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The Queen of America Goes to Washington City
Essays on Sex and Citizenship
By Lauren Berlant
Duke University Press Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The Theory of Infantile Citizenship
When Americans make the pilgrimage to Washington they are trying to grasp the nation in its totality. Yet the totality of the nation in its capital city is a jumble of historical modalities, a transitional space between local and national cultures, private and public property, archaic and living artifacts, the national history that marks the monumental landscape and the everyday life temporalities of federal and metropolitan cultures. That is to say, it is a place of national mediation, where a variety of nationally inflected media come into visible and sometimes incommensurate contact. As a borderland central to the nation, Washington tests the capacities of all who visit it: this test is a test of citizenship competence. Usually made with families or classmates, the trip to the capital makes pedagogy a patriotic performance, one in which the tourist "playing at being American" is called on to coordinate the multiple domains of time, space, sensation, exchange, knowledge, and power that represent the scene of what we might call "total" citizenship. To live fully both the ordinariness and the sublimity of national identity, one must be capable not just of imagining, but of managing being American.
To be able to feel less fractured than the nation itself would be, indeed, a privilege. Audre Lorde tells a story of her family's one visit to Washington, in 1947. Lorde's parents claimed to be making the trip to commemorate their two daughters' educational triumphs, an eighth grade and a high school graduation. The truth is, though, that Lorde's sister Phyllis was barred from accompanying her graduating class on its celebratory visit to Washington because she was African American and Washington was a southern, segregated city, not at all "national" in the juridical or the democratic sense. The Lorde family refused to acknowledge racism as the catalyst for its own private journey. Rather, patriotism was the tourists' alibi, a blinding one that enabled the parents to deny what was everywhere visible: that racism is a national system.
Lorde relates that whenever the family encountered its unfreedom to enter certain spaces of private property, no one would acknowledge the irony: that although "public" monuments like the Lincoln Memorial allow African Americans like Audre Lorde and Marian Anderson access to a space of symbolic national identification and inclusion, the very ordinary arrangements of life in America, eating and sleeping, were as forbidden to the Lorde family in Washington as America itself is to those without passports. This is to say that in Washington the bar of blackness exposed contradictions between regimes of democracy and property, effectively splitting the idealized nation from the capitalist one, while each nonetheless governs the defining terms of U.S. citizenship.
Still, they scheduled their visit to Washington on Independence Day. When Lorde bitterly remarks on her exile from the America that patriotism depicts, symbolized in general by the apartheid of the capital, and in particular by a waitress's refusal to let the family celebrate the nation's birthday by eating ice cream they had paid for inside a restaurant, she describes it as the line she steps over from childhood to something else, a different political, corporeal, sensational, and aesthetic "adulthood": "The waitress was white, and the counter was white, and the ice cream I never ate in Washington D.C. that summer I left childhood was white, and the white heat and the white pavement and the white stone monuments of my first Washington summer made me sick to my stomach." Lorde's "education" in national culture provoked a nauseated unlearning of her patriotism —"Hadn't I written poems about Bataan?" she complains, while resolving, again, to write the president, to give the nation another chance to not betray her desire for it—and this unlearning, which is never complete, as it involves leaving behind the political faith of childhood, cleaves her permanently from and to the nation whose promises drew her parents to immigrate there and drew herself to identify as a child with a concept of national identity she was sure she would fulfill when she grew into an adult citizen.
This essay explores a particular national plot: the pilgrimage to Washington. It focuses not on a news or a biographical event but on an episode of the popular weekly cartoon television show The Simpsons titled "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington." It will also engage the other tourist/citizenship pilgrimages this episode revises, notably Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (dir. Frank Capra, 1939). In so doing it seeks to describe the ways the fantasy norms of the nation form simultaneously produce normative political subjectivity and create public spaces of exaggeration, irony, or ambivalence for alternative, less nationally focused, or just more critical kinds of political identification. This chapter also deals with a particular conflict about identity that is currently raging in the United States: between a patriotic view of national identity, which seeks to use identification with the ideal nation to trump or subsume all other notions of personhood, and a view that is frequently considered unpatriotic and victim-obsessed, in which citizenship talk takes as its main subject the unequal material conditions of economic, social, and political struggle and survival. That this struggle over citizenship is so often about the lives and experiences of racial, gendered, and sexual minorities and the working class means that its story will frequently seem to be solely about subaltern bodies and identities, which bear the burden of representing desire for the nation generally. But, as we will see, once the national body is exhumed from the crypt of abstraction and put on display, everyone's story of citizenship is vulnerable to dramatic revision.
This investigation of political subjectivity and its mediations —on the body, in the media, in the nation—introduces one other type of traditional citizen, one that complicates the story of national identity politics I have been telling. This citizen form figures a space of possibility that transcends the fractures and hierarchies of national life: I call it the infantile citizen. The infantile citizen of the United States has appeared in political writing about the nation at least since Tocqueville wrote, in Democracy in America, that while citizens should be encouraged to love the nation the way they do their families and their fathers, democracies can also produce a special form of tyranny that makes citizens like children, infantilized, passive, and overdependent on the "immense and tutelary power" of the state. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington brings this form into its classic modern representation: as Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) comes to Washington to put nationalist ideology into political practice, he is called, among other things, "a drooling infant" and "an infant with little flags in his fist." The infantile citizen's ingenuousness frequently seems a bad thing, a political subjectivity based on the suppression of critical knowledge and a resulting contraction of citizenship to something smaller than agency: patriotic inclination, default social membership, or the simple possession of a normal national character. But the infantile citizen's faith in the nation, which is based on a belief in the state's commitment to representing the best interests of ordinarypeople, is also said to be what vitalizes a person's patriotic and practical attachment to the nation and to other citizens. Tocqueville's observation turns out to be a very complicated one about the paradoxes of political subjectivity in the United States. Central to the narrative mode of the pilgrimage to Washington, and so much other national fantasy, is a strong and enduring belief that the best of U.S. national subjectivity can be read in its childlike manifestations and in a polity that organizes its public sphere around a commitment to making a world that could sustain an idealized infantile citizen.
To begin to give substance to the paradoxes, limits, and dreams encoded in this ideal citizen form, here is a synopsis of "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington." Young Lisa Simpson wins a trip to Washington ("all expenses paid") by writing a "fiercely pro-American" patriotic essay for a contest that her father, Homer Simpson, discovers in a complimentary copy he receives of a magazine called Reading Digest. In Washington the family stays at the Watergate, visits a fictional national mint, encounters Barbara Bush in her White House bathtub, and comments on national monuments. Then Lisa accidently witnesses a congressman receiving a bribe (one that would precipitate the destruction of her beloved hometown national park by corporate logging interests). Enraged and embittered, she tears up her prizewinning essay about the nation form's natural beauty, and substitutes for it a new essay about how Washington truly "stinks." As a result, Lisa loses the national jingoism contest, and along with it her simply patriotic belief in the promise of the national. A Senate page witnesses her loss of faith in democracy, and calls his senator for help. Within two hours the FBI has jailed the crooked congressman, who instantly becomes a born-again Christian. On witnessing the effects of her muckraking, Lisa exclaims, "The system works!" What could she possibly mean by this? We will return to the question of systems later.
I have described the aspects of this plot that tend to be repeated in the other pilgrimage-to-Washington narratives. Someone, either a child or an innocent adult identified with children, goes to the capital. The crisis of her/his innocence/illiteracy emerges from an ambivalent encounter between America as a theoretical ideality and America as a site of practical politics, mapped onto Washington itself. Because children cannot read the codes, they disrupt the norms of the national locale: their infantile citizenship operates the way Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge predict it would, eliciting scorn and derision from "knowing" adult citizens but also a kind of admiration from these same people, who can remember withnostalgia the time that they were "unknowing" and believed in the capacity of the nation to be practically utopian.
As it is, citizen adults have learned to "forget" or to render as impractical, naive, or childish their utopian political identifications in order to be politically happy and economically functional. Confronting the tension between utopia and history, the infantile citizen's stubborn naivete gives her/him enormous power to unsettle, expose, and reframe the machinery of national life. Thus the potential catastrophe of all visits to Washington: Can national identification survive the practical habitation of everyday life in the national locale? Can the citizen/tourist gain the critical skills for living nationally without losing faith in the nation-state's capacity to provide the wisdom and justice it promises? Is the Utopian horizon of national identity itself a paramnesia or a Zizekian "fantasy" that covers over entrenched contradictions and lacks in national culture? Are naive infantile citizenship and paralyzed cynical apathy the only positions a normal or moral American can assume? How a given text answers these questions has little to do with the particular infantile citizen who generates its national crisis; it has everything to do with the contradictions threatening "adult" or "full" citizenship in the political public sphere.
The transition in Audre Lorde's life—from patriotic childhood to a less defined but powerful rage at the travesty everyday life can make of national promises for justice —marks a moment in the education of an American citizen that is typical of the personal and fictional narratives of the pilgrimage to Washington. When cinematic, literary, and televisual texts fictively represent "Washington" as "America," they theorize the conditions of political subjectivity in the United States and reflect on the popular media's ways of constructing political knowledge in a dialectic of infantile citizenship and cynical reason. They also reflect on the power of the other form that mediates the nation to itself as a durably tangible thing that already exists in nature and in history: the national body. After thinking through at more length the different scenes of the nation's mass mediation I will return to The Simpsons, as it prods the patriotic ideology of national identity without bursting its utopian bubble.
Technologies of Citizenship
Audre Lorde's story takes place in 1947, a particularly intense time for U.S. self-reflection on whatcitizenship was about. Stephen Heath argues that recent dramatic developments in global media culture have so changed the conditions of political subjectivity that the category "citizen" is now archaic. Many worthy theorists of television concur, arguing that the ruptural force of its technologies and the monopolistic tendency of its capitalization have radically transformed the material conditions and normative representations of national culture and political agency. It is now a commonplace in television criticism to say that the structure of televisual experience promotes the annihilation of memory and, in particular, of historical knowledge and political self-understanding. This may be an effect of its ontology and ideology of "liveness," which encourages mass subjective absorption in the present tensethrough regimes of banality, distraction, interminable "flow," and periodic catastrophe or scandal; it may be an effect of the implicitness of capital in generating the aura of "free" entertainment (which makes theconsumer's engagement with commercialized renderings of contemporary power, history, and identity both the problem and the critical promise of the medium); it may be an effect of the "global" images that have come to saturate the scene of consumption, soliciting consumer identifications to a postpolitical and postnational utopia of "culture" and confusing the era of the present tense with an imminent yet obscure future; or, most likely, it may be an effect of some combination of these factors. But because in all areas of its mode of production television encounters, engages, and represents both the social and political routines of citizenship, and because it underscores the activity of animating and reflecting on as well as simply having a national identity, the problem of generating memory and knowledge in general becomes fraught with issues of national pedagogy, of how to represent what counts as patriotism and what counts as criticism to the public sphere.
If, as I have described, the pilgrimage to Washington is already all about the activity of national pedagogy, the production of national culture, and the constitution of competent citizens, the specific role of mass mediation in the dissemination of national knowledges redoubles and loops around the formation of national identity. There is nothing archaic about citizenship — instead, its signs and cadences are changing. As Margaret Morse argues, television makes history by annexing older forms of national self-identity, cultural literacy, and leisure. It does this continuously to reacclimate consumer identifications during structural transitions in national and international public spheres. In these conditions of uneven development, the work of media in redefining citizenship and framing what can legitimately be read as national becomes more, not less, central to any analysis of political identity in postmodern American culture.
This is to say that the definitional field of citizenship—denoting simple identification by a national identity category, a reflexive operation of agency and criticism, or a mode of social membership—is precisely what is under contestation, as the development of what we might call "mass nationality" changes the face of power, both in the United States and globally. Consider, for example, the escalating claims made on behalf of televised populist town halls, conservative talk radio, and elite "expert" insider-culture talk shows, that they are sites where the core nation reveals itself to itself; or track the constantly changing stream of representative men who replace each other on magazine covers because, at particular moments, they represent to the dominant media the current state of political hegemony; or follow the trajectory of the public discussion, pursued in chapter 5, about what kind of face can be said to be the "true" face of America, a game of representative naming that encodes concerns about whether the histories and struggles of people of color, especially among the U.S. working and nonworking poor, will be deemed legitimate subjects of patriotic discourse, state policy, and ordinary social life. All of these modes of publicity are normative technologies of citizenship that seek to create proper national subjects and subjectivities. Yet even as they do this, by intensifying certain social antagonisms in order to consolidate specific interest groups, all those involved in the production of mass nationality would say that their main concern is with serving citizens by bringing a truly democratic public sphere into being.
Excerpted from The Queen of America Goes to Washington City by Lauren Berlant. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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