Academic journal article The Comparatist

The Other Heading of America: Derrida and Emerson on the Future of an Illusion

Academic journal article The Comparatist

The Other Heading of America: Derrida and Emerson on the Future of an Illusion

Article excerpt

I. THE NEW AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM

Over the past half-century, American Studies has departed from a romantically inclined reception of its canonical authors, and moved towards an ideologically entrenched rejection of American idealism. According to Richard Rorty's stark assessment of this situation in Achieving Our Country (1998), the New Left, or what he calls the "School of Resentment," has become "a spectatorial, disgusted, mocking Left, rather than a Left which dreams of achieving our country" (35). He traces the utopian aspirations in American letters from Walt Whitman to John Dewey, both of whom he describes as anti-absolutists who nevertheless managed to retain a romantico-pragmatic faith in America. He claims they viewed "the United States as an opportunity to see ultimate significance in a finite, human, historical project, rather than in something eternal and nonhuman" (17). He explains, "They wanted that utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire. They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country's animating principle, the nation's soul" (18). Critics of the New Left, however, at least according to Rorty's polemical account, have not only dispensed with the utopian dreams of the past, they have lost all hope for the future of their country. He observes, "They associate American patriotism with an endorsement of atrocities: the importation of African slaves, the slaughter of Native Americans, the rape of ancient forests, and the Vietnam War. Many of them think of national pride as appropriate only for chauvinists" (7). Donald Pease, a founding figure and leading proponent of New American Studies, would seem to fit Rorty's bill. In his recent book, The New American Exceptionalism (2009), he even suggests, "War might be said to begin when a country becomes a patriotic fiction for its people" (166). (1) Such a reduction of patriotism to bellicosity hardly does justice to the twin phenomena in question, yet this does seem to be the grand gesture of his magisterial case study of American fantasy life from the Cold War to the present.

Offering a Lacanian account of the "trauma of the real" that was visited upon the American people on September 11, 2001, Pease remarks, "crises of the magnitude of 9/11 are always accompanied by mythologies that attempt to reconfigure them within frames of reference that would generate imaginary resolutions to these crises.... [M]yths give closure to traumatizing historical events by endowing them with a moral significance" (156). The trauma of 9/11 figures as yet another instantiation of what he calls the "primal scene" of American Exceptionalism: a catastrophic site of interpretation so devastating for the imagination that it "could not take place except through the traumatizing displacement of all other representable spaces" (17). This mythological moment produces the surplus fantasy of "an inaccessible place that could only be accessed retroactively," which symbolizes the lost plenitude of a significance that never existed. Pease explains that events like 9/11 trigger the obsessive compulsion to retreat from the scene of the disaster and back into the fantasized womb. The Bush administration simply borrowed the tools of the trade provided by the Cold War romanticists--most notably the myth of Virgin Soil, which effaced the atrocities committed by the early settlers, and thus secured for the American people the illusion of their radical innocence--in order to help institutionalize the Homeland Security State. Pease provides a brilliant genealogy of the various permutations this national mythology has undergone over the past four centuries, but he does so only to arrive at the disheartening conclusion that by the time of 9/11, America had already lost whatever moral higher ground it may have wished to recuperate from out of the wreckage of its formerly glorious but always already fabricated virginity. The apparently "Rortyian" end result of his psychoanalysis of the national state fantasy is that the American dream is only an ideological mystification of the radical evil of the human condition; American Exceptionalism is synonymous with a history of genocide, slavery, and oppression; and American patriotism means little else besides love of war. …

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