic for, the U.S.’s political present. For this reason, antebellism is less fascinating for the historical analogy it assembles—an analogy that is, as Wagner exemplarily demonstrates, of dubious historiographical merit—than for how it symptomatizes the way that subjects today think and feel their relationship to the political. Let’s stick with Wagner’s example: the morbidly humorous thing about the history of the compromise is that, well, it did not really work. (It couldn’t, of course, and not for parliamentary or constitutional reasons; the slaves themselves would see to it that every compromise with their own power would fail.) The compromise didn’t contain the antagonism that forced it into existence; rather, the inaugural compromise only ensured that more compromises would come, each more ineffective than the last until, ultimately, the social exploded into war. Any invocation of compromise invokes the haunting fact of its failure, just as, and more broadly, the discursive formation of antebellism situates us in a moment just prior to a war that cannot but arrive. So, how is the world so structured that subjects come to know and feel themselves as political only within the horizon of total catastrophe? What kind of work does this affectively charged imaginary perform?
Antebellism finds its conditions of possibility in the routinized crisis marked by the intertwined processes of neoliberalism and globalization. It provides a dramatic existential hermeneutic by which U.S. subjects can come to grips with the permanent, low intensity, non-dramatic crises of everyday life in a world abandoned to market rationality. Think about Wagner: he invokes the compromise so as to invest the market-based rationale for defunding the humanities with a gleaming symbolic value. Fair enough: you might object that that’s just ideological obfuscation. But why have we—a non-presidential we, rulers of neither universities nor nation-states—come to counter-invest in these symbolics? I want to suggest that, through the antebellist allegory, U.S. subjects can imagine their accumulating, low intensity misery as turning into something—a punctual, cataclysmic, dramatic crisis. The alternative—that is, this world, the real world, the one wherein the accumulation of misery has not transmuted into qualitative transformation, the one wherein the permanent crisis of neoliberalism is lived non-dramatically—is too much to bear. Antebellism confronts the crisis of living without a dramatic crisis, of surviving life subsumed into the biopolitical calculations of neoliberal accountancy, of inhabiting a hum-drum world where accountants rule the roost and wherein politics consists in choosing the best bean counter. In so doing, antebellism transmutes everything being fought over into something worth fighting for: voting for Obama becomes electing another Lincoln, cutting funding becomes a constitutional compromise. The extraterrestrial world of high governance is brought down to earth, a battlefield, and each man must do his part. Politics becomes a felt, tactile, intimate experience at the moment that it is imagined before the war, in the horizon of possible bodily undoing, of death. By routing contemporary politics through an affectively charged (if vaguely grasped) historical grid, antebellism domesticates—even as it aggrandizes—the arcane antagonisms structuring contemporary political disputation. Backdoor deals between congressional leaders, gentlemen’s agreements between Wall Street and the White House, the defunding of the humanities…the messy, ignoble stuff of neoliberal governance comes to light and comes to order in the clearing of antebellism’s projected battlefield. Everything gleams with a significant simplicity. Antebellism amounts to a kind of vernacular Schmittianism: it resituates the apolitical world of neoliberal governance in an antagonistic field constituted by the properly political distinction of “friend” and “enemy.” Line drawn, we’re poised just moments before the inauguration of hostilities. But, alas, we’re never supposed to fight it out. The specter of civil war simply drives us back into the arms of collapsing institutions and a state whose democratic deficit tracks its budgetary shortfalls. Antebellism produced that bizarre discursive world wherein neosecessionists tried separating from the U.S. by petitioning Obama…
Ultimately, antebellism gears us up for political war only to tell us that the battle has already been decided—there’s no longer any politics, no longer any open struggle through which the future will be decided. Instead, we’re invited to invest political meaning in the technologies of neoliberal governance, in what Wagner calls “the rich tools of compromise.” We need to read Wagner’s choice of example, then, as the end result of an attempt to derive a political feeling from the withdrawal of the political. Ultimately, that’s what all antebellism does: it allows us to feel political even as we abandon the political—or, rather, even as the political abandons us. “Compromise” both names this withdrawal of the political and invests our acquiescence to it with a pseudo-political affect. It does not so much describe a peaceful, pacifying working relationship between willful and opposed political subjects (Republicans and Democrats, say, or partisans of the humanities and the sciences) as it does the conformation of varied and antagonistic political wills to an exorbitant, apolitical logic (i.e., neoliberal capitalism). We don’t compromise so much as our possibility for political action has been compromised. It is our recognition of the compromised nature of any political action that is supposed to subtend all contemporary politics—indeed, it’s supposed to pass as politics. [Edit: please note that in Wagner's non-apology, he writes, "Inevitably, our existence as human beings is a compromised existence, never pure." Yep.]
How, then, to respond? Almost any form of response to Wagner’s example will amount to a form of collaboration—a (re)production and circulation of the cultural logic through which neoliberalism attempts securing acquiescence to the withdrawal of the political. No doubt this circulation cannot be stopped by fiat or through simple demystification. No doubt antebellism is an ideology, one that imagines our relation to the real in mystified and mystifying ways, but this imaginary is secured by an intensely felt sincerity that sutures subjects to its terms, and I’m not sure that ideology critique is adequate to undoing this suturing. We might be left with antebellism as a cultural allegory until some event displaces it and induces the production of new forms of pop political sense-making. I think that the minimum that we can do—and this might be a maximal minimum—is to de-naturalize the use of antebellum examples and symbols in the name of a tactical de-dramatization. We need to insistently demonstrate that it isn’t necessary to turn to the antebellum to think our present, show that other symbolic resources are available, and so produce a self-consciousness about the motivations that lead us to think and experience according to a given protocol. The question “Is this exemplary history really adequate to this contemporary case?” can be usefully deflationary. And we need to deflate the symbolics through which neoliberal governance attempts dramatizing and inducing particular felt relations to the non-drama of governed life. We need to be able to say, “Um, hey, prez, you’re talking about budget cuts for university departments—not founding a state and collaborating in the eventual enslavement of millions of people. Drama much? Chill out.” Why? On one hand, and as I’ve suggested, this conduction of affect to the flattish world of budgets and accountancy allows us to feel as political something that is being structured as apolitical. On the other hand, over-dramatizing aspects of governance like budgets allows us to ignore the lower grade but very real dramas that can flare up around these ways of making and remaking our worlds. Neoliberal life is filled with plenty of crises, low grade as they are, that have a density particular to themselves—a liberal arts grad student at Emory not getting a sixth year of funding, for instance, or a post-doc not turning into a job line because of fiscal cuts. Not as important or dramatic as nations being formed, slavery legitimated, or Africans dehumanized, but certainly crises possessing a drama and import of their own. Let’s just talk about those dramas.