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Unnatural acts, exceptional states.

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. Pease contends that in prosecuting such actions, "the state situated itself within the order that it protected but it occupied the position of internal externality of the exception. For in order to defend the order it also represented, the state was first required to declare itself an exception to the order it regulated" (24).

Here, Pease operates within the theoretical framework of Giorgio Agamben's recent articulation of "the state of exception." The state of exception arises when emergent circumstances (of war, civil unrest, some other catastrophe) effect--some would say necessitate--a radical extension of the power of the sovereign, displacing normative governmental and juridical procedures in the interest of the state's continued existence. In this scheme, the state's constitutional integrity is essentially maintained through the suspension of the constitution's ordering of state powers and functions (Agamben 1). Agamben argues that the state of exception is a paradigm of governmental power that has grown increasingly prevalent over the past century. Just as in crisis situations it fell to the sovereign (the Roman imperium, the fascist dictator) to exert his power ostensibly in the name of preserving state order, and perhaps the very existence of the state, in recent periods of geopolitical instability American presidents have asserted and extended their powers, ostensibly in the name of national security. Agamben notes that
   the immediate biopolitical significance of the state of exception
   as the original structure in which law encompasses living beings
   by means of its own suspension clearly emerges in the 'military
   order' issued by the president of the United States on November
   13, 2001, which authorized the "indefinite detention" and trial
   by "military commissions" (not to be confused with the military
   tribunals provided for by the law of war) of noncitizens suspected
   of involvement in terrorist activities. (1) (3)


My present purpose is to examine an undervalued source articulating American cultural intervention into the invocation and deployment of the state of exception: Barthelme's short fiction. Because Barthelme's fictions came to cultural prominence in a period marked by Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam and by Nixon's corrupt deployments of presidential authority, when the executive branch's abuses of power careened toward mass public crisis, I contend that those fictions have much to tell us about the contradictory politics inhering in the governmental and social orders we presently confront. This reading runs counter to much of the critical work on Barthelme produced over the past several decades. In many previous studies, Barthelme has been most widely understood as a purveyor of playfully self-referential fictions, literary works of the kind one of his characters describes in an early story, "Florence Green is 81": "The aim of literature is the creation of a strange object covered in fur which breaks your heart" (316-17). (2) Surely there is a deep romance with the aesthetic in his stories; but there is another, less prominent understanding of Barthelme's work, which engages with the political nature of the fictions. Paul Maltby has argued that Barthelme is best understood as one of a group of "dissident postmodernists" who "fashion devices which work to fracture the logic of hegemonic codes"; the working of these "devices" amounts to "an endeavor to liberate consciousness from entrapment within the dominant language forms of late capitalism" (186-87). Maltby never situates Barthelme's work within a more specific political program, but Barbara Roe notes Barthelme's criticisms of government's "institution [al] errors during the Vietnam years. Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts ... hosts his most explicit political fiction" (66).

Barthelme's nineteen-sixties fiction is very much engaged with the epistemological and moral indeterminacies of its immediate social and cultural environments. The fictions I read closely here--"The Indian Uprising," "Report," and "The President," all of which were collected in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, published in the tumultuous year 1968--dramatize the contradictions inhering in American political discourse during the Johnson administration and Nixon's rise to presidential power. The fictions respond to and reflect the social and political crisis of their historical moment; they stage fraught contests among agents seeking modes of political direct action--frequently with unhappy results, or no coherent result whatsoever--and the matrix of institutional powers that surround those agents. Specifically, I demonstrate that Barthelme's fictions repeatedly disorder the relations among those agents and powers, creating vanishing points among putatively antithetical moral and political values and practices. Barthelme's time created similar vanishing points, many of them produced by acts of violence, that blurred the political distinctions between countercultural and revolutionary organizations, like Weatherman, and the governmental forces charged with enforcing the law, like the FBI agents that oversaw and ran COINTELPRO. Both sides claimed to represent authentic and legitimate American interests--of the state, of the imaginary construction referred to as "the people"--but the various policies and projects they pursued often corresponded through their shared tendency to ignore or abrogate the legal and constitutional limits that ostensibly order American life. Thus, while Barthelme's stories don't claim that any sort of Utopian or revolutionary promise inheres in the state of exception they document, their close engagement with nineteen-sixties social conflict provide a useful ground for our own understanding of political and cultural history.

This understanding extends to our own time, in which the state of exception continues to inform presidential policy and rhetoric. I will point out the correspondences between Barthelme's moment and our own post-9/11 US history, specifically events and policies that have emerged during the War on Terror. The Bush administration's bold and cynical (and the Obama administration's continued) deployment of the state of exception necessitates that we look back to the 1960s for an understanding of how these initiatives have created their own legitimacy. I argue that we should not read Barthelme's texts as artifacts of a bygone political or aesthetic moment--whether we call it "The Sixties" or "counterculture" or "postmodern pastiche"--but rather as crucial documents engaged in an ongoing struggle to chart "an empty space, in which human action with no relation to law stands before a norm with no relation to life" (Agamben 86). This "empty space" is the no man's land at the center of the state of exception, which is also where we live now.

Uprisings and reports

Perhaps the most oft-anthologized story in Barthelme's Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts is "The Indian Uprising." (3) The story is set in a recognizably mid-twentieth-century city under siege by marauding forces, some of whom are Comanches, the story's titular "Indians." The city is never named, but its size, its cosmopolitan atmosphere, and its capacious inner city park spaces more than a little resemble Barthelme's adopted hometown of New York. The story's frantic delineation of siege conditions has seized the attention of critics, many of whom have attempted to reconstruct a coherent narrative of combat and contest out of uprising's chaos. Some critics have read the story's violence as purely symbolic, with artistic struggle as its principal agon, which may or may not be concomitant with anxieties concerning sexual dysfunction and gender formation (4); however, I find more compelling those previous readings that have attempted to situate the violence in a discursive realm fully engaged with the politics of resistance. An early article by Walter Evans begins to gesture in this direction. Evans emphasizes the presence of Comanches and reads "The Indian Uprising" as a "postmodern Western" (46) in which the story's cityscape represents a contemporary West that has become a too "artificial world" (51). He asserts that "emotion, energy, spontaneity too long repressed" by the pervasive forces of late capitalist commodity and cultural production "rise up to reassert their place in the human scheme of things. It is this 'uprising' which provides the story's subject" (52). But Evans is largely concerned with vague conceptions that he calls "values," and his reading sublimates the story back onto abstract, quasi-spiritual terrain. There, the Indians' disembodied "savagery" becomes a romanticized caricature of the kind imagined in Frederick Jackson Turner. (5) Invoking Turner implies that there is a cultural politics motivating the appearance of the Comanches; but in order to ground the political stakes of Barthelme's mid-nineteen-sixties story in more thoroughly historicized terrain, we must look beyond the nineteenth-century context of Indian removal. The first-person narrator of "The Indian Uprising" indicates

it was learned that [the Comanches] had infiltrated our ghetto and that the people of the ghetto instead of resisting had joined the smooth, well-coordinated attack with zip guns, telegrams, lockets, causing that portion of the line held by the IRA to swell and collapse. We sent more heroin into the ghetto. (Unspeakable 6)

Referencing this moment, John Domini argues that the story's technique of "comic juxtaposition"--present in this excerpt's linkages of Comanches and "ghettos," "zip guns" and "telegrams"--"fixes the story's moment, the Vietnam era, when the urban chic were fascinated particularly with the primitive and disenfranchised" (105); similarly, Louis Menand has deemed the story "one of the great literary responses to the Vietnam War" (75). Both Domini and Menand invoke the war and its historical context in a relatively uncritical way, but their principal point opens useful areas for analysis. (6)

While Domini is content to ascribe the story's reference to the social terrain in which the Panthers and the Brown Berets emerged to a questionable, if not contemptible, ethos of "urban chic" that fancies "the primitive," the principal metaphorical figures Barthelme deploys in "The Indian Uprising" provide a more sharply ironized range of reference. Brian McHale and Moshe Ron contend that "to read 'The Indian Uprising' as an allegory of the Vietnam War seems not just plausible but irresistible, particularly since the analogies ... between Comanches (or Apaches) and Viet Cong, have become a commonplace of discourses about and representations of the Vietnam War" (54). In an explanatory footnote, McHale and Ron offer John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968), Michael Herr's Dispatches (1977), and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) as examples of the "[transposition of] the value system and imagery of cowboys-and-Indians Westerns to the Vietnam War" (66). (7) But while McHale and Ron focus on analogies between "Comanches ... and the Viet Cong," the more pressing analogical relation lies between the figure of the cowboy and the Marine, the infantryman. (8) With this specific relation in mind, the most significant conflict implied in the reference is between American and American, lieutenant and grunt--or, in Apocalypse Now, between the strung-out military intelligence agent Willard (Martin Sheen) and the sweaty expanse of oracular flesh that is Kurtz (Marlon Brando).

The cinematic assemblage of Kurtz's mountainous white features for me resonates strongly with Johnson's insistent, thickly protuberant visage. But there's more than just this phantomlike set of physical correspondences: both men struggled to find the most ruthlessly efficient tactics to cut through Vietnam's jungle and shape a decisive win. Both men got lost there. The intensification of the Vietnam War provided significant obstacles to the Johnson's administration's pursuit of its Great Society reforms. In a 1970 interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin, Johnson noted,
   I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I
   moved. If I left the woman I really loved--the Great Society--in
   order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of
   the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs.
   All my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. All my
   dreams to provide education and medical care to the browns and
   blacks and the lame and the poor. But if I left that war and let
   the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a
   coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser and we would both
   find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on
   the globe. (252)


An emphatic element of this excerpt is its relentless cascade of first-person singular terms. Most striking are the phrases punctuated by possessive adjectives: "my programs," "my hopes," "my dreams." All suggest Johnson's notion of presidential policy-making as an expression of complete sovereignty, his bid to exert absolute control over the functions and the powers of national governance--in spite of, or negating outright, any Constitutional divisions of power among the branches. Following on this series of phrases, Johnson's formulation "my nation" in the excerpt's final sentence seems especially loaded. Is it an expression of patriotism (an analog of Smith's "My country, tis of thee") or of possession (my nation, not yours, not ours)? The following first-person plural "we" seems to indicate the former, with president and nation acting in concert to achieve national objectives. But the rest of the paragraph suggests that the two elements enjoy very different forms of agency. All of the terms used to describe the country and its constituencies connote marginality and passivity: "the hungry," "the homeless," "the browns and blacks and the lame and the poor," the beloved ("the woman I really loved").These are groups and entities that need to be provided for, protected, at best ordered into action. The disparity infects the final "we," opening up distinction between an active, decisive president and a nation-as-object, deployed in service of the president's agenda.

The rhetorical structure of Johnsons musing matches some of his more forceful public speech. In a 1966 speech in Omaha, Johnson noted, "There are many, many who can recommend, advise and sometimes a few of them can consent. But there is only one that has been chosen by the American people to decide" (qtd. in Schlesinger 178).That seems to me a pretty accurate summary of Johnson's understanding of the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. (9) Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., argues that by 1965, when troop escalations indicated the seriousness of the US commitment to ground war, "presidential consultation [with Capitol Hill] had become something of a mirage" (181). More crucially language in the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution pressed for the delivery of war-making powers into the President's hands. Schlesinger notes that the Resolution "said that 'the United States'--the United States government, Congress and the President together? the United States as a whole, all 193,526,000 people?--was 'prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom'" (180).The key clause, of course, is "as the President determines," which essentially suspended the Constitution's designation of Congress as the governmental body that can declare war. More problematical is the Resolution's licensing of the executive branch's "use of armed force" without the congressional debate--and, one would hope, the public clarity--a formal declaration of war would necessitate. Well into 1965, the administration increased the number of US troops present in Vietnam in slow but steady increments that roused little public controversy, demonstrating, as Gabriel Kolko argues, "the administration's preferred style--to act privately and shun publicity" (165). Kolko contends that "it was this guile, as much as the escalation itself, that was to alienate many Americans."

The response from US counterculture and social protest movements was an increasingly radicalized rhetoric of resistance and revolution. Leaders in SDS began importing Marxist-Leninist theory in an effort to articulate their dissident movement with greater philosophical intelligibility and more forceful rhetoric. As early as 1966, Carl Davidson's pamphlet "Toward a Student Syndicalist Movement" theorized the university's--and thus students'--imbrication in a late capitalist military industrial complex and advocated for more strategic modes of campus activism. Todd Gitlin asserts that "all the factions of SDS strutted about as self-appointed vanguards in search of battalions.... After all, they were born into relative privilege or schooled to believe they were entitled to it. Knowledge was their key to mastery. Eureka, Leninism--the classic way to enable would-be vanguards to finesse the contradiction between their aspirations and their capacities" (384). Gitlin's critique of the new social movements' deployment of militarized tactics is well known, and his derisive tone here suggests that the "contradictions" he writes of are not merely identitarian in nature. Rather, the turn to violence indicates a significant gap between "aspirations" and "capacities" that Weatherman and its similarly minded factional allies hoped to close with the explosive immediacy of lived political commitment manifest in the revolutionary act. Thus, while Prairie Power thinkers in SDS may have initially invoked Marxist modes of revolutionary organization in a utopian moment of hopefulness, the eventual implication of Marxist rhetoric in the violent tactics of Weatherman or the even less coherent Symbionese Liberation Army produced traumas--ideological and physical--that made it hard to distinguish the criminal from the revolutionary, the revolutionary from the oppressor.

Like the historical moment into which the story was published, "The Indian Uprising" frequently erupts into violence, the utility and moral character of which has collapsed into a moral black hole. Near the outset of Barthelme's fiction, the impassive, often befuddled first-person narrator indicates the following:

We interrogated the captured Comanche. Two of us forced his head back while another poured water into his nostrils. His body jerked, he choked and wept. Not believing a hurried, careless and exaggerated report of the number of casualties in the outer districts where trees, lamps, swans had been reduced to clear fields of fire we issued entrenching tools to those who seemed trustworthy and turned the heavy-weapons companies so that we could not be surprised from that direction. (Unspeakable 3)

The scene of waterboarding is the episode's most elaborated image, and seems to demand a visceral reaction. An additional passage provides another horrific image: the narrator and some unnamed companions "attached wires to the testicles of the captured Comanche. And I sat there getting drunker and drunker and more in love and more in love. When we threw the switch he spoke" (10). As is the case in the waterboarding scene, the "speech" elicited from the captured enemy is strategically irrelevant to the conditions and conflict of the siege. In the first, the narrator finds the Comanche's "report" less than compelling; in this second scene, we learn the following: "His name, [the Comanche] said, was Gustave Aschenbach. He was born at L--, a country town in the province of Silesia. He was the son of an upper official in the judicature, and his forebears had all been officers, judges, departmental functionaries."

For Domini, the references to Mann's story "Death in Venice" provide additional evidence that "The Indian Uprising" is principally driven by conflict between modernist and postmodernist aesthetics. But in the story's own aesthetic register, what's more striking is the flat nature of the narrator's intonations, which suggest a clinical indifference to the scenes of torture. The narrative's lexical choices create no urgency, and in the second scene, the narrator's tonal indifference is buttressed by the content of his musing: he is more concerned with his drinking and his "love" for a character named Sylvia. He is divorced from the scene's immediacies--not just preoccupied, but already certain, it seems, that the procedures will yield little information of use. This suggests the story assents to the assertion that torture is always ineffective, that the one being tortured will inevitably give word to what he or she suspects the tormentors want to hear. In context of "The Indian Uprising," this word might be some fictive "report" of combatants' deployment, or some recognition of the torturer's highly elaborated cultural formations. There is little to no valid content to be gained from the procedure of torture, only some ritualized set of malevolent forms. In another passage, the narrator, seeking to charm a companion, "relate[s] a little of the history of torture, reviewing the technical literature quoting the best modern sources, French, German, and American, and pointing out the files which had gathered in anticipation of some new, cool color" (Unspeakable 7). The narrators refinement--his "anticipated" appreciation of a "new, cool color"--is attached to the value of colors as such: aesthetic value (the constrast of cool or warm) and cultural value (the cool as hip, innovative). Neither speaks to the strategic or political value of the information that might be rendered by the implementation of torture.

The moral problematics implicit in "The Indian Uprising" are engaged in a more thorough way in Barthelme's "Report," first published in Unspeakable Acts. Both Maltby (54) and Roe (68) cite Barthelme's description of the fiction as a hopeful if "propagandistic" intervention in public discourse about "the Vietnam conflict." But I argue that the fiction allows for a more complicated reading. In Barthelme's "Report," a first-person narrator, member of an unnamed "group [that] is against the war," is dispatched to a convention of engineers "to persuade them not to do what they are going to do" (Unspeakable 51). When he arrives at the convention, the narrator indicates, "I noticed many fractures among the engineers, bandages, traction. I noticed what appeared to be fracture of the carpal scaphoid in six examples. I noticed numerous fractures of the humeral shaft, of the os calcis, of the pelvic girdle. I noticed a high incidence of clay-shoveler's fracture. I could not account for these fractures" (51-52). Upon questioning the "chief engineer," the narrator learns that among the weapons the engineers have designed is "a secret word that, if pronounced, produces fractures in all living things in an area the size of four football fields" and that "some damned fool couldn't keep his mouth shut" (56).

A cursory reading of the chief engineer's discussion of the weapons technologies he and his fellow scientist have developed appears to extend the Pythonesque parody of what Maltby calls "functionalism," which exhibits the tendency of technological-rationalist ideology "to think of all social practices in systemic terms--wholes to which all parts ... must be adapted or adjusted in order to optimize the system's 'performance'" (34). In "Report," the narrator claims to be "interested in [the engineers' thing] which seems to be functioning.... Other people's things don't seem to be working. The State Department's thing doesn't seem to be working. The UN's thing doesn't seem to be working. The democratic left's thing doesn't seem to be working" (Unspeakable 52). Counter to "so much dysfunction" is the proliferation of the engineers' "expanding technology": listed by the chief engineer are a "new improved pufferfish toxin which precipitates an identity crisis"; "a hut-shrinking chemical which penetrates the fibers of bamboo, causing it, the hut, to strangle its occupants"; "the deadly testicle-destroying telegram" (55-56). The excesses coded into the objects and their functions are at once funny and horrific. Functionalism seems to have created a perversity of power.

But parodie texts always seek to imitate and ironize the content and stylistic markers of the original text or textual form referenced by the parody. If the object of the fiction's parodie action is functionalism, we should note that by far the most functionalist, rationalized element of "Report" is the narrator's performance--his language and his execution of his role. The narrator's sentences are efficiently rendered in a precise declarative form, and his lexical choices favor the laconic and simple, even where we might expect his formulations to be imbued with greater passion:

I spoke to [the chief engineer] then about the war. I said the same things people always say when they speak against the war. I said that the war was wrong. I said that large countries should not burn down small countries. I said that the government had made a series of errors. I said that these errors once small and forgivable were now immense and unforgivable. I said that the government was attempting to conceal its original errors under layers of new errors. (Unspeakable 53)

The repetitive syntax is mechanistic, regimented. The only notable exception to the simplicity of his speech involves his use of very specialized, clinical terms in his identification of the various "fractures" he notes in the crowd of engineers--thus the seeming exception further grounds his speech in a highly technical, professionalized register.

By contrast, the chief engineer cuts a more baroque figure, in both his manner of address and his appearance. The narrator first encounters him "in a slum of beer bottles and microphone cable"; he tells the narrator, "We will open our hearts and heads to you ... because we want to be understood and loved by the great lay public, and have our marvels appreciated by that public, for which we daily unsung produce tons of new marvels each more life-enhancing than the last" (Unspeakable 52).The chief engineer's speech is performative in its enthusiasm, and he deploys the modifiers and colloquialisms that the narrator's spare locutions avoid. Like their chief, the engineers "were full of love and information," the atmosphere of their meeting nearing the carnivalesque. They were "making calculations" at the same time they were "drinking beer, throwing bread, buttonholing employers, hurling glasses into the fireplace. They were friendly." The engineers' intellectual productivity has been enlisted in the war economy, but their behaviors here are more easily identified with the New Left discourse of the abolition of distinctions between work and play.

This inversion of nineteen-sixties cultural symbols links the engineers to the excesses of the celebratory and the narrator to the functionalist, and a crucial element of the story's grammatical structure performs a similar inversion. In the initial sentence of "Report," Barthelme's narrator indicates "our group is against the war" (51); here, the possessive adjective suggests a social division between first- and third-person groups (roughly speaking, a division between "us" and "them") that much of the story bears out. The anti-war group (us, inclusive of the narratorial "I") is opposed to the engineers (them), agents of the institutional powers that conduct the war. But two exchanges at the story's close complicate this distribution of shifters. After describing the destructive technologies created by the engineers, the chief engineer claims, "I confidently predict that, although we could employ all this splendid new weaponry I've been telling you about, we're not going to do it"', the narrator replies, "We're not going to do it?" (57).That is, rather than saying, "You're not going to do it?," the narrator repeats the "we" and thereby inserts himself into the collectivity signaled by the shifter. The repetition of the chief engineer's "we" collapses the distinction between the first-person shifters in the exchange. Here the exclusions of the us/them system are indeterminate, and the ideological positions those exclusions articulate are thrown into disarray. At the story's close, the narrator returns to the anti-war group and delivers his report: "I stressed the friendliness of the engineers. I said, it's all right. I said, We have a moral sense. I said, We're not going to do it. They didn't believe me." The narrator's additional repetition of the chief engineer's assertion, with its first-person plural shifter, completes the narrator's excision from the anti-war group, which he now recognizes in the third person ("They").

There is more at stake in Barthelme's play with pronoun case than syntactical sleight of hand. The pronouns' complication of group identities enacts a lack of distinction among the characteristics and dispositions that putatively render those groups distinguishable. The primary object of the story's parody is not just the functionalism on which Maltby concentrates, nor is it what Roe calls the engineers' "Frankenstein mentality" (68). Rather, as the syntactic form and thematics both suggest, the decreasing distinctions between the positionalities represented by the narrator and the chief engineer stand in for the ways in which the anti-war movement in the US and the society's hawkish elements and institutions also became increasingly characterized by their shared deployment of violence, as a rhetoric and as a mode of direct action. The parody is directed at the attempt to create moral distinctions in an environment in which morality has ceased to obtain.

The story's hyperbolic depiction of scientific research applied to weapons systems, and the anti-war movement's engagement with such research agencies and agents, recalls one of 1968's crucial events. The student strike at and occupation of Columbia University in April of that year was important not just for its symbolic indictment of an elite academic institution; additionally, some of the future leaders of the New Left's most radical elements were present at, and radicalized by, the strike. Mark Rudd, John Jacobs, and Gilbert, all future members of Weatherman, count their participation in the events at Columbia, and particularly the brutality with which the campus authorities and New York City police ended the occupation, as especially significant in their decisions to abandon nonviolent protest. (10) Among the key issues that initially inspired the strike were revelations about the involvement of a University-affiliated program, the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), in research for the Department of Defense. In a 22 April 1968 letter to University President Grayson Kirk, Rudd decries the University's implication in the Vietnam War and identifies Columbia as one of the "corporate machines" that produce "a basically sick society"; Rudd "point[s] to your [Kirk's] University which trains us to be lawyers and engineers, and managers for your IBM, your Socony Mobil, your IDA, your Con Edison" ("Open Letter"). In a year, Rudd and Jacobs would be leading Weatherman through the Days of Rage and then going underground, to orchestrate the bombings that struck a New York City police station and the Air Force wing of the Pentagon. The turn to militarized tactics provides a vanishing point, where the resistance movement and the institutional apparatus begin to mirror each other, and neither side could claim a moral ground for its strategic imperatives.

Of course, in Barthelme's story, the "moral sense" in which the chief engineer, and later the narrator, places so much stock is an artificial construction, a mere collection of "punch cards" (Unspeakable 57), suggesting a form of computer technology common in the late nineteen-sixties. For the chief engineer, the importation of morality into the technological realm will render the moral more calculable, in the strict sense, hence more rational. And the narrator, who is referred to throughout the fiction as "Software Man," is equally implicated in the fictions parody. But since Swift, the parodie has noted the contradictions inherent in making the moral a calculable entity. The artificially constructed nature of the chief engineer's system suggests that no claim to rational morality can deliver its agents to a transcendentally moral high ground. In spite of, and frequently because of, the systems they generate, all agents continually occupy a contested plane, all of them subject to the shifting ground under their positions.

Unknown unknowns and strange presidents

During a February 12, 2002 Pentagon press conference, a journalist presented to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the assertion that "there are reports that there is no evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and ... terrorist organizations." By way of an answer, Rumsfeld opined,

Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know that there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns--the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks through the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. ("DoD News Briefing") (11)

Rumsfeld's parsing of these "categories" of knowledge resonates with his characteristic delight in what he perceives to be his own verbal dexterity. But there is a real anxiety motivating the formulation. Rumsfeld links the relative stability and success of "the history of [the US] and other free countries" to solving for "unknown unknowns." In context ot the War on Terror, his Department policies and his execution of Department duties amounted largely to the application of military power in pursuit of fully charting those "unknown," blank regions he and his Bush administration colleagues insisted on marking out upon the geopolitical map. Freedom, according to this scheme, relies upon mastery of the unknown, wherever it may be encountered.

Geography has always been a fundamentally political science. But the Bush administration sought to conquer unknowns by mapping terrain that existed beyond the physical and conventionally visible forms perceived by satellites and combat-ready drones. Probably the most ambitious surveillance program offered up in the immediate wake of 9/11 was Total Information Awareness, an initiative led by John Poindexter and funded through the Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Total Information Awareness sought to produce an exhaustive account of all digital and telephonic communications, moving within, into, and out of the US; the collected data would then be mined for information related to terrorist activities. (12) The initiative, perhaps because of its unusually straightforward moniker (by Bush administration standards a rare non-Orwellian formulation, allowing pretty much anyone paying a modicum of attention to dope out its implications), met with immediate, pervasive public protest and was defunded by Congress in early 2003. But while this most ambitious project foundered, in 2002 Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to use wiretaps and digital surveillance techniques on phone lines and email accounts in the US without the warrants necessitated by FISA. The program and the presidential order that authorized it were made public on 16 December 2005, despite protests of administration officials, and Congress subsequently sought to reestablish FISA's jurisdiction over NSA surveillance of US citizens. (13)

The secret NSA program returned executive branch activities to the unchecked practices of COINTELPRO. The intensification of militant rhetoric in 1968 documents and speeches by RYM (Radical Youth Movement) members and radicals like Fred Hampton caught the attention of FBI agents operating under the aegis of COINTELPRO, the intelligence-gathering operation implemented by the FBI in the US during the middle of the twentieth century. COINTELPRO's ostensible programmatic imperatives, and the explanations offered up by its defenders, were articulated in terms of the national security and the defense of the citizenry. But its surveillance procedures and methods, always highly clandestine, frequently circumvented or violated laws and civil liberties. And it is also important to note that COINTELPRO's targets changed over the course of several decades; while COINTELPRO operations formally commenced as a vehicle for disrupting and disabling the US Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party during the Eisenhower years, subsequent presidential administrations transformed its mission and its list of targets to suit their own ends. By Nixon's presidency, a wide variety of organizations devoted to civil and women's rights and the anti-war movement had been infiltrated and wiretapped by CONINTELPRO, and in many cases, these groups had expressed no interest in toppling the government or engaging in activities that would endanger the safety of the nation. As the political and social divisions in the US populace widened in the late nineteen-sixties, COINTELPRO practices were implicated in increasingly problematic operations--including the raid that resulted in the shooting of Hampton in Chicago.

Nixon's defense of radical uses of executive power, professing the absolute nature of presidential sovereignty, would render even the killing of a citizen like Hampton a necessary act, if national security demanded it. Those more recent political figures who share Nixon's strident claims for the powers of an unfettered executive branch frequently point to presidents, previous to Nixon, who bypassed congressional checks and acted unilaterally in the midst of wartime conditions. Dick Cheney has cited Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeus corpus during the Civil War and Franklin Roosevelt's executive order that led to the interment of US citizens and foreign nationals during World War II. However, as Agamben points out, what separates Lincoln's and Roosevelt's uses of executive powers from the Bush administration's is the degree to which the American public was informed of presidential actions; both Lincoln and Roosevelt notified Congress of their decisions, and through their congressional addresses sought the approval of the greater public (21-23). The extent to which congressional representatives have been aware of Bush administration actions is unclear, and the public has been notified of key programs--like the extraordinary rendition and warrantless wiretapping programs--only when the press has broken the stories, frequently against the administration's stated wishes. Programmatic opacity and the loyalty to maintain it were paramount characteristics in the Bush administration's internal culture and in its relation to the American body politic.

Barthelme's fiction, "The President," collected in Unspeakable, details a relationship between a public and a chief executive's office suffused with a similar degree of opacity. At least fifteen times in a fiction of little more than three pages, the narrator expresses some degree of doubt or outright ignorance concerning the President and his policies. At one point, Barthelme's narrator notes that
   certain things about the new President are not clear. I can't make
   out what he is thinking. When he has finished speaking I can never
   remember what he has said. There remains only an impression of
   strangeness, darkness.... One hears only cadences. Newspaper
   accounts of his speeches always say only that he "touched on a
   number of matters in the realm of ..." (149)


Maltby argues that the narrator's "elusive thoughts of the President, his inscrutability, operate metaphorically to suggest the difficulty of 'reading' political situations in late-capitalist America" (51).The sentence's ambiguity leaves open the matter of what causes the "difficulty of 'reading'": it may be the narrator's "elusive thoughts," the President's "inscrutability," or some combination of the two. (14) A bit farther on, Maltby notes that the narrator "lacks a critical discourse which can give him an intellectual purchase on political circumstances"; again, the argument fails specifically to indicate the source or cause of the "lack"--though context suggests that ultimately "discourse" is to blame. The narrator's inability to cope with "the activity of political reference" seems to point to a problem with language's concomitant inability to function meaningfully as a medium of political discourse.

However, "The President" includes a specific discursive formulation that points to a structural problem distorting the relations between the President and his constituency. Throughout the fiction, the modifier most consistently attached to the President is "strange." At the outset, the narrator remarks: "I am not altogether sympathetic to the new President. He is, certainly, a strange fellow (only forty-eight inches high at the shoulder). But is strangeness alone enough?" (Unspeakable 147).The additional modifiers that cluster around "strange" and "strangeness" here ("certainly," "alone") indicate that the President's strangeness is his most verifiable quality, the singular characteristic that marks his presence. Etymologically, the term strange is fundamentally linked to the Old French estrange, and through that to the Latin extraneus. Both root terms denote the condition of exteriority, removal, a being-outside that renders the entity so described always just beyond the horizon of inclusion. In the case of Barthelme's fiction, the President's intrinsic strangeness means that the citizen at the center of the American political institutional structure, the one ostensibly occupying the determinate position inside that structure's discourses and functions, is at the same time outside the norms of American social and political life--see, for instance, the narrator's parodie emphasis on the President's diminutive stature. He is at once within and without, at the center and beyond the margins. The positional indeterminacies referenced in the President's strangeness bear marked resemblance to Agamben's discussion of the problematics of the state of exception. Agamben contends that "being-outside and yet belonging: this is the topological structure of the state of exception" (35). In further discussion of the "topological structure," he argues that "the state of exception is neither external nor internal to the juridical order, and the problem of defining it concerns precisely a threshold, or a zone of indifference, where inside and outside do not exclude each other but rather blur with each other" (23).

The state of exception has become an increasingly problematical political order, in that its exceptional status is no longer an exception; rather, it has become a norm. For the Bush administration, the ongoing crisis of the post-9/11 period, crystallized in the administration's conception of a new kind of war, necessitated the extension of presidential powers not for a limited time, identified with the duration of a strictly delimited set of political exigencies, but for an unlimited time. The state of exception was no longer understood to be an exceptional state, but rather became the form of government that guaranteed the very existence of the Exceptional State. Exponents of this emergent paradigm claim for it a tradition grounded in originalist readings of the nation's founding documents. Goldsmith notes the "honorable precedents" of "extra-legal executive action," which he relates to a "tradition of prerogative power" (418) that can be traced back to Jefferson and through him to Locke. Jefferson's oft-cited 20 September 1810 letter to John Colvin argues that the "laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means" (qtd. in Goldsmith 418). Jefferson's letter certainly contains language that prominently echoes Locke--note especially Jefferson's recourse to the term "property," rather than the "pursuit of happiness." Goldsmith's OLC (Office of Legal Counsel) colleague John Yoo argued that, like Jefferson, the Constitutional founders essentially embraced Locke's conception of prerogative power as articulated in the Second Treatise on Government (1689), which invested the Prince with the power to act in the name of the common good, even when such an act violated or abrogated established law. (15) But Schwartz and Huq argue that "even Locke emphasized his prerogative power as an interim device, to be used 'in the infancy of governments' and discarded as legislation covered specific questions with new laws" (176). Instead of creating a provision that would establish a durable state of exception, Locke conceived of prerogative power as an emergency measure, to be relinquished with the establishment of "new laws."

In the case of Barthelme's fiction, we seem to be very far from questions of prerogative powers. But as Agamben notes, inherent in the state of exception is its "illocalization," its existence somewhere "between the juridical order and life" (1), or more properly where they cease coherently to obtain as different zones of being. In spite of its ostensible ties to the executive's responsibility to contend with catastrophes--war, mass civil unrest, the threat of the overthrow of the state from without--that are outside of the rhythms of everyday life, the state of exception has increasingly become a normative mode of governmental order. The outlandish and the foreign blur into the quotidian. In addition to the sense of exteriority coded into the term "strange" is an additional trace of "estrangement" (especially in the Old French estrange) in which the familiar and the alien are brought into sudden relation with each other. In "The President," the narrator's companion Sylvia agrees with his assessment of the President's strangeness; she notes: "'He is a strange fellow, all right. He has some magic charisma which makes people--' She stopped and began again. 'When the band begins to launch into his campaign song, "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," I just ... I can't ...'" (Unspeakable 147-48). The President's "charisma" packs such potent charm that even at a remove from his presence, she can't complete her sentence. Words fail. The specific cause of Sylvia's swoon, "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," is a clear reference to the cynicism that frequently underwrites populist political posturing. Such representational strategies always seek to collapse the distance between those vested with institutional power and those subject to them, to bring the two asymmetrical fields of power together--or at least to give the impression of unity. The moment in Barthelme's fiction is funny, likely because we recognize the echoes of its populist cadences, whether they resonate from Hope, Arkansas, or from Crawford, Texas. Bush was famed for the barbecues he threw at his ranch, where townsfolk could mingle with the White House staff and the occasional foreign dignitary.

There on his ranch, in his brush-breaking Texas guise, Bush sought to wed the romantic figure of the cowpoke with a more immediate and muscular form of rugged individualism that might inspire national stability through its enactment of an absolute single-mindedness, brooking no recourse to the realm of second-guessings or hair-splittings. But what informed the desperado's laconic stolidity emerged not from some lack of facility with words; rather, it was his exceptionalist projection into a realm that was beyond words. In place of words, there was the celebration of force, pressure, shock and awe. To cite shock and awe is only to point to executive power at its most explosively apparent, where all could see it in operation. More insidious is the slow drift that suddenly clarifies in the clicking in the phone line, the kidnapping of the fellow citizen. And in the midst of the slow drift is exactly when texts like Barthelme's are most needed, where words can do their crucial work in revealing the fiction as such. As Agamben notes,
   from the real state of exception in which we live, it is not
   possible to return to the state of law ... for at issue now are the
   very concepts of "state" and "law." But if it is possible to
   attempt to halt the machine, to show its central fiction, this is
   because between violence and law, between life and norm, there is
   no substantial articulation. (87)


The fictions in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, because they must be spoken into being, launch us into the spaces in between. They are not unknown unknowns, the cynical fictions that grease the machine's operation--rather the fictions jam its action, distort its function, and produce experiences that enact its inadequacies. Our awareness of those fictions as such, and our consequent need to develop the critical strategies necessary for their decoding, reveals their contradictions--most crucially between the violence of shock and awe and the executive branch's attempts to recuperate it within the space of law. But as Agamben has demonstrated, that law is not law as such, but only a continuous collapse into a space in which the deployment of power is delegitimized and revealed as brute, blank act.

Hope. Change.

Perhaps not so much. A principal disappointment of the Obama presidency has been the administration's refusal to halt the radical expansions of executive power claimed by the second Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11. Despite the promises of the 2008 campaign--to close Gitmo, to revise the PATRIOT Act, to undo the geopolitical damage of the Bush doctrine--the Obama presidency has been marked by an intensifiaction of domestic security policy and of aggression in foreign affairs. Most troubling has been the administration's pursuit of a geopolitical program of targeted assassinations, performed by drones and military intelligence special forces teams and focusing on ostensible terrorist and Al Qaeda-affiliated figures. This program ignited a fair degree of domestic debate following the 30 September 2011 assassination of Anwar al-Aulaqi, a fundamentalist imam operating out of Yemen who had been identified as an Al Qaeda recruiter and Web spokesman ("Anwar al-Awlaki"); al-Aulaqi's killing was a flashpoint not just because of his media presence--he was an American citizen, born in New Mexico in 1971. (16) Al-Aulaqi s family has recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit in a Federal District Court in Washington, DC; the suit argues that the assassination "violated fundamental human rights, including the right not to be deprived of life without due process of law," a right guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. Other critics of the drone program have been more emphatic. The Nation's foreign policy correspondent Jeremy Scahill accused Obama of committing "murder ... mass murder" (Jones).

The program of targeted assassinations has been touted, by both the administration and some pundits on the left, as a credential, burnishing the President's tough, hawkish stance on national security and foreign policy. George Packer, blogging for The New Yorker, argues that "on terrorism, [Obama has] devastated the top ranks of Al Qaeda, and if legally dubious drone attacks are his means for doing so--well, life and foreign policy are full of unpleasant trade-offs, and this is one I am willing to take"; moreover, Packer notes that on foreign policy he "trustfs] Obama more than any politician in my lifetime. (And on that count, [Obama is] more like JFK than any other President)." (17) Packer's language is fairly informal, but it's still striking just how much power and agency Packer concentrates in the figure of Obama: as if Obama himself has, ninja-like, "devastated the top ranks of Al Qaeda"; as if Obama somehow directly operated the drones (they're "his means").

Pronouns are anxious things; they shift. Barthelme's "Report" demonstrates how that shifting can signify with subtlety and power, particularly in times during which affiliation or alliance become essential elements of public identities and public discourses. But in Packer's discourse, as in Johnson's 1970 interview, quoted above, pronouns are suffered to run riot, to expand beyond the bounds of fact and coherence. They acquire powers. For Packer, the vital point seems to be that Obama's willingness to publicly assert a sense of responsibility for the drone attack program renders Obama more trustworthy than any president since JFK. But the involuted dynamic of that claim of ultimate responsibility masks a violence just as absolute, answering to nothing beyond itself.

A New York Times story published in May 2012 seemed designed to buttress this narrative. The story publicized a "kill list" that designated individuals for drone strikes and assassination; most striking, the story emphasized the President's insistence that he make the final call, that he be ultimately and specifically responsible for the decision to kill (Becker). More skeptically, Katrina vanden Heuvel has declared the program "an assertion of presidential prerogative" that "offends the spirit and letter of Constitution and shreds the global laws of war." But the program isn't just an "assertion"; it's proven. It's part of a now-standard practice and worldview that concentrates American political power in the Chief Executive's office. Executive function privileges the "I"; the question of what this means for the collective "we" remains to be determined.

Works cited

Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. 2003. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.

Barthelme, Donald. "Culture, etc." 1960. Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme. Ed. Kim Herzinger. New York: Random House. 1999.

--. "Florence Green Is 81." 1963. Flying to America. New York: Counterpoint, 2008.310-18.

--. Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts. New York: Farrar, 1968.

Becker, Jo, and Scott Shane. "Secret 'Kill List' Proves a Test of Obamas Principles and Will." The New York Times 29 May 2012: Al.

Coogan, Tim Pat. The IRA. New York: Fontana, 1987.

Davidson, Carl. "Toward a Student Syndicalist Movement or, University Reform Revisited." 1966. Antiauthoritarian. 6 November 2013.

Daugherty, Tracy. Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme. New York: St. Martin s, 2009.

"DoD News Briefing--Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers." US Department of Defense. 12 February 2002. 29July 2009.

"DoD News Briefing: Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers." US Department of Defense 11 April 2003. 30July 2012.

Dohrn, Bernardine. "White Mother Country Radicals." New Left Notes 29 July 1968.

Donum, John. "Donald Barthelme: The Modernist Uprising." Southwest Review 75.1 (1990): 95-112.

Evans, Walter. "Comanches and Civilization in Donald Barthelme's 'The Indian Uprising.'" Arizona Quarterly. 42.1 (1986): 45-52.

Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantam, 1987.

Goldsmith, Jack. The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment inside the Bush Administration. New York: Norton, 2007.

Herr, Michael. Dispatches. 1977. New York: Vintage, 1991.

Jacobs, Ron. The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. New York: Verso, 1997.

Jones, Andrew. "Scahill: Obama Has 'Murdered' People with Drone Strikes." The Raw Story. 2 June 2012. 6 November 2013.

Kearns Goodwin, Doris. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: Harper, 1976.

Klonsky, Mike. "Towards a Revolutionary Youth Movement." New Left Notes 31 December 1968. 25July 2012.

Kolko, Gabriel. Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

Leland, John. "Remarks Re-Marked: Barthelme, What Curios of Signs!" boundary 2 5.3 (1977): 795-812.

Lichtblau, Eric. "Bush Lets US Spy on Callers without Courts." New York Times 16 December 2006.Al.

Loughlin, Sean. "Bush Warns Militants Who Attack US Troops in Iraq." CNN. com 3 July 2003. 11 June 2012.

Maltby, Paul. Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania P, 1991.

Markoff, John. "Poindexter's Still a Technocrat, Still a Lightning Rod." New York Times 20 January 2003. 20July 2009.

McCaffery, Larry. The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1982.

McHale, Brian, and Moshe Ron. "On Not-Knowing How to Read Barthelme's 'The Indian Uprising.'" Review of Contemporary Fiction 11.2 (1991): 50-68.

Medvecky, Craig. "Reconstructing Masculinity: Donald Barthelme's Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts." Contemporary Literature 48.4 (2007): 55479.

Menand, Louis. "Saved from Drowning: Barthelme Reconsidered." The New Yorker 23 February 2009. 68-76.

Packer, George. "A Foreign Policy President." The New Yorker 12 June 2012. 25 July 2012.

Pease, Donald E. The New American Exceptionalism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2009.

Roe, Barbara. Donald Barthelme: A Study of the Shorter Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Rudd, Mark. "Open Letter to Uncle Grayson." Columbia '68 22 April 1968. 17 July 2009.

Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur M. The Imperial Presidency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

Schwarz, Jr., Frederick A. O., and Aziz Z. Huq. Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror. New York: New Press, 2007.

Seely, Hart. "The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld." Slate Magazine 2 April 2003. 6 November 2013.

Trussler, Michael. "Literary Artifacts: Ekphrasis in the Short Fiction of Donald Barthelme, Salman Rushdie, and John Edgar Wideman." Contemporary Literature 41.2 (2000): 252-90.

Vanden Heuvel, Katrina. "Obama's Kill List is Unchecked Presidential Power." The Washington Post 12 June 2012. 25July 2012.

Varon, Jeremy. Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army

Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004.

Wilde, Alan. "Barthelme Unfair to Kierkegaard: Some Thoughts on Modern and Postmodern Irony." boundary 2 5.1 (1976): 45-70.

Zeitlin, Michael. "Donald Barthelme and the President of the United States." Productive Postmodernism: Consuming Histories and Cultural Studies. Ed. John Duvall. Albany: SUNY Press, 2012. 61-74.

Notes

(1.) In addition to Bush's post-9/11 extra-constitutional policies, Agamben briefly mentions Lincoln's Civil War-era suspension of habeus corpus and F.D.R.'s 1942 internment of Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals as especially problematic examples of the invocation of the state of exception in modern US history.

(2.) Below I will analyze specific critical and theoretical works that provide inadequate readings of several Barthelme stories most crucial to this present study. For broadly representative examples, see Alan Wilde, Larry McCaffery, and, more recently, Michael Trussler's reading of Barthelme's "The Balloon."

(3.) "The Indian Uprising" was first published in the March 6, 1965 issue of The New Yorker, but the story reached a broader audience--both nationally and internationally--when it was included in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts.

I'll be referring to this second version of the story, which includes Barthelme's idiosyncratic punctuation scheme, over which he conducted an especially long and tedious editorial debate with Roger Angeli, then fiction editor at The New Yorker. For an account of Barthelme's struggle for editorial control of the story, see Tracy Daugherty.

(4.) For examples, see John Domini and Craig Medvecky.

(5.) Paul Maltby offers a similar account of the story:
   That Barthelme should figure his linguistic insurrection in the
   imagery of an Indian uprising is no mere caprice. In America's
   mythical imagination, the Indian stands for the antithesis of white
   'civilization'; he/she represents the values which obtain on the
   other side of the Frontier. Furthermore, the other side--the
   wilderness side--has a psychological dimension. It is the site of
   that which cannot safely be said.... The uprising may be read as a
   repressed language erupting into consciousness, a surprise attack
   on those areas of the psyche controlled by white, bourgeois
   meaning-systems. (80)


While Maltby like Evans, contends that the Indian's representational power is bound up in "values," he more specifically grounds his analysis in a contest over the semiotic forms that structure American culture. However, Maltby argues that we should understand the terrain upon which the story's struggle is staged as primarily "psychological," rather than political; the Indians stage a "surprise attack" not on a socially articulated space, but on "areas of the psyche" at play in some second-level contest between "meaning-system[s]."

(6.) To clarify my complaint quickly: Is this "the Vietnam era" of 1965, when the story was first published, or of 1968, when the story was bound in Uspeakable Practics, Unnatural Acts? That is, is the unrest of "the people of the ghetto" part of the Civil Rights struggle, or is it the unrest of 1968, after Martin Luther King had expanded Civil Rights rhetoric to include positions on US foreign policy and on the Vietnam War in particular? Or is it the unrest of the spring of 1968, following King's assassination, when more strident voices (Hampton's, Newton's, to name only a couple) echoed in the vacuum of his silence? These distinctions make a critical difference.

(7.) McHale and Ron offer this allegorical reading of "The Indian Uprising" as one among many potentiated by the story's complicated range of reference. They indicate that their attempt to produce an exhaustive "close reading" of the story was frustrated by this seemingly endless proliferation of narratives and codes: "This is not a very satisfactory outcome. We have ended up, against our own will and intentions, reproducing the poststructuralist recipe reading, reducing the text to a cultural cliche: viz., 'The Indian Uprising' is 'about' its own unknowability" (63).

(8.) For Herr and for his reportorial subjects--the Marines and Army troops fighting in Vietnam--the more compelling element of the Western is summed in the formulation "Wild West," with its implications of lawlessness and chaos; the unpredictable and ethically explosive nature of the soldiers' experiences in country frequently outmatched West Point commanders' understanding of the social and logistical terrain upon which they were fighting. Wayne's Green Berets wishes to transform the Special Forces troops into contemporary versions of John Chance and Ringo Kid, unambiguously heroic representatives of the Western "value system" McHale and Ron cite. But the more appropriate character to summon, which Herr's book ably deploys, would be the ambivalent Capt. Kirby Yorke, who Wayne portrayed in Fort Apache (1948); Yorke is a culturally and tactically savvy man hampered by the craven orders of an inexperienced West Point martinet, Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), who leads many of Yorke's men into unnecessary slaughter. See Herr's Dispatches, especially page 46.

(9.) See my assertion in this article's second paragraph that Bush's description of himself as "the decider" has a precedent in Johnson.

(10.) For analysis of the importance of the Columbia student strike in the formation of Weatherman's conceptions of revolution and social justice, see especially Ron Jacobs, The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground.

(11.) The full question to which Rumsfeld replied was provided by Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News: "In regard to Iraq weapons of mass destruction and terrorists, is there any evidence to indicate that Iraq has attempted to or is willing to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction? Because there are reports that there is no evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and some of these terrorist organizations" ("DoD News Briefing"). Rumsfeld's answer was famously awarded a 2003 Foot in Mouth Award by the Plain English Campaign and has been offered as an example of found poetry in a column by Hart Seely ("The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld").

(12.) John Poindexter was no stranger to clandestine intelligence activities, given his implication in the operations at the heart of the Iran-Contra scandal of Ronald Reagan's second presidential term. For a recent review of Poindexter's work at the NSA and in the Defense department, see John Markoff.

(13.) Of course, in the process, Congress has extended the reach of the NSA in its intelligence-gathering activities, with assurances that agents will remain within the bounds of established legal and jurisdictional procedures. For full accounts, see Eric Lichtblau's series of articles for The New York Times, beginning on December 16, 2006, "Bush Lets US Spy on Callers without Courts."

(14.) More recently, Michael Zeitlin has analyzed the story's articulation of the presidents unknowability in terms of the psychological symbolics promulgated by the postmodern media environment: "The President may be nothing but an image inseparable from the technology that projects it, but this does not prevent the image from assuming a powerful, personal, intimate proximity, indeed from taking up residence in the agitated souls of those whose lives, as a consequence, unfold in perpetual relation to it" (66).

(15.) A staunch originalist, Yoo claims that our "understanding of the Constitution's allocation of powers between Congress and the President is informed by the unwritten British Constitution's allocation of powers between parliament and Crown. The Framers lived under the British Constitution as colonists, and in drafting their own Constitution they borrowed heavily from the legal and political concepts that formed the foundation principles of British constitutional government. Significant departures from the framework of the British government were explicitly spelled out in the Constitution's text" (qtd. in Schwartz 163). According to this logic, without the Founders' inclusion of any "explicit departure" from British theories of monarchial powers, their founding documents then implicitly embrace the monarch's ability to override the legislative powers of Parliament and vest that ability in the executive branch.

(16.) The drone attack also killed another American citizen, Pakistani-born Samir Khan.

(17.) The shoulder-shrugging tone Packer takes about "unpleasant trade-offs," registering a putative set of stubborn facts about the world, for me resonates uncomfortably with Rumsfeld's 2003 insistence that "Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things" ("DoD News Briefing"). So goes public rhetoric in the state of exception.
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Date:Jun 22, 2014
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