- Race, Blood, Land: Fugitive Fictions and the Facts of America
Back in the mid-1980s, anti-war activists hit upon a simple slogan for rallying opposition against U.S. efforts to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua: “U.S. out of Central America.” But, one day as I was driving down the highway, a car raced by with a bumper sticker that took the issue to a new level: “U.S. out of NORTH AMERICA!” Now, that was a political statement to make you think. The driver of the car looked neither a political theorist nor political scientist. Sure, from behind it was hard to tell, but he seemed more poet than professional academic. Still, there was the chance, albeit a slim one, that he could have been both. A few years earlier, the political scientist Theodore Lowi had published a textbook entitled American Government: Incomplete Conquest. The bumper sticker and the textbook title connected in my mind: both highlighted how the constituting of the U.S. government on American soil was, at a minimum, at least as much a violent act of subjugation as it was the inauguration of a free and inclusive society.
Political scientists with enough of the poet’s sensibility for turning a phrase to question the colonizing practices of American Political Thought have remained as rare as that bumper sticker. Michael Shapiro is that rarity. For years now, he has creatively used novels, film and music to help rethink established understandings of politics. As the books and essays have continued to roll out, his focus has increasingly sought to use these cultural resources to interrogate how established discourses of truth, politics, morality, and more are mounted on the backs of people, people who get constructed as racialized others.
In his latest book, Shapiro turns again to fugitive fictions of novels, film and music, often produced by those made out to be racialized others, to challenge the conventional ways of understanding American Political Thought. In the process, Shapiro devastatingly highlights how this tradition creates its own denial, erasing (as it is written) its relationship to the privileges of the colonizing class and its descendants. Shapiro calls out this denial by using the fugitive fictions by and about the subjugated others of America to undo the violence of dominant representations, as when Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas, cuts from the main scene to a back alley wall with “Race, Blood, Land” written on it. Shapiro finds a treasure trove of figurative moves like these in novels, film and music, moves he consistently employs in counterpunctual style to problematize the supposed objective facts of the dominant narratives of what is America and who peoples it. In the process, he finds many tawdry back alleys glossed by the narratives written by or about those who came to dominate America. He starts specifically with Thomas Jefferson’s efforts, but quickly moves to challenging the false objectivity of the dominant idiom for talking about American politics. Borrowing from Arjun Appadurai, Shapiro uses his fugitive fictions to help imagine an “alternative ideoscape” that resists buttressing privileged white America at the expense of everyone else.
Deforming American Political Thought ranges widely in interrogating what is conventionally taken to be American Political Thought. Playing off Houston Baker, Jr.’s characterization of the writing of W.E.B DuBois as a politically inspired “deformation of mastery,” Shapiro enacts his own deformation of the master narratives of the genre called American Political Thought by making free use of the insistently counterpuntual expressions by and about subordinated Americans available in novels, film and music. For instance, in the first chapter, Jamaica Kincaid’s My Garden Book joins with Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon to highlight the imperial eye of Thomas Jefferson. In Notes on Virginia, Jefferson surveys all that he owns (including people as well as places and things) to find out who he is as an American: race, blood and land become interconnected as the silences of Jefferson’s allegedly objective surveying are shown to...