Cultural Studies
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

EDGES BLOG: CSC Interview with Libby Anker

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The Cultural Studies PhD Program’s student/faculty Colloquium series features regular presentations by prominent interdisciplinary scholars. CS student Caroline Guthrie interviewed Libby Anker, who gave a talk about her work on melodrama and politics and her book.  Professor Anker is Associate Professor of American Studies and Political Science at GW and the author of Orgies of Feeling (Duke, 2014). Check out the interview transcript below. 

In Orgies of Feeling, you describe melodrama as binding the nation by circumventing, instead of repressing, concerns of identity. Given this, is melodramatic discourse a privileged category?

I don’t think melodrama necessarily has to be a privileged discourse. I think what’s important to note is the work it does with and through different forms of national identity. Rather than saying “We’re all one nation, and our differences don’t matter,” it mobilizes differences in the service of showing how the nation itself can incorporate difference in terms of gender, race, and religion, and that this makes the nation more virtuous. Of course, there are always people and groups that are excluded, and it depends on the type of politicized identity that is being worked through melodrama. In the post- 9/11 moment, melodramas show how the U.S. is a racially and religiously inclusive place, in contradistinction to an imagined identity of a place like Afghanistan or Iraq. At the same time it also excludes Muslim identities from U.S. inclusiveness, unless they are Muslim identities that constantly hyper-perform their own patriotism and state loyalty.  In the communist era, there was a way of showing that the U.S. is able to be inclusive of religious difference and economic mobility, as opposed to imagined constructions of communist states or the U.S.S.R. But what often got dis-included from that national identity were any forms of political or economic opposition. Anything more than mainstream opposition from the left was considered a problematic difference outside proper U.S. nationhood.

You describe melodrama as reinforcing national identity by strengthening the boundaries of who is inside and outside the national through narratives of terrorism or illegal immigration. However, recent years have also seen a proliferation of highly melodramatic readings of President Obama from his political rivals. How do these uses of melodrama to fracture, rather than shore up, national identity effect political discourse?

Melodrama will often fracture national identity in the way of shoring it up. We can look at Ronald Reagan’s neoliberal melodrama in which what gets fractured out of national identity is anybody who is dependent on the state, or any kind of community sustenance. Dependence itself becomes anti-American. So that’s already a kind of fracturing within the nation. It’s as if the state and people who depend upon it are excluded from the national identity Reagan constructs.

Obama himself is an interesting character, because on the one hand he was elected in no small part because he was “no drama Obama.” He was the antithesis to Bush’s hyper-melodramatic and overwrought performances. And yet, we can also see times when liberals call on Obama to be more melodramatic. In the debates over the Affordable Care Act, for instance, when citizens were not convinced to support it by his actuarial statistics, liberals were saying, “Show the single mother who’s suffering from a debilitating disease and she doesn’t have the healthcare that she needs. Personalize it. Dramatize it. Victimize it. And that will bring people on board to the Affordable Care Act.” And he did change his rhetoric. He’s still not as melodramatic as someone like Bush, but we can see melodrama again in his rhetoric on ISIS, which was some of the most melodramatic language that he used to justify foreign intervention.

How do you read the popularity of Donald Trump in relation to political melodrama? On the one hand, his appeal seems to rest in part on his casting of himself as a hyper-masculine hero, and the literal wall differentiating inside and outside that he promises. On the other, his persona seems to embody a rejection of the pathos of melodrama.

On the one hand, I think Trump really is doing something similar to what Bush was calling himself to do, which is to be the embodiment of the kind of sovereign hero who has the strength to cast off the weakness of agonistic politics, the weakness of caring about other human beings. He certainly tries to instantiate sovereignty not only in his body but also in his claims about the border wall that’s going to be "so big and so great," it’s going to become an impermeable boundary. On the other hand, though he is not maudlin and does not display the pathos of weakness, he often uses the melodramatic language of victimization. Particularly when he details his claims that people are being victimized by illegal immigrants. So Mexicans who are coming to the U.S. in large part because of our terrible free trade policies then become the cause of internal U.S. economic problems. In Trump's language the whole nation is constructed as a victim, or at least people who identify with the kind of working class that he is constructing, are victimized by Mexicans and other Latino laborers who are coming to "take" U.S. jobs. So even though there’s a host of really complicated reasons why economically the white working class in the U.S. is not doing well, blame is displaced onto an evil villain who is construct as a violent Mexican job-stealer.

In Trump's story, the white working class gets to become a kind of righteous victim who will again become the hero, partly by identifying with Trump and supporting his cruel border and detention policies. Trump is going to rescue them, and at the same time they also get to identify with his perceived economic and masculinized strength, and take pleasure in his cruelty and rudeness. I see him as very melodramatic. He often pits himself as the hero, and he pits the U.S. nation as the victim-hero: the victim-hero of ISIS, the victim-hero of immigrants, and also the victim-hero of a political class that doesn’t attend to their concerns.  It’s the last one that’s really important for how he’s constructing his own Republican base.

He’s particularly interesting in this context because he reads so much like the villain of a melodrama; you almost expect him to come tie someone to the train tracks, but somehow he’s made that heroic.

What’s been interesting, especially in the last few days, is the response of the mainstream Republican party as they’re getting hysterical that he’s going to be their candidate. The Republican party is trying to position him as the villain of Republican politics. All of a sudden, even staid academic thinkers are coming out against Trump, and the party itself is coming out against him. Mitt Romney just held a press conference where he’s announced he against him. This blitz is probably not going to work, because at this point Trump's fan base is so strong and loyal; the identifications that Trump is asking from the people are much different from what the mainstream Republican party is asking. They’re not asking his supporters to re-identify with anyone or anything, just to cut their ties with Trump. I can’t see how that would happen. He’s satisfying so many things for them.

In your book, it seems melodrama empowers action on the right, but breeds stagnation on the left. In this sense, it seems to resonate with Barthes’ description of Myth. Do you see a resonance between the uses of melodrama and myth in political discourse?

I would answer yes to that, but I would say that I think there are melodramas that are also powerful on the left. Part of what I write in “Left Melodrama,” is how to think about The Communist Manifesto and the promise that it offers of a kind of overcoming of capitalism, which is itself a melodrama. Melodrama works very differently on the left – who is the victim, who is a hero, what is the kind of freedom that is desired, and the world that will make things better, are all constructed differently if not antagonistically. Yet there are also ways in which left melodrama has this very galvanizing power, and certainly did in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Melodrama has an incredible power to diagnose social ills. Ills that seem ambivalent or confusing or ineffable – melodrama is able to concretize and diagnose sites of domination and to find a site for feelings of powerlessness, exploitation, and violation. So there are ways in which melodrama can also energize leftist politics, and I think in the present moment where we find a leftist politics that does this -- that is not based on a kind of lost desire for the promise of a Manifesto-like emancipation -- but is still willing to fight for emancipation even in conditions of dis-clarity. I think that has promise. I have felt differently about that; when the book published, I really did not see this as clearly. But I think things have changed in the last few years in such a way that the left can capitalize on certain aspects of melodrama and can galvanize political anger and indignation to fight for something better on a larger scale.

One thing I am always wary of in any form of melodrama is the way that melodramas equate being injured or violated to a kind of virtue or self-righteousness, so the more you suffer the more virtuous you are. Melodramas that can break that cycle, that can diagnose forms of exploitation but don’t claim that those who are exploited are therefore completely virtuous or therefore are unimplicated in the exploitations of others --  melodrama that can attend to that, but still call on people to organize and fight for something better; that to me is what has promise.

Can you give an example?

Jodi Dean’s book The Communist Horizon makes a powerful case for a kind of breaking off of left melancholia, and also, very clearly, diagnoses the particular strands of late capital and the kinds of exploitation that take hold of a wide swath of people that she terms the 99%. Her language is galvanizing and aims to generate a desire for a common desiring. Yet her book does not say that the 99% is automatically self-righteous, or automatically unimplicated in particular problems, but that people can acknowledge that implication and that complicity and still be part of a left vision that desires common life in a way that’s disarticulated from capital.

I’m hesitant to say the way people have been organizing around Bernie Sanders would fit into this mode, but I think there are strands in the way Sanders is uniting a fragmented left, from people on the hard left, to the progressive left, to the left liberal.  A lot of people who are organizing around him do not imagine that this coalition is a morally righteous one but a politically necessary one. It might be politically righteous in some capacity, but there doesn’t seem to be a kind of moralizing language that could disable its political potency. It does have a villain in Wall Street, and in Donald Trump, but also in Hillary Clinton, which I think is interesting and is shaping a different way of thinking about mainstream politics that I would never have predicted a decade ago. As to whether or not it’s a galvanizing form of melodrama – I would not want to make that claim. But I think the Sanders coalition is doing some interesting, somewhat melodramatic work in diagnosing the vast levels of inequality within the US.

I notice that throughout Orgies of Feeling, you draw on theorists, such Walter Benjamin and Lauren Berlant, where there’s a sense of, at best, ambivalence. There’s not a total foreclosing of possibilities of liberation or progression, but there’s no guarantee; either interest could be served. Would you say you share that ambivalence?

I think of my ambivalence in this book as a deep pessimism and also a deep optimism at the same time. So it’s less of an ambivalence in terms of uncertainty and more that I feel extreme pulls at once and all the time. I think this comes out in my writing, which seems despairing and hopeless in certain places, but in other places draws upon a more optimistic politics. To feel both ways at once we might like to call philosophically incoherent, but our lived experiences are often incoherent. This can still be productive, and for me can be more accurate to the way I navigate contemporary politics.

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