Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Unnatural Acts, Exceptional States

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Unnatural Acts, Exceptional States

Article excerpt

In a brief essay from 1960, Lone Star State native Donald Barthelme contends that "it is frequently painful for a Texan to decide that he is, after all, not a cowboy" ("Culture" 65). For those of us situated early in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it's hard to read Barthelme's assertion and not summon the image of the forty-third President of the United States, George W. Bush, decked out in denim and a Stetson, squinting through the dust on his Crawford ranch. A caricatured rendition of his approach to the presidency might focus on superficialities: that sneer, that laconic drawl, the hyperbolic, six-gun-toting masculinity coded into his July 2003 invitation to the Iraqi insurgency: "Bring 'em on" (Loughlin). The immediate consequences of that invitation are by now widely known: the First Battle of Fallujah, the Ramadan Offensive, the catastrophic August 2003 bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad. It seems the Texan's cowboyish stance failed to generate its intended result. And this should not have been a surprise; Barthelme presciently notes, "the ritual demands of the role" of the cowboy are "somewhat limited," as "certain important areas of thought and feeling are closed to him; like a cloche hat or an interest in the United Nations, they are simply not becoming" ("Culture" 65).

But Bush is not the first president to deploy the national imaginary's conjuration of the Texan, bigger than life, a "decider" with an emphatically muscular concept of the governmental role of executive function. In the mid-nineteen-sixties, Lyndon Baines Johnson wielded the image of the Texan with a similar swagger. This is no mere fluke of history; rather, we might understand it as a repetition in the symbology of the national imaginary, which sometimes craves a certain manifest articulation of national power. Donald Pease argues that the "decisive shift in the political fortunes of the modern state took place at the historic moment when the ruler, instead of embodying the state, served a special constitutional and legal state that it was his duty to maintain. Once real authority was no longer vested in the person of the ruler, it disembodied itself" (3). At times of national crisis, that disembodied form of political power may seem too tenuous, too abstract, and the polity may summon an embodied representative whose presence projects an adequately robust version of state power--in America, the hard-bitten, purposeful, rugged cowboy.

More than mere symbolics, however, what marks both presidencies is their use of the contingencies of warfare to radically strengthen the powers of the executive branch--an American political initiative that has been pursued through much of the past fifty years; and in the nineteen-sixties and the first decade of the twenty-first century, that initiative was pursued with especial urgency. From Johnson's extension of the President's war-making powers, to Nixon's cynical deployment of US intelligence and law enforcement authorities, up through the Obama administration's intensification of Bush's practices of extraordinary rendition and the extrajudicial detention and killing of "enemy combatants" and of US citizens, no period in US history has witnessed such a dramatic extension of the powers of the Office of the President. In all of the above cases, presidents have prosecuted their policies and ambitions under cover of intense anxieties about national security. The Johnson and Nixon administrations sought justification for their actions in exigencies of the alleged national interests at stake in the Vietnam War, and in the proliferation of various forms of domestic radical political resistance fostered by that conflict. For the Bush and Obama administrations, shifting understandings of the nature and extent of terrorist activity, at home and abroad, have putatively necessitated new strategies for maintaining civil order and security, strategies that have been concentrated within the purview and application of executive powers. …

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