Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Citizenship is a Kind of Romance (But Your Crush on Obama is Still Lame)

For having compared politics and family, I stand in danger of being called lovey-dovey (i.e. comment #6), a paternalist (i.e. "Daddy State, save me from myself!"), an absolutist (i.e. "Spare the rod, spoil the citizen"), or else a credulous hero-worshipper (i.e. "President Bush was like a father to me"). A gallery of ghouls, each more horrible than the last!

Rather than any of those philosophical monstrosities, my politics-as-family metaphor was just that: a metaphor, one that can take us refreshing places, especially when applied not to the whole state but to the good kind of partisanship. But, in a perfect world, our stockpile of metaphors for democracy would make a heap, so, to that end, let me add another: the gothic romance, as defined by Bonnie Honig (quotations from Tania Modleski's Loving with a Vengeance):
"In the typical Gothic plot, the heroine comes to a mysterious house, perhaps as a bride, perhaps in antoher capacity, and either starts to mistrust her husband or else finds herself in love with a mysterious man who appears to be some kind of criminal." While Harlequin romances trace the transformation of the young heroine's feelings for the hero from fear into love, in gothics the heroine is older and "the transformation is from love into fear." In short, Harlequins are preoccupied with "getting a man" but "in Gothics the concern is with understanding the relationship and the feelings involved once the union has been formed."
I suppose I can't assume it's uncontroversial to think of citizenship as any kind of romance, so, if I can justify that leap retroactively: In order to have any kind of relationship with his country, a man has to be able to put himself in the middle of some kind of story about it, and stories come in genres. The question, then, is which set of genre expectations we ought to bring to the story of America. Honig again:
Most theorists . . . read democratic theory according to the genre conventions of a popular or modern romance, as a happy-ending love story. (Indeed, some explicitly invoke marriage—happy marriage—as a key metaphor for social contract or social unity.) From their perspective, the problem of democratic theory is how to find the right match between a people and its law, a state and its institutions. Obstacles are met and overcome, eventually the right match is made and the newly wed couple is sent on its way to try to live happily ever after.
Which leaves us at the final shot of The Graduate.
But what genre best fits a work of political thought in which a people with a great deal in common decide to share the burdens and pleasures of a life together only to find that they have cast in their lot with a bunch of untrustworthy strangers?
So citizenship is like a marriage—we have to figure out how to live together, both because we find ourselves in the same house and, ideally, because our institutional attachment is mingled with some kind of emotional one—but is it a happy one? Well, were they happy in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

If you'd rather our American marriage didn't look like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's, Honig has a less enthusiastically self-destructive answer. This is the best quote in the whole damn book, especially the second parenthetical:
Gothic readers know that we may passionately support certain heroes (or principles or institutions) in political life while also knowing that we ought not take our eyes off them for fear of what they might do to us if we did. They know that one can be passionately attached to something—a nation, a people, a principle—and be deeply and justifiably (and even therefore!) afraid of it at the same time.
Heathcliff, it's me, Cathy. I've come home.

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