The Revolutionizing American Studies seminar was delighted to hear from Eric Lott, Professor of American Studies at the University of Virginia, on March 22nd. The following are some thoughts on the readings he provided for our discussion.
Professor Lott’s article, National Treasure, Global Value, and American Literary Studies considers the blockbuster 2004 film in order to think through critical histories and developments within American Studies. His call to “think carefully—politically—about the literary relationship of nation to globe” provides a generative inversion of much humanities training, in which a literary lens is applied to structures understood as fundamentally, and remotely, political. As an “impacted nexus of literary desire,” the National Treasure franchise explicitly charts the literariness of the nation’s symbolic and material position in and to the world; the trailer for National Treasure 2 visualizes this investment by spanning a three-dimensional atlas while zooming in and through the densely transposed script of a diary said to reveal “a conspiracy that crosses the globe.” Our chances for recovering productive, cross-global connectivity are thus foregrounded as textual, embedded in script, while the politics of the nation-state are seen to have long foreclosed possibilities of universal democratic alliance. The article suggests that it is especially important to think politically about these literary “input channels, kinship networks, and routes of transit,” to borrow from Wai Chee Dimock, so that the processes of textual decoding don’t become a kind of foundationalism, the Declaration (and the Bible) wielded to serve positivist ends and amounting to a national historical amnesia. As Lott’s analysis of the movie demonstrates, the desire for global alliance is ambivalent to begin with, hesitating, as it were, “between the tenses” of recto/verso, nation/globe, self and other, calling to mind the ambivalence of cross-racial desire and disavowal underpinning minstrelsy as proposed by Lott’s Love and Theft. Lott’s innovative handling of National Treasure prompts us to question the film’s hesitant investments, including those of Ben – who describes himself not as a treasure hunter but as a treasure protector – and of a post-9/11 U.S. – whose fantasy of seamlessly exporting democracy looks in practice much more like the razed National Library of Iraq. In pointing out how this ambivalence is indicative of the global economic and human rights crises we now face, Lott leads us to the troubling question of whether the material conditions of global cultural-capital accumulation and imperial dominance are in fact dependent on the literary fiction of a well meaning “treasure protector” to redistribute wealth “to the people.”
Considering the dialectic of “front” and “back” uses of the Declaration invoked by National Treasure, we might say that Back Door Man: Howlin’ Wolf and the Sound of Jim Crow offers a definitively recto brand of embodiment, that is, a sensitive inquiry into the self as formulated on the back of a precise intersection of social, cultural, and state production (and not its inverse, which here might look like the determination of a group or individual based on the “anodyne clutches of blues buffs and the normalizations of conventional musicology”). The article is an extremely useful demonstration of how the formal structures and aesthetic qualities of a single expressive moment can open a whole social world and affectively disseminate — via the swaying bodies of listeners in, say, an everyday public space — the revolutionary potential for invention and change. Thinking politically, Lott details the ways in which a midcentury postindustrial urban crisis produced new ways of “ignoring black selfhood, of denying the legitimacy of black claims to existence.” If the state’s constitution of blackness is that of non-beingness in the world understood through the categories of race, gender, and sexuality, the unsettling “weirdness” of Back Door Man asserts the visceral, full-bodied presence of African American being in Jim Crow space albeit of a necessarily queered temporality and form. The reclamation of back door invisibility, where one gains the vantage of seeing and being what white men “don’t know” nonetheless bespeaks a national paralysis wherein the inability to know communally inhibits movement past the ambivalent and hesitant forms of cross-racial alliance. Some things we might consider are the possibilities for engendering backdoorness without the compulsive returns and backward glances of a traumatized Jim Crow soundscape; how we might re-imagine, as this song prompts us to do and especially in light of the Occupy Wall Street movement, social relations and institutions without a purported center to which we must return.