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Philosophy and Rhetoric 35.4 (2002) 267-296

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Allegory and Democratic Public Culture in the Postmodern Era

Robert Hariman

The man lies on the hotel bed, clad only in his underwear, as he watches the TV screen just beyond his feet. His right hand holds the remote control, which he uses to scan through the cable channels. To his left sits Abraham Lincoln, clothed in long-sleeved white shirt and black pants and reading a book. Lincoln's long, angular frame is just a bit stooped, and his brow is slightly furrowed, as if long accustomed to thinking on the edge of melancholy. Lincoln is mulling over a statement by Walter Benjamin: "Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things" (Benjamin 1977, 178). 1

Seated to the man's right is a woman wearing the terry cloth bathrobe provided by the hotel. She leans slightly forward, legs crossed, as she reads the New York Times Magazine cover story about President Clinton. "Listen to this," she says with a bemused smile. "In the clutter around his desk in the Oval Office stands not a single bust of a favorite predecessor, but five: Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Truman and two of F.D.R., plus a statuette of Will Rogers for good measure. If governing is choosing, this collection is a metaphor for this President's trouble with choices, and he himself allows, 'That's the story of my Presidency, that desk'" (Purdum 1996, 36).

The man says nothing as he continues to watch the succession of images on the screen: a lizard flicks its tongue in the desert heat; a child in a stroller laughs as she holds a strawberry ice cream cone; a congressman in blue suit, white shirt, and red tie jabs his finger into the air as he talks earnestly; cars plastered with automotive product logos curl around a race track; Fred and Ginger swirl around the dance floor; soldiers wade ashore at Omaha Beach; the Space Shuttle lifts off; Groucho lifts his eyebrows; Regis smiles; mushrooms and peppers simmer in a pan.

The succession of images could go on indefinitely. The tableau remains static. The composition is an allegory: a figural presentation that organizes multiple interpretations regarding collective experience. It also contains and comments on other forms of itself: Clinton's desk is an example [End Page 267] of the figural anecdote that has been a staple of American public address. The manifold of televisual images exemplifies the allegorical encoding that operates within postmodern art forms, including fragmentary appropriation, paratactic association, encyclopedic range, and non-linear temporality. The statement by Benjamin illuminates the nature of allegory in a specific genre and historical period, and as it is a general mode of representation, and perhaps as it is a model for all textual interpretation.

The composition also evokes a set of dialectical tensions that are characteristic of both allegory in general and fundamental anxieties in the contemporary period. Past and present sit side by side, but incongruously, as if by artifice alone. So it is also with the print and visual media, which are held together by mutual competencies but otherwise in figural isolation that perhaps represents different destinies. Likewise, one might wonder about the peculiar relationship between public affairs and private life: the succession of images on the screen adhere to no hierarchy of values, no principle of loyalty or sacrifice, no basis for discerning obligations or maintaining rights, yet they are replete with the paraphernalia of these concerns, and the arrangement of figures in the room likewise is at once suggestive yet inconclusive. If this tableau contains familiar features of the mass-mediated experience that now saturates American politics, one might wonder: Is the democratic tradition in ruins?

Allegories give us dynamic juxtapositions in a static frame. This principle of composition seems particularly suited to periods of cultural change. To the extent that the genre of allegory has a history, it is one of eternal recurrence at periods of loss and fragmentation produced by the expansion of a new, somewhat...


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