Tag Archives: empire

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



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?



[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


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 “Jew.” 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 is the most technologically advanced movie ever made, and yet it is utterly, commitedly 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 tribal 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.


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….



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.



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.



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