Lynching, Shock and Awe, and other Violent Spectacles

by zunguzungu

This post has been bugging me since I posted it, and I’m been thinking nervously about the ways it might be “excessive” or even in various kinds of poor taste and judgment. I still think it’s sound, but the trouble with getting too close to one’s own work is that the arguments take on a subjective clarity that’s all out of proportion to whatever clarity they may actually have to anyone else; you start skipping over the key connecting sections in ways that you, having internalized them, are in the worst position to evaluate or even recognize.

The title was originally “The BD is about race,” but I changed it as I posted it, because it suddenly seemed true: I started thinking that maybe the word “race” wasn’t the key term anymore, that I was really trying to talk about how identities are functions of power and privilege, and wanted to get at how often American “racial” violence has been motivated by internalized narratives of American power and decline. I think this was the case in the American South, where lynching was a broadly expressed form of “justice” that may have taken African-Americans as its primary victim, but which was not derived from (or limited to) the identity of its victim. Instead, it was fears of disenfranchisement that drove those people then-just as fears of disenfranchisement drives the republican party now-but I say this not to defend it by explaining it: that fear turns into violent hatred only because such people cannot self-identify in any terms other than superiority and mastery. There might be a small subset of the US population that sees the middle east in terms of race or religion, narrowly defined-I leave out, of course, the minority that sees them as human beings-but I would venture that the broad structuring assumptions behind most Americans’ approach to the issue of interventionism in the region are the sorts of fears that result in terms like “Energy independence,” which is a fear not of an “other” but of American decline. Given the apparent impossibility of self-critique, these kinds of fears can only be addressed by hysterically re-asserting our power, producing spectacular demonstrations of of our shocking and awesome power that can then vividly contradict the non-vivid indications of our national impotence that drone away at the national consciousness, things like layoffs and currency exchange rates and health insurance premiums. That these assertions of power are, in the long run, self-defeating is becoming quite apparent, but they still serve their psychological purpose: every bomb dropped and every soldier on the ground in Iraq is an proud assertion that America is still number one, articulated in a wordless and spectacular idiom that shouts down the dry economic statistics or the baffling question of whether we’re in a recession or not.

The point, I guess, is that “lynching” and “shock and awe” are both discursive constructions of violence that, because of the problem they respond to, can only be focused on weaker targets, can only justify the use of force on the basis of the idea that power is self-justifying. A “threat to our interests” (or, as the Bush Doctrine asserts, an attempt to break our monopoly on violence) becomes a justification for extra-legal violence only to the extent that we take imperial glory as, itself, a self-justifying goal. Landless and indebted tenant farmers in Mississippi embraced extralegal forms of justice because the formal system of justice no longer flattered their ego-ideals as God’s chosen people; by the same token, to the extent that our national fears and anxieties are of lost imperial glory-the origin and product of so many repetitions of the “America is #1” theme-the only appropriate recourse is going to seem to be grand spectacles of imperial violence.

What I want to do, then, is understand better how what Scrimshander called different “scales of action” are, to the extent that they are experienced as representations (which is to say, by those who are not targeted by them, a key distinction), hardly different at all. Lynching, after all, was a spectacle first and foremost, and was quite “modern” in the ways photography was used to transform a secretive event into a fundamental structuring part of the national consciousness. The archive of lynching is not hard to find, if you look; it was the most open of open secrets, and it had to be if it was going to achieve its purpose. By the same token, controlling the news cycle is a huge part of what the GWOT is about: replacing grim stories of malaise with grand stories of morning in America. That, to me, is the significance of “the Surge”: it literally does not matter that what John McCain is talking about when he says those words is a fantasy: its real purpose is to exorcise the historical specter of Vietnam, replacing a narrative in which America “chose” to lose with one where America’s will to win conquers all obstacles. I don’t think Americans like McCain or Palin (and depressingly, there are many) give two shits about whether or not we’re “winning” in Iraq; they simply desire more spectacles of American “success” (=weak people being shocked and awed) and fewer of American “failure” (=people like Obama who choose to lose). And this, too, brings us back to the very origin of aerial bombardment: fantasies of imperial control (of RAF pilots surveilling and striking accurately at savage people below them) characterize the discourse from the very beginning, yet have never ever actually obtained in practice; “precision bombing” has always been an oxymoron. That too, didn’t matter: it was far more important for people in England to believe that their pilots were flying high above the chaos of jungle savage societies, dropping order in amongst it like gifts from the heavens.

This is what Tarzan is about, and why the most spectacular enunciation of American imperialism in modern US cultural history is also a story of a Maryland plantation transplanted to Africa: the white man floats high above the apes, dropping his sovereignty down into their midst and rescuing his white princess from black rapists, in the form of a noose. It isn’t one or the other, but both. And what Tarzan crystalizes in one text (which makes it a really useful centerpiece in my own work) can also be seen in the spiderweb of interwoven connections and influences that bind the “Western” to narratives of American identity as it gets practiced “abroad,” in spectacular events that aren’t either cowboy patriotism or cold war imperialism redux, but are both at once, because they were never really distinct. Which is why I’m having so much love these days for Bayart’s globalization book: as he gives me the language to express it, I’m not talking about two distinct processes or events or identities, but a globalizing “imaginaire,” a broad mode of constructing difference that, via the process of segregation, unites the territory it surveys. That’s the sense (still a bit jumbled, I guess, from the length of that last sentence, and the clunkiness of this one), in which I say, put most crudely, that lynching = the Bush doctrine.