- Portents of the Real: A Primer for Post 9/11 America
Susan Willis' Portents of the Real, as the subtitle tells us, is a "Primer for Post-9/11 America." The book lives up to this promise by offering a gravely-needed reconsideration of a series of cultural events that took place in the years immediately following 9/11. These events—the eruption of patriotism in the form of a mass dissemination of American flags across the U.S.; the emergence of hundreds of anthrax threat hoaxes; the occurrence of John Allen Muhammad's and John Lee Malvo's sniper attack on Washington, DC; the becoming visible of the U.S.'s "shadow government"; the appearance of "risk takers" (such as the Niagara Falls plunger Kirk Jones) amidst a Homeland Securities environment of constant alarm; and the discovery, and then circulation of the photos of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. The value of the book lies precisely in Willis' reconstellation of these events—which she correctly argues have been "trivialized" and explained away "formulaically" by the media and government authorities alike. Despite the shocking and in some cases frightening nature of these events, Willis notes that they have also become part of the world of the "mundane," and because of this she approaches each of these events through the "vernacular" of the discourse of American modernity (she retrieves the phrase "Old Glory" to discuss the mass consumption of flags; the title for the chapter that analyses the DC sniper attack is entitled "What Goes Around Comes Around"). Such a deconstructive, bricolage maneuver can be a potentially powerful cultural critique, and in the strongest moments of this book (the chapter on Anthrax, for instance), Willis' work keenly reveals the ways in which the discourse of everyday life simultaneously conceals and reveals the repressed Real of a violent and monumentally contradictory neo-imperial American culture.
The first chapter situates the mass production and consumption of flags against the strategic deployment of the flag on the part of the State. The act of mass consumption reveals the fundamental relationship between patriotism and capitalism (to relieve their anxiety, the Bush administration urged American citizens to shop in the weeks immediately following the attack on the World Trade Center). The unfolding of the flag at specific sites discloses a concerted attempt to restage history in order to conceal its inherent and hostile contradictions. The plans, for instance, for the proposed re-presentation in statue form of the three white New York City firefighters that raised the flag at Ground Zero (a photo of this event was reprinted in newspapers across the nation) contains the suggestion that two of the firefighters be replaced by black and Hispanic figures. Such a re-presentation suggests a national consensus. However, Willis points out that the popular display of flags was mostly the response of white Americans; black and Hispanic communities in comparison displayed few flags. The flag becomes the vehicle for a State deployment of "multiculturalism": the lie of an equally diverse and peacefully coexistent community replaces the historical realities of massive under-representation and economic inequality. Reminiscent of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, this staged event also occurs at key military sites outside national borders: Kabul and Kandahar become the "new Iwo Jima" (16). The flag's power lies in its ability to function as a "sliding signifier," an "empty" vehicle that can be unfurled [End Page 354] anywhere and then filled with a multitude of meanings that conceal their contradictory nature, concealing and ultimately replacing a "more properly materialist sense of history" (16). In turn the economy of capitalism reaps a profit by having its citizenry engage in the mass consumption of the flag without ever needing to dwell on the political contradictions of these and other historical conflicts.
In the chapter on anthrax, Willis reminds us that, even though the nation has come to equate this toxin with al-Qaeda terrorists, anthrax threats and hoaxes considerably predate 2001's terrorist...