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  • Displaced Families
  • Barbara Cruikshank (bio)
Michael Shapiro, For Moral Ambiguity: National Culture and the Politics of the Family (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 248.

The neoconservative campaign for family values in the U.S. is taking hold of us. Regulatory ideals of the “traditional family” (the noble lies of tradition, family, and nation; the Hegelian myth of the natural family) are mobilized in a unilateral war, amidst other such wars, over the national culture of America. The armaments of that war are policies which include abstinence-only education, the promotion of marriage and the muting of reproductive rights, faith-based social provision and school vouchers. Civic virtue battles vice, and the culture war rages its moral certainties against the “de-moralization” of civil society. The battle pits Hegel against Nietzsche, patriotism and traditional values against multiculturalism and feminism.

Michael Shapiro enters this fray not as a combatant so much as a counter-cultural who aims at “displacing certainties with ambiguities and institutionalized forms of coherence with disjunctive differences” (162). He does not ponder the regulatory ideals of family values discourses or the various policy conflicts in the culture wars. Instead, readers are immersed in narratives that take us elsewhere-to ambiguity. Moral certainty is displaced rather than engaged. Shapiro enlists an unconventional army of genres (“oppositional literatures,” heterotopic films, and avant garde jazz) that are, as he describes them once, “exemplary counterattacks” (61) representing the ties that bind as ambiguous and contingent. Familial and national attachments are caught up in “a dynamic of binding and unbinding” (120). One chapter titled, “Resisting Resolution: Genre and the Family,” cites a Greek tragedy, Don DeLillo’s novels, Icelandic saga, three artists’ “family photos,” Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and Hanan al-Shaykh’s film Beirut Blues. Rather than confuse matters, crossing genres and history focus Shapiro’s conclusion that national and familial attachments are not solutions to political problems, as neoconservatives would have it, but the very grounds of politics.

Shapiro manages to find counter-cultural forces even in detective fiction. Other chapters marshal similar arrays of texts and very few readers will be familiar with them all. No matter. Despite a fabulous archive, readers will not find themselves adrift in ambiguity, but counterbalanced to moral certainty. These essays do not tell us to value ambiguity; they exemplify and document ambiguous families and contingent nations. The case for ambiguity is made by assiduously displacing moralizing genres rather than by defending Nietzsche against Hegel. With an interpretive lens focused by Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Ranciere, Shapiro develops his own images of familial and national cultures that “documents rather than prescribes” (161). “Genre” means a good deal more here than the rules which prescribe the intelligibility of meaning. “In many instances, a genre is an arena of political struggle that reflects a broader domain of political encounter among perspectives and life-worlds that admit of no simple resolution” (165). Shapiro does not elaborate on that point and immediately launches into its exemplification in Robert Altman’s film, Kansas City (1994).

Readers will have some of the same troubles with this book as they have with Lauren Berlant’s, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (Duke University Press, 1997). Where her archive is filled with reactionary and idealized images of family and nation, Shapiro embraces counter-cultural images. In each case, however, the authors offer compelling interpretations without elaborating the contours of their own genres of writing unloosed from traditional canons and methods of interpretation. Shapiro inelegantly calls his method “posthermeneutical critical theory.” He also refers to his writing in Walter Benjamin’s terms as “’literary montage,’ showing as opposed to saying” (8). Readers might like to read more about what kind of strategy displacement is and what we might expect from it and, perhaps, how we might enlist. Like Berlant, Shapiro does not answer the question of how genres and narratives are linked to the real worlds of politics and family life. For example, Shapiro finds many different languages used in the same novel, Ronit Matalon’s The One Facing Us (Henry Holt, 1998), to produce “an agonistic temporality; the different languages in dialogues represent...

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