- Dedication: Michael Rogin Remembered
Michael Rogin passed away in Paris on November 25, 2001 at the age of 64. News of his death saddened the University of California (Berkeley) community where he had taught since 1963; it saddened as well political theorists, interdisciplinary colleagues, and friends around the world. Rogin’s slight frame cast a huge shadow on the Berkeley campus. He regularly lectured to packed auditoriums, especially during his signature courses on American political theory. He co-founded and edited the internationally acclaimed journal Representations. He mentored graduate students from a host of disciplines. And all the while he pursued a vigorous research and writing schedule of timely and incisive works — scholarly books, occasional essays, film and book reviews, political commentary.
A post-War Jewish left thinker, Mike Rogin was both a familiar intellectual figure and a singular one. The familiar touchstones: Marx, psychoanalysis (Freud and Klein, not Lacan), labor, race, the Left (Old and New, not Foucauldian). He wrote theory in a style neither arcane nor impenetrable; his Nation and London Review articles shared a literary voice with his books on Melville and Reagan. The singularity: Rogin brilliantly psychoanalyzed American political culture, combining Freud, fiction, and film with American political, intellectual, and social history in an attempt to delineate how our historical burdens contour our political possibilities.
Rogin’s best known books include The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter (1967); Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (1991); Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (1983); “Ronald Reagan,” the Movie, and other Episodes in Political Demonology (1998); and Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (1996). In these as well as in his essays and reviews, Rogin was a relentless critic of triumphalist renderings of U.S. political history — Pollyannaish and self-glorifying views of the rise of the American state as a global power and the sufficiency of American party politics as a vehicle for democracy. He subjected the sacred cows of the consensus view of American history — its mythology (the self-made man, the American Dream, the Frontier) and its founding texts (the Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers, the Constitution) — to sustained critique so as to write back into history those whose labor, liberty, and lives had been usurped and forgotten. At the same time, he interrogated American literary and filmic canonical works to diagnose a specifically American political imagination: its dreams, desires, fantasies, and fears.
Rogin returned repeatedly to the stain of slavery and native dispossession in constructing an “American” political identity, one he found torn between a desire for freedom and a will to oppression. But his was a political history contoured not only by chattel slavery, Native American genocide, male supremacy, and Jim Crow segregation, but also by the massive growth of corporate power and military might that threatened to overtake the ability of a divided citizenry to constrain them. If these accounts seem to dwell too much on the darkest episodes and powers shaping our history, it must be remembered that Rogin’s work was motivated by the conviction that the project of American democracy was woefully unfinished and that only a reckoning with this darkness would produce a more promising future, as his interventions into contemporary political debates — for example, immigration and affirmative action — attested. If there is hope for American political democracy, he seemed to argue (with Freud in his ear), a return to the traumatic past, as well as to an overlooked radical past, and a study of how both flicker in the present, is all that will kindle that hope into possibility. Moreover, in all of his writing and lecturing, Rogin agitated for a more vibrant and heterogeneous political realm by exposing the corporate, political, and individuating forces that transform citizens into consumers, publics into public opinion polls, and outsiders into aliens. He knew that richer forms of citizenship, more than new laws and policies, were key to revitalizing democracy.
While the scope of Rogin’s intellectual engagements is dizzying, his political commitments were always clear and sure-footed. Arriving at Berkeley as the Free Speech Movement was gaining...