Terror’s Side Effects and Night Sweats

October 14, 2007 § 18 Comments

Susan Faludi’s new book, Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, is getting serious attention in the last few rounds of Sunday book reviews. I have just begun working through this text, but I can tell already that it is the kind of scholarship that gets my full attention.Terror is a powerfully insightful and accessible reading of contemporary culture that doesn’t shy away from making connections across history — from John Wayne to Increase Mather.

Faludi’s main argument orbits around a common trope in American culture, going back to the early days of the American imaginary:

“What we gather from these books and Faludi’s is that the script America reverted to in the fall of 2001 was the oldest in our literary imagination, our frontier fear that savages (“dark-skinned, non-Christian combatants”) would seize our defenseless women while our girlie men were watching Oprah Never mind that 9/11 had nothing to do with gender politics. If we weren’t invincible, we must have been impotent.” (John Leonard, October 14, 2007, New York Times Book Review)

Like Faludi’s earlier work on American culture, she offers a reading of gender and American esprit as a kind of distributed consciousness that goes well beyond identity politics and the limited frame of epistemological reference that sill pervades much feminist theory. Gender is less a representational matrix in Faludi’s book than it is a wild fantasy, stoked and “confabulated” out of an all-encompassing literary imaginary – more David Lynch than a traceable politics or economy of gender.

She draws from a vast array of texts and cultural artifacts in showing the many ph/fantasies of the “terror dream,” and makes return forays into some popular scholarship that has gone missing from academic radars. For example, she argues for the continued relevance of Richard Slotkin’s work on the “regeneration of violence.” (The work Slotkin does with “biographical performance,” masculinity, and the progressivism of Western myth is intersectional criticism at its best, a point I make as well in my article on the American “progressivism” couched within the rhetorical spaces of Brokeback Mountain (Boyle, “’When This Thing Grabs Hold of Us…:Spatial Myth, Rhetoric, and Conceptual Blending in Brokeback Mountain,” Reading Brokeback Mountain, ed. James Stacy).

In my view, it is not just the Witchcraft trials at Salem that are implicated in this consumptive myth of marauding “others,” arrested masculinity, and women gone wild, but our renewed fascination with the degenerating masculine body. I would include our recent obsession with steroids, honor, and confession within sports culture as another chapter in this cultural dream-myth. Steroid use among athletes now reads as a protracted hunt for Bin Laden: “detection”; “screening”; “penetration” (used to describe the contaminating influence of steroid use on sports communities); the unfair advantage that makes an “outstanding athlete” into a “superman” (Bob Costas). And, more recently, we now can include a tearful confession from Marion Jones that she had used steroids before the 2000 Olympics. When Jones states that, “I want to apologize for all of this… I am sorry for disappointing you all in so many ways,” we get the sense that, at some level, she’s not just talking about hitting the runner’s tape before everyone else. There’s something eerily familiar about Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, Jessica Lynch’s story of survival, and Jones’s confession – women caught up in national narratives and doubly cast as heroines and “captives,” in need of rescue or resuscitation through confession.

Steroids are now the embodied metaphor for the transgressed superhero’s body; of a masculine physicality weakened by an “other”; of a national ethos of manifest destiny trammeled upon by a still largely undetectable “enemy within.” The beauty of this phantasm is that it allows some outlet for our collective and increasing anxiety over a new era of capitalism that makes “labor” into a function of pharmacology (see, Joe Dumitt’s work on this point )

Beowulf, the Movie, appearing soon (Nov 16th). All indications are that once the deteriorated monstrousness of Grendel is dispensed with, it’s all Angelina Jolie, and revenge killing pressed through the prism of the avenging mom.
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“How, Faludi wonders, did smoking out Osama bin Laden in his Tora Bora tunnel somehow morph, on the home front, into a ‘sexualized struggle between depleted masculinity and overbearing womanhood’?” (NY times)

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§ 18 Responses to Terror’s Side Effects and Night Sweats

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