- The Persistence of Melodrama:Affective Politics Post-9/11 and Anker’s Orgies of Feeling
“The story of 9/11 is a melodrama” (2014, 2). This bold claim headlines Elisabeth R. Anker’s Orgies of Feeling, which provides a fascinating account of the centrality of melodramatic conventions to the “War on Terror” and contemporary American politics more generally. Throughout the book, Anker incisively demonstrates that melodrama is not only a cultural or literary genre; it is also political one. Indeed, she argues, melodrama is the primary affective frame through which US neo-liberal and neo-imperial practices and policies have been articulated, interpreted and legitimized since the Cold War. To this end, Anker offers a theoretically rich and ambitious analysis that brings together the likes of Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Weber, and Foucault with contemporary cultural theory and feminist film scholarship to consider the striking links between popular melodramatic novels, films and stage productions and the spectacles of 9/11 and its aftermath. The result is a highly engaging read that has much to say about the affective workings of contemporary US politics and their troubling transnational implications.
As a genre, melodrama has long been familiar to Americans and to consumers of American culture globally, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), to The Birth of a Nation (1915) to The Terminator (1984). Melodrama “portrays dramatic events through moral polarities of good and evil, overwhelmed victims, heightened affects of pain and suffering, grand gestures, astonishing feats of heroism and the redemption of virtue” (2). Such dramatic techniques, Anker shows, have been vital to the political mediation of 9/11 and “the War on Terror”: from the gripping round-the-clock news coverage of the fall of the Twin Towers, to President George W. Bush’s rousing Pentagon speech on the War in Afghanistan, to the spectacle of Bush’s “mission accomplished” performance, which saw him announce the end of major combat operations in Iraq after flying a fighter jet onto an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean. But why does all this matter? Because, Anker powerfully argues, Americans’ ingrained fluency with (and desire for) melodramatic narratives of immense suffering, heroic action and restored freedom played a key role in securing popular consent for a host of draconian foreign and domestic policies and practices in the wake of 9/11 – from the bombing and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq to widespread practices surveillance, racial profiling and indefinite detention within the US.
Anker’s take on the affective dynamics of American politics in the new millennium is certainly open to critical contestation. Leading cultural theorists such as Lauren Berlant (2011) have, for instance, observed the waning of melodrama, suggesting that it has now been replaced by new national genre – “the impasse” – against the backdrop of changing transnational relations and modes of governance that have compelled people to adapt to (rather than challenge) precarity and the erosion sovereignty as a means of everyday survival. Yet Anker argues convincingly that, within the realm of national political rhetoric, citizenship and identity, melodramatic conventions have found renewed popular purchase since 9/11 in a host of salient and distributing ways. Rather than encouraging political subjects to endure the exhaustingly unstable and unsatisfactory conditions of contemporary social life, political melodrama “promises that overwhelmed subjects can overcome their vulnerability by dramatic counter-acts of force, acts that melodrama equates with the achievement of freedom” (13). It is the affective dynamics and political implications of this relentless desire for freedom exposed by melodrama’s continuing lure that the book brings to life so captivatingly throughout its six chapters.
If the dominant interpretation of widespread public consent for “the War on Terror” was that the majority of Americans chose to trade in freedom for security, Anker offers a compelling counter-narrative. In fact, she contends, many Americans supported state-sanctioned forms of aggressive militarization and securitization in a misdirected attempt to ameliorate their own persistent experiences of “unfreedom.” That is, people weren’t giving...