- Melodrama and Its Political Legacy
Elisabeth R. Anker's Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom challenges the way the post-9/11 political discourse is popularly framed—that on "a clear and cloudless Tuesday at the dawn of the new millennium, the United States lost its innocence in a horrifying attack" (1). Instead, Anker reads the discourse of the "loss of innocence" that such a narrative is premised on, and the nation's virtue that was confirmed by this loss, through the lens of melodrama. Anker approaches melodrama not as an aesthetic mode but as a political genre that not only governs political rhetoric but more importantly creates a particular kind of citizenship and national identity, and even legitimizes the violence of state power. With contemporary U.S. politics as its principal object of inquiry, Orgies of Feeling maps the history, political strategies, and affective dimensions of melodrama as a political discourse. The book astutely analyzes the political firmament of the United States after 9/11, scrutinizing political speeches and media coverage, and also traces the historical conditions behind the popular civil consent that legitimized the violent state action that followed the attack. And by locating the Manichean underpinnings of melodrama outside the realm of aesthetics in the real world of politics and state power and action, her book is a valuable read for film and literary theorists who are interested in the dialectics of literary/cinematic form and their social contexts. Interdisciplinary in its scope and approach, Orgies of Feeling is a significant contribution to both political studies and to the study of narrative form.
Melodrama, as an aesthetic modality, comes into being in the aftermath of the French Revolution with the loss of the sacred as common [End Page 199] denominator for imbuing everyday life with ethical significance. Peter Brooks argues that melodrama answers the longing for moral legibility in a world bereft of Church and monarch, "where the traditional imperatives of truth and ethics have been violently thrown into question, yet where the promulgation of truth and ethics, their instauration as a way of life, is of immediate, daily, political concern" (15). In a world bereft of moral absolutes, melodrama offers an ethical dimension to everyday life. To define the melodramatic modality, Anker draws on various literary and film theorists, including Linda Williams's breakdown of characteristics of melodramatic narratives in her seminal essay "Melodrama Revised." Following Williams, Anker identifies (aesthetic) melodrama as a mode that presents characters in the Manichean binary of good and evil, involves the loss of innocence of the victim-hero, and attempts to undo the loss through the dialectics of pathos and action. Anker notes that melodrama, with its emphasis on the quotidian, is identified in both literary and screen studies as the most popular form of American mass culture. The impact of melodrama is not limited to the narrative arts but is also found in religious and civic affairs, and even political rhetoric. Melodrama, Christine Gledhill argues, "acknowledges demands inadmissible in the codes of social, psychological or political discourse" (38). However, the pejorative association of melodrama with female "weepies" often came in the way of melodrama being considered a subject worthy of academic inquiry. Anker points out Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) as prominent examples of American melodrama that transcend the personal as they grapple with racial issues. She also has a protracted analysis of All That Heaven Allows (1955), in addition to mentioning other notable women's "weepies" including Stella Dallas (1937) and Mildred Pierce (1945), as melodramatic takes on the-then contemporary social life to highlight the political dimension of what is often read as merely a lowbrow aesthetic mode.
Despite noting the dynamics of the personal and the social in these literary and cinematic melodramas, Anker makes a distinction between melodrama as an aesthetic genre and melodrama as a political genre. Crucial to this distinction is Anker's claim that the stakes of melodrama are more pervasive than mass culture. Though Anker extensively notes the political underpinnings of melodrama as an aesthetic...