- “Antimatters”: Recovering Discourses of Opposition from the Popular Front to the Cold War
Over the past several years, scholars have been at work recovering a fuller sense of the Left, its struggles, and its various discursive formations in the twentieth century. The Popular Front, the civil rights movement, and the Cold War Left, with their associated bands of artists, intellectuals, activists, and provocateurs, have all been redrawn to more closely resemble their original complexity, restored after decades of anticommunist repression and obscurantism, state-sponsored and otherwise.1 This is not a project to locate a “useable past” any more than it is a simple exercise of “filling holes” or gaps in the record. Rather, this work has constituted a significant recovery program, an unearthing of a legacy of opposition in the United States and beyond that, for all we know, could be a source of energy or wisdom for a new generation of dissenters. This is a difficult task, but one that is perfectly suited for writers in and around American studies, who can rally a diversity of perspectives and methodologies to bring these subjects into clearer focus. So perhaps there is [End Page 149] a search here for a specific likeness, a collection or coalition of oppositions that may have maneuvered in ways that seem appropriate for our moment; movements that bent, broke, or subsumed the arbitrary contours of the local, national, and the global; an opposition that mounted meaningful challenges to the forces of inequity, reaction, or abstraction and synthesized the obstacles and solutions of their time in ways that, until now, have gone unrecognized. It is a fine undertaking, and recent literature is pushing it forward in important and challenging ways.
If we are looking for a Left with commitments and aesthetics to accommodate the global and the local, what better place to begin than a night on Lennox Avenue in Harlem, 1936, where antifascists marching against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and an audience at the performance of a “voodoo” Macbeth across the street together constituted proximate subsections of a larger leftist project animated by a distaste of imperialism in all its myriad arrangements. For Benjamin Balthaser, juxtaposing Orson Welles’s staging of Shakespeare as an “African-American uprising” with street protests against European fascism can offer an alternative record of the Popular Front, one where high modernism and multiethnic global struggle were as consequential as folk nationalism and the labor movement. His book, Anti-Imperialist Modernism, assembles an impressive archive of political discourse and avant-garde aesthetics—it is a collection of texts entangled in and energized by a network of transnational connectivity extending from New York to Southern California and beyond to Cuba, Soviet Russia, and Mexico. In the movements of writers and the crosscurrents of capital flows and labor migration, the Popular Front formed a “cultural imaginary” through political praxis and a modernist sensibility. By mapping the work of leftist cultural workers “onto the very contours and layers of US imperial history,” Balthaser wants to push against the framework of the nation-state and reveal the ways in which “domestic politics are always already a part of the transnational and hemispheric scope of US power” (4). It is an important project and one of some consequence for our appreciation of the American Left and its global imaginings. In Balthaser’s hands, it is also a project rendered in staggering if at times chaotic detail.
The turns to transnationalism or “hemispherics” in American studies have been contextualized...