Elisabeth R. Anker, Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Elisabeth Anker (EA): There are two answers to this question. The first is political: the idea for the book came out of anger at both the extensively violent response by the US to the 9/11 events, and the widespread support given to these operations by a vast majority of the US populace. I wondered why a narrative of good and evil mobilized such intense national sentiment to legitimate aggressive state power, while it also depoliticized this power by claiming it was a moral obligation upon injured victims. The answer to this question took me far beyond post-9/11 politics into decades-long geopolitical shifts of power, US discourses on freedom, and the melodramatic stories that shape American popular culture.
The second answer is scholarly: as someone trained in political theory as well as film studies, I came across film scholarship on melodrama at exactly the moment I was thinking through Friedrich Nietzsche’s interrogation of morality and victimization. Together, they gave me a language for understanding the affective intensity and moral quality of US political culture. Nietzsche’s concept of “Orgies of Feeling”—by which intensified affects from a single horrific injury overwhelm daily experiences of devitalized agency—offered a lens to understand the power of melodrama in post-9/11 American politics. I found the melodramatic figure of the villainous terrorist to be a repository for complex fears and vulnerabilities arising from the end of US global sovereignty, even as this figure is deployed to legitimate anti-democratic and violent forms of state power.
J: How does melodrama translate into politics?
EA: Orgies of Feeling analyzes how US politics is shaped at key historical moments, and in particular in the twenty-first century, by what I call “melodramatic political discourse.” Melodrama is a genre form that tells stories about people besieged by overwhelming forces, deploying heightened emotions, moral binaries of good and evil, characterizations of people as villains, victims or heroes, and stories that end with the triumph of virtue. In political discourse, melodrama depicts political events through a moral worldview that identifies the nation-state as an innocent victim of villainous action. It evokes intense visceral responses to wrenching injustices imposed upon the nation-state, and can solicit affects of astonishment, sorrow, and pathos through the scenes it shows of persecuted citizens. Locating virtue in national suffering, villainy in political antagonists—especially foreign and nonwhite peoples who chafe against US global power—and heroism in unilateral state action, melodrama depicts war and state surveillance as moral imperatives for the achievement of freedom.
Melodrama, I argue, is a discourse that authorizes US empire. It legitimates war, occupation, surveillance, and other forms of state action by depicting them as morally obligatory and heroic pursuits of sovereign freedom. Melodrama represents the United States as both the feminized, innocent victim and the aggressive, masculinized hero in the story of global freedom, as the victim-hero of geopolitics. Its depictions suggest that the redemption of national virtue obligates state power to both exercise heroic retribution on the forces responsible for national injury, and to reestablish the state’s sovereign freedom over the political field. Melodramatic political discourse provides the tableaux and the legitimacy for violent and anti-democratic state power.
Melodramatic political discourses can be found in the news media, popular punditry, informal conversation, organizing norms, micropolitical registers, and political theory, as well as in the formal state rhetoric of presidential addresses: they move along multiple vectors. The use of melodrama is not forced or coordinated across media outlets or political parties, however. Its popularity across two centuries of cultural media make it readily available to multiple sites of power and address for depicting political life. There is even melodrama on the left, a sort of counter-melodrama to the center/right melodrama of empire. While melodrama was a common rhetorical genre of the Bush administration to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other presidential administrations have seized on melodrama’s popularity to support their policies (as we can see in Obama’s current melodramatic rhetoric against ISIS), melodrama does not rise from any single source of authority. To ascribe intent by a few elites for the pervasive use of melodrama—to say that presidential figures or the news media manipulate people through melodrama—is to ignore melodrama’s appeal to a broad segment of the US population, and to miss what its popularity reveals about American political life.
J: Why is melodrama so compelling as a political discourse?
EA: The popularity of melodrama in US politics reflects in part the public’s desire for drama, its desire to see the nation as virtuous, and a pervasive demonization of political foes. But melodrama is also, I suggest, an effect of the broader public’s discontent about their systemic experiences of political powerlessness and unfreedom. Melodrama is so popular, I argue, because it promises freedom for those who are virtuous and injured. In political melodrama, victimization and suffering lead to freedom. This is one way that melodrama translates into a particularly American idiom: it heralds a future in which US citizens and the state exercise a seeming entitlement to sovereignty.
At one level, this sense of entitlement was challenged by 9/11. The 9/11 events were shocking not only for the violence they committed but for the story of freedom that they derailed. They revealed, in a spectacular and terrifying way, what Wendy Brown has identified as an era of “waning sovereignty” in contemporary politics that affects both states and individuals. Yet the sense of “lost” sovereign freedom is also significantly deeper than 9/11. On another level, then, it stems from broader conditions that shape the lives of everyday people, including mass political disenfranchisement and decreasing venues for influencing collective governing decisions. It includes entrenched levels of inequality and broadening levels of poverty, as well as the erosion of state, family, and community support systems—what Lauren Berlant has named the lived experiences of “crisis ordinariness.” It includes the ways that power is increasingly centralized and transnationalized outside formal institutions of accountability, and the way that precarity has become a norm for so many people. The sense of “lost” freedom is particularly acute for those Americans who have an expectation that limitless agency is a national right, for people who often culturally presume that freedom means unencumbered power and mastery over others.
Melodrama is so powerful, then, because by promising heroic emancipation from terrorist villainy, it implies that US citizens can overcome their feelings of diminished political agency and lost freedom. Melodrama promises that both the US state, and individual Americans, will soon experience heroic freedom by winning the War on Terror. They will cast off their feelings of vulnerability and weakness through heroic action—even when the villain they attack is not the primary cause of their powerlessness or suffering.
This argument about melodrama thus departs from conventional analyses of contemporary politics, in which citizens have willingly traded freedom for security. Instead, it shows that Americans have sought freedom, not security, when they authorize dramatic increases in violent and anti-democratic state power, obstructing their pursuit by the very melodramatic methods they employ in their efforts.
J: How does melodrama construct a national identity, and who or what is left out of that construction?
EA: Melodramatic depictions of politics construct a virtuous national identity organized around state action. It includes people who feel that they love freedom (which is nebulously defined), but also people who feel injured by their very attachment to freedom. On one level, then, this melodramatic national identity is about the people who feel wounded by an injury done to them as members of a virtuous nation who love freedom. The outside of US identity is simply moralized as evil villainy that aims to destroy freedom.
But on another level, and specifically in the War on Terror, melodrama’s construction of national virtue excludes many Americans. Evil extends to people who critique state power as well to people who, as Leti Volpp has argued, “look like” Arabs or Muslims, even when that exclusion is explicitly denied under a language of inclusiveness and toleration. This melodramatic national identity implicitly filters out people with Arab or Muslim backgrounds as more similar to terrorists than to Americans, and thus unable to be a part of the virtuous and injured national identity unless they explicitly profess their intense love of the nation, demonstrate how they share in its woundedness, and repetitively engage in performances of patriotism.
Another way to frame this is to note that melodramatic boundaries of political identity around shared national victimization exclude experiences of social injury or political suffering not explicitly caused by terrorism. Suffering from poverty, the routinized effects of racism and sexism, blocked access to governing power, racial profiling of people with Arab and Muslim backgrounds, and anti-immigration violence are generally unmarked in the typical story cultivated by melodrama, in which freedom-hating villains wound the nation. Melodrama thus erases the suffering produced as a by-product of eradicating villainy (for example, the “collateral damage” of war) and also leaves unmarked the products of systemic inequality and unaccountable power that produce more common experiences of vulnerability and fear.
J: Is melodrama a uniquely American phenomenon?
EA: Melodramatic cultural expressions are not limited to the United States. Latin American telenovelas, Nigerian “Nollywood” videos, French post-revolutionary theater, Soviet expressionism, and South Korean “Golden Age” cinema are all powerfully shaped by various kinds of melodrama. My book focuses on the specific forms of American melodrama in order to map its work as a nation-building and state-legitimating discourse in US politics. When I have presented work from Orgies of Feeling, scholars in comparative politics and area studies have suggested that different forms of melodrama could profitably be read into other national and political rhetorics (they have specifically mentioned Russia, Al-Qaeda, and both Israel and Palestine; I imagine there are others). It would be quite interesting to see scholarship develop on these and other possibilities.
In the US, melodramatic political discourse has a particular history. While it has been a key part of US popular culture since the nineteenth century, it became a widely influential political discourse primarily after World War II. It gained popularity both with the rise of the cold war’s binary world order and with the spectacles of televised political communication. Its conventions increasingly helped to narrate the expansion of US global power and justify the growth of the national security state. In the twenty-first century, and especially after the 9/11 attacks, melodrama’s popularity exploded in political discourse, in large part because of the nation-state’s mobilization against terrorism.
J: What particular topics, disciplines, and literatures does the book address?
EA: Humanities scholars have long understood the cultural significance of melodrama—from novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin to silent films like Birth of a Nation to Hollywood action thrillers like Rambo—but neither humanities scholars nor social scientists have seriously addressed melodrama’s work within political processes. My book aims to work in both domains to show the importance of melodrama in foreign policy, formations of citizenship and subjectivity, and expansions of state power. I analyze concepts of freedom, sovereignty, and power through canonical and contemporary critical political theory, while placing them in dialogue with recent American Studies scholarship on empire and citizenship, and film and literary analyses of melodrama and affect. I also use melodrama to make a larger claim that cultural genres condition our political action.
J: What is your next project?
EA: My next book project, Ugly Freedoms, aims to answer the question posed at the end of Orgies of Feeling: How do people imagine and practice freedom in ways that do not draw from a model of sovereign and violent power? This book contends that contemporary western definitions of freedom, including free choice, individual mastery, and sovereignty, exacerbate rather than overcome conditions of oppression to produce ugly and terrifying experiences of domination and war. Yet it also argues that practices of freedom can be found in “ugly” situations that would seem to be freedom’s opposite from the perspective of sovereignty: namely, dependence, domination, and failure. While these conditions might be experienced as constraining, despairing, or horrific, they can also nourish collective agency, world-making, and unexpected mobility.
Ugly Freedoms thus refers both to the impoverished concepts that often delimit the understanding of freedom in our neoliberal era, and to the ways that nonsovereign conditions otherwise deemed terrifying and disgusting might also give rise to new practices of freedom. It will draw on Hollywood film depictions of black slavery, the genre of horror (surprisingly found in liberal theories of imperialism), and international relations studies of failed states, among its studies of ugly freedom.
Excerpts from Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom
The melodramas that I track in this book often promote a specific type of citizenship, in which the felt experience of being an American comprises not only persecuted innocence, love of freedom, and empathic connection with other Americans’ suffering, but also the express demand to legitimate state power against political antagonists outside the nation. In these melodramas, the nation’s unjust suffering proves its virtue, and virtue authorizes dramatic expressions of state action including war and state surveillance. In contemporary politics, the intensifications of antidemocratic and often violent forms of state power—including military occupation in Iraq, Afghanistan, and tens of other shadow sites, the exponential growth of the national security state, the formalization of racial profiling for people with Arab and Muslim backgrounds, the narrowing of already minute points of access to political power for nonelite citizens, the criminalization of nonviolent protest, the militarization of police power, and the further abridgements of institutionalized civil liberties—are partly rooted in the melodramatic mobilization of a political subject who legitimates them as an expression of the nation’s virtue.
A paradigmatic example of melodramatic political discourse is President George W. Bush’s speech on the War in Afghanistan at the Pentagon on 11 October 2001. The story that the speech emplotted relied on melodramatic genre conventions—including a narrative of virtue and redemption, heightened affects of pain, detailed explanations of individual suffering, and a sense of overwhelmed victimhood that transmutes virtue into strength—to both unify national identity and authorize a war that had already begun four days prior. The speech is found here.
The speech details the events on 11 September 2001, through melodramatic conventions that emphasize the intense pain the attacks caused to ordinary individuals, and the speech uses that pain to mark the virtue of all Americans who share in the sadness of the people directly injured or killed by terrorism. Bush details the violence of the 9/11 events by specifying the people who died as moms and dads, schoolchildren and neighbors—ordinary people, people just like his listeners. It is as if their travails could be, indeed are, our own. Melodrama confers virtue upon innocent people who unjustly suffer from dominating power, and this is part of the genre’s cultural work; in this deployment of melodrama, all Americans suffer from the attack, and thus all share in the nation’s virtue. The speech connects the children who lost parents with “our country”: the children’s innocence is a metonym for that of the nation, for what it has lost after this terrifying attack. This connection is a binding gesture that brings a nation ordinarily riven and stratified by class, race, immigration status, and sex into a shared unity that circumvents instead of repressing stratification. It makes hierarchies of power and identity irrelevant to the experience of being an innocent and injured American in the wake of 9/11. The suffering that unifies the nation is suffering from terror. Other political modes of understanding also circulate in this speech to bind people together and mark the legitimacy of war: a deep sense of injustice and fear from the 9/11 attacks, American exceptionalism, and masculinist protection. Yet melodramatic conventions work here to solicit the sense that war has already been legitimated by the felt sorrow that unifies the nation. Melodrama, in this speech, insists that the affective experience of sorrow is equivalent to the authorization of war.
This speech cultivates the heightened affects American were experiencing by explicating them, naming sorrow, loss, and resolve in a way that turns them into norms for proper feeling and then yokes them together into a narrative trajectory. Sorrow and loss pave the way for “great resolve,” so that the determination to “destroy” evil is positioned as a foregone conclusion that grows organically out of sorrow. The move to destroy terrorism then becomes a moral requirement and a narrative expectation for addressing the nation’s suffering, rather than a contestable political decision. In this speech, melodramatic conventions form a nation-building discourse that distinguishes who is and is not American by demarcating proper victimhood in relation to state power: virtuous Americans identify with the suffering of grieving Americans, but they also sanction heroic state action against evil. War is promised to deliver a justice so clear and right that it is “worthy of sacrifice.” The willingness to sacrifice further gestures to the goodness of the nation willing to make itself sacrificial in response to its sorrow, even as it is presupposed that real sacrifice will never be asked of the vast majority of the polity; in other speeches Bush asks Americans to sacrifice for the war effort by hugging their children, going shopping, and traveling by airplane. In this melodrama the primary indicators of good citizenship, of what it means to be a real American, consist of a felt suffering from terrorism, plus the resolve to go to war.
Melodrama hearkens a future in which US citizens and the state exercise their rightful entitlement to unconstrained power against terrifying villains. As in Bush’s speech announcing the war in Afghanistan, melodramatic political discourses promise that US military and state actions, together with the corporations that work through and as state power, can transform a sense of being overwhelmed by power into a scene of triumphant strength and sovereign control. A desire for sovereign freedom is thus a decisive factor in the authorization of state power as it takes shape in melodramatic political discourse. The promise of melodrama is that the American nation, once victimized, will eventually reassert its sovereign freedom through the virtuous acts of heroism it must perform against the cause of its injury. The melodramatic legitimation of violent, expansive, and constraining forms of power is thus paradoxically motivated by a desire to experience unconstrained freedom.
This differs from the way that melodramatic genre expectations shape cinema, theater, and literature, when story lines can end in pathos and tragedy for injured protagonists: an innocent victim may die after his or her virtue is celebrated, as in Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Brokeback Mountain (2005), or a hero will sacrifice his or her own life in order to save another or to uphold justice, as in The Birth of a Nation or Saving Private Ryan (1998). But in national politics, melodramatic story lines that end without securing the universal freedom of their protagonists are generally left outside the expectations of the narrative. Freedom is frequently the stated goal of melodramatic initiatives in foreign, domestic, and military policy, and it is crucial to take these myriad and explicit claims for freedom seriously as motivating factors behind expansions of state power. It is no coincidence that the Iraq War’s combat zones were called “the front lines of freedom,” or that the War in Afghanistan was officially titled Operation: Enduring Freedom. To be sure, freedom is not the only desire motivating the legitimation of these wars; vengeance, violence, Islamophobia, and an escape from fear coexist alongside freedom. But these other motivations have gained much more scholarly attention at the expense of the study of freedom, and have overshadowed the ways that a desire for freedom sits beside and even underwrites these more overtly insidious motivations, giving them a legitimate form of expression.
In melodrama’s narrative temporality, sovereign freedom can only be achieved after an overwhelming experience of vulnerability, powerlessness, and pain: this is how melodrama positions the United States as the victim and hero of world politics. In Dick Cheney’s War on Terror melodrama, for instance, “This is a struggle against evil, against an enemy that rejoices in the murder of innocent, unsuspecting human beings….A group like Al Qaeda cannot be deterred or placated or reasoned with at a conference table. For this reason the war against terror will not end with a treaty, there will be no summit meeting or negotiations with terrorists. The conflict will only end with their complete and permanent destruction and in victory for the United States and the cause for freedom.” The nation’s overwhelming experience of unjust victimization heralds its grandiose reclamation of sovereign power through “permanent destruction” of the evil villain that caused the nation’s powerlessness. Melodrama’s moral economy transmutes affectively intense experiences of unjust victimization into the anticipation of, and justification for, violence imagined as sovereign agency.
Orgies of Feeling thus challenges the conventional critical gloss on the post-9/11 moment by arguing that it was freedom, not national security, that many Americans thought they were achieving by dramatically increasing state power in the pursuit of terrorism. On most readings of millennial politics, US citizens have willingly traded freedom for security: Americans have responded to terror by retreating from the burdens of individual liberty to the safety of a protector state. On these readings, Americans legitimated retractions of their civil liberties as well as massive increases in national security in order to buttress their newfound exposure to violence. Yet melodrama’s primary appeal for those who legitimated, even relished, intensifications of state power, and perhaps even for those who contested many of its tenets, was that it rehabilitated the promise of sovereign agency. After the 9/11 attacks spectacularly intensified felt experiences of powerless and vulnerability shaping political life at the new millennium, melodrama revived the pursuit of sovereign freedom in response. The melodramatic story of 9/11 reveals a desperate and violent attempt to pursue freedom as a morally righteous reclamation of sovereignty in a volatile, disempowering, and nonsovereign era.
In legitimating violent and intrusive governing and corporate powers as a moral imperative for the practice of sovereign freedom, melodrama entrenches the disempowerment it is employed to overcome, and it abrogates the freedoms it promises to engender. My concern about the deepening of unfreedom that occurs through melodramatic political discourse arises out of a broader dilemma regarding the pursuit of freedom that has vexed critical political theory since the mid-twentieth century, and is arguably critical theory’s animating concern: people often seem not only to refuse to challenge experiences of subjection but also to assist them, indeed to harbor deep attachments to conditions of unfreedom. Though my argument is indebted to critical theoretical approaches to this broad dilemma, it inverts the more common mode of critique, which locates the operations of oppression in seemingly emancipatory pursuits. Instead, this study poses a different dilemma. It asks: even in one of the more unliberatory eras in contemporary politics—when political subjects do not just acquiesce to but often actively support policies that sanction large-scale violence and murder, and that shrink venues for dissent, possibilities for political participation, and pursuits of justice—is there a glimmer of a desire to challenge unfreedom, an intent to undo the oppressions that individuals often seem so willing to uphold? This is not to offer an optimistic reading of a dark era in political life or to justify the complicity of American citizens who acquiesce to and actively sanction violent, inhumane, or oppressive policies, quite the contrary. But it is to tell a different and overlooked story, about contemporary political subjects who do not reflexively desire unfreedom, but whose challenge to unfreedom is obstructed by the very strategies they mobilize in their efforts.
[Excerpted from Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom, by Elisabeth R. Anker, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]