Book Review: Memorial, by Alice Oswald

 

 

Heroes of iliad by Tischbein

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, The Heroes of the Iliad, 1829

This semester, for a graduate poetry workshop, I was tasked with reviewing a poetry collection. I chose Memorial, by Alice Oswald, and have decided to post it here for all to see, and also because most journals aren’t interested in reviews of books not written in the last few years.


The US edition of Alice Oswald’s 2011 poetry collection Memorial is subtitled “a version of Homer’s Iliad,” but the word “version” fails to capture the scope of Oswald’s epic. The original British subtitle uses the word “Excavation,” which is closer to the truth but still misses a key element. Instead, deployment more accurately describes how the Iliad features in the book, as a point of reference rather than a point of content. In this sense, like the dozens of similes repeated in pairs throughout the book, Memorial is like the Iliad, rather than a renewal of the Iliad itself.

Despite foregrounding the names of the 200 dead who come to populate Memorial, one of the most poignant moments is about namelessness, when the speaker declares “Somebody’s husband somebody’s daughter’s husband/Stood there stunned by fear/Like a pillar like a stunted tree” (Oswald 45). The sudden namelessness here is jarring in context, suggesting a more universal specificity: the dead are neither no-body nor some-one, but a mix of the two, a some-body, neither specifically named nor generally embodiable.

This is why the repetition of similes between characters’ biographies is so crucial for the lives of the commemorated. In one example, the character Asius “couldn’t stop/Having ridden those shining horses/Over the Selleis and the Simois/And all the stony way from Arisbe to Troy/Like when winnowers bang their shovels down” (44-45). To have a life, to have lived a life, is to have a referent elsewhere, or as Judith Butler puts it, “when attachment takes place, it does so in relation to persons and institutional conditions that may well be violent, impoverishing, and inadequate” (Butler 45). In Oswald’s world, death is rendered meaningful because it can be located through simile, because the dead live on in that to which they are compared, in a cycle of life, death, and comparison to something still left in the waking world.

One consequence of the book’s persistent lack of punctuation is that the story never stops with one or another character’s death, at least not syntactically. The only endings and beginnings come with line breaks and stanza breaks, which designate lives and scenes. The repetition of stanzas, one after another, and always as a simile suggests a constant recycling of grief.

This repetition also universalizes the act of trying to articulate grief, always repeated, always stuttered, always made necessary again by yet another death. No matter how gorgeously one describes death—“Like smoke leaving the earth” (51), or “Like the shine of a sea swell” (42), “Like suddenly it thunders” (16), “Like restless wolves never run out of hunger” (78), “Like when a lion comes back to a forest’s secret rooms” (67), no comparison seems apt enough to fully grasp its totality.

Oswald drags the reader into the awful challenge of her own book: When all 200 men are given equally beautiful similes through which we come to understand their lives and deaths, they start to flatten and blend, and despite the consistent resonance and talent of her craft, Oswald cannot keep the deaths of her characters entirely unique. They converge and become indistinguishable.

Finally, this fatal flaw implicates the reader’s inability to grieve for the dead, as all 200 characters becomes, in the last analysis, mostly forgettable when the act of grief overshadows those for whom we grieve. We can’t remember the 200 dead in Memorial. How, then, are we supposed to mourn for the dead of our own wars, let alone our own daily violent conflicts that now play out in our schools and shopping malls? How many poems can we write to keep up with the dead? Oswald is vicious and unforgiving in forcing us to confront the fact that we simply cannot; that despite our best efforts, tragedy is outrunning poetry.

-jk


Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. Verso, 2006.

Oswald, Alice. Memorial. W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Notes from Flagstaff

burn 2

“As for me, I am a watercolor./I wash off.” -Anne Sexton, “For My Lover, Returning to his Wife


It should be monsoon season in Flagstaff but the air is bone-dry and the only thing in the sky that isn’t hazy blue is a plume of wildfire smoke. I sit in a tea house while “Back in the USSR” plays on the radio, sipping oolong and watching passerby walk up Aspen Avenue in downtown Flagstaff. It’s just like the old days, or just like how I remember the old days, but something is different. I’m just like the passerby now. I can no longer be a smug local people-watching the tourists.

My childhood in northern Arizona was defined by two local features: The inevitability of wildfires and the possibility of leaving for outer space. In 1884, a fire destroyed Old Town, leaving only the part of the city closest to the tracks. Ten years later, Percival Lowell founded an observatory on a hill above the city to look for life on Mars, though his research would later lead to the discovery of Pluto. Flagstaff is a city of dreamers, artists, mystics, and scientists. I landed squarely in one of these quadrants, or all of them.

I left Flagstaff four years ago. It’s not as if this city is completely different. Instead, Flagstaff to me has entered the uncanny valley. It’s familiar enough that I recognize it for what it’s supposed to be, but enough of it has changed that it just doesn’t feel right. I am also a different person. We meet one another, the city and I, halfway at our respective crossroads, doing double takes.

Still, I have connections. In a tiny house in a semi-familiar neighborhood, I help fold veggies into egg roll dough with four Flagstaff friends, two married couples, both of whose weddings I missed because I was traveling or had already skipped town. We sit outside under strings of lights in the now seasonably warm evening air and catch up.

I used to live with one friend here in a house on Talkington Street near the ski resort. I’m glad how familiar this scene still is, how easy it is to cook with friends after so long apart. Later, we chat about people we remember from high school, wherever they’ve ended up. Sammie shows me an art project. Cari is going to seminary in New England in a few weeks. Ryan is preparing another album after a month-long tour.

This is the Flagstaff I have always known, catering to the ambitious and the adamant. Following the emergence of art, mysticism, and dreams, though, there is always some form of commercialization, and Flagstaff is not immune from the power of Capital to market nostalgia.

It’s fitting that the first settler structure here was a saloon, before the loggers and miners moved in. Gun violence was commonplace. In one apocryphal account, there was a saloon murder every week between 1882 and ’83. Were it not for the scientists who took an interest in the region, John Wesley Powell and Percival Lowell, Flagstaff would have likely become one more ghost town or company town, its residents finally driven out when logging and mining came to a standstill. Instead, Flagstaff became a tourist town and a college town. And, at a certain point, the college experience is sold to high school graduates using the same advertising techniques that tourist traps use. Come for the mountain view, stay for the nostalgia.

Except, most people who can afford to stay in Flagstaff are long-time residents. And expensive student housing structures have popped up across from the tracks, and parking is now regulated with warnings and tickets, and there’s a fire close to my old neighborhood. The last few days I’m here, my phone is constantly buzzing with evacuation alerts and flash flood warnings from late rainstorms. I am used to waiting for evacuation notices. This is something they don’t advertise in the college brochures, to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, to have a bag packed at the door. And I heed the warning. I am ready to leave.

-jk

Notes from the Four Corners

Desert 6.JPG“I cannot hate them, the tourists, because I am one.” -Nabil Kashyap, The Obvious Earth

They say that when you first encounter the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, it can be disappointing for two reasons. First, it is situated in a relatively small room that is always packed with visitors, so many that you have to shove to reach the painting, and second, even if you make it to the Mona Lisa, the painting itself is small and unsurprising. You already know what the Mona Lisa looks like. You can buy a poster of it in the gift shop. Instead, it’s the art in the hallway outside the Mona Lisa room, the unfamous work you’ve never seen before, that leaves an impression. The Four Corners Monument is similar.

Two days before the country celebrates its independence, I drive through the desert to Colorado, and make a stop at the Four Corners, between Navajo and Ute Mountain land. I drive slowly over the dirt road, following cars and followed by campers. I find a parking space and step out of the air conditioning into the heat. It is exceptionally hot, barely a cloud in the sky. I’m used to this. I’ve almost missed the heat, living in northern Idaho for so long.

Desert 7

The Four Corners Monument is a square of shaded stands around the circular marker itself, directly where the four state borders meet at 90 degree angles, distinguishing jurisdictions and electoral districts from one another. When I enter the square, I’m confused about which state I’m in, but it becomes clear when I see the four stone markers around the circle indicating each respective state, like cardinal directions. There is a long line of people in front of the circle, each tourist standing in summer wear and waiting to stand in the circle to have their picture taken straddling as many US states as one can.

I don’t get in line because it’s hot and I’m on my way to meet a friend I haven’t seen since I visited Albuquerque in winter, and I impulsively don’t want to be a tourist. I grew up in a tourist town, as a local. It’s a habit I can’t shake off, wanting to distinguish myself from them. I’m not any different from the tourists, though, not here. I walk the square of shops in the shade, passing people eating fry bread from paper plates, passing locals selling jewelry, knives, Kokopelli decorations.

In Portland this spring, I saw Nabil Kashyap give a talk about the colonial nature of travel writing, the fraught history of the travelogue. Historically, the genre frames the traveler as a hero and the place visited as a backdrop for the hero’s self-discovery, transforming locals into objects, props. Kashyap’s own collection of travelogues wrestles with this history. In his panel, he advocated for a more ethical form of travel writing that “decenters the visitor” and emphasizes the place, the people, without claiming ownership over the stories that are intrinsic to the place and people. This time last year, a lot of people noted that Anthony Bourdain was an exemplar of this kind of travelogue, taking the role of a reporter, letting people tell their stories on their own terms.

Desert 2At the edge of the square, there is a sign telling visitors not to spread ashes of the deceased here because the scattering of human remains on this land goes against Navajo custom. I wonder how many tourists scattered their dead relatives at the Four Corners before the locals had to put up the sign. Despite the signs, tourists still come to the Four Corners and spread cremated relatives on this special dot on a map. I think about how weird it is to celebrate the alignment of state borders here in the Southwest. 150 years ago, this was Brigham Young’s Mormon territory called Deseret. 160 years ago, this was Mexico. 250 years ago, this was Spain. 450 years ago, this was Pueblo land. Statehood was only granted to Arizona in 1912. The land may appear static, but its cartographic meaning is always changing.

Instead of standing on the corners, I wander out to the trailhead up the hill from the square, but only a little ways. I’m not equipped for a hike in the desert at noon. I look out at the windswept emptiness of one state or another, this stateless terrain. I’m the only one who walks this way, and I’m glad to be out of the crowd. Later, I use the bathroom. I buy some fry bread. I take some photos. I leave with my fingers sticky with powdered sugar, wishing I could hike around this place in cooler weather, see what else it has to offer.

-jk

 

Short Story Published in Bodega

DublinAmong some great prose and poetry in the July issue of Bodega, I have a single unit of flash fiction, “All Good Things.” This monthly journal puts out consistent, constant writing, and I’m grateful to have a space in it.

This story is one more piece of historical fiction, set in Dublin. Strangely, like most of the fiction I’ve had published, it has mysteriously never been in a creative writing workshop.

-jk

On Revisiting a Daybook I Gave Up On

Garden.jpgHere’s what happened: on September 1, 2018, I started a daybook. My goal was to write a few paragraphs every single day, usually a detailed description of something I observed or did. The goal was to think in the present tense, to not compare moments, but simply describe what happened.

I made it two months and six days, stopping short at Election Day, adding a few posts in November and December. By January, I cut my losses. Life got weird. I was involved with some political activism and needed to grade mid-term and term papers for my composition classes, and holiday travel coupled with other writing goals pushed the daybook out of my routine. What I have as a result is a detailed sketch of life in Moscow, Idaho, during the autumn of 2018. An artifact from which I can mine for inspiration.

I wrote a total of seventy posts. Most of them were redundant, but some choice scenes emerged. Here is one scene: one evening in October, I stopped to pet a dog named Tuna outside the one good bar in town, the Garden, and a woman ran out to let Tuna lick her face. Tuna’s human apologized for the dog’s bad breath, but the woman said, “It’s okay,  I just had a shot of gin so I can’t smell anything,” before jogging off in the direction of the police station.

I spent a lot of time in the daybook reflecting on the Muscovites I see everywhere. There is a man with a beard and a panama hat. There are the Neo-Confederate church members downtown. There are the activists I trucked with, a retired state senator I ate donuts with every Saturday morning in October.

This last year, I’ve started to view my writing in the long tradition of creative nonfiction stemming from journalism: the dispatch, the report, the place study, the travelogue. I wonder how many notes essayists record that never make it to print, the observations that get cut. The simplest description of creative nonfiction I can think of is this: to describe what happened.

In mining my daybook from last fall, I have now collected material for three essays by categorizing and cutting. I wrote a lot about food, a lot about politics, a lot about anxiety, plenty about the sheer weirdness of this town in the Idaho panhandle. I described, in the most boring details possible, what happened between September 1 and November 6, not just my experience, but the lay of the land writ large, the season, the changes and my acclimation to the changes.

After the experience, I cannot recommend the practice of keeping a daybook strongly enough to other writers. It is tedious and boring in the moment, but so is exercise and meditation and learning to play music. A daybook for a writer is like scales for a musician. It is foundational, elemental, the bedrock of storytelling and keen observation. Maybe I’m becoming more of a reporter like Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe. Maybe I’m just doing what poets and novelists do to build image and character. In any case, my writing style has come out better for the exercise, simply a paragraph at the end of a long day, a scene, a drink, a ritual like prayer.

-jk

Essay Published in Blue Earth Review

ZionI’m pleased to announce that my flash essay “After Zion” is the featured online nonfiction for the next print issue of Blue Earth Review. It is what the title suggests: Dawdling after a long hike through Zion National Park. You should also check out the featured fiction and poetry for this issue while you’re there.

This short essay, along with one recently published in Dark Mountain, is one in a long string of environmentally-focused flash essays I read back in September as part of an Idaho MFA tradition, the yearly symposium: Each second-year student reads a selection of their work in a low-stakes setting, usually a faculty member’s house, and responds to questions and comments about their work to prepare them for their third-year thesis defense. Two-thirds of the flash essays I read at my symposium have found homes in print or online. Does that mean that I will only successfully defend two-thirds of my thesis next year?

-jk

 

Essay Published in Dark Mountain

Sunset in the WoodsI’m pleased to announce that my flash essay “Notes on Preparing for a Wildfire Evacuation” appears in Dark Mountain 15, which is themed around forest fires. The Dark Mountain Project is a UK-based literary and arts organization whose goal (they literally wrote a manifesto about it) is to use art to realistically address global ecological crises.

Much of my writing is environmentally focused, and this particular essay is about growing up in the mountain West, where wildfire season is a yearly, ongoing fact of life. I’m glad to have an essay in Dark Mountain, and I’m glad for the encouragement for the weird, at times discomforting direction my personal essays are going. Now that I live in northern Idaho, wildfire season remains a fact of day-to-day life. So too, though, are forests and mountains, the quieter features of the mountain West, the areas I’m used to exploring freely, that I hope to continue to explore. My writing will inevitably dwell on forests and fires alike. Now that I am about to enter my final year in an MFA program, as I prepare a book of essays for my final defense, I’m grateful for institutions like Dark Mountain whom I can trust with my weird, discomforting work.

-jk

Notes from Portland

Portland

“Maybe 1978 was the year the 1960s ended and the 1980s began. Maybe there were no 1970s.” -Rebecca Solnit, The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness

My generation talks about Portland, Oregon, the way my parents’ generation talked about California in the 1960s, in that supposedly magical decade when Haight-Ashbury was for free-thinkers and runaways and Hollywood was a place of romance rather than violence, a place of paradise, freedom, and escapism, or at least just a place to escape to.

For a lot of us born in the 1990s, I think, the Pacific Northwest is still seen as a kind of paradise. I know a dozen people who went to Portland after graduating from college or instead of college, and I know more who talk about going there sometime in the future. In the American West, I think, many of us see it as the only remaining authentic counter-cultural scene, now that Seattle has been corrupted by Amazon and Boeing. It’s paradise, and like California before the cults and murders, this reputation is equally earned and exaggerated.

I will admit that, when I visited last week, I was struck by this city, by its oblique beauty and opaque optimism. But I’m also ambivalent. It’s not romantic to me, but familiar. It’s just like being back home in Flagstaff, Arizona in all the best and worst ways, because it’s a tourist destination, which means that what is visible to the visitor is only one side of the stage the city wants to present. Tourists never peek behind the curtain to see the other city inside the city, or rather, they do, constantly, but choose to ignore anything that disrupts the sense of paradise, the escapism that tourism is built on, a centuries-old colonial logic that treats any visited people or place as a cultural buffet. I recognize the theatricality, the performativity. I lived for two decades as a local in Flagstaff, on the side of town the tourists never go to.

Gentrification is to tourism as imperialism is to capitalism, in which those with economic power, in a given city’s financial Center, invade a marginalized community or neighborhood, buy out its necessary businesses (laundromats, corner stores, diners), and replace them with yuppy businesses that those in the community cannot afford, forcing them to look elsewhere for laundry or food. Meanwhile, the gentry have a new colony in a part of town with cheap rent from which to sell artisinal donuts to wealthy newcomers, or to all the tourists.

I went to Portland as a tourist—as the gentry, as the colonist—for the annual AWP conference. 15,000 writers and publishers descended on the City of Roses to network and share journals and thoughts and their creative work. To be clear, this conference was productive for publishers, writers, for a variety of literary communities, and for me personally as well as professionally. But like all conferences, it came at the expense of the environment and the local community.

Portland is a strange place because it simultaneously compels me to want to be more compassionate to others, while also reminding me how insufficient compassion is, despite its urgency, despite its necessity.

But I see the appeal of the dream here, too. I see why my friends relocated to this gritty, green, rusting city, this place of wondrous contradiction, where the river pushes past the streets and Mount Hood is always watching over the mossy brown cacophony of the landscape, the patches of cherry blossom trees, the network of trains and the bicyclists and the sense of cheerful nihilism. I want to be a part of this scene. I want to fit in here. I do fit in here, feel a kinship with the sense of possibility, the sense of communal towardness to one another, despite the likeliness that this sense is more a product of my 1990s imagination, driven by Twin Peaks and The X-Files. But, like any glorified past, maybe there were no 1990s.

Portland is no paradise—I’m not naïve; I grew up in a city that people from Phoenix called utopic when they came to ski and drink while my friends on the other side of the tracks dealt with floods, fires, and catastrophic rent hikes. But still: I’ve always felt out-of-place until coming to Portland, where I felt like it didn’t matter if I was a tourist or a local, as if the difference dissolved and waking up in Portland felt like deja vu, but in a good way, like delirium. A tourist seals this feeling up for himself, like a trinket; what can I do, instead, to fight for a world in which this sense of immediate community, this impulse toward affinity despite factual difference, is common for everyone else?

-jk

Notes from Albuquerque

four horseman of the western statueEvery time I visit this city, it finds new ways to surprise me. There is no planning for contingency here. Last week, I returned to Albuquerque for the 40th annual Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference to present a paper (animal studies, rats, Paris, Ratatouille, and so on) alongside a broad, interdisciplinary spectrum of scholars.

There was an eco-feminist reading of Hey Arnold! There was a close reading of Nick White and Paulo Bacigalupi’s portrayal of toxic water (in the context of the crisis in Flint, Michigan). There was a critical assessment of whether or not altering National Parks iconography is a useful political strategy against selling public lands to corporate interests. This conference is my  favorite, more than the national PCA conference and even AWP (where everyone is trying to hide how stressed-out they are). Maybe it’s the Breaking Bad T-shirts in the hotel lobby, or the actual meth dealers just down the street on Central Avenue, but for whatever reason, this particular conference allows scholars, an otherwise overly serious bunch, to take themselves just a little less seriously.

I’ve missed the high desert, the southwestern aesthetics, the tan and adobe architecture. I’ve missed the sunlight and the dryness. But this is Albuquerque, a city of endless surprise. So I should have expected that the restaurant a friend and I taxied to would be closed in the middle of a snow storm, forcing us to walk down Central Avenue looking for an emergency alternative. Right now, nearly every place that I have known is covered in snow: Flagstaff, Lincoln, Moscow, Spokane, and for a while even Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I neurotically plan for contingencies at every step, but it’s good to know that the unexpected isn’t always bad. For me, it takes an effort to relax and take things less seriously. Shout-laughing at the high desert snow while looking for an Italian restaurant in the wind and snow with one of my best friends reminds me that some of the most productive, engaging experiences are surprises, without prediction and against planning.

The stakes are high, for interdisciplinary academic work that actually makes a difference. Back home at the University of Idaho, there are two interdisciplinary efforts to address climate change, first an ecocriticism reading group and second an emerging collaboration between the humanities and sciences to communicate accurate climate science to local communities. This weekend, I realized that not only is pop culture necessary to communicating serious climate science, but framing it all as a doom-and-gloom apocalypse is also counter-productive. The most important part of the countless post-apocalyptic films and novels that have come out in the last five years is that, one way or another, people express survival in terms of art. Despite zombies, drought, or plagues, characters always make room for culture, whatever that culture is, no matter how subtle its recreation and preservation is.

Image result for alt national parksPopular culture studies finds a comfortable home in Albuquerque. This academic field, like the city itself, resists expectations. It forces people to recognize that grave concerns and lightheartedness can coincide.

This conference is an (expensive and limited) opportunity for scholars to “make sense of the things they love.” It’s a space to recognize the ambiguity inherent in everything we interact with: TV, movies, comics, music, genre. All of it has a radical potential to shape the way people see themselves and the world around them. It’s not that pop culture is sacred, but that it has the potential, like the most radical aspects of the world itself, to surprise us.

 

 

-jk

For Those Who Forget

tax-the-tea“But until 1950, when our ramshackle world empire was institutionalized as the national security state, we were improving ourselves, and the generality took part in government while Opinion was not so cynically and totally manipulated as now. Since we cannot pay for the empire any longer, we shall soon be coming home–but to what?” -Gore Vidal, 1992

“The ‘just war’ liberal Left made plain that it did not want to hear from ‘excuseniks.’ This coinage, rehabilitating the Cold War rhetoric about Soviet Russia, suggests that those who seek to understand how the global map arrived at this juncture through asking how, in part, the United States has contributed to the making of this map, are themselves, through the style of their inquiry, and the shape of their questions, complicitous with an assumed enemy.” -Judith Butler, 2004


-1992-

Francis Fukuyama wrote that the end of the Cold War signaled the “end of history” in his book The End of History and the Last Man. His argument was not that history would stop after the Cold War, but was instead an effort to draw a universal historical narrative, a “directional history” that, for Fukuyama, was driven by a “logic of a progressive modern natural science” which “predisposes human societies toward capitalism only to the extent that men can see their own economic self-interest clearly” (108). This logic, according to Fukuyama, creates a historical narrative of “progress” toward liberal democracy in which everyone can easily participate in capitalism. The rest of history, in this master narrative, would involve the “transformation” of all Second and Third World nations into Western-style liberal democracies. Note that Fukuyama seems to think that the experiences of those countries’ transformations do not count as history.

The same year, the polemicist Gore Vidal published a speech he delivered to the National Press Club in The Nation, titled “Time for a People’s Convention.” Vidal’s argument–that the empire is coming home–is effectively the opposite of Fukuyama’s. Both men watched the collapse of the USSR from their homes in the US and arrived at different conclusions. But they both agreed that the event was momentous, that is said more about America than Soviet Russia, that it was ultimately part of a longer historical process. The end of history, or the end of the empire. Meanwhile, America ran victory laps through Iraq and Bosnia.

A third American historian, Howard Zinn, wrote on the aftermath of the Cold War three years later in a new edition of A People’s History of the United States. In the afterward, titled “On the Clinton Presidency,” Zinn critiques the way Clinton sought to resolve the aftermath of the Cold War, arguing that that a “concern for ‘stability’ over morality seemed to motivate the Clinton administration in its relations with Russia. It insisted on on firm support for the regime of Boris Yeltsin” despite the new Russian leader’s invasion and occupation of neighboring territories such as Chechnya (631).

For Zinn, an attention to ‘morality’ would amount to supporting “the rights of working people, here and abroad” (631), which Clinton neglected in favor of corporate interests. The Clinton/Yeltsin consensus brought to fruition Fukuyama’s prediction that liberal democracy (configured as more participation in capitalism) would spread, but as Zinn and Vidal both recognized, this “spread” was a result of Clinton’s opportunism with Yeltsin rather than the natural alignment of the Eastern Bloc with the US. Zinn saw the end of the Cold War as a lost opportunity, a predictable turn back toward Cold War priorities.

-2005-

One of my most distinct memories from childhood in the twenty-first century was all the propaganda, though this word was not available to me then. In my seventh grade social studies class, our teacher had us learn about the Middle East by “playing Arabia.” He had us divide into small groups to represent “Bedouin caravans,” and then to learn about the culture, we “started fatwas” against each other’s groups.

The narrative we received in seventh grade social studies reflects Edward Said’s assessment that in the twentieth century West, “Islam, if it is ‘Islam’ that is being studied, is not an interlocutor but in a sense a commodity” (150). In this way we were made to believe that the Middle East was an abstract object and that Islam indefinably encompassed everything between Europe and China, between Russia and central Africa. I didn’t understand the war, but I was taught to be afraid of the places we sent the troops, and by extension to worship the troops as an abstraction, an object even. And then yellow “Support the Troops” stickers appeared everywhere. And then the TV shows all made at least one preachy 9/11 episode, from The West Wing to The Sopranos. And then the military started paying the NFL to do stunts at games. And then we started arguing about flag pins.

Judith Butler begins her collection of post-9/11 essays, Precarious Life, with a critique of liberals who wholeheartedly supported military action in Afghanistan, even if they critiqued the later invasion of Iraq. This critique provides a historically-minded framework for what I grew up with: A reiteration of the Cold War consensus that pitted the US against a distant but fast-encroaching enemy, with calls for unquestioning unity.

The 1960 debate between Nixon and Kennedy exemplifies that consensus. At one point, someone asked Kennedy “just how serious a threat to our national security are these Communist subversive activities in the United States today?” to which Kennedy responded, “I think if the United States is maintaining a strong society here in the United States, I think that we can meet any internal threat. The major threat is external and will continue.” When asked to comment on his opponent’s response, Nixon began by saying, “I agree with Senator Kennedy’s appraisal generally in this respect.” Both men agreed that the threat was mostly external and that a strong internal state would help defeat that threat. This rhetorical move portrayed the threat as unified and the US as in need of unification, such that a protagonistic US is vulnerable while an antagonistic enemy, the Eastern Bloc, takes advantage of that vulnerability. But Kennedy and Nixon could not admit to such vulnerability. It was necessary to be the victim of a crime, of insidious espionage and conspiracy.

Likewise, the consensus in the 2000s was that the US had been the victim of a grave injustice, a terrorist attack, thus giving us permission to defend ourselves and our interests. The looming feature of my childhood and my generation is what Butler calls “our wounding,” which has shaped policy, culture, and literature. She observes that Americans “have to shore up the first-person point of view, and preclude from the telling accounts that might involve a decentering of the narrative ‘I’ within the international political domain. . . This decentering is precisely what we seek to rectify through a recentering. A narrative form emerges to compensate for the enormous narcissistic wound opened up by the public display of our physical vulnerability” (Butler 6-7).

Butler’s analysis here can be applied to the Nixon/Kennedy consensus that exemplified Cold War politics. To compensate for the vulnerability used as an excuse to interfere with world politics, the US must narrate itself into the center of the story. This comes down to how US history is told. By cutting out backstory, by cutting out context, the US becomes a justified vigilante on the world stage. By beginning with injustice rather than the years and decades before, historical narrative becomes a tool of empire.

Zinn also reaches for this use of history inadvertently when he writes that his “point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims” (10). Imagine, in other words, the implications of telling the story of the Civil War by starting with Sherman’s March. Imagine starting the story of Texas with the battle of the Alamo. Imagine explaining the Vietnam War by starting with the Gulf of Tonkin, or the American Revolution by starting with the Boston Massacre, or the Taliban without the CIA’s Operation Cyclone.

The narrative form that US history too often takes is a detective novel: The story begins with a crime, and will only end when the bad guys are arrested, but before the trial proceeds. The investigation, not the law, is what matters, and with investigation comes weaponry, expenditures, interrogations, false alarms.

-2010-

Gore Vidal reproduced this same narrative form in his writing. What sets his 1992 speech apart was its attention to what would finally happen after the long crime drama of the Cold War finally came to an end. Unlike Fukuyama, Vidal expected an end to the Kennedy/Nixon consensus and the “ramshackle empire” they helped create. His question is pertinent: What exactly will come after?

Vidal and Zinn both predicted massive protests against the system, but Vidal was more specific, writing “that we shall begin to see an organized resistance to so tyrannical a state” (Vidal 348), and proposed in 1992, as he had before the election of 1980, that “Article Five of the Constitution describes two methods whereby it may be amended or otherwise altered. . . The second procedure is very interesting indeed–in fact, one might almost call it democratic.” In his speech before the Press Club, Vidal called for a constitutional convention, writing that “Unlike us, the founders did not worship their handiwork. . . Thomas Jefferson wanted to hold a constitutional convention at least once a generation because, as he said, you cannot expect a man to wear a boy’s jacket” (348-349).

This method of changing the Constitution never came up in my high school AP Government and Economics class, which I took the same year that men dressed in colonial outfits and stood in the snow holding signs reading “Tea Party” and “Taxed Enough Already.” Instead, the classroom quickly became a space to openly fight the culture wars of the time. Unlike earlier classrooms, we were told to use the historical narrative we received. This narrative of America had internal mechanisms, and here we had a chance to tinker with them, as Vidal had done in his writing.

But we didn’t. We never talked seriously about economics or justice. Instead, we argued about things like whether or not America is a Christian nation. In fact, I began this post series with that very debate, when President John Adams declared that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” while numerous state legislatures simultaneously passed laws discriminating against Jews, atheists, and sometimes Catholics. In high school, we never talked about exceptions to the rule because we spent so much time trying to agree upon what the rules themselves were. By then, the Cold War had thoroughly been replaced with a War on Terror. The empire was not coming home after all. The Obama/McCain consensus had determined as much.

I admire Vidal’s continued call for a constitutional convention during his career, but it surprises me that he seems to have put so much confidence in the potential impact of such a convention. Here, Charles Beard continues to be useful for his observation, along with so many others, that “The Constitution was essentially an economic document based upon the concept that the fundamental private rights of property are anterior to the government and morally beyond the reach of the popular majorities” (Beard 13). Vidal would have been wise to remember this fact. I’m often surprised by its absence in his constitutional diagnosis.

Vidal favored, or perhaps feared, “the fury of those who have been deprived for too long of decent lives. It takes no unusual power of prophecy to remark they will not be apathetic forever” (Vidal 350). It is worrying to consider a constitutional convention as a means of appeasement rather than something close to Howard Zinn’s conceptualization of morality, as a collective movement made up of those “who have been deprived for too long of decent lives” in dialogue with similar movements across history.

A long memory, a historical consciousness, means recognizing that the propaganda that dominated my childhood is not unique. It is an evolved sequel to the propaganda my parents grew up with during the Cold War, which can be tied to the wartime propaganda of the First World War. While Zinn had his limits, what I admire most in him and his work is the longevity of the connective threads he seeks to narrate, which begins to decenter America and instead highlight the different communities that are part of the empire, by choice or by force. He (perhaps incidentally) encourages Americans to think long-term, to actively remember that we, our conflicts, do not come from a vacuum. If the empire is not coming home anytime soon, the least we can do, to use Butler’s analysis, is more actively decenter the narrative ‘I’ and begin working on a history of the empire that stretches before, around, and beyond its ever-narrowing scope.


Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. Verso, 2006.

Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press books, 1992

Said, Edward. Covering Islam. Vintage Books, 1997.

Vidal, Gore. The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000. Vintage International, 2002.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Harper Perennial, 1995.