What is living and what is dead in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, or, National Treasure and the state of public texts.
"The Revolutionary Tradition and Its Lost Treasure" On Revolution
THE HOME DEPOT, CAPTAIN KIRK, AND THE DOI
On 4 July 2001, the Declaration of Independence (DOI) Road Trip celebrated the second day of its official launch in Philadelphia. Sponsored by The Home Depot and founded by television and film producer Norman Lear, the Road Trip sought to bring "the 'People's Document' to the people" by carrying a Dunlap copy of the Declaration around the United States. The DOI Road Trip was specifically geared toward "young people" aiming "to inspire them to participate in civic activism, to exercise their rights, and above all, to vote" Throughout the tour, creative, even bizarre ways of presenting the text were practised, including a "once-in-a-lifetime" presentation of the DOI at a NASCAR race at the Daytona International Speedway on 4 July 2003, in which the copy of the Declaration was accompanied by Tony Stewart racing Home Depot's DOI-themed Chevrolet. But during the launch two years earlier, the people were presented with an even stranger spectacle, for the centrepiece "was an unprecedented live dramatic reading of the Declaration featuring distinguished actors, including Mel Gibson, Morgan Freeman, Kathy Bates, Michael Douglas, Whoopi Goldberg, and Kevin Spacey" The performance of the text of the DOI was broadcast nationally, and live, by ABC for their Fourth of July special. (1)
It was, of course, a simpler time. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were still two months away, and when Mel Gibson began the reading with "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands" his words resonated more with his performance in Braveheart than they bumped uncomfortably against his disturbing rants to police. That summer, the road trip was simply resurrecting a particular text--the copy of the DOI bought by Lear from a man in Philadelphia who found it underneath a painting he bought "for four dollars at a flea market in 1989"--while bringing-the-People's-Document-to-the-people in a national political context still humming with complacent positivity after the boom of the late 1990s. Perhaps this accounts for the sombre clothing and serious facial expressions of the actors, who read the DOI from large theatrical folios, practising a kind of simulacrum of a grave dramatic reading. The incredible difficulty, indeed absurdity, of specifically performing a text that was never written to be entertaining, can perhaps be granted the gravitas it desperately seeks by virtue of the high stakes assigned to the reading itself, that is, the determination to reach the young people and get them to vote.
But as a dramatic performance, the strangeness of the reading dominates any other impression. Not only is the language of the DOI awkwardly out of place in a twenty-first-century television broadcast, the serious tone of the reading underscores the fact that the precise political position the DOI addresses can only be applied anachronistically to today. The dramatic reading of the denunciation, the list of grievances against the King, is (unsurprisingly) especially bizarre. Drawing on Pauline Maier's work on the making of the declaration, American Scripture, Jodi Dean explains that, even at the time of the writing of the declaration, the grievances were considered lacking in what a contemporary writer called a "lack of 'truth and sense'" and were instead simply evidence of George IIIS tyranny (55). In fact, "Maier points out that the most common method of proclaiming the Declaration was to read it before large audiences. These readings presented audiences with a pattern of actions indicative of tyranny, a pattern that today we might think of as a conspiracy" (55). Such readings, perhaps, made sense in a time when literacy rates were considerably lower than they are today, when the Declaration had to be sold for the revolution to succeed, and when, by virtue of the context of violent revolution, dramatic emphasis was not as necessary. While our twenty-first-century actors do yeoman's work trying to make their reading dramatic and exciting, the DOI still comes across as, well, very texty. The Home Depot and ABC clearly meant the DOI to stand, rather fantastically, as a motivating text today, but even the most generous viewer must acknowledge that the performance, as interesting as it is, does little to inspire.
The dramatic reading is not even unprecedented or unique, for it (unintentionally) recalls another awkward, supposedly inspirational dramatic performance of a similar public text. In the 1968 episode of Star Trek titled "The Omega Glory," William Shatner, in the iconic role of Captain Kirk, was called upon to perform the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. The context is absurd, appropriate to the genre of pop sci-fi in which the show participated, but its relation to the 2001 reading of the DOI is uncanny, because Shatner's reading, while different from that of Gibson and his celebrity colleagues, is not quite as different as it should be. In the episode, Kirk and his colleagues of the starship Enterprise visit a planet where two groups, the Yangs and the Kohms, are locked in a terrible war. Against Starfleet regulations, Captain Ron Tracey has used his advanced weapons to interfere in the war, and Kirk must find a way to stop him. But the meaning of the show turns from a tale about the relationship between responsible exploration and imperial exploitation when Kirk realizes something very strange about the Yangs and their enemies, the Kohms.
Earlier in the episode, Kirk unintentionally offended one of the Yangs by using the word "freedom," which they considered a "worship word." Later, at the climax of the episode, Kirk (drawing rather improbably on evidence including skin colour) speculates that "Yangs" is a slur of the word "Yankees" and "Kohms" another way of saying "Communists." On this planet, the Cold War was played out just like on earth, except here the (yellow) Communists won, driving the Yangs to live in villages like (red) "Indians." During a trial, the Yangs bring out one of their sacred texts, recite an incoherent version of the U.S. pledge of allegiance, and present a distressed U.S. flag, confirming Kirk's unlikely speculation. When Kirk sees the document, he realizes it is the U.S. Constitution, and, after reading the preamble out loud, lectures the Yangs on its significance, noting that it is not a sacred religious document but instead one meant for all the people, including the Kohms.
Shatner's performance of the Constitution is more hilarious, and more courageous, than his colleagues' later performance of the DOI. Delivered in Shatner's famously halting style, it begins with its own inspirational preamble, explaining the history of the text:
This was not written for chiefs! Hear me, hear this! Among my people, we carry many such words as this, from many lands, many worlds. Many are equally good, and are as well respected. But wherever we have gone, no words have said this thing of importance in quite this way. Look at these three words written larger than the rest, with a special pride never written before, or since, tall words proudly saying "We the People." That which you call "E Plebnista" was not written for the chiefs or the kings or the warriors or the rich or powerful, but for all the people! Down the centuries you have slurred the meaning of the words "We the People of the United States."
Shatner dramatically performs the preamble with his right arm thrown forward and his left shoulder pulled back in a familiar, histrionic Shakespearean stage posture. The right arm pumps violently, twice, at the end of the reading when Shatner tries to add some drama, overemphasizing "ordain and establish." Following the reading, Kirk shoves his right index finger aggressively into the chest of the Yang chief, explains that the words of the text must apply to the enemy Kohms as well, and shouts "They must apply to everyone, or they mean nothing! Do you understand?"
A politely frustrated Yang chief says he does not fully understand, adding that "the holy words will be obeyed, I swear it!" Kirk then puts the text in the chief's hands and struts away purposefully. The scene is overloaded with racialized ideas of progress that are accompanied by familiar notions of liberal enlightenment utopian universality. The political and ideological implications of the scene may seem rather obvious, but they are worth rehearsing, especially in anticipation of our move forward to reading other performances and lives of the DOI later in this paper. In "The Omega Glory" the Yangs have regressed racially away from whiteness to a noble, strong, slow, redness--colour and diction mark their distance from the white Yankees from whom they de-evolved. In the familiar liberal script, this difference is meant to underscore similarity when the Yangs recognize the value of the (literally) universal text, even if they don't understand it. That is to say, although red is different from yellow is different from white, and although races are structured hierarchically, all colours are simply stages in the same chain, which will ultimately realize its utopic limit when people of different races and genders all sit on the bridge of the Enterprise, all conforming to a jumble of military and middle-class codes of conduct that signify as the internal, progressive whiteness we will all achieve at the end of history.
The uncanny similarities between Shatner's reading and the 2001 ABC group reading index the inventory to which I gesture in the title of this paper: what is living and what is dead in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Both readings, in their context, imply that the text is dead or dying and has suffered from being slurred over the years. The regrettable decline, it is implied, can be remedied with professional dramatic readings, delivered by well-known actors, who will demonstrate and reproduce the text's gravitas and value while raising the stakes, fantastically, to include the future of democracy and freedom. The problem with the solution is the manifest incongruity of performing a reading of a political tract as if it were a grave dramatic text. The incongruity in both readings is the dominant element of the performances.
The incongruity is indeed obvious, but it reveals what is at stake for the performances and for this paper: it marks the contradictory perceptions of the text as an ancient map for our political future, and it indexes the contradictory hopes for the text as a civic, progressive, utopian statement that is also an icon for secular worship. The contradictions between the lives and deaths of the DOI explored in this paper, in turn, show us the unsteady state of public texts today (marked, perhaps dialectically, by their hyperpreservation in expensive, well-protected archives) and reveal the alternatives available to us as we struggle to make our public texts work for us.
That unsteady state is, in a word, weird. For Norman Lear, Home Depot, ABC, and Star Trek, the DOI and Constitution are lost or slurred texts that need to be recovered and enunciated. In the case of The Home Depot, one of the motivations for the DOI Road Trip was the discovery of a precious, lost copy of the text found by accident underneath a painting sold at a flea market in Philadelphia (a city of special symbolic significance for narratives of U.S. independence). The discovery of the lost text then provided a fantastic opportunity for Mel Gibson and his colleagues to remind us, gravely, of the significance of the DOI. For Star Trek, the Constitution was not materially lost, in fact it was worshipfully preserved, but its meaning was lost, which for Kirk amounted to the same thing. In this context, Shatner's performance of the preamble is an effort to bring the text back to life through enunciation, the liberal democratic counterpart to magical incantation. The state of public texts, here, is that they are lost, recovered, living, dead, sacred, and public, with knowledge locked inside them that has become confused over time. They are also potent symbols of democracy past, present, and future, local and universal, so that the material circulation of the paper and ink, and the uncanny repetitive performance of the words, signifies as a universal democratic service and duty. This exaggerated state, of course, rests in uneasy relation to the "actual words" of the text, which today anyone with access to an internet connection can read whenever they like.
In each dimension of this state in which we find public texts, the DOI and the Constitution are treasures. Indeed, there is a potent economic dimension to the lives and deaths of these texts that seems to inform their current state. In the case of "The Omega Glory," the Constitution is read, perhaps, not only to remind the Yangs of their political potential and duty but also to confirm Kirk's liberal, enlightened opposition to his colleague's effort to unfairly use advanced weapons technology to secure the planet's wealth (the planet may hold the key to achieving immortality). In the case of The Home Depot DOI Road Trip, however, the economic dimension intensely overdetermines the text's performance and circulation. The copy of the DOI was found by a democratic, consuming nobody in a painting bought at a flea market, fulfilling one of the most basic, compelling, pedestrian fantasies of finding value in a low-odds treasure hunt. The text was then bought by a notable somebody, Norman Lear, and so rose up the democratic ranks to the hands of a rich celebrity. This rise-up-the-ranks movement informs the drama in the account on the Lear Center's website:
A Philadelphia man bought a painting for four dollars at a flea market in 1989. When investigating a tear in the painting, he found what he thought was a reproduction of the Declaration. A friend later persuaded him to have Sotheby's evaluate it, and they declared it one of the original Dunlap broadside copies of the Declaration of Independence. When TV producer and philanthropist Norman Lear learned that the Dunlap broadside would be auctioned, he saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring it to the American people. Lear purchased it and development of the project now known as the Declaration of Independence Road Trip began. Former United States Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter served as honorary co-chairs of the project and The Home Depot was the proud sponsor.
In this story, after rising from a lucky nobody to a celebrity, the copy of the DOI rises again to the presence of former presidents, and, finally, to the benevolent sponsorship of The Home Depot.
At this lofty height, the narrative includes a nobody citizen, a celebrity producer and philanthropist, presidents, and a corporation, perhaps all of the major characters in the fantastic cast of the late republic in late modernity in late capitalism (with the exception of a fictional space explorer, I suppose). The Home Depot's news release celebrating the "Nation's 227th Birthday at Daytona International Speedway" provides some details of the DOI Road Trip, and a useful description of the company's own role:
About The Home Depot Founded in 1978, The Home Depot(R) is the world's largest home improvement specialty retailer and the second largest retailer in the United States, with fiscal 2002 sales of $58.2 billion. The company employs approximately 315,000 associates and has 1588 stores in 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, eight Canadian provinces, and Mexico. Its stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE: HD) and is included in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and Standard & Poor's 500 Index.
The impressive statistics index the power of the corporation (its nominal control of the employees it humbly identifies as "associates") and suggest the powerful articulation of citizenship, politics, capitalist economics, and the home. (2) The term "improvement," moreover, echoes the effort of the Road Trip to improve the nation by reminding it of its heroic, inspirational, sacred, founding document.
The modern relations of the DOI to vast riches, to celebrities, to presidents, to regimes of discovery, preservation, and conservation, and to popular television and film, are all celebrated, and confused, in Disney's remarkable, weird popular film National Treasure, released in November 2004 near the beginning of the Christmas consuming season. Directed by Jon Turteltaub and starring Nicolas Cage, the film is a generic mash-up of Indiana Jones-style adventurous, benevolent treasure hunting, and Da Vinci Code-style adventurous conspiracy investigation, where the hero's academic life informs, but is trumped by, his dedication to the preservation, and revelation, of history as it is manifest in lost, precious objects. The precious object at stake in the film is a national treasure, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and another national treasure, a Templar horde of valuable objects hidden by the nation's founding fathers. What connects the DOI to the horde are the clues to the location of the treasure that are written in invisible ink on the back of the DOI.
The film is worth working through in detail because it brings together, in all of its exuberant, productive, overdetermined, wild, careless fantasies precisely what is living and what is dead in the Declaration of Independence today. Its implicit understanding of the DOI links that founding public text to all of the performances, celebrations, and hopes discussed so far in this paper, revealing more of why the text needs to be dramatically performed, even when such performance is absurd, and why the text needs to be circulated for civic improvement, even as it has to be preserved as a precious object of historical value. Antonio Negri has written, following Marx, that the "the reactionaries tell the truth about the object they love" (19), and this is certainly true for Disney's celebration of the DOI. So, to play on another comment of Negri's, let us enter the popular fantasies of the lives and deaths of the DOI "not to make it a game, but to see how much reality it grasps" (19).
Your heart will pound, but your face won't melt off
In National Treasure, the hero, Benjamin Franklin Gates, played by Nicolas Cage, seeks to uncover a great treasure that, in his family's patriarchal lore, was hidden by the U.S. founding fathers. The treasure itself is ancient and was passed on to the founders through a chain of ownership that can be traced from the Freemasons to the Knights Templar and beyond. Through a series of adventures, Ben discovers a set of clues on the back of "the" Declaration of Independence, that is, the copy of the DOI preserved by the National Archives. The clues are essentially a map to buried treasure. At the really, really happy ending of the film, Ben finds the treasure, defeats his enemies, gets the girl, and becomes rich and famous, too.
When I first watched the movie, I was (hilariously) disturbed by what I saw as a kind of definitive end to some of the good things about the republican tradition in the United States. In fact, my first thoughts about this paper were to argue that the current, dominant state of the DOI in the United stands for a kind of postapocalyptic relation to public texts, after the end of history, a state indexed by images of nutty Tea Party activists frantically waving papers at town hall meetings, shouting something about getting back to the Constitution, practising a simulacrum of town-hall political activism in the time of postpostpostmodernity. The movie itself suggests a not so remarkable worship of the document as a sacred text that, because it belongs to everyone, must be seen by everyone and must be simultaneously protected and preserved, in elaborate and expensive fashion, by the state and its devoted citizens. But the movie also suggests, or so I thought, that worship of the DOI is insufficient--its value to the public as a historical artifact isn't grave or weighty enough, so for it to be the central object of an adventure narrative, its symbolic value, its glorious liberal publicness, must be supplemented with straight economic value, a glorious liberal privateness. That is why the revolutionary writing on the front, which is clear and open and by the people, is contrasted with the economic writing on the back, which is hidden and closed and by a secret society. The only limit to the fantasy is its pedestrian secularity. As sacred as the DOI may be, there is no worry that looking at the text will melt your face off, as the decomposed tablets do in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here, a Jeffersonian idealism remains preserved, for, as Arendt reminds us, Jefferson expressed an "occasional, and sometimes violent, antagonism against the Constitution and particularly against those who 'look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched'" (Arendt 225). Indeed, the change in attitude of Ben's father and Abigail Chase, Ben's academic partner (both of whom are roped in to the adventure during and after the theft), is marked precisely when they see the value of touching the paper with lemon juice, and breathing on it, to reveal the invisible ink. Touching the paper never causes Ben any anxiety, but only a brief moment or two of awe. The text's secular materiality, it appears, is its only fantastic limit.
In any case, this was my first impression, worried, liberal, and pretentious. But the more I considered the movie for what it was telling me about the current state of the doi, and of public texts in general, the more threads of plot and symbol I started to recognize, and the more threads I recognized the more knotty the film became. For instance, the secret societies hid the treasure, valued today at $10 billion, precisely because they thought it was too much wealth for one person to have alone, especially a monarch. They acted privately, then, in order to protect the revolutionary publicness established by the declaration and war of independence, from a kind of monarchy or oligarchy that capitalism, in its most primitive, piratical form, always threatens to establish. So their secret societies, which directed the future of politics and political economy, were actually acting in the interest of preserving the public thing so lately created. The simple function of this in the film, I gather, is to raise the temperature by letting admirers of the founding fathers, and entertainment-seeking moviegoers, have it both ways, so that we can all ambivalently, or alternately, value the nobility of publicness and responsible, equitable distribution of wealth, while also getting a thrill from the perfect fantasy of accumulation and private wealth that is the buried horde of treasure, a figure that in its burial indexes (progressively) the deadness of labour that is money, of pure exchange value, and that also indexes in its recovery (conservatively) the capacity to dig up the deadness and put it back into exciting, perverted circulation.
The film resolves this contradiction creatively. Like his generic ancestor Indiana Jones, Ben has little interest in keeping the sacred objects of history for himself: he is as happy to give the treasure (which includes the library of Alexandria, the pure nostalgic textual fantasy) to the museums of the world, as he is grateful to return the DOI to the FBI (whose principle representative in the film is a mason). He and his friends, however, do keep 1 percent of the $10 billion, so that at the end of the film his tech-savvy factotum is driving an expensive sports car, while Ben and his girlfriend have purchased a historically significant mansion. The characters' happy, capitalist magnificence is determined by virtue of the characters' benevolence: the heroes get the joy of living the life of the 1 percent because they are democratic enough to only keep 1 percent of the exchange value of the treasure. The film, we can pretty safely conclude, constantly works to satisfy, positively, both sides of the political unconscious.
But let us move away for the moment from the treasure that is the horde and back to the treasure that is the DOI itself. In her chapter in On Revolution called "The Revolutionary Tradition and Its Lost Treasure" Hannah Arendt identifies the lost treasure of revolution (in an elaborated discussion of the American Revolution, the U.S. Constitution, and the French Revolution) as the spirit of revolution itself, "a new spirit and the spirit of beginning something new" (272). The critique is that this spirit "failed to find its appropriate institution" (272), which Arendt proposes (among other things) may have been the town-hall meeting where citizens could participate in the public formation of opinion (which is distinct from public opinion) and so participate in politics more often than once every few years in elections that merely represent them. In National Treasure, this revolutionary spirit is captured in the family Gates, whose ancestor, working as a menial, received a clue to the treasure from the last surviving signer of the DOI. Through the generations, and at great personal financial and social cost, the family keeps the idea of the treasure alive, with the exception of Ben's father, played by Jon Voight, who has calculated that the search for the treasure has been more trouble than it is worth. Primarily, Ben's search costs him academic respect--he is considered a nutty kook--but as the film progresses, and he steals the DOI, the cost comes to include, potentially, his freedom. The revolutionary spirit invests him through his actual link to the signing of the DOI, to the map on its back, to the treasure itself, to his revolutionary act of stealing the DOI to protect it (from the baddies who want the treasure all for themselves), and to his willingness to risk money, social standing, and freedom for the sake of the principles of the revolution. In the end, he gets an abundance of all of these things, validating his sacrifice but also negating it (he risked a sacrifice, but never had to make one). This latter contradiction finds its counterpart at the beginning of the movie, when the young Ben is ushered in to the family responsibility to find the treasure when his grandfather dubs him a knight in a mock, basically monarchical ceremony. Perhaps there isn't too much to read into this--it is a Disney movie, after all, and princes and princesses and knights and such are their stock in trade--but, then again, the film itself asks us to read for invisible things. In any case, the Gates family maintenance of their link to the revolutionary war marks exactly the lost treasure identified by Arendt: Ben is willing to challenge the government but only to find old things, not to create something new. In the absence of an appropriate public institution for reproducing the revolutionary spirit and its newness, all Ben has is the DOI. Perhaps the insufficiency of the DOI as a national treasure is not expressed in the economic value of the economic treasure but, instead, in the ancient value of the treasure. The DOI just isn't old enough to have the power to melt your face off.
Conducting a different kind of inventory than the one pursued so far in this paper, but speaking directly to the matters of value that complicate the lives and deaths of the DOI, Eric Lott reads National Treasure as a figure for American literary study in the opening decade of the twenty-first century. During his summary of the film, Lott arrives at the point where Gates and his soon-to-be-enemy, Ian, discover through clues and riddles that there is an invisible treasure map on the back of the DOI:
Ian blithely suggests they steal it; Ben swears he won't let Ian do it, a sort of mimic denunciation of British corruption. When Ian threatens to kill Ben, the latter reminds him of his knowledge of further clues and of his decoding expertise. Ian is determined to boost the Declaration; Ben is determined to stop him. The race is on to get to the document and, as it were, reread it. If there's a better recent allegory of the stakes of American literary study in an age of global imperialism, I am sure I don't know it. National Treasure conveys an impacted nexus of literary desire, encoding and decoding, generational (not to say oedipal) as well as national conflict in the field of interpretation, dynastic ambition, global capital, and U.S. democracy. (109)
Much of the argument focuses on the DOI's relation to value and the production of value; Lott notes that the founders are (in the movie) "founders of a field of value, their foundational document a guide to political, national, and cultural, if not financial worth; their legatees, and the Gates's real-world counterparts, are those who toil in the field of American literary studies" (110). While I think the argument is forced, there is something compelling and funny about seeing Gates as a representative of the specially vexed moment we find ourselves in today at the university. As governments cynically work to reduce the cost of public university education by devaluing professorial labour, and specifically the labour of the humanities, all we can do is plead that without us the people will be left without any guide to wealth. But what is more relevant to our discussion here are Lott's questions about what is living and dead in the DOI, that is, "Is the Declaration merely a cover story for the pursuit of global capital? Or is the economic world reversed and the Declaration a guide to global treasure's redistribution?" (110). Ultimately, Lott concludes that the movie, "whatever its witlessness--and let's just say there's plenty of it--constantly questions the relation of national (textual) value to global resources" (199).
This is true, but the movie also raises, in its revelatory, postapocalyptic witlessness, specifically textual questions that remind us of the ontological struggles we saw at the beginning of this paper, when actors tried to transform the words of public, political texts into the materials of dramatic performance. The first struggle is the one of the text on the front, that is to say, the struggle to determine if there is indeed such a thing as the declaration. The answer, predictably, is yes and no--no, because in terms of ink and paper, there are only copies, versions of the DOI, but also yes, because everyone has more or less agreed to see the DOI in the National Archives as the declaration. This publicly determined singularity, this thing that makes one copy the definite article, is why it can be stolen, why it can have a treasure map on the back, and why it can be the object of secular worship. At the same time, this thing that makes the text singular, the public, is always resisting that singularity, always asking for political alternatives and the telling of fantasies, producing the tension that only appears to be inherent to the text.
The second struggle, and one directly related to conducting an inventory, is about the back of the DOI, or, to put it more concretely, about the invisible recto-verso relation between the DOI and (global) capital. Does National Treasure put a map on the back that leads to treasure, buried beneath Wall Street, because the public value of the DOI is not sufficient to sustain an action movie? Or is the invisible map to treasure on the back of the DOI a clumsy but necessary recognition of an economic dimension to politics in modernity and, specifically, of the near invisibility of that relation in modernity's founding public texts? I am inclined to conclude, provisionally, that the answer to these questions lies in recognizing the political and economic invisibility of the most lucrative national treasure of all. What is living in all of these fantastic representations of the DOI is a suspicion that what is behind the foundation of the state, and what supports Wall Street from below, is slavery. The peculiar institution is completely absent from the film, marking it as the invisible motive for the foundation of the state and of the economic relations represented by Wall Street. That this very recognizable national treasure has to be represented in the fantastic form of a Templar horde of shiny loot only confirms its presence. All of this is to say that, what is living and what is dead today in the DOI is the same thing that has been living and dead since the foundation of the United States, that is, the invisibility of the durable, continuing influence of white supremacy on Washington and capital. This is the relation the Gates family preserves, crucially, without knowing it.
The Super Bowl and the revolutionary spirit
Four times since 2002, Fox Sports Super Bowl Sunday has produced a televised performance of the DOI. Their own media release lets us know in clear terms what is at stake for them, and for the nation, in these presentations:
The Super Bowl is to unofficial holidays what the Fourth of July is to those officially recognized. So as 100 million Americans gather to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6, FOX Sports offers an all-new presentation of the Declaration of Independence in what has become a fox SUPER BOWL SUNDAY tradition. (3)
The language is appropriately vague in literal meaning (the first sentence is simply confusing) and sharply clear in spirit, insofar as Fox Sports is trying to articulate the nation and the Fourth of July to Fox and the Super Bowl, with the DOI as a mediating, performative text that will profitably join the interests of the media network to those of the presumably patriotic U.S. audience. The history the media release provides is written in a similarly vague and yet specific language:
This is the fourth time FOX Sports is presenting the Declaration of Independence on Super Bowl Sunday. The first came prior to Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, the first Super Bowl following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This is the third version, but only this effort and the first were completely original productions. Besides the unique locations that serve as backdrops, patriotic images are sprinkled throughout and include several renowned paintings including "The Declaration" by Barry Faulkner, which is located over the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives; a rendering of King George III by Alan Ramsay; "Declaration of Independence" by John Trumbell, which is located in the us Capitol Rotunda, along with Independence Hall and the Jefferson Memorial.
It is not obvious to me how "this" is the fourth time FOX sports is presenting the DOI and yet "this" is the third version, although it probably means that one of the versions was televised twice. In any case, the point of the media release is clearly to provide a little bit of history, with an emphasis on the credit Fox wants to accrue for being so bluntly and, to use Lott's turn of phrase, witlessly patriotic.
Two versions are easily available for viewing on the web. (4) The 2008 presentation provides a reading with actors dressed in period costumes. There are inspirational and cheesy horns and strings, quotations from famous revolutionary texts, and images of revolutionary buildings. The actors do their best to set things up for NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown, but the transition from actors in period costumes in a well-preserved revolutionary-era room to Brown reading "When in the course of human events" in twenty-first-century (or at least late-twentieth-century) clothing is jarring. Rather than underscoring a link between the DOI and the founding fathers and football today, it instead just creates an atmosphere of confusion. (5) At the end of the reading, which skips the denunciation, and includes only the first line of the indictment, we return to the actors, joking about Fat George as John Hancock signs the DOI. It is impossible to be polite about the "huzzah" they cheer, except to point out again, as I have since the beginning of this paper, that these dramatic performances are really quite impossible. The presentation ends with a scrolling calligraphic text that reads:
Fox Sports and the National Football League Dedicate this depiction of the Declaration of Independence, the foundation of our democracy, to all the valiant men and women of our Armed Forces, who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our freedom and liberty for more than 200 years. "As the sun goes down, we shall honor and remember them."
In all, although highly produced, there is a decidedly amateurish feeling to the presentation, as if no one involved really believed in it, even as everyone is trying really hard to make it work. (6)
In the 2011 version, Fox has done away with the period actors and replaced them with former General Colin Powell and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who open the presentation strolling through The Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives at Washington, DC, what Fox calls the "home of the Declaration of Independence" and talking seriously about national character. After a brief explanation of "our fight for freedom," the camera pans to the DOI, placed securely on the same display from which Benjamin Gates stole it seven years earlier in National Treasure. This time "When in the course of human events" is spoken by former NFL coach (and NASCAR team owner) Joe Gibbs, with current NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb taking over at "to dissolve" They are surrounded, the text on the screen tells us, by the "Army Recruiting NCOS Baltimore Recruiting Battalion," with the Washington Monument in the background. There is something pleasantly honest about the scene, insofar as recruitment (literally and figuratively one of the purposes of current DOI propaganda) finally gets directly celebrated. There is also something almost too perfect about the opening scene and the reading of these first lines, insofar as the threads of this paper are all brought together: the rhetoric of the "home of the DOI" recalling The Home Depot DOI Road Trip, Joe Gibbs bridging football with NASCAR, recalling The Home Depot DOI NASCAR Chrysler, and all of it centred on the preserved the DOI on secure display at the National Archives. The rest of the Fox Sports 2011 presentation is similar to its counterpart in 2008, especially insofar as it once again wisely reads only the first line of the indictment, skipping the rest of that section, and the denunciation, too.
What is living and what is dead in the DOI as indexed by these presentations? Certainly, the revolutionary spirit praised by Arendt, the lost treasure of the revolutionary tradition, is dead, replaced by a reckoning of voluntary armed or dramatic labour as the real spirit of America. The value of the text itself is dead but capable of resurrection, through alternately perverted, fantastic, or obscure popular means. But what lives in the DOI in all of these dramatizations and sponsorships, from The Home Depot to Star Trek to National Treasure to the Fox Sports Super Bowl, is the language and atmosphere of revolutionary emergency. All of these performances respond to that situation with dramatic, adventurous, or martial action, tied up in a thrilling bow that is intended to decoratively and durably affirm the dominance of a political family made up of capital, white supremacy, political conservatism, and U.S. global military hegemony. We can conclude that what is living and what is dead in the recirculations and recalculations of the DOI today is still the uncanny effort to keep a revolutionary spirit alive while keeping secret what that revolutionary spirit serves: a political situation that promises liberation but relies on durable relations of domination.
Paul Downes has argued that the Unites States was founded in a "mis en abyme of emergency" related to contradictions in contemporary political philosophy that find their expression in the DOI (17). What is living and dead today in the DOI is indeed a mis en abyme of emergency, but not one that is revolutionary, focused on creating something new for the future. Instead, it is an emergency focused on the past, on preservation and recovery, on rediscovering what has been lost. In our moment, the DOI does not declare a state of emergency, but, as a public text, is caught in its own state of emergency. The hopefulness and confusion of this emergency find their expression exactly in the concept of lost and buried treasure, in the hope that we can find that treasure again, and also in a confession of worry as to what it might be, in the end, that we will find buried under Wall Street.
Michael Epp is Associate Professor of English Literature at Trent University. Director of the Public Texts graduate program, his research focuses on the relationship between texts, violence, and publics in the United States and Ireland.
Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Butterworth, M. "Fox Sports, Super Bowl XLII, and the Affirmation of American Civil Religion" Journal of Sport and Social Issues 32:3 (2008): 318-23.
The Da Vinci Code. Dir. Ron Howard. Columbia Pictures, 2006. Film.
Dean, Jodi. Publicity's Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy. Ithaca, London: Cornell up, 2002.
Downes, Paul. "Does the Declaration of Independence Declare a State of Emergency?" Canadian Review of American Studies 42:1 (2012): 7-20.
Fox Sports. "Media Information: Fox Super Bowl Tradition Continues" http://static.foxsports.com/content/fscom/binary/2011/01/28/Declaration_of_Independence_-_SB_XLV1296254089219.pdf.
The Home Depot. "News Release: The Home Depot Celebrates Nation's 227th Birthday at Daytona International Speedway" http://ir.homedepot. com/phoenix.zhtml?c=63646&p=irolnewsArticle&iD=1269109&high-light.
"Omega Glory" Star Trek. cbs. 26 July 1968. Television.
National Treasure. Dir. Jon Turteltaub. Disney, 2004. Film.
The Norman Lear Center. "Declaration of Independence." www.learcenter. org/html/projects/?cm=doi.
Pappas, Peter. "America on Parade: Thrill's Affect-Zone and the 2012 NBC Super Bowl Broadcast" Canadian Review of American Studies 44:3 (Winter 2014): 426-49.
Raiders of the Lost Ark. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Lucasfilm/Paramount, 1981. Film.
Silk, Michael. The Cultural Politics of Post-9/11 American Sport: Power, Pedagogy, and the Popular. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Simpson, Mark. "Attackability" Canadian Review of American Studies 39:3 (2009): 299-319.
Wertheimer, Eric. "Pretexts: Some Thoughts on the Militarization of Print Rationality in the Early Republic" Canadian Review of American Studies 42:1 (2012): 21-35.
(1) The Lear Center information can be found at www.learcenter.org/ html/projects/?cm=doi; the Home Depot information can be found at http:/ /ir.homedepot.com/phoenix.zhtml?c = 63646&p = irol-newsArticle&lD=1269109&highlight=; and the dramatic performance of the DOI can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYyttEu_NLU.
(2) In his essay "Attackability," Mark Simpson provides a fine introduction to this relationship, drawing together an account of a U.S. soldier returning from Iraq to a home that has undergone a renovation sponsored by the television show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," who also sent the family to Disneyland. Simpson connects this to the proposed democratic makeover of Iraq that nominally motivated the U.S. invasion and its "takeover makeover" (300-01). In the context of our inventory of what is living and dead in the DOI, this reminds us of the dimension of war that invests the text. In "Pretexts: Some Thoughts on the Militarization of Print Rationality in the Early Republic" Eric Wertheimer notes precisely this dimension, writing that the DOI, as a declaration, is itself performative, a "pronouncement of a new polity [and] the performed implication of a will to war" (27).
(3) The media information as released by Fox Sports can be found at http://static. foxsports.com/content/fscom/binary/2011/01/28/Declaration_of_Independence_-_sB_x1v1296254089219.pdf.
(4) The 2008 presentation can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nuo67-csoHE, and the 2011 presentation can be seen at www.youtube.com/ watch?v=fSugcrsjXRc. For a recent critique of another broadcast, see Peter Pappas's "America on Parade."
(5) In "Fox Sports, Super Bowl XLII, and the Affirmation of American Civil Religion," M. Butterworth bemoans Fox's substitution of simplistic patriotism for the hard thinking needed after 9/11.
(6) Agreeing with Butterworth's analysis of the relations between popular sports and civic religious documents like the DOI, Michael Silk, in The Cultural Politics of Post-9/11 American Sport: Power, Pedagogy, and the Popular, argues that Fox Sports' "continued use of the Declaration of Independence in its coverage since 9/11 affirms the righteousness of Americans doing 'God's work' in democratizing the rest of the world, acts to endorse the 'war on terror,' and in so doing, prophesizes about who Americans can and should be" (37-38). While there is certainly a straightforwardly propagandistic element to Fox's presentations, I argue it is important to remember the related but alternative narratives circulating (like those promoted by Home Depot, Star Trek, and National Treasure) about the DOI when considering what the DOI is doing in the first years of the twenty-first century.
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2015|
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