In “Haints,” Arthur Redding examines the work of contemporary American authors who draw on the gothic tradition in their fiction, not as frivolous or supernatural entertainments, but to explore and memorialize the ghosts of their heritage.
Ghosts, Redding argues, serve as lasting witnesses to the legacies of slaves and indigenous peoples whose stories were lost in the remembrance or mistranslation of history. No matter how much Americans willingly or unwillingly repress the true history of their ancestry; their ghosts remain unburied and restless.
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About the Author
Arthur Redding is the author of Turncoats, Traitors, and Fellow Travelers: Culture and Politics of the early Cold War (University Press of Mississippi, 2008) and Raids on Human Consciousness: Writing, Anarchism, and Violence (University of South Carolina Press, 1998).
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HaintsAmerican Ghosts, Millennial Passions, and Contemporary Gothic Fictions
By Arthur Redding
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2011 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHaints and Nation Ghosts and the Narrative of National Identity
Culture and Hauntings
Let me begin, then, with a brief propaedeutic discussion of the role and purpose of "culture" in contemporary life. Critics of "multiculturalism" and the emerging discipline of "cultural studies" lament that culture is a term so vague and ephemeral as to be emptied of all precise meaning. Critiquing the tendency in cultural studies to short shrift economic analysis, for example, Russell Jacoby carps about "the refusal or inability to address what makes up a culture" (38) on the part of American intellectuals. Jacoby's query raises a multitude of questions. To whom does a culture belong, and how does cultural experience change over the course of generations? What is a business culture, for example, and how can one distinguish the cultural elements of business as it is lived and practiced from the purely economic? Do distinct patterns of cultural behavior characterize the practices of insiders merely, or all those affected? Does a business culture include consumers? Is a warden part of a prison subculture? Are the guards? What about the spouses and family members of the inmates? If I use Microsoft Word to write this book, am I an active participant in the kind of corporate culture espoused and largely defined by a single figure, Bill Gates? Or am I positioned outside or even against that culture if I use his word processor to type up an indictment of his business practices for a court briefing? If I use the Internet to research the brief, am I thereby on the fringes of the culture of geek technocracy? What, we might ask, is a religious culture, or an ethnic, linguistic, geographic, class, or political culture? Where are its limits? Do Spaniards participate in the same "Western" culture as Koreans who have moved to Vancouver? Are radical Islamicists who drive SUVs, play golf, accumulate wealth, and patronize strip clubs truly, irreducibly, at loggerheads with Protestant individualism? Does multiculturalism denote a collection of various overlapping groups of people sharing the same political and geographic terrain? Or, does it describe the complexity and contradictory range of the various "subject positions" a single individual adopts over the course of a day or a lifetime? Can one not be, say, an aging, devout Jewish entrepreneur, who is politically engaged with liberal causes? Does she not share the same "American" culture as, for example, a twenty-something, conservative, Roman Catholic, African American industrial worker? Or an atheist, Spanish-speaking, socialist migrant? If culture is merely a question of how beliefs and values are coded and represented, lived, practiced, and passed on over the course of generations, what distinguishes the "cultural" from the "social"? Or, when we speak of cultures, are we talking simply about our deepest and most cherished values, those values that we may only recognize in situations of crisis? Finally, and most pertinent to my investigation, we face the problem of a "national" culture. Does it even make sense today—did it ever?—to speak of an "American" culture or cultures? Culture turns out to be a term equally as unstable as the terms gothic or America.
Jacoby, a utopian progressive, for his part insists that we in America (and in the West) share a common culture, that our similarities more than outweigh our differences. When this argument is made from the right (as recently by Samuel Huntington), we should be suspicious: In such a work as Who Are We: The Challenges to America's National Identity, Huntington is simply trying to exclude those peoples of different skin color, religion, or social history from participating in the shared social contract of modernity and democracy. As Goddu has warned, a consolidated national culture is a culture of exclusion, which is to say, in Derridean terms, haunted. Yet there is no reason that the groups who negotiate social contracts be culturally homogenous—indeed, there is every reason to believe exactly the opposite (because in a culturally homogenous society, there would be no need for any social institutions to protect the contract). Moreover, such insistences echo earlier arguments that civilizations belonged to and were transmitted by certain privileged classes or, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, races: Peasants, Jews, Irish, gypsies, blacks, Indian "savages," and other disparaged groups were understood to be excluded (and self-selectively excluded) from the benefits of modernity. The hugely violent upheavals and wars of the twentieth century, wars that, sadly, have continued unabated into the next, might best be understood as massive efforts to "homogenize" populations—typically under the political alliance of the empire or the nationstate—by exiling or exterminating undesirable elements, ensuring that the nation and its territories be composed of people who are "just like us," who "share our values," or at least can be bribed or compelled to. "Shared values" is quite probably the most dominant cliché of contemporary neoimperialism, an imperialism that, however warm and fuzzy its rhetorical slogans, seldom shows anything like its human face. If modern gothic, as I contend, marks a new kind of haunting, then we will number among its ghosts those who have been slaughtered or displaced by the violent work of modernization, cleared from the land and cleared from—or rewritten mythically into—consciousness. With respect to the American enterprise, for example, Renée L Bergland, concurring with Goddu's contention that American self-representations have striven to repress material and social realities, documents in detail how American writers, following an imaginative corollary to Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy, have insistently and repeatedly "ghosted" Indians: "By writing about Indians as ghosts, white writers effectively remove them from American lands and place them, instead, within the American imagination" (4).
But the slaughter, real and representational, shows no sign of abating. Understandably, then, the investigation of "who belongs?" culturally to any given social organization or institution is far from an abstract theoretical query; rather, the answers provided to such questions—Are you an insider or an outsider? Are you one of us, or an alien? Are you with us, or against us?—have profound, even life and death, consequences. Nor are they simply political; they are deeply rooted in our everyday bodily practices. I'd wager that the struggle to formulate and provide answers to such questions takes up most of our limited supply of everyday energy. All day, and every day, we articulate and negotiate our own complex identities by improvising upon a cultural repertoire that, in turn, draws on a range of preexistent options. Obviously, the arena of culture is not exhausted by the traditional art forms of music, dance, literature, or the visual arts. The clothes we choose to wear; the television shows, movies, concerts, or sporting events we choose to watch; the forms we fill out when applying for a home or car loan or a new credit card or a new country; the individuals we are comfortable gossiping with or seducing; the language and accents we speak—all are cultural practices that define us. Through such cultural practices we aim to know and to advertise who we are, to secure and locate our place within a larger community. The "culture wars" pop critics used to speak of in the eighties and nineties are not simply questions of what to teach in a given curriculum; culture is coextensive with every aspect of our life, from how we make love to whom we kill and imprison to whose lands and burial grounds we occupy. Wars may be fought over resources—that is, for economic reasons. But all wars are also culture wars: The ways in which living human beings are compelled to fight them always depend on the cultural mobilization of perceived and radical differences between an "us" and "the enemy." A military war over "values" is a culture war, quite literally.
Moreover, humans fight wars, real wars, precisely when the status of "who we are" is uncomfortably in question, which is why every modern war has been mobilized on at least two fronts: There is the enemy outside against whose troops our weapons are trained, and there is "the enemy within," who must be rooted out and exposed for the traitor he or she actually is, usually by covert operations and various human and technological mechanisms of surveillance. The infringements of liberty infamously codified in the Patriot Act, for example, are not simply a product of the excesses of an autocratic Republican administration, as civil libertarians would argue, nor does the Obama administration represent a simple return to civility or normalcy. Rather, such prescriptive descriptions of an enemy within are integral to the militarization of society; the conjuring up of internal aliens is absolutely essential if a country is to fight a war, because, as a collective, we are moved to violence when we are traumatized, when our identity is open to doubt.
In other words, cultural practices seem of immense urgency when our collective or individual identities are understood to be threatened—that is, when we are compelled to recognize how shaky are the cultural props we have forged and secured in order to bolster our sense of privileged and unshakable identity. Immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, there was, understandably, a good deal of public stress on America's "unity." The attacks killed a great number of people and solicited many questions. Such events stir us to ask: Who are we? and What are we doing? To prop up a national identity perceived to be under threat, the media (along with other institutions designated responsible for maintaining collective public discourse) championed national unity rather than emphasizing the many and profound differences and disagreements among our people. Across America, people participated in interdenominational prayer services, queued up to give blood, and flew the flag, symbolically demonstrating that we were a nation united.
And yet, ironically enough, in the few short years since the attacks, "our" differences appear to be even more sharply defined than ever, and seem, despite ongoing efforts on behalf of bipartisan solutions, more and more insurmountable. There seemed little, if any, common ground or sense of shared values, for example, between those Americans who were stirred by the attacks to question—deeply, widely, and intimately—America's global role in the post-Cold-war era, and those in whom the national humiliation and trauma of September 11 spurred little more than blind patriotic fury and bloodlust, culminating in a thirst for any revenge, however misdirected. That is, in the aftermath of September 11, the various ways in which the question of American identity was framed (and potentially answered) dominated the ideological landscape of the United States (and, in a profound sense, the entire world) during the first decade of the twenty-first century. "Who are we?" became, once again, the most urgent of questions, although the left and the right deploy a very different rhetoric in asking it. Evidently, it is a question some of us, at least, have been willing to kill and to die for, in wars that have now lasted nearly a decade.
Let me recount a personal episode that may help illustrate my point. In 2003, in an "Introduction to Literature" course offered at Oklahoma State University, I devoted a September 11 anniversary class to artistic responses to the attacks. To my dismay, I found in my research that, at the time, only a handful of poets and almost no fiction writers have penned compelling or forceful responses to the event. The literature of 9/11, it appeared, had yet to be written, though this situation is now beginning to change, with the appearance, mostly by male writers, of such works as William Gibson's Pattern Recognition (2003), Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2006), and Don DeLillo's Falling Man (2007). My early sense of the artistic neglect of September 11 might be accounted for by the inadequacy of my research; or it may have been simply a function of time and gestation: Such traumatic events as the September 11 attacks may take years for us to digest and more years until powerful artistic meditations can be generated. Ultimately, one aim of this book is to contend that contemporary gothic literature does speak cogently, if indirectly, to the sensibilities and conditions of which the attacks and the American response were symptomatic.
More troubling, however, is the possibility that the sort of literature I am paid to teach will have very little to say to us. It may well be that poets and novelists no longer perform the same social function as they have in centuries past. That is, the poet may no longer address her voice to a "national" or even a collective audience; novelists may today solicit our response as ethical individuals, rather than as members of a larger—let alone a national—community. If so, this points to an immense sea change in the very premise and project of cultural production. Over the second half of the twentieth century, as I have argued elsewhere, cultural production has taken on a wholly novel social role, abandoning its modern mission of participating in the fabrication of national subjects. Novels, the key technology in the national social apparatus of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have become increasingly marginalized over the past fifty years (which is not to say they are not read, but simply that they are read differently). In the postmodern cultural arena, it may instead be popular and commercial artists who address us most poignantly in the collective, who speak to us not as distinct individuals but as member of a specific target community: a particular age group, for example, or ethnicity or race, or country (and I believe this is true even in the digital age, as cultural consumption becomes more and more a process of individuated cultural production). "Serious" poets and writers address individuals; because their performances are driven by sales, however, popular entertainers speak directly to audiences. In fact, even though several observers have pointed to the postmodern collapse of distinctions between the "highbrow" and the "popular," in a consumer age where flexible niche-marketing has replaced standardized mass production, the size of one's audience and the extent to which any cultural performance acknowledges to whom it is speaking may provide the best working definition of the popular. It is no accident that new films are emerging, which do powerfully engage the events of September 11: Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) is the most celebrated example; United 93 (2006), World Trade Center (2006), and Reign Over Me (2007) are others, despite their various fortunes at the box office. As a cultural formation, cinema positions itself precisely in the borderlands between the popular and the artistic.
To speak of a "postnational" era, then, is certainly not to posit the disappearance of nations, nor of national identities; rather, it is, modestly enough, to suggest that the claims upon our identities made today by nation are one set of affiliative claims among many. At any rate, to return to my anecdote, the paucity of literary responses to the attacks threw my students and me into the domain of popular music. For all their banality, many popular singers, I would claim, still feel it their place to speak to us—plaintively, angrily, consolingly, excitedly—as Americans. So together, as a class, my students and I looked at songs we had heard that best captured our complex emotional responses to September 11. But this realization too led us to an impasse: I wanted to listen to Bruce Springsteen's The Rising, while my students from Oklahoma wanted to listen to their favorite native son, Toby Keith. For Keith, a "boot up the ass" is the "American way," as he put it in his notorious "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," which reached number one on the country charts. Springsteen and Keith offer two very different takes on the attacks and speak to a deep split in American sensibility, as Stanley Kurtz of the highbrow conservative National Review opined in an online column: "Bruce or Toby? Is rueful lament a better answer to 9/11 than robust anger?" An important cultural question, I would think. Now, I am of a different generation than my students ("Bruce who?"), and we are from different regions of the country ("Toby who?"). I was raised on Springsteen's Rust Belt, immigrant, working-class laments, and they are very close to my heart. Springsteen speaks of and (perhaps) to a class and a generation that was and is deeply invested in the "American dream"; but Springsteen's target audience has recognized that this dream has either failed them or that they have failed it. The American dream may come true, his songs say, and I hope it does, because it is a beautiful dream. But it sure does not seem to be coming true for us! My students, however, do not often listen to Bruce Springsteen. Why should they? And how can an old fart like me respond to a pop musician like Toby Keith? Despite country and western's traditional project of recording the exuberant disillusionment of poor rural whites displaced to the city (listen to the cowboy "swing" of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys sometime, or the honky-tonk of Hank Williams), contemporary popular country and western seems stubbornly to resist acknowledging class defeat. Patriotism has always trumped disillusionment in white working-class music. Even so, sometime in the late 1970s or early '80s, country and western's time-honored sentimentalism got happy and naïve and lost all its sense of irony (Ronald Reagan and Merle Haggard are no doubt the key transitional figures in this evolution, although Reagan—irony of ironies!—claimed to be a Springsteen fan). To be fair, another immensely popular country singer, Alan Jackson, offered a much more sober impression of September 11, even though his popular song "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" availed itself of a rather timid and conventional sentimentalism, so too did the Dixie Chicks' open criticism of President Bush suggest there is anything but unanimity in Nashville. Such ideological frameworks are anything but stable and, as cultural theorists point out, they deploy "empty" signifiers that are constantly subject to renegotiation. Keith himself, of late, endorsed Barack Obama's bid for the presidency. Of course, everyone has different tastes in popular music, and those tastes are historically and socially situated. But popular songs—what we like, what we listen to, what we hum in the shower—are undoubtedly among the most powerful ways in which we articulate who we are. Whole subcultures define themselves almost entirely—for example, politically, ethnically, generationally—by their taste in music (and this is true, I think, for many of us, not simply the young).
Excerpted from Haints by Arthur Redding Copyright © 2011 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: A Land Without Ghosts 1
1 Haints and Nation: Ghosts and the Narrative of National Identity 12
2 Memory, Race, Ethnicity, and Violence 42
3 Abandoning Hope in American Fiction: Catalogs of Gothic Catastrophe 79
Conclusion: American Innocence 107
Works Cited 131
Scholars and students of American literature and gothic studies