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The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance
Theory and Cultural Studies
Stephen Paul Miller. The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. 413 pp.
If Walt Whitman had taken a Ph.D. in literary theory at New York University in the 1980s, and then wrote prose on the 1970s for Don Pease's New Americanist Series at Duke in the 1990s, the outcome might have resembled The Seventies Now. "In a sense, the seventies was Nixon's time, the time for his narrow all-inclusiveness to be profoundly representative, not just merely a symbol of a dominant group," writes Miller, replacing Whitman with Richard "Tricky Dick" Nixon as the celebrated figure of a contradictory American social text. Whitman's break down of the difference between public and private realms takes on a demonic form of paranoiac espionage in the 1970s, however. Nixon's attempt to unify "intelligence" gathering organizations through his own political panopticism, of course, eventually brought down his administration, and with it, the belief that government might be part of the solution rather than the problem it became under Reagan. Nixon embodies Miller's characterization of a latter-day Whitman whose story is metonymic for how "Americans undid themselves through self-surveillance," a form of surveying that turned out to be an "illusory ethos of self-sufficiency [. . .] that inhibited meaningful coalitions from forming." Miller sees Whitman and Nixon as figures of massive self-reflexivity, but the author is himself like Whitman in his reading and writing of America as a paradoxical social text.
In the preface to the 1855 version of Leaves of Grass, Whitman conceived of America as a linguistic construct: "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." Miller, too, views the 1970s as a text, but one that is composed under the sign of erasure, an "undecade" not grounded in any "real." The absent presence of the seventies looms large in its definitive undefinability as the millennium begins.
In his desire to include anyone and everything in his Democratic vista, Whitman reveled in contradictions, an outcome to the problem of "containing multitudes" and, he hoped, a way to get the violence out of poetry by refusing to choose between propositions. Miller's index reads like a funky Whitmanian catalog, a "list" poem composed of seventies culture, high and low. Miller's difficult task as a critic is to find a place, a meaning, and a connection between the everything (and nothing) that [End Page 556] happened in the decade, without resorting to a process of linear cause and effect that, he argues, would merely place another grid, another cover-up, upon a period best known for its gap, an eighteen-and-a-half minute silence at a crucial point in the Watergate tapes.
"Just Saying No" to cause and effect, Miller feels free to open the seventies up to a virtually boundless semiotic play. The results of his mulching of politics and poetry, of Chrysler and Christo, of Deep Throat and The Deer Hunter, of Paul de Man and Robert De Niro, of eight track tapes and erased tapes, of Dustin Hoffman and Abbie Hoffman, of Elton John and Jasper Johns, can be witty, surprising, smart, funny, and memorable, if at times hit and miss. I enjoyed his reading of the pockets of leisure suits as an inside feature of clothing turned outward, and the connection he makes between Stonewall, the gay bar in SoHo that became a signifier for the Gay Rights movement, and Watergate, a submerged enclosure that concealed and revealed the secret life of a president famous for stonewalling.
But Miller is following Whitman and so he may contradict himself. Even as he claims to eschew narratives of cause and effect, he casts decades into periods that follow one another with the confidence of a high school textbook: "The sixties were made possible by middle and late forties federal planning, such as the highway system and the GI Bill, that facilitated the dominance of nuclear families." How does that lucid macro-social...