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  • Made in America: The Probability of Violence and the Possibility of Tragedy—Johnston’s American Dionysia
Steven Johnston, American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics. New York. Cambridge, 2015. 296pgs. $28.49 (pbk). $85.00 (hc). ISBN-13: 978-1107496675

To Whom It May Concern

The rituals, memorials, and textual interpretations that Steven Johnston proposes in his powerfully evocative new book, American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics, include an annual film festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., modeled on the ancient Athenian Dionysia, which would explore the inescapable role of violence in democratic action. To contribute to this project (which, like the book, I find to be important and compelling) and to explore the roles that race, sex, and celebrity play in democratic violence, I’m writing to propose the ESPN documentary O.J. Simpson: Made in America (2016) be included.

In American Dionysia Johnston examines democracy’s need for violence. Violence is not antithetical to democracy, he boldly claims; in fact, it is an important aspect of democratic political life. Violence not only attends the founding of democratic regimes—but democracy continuously produces grounds for further violence. Terrible violence can result from our greatest political success, and in this regard, democracy must learn to handle its successes as much as its failures. What would it mean, he asks, for democracy not just to admit that it produces violence but to be worthy of the violence it unleashes? Living up to such violence requires, he answers, a tragic orientation to politics; a sensibility, to be cultivated through festivals (such as the American Dionysia), new and reworked political monuments, and insightful reconsiderations of tragic texts (he treats Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball with the same close attention as Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus). Such a tragic mode of cultural politics, which affirms the bad results of political action as bound up with the good, can reorient democracy away from its tendencies toward blind triumphalism, resentment, and even nihilism. [End Page 268]

Johnston understands that the life at risk for nihilistic disposability extends beyond humanity. The military’s use of animals, explored in chapter three, illustrates how far this demand for death can reach. Even beloved pets, like dogs and horses, are not spared in the slaughter. Romantic notions of sacrifice and patriotism that haunt democracy (often functioning as gothic horror in their narrative and graphic display) turn animals into patriots, and, Johnston shows, patriots into a disposable resource. When life is spared, it is often by recourse to romantic denials of the horrors of war. The horse named Joey, featured in Steven Spielberg’s film War Horse, goes to war but returns home safely at the movie’s conclusion. According to Johnston, Spielberg’s movie obscures the destructive waste of life in war and misses an opportunity to represent the carnage of World War I, a conflict that butchered eight million horses. Though claims about loss are sprinkled throughout the film, its reassuring romantic and triumphant conclusion under-counts these losses, trivializing the life Spielberg attempts to represent. Similarly, observing the Animals in War Memorial in London, Johnston criticizes its portrayal of animals carrying out routine labor, as they might perform in any domestic occupation. Why not, he asks, stage the sculpted animals in the midst of destruction and mayhem? War, after all, is chaos and death; as it stands, the memorial erases the experience of state violence and denies a more affectively powerful involvement for the spectators.

In his treatment of monuments, Johnston insists that the violence and loss of political action be accounted and recognized, without offering the easy comforts of melancholic patriotic redemption. In addition to his critique of the Animals in War Memorial, Johnston examines several neglected (if not unknown) monuments, such as the John McCain Memorial in Hanoi, and the May 4 Memorial at Kent State University. His response to the much better known National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City evidences his sharp eye for the affective power of memorials to move people to political action or inaction. In this case the memorial and attached museum stage a horror show—a violent assault on the senses of citizens—that cynically confirms the purity of American democracy and overwhelms the citizen in a manner that perversely reflects the power of the 2001 al-Qaeda attack; leaving citizens mere spectators, not actors.

To be more than spectators, political actors, according to Johnston, should be prepared for the violence that may accompany their political actions. Democratic political theorists, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Max Weber, and contemporary theorists of constitutional patriotism, such as Patchen Markell have not sufficiently prepared them. They have failed, Johnston argues, to adequately account for the supplement of violence that attends to every political possibility. Markell, for [End Page 269] example, attempts to avoid violence and make affect safe for democracy by shifting political attachments away from overcharged ethnic or racial particulars, toward less volatile ‘civic’ attachments. The abstract status of civic identification, however, does not provide the political stimulation of more particular identifications and therefore requires “supplements of particularity” to provide affective energy (163). Universal norms of constitutional patriotism may need these powerful elements of particularity, but at moments of pressure or desperation, according to Johnston, they can undercut the peaceful norms they ostensibly support and turn to threats of violence. When confronted with state or neo-Nazi violence, for example, eventually even constitutional patriotism conceives of the possibility of democratic violence. Democracy’s genetic disposition toward violence, Johnston reveals, disrupts constitutional patriotism as much as it structured ancient Athenian political rituals, such as the dramas of tragic violence staged at the Greek Dionysia.

Dionysia: Athenian and American

Ancient Athens held the Great Dionysia every four years and it featured the public performances of tragedies that confronted the populace with representations of their roles in the politics and power of the city. These dramas were often structured around the terrible consequences that can result from pursuing even the best possible political option. Johnston’s reading of Oedipus Tyrannus highlights this important element of many tragedies and provides a startlingly original interpretation of the drama (24). Oedipus did not fail. Oedipus, he points out, saved the city of Thebes, and protected the parents who rescued and raised him. Furthermore, in spite of his terrible actions, he didn’t give up his life. Even after Jocasta’s suicide, Oedipus refused to follow her lead and kill himself, and ultimately, he lived up to the words he spoke against himself. Oedipus was a terrible success, according to Johnston. He insisted on living; and, moreover, attempted to live up to his crimes, repudiating nihilism and affirming thereby the possibilities of the future. He lived up to the violence he unleashed, as does Ransom Stoddard in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the film Johnston proposes for the American Dionysia film festival. Stoddard, a lawyer (played by Jimmy Stewart) learns to live with the violence necessary for the establishment of a legal system, accepting that he must build his legal and political life on the legend (and lie) of his responsibility for the murder of Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Stoddard’s inspiring attempt (in his own act of lawlessness) to kill the outlaw Valance establishes him as the only figure in the territory that can unite the community into a state; an act that further shames Stoddard when he discovers that the murder was really a lie. Stoddard, [End Page 270] however, puts these crimes to good use and accepts them as the means of establishing statehood and as a spur to his productive career in the Senate. He lives up to these terrible deeds and inspires democracy in the lonely western town of Shinbone.

Brentwood is no Shinbone; it is certainly no Athens. And O.J. Simpson is no Ransom Stoddard. But the crimes of O.J. and O.J.’s America provide valuable insights into the violence of race and sex in America. Stoddard bears the violence produced in order to establish Shinbone as a community of law; Simpson, on the other hand, not only refuses to stand with others against the social violence unleashed against Black women and men in the United States but also flees from the consequences of his own terrible sexist violence. Simpson’s story resounds with the political loneliness of neoliberal individualism, hyper masculine sports culture, and international celebrity; Ezra Edelman ‘s ESPN documentary on O.J. might add to our understanding of violence in the society that made O.J. That is why I propose that O.J. Simpson: Made in America be shown at Johnston’s proposed American Dionysia.

As Johnston points out in several places, much of the institutional violence of the United States has a historical relationship with race and empire. I think his project could benefit from exploring more fully some of the overlapping particulars of political and racial violence in America. Edelman’s documentary powerfully details the violence that maintained white privilege in Los Angeles in the twentieth century. California promised and symbolized freedom to many Americans, yet turned out to offer revised forms of oppression and violence. O.J. Simpson: Made in America explores the role of the police in defending the terms of white privilege and illuminates the roles of a professional police force in the United States as part of historical attempts to control the bodies of black women and men. Furthermore, it sympathetically portrays the democratic importance of public violence directed against state-supported systems of white power. The documentary footage in O.J. Simpson: Made in America that shows police destroying African-American family homes with impunity provides a powerful backdrop for the ‘democratic’ violence unleashed in the Watts Riots and the 1992 Riots. This documentary could help Johnston and America consider more fully how the tensions between ‘legitimate’ state violence and ‘illegitimate’ democratic violence might turn on issues of race and gender. Armed white men get treated very differently than armed black men, as further evidenced in recent years as white nationalists in Oregon, for example, militarily took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge with only minor repercussions; while an African-American man, John Crawford III, was shot and killed by police (who a jury declined to indict) after merely picking up an un-packaged BB/air rifle in a Walmart sporting goods aisle. Tensions between violence and democracy often come into a different focus when figured in terms of race. [End Page 271]

The real revelation of Made in America: The O.J. Simpson Story is not Simpson’s refusal to accept the violence against his wife for which he was personally responsible, though that is crucial to the public interest in the story. Instead, it is his clear unwillingness to consider his actions in relation to the needs of others. That is, Simpson exemplifies the perversity of neoliberal notions of autonomy and individualism that tear apart communities important for human democratic life; in this case the African-American community from which Simpson was able to separate. He imagined his physical skills allowed him to escape the structural treatment of African-Americans - and they did to some extent - but that separation had political and psychological costs. Made in America reveals the violence that notions of autonomy and self-determination can produce in a world where political community is essential to survival.

Harry Edwards, a sociologist at San Jose State, asked Simpson, who was a track star at USC in addition to being an extremely popular football player, to join the Olympic Project for Human Rights with their boycott of the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, Mexico. Simpson reportedly responded to Edwards’ request for support with a statement of extreme individualism: “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” O.J.’s command over his legs and body as a running back for USC, his impressive self-presence, and charming appearance made him a superstar while still in college. O.J,’s isolation from the needs of those around him—with their demands for community—would also make O.J. a parable of the terrible consequences of the neoliberal assertion of self-interest. Simpson’s concentration on himself and his own success routinely sacrificed relationships to others, and may have contributed to his willingness to kill others to protect himself. On Johnston’s reading, Oedipus kills a member of his family but lives up to the political possibilities of that violence; Simpson’s murder of Nicole Brown Simpson evidences a terrible level of nihilistic disposability and his readiness to do anything to achieve his personal success. It manifests a world impoverished of political value, one that often fails to offer courses of action beyond the personal.

Johnston’s brilliant reading of Oedipus and his keenness to make his readers confront violence as necessary for democratic transformation suggests that he could also provide an adroit reading of Simpson’s peculiar position in the vortex of race, violence, and celebrity status. Johnston, the Neal A. Maxwell Chair at the University of Utah, has done extensive work on the tragic dimensions of political life, including books on Rousseau, Encountering Tragedy (Cornell, 1999) and patriotism, The Truth About Patriotism (Duke, 2007), both of which introduce elements further developed in American Dionysia, particularly the deadly power of nationalism and the productive possibilities of tragedy. Johnston’s work couples a sharp examination of democratic [End Page 272] political theory with sophisticated proposals for interventions into political life, such as his proposal for an American Dionysia. Johnston’s challenging interpretations of popular films, such as War Horse and Rambo provoke the reader to offer their own film proposals for a Dionysian festival. What film would most challenge the population to engage and live up to the violence of their own assembly—the violence made in America? My answer is Ezra Edelman’s documentary O.J. Simpson: Made in America. Thank you for your attention to my proposal and to Steven Johnston’s important book.

Char Miller [End Page 273]

Char Roone Miller

Char Roone Miller is an Associate Professor at George Mason University. His work focuses on political aesthetics and disciplinary technologies. He recently published, Cities on the Plains, which examined ‘divine’ violence and conceptions of political community. His previous book, Taylored Citizenship, explored conceptions of economic discipline. His research has appeared in Political Theory, Theory & Event; PS: Political Science, and the Journal of American History. He is currently finishing a book project, Reigning Money, which examines the relationship of money and sovereignty. He can be contacted at

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