* Friday May 27, 2005
I came across an interesting concept when doing research for my dissertation that I thought I would share this morning. The idea is called a “dominant fiction” and I came across it in Kaja Silverman’s compelling book, Male Subjectivity at the Margins.
I do get around. This is a fascinating book about masculinity from a feminist reading and as time goes on, I'm sure I'll be referencing Silverman's ideas in this blog. But this mornin, I just want to look at a small passage that really resonated with me.
Silverman is quoting a French theorist, Jacques Rancière who calls society’s ideological “reality”, its “dominant fiction”. A dominant fiction is a way that a society theorizing hegemony (dominance). He sees the dominant fiction as a reserve of images and a manipulator of stories, its purpose is to give members of a social structure, a consensus in how they identify themselves. Rancière adds to this idea of dominant fiction that the dominant fiction of a society is visible in forms of mass representation, the images and representations that make up pop culture. The dominant fiction of America, Rancière maintains, is the “birth of a nation”, an origin story that hinges upon binary opposition and adversarial relations – whites to Indians, North to South, law to outlaw (30)..
Change but a few words, and you’ll get my notion of the “mythos in the logos” the underlying myth (read story) that forms the logics of a culture, appearing in its images and stories that make up (not only pop culture) but also society’s image of itself. Ranciere’s idea that the dominant fiction of America is primarily a culture of oppositions struck a cord with me this morning. American culture is truly oppositional. There is in our history, a long string of tales in which America’s dominant story is that of the individual against the other. Let’s look at the list:
Pilgrims (and Puritans) against the religious order of England
White Settlers against Native People’s
Colonialists against the British crown
Northerners against Southerners
Industrialists against Agriculturalists
Big Cities against Small Towns
“Real Americans” against Immigrants
Democracy against Fascism
Democracy against Communism
Democracy against Theocracies
Democracy against Terrorism
Even in our alliances, we play the cowboy role, the rugged individualist, the divine savior. Henry Kissinger acknowledges this cowboy mentality in an interview with Oriani Fallaci as he explains the movie star status he enjoyed in American: Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into town…with his horse and nothing else. Maybe even without a pistol…This cowboy doesn’t have to be courageous. All he needs is to be alone to show others that he rides into town and does everything by himself. Americans like that.
Rollo May in his book Cry for Myth, uses this quote to demonstrate that a fundamental myth (or dominant fiction) in American is this sense of loneliness. He writes that everyone looks lonely in American and that this loneliness is an expression of America’s rootlessness (99) Loneliness, according to May is expressed through the violence of our culture in which we make heroes out of gangsters.
Yes, America has always had a fondness for the loners, the gangsters, the outlaw mentality. Inherent in our dominant fiction is the notion of the lone man against the rest of the world. If we, as a country do not have an oppositional other, we need to invent it, because having this sense of “enemy” helps define who we are. If the enemy is ambiguous, as in terrorism, we need to literalize and fictionalize it into one man, one country, one religion. Who we hate and fear defines who we are as a country. The rootless experience of the Clinton years was due (in part), with the collapse of the Soviet Union. We need the “other” as enemy in order to know who we are. Since 9-11, we’ve been assured what an American is, but proclaiming a new group of enemies that we can then attack and conquer. Patriotism is revived as our cultural identity is reaffirmed.
Organizations like the United Nations have never suited America’s dominant fiction. The idea of consensus among perceived equals doesn’t allow the oppositional story of America to play itself out. Granted, we like allies, but let’s face it. We treat allies like the sidekicks in the old cowboy. We’re a bit amused at their idiosyncrasies and we insist that they remain mostly as comic relief in the story. No, a United Nations where we are not able to dominate and operate in an oppositional manner is an organization that we can’t trust.
So, in comes the nomination of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. He’s acknowledged as a bully, a loner, a fiercely oppositional character who doesn’t mind mushing around with intelligence reports to get them to say what he wants to say. The majority party of this country insists that Bolton is the right man for the job because he’ll “clean up” the United Nations with his hard line tactics. In fact, they see his oppositional character as the right thing for America in these difficult times.
This goes along with America’s increasing isolationism in the world, a real separation of this country from the world community. I’m sure students of American history could have seen this one coming. It is the repetitive cycle of a fiction that refuses to die. I’m also sure that observers of pop culture can see this demonstrated in the cruelty of the most popular shows on network TV these days – reality shows that pit people against each other in oppositional situations, allowing a dominant one to emerge.
posted byMaggie @ 8:16 AM
*essay is a reprint from its first publication through mythandculture.com Friday, May 27, 2005. Reprinted with the kind permission of Doug Macary and Martin Macary co-executors for the estate of Maggie Macary, Ph.D