Thursday, July 4, 2013

Antebellism II: Rove, Ahab, and the War on Terror

In a previous post, I tried coming to grips with antebellism, a form of pop political sense-making that has dominated U.S. public discourse for the duration of Obama’s administration. Locating the origins of antebellism in the doubled movement of neoliberalism and globalization, I stressed that antebellist imaginaries are a compensatory mechanism that enable populations to relate to apparatuses of governance as democratic forms of politics. Antebellism recodes the withdrawal of the political into neoliberal administration as the antagonistic intensification of the political—an antagonism that opens onto a civil war that will never arrive. The problem with my reading is that its focus on questions of imagined relations to neoliberal governance leads it to privilege a nation-centered unit of analysis; I downplayed how Yankee globality affected and induced the antebellist imaginary. Neoliberalism is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence of antebellism; after all, we’ve lived with and through the former without the aid of the latter for some time. As I noted, Bruce Holsinger argues that U.S. culture during the Bush-Cheney years developed a neomedievalist imaginary to make sense of the U.S. global military adventurism. While this neomedievalist imaginary of course persists—culture is the graveyard of symbolics past—I want to suggest that it has been absorbed by antebellism, and that this absorption indexes an exhausted, post-Bush withdrawal from globality.

Inasmuch as a diffuse discourse can be invented or pinned down to a punctual scene of origins, Karl Rove invented antebellism. Days after Obama was sworn in as the 44th President, Rove appeared on Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor to defend himself from John Conyers, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Conyers had subpoenaed Rove to give testimony for the possible “politicization” of the Bush Justice Department. During his interview, Rove fumbles for an analogy that would adequately render the illegitimacy of Conyers’ subpoena. Rove first considers calling Conyers’ investigation a “witch hunt,” only to decide that the label is not quite right, because “I don’t think of myself as a witch.” While Rove is uncomfortable analogizing his situation to that confronting a witch (and note, incidentally, that Rove assumes that to be subject to a witch hunt one must have been a witch, as if only guilty subjects will have been hunted and prosecuted), he is perfectly comfortable comparing himself to a whale. Drawing upon the U.S. literary canon, Rove likens himself to the sublime and eponymous object of Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851): “He’s sort of like Captain Ahab and I’m the whale.” 

The analogy is ridiculous. Rove is himself uncertain of its value; the analogy only “sort of” makes sense. For one, who finishes Moby-Dick and thinks, “Yo, that whale gets me”? Moreover, Rove’s strange identification with that which resists identification’s imperium, the “inscrutable thing” of the whale, is a crazy symbolic inversion, the product of a wonderful disavowal. After all, was not Rove himself one of the many Ahabs steering Bush’s crisis-ridden Pequod? Isn’t Rove’s paranoia, his investment in the dramatics of a possible persecution, a continuation of the Ahabian paranoia constitutive of the xenophobic populism of Bush’s Terror Era? Was it not Rove who, like Ahab, garnered widespread popular support for a globe-scaling mission (the “war on terror”) that lacked a coherent aim or endpoint? And did not Rove, like the crazy captain’s biblical namesake, precipitate a war through the fabrication of a casus belli?

Yet, if Rove’s analogy is preposterous, it was also prescient. After all, Moby-Dick is not simply the narrative of a crazy Quaker seeking revenge against a whale with a taste for human limbs. It is fundamentally an allegory (and more than an allegory) of political transition, transformation, and crisis. Scholars have long understood Moby-Dick as allegorizing the sectional crises of the antebellum U.S., a crisis that could only resolve itself in the splintering of the U.S. ship of state. And thus the prescience of Rove’s analogy. Rove’s reference to Moby-Dick anticipated not so much an actual crisis as a the emergence of a discourse that wraps itself in the symbology of national scission, the emergence of a national commonsense that draws upon antebellum history to develop an allegory of impending crisis.

There’s a key difference, however, between Melville’s allegory of the antebellum and the antebellist allegory that Rove’s reference establishes. Melville’s book is a massive piece of (what Marx would call) Yankee universality: it ranges to-and-fro across the globe in order to gather symbolic resources through which to think the national. Antebellism works differently: it looks back to history to nationalize the global, to domesticate it, even to forget it. Consider the figure Rove chose alongside the wealth of alternative figures that were popular during the Bush era, figures that compose the discursive resources of neomedievalism. No one would have been surprised if Rove called Conyers a jihadi, if he said that the Dem representative was on a crusade—but he didn’t. He instead drew a figure from Moby-fucking-Dick, the U.S.-American novel.

Antebellism’s displacement of neomedievalist rhetoric tracks the absorption of the global framing required to map the Bush-era U.S. by the national-domestic. We can see this absorption of globality into nationality, of neomedievalism into antebellism, in the plot of Homeland. Homeland domesticates the figure of the terrorist, making a U.S. Marine (and then congressperson—Homeland plots like a Tom Clancy novel) the scariest jihadi around. More importantly, it aligns the scene of his operations with the cartography of the Civil War: Brody picks up his suicide vest in Gettysburg, treating the viewer with a supplementary spiel about honor or something. Homeland fights the War on Terror on the Civil War’s battlefield and, in so doing, transforms the set of references required for making sense of the former. Bush’s rampage against the world appears as an internecine struggle, a domestic squabble. If the Pequod’s voyage of revenge allows Melville to think the national through the global, Homeland simply asserts that the global never happened, not really. It transmutes Bush’s global military adventurism into a national fight pitting brother against brother, North against South, Red state versus Blue state, Brody against the bro who slept with his wife. The War on Terror tore our country apart!

The problem, of course, is that the War of Terror actually tore other countries, other lives, other bodies apart—countries that continue to mourn, lives that remain shattered, bodies that are marked by Ahabian violence. The antebellist absorption of globality, however, allows Yankees to ignore the persistence of this violence, both in terms of its aftereffects and of its continuation. Soldiers like Homeland’s Brody might be coming home, they might all come home, but the drones will remain. Military telekinetics relieve the public of the burden of bodies and, indeed, of the burden of thinking globality itself. (A Yankee peculiarity: the inability to think globality save through gunboats.) And that’s what antebellism does: it relieves an exhausted population of the affective weight of our neoliberal overlords’ Ahabian quest by means of an Ahabian allegory, it liquidates the recent past by drawing upon another history. And it liquidates this past even before it is past, as this past unfolds as our present and, indeed, our future.

Antebellism stylizes the neoliberal ordinary by conducting affect toward a political future that will never come and by sapping investment in a past that we can’t leave behind. Like Ahab’s crew, we invest in this allegory, certain that the capitalist ordinary has more to offer than capitalist accumulation, certain that we coast through the world, harpoons a-ready, for reasons explicable and intelligible from the intimate, domestic perspective afforded by a missing leg, an isolated ship, or a provincial nation. False memories of a civil war past replace flawed impressions of a global war present ensuring that, when the whale finally sinks the ship, Yankees will be as shocked as Ishmael was.

1 comment:

zwei_dinge said...

I wonder if there's some relation between the discursive tendencies of nationalization and concretization. Washington spent most of Obama's first term debating more or less empty abstractions, e.g. the imperative to reduce the debt by X dollars, where X is arrived at and updated in a purely arbitrary manner, or legislation like the ACA and Dodd-Frank, whose content is largely deferred to executive agencies that continue to defer it into the future. Since Obama's re-election the Republicans have half-heartedly attempted to pivot back to jobs, and Democrats have taken up gun control and immigration reform. You might read this as an attempt to grab hold of political discourse before it floats free of all worldly territory, national or otherwise.

There's a similar tendency occurring in foreign affairs, as in Kerry's economic development package for the West Bank, which he's desperately trying to sell as a concrete achievement before the brute reality of the settlements makes it impossible for anyone to pretend to see a peace process there anymore. There's also the Syrian civil war, where the case for intervention is being made in terms of minimizing the suffering of civilians and preventing the defeat of the rebels rather than promoting "freedom" or "democracy." Of course, that may just be because NATO-GCC attempts to unite the rebels militarily, let alone politically, have failed too spectacularly to make the latter kind of language possible.