Obituary: Professor Michael Rogin
Mulvey, Laura, The Independent (London, England)
MICHAEL ROGIN, Robson Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, was an original and innovative scholar whose approach to academic research was strongly marked by his political commitment to the American left.
His work was always built on a foundation of rigorous scholarly research. However, his radical approach to what constitutes historical material opened up American political history to new kinds of interpretation. His move from a more traditional practice of political history to the discovery, for instance, that Hollywood cinema could provide source material for interpreting American history, echoes the development of cultural studies as an academic discipline. But Rogin's interest in cultural phenomena always, in the last resort, returned to American political history, his own discipline.
Behind this negotiation between cultural phenomena and political history lay his fascination with the overweening importance of metaphor and mythology in the language of American politics and the difficulty of deciphering it. It was this political commitment to an attempt to analyse the exceptional "problems" or "conundrums" of American history that distinguished his work and placed it squarely within the tradition of intellectual critique as well as academic scholarship.
Rogin's standing as a scholar was established when he received his Bachelor's degree summa cum laude from Harvard University in 1958, aged 21. He then did graduate work at the University of Chicago, where he gained his Doctorate in Political Science, in 1962. From 1963, the University of California, Berkeley, was to provide the intellectual and professional environment in which the outstanding originality of his academic work flourished and where he remained throughout an uncommonly distinguished career.
The publication of `Ronald Reagan', the Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology in 1987 marked a watershed point in Rogin's career. The Reagan material brought media attention and the interest of a much wider public outside the strictly academic community. But, as a whole, the collection of essays makes explicit the concept of "demonology", which is key to Rogin's political analysis and, with the Reagan collection, he returns to important material from earlier books as well as introducing new, cinema-based, case histories.
Rogin argued that the history of demonology in American politics had seen three major moments. The first moment, the defeat of the indigenous people by American colonisation, had been the subject of his second book, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the subjugation of the American Indian (1975). Here, Rogin analysed the particular function of political language that allowed this primal moment of oppression to be masked by myth and metaphor. Words and images bear witness to the way in which political oppression had gone hand in hand with a collective re-telling of American history. As a political historian he became a cultural detective, deciphering clues and symptoms, not so much in order to establish an alternative reality, but in order to understand the ways in which the process worked. The deciphering process is also key to his third book, Subversive Genealogy: the politics and art of Herman Melville (1983), in which Rogin turns from the presence of metaphor in political language to reveal the presence of a "subversive" politics in Herman Melville's literature. …