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American Quarterly 56.2 (2004) 429-437

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The Spectacle of Empire

University of Washington
The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture. By Amy Kaplan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. 260 pages. $37.50 (cloth).

The collapse of the twenty-foot statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, was widely heralded in the U.S. press as vindication of the Bush administration's "Operation Iraqi Freedom." The U.S. army was not an army of conquest, but one of liberation. The Iraqi people in turn welcomed their liberators in no uncertain terms by toppling the statue of their former tyrant. Almost instantaneously, however, the architectonics of American freedom shifted, revealing flimsy foundations and unstable grounds. As John Burns wrote in the New York Times, the city of Baghdad immediately descended into an "anarchy" of looting and civil strife. Meanwhile, Reuters reported that the United States planned to run the Iraqi oil industry for an indefinite period and was considering withdrawing Iraq from the OPEC cartel. Finally, it seemed that those monstrous weapons that only days earlier were menacing the planet were nowhere to be found.1

Against the backdrop of the current U.S. war, its fluctuating rationalizations, and the growing Iraqi resistance to U.S. occupation, Amy Kaplan's Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture makes for uncanny reading. For all the treatises now appearing that purport to explore the political and economic histories of U.S. imperialism, virtually none considers its subjective and narrative logic, how empire [End Page 429] has become "a way of life" in the United States. Throughout this collection of essays, which focus largely on the period of U.S. history from 1840 to 1920, Kaplan explores the ways in which U.S. imperial projects of commerce and conquest have been made legible for domestic consumption. Empire, we learn from her, is in large measure how Americans have learned to see the world, a point of view that has been produced in the domains of culture. Travel writing, popular fiction, advertising, journalism, and film have been its primary media across two centuries. Storytelling and spectacle have enabled U.S. publics to negotiate disorienting shifts between the foreign and the domestic and to reconcile discrepancies between boundless, world-straddling ambition and insular, parochial attachments to home and nation.

These negotiations have been highly unstable assemblages, a reflection of how a naive and recurrent American dream of making the world into itself has been at once shaped and unraveled by deeply rooted anxieties about the recalcitrance and "otherness" of the world that is encountered. Indeed, since George W. Bush's formal declaration of victory in the military campaign, the messianic discourse of spreading American freedom has coexisted uneasily alongside the classic imperialist trope of defending civilization against anarchy and rising national panic about poll numbers, body counts, and escalating costs. Pious declarations that the United States now bears the "burden" of empire have yielded once again to typical U.S. denials of empire, including a scramble to fix the hegemonic post-World War II settlement marrying U.S. anti-imperialism (i.e., freedom and self-government) to European postimperialism (i.e., liberal internationalism and human rights).2

Yet one wonders if the dirty, open secret of U.S. imperialism is finally available for public scrutiny and critical specification. The fabricated nature of the current war—with its embedded journalists, Hollywood-styled briefing sets, made-for-TV captivity narratives, Iraq-Al Qaeda conspiracy-mongering, and vaunted but "not yet found" weapons of mass destruction—is relentlessly on display. As it turns out, even the fall of the statue in Baghdad's public square was a stage-managed event. A U.S. tank (offscreen) pulled the rope that tightened the noose around its neck, as a modest gathering of Iraqi men celebrated in Firos Square. The U.S. marine who hooded the stars and stripes over the head and face was reportedly chastised by his commander, but not before an intrepid photographer captured the image, [End Page...