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How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 5

7. The new histories of empire are theory-laden.

One of the more remarkable features of Richard White’s writing is a certain idealist strain that breaks through irregularly. At one point, he informs readers that the middle ground was the site of certain “beliefs,” a kind of doctrine: “beliefs not only that the boundaries between societies and cultures were permeable but also that identities were interchangeable.” (389) It is important to register that the character of White’s argument has just shifted, by assigning to the frontier a moment of reflection or norm-generating self-consciousness. He is now claiming something more than that social and ethnic roles were up-for-grabs on the borderlands. He has added the assertion that the frontier-dwellers also knew this, or at least that they believed it, the suggestion being that they held cosmopolitan and anti-identitarian commitments. The Indians, he writes, were “attempting to prove the boundaries permeable.” (391) It’s that last phrase, with its clear echoes of the seminar table, that gives one pause, tending as it does to transform the Delaware and Shawnee into bearers of Adornian or Butlerite positions, or, indeed, to cast eighteenth-century Native Americans as undergraduate Sartreans, the ones who got As on their existentialism mid-terms, while the Anglo-Americans sit there looking slightly abashed, the square students who just don’t get it or who have read the wrong philosophers. The problem isn’t that the Virginians and Pennsylvanians were colonists—so, after all, were les habitants and les voyageurs. The problem was their identitarianism and mauvaise foi.

Perhaps Sartre and Butler are a red herring, however, because White’s real mentor in matters of political philosophy goes by a different name. Anyone reading The Middle Ground for the first time might notice that White is hung up on a couple of phrases: “The common world of the pays d’en haut” (519); “it succeeded in restoring, at least diplomatically, a common world and a common understanding.” (270); “The common world was … becoming ragged” (430); “The common world narrowed.” (432) A person might even be puzzled by this. Nowhere does White sound more like a pop existentialist than on the opening page of The Middle Ground, where he tells readers that his will be a book “about the search for … common meaning,” a phrase that, by recalling Viktor Frankl, does nothing to make the American frontier seem more benign, since Frankl, we’ll recall, was searching for meaning in a concentration camp. One of the worst things about “Indian haters,” at any rate, is that they “sought to terminate … more complicated searches for common meaning.” (389) But we can leave the word “meaning” to one side. For it is the word “common” that links the phrases “common meaning” and “common world” and thereby points us to a proper name. For “common world” is one of Hannah Arendt’s signature terms. A quick search of recent literature on Arendt turns up an essay called “How Common Is Our Common World?” (Kattago) and another called “The Idea of a Common World” (Jones). Outfitted with that unmarked citation, the reader soon spots White borrowing other concepts and arguments from a beloved philosopher. First Arendt (1972: 142 – 143): “It is, I think, a rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our terminology does not distinguish among such key words as ‘power,’ ‘strength,’ ‘force,’ ‘authority,’ and, finally, ‘violence’…. Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” Then Richard White: George Rogers Clark, the head of the Kentucky militia, “was by temperament a war leader who thought that force was power”—though one notes that by “force,” White seems to mean “violence” and so becomes the target of Arendt’s argument in the very act of restating it. (426) Or again: Anyone who has read around in Hannah Arendt will know that the “common world” takes as one of its near-synonyms “the in-between,” which hereby joins those others as the fourth of the middle ground’s major connotations: the Midwest, the frontier, political moderation, and the Arendtian in-between. At this point, in order to collate these dispersed references, it becomes necessary to bring into view Hannah Arendt’s Big Story. For Arendt, politics always takes place in that intermediary zone, the public space of the polis or its agora, which we must learn to cherish for its own sake, which we must take care to distinguish from private life and which we must commit ourselves to cultivate and protect. The public and in-between is the space where we can deliver speeches and undertake actions without—and this is its signal advantage over home—having to certify these as intimate or authentic. The in-between is also the place where differences between people can be put on display and to some degree adjudicated without any presumption of unanimity. If members of a society share a common world than they need share little else—not attitudes or beliefs or ways of living. It doesn’t matter that we maintain different perspectives on x, provided we remain certain that we in some sense share x or that x is a public thing. Arendt’s philosophy can thus be read as a therapeutic program, designed to strengthen its readers’ flagging commitments to the public and active life, to remind them of all the reasons to love the common world, hence to combat the consoling lure of private life. But it is perhaps better read as a grand récit about the collapse of that common world, about the overtaking of politics by mere household concerns—what Arendt calls “the social” but what we on etymological grounds might more tellingly call “the economic.” Richard White’s least remarked upon achievement is also his most wondrous—a specimen to be admired by all collectors of rechercé academic ingenuities. He is retelling Arendt’s Big Story, her only story, the story about the death of politics, but has adapted it to a (somewhat) new location and a (sharply) new chronology, like Akira Kurosawa deciding to set King Lear in Sengoku-period Japan. In the place of ancient Greece, which was always Arendt’s paradigm of a Properly Political Place, we find Fort Detroit, as the vita activa’s womb and epitome. And the American Revolution, which Arendt took to have sponsored a temporary revival of genuine politics, translating Anglo-Americans into the active life, turns out instead to have brought about the fall of public man (because public man lives on the Midwestern frontier, and US Americans depoliticized that space via thick settlement and Indian removal). 1776, which we have been taught to see as the common world’s second chance, was instead its betrayal and shutdown. That White is also adapting the arguments of Frederick Jackson Turner should be abundantly clear by now. The Middle Ground works by superimposing upon a Turnerite story about the end of the frontier an Arendtian story about the end of the common world. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” rewrites itself as The Human Condition.

 

How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 4

6) The new histories of empire are generically comic. Whether or not you find a given account of the frontier plausible will have a lot to do with positions you’ve arrived at, and tastes you’ve formed, before you’ve ever heard of Fort Duquesne or Blue Jacket. How do you think history typically proceeds?—except that most history-writing is narrative, so the question is better rephrased: What kind of stories do you think history typically yields? And before that: What do you think makes for a good story anyway? What kinds of stories are you drawn to? There comes a woozy moment, in any extended discussion of history-writing, when the emphasis has to shift from the history to the writing, from the conscientious checking and re-checking of paleographic fact to the fashioning of a narrative that living readers will find aesthetically satisfying and so assign explanatory effects. Informing yourself about the eighteenth-century American frontier—or about any other patch of imperial history for that matter—is not fundamentally unlike choosing a movie to watch. Your housemate turns to you and asks: “What are in you the mood for?” In the standard accounts of Pontiac’s Rebellion, the generic conventions are almost too easy to pick out. Literary critics surveying the available texts are likely to feel that they should have to try a little harder. A reader thus opens Francis Parkman’s Conspiracy of Pontiac, first published in 1851, and finds Anglo-American heroes “bold and hardy enough to venture” into Indian country in the face of “murderous attacks,” “stout-hearted” “adventurers” and men of “duty and courage” (455-6, 678, 456). Ranged against these chevaliers of the New World we find Pontiac, “the Satan of this forest paradise,” an “arch-demon,” avatar of a “murder-loving race” (508, 812, 829). The Ohio Valley becomes the stage of an American adventure story, or romance, with clearly delineated heroes, performing “memorable feats” “in the true spirit of heroism” and thereby squaring off against Indians who serve largely as obstacles to be overcome (579, 576). (Maybe your housemate has proposed that you watch an old Western. Maybe your housemate is your dad.) Of course, other genre cues can join themselves to these medievalizing ones. Parkman sometimes writes in a Homeric mode, filling his pages with war councils and martial catalogues, in a manner that suggests he meant to supply US literature with its missing epic. Similarly, he sometimes writes as the classical historian of the American colonies, with Tacitus and Herodotus as his proximate models, hence with the Indians cast as Goths or indeed as “barbarian hordes” (796). That said, the fundamentally neo-chivalric cast of Parkman’s language can be pegged to a single word, gallant, which he favors: The non-British commander of Fort Pitt is “the gallant mercenary,” supported by “the gallant Swiss, Captain Ecuyer,” a “gallant soldier” capable of “gallant conduct” (642, 734, 735, 794). Anglo-Americans used to refer to native American settlements as “castles.”[i]

To script the 1763 rebellion as a tragedy, meanwhile, is simple enough—it takes just two steps: First, Howard Peckham’s Pontiac and the Indian Uprising (1947) is the only monograph to present itself as a biography of the Ottawa leader. Chapter 1 is called “His Background,” Chapter 2 “His Early Life,” and so on. The effect of this choice is to frame a generalized anti-colonial war as the effort of a one admittedly important war-leader—or, if you prefer, to fix our attention on the program laid out by a single chief. Syntactically, this individualizing thrust makes itself felt via persistent synecdoche, in which the name “Pontiac” is made to serve as the term for the collected Indian forces: “If Pontiac could not stop the supply ships from reaching Detroit….” (210) “He [Pontiac] had failed to annihilate Dalyell’s force….” (209) Other literary conventions reinforce Pontiac’s centrality. It is Peckham’s habit to summarize the speeches given by other people only to reproduce Pontiac’s oratory in full, often over several pages, setting them off as monologues in a manner that readers are likely to experience as Shakespearean. The book’s biographical frame is thus reinforced by quasi-theatrical sequences, which Peckham can almost name as such: “The spotlight had been focused on [Pontiac] for the past several days, but this climatic appearance on the stage of Indian diplomacy was his last role of consequence.” (297) A man who never once saw a play, who in fact spent his life some six hundred miles from the nearest theater, is anachronistically described as thespian and leading player. Second, the historian, having emphasized the (theatricalized) agency of Pontiac as individual nonetheless insists on the limits of same. If we look back at the instances of synecdoche just quoted, we’ll see that they emphasize miscarriage and disappointment, rendering Pontiac as sole actor, but then announcing his inability to act or to complete an attempted action: He could not stop the ships. He failed to wipe out the British army. In his final chapter, then, Peckham reclassifies the book he has just written, swapping genres at the last possible moment. Pontiac’s has been a story about a “diminishing of power,” about “losing,” about “not attaining any of [one’s] objectives.” (319) In formulations such as these, biography yields to tragedy: The Indian leader “stood in our path for a moment and thrust us back, revealing the tragedy of his people and the cost of human progress. … From this date the real tragedy of the Indian begins.” (322) The scholar obligingly names his preferred plot-form at the moment of its conclusion. The first play written by an American to feature an American setting was Ponteach, or the Savages of America: A Tragedy (1766).

Or again, readers with more lurid tastes might decide they prefer David Dixon’s Never Come to Peace Again, published by the University of Oklahoma in 2005. That Dixon has written a kind of Gothic yarn—or perhaps a horror-Western in the manner of Ravenous or Bone Tomahawk—should be clear by Chapter 4 at the latest, when we read an interpolated “legend” about a British settler, killed by Pontiac outside of Detroit, trying twice to scrabble out of his burial ground, his “pale arm protruding from the grave.” (112) It is around that zombie-movie freeze-frame that the rest of Dixon’s book will now organize itself. Pontiac’s Rebellion was a war full of “bizarre tales,” the historian/crypt-keeper tells us in the language of the pulps, a “horrifying holy war” on the Indian side, a sequence of atrocities on the English side, outrages perpetrated by white “fiends.” Quotations from period documents obligingly make the genre argument for us: “Anything feigned in the most fabulous romance cannot parallel the horrid sight now before us.” (qtd 163) And it’s true: One wonders whether any other peer-reviewed monographs by tenured American historians feature quite so much cannibalism. Dixon even concludes his preface with a winkingly insincere warning/enticement to the reader—“I beg the reader to be indulgent through the relation of numerous horrific atrocities perpetrated by both sides during the conflict” (xiii)—a sentence that converts the academic prologue into a vintage B-movie teaser: “Do you have the guts to sit in this chair?” “Trained nurses will be available in the lobby.” “No refunds!” A reader skimming forward at this point will notice that Chapter 2 is called “A Colony Sprung From Hell,” in which the Ohio Valley becomes the stage for an American horror story. It remains to be said that an older version of literary theory would suggest that we call such hell-writing “satire” rather than “horror,” where “satire” refers to stories without heroes, stories, that is, in which the characters who would usually be regarded as heroic are merely victims or are themselves bad, hence stories in which nobody wins. Thus Dixon, in his book’s final pages: “Neither side could claim any decisive victory in the conflict.” (242) At one point he asks us to “ponder” a bit of anonymous backwoods graffiti: Nous sommes tous sauvages.[ii]

By now, anyone familiar with Northrup Frye’s short catalog of story-types or “fictional modes” will have realized that one of them is missing. Historians can fashion the stuff of the eighteenth-century frontier into an American romance; they can fashion it into an American tragedy; or they can fashion it into an American horror story. The mind now itches to ask whether they can also fashion it into an American comedy—a comedy, that is, that would include the Native Americans, since inclusion is one of the comic mode’s more important features. Can we fix our attention on the frontier and find (except—no, not “find”) there a story, not of universal savagery, but of new life, or revival and rejuvenation, a story in which there are no losers, a story of reconciliation in which everybody wins, in which nearly all the characters turn out to be good guys, in which apparent conflicts are revealed to be misunderstandings, and in which the social order remakes itself at last around a few improbable marriages? A reader can disagree with every page of Richard White’s Middle Ground and still admire the resourcefulness with which he sets about this unlikely task, point for point for point.

A story of revival and rejuvenation? White’s very first argument is that colonization was not just destructive; it didn’t merely mow down native people. Nor was it the extension unto monotony of older European social forms. Empire “creates as well as destroys”; or, better, it provokes rounds of creativity in Europeans and Native Americans alike. The last sentence of the book’s first paragraph reads: “Something new could appear”—a “new man,” “new systems of meaning and of exchange,” “new meanings and through them new practices.” (ix-x) In sun-saluting prose, Richard White summons his readers to the colonial equinox. The hard ground yields. Birds remember their song.

A story in which there are no losers? One is tempted to argue, as a discrete point, that the new histories of empire are pro-trade. The observation proves skippable, however, and not only because it is wholly unsurprising, but also because it is properly catalogued as one of the school’s comic impulses. In this regard, the most telling sentence in The Middle Ground is tucked into one of the book’s two distinct and widely separated attacks on dependency theory. White is out to contravene a group of dependency theorists, including a younger version of himself, who thought they could show that a growing reliance on European manufactures had narrowed the political options available to Native Americans in the period of westward expansion. The Europeans possessed a permanent bargaining advantage, one they did not fail to exploit, which was that they controlled access to goods that the vast majority of native people were not prepared to do without. Here, then, is that argument’s comic refutation: On the frontier, “it remained possible for both traders and Indians to profit from … exchange.” (484) Global trade under colonial conditions did not undermine Indian autonomy; it gave native peoples scope, rather, to initiative and self-reinvention. This was especially true around the Great Lakes, because trade with the French involved “love”; without that “love,” it’s true, trade risked turning “chaotic,” not oppressive, necessarily, but disordered. (265) This is an argument that White then gladly extends to military affairs: The biggest Indian uprising of the eighteenth-century sought, not an end to colonial rule, but an “accommodation between the races.” (270) Even “conflict” and “confrontation” are best grasped as opportunities to “rearrange … relationships.” (420) [iii]

A story in which apparent conflicts are revealed to be misunderstandings? White is interested in misunderstanding in two different modes. First, misunderstanding is one of the engines of imperial creativity: Forced to adapt to native lifeways, the French never fully comprehended the practices they had adopted, and so unwittingly created new ones, by force of persistent mis-emulation. That the same point can be made of the Indians, compelled to guess what the Europeans wanted from them and never quite getting it right, merely duplicates the point. American modernity is a bad translation and subtly botched rite. White’s second version of misunderstanding is more obviously of the type identified by genre theorists and directly recalls the plots of the comic stage. The Middle Ground reports on the moment when the Mingos, a breakaway group of mostly Seneca Indians who moved into the Ohio Valley in the eighteenth century, decided that the British had “bad designs” upon them. White calls attention to this instance of resentment and antipathy and then analyzes it in a manner that largely exculpates the British. The Mingos had given in to an understandable misperception. “Famine and epidemic, coupled with British trade policies, created an [Indian] image of the British not as misguided brothers, but as enemies, a malevolent people bound by neither kinship nor ritual obligations.” (275) Such is the subtlety of comic plotting, which it is easy to underestimate: A well-tooled comedy needs to be able to mimic the plots of epic and tragedy and the adventure story, simulating the conflicts and crises that are the indispensable stuff of narrative interest, and so affording, after a fashion, the basically jejune and melodramatic pleasures of the non-comic genres, all the while negating the plot’s various dangers and clashes, even as it stages them, by in the end re-classifying all conflict as misperception, transient and rectifiable. British imperial agents in North America were nobody’s enemy; they were, at worst, temporarily estranged kin: “misguided brothers.” “Misunderstandings were also the stuff on which the middle ground fed.” (383)[iv]

A story of societies remade by hitherto disallowed marriages? There is an x here that goes by many different names. The classically minded theorists of genre call it comedy. The Victorianists call it the marriage plot. The anthropologists call it exogamy. For a while, the postcolonialists made it seem compelling again by calling it hybridity. A literary historian might call it the last two chapters of Walter Scott’s Waverley. I’m writing for the moment about colonial North America, so I’ll call it the Pocahontas motif in order to observe that Richard White deploys it with the frequency of a priest publishing the banns:

-“Indians, like the [French] commanders, saw marriage as an integral part of their alliance with the French. . . .” (69)

-“To keep the villagers loyal, French commanders depended, too, on the métis legitimes and on the Frenchmen who had intermarried and traded among the Indians.” (215)

-The middle ground sponsored “a heterogeneous mix of different peoples loosely linked by intermarriage and common loyalties.” (316)

-“The French took wives from the Indians and produced children of mixed descent; the British took land and threatened the well-being of [Indian] children.” (342)

It is this last sentence that most bolsters one’s sense that Richard White thinks in terms of literary genre, though perhaps without realizing that this is what he is doing. In two pared-back clauses, he has assigned to each of the major North American empires its characteristic plot. The British Empire generates melodrama: sociopaths with posh accents menace the cowering young. The French Empire is a library of courtship novels, a favorite book multiply re-read, at the end of which there will always be a Québécois Darcy, ever-wedding his Anishinabe Elizabeth.[v]

Comedy, it hardly needs saying, is not an obligatory mode. It is at least as plausible to describe the pre-Revolutionary frontier as, in the words of another ethnohistorian, “a place where the peripheries of two cultures merged, creating potentially dangerous situations based upon tension, hostility, fear, and insecurity between the two peoples,” a “flux area,” unusually “precarious” (Kawashima: 2) Read alongside these contrasting claims—mixture, yes, but volatile mixture, dangerous to some of its human components, ready at times to re-separate—Richard White’s version of the colonial periphery stands out by virtue of its wholly amicable stability, not the stability of particular imperial or Indian formations, but the stability of the middle ground itself, as the matrix for these others. To hear White tell it, everything fed the middle ground; everything that happened on the middle ground, no matter how death-stalked or superficially antagonistic, was an invitation for further moderation and accommodation. The French were ousted from Canada, and the British got absorbed by the middle ground even as they refused it. The Indians arranged around Pontiac launched a simultaneous rebellion against every British fort in the west—and nonetheless ended up reaffirming the Middle Ground. One consults Gary Nash, summarizing a generation’s worth of research into Native America in the 1770s and ‘80s, and finds him writing that the American Revolution was a catastrophe for Native America (Nash: 346ff.; see also Calloway). And then one turns back to White, who claims instead that “for all its clamor and destruction, [the Revolution] watered the political middle ground….” (366) Even murder fed the middle ground: Every ambushed trader provided impetus for a fresh cycle of diplomacy; every killing was a chance to reaffirm friendships and expiate wrongdoing. “In fighting and death, as well as in peace and negotiations, there were contacts, meanings to be deciphered, and understandings reached.” (387) The most important thing about a murder is the people who come calling after the funeral.

Anyone still puzzled by White’s position need merely dip back into literary theory. You can tell what White is doing if you know how comedies work. For students of the genre have often observed that Shakespearean comedy, in particular, has a thing for forests. In many comedies, characters exit the ordinary world of city or court and remake themselves, not always by choice, in the woodlands outside of Mantua or Athens. When literary historians go looking for the origins of the frontier myth, they tend to single out the more or less martial genres of early American writing: captivity narratives, memoirs of Indian war. What Richard White has grasped better than these English professors is that comedy has always been a sylvan genre, too, no less than these others. It was only a matter of time, then, before some writer seized the genre-dictated opportunity to redescribe indigenous Wisconsin as the Forest of Arden. White’s most enduring bequest to the new histories of empire, replicated serially across the continents and across the university’s many regional expertises, has been to show scholars how to look at any contested zone of timber, bush, or jungle and to see there only the green world.[vi]

[i] For “castle,” see, for instance, Middleton 2007: 29, 33, 60, as in: British “claims threatened the upper Mohawk castle of Canajoharie.” (29) By introducing the question of genre, I am, of course, following a procedure first recommended by Hayden White in Metahistory.

[iii] The full quotations might be instructive in this instance: p. 265: “When gain rather than ‘love’ ruled the trade, exchange remained chaotic.”; p. 270: “Out of the radically different British and Alognquian interpretations of the meaning of the British victory over the French, it [Pontiac’s Rebellion] forged a new, if tenuous, accommodation between the races.”; p. 420: “To portray the confrontation along the Ohio simply as a conflict between the new American state and Indian tribes misses the complexity of the relationships between the various groups involved; it neglects the extent to which confrontation itself was rearranging the organization and relationships of the region.”

[iv] See also Martin Goodman in Rome and Jerusalem (386): “Bloodshed [in Judea in the early first century] seems always to have been the result of quite specific incidents. During the festival of Passover in the late 40s or early 50s a Roman soldier bared himself, turned his backside to the assembled pilgrims and let out a noise like a fart, according to Josephus’ account in his Jewish War; in the parallel account in the Antiquities, the insult was to display his genitals. (The accounts are of course not incompatible. Perhaps this was a cultural misunderstanding and Romans felt able blithely to joke about nudity and bodily functions in a way that Jews found disgusting.)”

[v] An early review by Rebecca Kugel highlights the centrality to White’s argument of Indian women and intermarriage. See also Plane 2002.

[vi] On the literary origins of the frontier myth, see especially Slotkin 1973.

How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 3

 

Here, then, are seven points to keep in mind when reading the new histories of empire—preliminary theses that any reader should be able to confirm by reading widely in the scholarship published since 1990 or so. The first three are implicit in what I’ve already written:

1) In the contemporary academy, defenses of empire are surprisingly common.[i]

2) These often emerge from the corners of the university where you would least expect to find them—from among ethnohistorians, for instance, or critical theorists.[ii]

3) They are typically liberal or left-liberal in orientation.[iii]

The remaining four points will require a little more explanation.

4) The new histories of empire are superficially pro-indigenous and so easily misread as hostile to empire. This matter is perhaps best understood as involving a rhetorical technique. Many readers will find defenses of empire plausible only if these have been routed first through a defense of indigenous people. The initial task facing the new imperial historian is thus to show that empire brought benefits to non-Europeans or that it was in some meaningful way the latter’s choice and co-creation—that empire, indeed, was just one more version of indigenous society. The simplest way to do this will be for the historian to route his imperialism through a necessary mediation, by focusing our attention on some group of colonized people who for whatever reason elected to cooperate with the Europeans. One sides with empire by siding first with them. At the same time, arguments of this kind typically proceed by way of the negative, which is to say that their defense of one set of imperial practices announces itself as a critique of other empires. In practice, this requires little more of historians than that they identify to their own satisfaction which version of empire was best for indigenous people, hence that they posit a Good Imperialism alongside a Bad One, though if carefully written, even this simple A-B coding can masquerade for long stretches as an anti-imperialism. This antithesis, it must be noted, can work a few different ways: the early stages of empire vs. the late ones; the remote margins of an overseas territory vs. its oldest and most settled districts; weak imperial programs (indirect rule, soft power, treaty imperialism) vs. strong ones; national empire #1 vs. national empire #2, the French vs. the British, the British vs the Spanish, any of these vs. the Americans. White’s arguments, for all their archivally generated detail, are, of course, iterable. Arguments he makes about the French can be transferred at will to any other group of Europeans. One important circle of historians, headed by Francis Jennings and Stephen Saunders Webb, have asked us to admire the British Empire for its determination to protect native peoples from Anglo-American encroachment. For much of the continent, Indian survival would have required more empire and not less. In such writing, the British and Indian alliance, as forged at Albany and points north, becomes the target of our trans-historical identification, and this cathexis yields a position that, though difficult to parse in the political categories of the early twenty-first century, is nonetheless fairly common among PhD-holding historians: anti-colonial, but pro-empire.[iv]

5) The new histories of empire are Americanizing. White’s writing cultivates in the reader a disaffection towards American history. The Anglo-Americans are the ones who menace the middle ground and in the book’s final act destroy it. They are the agents of ethnic and religious immoderation; the founders of some strange, new country without a middle; the designers of its impossible geometry—a surface, vast and unbroken, that is nonetheless all perimeter. And yet it is enough to blink once, and these two seemingly opposed terms—America and the middle ground—will start to merge. America, which we have been instructed to see as the middle ground’s annihilator from the east, turns out instead to be its synonym and twin, a second name for the third term. That which is neither Indian nor European is. . . . To American Studies scholars, meanwhile, the notion of the middle ground is likely to suggest nothing so much as the chronotope of Hollywood Westerns and dime novels. Frontier stories, after all, have always rendered the US as the space in-between, carving their story-world into three vertical tiers: a Far West, wolfish and primordial; an effete and overcivilized East Coast; and a central zone, paradigmatically American because semi-civilized, on the understanding that semi-civilization is actually the preferred state. The task of the Western, as genre, is to consider how this last, easily understood as transitional and unstable, might nonetheless be maintained: how to be white, certainly, but not too white. Any backyard, toy-gun reenactment of the frontier myth—any game, I mean, called cowboys and Indians—is thus an abbreviation of what was always a more complicated narrative structure. The organizing principles of the Western are not two-term, in the manner beloved of structuralists and schoolboys, but three-term: cowboys and Indians and Easterners: dudes, greenhorns, English dandies, pedant-journalists, the shady agents of the railways. Frontier stories are to this extent always multiple and hard to summarize. Readings of Westerns inevitably yield paradox, since the master-story they tell while facing westwards will be contradicted by the master-story they tell while facing east. Stories about bringing civilization to the deserts and the badlands double as Rousseauvian parables about Europeans who regenerate themselves by exiting the metropolis. Your typical Western is at once a vernacular narrative about the coming of modernity and a story about the return to nature, in which the Easterner becomes an American by stripping away finical layers of accreted custom and luxury. No doubt: It is the genre’s anti-Indian animus that has allowed Westerns to function as so many parables of modernity into the twentieth century and beyond, re-tooling the form’s older, agrarian republicanism by harnessing it to a fully commercial ideology. Settlers in Westerns look like yeomen but are inevitably the bearers of market society. The historical cowboy, after all, nonsensical icon of American independence, was a not-at-all-autonomous worker paid a wage to drive his boss’s bovine commodity to market. Complexities abound, however. If the fictional cowboy is not simply a Lowell factory girl in disguise, then this is because the persistence, in the genre, of the East as a cursed space, even when Indians are the primary enemy, means the Western is always eager to draw distinctions among its pioneers. There are proper ways of living in a commercial society, visible only in the primal spaces of incipient modernization—distinctively American ways, as opposed to European ones—and these will still be roughly primitivist and republican, rather than bourgeois-Occidental. It is therefore misleading to describe literary cowboys and frontiersmen as the puppet-envoys of European society or as generically white. For they will count as American only if their whiteness has been modified and perhaps even compromised, if, that is, they have to some degree adopted Indian ways. White Indians were the stock figures of early American nationalism: Daniel Boone, Natty Bumppo, sundry other rangers, scouts, and trappers, all of them figures of the middle ground. In the introduction to his book, Richard White tells the reader that he “found . . . much that surprised [him]” while researching the volume, that, indeed, he “found his perspective on the period changing” in some fundamental way. (xi) Anyone reading these words might well expect White to be expounding a new paradigm. How baffling, then, to realize that this “new Indian history” (he uses the term on p. xi) is mostly a restatement of the old Western and frontier myths—more baffling still to return to the book and find that its author has admitted as much on the first page: “American myth . . . retained the wider possibilities that historians have denied American history.” (ix) In defiance of our accustomed sense that historians are among the great demystifiers, the fact-checkers of popular memory and dispellers of chauvinist legend, the new history of the West steps forward to validate the frontier myth, to renew the Leatherstocking fable by reassigning it to the French. The result is a book that just keeps repeating all the old claims about how the West was the true America, and about how this true America was eventually lost. The old West, White tells us, was the open space where “a person could become someone else.” (389) The book’s lyrics are skeptical and anti-nationalist, but its tunes have all been borrowed from patriotic songs.[v]

[i] One monograph does not a pattern make. For other instances, see the discussions below of James Merrill and Doris Sommer. Subsequent footnotes will draw attention to scholarship on west Africa, South America, the Pacific, ancient Israel, and the multicontinental British Empire. The thrust of this scholarship is especially apparent in Nicholas Thomas’s Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire (Thomas 2010), whose jacket copy assures readers in its second sentence that the book will reveal to them the “gain” of empire—imperial benefits and rewards—and not just “loss,” as well as empire’s capacity for “invention.” The book goes on to claim that most native people were more interested in “creative accommodation” than in resistance and to demonstrate in indigenous societies a widespread “enthusiasm for things European and things British” (3, 24).

[ii] A belated word on the essay’s title: There was a vogue around 1990 for re-christening as “new” various subfields in the study of European expansion: the new Western history, the new American studies, the new imperial history. The last is especially instructive: The “new imperial historians” were credentialed, archivally adept historians who nonetheless avowed a disciplinarily unfashionable debt to critical theory and who to that extent gave priority to culture and discourse; who paid special attention to matters of gender, race, and ethnicity; who promised to write an imperial history without nostalgia; and who refused to take nations as given, but instead favored explanations in terms of “circuits” or “webs” or “global interconnections.” For the new imperial historians, Britain would no longer count as central, even in the British Empire. For a while, Antoinette Burton was pushing the term “critical imperial history.” (See Part II of Burton’s Empire in Question (2011: 122ff.).) What has become clear over time, as the new histories of empire have aged out of their novelty, is that these putatively critical historians have tended to restate the claims of an older imperial historiography. “New” and “critical” histories of an empire without a British center dovetail with older and apologetic accounts of British imperial absentmindedness, lack of coordination, reliance on local elites, and, in general, the limits of British power in the colonies. Conversely, when the inheritors of the older imperial history step forward to refurbish their case, often in defiance of the new imperial historians, they nonetheless avail themselves of the tropes of “networks” and “native agency” first touted by their rivals.

[iii] Thomas’s way of defending empire is to call it “cosmopolitan”: “This book has emphasized the cosmopolitanism of the Pacific during the nineteenth century.” (182) His second example of this mindset arrives in the book’s opening pages, in the form of three men from an island near New Guinea who were abducted by the Spanish in the early 1500s—forced onto a ship, made worldly by the European explorers who seized them; they are evidence of “a particular cultural condition … that of cosmopolitanism,” which the author seems to think of as to be affirmed even when involuntary. (3-4) The new histories of empire congratulate kidnap victims on the occasion of their expanded horizons. “Empire,” Thomas ends up concluding, was “replete with possibilities, marked out by travels, possible travels, and travels of the mind.” (297) John Darwin, meanwhile, introduces two more devices to the liberal defense of empire: First, he considers dropping the term empire itself. Darwin’s first career retrospective is called The Empire Project (2011), and the trick of that title is that it both uses the word empire and offers to negate it. The British pursued the project of empire, which to that extent was less than a thing: a projective empire, aspirational, underway, incomplete, in some large part imagined. In the text itself, he often refers to “the British world-system” or to “British connections” and at one point to “the Britannic association.” (159) Second, then, and already apparent in those last two formulations, Darwin describes the British Empire in a strongly horizontalist idiom borrowed from network theory: The Empire was “a large, loose, decentralized confederacy,” a “network of alliances,” “not a structure” but a “web.” (69, 97, 1) It falls to Henry Kamen (2002), then, in his work on the Spanish Empire, to combine Nicholas Thomas’s bluntly imperial cosmopolitanism with Darwin’s ontologically flattened non-empire. Kamen’s distinctive tic is obsessively to negate the word conquest: “There was, literally, no conquest of the islands.” (65) “Castilians of subsequent generations tended to assume that they had conquered Italy. There was no real basis for the belief.” (65) “When the Spaniards extended their energies to the lands beyond the ocean, they did not … conquer them.” (95) “There was never in any real sense a ‘conquest’ of America, for the Spaniards never had the men or resources to conquer it.” (121) “collaboration rather than ‘conquest’” (122) The Spanish had “never been in a position to conquer any overseas territories or plant its banner anywhere” (169) “the year 1573 marked a fundamental change of direction in royal policy that affected not only Europe but the whole empire. … conquest was no longer to be an objective.” (187) ”The possibility of ‘conquest’ did not arise, for there were never adequate Spanish men or weapons” (254) The monarchy “definitively banned further conquests in America” (255) Kamen finally just puts scare quotes around the “Spanish Empire” on p. 153, convinced as he is that the political formation he is describing was neither Spanish nor an empire—an empire “in theory,” but actually “a complex international network” “a cosmopolitan network” of multiethnic endeavor, a “vast commercial enterprise” with “the outward form of an empire,” a spur to the ingenuity and energy of people other than the Spanish. (170, 289, 297)

[iv] See, for instance Jennings 1984, Webb 1995, Webb 2013. Ian Steele (2000: 384) begins his review of Oberg’s Dominion and Civility like so: “The likelihood that promoters of empire were more humanely inclined towards Amerindians than were their colonists may be another obvious truth finally returning from banishment by indiscriminate anti-imperialists.”

One especially notable variant of this position is visible in John Thornton’s Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World (1992). The book’s core argument, at least in its first half, is that West African elites were full and eager participants in the Atlantic slave trade. Before 1680 and perhaps thereafter, Europeans neither created nor even much transformed the workings of the region’s already existing trade in captives. The most important thing to know about the market for slaves is that it was well-established, distinctively African, and big enough to accommodate the entry of the Europeans as just one more set of customers. That’s the argument. Rhetorically, then, one of the book’s most conspicuous features is its reliance on the terms Africa and Africans, as the title already indicates. It is not uncommon to find other historians remarking that race was a creation of the slave trade itself—that sailors couldn’t know themselves to be white or European until they arrived on the coast of Guinea, just as the Igbo and Yoruba couldn’t know themselves to be black or African. (Among many other instances, see Rediker 2007: 261. But Thornton uses the terms European and African without comment, and the cunning of this move is that it allows a defense of Europeans to masquerade as a critique of Eurocentrism. Thornton says that his book is de-centering Europe, by asking that we hail the slave trade as an African accomplishment and a sign of the continent’s strength. Submerging the difference between slave states and their quarry is the precondition to those claims, since it is plainly impossible to see the slave trade as announcing the strength of all Africans equally. Having declared European merchants marginal to the slave trade, Thornton is now able to say that “Europeans did not pillage Africa” and that they introduced no “monopolistic distortions of trade.” (53, 65) The critique of Eurocentrism is called upon to testify to English and Portuguese virtue. Other rhetorical choices follow on from there, all made possible by the dedifferentiated word African: Thornton says repeatedly that the Atlantic slave trade was “peaceful” and that it was “voluntary”—that such, indeed, were the unappreciated hallmarks of the trade: “we must accept that African participation in the slave trade was voluntary” (124) The European relationship to West Africa was a matter of “peaceful regulated trade.” (38) Thornton’s book is improbable in at least one further respect—a book that proclaims its allegiance to Braudelian world-systems history while arguing that the linking to the oceanic system of its chosen region changed that region in no important way.

 

[v] On frontier stories and Westerns, see Slotkin 1973, 1985, 1992.

How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 2

PART ONE IS HERE. PART THREE IS COMING SOON.

That this major American historian is writing in defense of his preferred version of empire has been so little remarked upon that it is probably worth pausing here to establish the point separately.[i] What bothers White is not empire per se, but empire in a certain mode—not the subtle remaking of native institutions to the benefit of the French, but the blunt assertion of sovereignty more typical of the other European powers, their wholesale replacement of indigenous institutions, and the easy recourse they took to coercion. The Middle Ground thus rehearses the familiar motifs of late twentieth-century anti-imperialism only to recommend to our attention an alternative program of colonization: empire with a light touch. The book is to that extent best read as an invitation to relax one’s pro-indigenous stringency, to saunter back from yes-the-white-nationalist-but-also-the-pan-Indian margins and to rejoin the political center, which is where temperate varieties of empire live. Some of his judgments in defense of empire are so forthright that it must have taken his early readers a certain effort to overlook them: On p. 143, he describes French hegemony in the Great Lakes region as “benevolent.” In the introduction, he invites us to think of the colonial frontier as a place where “diverse people adjust their differences.” (x) [ii] The French settlers’ willingness to “create a common world” with the Great Lakes Indians went hand in hand with their determination to “sustain the French empire rather than defy it.” (316) When White pensively describes war between Indians and Europeans as “a rejection of a common world,” what we need to hear is his determination to keep Europeans in the mix, his preemptive closing off of anti-colonial struggle as undesirable and not just as ill-omened. (388) One might worry, of course, that the adjective “anti-colonial” is my own Third-Worldist back-projection in this context, the remaking of Pittsburgh into Vietnam or Algeria. But other historians are confident they can show that Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley generated North America’s first systematically anti-European and even anti-white belief system, a millenarian and self-consciously indigenist revival movement that eventuated both in a region-wide Indian uprising against Anglo settlers and, after that uprising’s failure, persistent appeals to the British and US governments to set and enforce a fixed border, the wager being that by surrendering the East Coast, the native Americans would be able to secure the rest of the continent as a kind of greater Indiana. Historians of the Great Lakes region always have the option, at least, of centering their story on such a politics. It seems to have been a key feature of the historical scene. White, however, is nowhere closer to the Anglo settlers who are the nominal villains of his piece than in his undiscriminating dismissal of all such border talk. Racial hostility, he writes, “drew lines across which friendship could not pass”—and he makes this claim of a period in which the major Indian political demand was for the drawing of a line. (395) Later, White singles out for special praise one ethnically Irish trader and sometime squatter on Indian land as a man “to whom the boundaries meant nothing.” (393) The historian, having given every indication that he will side with the Indians against the Anglo-Americans determined to displace them, nonetheless embraces the Indian policy of Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson: Boundaries mean nothing.[iii]

If White’s refurbished colonialism has been nonetheless easy to miss, then this has something to do with his writing style, which sometimes cops to its own imperialism, but mostly doesn’t. That The Middle Ground trades in geopolitical euphemism can be established in at least two different ways. First, one can read other historians of the eighteenth-century frontier, carefully logging the terms they use to describe relationships between Indians and their French governors, and then checking to see where White’s idiom falls on the spectrum of really existing rhetorical choices. The word to wonder about here is “allies,” which White favors: The French built an alliance in the Great Lakes region. A large and varied group of Indians became allies to the French. Turning to other books, one finds a major historian of the Seven Years’ War referring to “client communities” and “subordinated groups” (Anderson 2005: 17). An older historian of Pontiac’s Rebellion refers to “the French-dominated Indians” (Peckham 1947: 32). One important historian of Pontiac’s Rebellion refers to the Ottawa as “partners in empire,” a suggestively broken-backed term that simultaneously suggests French supremacy and rough parity for at least one group of Indians (Dowd 2002: 41). The Ottawa figure here either as coconspirators in their own subjugation or as comrades in the project to reduce other indigenous groups. One is thereby reminded that alliances with indigenous people, brokered by code-switching intermediaries, have been a regular feature of US expansion. The Americans recruited the Oneida and Tuscarora against the British; they recruited the Creek against the Seminole, the Pawnee and Crow against the Sioux; they recruited the Filipinos against the Spanish, and then recruited Spanish-trained Filipino soldiers against Filipino guerrillas and nationalists. Such alliances are not, as White would have it, the antithesis of Anglo-American empire—its alternative and eventual casualty. They have instead been one of that empire’s more persistent features (Grynaviski 2018).

But the most striking feature of White’s writing is not its penchant for euphemism, which, after all, is the coin in which imperial writing typically pays, but the latter’s tendency, in White’s hands, to de-euphemize, the tendency, I mean, for the flexible and multiracial liberalism that White posits to revert back to rigidly imperial poses. This brings us to the second way of sussing out euphemism in The Middle Ground. For that volume is often constrained to name its object in two different ways at once. It will be enough to cite the two most consequential instances:

1) What White typically names “alliance,” he sometimes calls “patriarchy”—a French patriarchy, that is, or at least a patriarchy with a French father—as when he describes the frontier as “the patriarchal union of empire and village.” (406) That he means this last as a term of praise, no less than “alliance” itself, is readily established: “Governor Duquesne … forgave [the Indians] in the manner of a stern but loving father, crediting his mercy to the intercession of his loyal children…” (232) Or there’s this, some two hundred pages later: “Patriarchy was in sad disrepair along the Wabash [River].” (424) It is the clash of these two categories, “patriarchy” and “alliance,” that sounds on those rare occasions when White uses them both in the same sentence: “the relationship of French fathers to their [Indian] children, that is, … relations of political and military alliance.” (96; see also, 104-5) What we won’t want to miss here is the flubbed synonymy, the unconvincing alignment of a horizantalist political register with the vocabulary of paternal authority and sociopolitical hierarchy. The autonomy and equality granted native people by the word “alliance” has been canceled in advance by the word “children,” which is to say, by the figuring of Indians as the Europeans’ juniors and wards, fantastic sons who will never become fathers in their own right, permanent minors in a patriarchy that has eliminated its otherwise defining principle of generational succession.

2) The Middle Ground is also fond of the word “mediator,” which is both implicit in its title and central to its argument. We thus read in the opening pages that the French gained a foothold amidst the Great Lakes only once they “became the mediators of a regional [Indian] alliance” (23)—by offering themselves as intermediaries between native groups, settling outstanding disputes, devising a shared political project, &c. The book also recommends to our attention a sequence of key figures over the course of the long eighteenth century—indigenophile Europeans, Europhile Indians, a half dozen mixed-race men—mediators of a second kind, then, the brokers who combatted the tendency of the frontier to polarize into distrust and recrimination, the go-betweens capable of discerning and need be inventing common interests between Indians and Europeans, mitigating cultural conflict, explaining each group to the other, and so on. Such people are plainly the architects and custodians of the middle ground. And yet a second term sneaks in behind “mediation” to challenge its claims. Late in the book, White praises the British for finally getting their Indian policy right during the later stages of the American Revolution: “The alliance the British had forged by the end of the Revolution was as close to the [Indian] conception of an alliance as they had thus far come.” (402) In these pages, White is especially interested in Alexander McKee, a half-Scots-Irish, half white-Shawnee trader who eventually rose to the rank of colonel in the British Indian Department and who functioned as liaison between Indians and the British in the area that would become Michigan. White calls him one of “the skilled Tory chiefs.” He also says this: “McKee, in particular, could manage ‘the Indians to a charm.’” (402) Anyone who has read enough Adorno was going to suspect all along that “mediation” really meant “management.” And yet this is a point that the critical theorist does not have to make on his own apodictic authority. White says as much: The mediator is the skilled manager of Indians. “Without the French,” Indian villages in the upper Midwest “became planets without a sun. There was nothing to keep them in their orbits, and they collided and clashed.” (274) This is how the history of the American West gets rewritten to accommodate contemporary preoccupations: Gone are the hunters and trappers and wrestlers of Arkansas bear. Into their place step culturally adroit administrators—the HR coordinators and freelance diversity consultants of the backcountry—who now become the heroes of an American epic. The result is a book that celebrates the patient recruiting of native people to European policies and priorities. Against conquest, The Middle Ground celebrates the negotiated takeover of Indian life.

MORE SOON.

[i] Historians have been busy revising and in some cases rejecting White’s account on empirical grounds. See especially the forum on “The Middle Ground Revisited” in The William and Mary Quarterly, 63.1 (2006), pp. 3 – 96. One might also consult Havard 2003 and Rushforth 2012. I would like to thank Guillaume Aubert for these references.

[ii] Fantasies of a more humane imperialism recur across the literature on colonial North America. Here’s Neal Salisbury (2000: 679), reviewing a book—Michael Oberg’s Dominion and Civility: English Imperialism and Native America, 1586 – 1685 (2003)—that takes itself to be documenting the fragility and failure of biracial society in the seventeenth century: “Michael Oberg reminds us that, from the beginning, imagined possibilities of coexistence with native peoples were as fully a part of Anglo-American public discourse as their less humane alternatives.”

[iii] That White was recommending the Middle Ground as a political model was recognized by at least one early reviewer. See James Clifton (1993: 283 – 284): “Underlying the author’s account of this Golden Age of Indian-European relationships in the Great Lakes area is an idealized, normative implication. Here may be the moral text he extracts as a lesson for our own, present consideration.” On the anti-colonial politics of many Ohio Valley Indians, see Gregory Evans Down 2002.  It is worth noting that variants of White’s position are now so common as to constitute the dominant position among imperial historians. They are more or less the Official Liberal Line on the history of empire. Tristram Hunt (2014: 9), an academic historian and Labour politician with a biography of Friedrich Engels under his belt, has remarked that the British should get out of the habit of renouncing the Empire as oppressive. Empire did more than visit slavery and famine upon vulnerable peoples; it involved “exchange, interaction, and adaptation.” John Darwin (2013: 11), senior historian of empire at Oxford, writes that imperial history is “not just a story of domination and subjection but something more complicated: the creation of novel or hybrid societies in which notions of governance, economic assumptions, religious values, and morals, ideas about property, and conceptions of justice, conflicted and mingled, to be reinvented, refashioned, tried out or abandoned.” This is the Raj as think tank or pilot program.

How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 1

This essay will also appear in boundary 2 later this year.

How much can a reader guess about a book just from its title? I place on your desk a volume whose title reads, in part, Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650 – 1815, and wonder what sort of expectations it raises in you, before you’ve even flipped it open.[i] There is already much that you’ll be able to anticipate, just by reading those nine words—or there will be if your old American history courses have stuck: that the book will offer an account of the French colonial Midwest, surveying the further reaches of the French sphere of influence in North America, in the regions we now call Wisconsin and Michigan and Illinois and Ohio, though perhaps you’ll have noticed that the book has already pledged to accord the native peoples a certain primacy and to make the Europeans go second: Indians, then empires. The Huron, Delaware, and Iroquois come first. French Canadians and their British rivals will have to wait their turn. The dates, meanwhile, should lead you to expect a chronicle of the long eighteenth century, and this might be enough to suggest a sequence of events: French and then British settlement in the American interior, beyond the Appalachians; the Seven Years’ War; Pontiac’s Rebellion; post-revolutionary wrangling over the British-held forts at Detroit and Niagara; the making of the Northwest Territory; early US campaigns to subdue the Indians of the Ohio Valley and beyond. Those events are no sooner listed than they suggest a classic imperial series: from the uninvaded and indigenous Midwest to the French-imperial Midwest to the British-imperial Midwest to the US Midwest, this last terminal because held in apparent perpetuity.

But what if the book in question is actually called The Middle Ground, as, indeed, it is, before the subtitle that your eyes happened upon first? The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650 – 1815 (White 2010). This is, of course, a book that one might well know about, first published in 1991, a widely acknowledged classic in the field of ethnohistory, written by the historian Richard White, then at the University of Washington, later at Stanford. White has made a career out of writing detailed, methodologically innovative books about how the US ruined its West—more precisely, about the effects of the centralized state (“the federal government”), corporate capitalism, and reckless white settlement on the old landscapes and peoples of Arizona and the Plains and the Pacific Coast. This is a story that White has told at least eight times, five times in duodecimo (in a short book recounting the eco-history of two islands in the Puget Sound, in a second book doing the same for the Columbia River, as well as in extended case studies of the Choctaw, Pawnee, and Navajo), and three times in folio (in a 700-page takedown of nineteenth-century railroad capitalism and in two wide-angle textbooks, A New History of the American West and the volume on the Gilded Age in the Oxford History of the United States) (White 1979, 1996, 1983, 2011, 1991, 2017). Generically, then, White is of abiding interest as a writer of anti-Westerns, the scholar who has figured out how to re-do Arthur Penn movies in abundantly footnoted prose.

By these standards—by the benchmark, I mean, furnished by his own work—The Middle Ground stands out as something a little different. For it is the sole entry in White’s bibliography to present an account of the American West—here the Midwest, the first West, the old Northwest—that is not programmatically demystified and downhearted. Here, for once, amidst the clear-cut forests and the buffalo carcasses, is an American social formation that seems to have gotten something right—and not a strictly aboriginal formation either, but a colonial formation, with Europeans in positions of dominance and Native Americans in positions of submission. The book’s most enticing suggestion—and this, one suspects, has been the secret to its longevity as an academic monograph—is that North America might have been colonized otherwise, or, indeed, that it was for a period so colonized. What most interests White is how the French, in the late seventeenth century, forged a successful alliance out of the otherwise hard-pressed Indians of the Great Lakes region—a looser version of the Iroquois Confederation, if you like, made up of the Iroquois’s traditional enemies to the west, and sustained by ongoing diplomatic improvisation, with the French in the role of leading tribe, hence with Montreal or Quebec City in the place of Onondaga. White means us to grasp that the French were not, under these circumstances, performing what the casual student of history assumes is the ordinary labor of colonization. They were not building Francophone courts in Indian country to enforce French-style laws issued in France. Nor were they enclosing the forests and fields of aboriginal Michigan in order to transfer that land, tract-wise and as private property, to French owners. Nor were they building the schoolhouses in which Ojibwa and Potawatomi children were expected to read Molière. Instead, the French placed themselves at the head of something that very much resembled an indigenous political formation, which they then put to French-imperial purposes, with mixed and temporary success. In the process, they introduced to the shores of the big lakes European goods and European warfare and a more or less modified version of Catholicism, and these each to be sure induced innovations in native society. But at the same time, the French leadership had to adjust to Indian understandings of justice (no trials!) and to Indian understandings of the economy (trade involves giving lots of stuff away!). The French, in other words, quickly realized they had no chance of remaking Indian villages into Little Gasconies and so learned to adapt, with the European governor of Canada functioning not as imperial sovereign, but merely as a kind of super-chief. From this baseline, the rest of White’s story is quickly told: The British eventually claimed control over the region, but didn’t have the same knack for accommodation and cultural reinvention. The Anglo-Americans, when making states out of Michigan and Illinois, rejected this mode altogether.

The other thing to know about The Middle Ground is that it was a sensation when it was first published, at least in the corner of the academy where its arguments most mattered, passed around by graduate students, the immediate occasion for conference panels and redesigned syllabi. It went on to win four major awards—including, maliciously, the Francis Parkman Prize—and was nominated for a Pulitzer. In 2010, it was accorded a twentieth-anniversary edition. But none of this can be gleaned from its title alone. The list of awards you would have to look up. Just by itself, however, the phrase “middle ground,” communicates three meanings, which it thereby conjoins.[ii]

First, the term “middle ground” calls to mind the Midwest, even though that designator has been officially banished from the book as an Americanizing anachronism. Detroit didn’t use to lie in the Midwest, a term that becomes intelligible only once there are more remote American Wests to set it off against, after the US has raised its flag over Colorado and Oregon. The term “middle ground” gets close to “Midwest” but doesn’t use the word and is thus how White insinuates a certain proleptic Americanism without committing an outright gaffe. If I recall now that the term Middle West used to co-exist with Midwest, as variant, then we can see just how clearly White is flirting with twentieth-century nomenclature, though it is doubtless striking that it is the second word—the compass point—that this great historian of the West has elected to drop. This, of course, is a function of his making native Americans central to his story—of his needing us to grasp what it was that drove some people, indigenous people, to enter eastwards into Ohio—though it may also reflect the exasperation of a professor on the Pacific Coast weary of reminding his students that most of the Midwest lies east of the Mississippi.

Second, the term “middle ground” calls to mind the frontier, though this term, too, appears nowhere in the book, expunged, one assumes, for its unshakeable associations with Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, and cowboy lore. The term frontier, near-Gallicism though it is, beating out words like borderlands and marches to name territories once claimed by the French, has come to mean “the advance guard of Anglo-Saxon civilization” and so gets struck from this otherwise Francophile book. Such, at any rate, has been the polemically revisionist appeal of White’s title, which promises to teach readers how to conceive of the pioneer zones of white settlement, especially those regions where indigenous people continued to outnumber Europeans, as something other than “the frontier,” though one is obliged to note that for this substitution to take, the term “middle ground” has to preserve core features of the concept it is claiming to negate. “The middle ground,” whatever its nifty trick of turning edge into center, has to be enough like “the frontier” to fit into the slots vacated by the now superseded term. In the American context, after all, “the frontier” has always meant “regions where European-style institutions are present but weak,” and this remains one of the most salient features of Richard White’s account. The phrase “middle ground” both overwrites the word “frontier” and compulsively restates its claims. Anyone unable to appreciate this quandary might pause here to consider how the term middle ground renders its two geographical flanks, whatever is not middle—on the one side, the Indian country of Minnesota, Iowa, and points further west, on the other side, the Europeanized territories of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, &c. What we’ll want to note first is that the term “middle ground” tends to render equivalent these two outlying regions, as though white settlers occupied the Atlantic Coast on roughly the same terms that Native Americans occupied the trans-Mississippi. Each group then exited what we are encouraged to think of as its home base and entered a third space, a neutral tranche belonging to neither of them, like a family from New Jersey and a family from southern Virginia agreeing to meet for a weekend in Washington, DC. This, to say the least, is a tendentious way of conceptualizing the arrival of Europeans in the aboriginal American interior. We’ll want to note, for a start, how much the notion of “the middle ground” cedes to the Europeans, not least by conceptually giving away the East Coast, which no longer counts as “middle” and so barely even registers as colonized, even though White’s chosen period also includes King Philip’s War, the re-settlement of the Mohicans in Berkshire County, MA, colonial border wars in New Hampshire and Maine, and the creation, on Martha’s Vineyard and in New Jersey, of the northern continent’s first Native American reservations. What “the middle ground” takes away from white settlers in Ohio and Michigan, it gives back to them in Connecticut and the Carolinas.[iii]

Third, the term “middle ground” is the figure of speech most associated with political moderation—with triangulation and the Third Way and (paradigmatically Midwestern) swing voters. This gets us to the remarkable point that readers might be able to guess before they’ve even opened the book: that Richard White has produced an account of the frontier designed to make it attractive to centrist liberals. The title alone tells you as much, though the rest of the book bears the hunch out. This is a bit odd, naturally, because we can be sure that, if our subject is Lake Erie circa 1690, there were no liberals on the scene. That the task of White’s book is nonetheless to turn the frontier into the home of a certain liberalism is confirmed by dozens of formulations: “Compromise,” we read, was both “typical of” and “intrinsic in” “the middle ground.” (112, 518) When historians and anthropologists first reviewed White’s book in the early 1990s, it was the analgesic pluralism of his argument that they tended to emphasize, a pluralism that they typically framed in cultural terms: the book documents “interchange” among “the melding societies of Europe and America,” a “continual process of discovery, learning, and adaptation” or, again, a world of “intercultural experimentation and adaptation.” There was a period in the late twentieth century when a person could make his career as a historian by applying to the earliest stages of white settlement language manifestly borrowed from study-abroad recruitment literature. Even so, we can be sure that the political idiom is not foreign to White’s purposes, because he speaks openly of the “political [and not just the cultural] middle ground.” (224) The territorial middle ground hosts the ideological middle ground; the colonial periphery produces tolerance and political reasonableness. The book functions accordingly as one big sorting mechanism for dividing the imperialists who pursued what it calls a “moderate course” (the French most of the time, the British sometimes) from those who didn’t. (203) Eventually, White will conclude that the French lost their empire in North America because they “abandoned the politics of the middle ground.” (227) And with that observation, the historian discreetly delivers his communiqué to the contemporary reader. The via media is how a great power hangs on to its overseas possessions. Moderation is the imperial virtue. One is thereby reminded just how often the language of moderation coincides with the language of empire and westward expansion. A “concession” is a British trading enclave in China. If you and I have negotiated our way out of a dispute, then we have reached a “settlement.” One of the words that most often modifies “compromise” is “Missouri.”

MORE SOON.

 

[i] I would like to thank the essay’s first readers: Alicia Maggard, Richard King, Vivasvan Soni, and the editors of boundary 2.

[ii] Daniel Richter describes the buzz around the book’s publication in his review in the William and Mary Quarterly (Richter 1992: 715). The prizes were: The Francis Parkman Prize, the Albert J. Beveridge Award, the Albert B. Corey Prize, and the James A. Rawley Prize.

[iii] On indigenous New England in the period, see, among many others: Mandell 2010, Frazier 1994, Clark 1970, Railton 2012.

William Cowper, The Georgic, and the Unwritten Literature of the 1780s

 

PART 1

This essay original appeared in boundary 2 (August 2017).

 

Here are some titles that literary historians will not find in their databases and library catalogues: They will not find British Literature and the American Revolution Crisis. There is no monograph on The English Anti-Federalist Novel. John Adams and English Romanticism has yet to be written.[i] These missing volumes point, in turn, to some novels and poems that never appeared: works like Charlotte Smith’s Ellery; or The Rebel (1786), a novel about an English republican who leaves for Pennsylvania in 1773. Over the course of a decade, he sends letters home defending the conduct of the Americans against their British governors; he has a lot to say about the management of farms in the mid-Atlantic, though he also, in the novel’s mooniest pages, describes cascades on the outskirts of Philadelphia; in Delaware once he stares down a panther; the entire time he is trying to woo a young English woman away from her monarchist family, former Dissenters who have returned to the Church of England and grown rich by selling sauerkraut to the Royal Navy. In the final volume, he is captured by Clinton’s soldiers and delivered over to a prison ship anchored off of Long Island, from which he nonetheless continues to send letters; these finally dislodge Fanny-best-of-women from her crooked family; she makes the hard passage across the Atlantic, secures Ellery’s release from British custody, and nurses him back from starvation. With the war winding down, the two marry and move to a Washington County homestead.

That novel was never written, though it probably should have been. Its nonoccurrence, like the stubborn nihility of all the other long works on American themes, presents a real puzzle to the scholar. Where is the missing literature of the 1780s? Anyone studying the fall of the French monarchy doesn’t have this problem. To say that “English Romanticism was about the French Revolution” is as good a way as any to start thinking about it. It’s what a teacher might tell the students on the first day of a seminar: that innovative English poetry in the 1790s was a response to 1789, a cross-Channel heralding of the Great Event, maybe even an attempt to re-do it in verse.[ii] But then where are all the titles to flatter an American? If Southey and Coleridge eventually decided not to establish a communist utopia on the Susquehanna, couldn’t they have at least gotten a few major poems out of the idea? Couldn’t Wordsworth have fathered a bastard in Virginia? Literary historians have discovered the French Revolution all over British letters in the 1790s, right down to the children’s books. Partisans of the American war, meanwhile, hoping to discover their revolution in print, are stuck scouring the minor works of Samuel Johnson, or reverting back to reliably forthright political pamphlets, or discussing novels so forgotten you need a travel grant to Yale to so much as read them (Giles 2009). Eliga Gould has recently confirmed an old point about the American Revolution, which is that it had remarkably little effect on British politics; it didn’t much change the way that Britain’s political class thought about its empire; a basically depoliticized British populace did eventually register a certain war weariness, but defeat did not harden them against their own institutions; and crown and Parliament dusted themselves off by simply consolidating their power over Britain’s remaining holdings (in India and Canada and the Caribbean) (Gould 2000; see also Dickinson 1998). Wanting to read what the British poets had to say about the American Revolution, and finding ourselves in front of an all but empty desk, we might venture a properly literary version of Gould’s point: It was always going to be hard to find a rhyme for “Saratoga”; apparently no-one thought it important enough to try.

If you’re part of the transatlantic or globalizing turn in eighteenth-century studies, you might find such observations petty, smacking as they do of nationalist jealousies, the resentment of one writing from Vermont and wanting something more to read than Blake’s belated America (1793). But the cosmopolitans have it even worse than the literary patriots, since hard though it is to find long poems and fictions from the eighteenth century that take the American Revolution as their object or even their backdrop, it is harder still to find ones that describe the Revolution as a global event. This, in turn, opens up to a more general point: There are lots of compelling reasons one can give to study eighteenth-century literature from a transnational vantage. Early American writers obviously didn’t start from scratch, devising entirely new literary genres and forms to consecrate the nation. They mostly adopted British models. We know that Brockden Brown was William Godwin’s biggest fan and that the Connecticut Wits had studied their Pope, which suggests that we can study the circumatlantic pathways of poetic forms as we would those of Quakerism or salt cod. Similarly, we can find a certain Americanism, in Britain, among republican writers in the generation after 1776, hitching a ride on their French enthusiasms and perhaps half-hidden by them; this is best thought of as a geopolitical mutation in older traditions of radical English dissent—Milton by way of Massachusetts. Alternately, literary internationalists can lay out the ways that godly writers in early New England began puzzling out their relation to Atlantic capitalism. Or they can point out that the local situations that American fictions describe themselves had transnational or global determinants (Giles 2009, Shapiro 2008, Burnham 2007).

But what the Atlanticists will almost never find are fictions that actively and obstrusively de-localize their own narratives, following concurrent events in (or on) multiple colonies, states, and continents. It is a hallmark of the new Atlantic history that it crosses old borders in unexpected ways—that it excitedly discovers Scots living in seventeenth-century Panama and Basques on the coast of Newfoundland. But the period’s own novels and romances almost never cross such borders. Historians, it turns out, are much better than fiction writers at reconstructing spider-web diasporas. Even the most obvious candidates for the title of Atlantic novel resist that description: Robinson Crusoe, for instance, is precisely not a novel about the globe. Its hero is first offered various forms of provincial success—he could set up as small merchant or farmer in northern England; he could become a tobacco planter in Brazil—and in each case he rejects such landedness in favor of the new forms of global aspiration: he wants to make his fortune by adventuring at sea and around the colonies. And yet the novel ends up punishing this maritime Crusoe, which is to say that it ends up rejecting his planetary adventurism, both ideologically and narratively, and it does this by as it were grounding him, confining the would-be epic wanderer to some pinprick of Caribbean earth. A novel that on the face of it looks like a global story turns out to be resolutely anti-global, especially in the long middle section for which it is most famous: artisanal—Crusoe learns how to make pottery, Crusoe learns how to bake bread; minutely territorial; among the most geographically circumscribed novels in the English canon. The historians of empire argue that the American colonies were commonly seen as simple extensions of Britain in the eighteenth century, a Fringe more-than-Celtic, the Outermost Hebrides.[iii] They have a lot of evidence for this, but then we are still obliged to point out that there were in the period almost no fictions that depicted a fused Atlantic, an interlocking but multi-territorial British nation. Our erudition allows us to spot the transatlantic borrowings in eighteenth-century American letters, but the works in question do not flag those borrowings qua borrowings or encourage us to see them as oceanic. They silently transplant whatever conventions they have imported: Godwin masquerades as Pennsylvania-born. Twickenham rebuilds itself in the Litchfield Hills. An Atlantic history of literature imposes its frame on a body of writing that is itself almost never transatlantic.

The point is especially true of novels. Indeed, one of the many surprises of eighteenth-century writing is how much easier a time poetry has talking about global affairs, mostly, I think, because poetry remained comfortable with forms of linguistic compression or abstraction that prose fiction had already, for the most part, given up on: “With what an awful world-revolving power / Were first the unwieldy planets launched along / The illimitable void” (Kaul 2000; Thomson 1727: 32-4). This is perhaps reason enough to be interested in a long poem published in 1785: a poem that lots of people once loved, by William Cowper, called The Task, which basically records a set of meditations entertained by the poet while hiking around Buckinghamshire. The poem was published less than two years after peace was announced between Britain and the United States; it addresses the war directly; it was, in fact, one of the first long poems to do so. Among British poets, Cowper is pretty much what we’ve got by way of literary first-responders. More curious, The Task is an oddball instance of what’s usually called the georgic, which is species of countryside poetry, designed for describing local landscapes, which means it seems singularly ill-suited for reckoning with global events. A quick comparison will underscore the problem: When American authors began drafting long poems after the revolution, they took to writing epics, not georgics: Joel Barlow published the Vision of Columbus in 1787; Timothy Dwight published The Conquest of Canaan in 1785, the same year as The Task.[iv] And epics, of course, can seem ready-made for recounting war and the founding of nations; if you’re going to write a poem about a revolution, the epic is the go-to genre, which makes a person wonder what Cowper thought he was doing writing landscape verse.

More: Cowper was a fervent evangelical; he saw himself as trying to revive the seventeenth-century modes of piety that we used to call Puritan; and he came from a prominent Whig family and himself spoke in the accents of a radicalized Whiggery, the kind of idiom that was central to revolutionary politics in North America. A neo-Puritan and Commonwealth man: to speak crudely, Cowper can easily seem like an American figure, fully part of the Atlantic constellation in a way that not all Britons were. Indeed, Cowper was, by the standards of Warburton-era evangelism, unusually republican, unwilling to follow eighteenth-century Puritanism’s royalist and authoritarian turn. The point is: If you want to figure out what is distinctive about Cowper’s poem, it’s not much use looking at his biography or his stated convictions, because a man of his cast could easily write in other poetic modes. Cowper and his American allies held similar beliefs, but they had different ways of telling a story, which means different ways of making sense of history or of making the recent past intelligible. They came to the American war with different temporal schemes. The Americans made the easy choice; they each wrote an American Aeneid, a kind of Carolina Liberata, which means we can put them to one side so as to ask the harder question: Do poems others than epics have ways of making sense of planetary events? How exactly did the globe enter into British poetry in the years of imperial crisis? And how can you even talk about a distant revolution in a poem that seems to be mostly about gardening?

 

MORE TO COME…

[i] Here are some titles a scholar will find: America in English Fiction, 1760-1800: The Influences of the American Revolution (Heilman 1937); Atlantic Republic: The American Tradition in English Literature (Giles 2009);  Americans in British Literature, 1770-1832: A Breed Apart (Flynn 2008); and perhaps most saliently, Entertaining Crisis in the Atlantic Imperium, 1770-1790 (Quinn 2011), which is a kind of The War for America and the London Stage.

[ii] For a comprehensive bibliography on this subject, see Grenby 2006.

[iii] For one important account of this British America, as seen from its western shores, see Greene 1988.

[iv] Modern editions of all three poems are available: The Task in Cowper 1968, but in many other places besides; The Conquest of Canaan in Dwight 1969; and The Columbiad in Barlow 1970. I discuss Barlow at length in Thorne 2006.

Illegals, Part 2

PART ONE IS HERE. 

ALLEGORICAL COMPLEXITY #1—Super 8, eventually :

You can think of this as a tip for reading: When you are trying to make sense of an allegory, it is not enough to list the resemblances between the allegorical construct and its real-world referent, between the spaceman and the Jewish fugitive; you’ll need to catalogue their divergences, as well. For excess is the permanent condition of allegory. An invented creature never fully disappears into its literal equivalents; the alien is not exhausted by the designation “Jewish.” The reader’s task, then, is not to vaporize a given movie’s specificities, not to absorb them into some higher meaning that, once decrypted, would render the movie itself superfluous. Part of the task is to account, rather, for the allegory’s remainders, the scraps of significance that are left over even once the allegorical identification has been successfully announced. These unattached features are the mark of a contradiction that is internal to allegory; they disclose desires that the world’s already existing names cannot satisfy.

An alien invasion movie of a different kind, then, before we get to Super 8, just to make clear that this point is specific to no one film. The allegory in James Cameron’s Avatar, from 2009, is open-and-shut and, one might object, mostly shut—entirely too neat—elementary and plodding. The movie’s aliens are Indigenous People, a blue-skinned cross between the Chinook and the Zulu, called the Na’vi, which sounds like Navajo + Hopi. But the very obviousness of the allegory ends up producing some interesting effects of its own, for Avatar is so unoverlookably anti-imperialist—anti-imperialist in such a thorough-going way—that no-one who cares about such a politics can afford to just skip it or to write it off too quickly. Its story is certainly familiar; it’s just the twice-told tale about a white guy crossing sides, going native, turning Turk. But a comparative approach would show that the movie actually blows clean past the hedges and outs that typically blight such narratives, and especially the famous recent ones: Dances with Wolves, say, or The Last Samurai. Those movies are easy to hate. The really foul thing about Dances is that Kevin Costner falls in love with an Indian woman, except she isn’t really Indian—she’s the only other white person in the tribe—and you know this because she wears her hair differently, as though the Sioux kept on staff a special whites-only beautician. This only nominally pro-Indian movie goes to completely absurd lengths to prevent inter-racial sex. It is in this sense that the people who insisted that Avatar was nothing more than a live-action replay of FernGully or Disney’s Pocahontas weren’t paying attention. Sure, Avatar borrows from other movies, and yet it distinguishes itself even so by its open-throttle commitment to indigenism and racial treason. Quick—list for me all the other Hollywood movies you’ve seen that end with a vision of white people getting sent back to Europe for good. The movie baptizes everyone who watches it into the end of the American empire.

It does more than that. One of Avatar’s first-order complexities is that the opposing forces on the two sides of its central conflict—the human invaders and the indigenous aliens—have been borrowed from very different periods in the history of empire. The Na’vi call to mind the precolonial Kikuyu or the Algonquin before Columbus, but the movie’s humans are neither Puritan nor pith-helmeted; they are new-model conquistadors, Haliburton-types, the corporate mercenaries of the War on Terror. Avatar asks us to imagine how it would look if the current US army were invading North America or Africa for the first time—What if the Massachusetts Bay Company had employed Blackwater?—which means at the level of the image, the movie manages to insert the Iraq War into some much longer histories, folding Bush-era adventurism into an overarching account of European colonization. To that extent, James Cameron is actually rather smarter about empire than the run-of-the-mill American liberals who talk as though 2003 were some kind of shocking deviation from the fundamental patterns of US history, a freedom-loving nation’s unprecedented deviation into expansion and conquest. And in a similar vein, the movie is willing to dwell, to a quite unusual degree for a blockbuster, on images of imperial atrocity—familiar images, doubtless, if you know that history, but replayed for a global audience with immediacy and renewed grief: The Smurf-Seminoles walk the Trail of Tears.

I also think the movie’s length, about which those prone to headaches might rightfully complain, turns out to be its great asset. And the best thing about those 160 minutes is this: Avatar is a utopia hiding in an action movie. The movie is so indulgent that it can afford to give us a protracted utopian sequence, itself almost as long as an ordinary feature film, when, in fact, there is no genre that commercial film avoids more studiously than utopia. My friends who study the form will get huffy at this point: So yes, absolutely, the utopia in Avatar is badly underspecified; it is not much interested in how the Na’vi feed or govern themselves. It approaches the better society almost only through the natives’ theology. But in some respects, this is actually where the movie is at its most ingenious. Cameron, who as I write is crawling on his hands and knees around the Mariana Trench, has found a way to put his pricey 3D-technology in the service of utopia—or at least of a certain pantheism, which in this case is almost the same thing. As a sensory experience, the movie obviously feels new and exhilarating, and I want to say that in some almost Ruskinite way, the film is determined to revitalize your sensorium, to create a constant sense of wonder at the simple fact that we all live in a three-dimensional world. The movie obviously makes a big deal of the characters being connected, being able to interface with nature, to plug into it, in a way that is both technological and shamanistic, and I think the movie thereby provides its own gloss on its technological ambitions: It’s as though Cameron thinks he can use the most advanced technology that a director has ever commanded to approximate in the viewer a basically vitalist and world-adoring attitude.

But then it is precisely here that instability takes over. It is here, I mean, that we have to shift from naming the ways in which the Na’vi are most like Amazonians to naming where they are least so. Avatar is not only putting in front of us an indigenism; it is putting in front of us a technologized indigenism, and there is something about this latter that is odd and finally unsatisfying. That point comes in a specific form and a general one. Here’s the specific one. The biggest innovation in twentieth-century warfare was air power: the bi-plane, the bomber, firebombing, the atomic bomb, napalm, no-fly zones, shock and awe, assassin drones, death from above. Air power is what has permanently shifted the global balance of power to the hyper-technological nations. And the movie’s trick—ingenious in a sense, but also silly—is to give the indigenous a Luftwaffe: Dragons! The flying monsters, in other words, are the equalizer that makes the movie’s political allegory work, but they are themselves entirely non-allegorizable, which means that the entire system of correspondences actually starts coming unglued around them.

In other words, the movie’s politics are at heart fake, because it is trying to imagine a people who live in harmony with nature, who get by without advanced technology, but it has to give them the equivalent of helicopters, because if they didn’t have the equivalent of helicopters, they would get wiped out by the Helicopter People of Earth. But then the movie is ducking the really hard political question, which is: How might a non-technological people actually survive? How could they defend themselves against the cyborg nations who would steal their land and resources? Avatar dodges those questions, and so ends up being just another impotent historical fantasia.

The broader version of that point, meanwhile, is this: It’s well known that the sci-fi movies that most distrust technology are the ones that rely on it most extensively, but Avatar radicalizes that paradox in both directions. It was upon release the most technologically advanced movie ever made, and yet it is utterly, committedly elfin and eco- in its ideology. But then in another sense, that very antithesis is breached, because the movie devises ways to comprehensively sneak technology back into nature itself. The forest paths light up, as though electrically, when the Na’vi tread on them. The aborigines plug their ponytails into animals and trees as into Ethernet ports or wall sockets. Their manes have slim, wavy organic tendrils, which however also look like fibers or cables. And the Sigourney Weaver character at one point openly compares all this to a computer: the natives are jacking into the planet and downloading information from it. On the one hand, this is itself just allegory for what we take to be “the tribal worldview”—being in touch with nature or what have you—and if we accept the entirely plausible idea that indigenous and stateless peoples have been extraordinarily attentive to ecologies—that they were really good at reading landscapes, &c—then this could merely serve as science-fiction shorthand for that skill. What’s remarkable, though, is that Cameron has translated this into a technological image. That’s the other hand. The non-technological understanding of the world gets its technological allegory. So this is what it means to say that allegory yields contradiction. Is the image of plugging into nature technological or not? It is and it isn’t—and this speaks volumes about the movie’s bad faith. A global viewership sides with a pre-technological people only when it emerges that they have the newest gadgets. Avatar reassures its audience that they could go back to the land and actually give up on nothing—that they could go off the grid and still have the grid—that they could move to the Gallatin Range and keep their every last iPhone.

PART THREE IS HERE…

Special thanks to Crystal Bartolovich, who convinced me to take the role of technology in Avatar much more seriously than I was initially inclined to and who has much more to say on the topic in her forthcoming Natural History of the Common. For a preview of her argument, see also this interview.

The New Way Forward in the Middle West

 

A few quick observations about Zowie Bowie’s Source Code, from earlier this year.

But first, the plot: A terrorist has just blown up a commuter train on the outskirts of Chicago, killing hundreds, and is headed downtown to hit Play on a dirty bomb, which will kill thousands more. Government scientists send a US soldier back in time—onto the train, ante-boom—and instruct him to identify the bomber. The soldier, however, is operating under two major constraints: First, he hasn’t exactly been teleported onto the train. He is, in fact, already dead; portions of his brain are being kept alive; and it’s only his consciousness that has been lobbed backwards into the day’s bad start. In order to conduct his investigation, therefore, he will have to occupy the body of some civilian already on the train; he will have to take as his avatar one of the attack’s imminent victims. Second, the government’s time-travel technology can only project him back eight minutes before the event, which interval he will have to relive over and over again until he can give the government a name: eight minutes—whoosh!—mass death—almost had it—and again, please—a fresh eight minutes are on the clock, like injury time….

 

•OBSERVATION #1:

The movie is set almost entirely in Chicago, and yet its plot is closely modeled on the invasions of Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq. That the detective-soldier is actually an Air Force helicopter pilot recently shot down by the Taliban is enough to establish that the movie has the war on terror on its mind. But it’s the soldier’s character arc—the transformation he has to undergo in the course of the film—that most powerfully channels the history of the past decade. What’s notable about Source Code—what makes it rather unlike an ordinary action movie—is that its hero keeps failing; he keeps letting the train blow up. The movie thinks it can provide an explanation for this, that it can make clear why an American soldier might be rather bad at stopping terrorists. Or rather, it thinks it can teach you—by teaching him—the difference between anti-terrorism and hapless, counterproductive bullying. At first, the soldier panics; he starts yelling at people; he engages in a little racial profiling; he throws a few punches and before long has drawn a gun on the other passengers. One onlooker asks: “You’re military? You spend a lot of time beating up civilians?” The turning point comes when the living officer running the mission from a government super-computer tells our undead hero: “This time try to get to know the other people on the train.” And from that point on, he just keeps ratcheting it down; stops confronting people; gets in nobody’s face; begins coolly collecting information; and finally, in one last triumphant replay of those endlessly fatal eight minutes, slips handcuffs onto the terrorist before anyone else on the train even knows they’re living amidst emergency. The movie, in other words, thinks it knows the right way to prevent a terrorist attack, and in this regard it simply mirrors David Petraeus, whose film this is. The soldier only succeeds, in other words, because halfway through he is given a new counterinsurgency manual, and the difference between hero-at-beginning-of-movie and hero-at-end-of-movie is meant to communicate the difference between Iraq in 2004 and Iraq in 2008. Source Code is, in sum, a Surge movie—it is, to my knowledge, the only Surge movie—with the New Way Forward staging itself in Illinois instead of Anbar, and with science-fiction conventions serving to communicate the panic and steep learning curve of the early occupation. The film’s hyper-repetitive structure is quite peculiar here. It could—and perhaps for a few minutes in the movie’s middle depths even does—convey the infernal quality of the war on terror, the way in which the “vigilance” to which we are enjoined is already a doom: One gets up every morning required again to avert Armageddon. But that’s not really Source Code’s vibe. Repetition in this movie soon stops seeming demonic and becomes instead the medium for learning and self-improvement—this is more somber Groundhog’s Day than it is trashy Sisyphus—and the film’s understanding of recurrence as basically harmless gets at the first of its interlinked fantasies, which is that the US should be able, at no cost, to keep trying to round up the terrorists until it gets it right. The movie to that extent signs on to the central myth of the Surge, which is that it was empire’s magic do-over in Iraq, a geopolitical mulligan.

 

•OBSERVATION #2:

That first point requires that we read Chicago as Baghdad in disguise, but if we instead take the movie’s North American setting at face value, then the movie’s politics become somewhat harder to parse. This difficulty goes back to the military-civilian mish-mash that is at the story’s core: The US soldier has requisitioned the body of some suburban schoolteacher—deputized the dead schmo—drafted his virtual corpse into war without end. Like any such in-between or crossbred figure, this character can be described in two contradictory ways at once, such that Source Code is simultaneously a story about a military guy becoming less militarized and a story about a civilian conscripted into special ops without his even knowing it. At the end of the movie, the soldier, having just arrested the madman and saved morning drive-time, gets to stay in his host body; he just skips off into the city with a pretty girl. At that level, the movie is an innocuous fairy tale about undoing some of the damage the US government is inflicting on a generation—not just giving a soldier his discharge papers and sending him honorably back into street life—but unkilling him, making stupid amends. But the equal-and-opposite story of the civilian who can suddenly break up terror plots sponsors a rather different fantasy, bespeaking the desire for a less obtrusive war on terror, a war less punishing to the Iraqis and the Afghanis, and kinder to Americans, as well—a war on terror without full body scanners at airports or the kind of heavy police presence that makes even white people nervous. In this sense, the movie gets us to wish that the war on terror were even more covert than it already is—that it were all undercover—its representative figure the plainclothes air marshal, the old-fashioned name for whom is Secret Police. Let me repeat a sentence I’ve already written: At the end of the movie, the soldier gets to stay in his host body, which means that the schoolteacher never gets his person back, and Source Code’s happy ending requires not that civilian life be rescued, but that it be negated.

 

•OBSERVATION #3:

Even by the low standards of Hollywood sci-fi, the movie’s fake science is notably addled and underexplained. Worse, having already committed to bushwa in its first act, it just ups and changes the rules in the last ten minutes, which I generally imagine is the one thing that a science-fiction screenwriter has got to promise you he’s not going to do. The audience has been told throughout the movie that the hero cannot change history; he is not really in the past; he has been inserted, rather, into a simulation built up from the memories of dead people; he can therefore only retrieve information; he will never actually save the train. But then in the last ten minutes we discover that each simulation has created an alternate universe after all, and the viewer has had the good fortune to arrive at last in the lone scenario in which every American gets to work on time. That’s feeble, to be sure, and irritating, but there’s something remarkable about it all the same. The single most striking thing about Source Code is that it brings to bear all the dopey arcana of cut-rate science fiction—the full arsenal of time-travel pataphysics and pop Leibniz—in order to generate … the world we already live in. It has maneuvered American normalcy—the AM commute, a commonplace Tuesday, just another trek to the office—into the position of the bizarro world or utopia you might otherwise have expected. The movie’s happy ending feels entirely rote, yeah, until, that is, you realize that it exists only in ontological brackets. By the time Source Code finishes, the Midwestern everyday—the one in which trains don’t blow into the sky—has become thinkable only as a science-fiction scenario, a bit of extravagant speculation. It has shriveled down to the implausible thing that a genre movie must scramble unconvincingly to achieve.

A Passage to What?

 

If you stick with this one, I think I’ll be able to explain how it is that fascism can be made appealing to ordinary Americans, and no fooling. I want to be clear that by “ordinary Americans,” I do not mean Birthers and Teabaggers. I mean the rest of us: suburbanites, semi-sophisticates, people who sometimes vote for Democrats, carriers of canvas tote bags. And by “fascism” I don’t mean any politics to the right of my own; I don’t mean traffic cops and my gym coach. I mean unpleasant Italians in the 1920s, Teutonic ghastliness, the Spanish clampdown. I’m not saying that I can show you how a generically right-wing politics appeals to the American Right; there’s not much that needs explaining on that front. I’m saying, rather, that I can show how something rather like National Socialism can be made appealing to you.

It all starts with Salon.com, which is, I grant, an unlikely place to begin a conversation about fascism. Salon, after all, is an unmistakably “progressive” undertaking: based in San Francisco, founded by a former editor at Mother Jones, temperately anti-war, feminist, queer-friendly, &c. The site represents a kind of publication that has never really existed in print form or on glossy paper: a lifestyle magazine for middle-class liberals, a site where you can get in one click from some fairly trenchant analysis of the US government’s misplaced “imperial priorities” to recipes for “the best burger I ever had” (and in the event, also pretty good). Salon is perhaps the closest thing Statesiders now have to an American version of the UK Guardian, the sort of magazine that will occasionally let itself engage in utopian speculation, when no idiom is more foreign to official writing about politics than that. One recent article introduced its argument with a brief thought experiment about an “imaginary classless society.” But if you look just a little bit harder at that same article, it turns out that such a society would have a “universal middle class.” Socialism as the apotheosis of the middle classes, their driving of all other players from the field: that’s Salon.

Earlier this summer, Salon decided to start a book club: the magazine’s readers would all read the same long novel, at roughly the same time, and would have a public, on-line discussion about it over the course of three weeks. The first book that Salon chose was The Passage, a new vampire apocalypse by a writer who teaches at Rice named Justin Cronin. It’s a little misleading to single out Salon for pushing The Passage this way. The novel has been getting all sorts of attention: declarations of love from Time and The Guardian, a book deal so big that it was reported as a news item in its own right in 2007. Ridley Scott has already bought the rights. There has been touting. Salon was making sure it kicked things off with a novel lots of people were going to be reading anyway.

They were also making a clean break with Oprah, by throwing boy-readers a book they could gnaw at. There are at least two different ways of telegraphing what it’s like to read The Passage. One way is to note its literary affiliations: The novel basically just takes the premise of Richard Matheson’s slender, economical I Am Legend—vampires have taken over the world—and bulks it out to a length that is prolix and Tolkienian: so not just one survivor, as in Matheson, but an entire village of survivors, then a quest narrative, which eventually ramps up into an out-and-out war story, a cage match cosmic and Manichean, between the men of the West and what are really just bioluminescent orcs.

The other way is easier: The Passage is a fast-zombie movie in prose. One suspects that Cronin has called his monsters “vampires” only because, in the fashion cycle of collective dread, vampires are back. Gone, mostly, are the zombies of the last decade—the dilatory, the dawdling, the pointlessly milling dead. Pop culture once again prefers its ghouls to have purpose and penetrating stares. Cronin’s cannibals resemble bloodsuckers in some respects, and the walking dead in others; five years ago he would have called them zombies; but it’s 2010, so he calls them vampires. I want to be careful here. At some level, it’s pointless to try to segregate out from one another Hollywood’s vampire and zombie populations. Monsters routinely intermarry. There have been lots of vampire-zombie splicings, not the least of which is I Am Legend itself. Or rather: I Am Legend was, via its first film version—not 1971’s The Omega Man, but a 1964 Italian production starring Vincent Price—one of the major sources for Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which means that the zombie movie as we know it actually began as a mutation in the vampire code. But we can just as well leave that history aside. The broader point is that any time a movie, 30 Days of Night, say, has its vampires attack in numbers—any time it deploys them against humans in formations larger than three or four—it’s going to start looking, whether it means to or not, like a zombie pic. Humans will board up their windows and huddle in locked rooms. They will fall to multiple, scrabbling hands.

So vampires often look like zombies. And then there’s the simple point that filmmakers and especially novelists have woven so many variations on the vampire that they, like the queer people they are often made to resemble, come in all possible forms: vampire politicians, vampire mechanics, the vampire homeless. It seems useless to insist that vampires are really one way and not another. One wishes to say all the same that the genre’s anchoring works—the stories and novels that have set the horizon for the form: Polidori, Stoker, Anne Rice—have always given special emphasis to aristocracy, etiquette, seduction, intelligence. For a creature to register emphatically as a vampire—for it to be recognizable as something other than a zombie—it needs to seem like a superior being, Luciferous and more than human; and it needs to be something you could possibly make the mistake of falling in love with. All I mean is that a certain Byronism is pretty well wired into the thing.

Cronin’s “vampires,” meanwhile, are dim and scavenging herd animals, not superhuman but rather the opposite: degenerate and cretinous. Rigor commands that I also list the ways they are not like zombies: They are light-sensitive; they don’t turn everyone they bite; a very small number of them emit their memories and commands in a manner extrapolated from antique vampire mind-control or mesmerism; they are fairly hard to kill. But these are secondary characteristics, whereas the monsters’ zombie traits are central to one’s experience of the novel: They don’t have manners, and they (mostly) don’t have minds. Most important: They come in nests and pods and swarms and packs and scourges and hordes.

I want to stick with “hordes.” It’s important to get the matter of genre right, because to opt for the fast zombie, as your particular horror niche, is to place in front of a readership a distinctive set of historical or sociopolitical concerns, concerns that are at this point built into those monsters. Here’s the quick-and-dirty version: Fast zombies, as cinematic and now literary figures, are built almost entirely out of perceptions of Asians and Middle Easterners and Africans and native Americans, some of them new—fast zombies sometimes get framed as terrorists—most of them old: they are above all savages. (They are in this sense unlike slow zombies. I’ve argued out the distinction here.) This was already true of the landmark fast-zombie movies—28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake—and Cronin simply follows suit on this front. When the zombie epidemic erupts, the novel begins to incorporate all sorts of Bush-era GWOT-speak, which means that its vampire apocalypse is at some level nothing more than the War on Terror imagined as lost. But then Cronin has at the same time found a way to reactivate some very old colonial nightmares: One scene has a settlement of human survivors—the creepy survivors; the bad survivors—readying a human sacrifice, to placate the vampire-zombies, in what is clearly a replay of early Spanish lore about the Aztecs. This association is then cemented by Cronin’s notion of where vampirism comes from: It is a virus, let loose from deepest Bolivia, a kind of bat-Ebola, and its sinister work will be to make the United States equatorial. Fast-zombie stories take civilization as their highest good—that might sound like an uncontroversial proposition, but it isn’t—lots of stories don’t. They then designate the zombies as that-which-can-cancel-civilization, a baggy category that can include both al Qaeda and Zulus. Or to put this another way: Fast-zombie stories are devices for making palatable some of the old imperial beliefs, or, if you like, for manufacturing neo-imperial anxieties, though they have their own distinctive way of doing this, one that rather than flaunting the sturdy supremacy of civilization, emphasizes instead the latter’s tenuousness and so the possibility that culture and progress and refinement could collapse in their very hubs and capitals.

What I want to do at this point is list a number of things that early reviewers have said about The Passage; itemize this generic praise back into its commonplaces; and then work out what those vague and blurbish abstractions, with particular reference to this specific novel, actually mean.

•1) Reviewers have routinely described the book as “epic.” This was inevitable, because the book is long, 750 pages and counting. But for once that tag seems appropriate; it seems to indicate something more than just length. The Passage shares with the classical epics—Homer, Virgil, Dante, and the like—techniques and scenes that one doesn’t typically find even in other big, multiplot novels: above all, a vast and prophetic time scheme that, strictly tallied, covers more than a thousand years. The novel falls roughly into three sections: The first part recounts the outbreak of the zombie contagion and the collapse of the US government and American society; the second part jumps ahead a century and describes the workings of a survivor colony living behind walls in the interior of California; the third part follows a band of adventurers as they peel away from that colony and march across the American West, battling zombies, briefly joining a sinister counter-colony, and then enrolling, some of them, in the rump US Army—or rather the Army of the Republic of Texas, which it turns out has been on the ground all along and is the novel’s rootin’-tootin’ deus.

What Cronin shares with the Mediterranean and Mediterranean-style epics, in other words, is their long-durée concern with the Fate of Civilizations, a concern that requires his distended and decidedly non-novelistic narrative canvas, the span of generations. It is from the epic, too, that he has borrowed his descriptions of the zombie armies, though perhaps unwittingly and at two or three removes. Epics are utterly fixated on the distinction between fully settled people and still tribal or semi-nomadic ones. The final books of The Aeneid describe a small army of Trojan survivors as they invade Italy and conquer its indigenous people. Milton’s Paradise Lost describes Adam and Eve as two dwellers in the wilderness, naked foragers in “the new world.” The first American epic, Timothy Dwight’s Conquest of Canaan, recounts in heroic terms a righteous people’s war of extermination against a nation of savages whose land they regard as earmarked. The affinity matters because it is in some of its epic qualities that The Passage is least like a fast-zombie movie, since the films generally have compressed time-frames; are interested only in the apocalypse and its immediate aftermath; and almost never show survivors successfully fighting back. This is how we know that Cronin is not just cashing in—because to write a fast-zombie epic is something entirely different from, say, just novelizing Dead Alive, simply by virtue of letting the novel proceed past page 250, past the nuclear explosions over Boise and Bend, Oregon—simply, that is, by allowing that there might be, even after the swarming, story left to tell.

This then brings us to the next claim that reviewers have been making, which is that…

•2) The Passage is a wonderfully hopeful book.  Time magazine called it “a story about human beings trying to generate new hope.” One of Salon’s readers remarked that “the post-apocalyptic world feels more hopeful than what preceded it.” Another reader agreed that the book’s middle and late sections are “immensely hopeful.” This hope is one of the things in the novel that most needs specifying, because Cronin has produced a full-on reconstruction narrative. It is hard to stress this point with the banging emphasis it deserves. The mood is one of settler expectancy, of pilgrims surveying a land whose savage inhabitants are dying of an introduced disease, though they still lurk ferociously in forests and canyons. The Passage, in other words, is trying to counter the despondent vibe of the long Iraq-Afghanistan decade by retelling the old America myth the way that public school textbooks are no longer allowed to tell it; by trying to get you to occupy the valiant position of the embattled pioneer, to imaginatively inhabit the geography of early settlement, what we used to call the frontier.

There are actually two major historical models that Cronin has incorporated into his book. The first is medieval Europe, especially in its early stages, the systole and diastole of contraction and expansion, the post-Roman heartbeat: villages in Normandy gathering in their borders like so much extra fabric; towns building walls; lords building castles; and then—back out into the wastelands; the outgrowth of an armed agrarianism; planned settlements for serfs beyond the Elbe, generous terms, no labor service, five years rent-free!; Teutonic Knights; Frankish machine-men with their monster-horses and their death-arrows; northern crusades into the heathen Baltic; the Spanish Reconquista—and no historical meme looms larger in The Passage than that: the Reconquest of America. The book’s survivors live in a walled city and have something like guilds and wear tunics and have all but abandoned books and carry crossbows, which were the tenth century’s great advance in military technology, a weapon  so unsportingly good at killing people that the Church tried to limit its use. Crossbowmen were briefly pariahs.

The survivors also ride horses, though this image obviously does double duty. For beyond its medievalism, The Passage is most obviously a zombie Western—Cronin himself has said as much—subcategory siege, with the California settlement doubling as fort. Survivors trek across Nevada and Colorado. They cook jonnycake. A man in a remote house pours boiling water into a tub for his pregnant woman and sits watch at night, shotgun across his lap, armed against whatever might come stalking out of the woods.

The Passage, then, generates “hope” only because it’s underlying notion is that we’ve been through this all before; it is telling, through proxies and vampire-puppets, a history whose ending we already know; and so reassuring us of a certain cycle or historical repetition. Cronin’s answer to our usual bum and apocalyptic trip is to help us envision another round of colonization. North America will get to resettle itself. Indian Wars will be refought. To this end, the novel works in five or six documents form the distant future—conference papers from some symposium a millennium down the line—which is our guarantee, from an early point in our reading, that civilization has survived somewhere and in some form.

Another claim out of the reviews…

•3) The Passage is especially interested in what one reader calls “the civic structure of the colony.” This is true—and it’s an extension of the last point—because it involves “hope” again—and not just hope, but this horror novel’s unexpected interest in hope’s proper literary form and vehicle, which is utopia. Absolutely nothing about The Passage is more surprising than the moment that comes about a third of the way through, after you’ve read hundreds of pages of an utterly routine X-Files/outbreak plot, and you turn the page, and that plot is gone, and a full-blown utopia has taken its place, which is another way of gauging Cronin’s sense of his own writerliness, since the genre-swap—from apocalypse to utopia—is among other things a shift over from a heavily cinematic form to a quite peculiarly literary one. I don’t know that film is structurally barred from attempting outright utopias; I do know that it almost never does. Cronin, for his part, goes so far as to reproduce in its entirety the survivor colony’s written constitution, which is how you know that he has the genre’s canonical texts in mind—Thomas More, William Morris, and the like—that he is actually speculating about the daily workings of an alternate political order. That list of basic laws is the token of Cronin’s utopian seriousness (and is one of the feature’s of utopian writing that a commercial film would have the hardest time reproducing). Salon’s book critic, Laura Miller, said that the utopia was her favorite section of the book, but she is professionally disallowed from using that word, so what she actually said was that she “loves stories about how people form and sustain communities.” “Isn’t life in this last city kind of ideal?” a reader asked, “—if you ignore the vampire bit.”

It is under cover of phrases like these—“sustaining community,” “ideal city life”—that the novel’s fascism rides in. This is itself rather fascinating, since utopia often seems like the special province of the political Left, in some another-world-is-possible kind of way. The term itself, officially neutral, nominally harnessed to no particular ideology, was claimed by socialist thinkers early on. Fredric Jameson continues to use it as a euphemism for “communism.” So it is all the more remarkable to watch an American novelist, in apparent sincerity, attempt a utopia with strong fascist elements. There are at least three:

a) The first thing the constitution does is establish sovereignty, a “final authority” charged with “safeguarding DOMESTIC ORDER” and empowered to declare “CIVIL EMERGENCY.” This is Schmittian boilerplate, and generically authoritarian rather than specifically fascist, but it is worth noting that Cronin’s California does, in fact, break with the main lines of Anglo-American political thought, which—with their doctrines of mixed monarchy, the division of powers, check-and-balances, institutional cantilevers and counterweights, programmed-in gridlock and indecision—have always been hostile to sovereignty of precisely this kind. Montesquieu and Madison are among the books that no-one in the future will be reading.

b) This second one will take a little more explaining. Some social historians think that modern politics came into being in the seventeenth century when European governments began allowing themselves to worry about demography, which is to say to worry about the size and health of their populations. This led, in a hundred different ways, to a politics of the body; a medicalized politics of health and hygiene and sanitation; new political initiatives around birth and death; &c. One way of thinking about fascism is that it marked the culmination and cancerous transformation of this centuries-old development, which, however, continues to shape all modern governments, and especially the social democracies, to some greater or lesser degree. The important point about Cronin, then, is that his utopian colony is nakedly biopolitical in just this way, a utopia of eugenics and euthanasia. Fully a third of the constitution’s provisions involve quarantine. There are entire chapters devoted to mercy killings; when colonists are dragged away by vampires, their closest family have to ritually keep watch on the colony’s walls and cut them down if they return. Cronin calls this “standing the mercy.” Women in his utopia are taught trades, but then forced to abandon them when they become pregnant, relegated into compulsory motherhood, in a special building they are not allowed to leave. It is Cronin’s bleak gift to make such a scenario seem reasonable to an ordinary American reader—to make plausible that old physiocratic preoccupation with demography, with keeping the numbers up—by forcing us to imagine a human population reduced to some few hundreds.

c) The colony is also pervasively militarized, which is one of the ways its order is most like a fascism and least like an ordinary authoritarianism, since yer run-of-the-mill authoritarian wants the leadership to preserve a monopoly on force. In Cronin’s future, everyone is taught how to fight. There are weapons ready in every room. This is an ethos of war and blood, a society that has regenerated itself by abandoning the pacifism and potbellies of liberal society, though on a casual read, this all registers only as a low-level Spartanism. Nine-year olds get put through their daily samurai drills: “Where do they come from?” “THEY COME FROM ABOVE!” “And what do we get?” “WE GET ONE SHOT!”

That’s how The Passage looks if you emphasize its utopian qualities, hence its imagined innovations, its breaks with the established order of 2010—and it’s worth underscoring that these add up to a kind of political argument, since Cronin is trying to explain the difference between a society that knows how to survive a terrorist-savage threat and the United States, which, in the novel’s terms, mostly doesn’t. To that extent, these breaks all have the force of recommendations, what the U.S. could have done, but failed to do, to keep itself intact: Streamline the political chain of command, make sure pregnant women stop working, strictly limit the rights of immigrants, lie to the children, seal the borders, build a wall around them, shoot anyone who gets close.

But we can also run the argument in the other direction, and emphasize instead those features of our readerly present that Cronin’s settler-utopians would preserve. The novel’s medievalism, reconsidered from this angle, turns out to be something of a red herring, since its survivors see themselves as the keepers of American techno-civilization; the guardians of illumination in a vampire dark age, though that word, illumination, now refers to halogen lamps and not manuscripts; the ones who can keep running—literally; this is in the novel—the Humvees of the lost world. The novel’s premise is that civilization has collapsed, and yet it remains most interested in the people who have inherited American achievement. Civilization will only be possible again when people figure out how to re-activate its machinery. The middle sections of the novel are accordingly made up of three stock scenes regularly repeated: Characters try to improvise a patch on some machine they consider essential but no longer know, curved-arch-like, how to manufacture. Characters leave the colony to scavenge century-old goods from decaying strip malls and military bases, hunter-gatherers foraging for high-tops like they’re loganberries. Characters encounter some forgotten or never-before-seen device and wonder what it is and how to use it. This aspect of the novel becomes more and more important until it effectively takes over, since the novel’s final order of business is to fold the colonist-survivors into the U.S. Army, which is a techno-survival of an entirely different order, the novel’s strange belated admission that civilization didn’t really collapse after all, certainly not to some zero point. What destroys the first host of vampire-zombies, then, is a nuclear bomb left over from the military—a military solution, then, to a problem created by the military. Salon’s Laura Miller says she likes that the colonists come to the realization that they “need the outside world,” but taken on its own the phrase “outside world” could mean just about anything, when the novel is by necessity much more specific: The colonists need a modern military and heavy ordnance.

The one observation that Miller makes that is flat out wrong is that the novel’s idiom is not ethical or religious. She has said this more than once: “Cronin’s novel isn’t about the clash between good and evil, but about humanity’s struggle to forge a better world.” “Cronin’s characters, unlike [Stephen] King’s [in The Stand], are not caught up in a struggle between Good and Evil.” It’s true that Cronin is being a little sneaky on this front. The survivor colony is nominally post-Christian; they remember Christmas only as a rumor or a legend; they have adopted a new calendar that makes no reference to Domini. But then Cronin makes it his business, in the novel’s final chapters, to smuggle back in all the Christian language that he has up to that point carefully withheld. The Passage, indeed, is so stupidly ethical that it features not only a demonic head vampire whose name contains the word cock, but two supernaturally good characters, as well, the more important of whom is a pre-pubescent girl, and cock and girl appear to one character by turns in a dream and tell him respectively to murder and not to murder a woman in that dream, as in: Cartoon devil on your left shoulder, cartoon angel on your right. That the other radiantly moral figure is a Catholic nun should sufficiently confirm the point. In fact, by the time the novel ends, readers will have to swallow: an immortal nun, an act of heroic martyrdom, characters galvanized upon hearing Bible stories, a set of fiendish counter-apostles called “the Twelve,” and a group fighting these hellhounds led by a man named Peter, about whom sentences like this are written: “He inched his way forward, each step an act of faith.”

More generally, The Passage is packed with writing borrowed from the traditions of sentimental and domestic writing, and this, too, adds up to a kind of shadow Christianity or orthodox morality. It is also another of the ways—indeed, the most pervasive way—in which The Passage tries to make literature out of its cinematic scenario. Everything is POV, free indirect discourse, interior monologue. Events are endlessly focalized, and an intimacy is thereby obtruded on this Gibbonesque-Hobbsean story of civilizations falling and original contracts being formed. It is hard to overstate just how much family writing there is in this book, paragraph upon paragraph describing the ferocious attachments one feels to one’s closest kin: The only moment of love the colony’s leader ever felt was when his daughter was born. One woman reflects at length on how “wonderful” it was “to feel a baby moving inside her.” A tough warrior out on the quest confesses that what he misses most are “the littles.” Time praised the book for its “psychological insight.” Laura Miller said it was a vampire-zombie story “with heart.” In sentences like those we see a hard Right politics being made psychologically credible to a contemporary readership—and the psychology in play is a reassuringly familiar one, the psychology of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or a PTA meeting, the known term that carries you to an unknown place. Fascism is something you do for the kids.

What we can say now, then, is that Cronin’s utopio-fascism is tempered by a certain conservatism. But then fascism, of course, came in all sorts of different forms; it had national variants for one; and each fascist intellectual dreamed up a slightly different fascism, none of which corresponded precisely to any of the fascisms that actually existed on the ground. In the interests of precision, then: Cronin is helping us make our peace with an American fascism, but his is not the fascism of the intellectuals and the avant gardists, not a Nietzschean and anti-bourgeois fascism, which would, let’s face it, probably prefer the vampires. His is a fascism that has in certain key tenets—respect for Christianity and a conventional military hierarchy—joined forces with the conventional Right: a Spanish fascism, if you follow me, rather than a German one.

But then it’s not enough to name, however precisely, which particular historical variant of fascism Cronin is trying to resurrect. The important point, rather, is that Cronin is trying to imagine a version of fascism that has never existed, and this gets us to the crux of the matter: How, after all, do you engineer a fascism that will be palatable to a contemporary American audience, and not just to any audience, but to a Salon audience, a bunch of literate Lefties, the type of people who participate in book clubs? The answer, I think, is quickly given: You subtract race from the equation. For Cronin’s colonists are all multi-racial; the novel makes a big deal of this early on. Racial categories are, like the Jesus story, one of those things from Before that the survivors have heard about but barely understand. The novel is more cunning than this even. The utopian section begins with a kind of oral history recorded by the last person who was born before the vampire apocalypse. And she’s an old black woman, although the novel never out and tells you this; it expects you to hear it in her cadences. That’s a far cry from, say, Tolkien, who is sheerest poison, Wagnerite Anglo-fascism without the tunes. Tolkien’s racialism was always all but overt, just under the surface, like Norplant: all those Celtic-Viking heroes and elephant-riding bad men from the East; that scheming, greedy golem-Jew; those monstrous Urak-hai-sounds-like-Iroquois. So whatever Cronin is up to, it’s not that. Instead, he has worked out a more subtle kind of racial feint; he makes a black woman our gateway into the fascist utopia. The novel actually does something similar in matters of gender, since our colonist-heroes end up visiting two other survivor compounds, each of which treats women much worse than the novel’s central settlement, which means that readers can tell themselves that the colony, whatever its policies on pregnant women, has achieved a fair degree of gender equity. And then that’s it right there: A fascism in which people of all races and genders can participate more or less equally—that’s how one creates a fascism that will pass first-line liberal scrutiny. If you make it so that fascism isn’t primarily racial, an American reader won’t even recognize it as fascism. But then, of course, Cronin can only produce this de-racialized version of fascism because he has transferred the entire apparatus of race onto the zombies, who are sometimes just called “the Many” and who are, of course, a population of the killable. He can loosen racial categories among the survivors, because he has preserved the lethality of race at a higher and more abstract level. Not that any of this is buried in the novel, exactly, since the survivors have a series of different racial epithets for the zombies, one of which is “smokes,” which, well, if you don’t know, you should probably look it up, is all I’m saying. One of Salon’s readers said that “smokes” was “invented language” —and thought it was neat. And it just ain’t … neat, I mean … or invented.

Iron Man in Afghanistan

If you want to understand the force of the first Iron Man movie—Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, from 2008—it will help to know the writings of Andrew Bacevich, who is a professor of international relations at Boston University. Bacevich was one of the first scholars to put the concept of an “American empire” back into discussion, in 2002—even before the invasion of Iraq, in other words—in a book of that name and has gone on to become one of the intellectual heroes of the anti-imperial Left. He often gets mentioned in the same breath with Chomsky and Chalmers Johnson. The Nation likes to interview him. He’s all over HuffPo.

Bacevich’s original insight was that the Clinton-era doctrine of global “openness” had committed the US to ever-expanding police actions across the planet. As he saw it, the consensus position that emerged in both major parties by 2000—a position that Bacevich considered just plain delusional—was that the US should take on the role of a just and moral superpower without limits and prepared to use violence as a matter of course. The 1990s buzzword, in this regard, was “leadership,” which sounds innocuous enough but actually heralded a new round of imperial expansion: Only the US could lead the planet. The roots of this belief are obviously rather old. A certain providentialism—the idea that the US has been singled out by God to play a unique role in the earth’s history—is older than the country itself. But the ‘90s introduced some innovations of its own. It was, all expectations to the contrary, the decade—Bacevich’s words now—“in which US foreign policy,” let off the Cold War leash, “became increasingly militarized”—the decade of offhanded force or casually dropped bombs.

Here, then, is the interesting thing about Bacevich: He is not, in fact, a man of the Left. He’s retired military—he was a colonel in the army—and calls himself a “Catholic conservative.” This is in one sense precisely why the Left likes to lean on him so much: He projects the authority of the disaffected warrior. But then his conservatism, if that’s what it is, is also what gives his arguments a distinctive resonance—it’s what separates him out from the pacifists and anti-globalizers and the old potheads still hating on Nixon. Bacevich has a soldier’s dislike of consumer culture, some right-leaning attachment to old-fashioned republican citizenship, which he is willing to call patriotism. His writing often laments the complete discrediting of “the nation” or of “nationalism” and the rise in their place  of a facile multiculturalism. It’s not wrong, then, to say that he is a critic of the American empire, but it would be more precise to say that he is a critic of liberal empire—a counter-intuitive but nonetheless pervasive amalgam of liberalism and imperialism—which has produced in US foreign policy a bizarre combination of ruthlessness and half-heartedness: fantasies of omnipotence alongside stark limitations on how power gets exercised; an absurd sense of responsibility for the entire planet’s well-being alongside a consumer ethos that is finally anti-political.

Reading Bacevich turns out to be an odd experience, because once you work out that it’s actually this liberal imperialism he despises, it’s no longer clear what it is in this position that he dislikes more, its imperialism or its liberalism. His repugnance for US adventurism often seems heartfelt, but just as often—on the important last page of American Empire, for instance—he seems to be saying that the Clinton-Bush empire could have worked better if only it had had genuine moral purpose, a stronger sense of duty, some old-fashioned civic principles. Empire, he says, needs a real ethics: not the wishy-washiness of a “postmodern, postindustrial, postheroic democracy bent on remaking the world in its own image.”

The question that urgently demands attention—the question that Americans can no longer afford to dodge—is not whether the United States has become an imperial power. The question is what sort of empire they intend theirs to be. For policymakers to persist in pretending otherwise—to indulge in myths of American innocence or fantasies about unlocking the secrets of history—is to increase the likelihood that the answers they come up with be wrong. That way lies not just the demise of the American empire but great danger for what used to be known as the American republic. (244)

On its final page, in other words, a book that almost all readers have taken to be anti-imperialist outs itself as in its own way fully imperialist: There is no non-imperial option. Bacevich’s main recommendation, accordingly, is that we drop the charade and get serious about our imperialism—and above all that we adopt a set of properly imperial virtues. At that point, one can look back over the book and see that he has been of two minds all along, lamenting both the drift towards a militarized foreign policy—and the way the country has been half-assing its very militarism. Bacevich seems, in effect, to be willing himself into becoming a different type of right-winger. He had been a classical republican, dedicated to some textbook sense of America’s highest political traditions. But his hope now seems to be that since those virtues are already extinguished anyway, then at least empire might resurrect some notion of duty, though only if one commits to its militarism—and to what’s best about that militarism: honor, sacrifice, &c.—and not only to what is worst. He also has a strong sense of the old imperial paradox—and this sometimes makes his writing sound like something out of 1780s Britain, as though he were trying to get us to vote for Pitt: The problem with empire is that it generates so much wealth for the imperial nation that it becomes effeminizing, corrupting. Empire makes the metropolis so soft that its residents no longer make good imperialists. Only a kind of imperial counter-program, of militarization and re-masculinization, can undo this. It’s the McCain presidency that could have been.

This gets us over to Iron Man, whose most conspicuous location—Afghanistan!—already procures for it an imperial frame of reference.  Superheroes don’t normally fight in countries the US has invaded. Plasticman never shipped out to Mogadishu. Another way to come at this first point would be to say that there has probably never been a superhero movie less urban that Iron Man, and this simple fact actually marks a sharp turn in the genre, the moment when the avenger leaves the no-longer-crumbling-and-crime-choked American city—the sundry proxy Manhattans over which the form has typically kept watch—and sought out instead more remote territories to guard. Superman’s New York was called “Metropolis,” and that’s already half of a vintage colonial couplet right there. Iron Man‘s Afghanistan supplies the missing term; Favreau should have renamed it Periphery.

But it’s not enough to suspect that Iron Man has something to do with empire or US global dominion. We’ll want to be able to say just what that something is. This is why Bacevich is so helpful, because at the center of Iron Man’s plot there stands a transformation, and Bacevich helps us say what is at stake in that makeover: An American playboy—shaker of dice, baller of women—learns that what can give his life purpose is the endless task of keeping the world’s people safe. I want to be careful here. Almost all superhero movies document the making of a new man—or at least their first installments do, and one might suspect that these all more or less meet Bacevich’s requirements: a paladin is fashioned; some joe or schlub molts and is Thor; postheroic America loses its weasly prefix. That’s true to a degree, and yet superhero origin stories are actually quite varied, and surprisingly few of them are cut to Bacevich’s specifications. Spiderman comes close. But Superman’s origins—at least in their classic form—are very much an early twentieth-century story and so no longer our own: A nation of farmers, ingenuous and meek, surprises itself by discovering that it is the world’s most powerful thing. And the last Batman reboot—Batman Begins, from 2005—actually takes Bruce Wayne’s strength and capacity for violence as given; at no point in that movie is he yer average guy; what that movie is trying to imagine—and this nearly reverses the usual trajectory of a young superhero—is that American might could in some sense be scaled back, or at least that it could yet be brought back within ethical bounds or some framework of legitimacy: “You’re not a vigilante! … Am I vigilante? … I’m not a vigilante!”

This last actually brings us close again to Iron Man, but then everyone’s always known that Iron Man was just Marvel’s hot-rod Batman anyway: the rich boy with gadgets instead of superpowers. But then if we put Iron Man—or this Iron Man—smack alongside Batman, it’s still the differences that are going to matter. You might think of the question this way: How far does the superhero have to travel to get from his civilian persona to his ass-kicking one? If we can answer that question, then we can get a glimpse of what kind of changes a given superhero movie would like to enact upon us. And then the point would be that the Batman scenario minimizes the gap: Christian Bale’s Batman begins as a bruiser and ends as a bruiser in a costume. Even the classic Batman is a philanthropist who is also a vigilante, when of course philanthropy was always a form of vigiliantism to begin with. Or the other way round, if you must: Vigilantism is bare-knuckled benevolence. But Iron Man lets the gap yawn wide. It gives its champion much further to travel, because Tony Stark is less heroic than Bruce Wayne—a lout, a lad—and Iron Man is if not more heroic than Batman then certainly more powerful, a bigger caliber, with way more weapons than can fit on a belt. If you pay close attention to where Iron Man plants its flags, from A to B, from starter’s gun to finish line, you’ll see that it is murmuring aloud Bacevich’s quiet wish: One man decides that he can no longer be just another pleasure-seeking consumer and entrepreneurial technophile and becomes instead a man of principle and action. Tony Stark rediscovers the vanished imperial duties.

All I really want to say is that the movie occupies what by the usual standards of American political debate is actually quite an unusual little niche and that nearly every commentator has accordingly misread it. When the newspaper and magazine critics said that they liked the movie because its characters were, by comic book standards, “well-rounded”—or because the movie documented a “spiritual conversion” or, more modestly now, a “rehabilitation” (picture Downey passed out in his neighbor’s house)—then, again, it is Bacevich’s story that they are hearkening to without quite seeming to realize it: the making of imperial commitment. The really baffling thing about the reviews on this one, in fact—and the reason, finally, that it’s worth pausing to bring some clarity to Iron Man—is that it was mostly read as a left-leaning film: “an action movie for liberals,” New York magazine said. It’s a parable of disarmament — lots of critics said that. Tony Stark is a peacenik; he wants to turn off the arms pipeline. Let this one sink in: Our politics are in such a muddle that expert viewers can routinely describe as “pacifist” a character who spends the entire movie designing a superweapon or as “liberal” a character who wants to keep that weapon in American hands, so that it may be used at his discretion in any jungle or desert on the planet.

This is madness, though it’s not hard to figure out why the critics were confused. The movie is certainly anti-corporate: the people in Iron Man who most need protecting are ordinary Afghans, and in order for imperial peace to be established, Tony Stark is going to have to rein in not only the movie’s Taliban-by-another-name, but also American weapons manufacturers, whose aim it is to arm every last Indonesian widow and Kirghiz orphan. In fact, the movie’s plot, which funnels down to that final showdown with Obadiah Stane—trading punches with the COO!—works by shifting the geography of our concern back from tribal Asia back to the US. In that sense the movie proves only semi-interested in what empire will require of the US abroad, but very interested in what empire will require of Americans in their own country, how the nation will have to be refashioned if it is to take on its allotted Roman-British role. And sure enough, the movie’s sense is that someone is going to have to roll back corporate power, but Favreau’s is an anti-capitalism of the Right, and this is a position that has become so uncommon that watching Iron Man is like spotting a rare woodpecker in the wild. History, however, furnishes the precedent that American political rhetoric lacks: For most of the eighteenth century, British holdings in India were literally governed by a corporation. I’m not saying that  British officials subcontracted out important government services to a corporation or that a corporation exercised undue influence over India’s colonial government. Not at all. The East India Company, which traded openly on the British stock exchange, was the government of British India. This will sound like most to us like the nightmare scenario of dystopian science fiction: The government of India was organized for profit. One could buy shares in it. This scenario didn’t change until the 1780s, when, after a series of colonial scandals, the British government began, though only gradually, to sideline the company so that it could assume direct political control over the region. That policy was in some entirely literal sense anti-corporate. It was also the beginning of what most of us think of as the British Empire proper—imperialism for real. That’s Iron Man in a nutshell: Warren Hastings retried.

So the movie’s point is, classically, that businessmen do not make good imperialists and that they will have to acquire extracurricularly the paramilitary skills they did not learn at Wharton. But then we’ll want to note where Iron Man breaks with imperial precedent, and not just where it follows it. The movie is trying to imagine a forthright shift over to a relatively de-commercialized version of empire, and yet it is unwilling to transfer the basic political and military tasks of colonial rule to the US government. At issue is Tony Stark’s ambiguous institutional location. Corporate, but not corporate: He remains head of Stark Industries but seems to be withdrawing the company from its core product lines and won’t allow it to so much as market his latest invention. Military, but not military: He has close ties to the US occupying forces—he has an attaché-sidekick even—but says at one point that the Iron-Man jet-pack-weapon-suit is “not for the military.” That suit, let it be quickly said, is in large part a meditation on the new, hyper-technological military as it really exists: It is the smart weapon that US brass keep promising and never quite deliver; and also an extrapolation from the American machine-men or earth-astronauts currently in the field: begoggled, sat-linked, wandering Kandahar in their Kevlar-swaddling. Stark’s refusing to share the suit, meanwhile, is an utterly conventional image of the imperial monopoly, the exclusive control of force on which a properly global sovereignty would depend—the way that nuclear weapons were meant to function but haven’t. What the movie can’t find a way to do in good conscience is assign this sovereignty undivided to the US government. The movie, in other words, is careful to preserve the superhero’s customary independence, which is, of course, hard-wired into the genre; it’s just that in the current instance that independence articulates a rather surprising distrust, given that the movie’s politics otherwise seems to be pointing towards a state-driven solution. This is where the movie shifts over to sheerest fantasy, since there is nothing and no-one in the real world that even approximates Tony Stark’s position in the film, part-government, part-corporation, but finally neither: a vigilante NGO or bunker-busting Red Cross. Here, too, historical memory echoes: The movie’s first act, in which Tony Stark spot-welds his first crude metal suit from spare parts in some Afghani cave, provides the visual, picture-encyclopedia gloss on the Iron Man moniker: With its steely-grey visor and creaking arm joints, it is plainly a suit of armor, and Tony Stark turns out to be a knight, which is of course the model that European history supplies for the free-lance imperialism that is the movie’s hope and plan: A white man dons metal and heads east, having adopted a new code of nuclear chivalry.

But then “chivalry”—really?—boy, that sure sounds ponderous. This, then, helps us identify Iron Man’s most unusual achievement, which all goes back to Downey’s performance, flip and unforced, in which we find the promise of a new imperial style, the reassurance that we can all get serious about empire without, however, having to act serious; a chivalry, then, without gravitas; an imperialism fuelled by sheer exuberance. We’ve had a pretty good lesson already this past decade in how to flatten cities. What we haven’t yet properly learned is how to strut through the rubble.

Iron Man's first suit