- Made in America: The Probability of Violence and the Possibility of Tragedy—Johnston’s American Dionysia
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...