restricted access 6. Critical Poetics: American Resources for Theorizing America
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Critical Poetics American Resources for Theorizing America»According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The meanest of men has his theory, and to think at all is to theorize.”1 Keep this in mind when the media profitably repeats the populist cliché that George W. Bush was a manikin, a creature of Karl Rove or Dick Cheney. Keep it in mind that meanness is a human quality that always has its theory. In this case, what concerns us is a theory of America. George W. Bush rested his national political image on inarticulate provinciality , but he did issue state documents, and these articulated a complex and highly objectionable theory of the United States, its history, and its possible futures. Furthermore, this theory contains a number of important foreign influences, which also depend upon theories of America. The most prominent of these dangerous foreign imports goes by the names Straussianism or neoconservatism. A great deal that the Bush regime represented in its theory of America involved a war against important elements of America itself. Chauvinism, nativism, and “know-nothing-ism” all came at a cost to large elements of U.S. life and memory. When the Bush regime wrote off such constituencies as the “Greens,” it testified not only to electoral logic but also to its radical animosity to defining elements of the United States itself—its people, its potentials, and its values. Radical right-wing revolutionary politics requires the destruction and suppression of American directions as a condition for its global neoimperial projects. We need to do three types of work in the face of these facts: first, we need to do history or, if you prefer, a genealogy of the transformations that let the uniqueness of the Bush era stand out. Second, we need to do nonhistoricist analyses as well, critiques that expose, describe, explain, and judge the aims and conceptions underlying the Bush regime—this is a task literary humanists can rightly adopt, that is, to understand this regime in its own terms. 6 Critical Poetics 73 Third, and most important, we need to produce competing theories of America that stand the best chance of succeeding in a political struggle against the well-entrenched reaction. We need to think historically and imagine proleptically if we are to accomplish these aims. We must tell more complex and better—that is, more convincing—stories. There are different ways to direct desire; and to do so successfully, we must make complex judgments, based on study and anticipation. In place of exclusionary antagonism, which Edward Said called “the rhetoric of blame,” we need inclusive study of human experiences and histories. Above all, we must develop a critical imagination to offer effective alternatives to such a regime, the success of which depends largely upon both deceit and ideological surfeit. Shadia Drury hints at a U.S.-German intersection that accounts in part for the ease with which the Straussian infection spreads in U.S. intellectual and policy circles. In other words, there are not only ideological analogues between Leo Strauss’s thinking and U.S. conservativism but also mutual entangled beginnings in the nineteenth century. In Leo Strauss and the American Right, Drury traces Strauss’s genealogy back through Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger to German romanticism. Along the way, she adds a brief paragraph mentioning Ralph Waldo Emerson for having “made this radically individualistic and nonconformist ethic fashionable in America.”2 High points of canonical American culture are among the conditions for the possibility of Straussian influence. Moreover, the American canon contains important critiques of these preparatory traditions and, more important, suggest U.S.based alternatives to them. In this particular case, following Drury’s hint, we see Emerson, especially in Essays: First Series,3 advancing a U.S.-based ideological agenda that, in its limited but avowedly liberal, and more importantly anticapitalist attitudes, draws support from and resources in German traditions that also underlie Strauss’s reactionary critique of U.S. liberalism.4 Of course, Emerson’s influence and status remain legendary even now. The nineteenth and early twentieth century did contain a strong anti-Emerson line that objected to his effect precisely because of its limited forms of liberalism , its antimodernism—especially its technological phobias—and its alignment with a North Atlantic cadre of reactionary anticapitalists. Henry Adams best represents canonical anti-Emersonianism as well as a robustly democratic, intellectually daring, although hardly innocent form of liberalism . I want to suggest an odd constellation worth experimenting with as a way of thinking...