What is America?
From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: The Resonance of Unseen Things
It is an enormous honor to read these beautiful, inventive essays by way of response to The Resonance of Unseen Things. More than responses, though, the essays use various aspects of my book to launch four distinct written worlds of their own. These are both standalone pieces and a single collection of four resonating parts. As a whole, they leave me with a compelling, disturbing image of America in a troubled national moment, both as a mirror to my own work and from completely new angles.
The question “what is America?” kept running through my mind as I read. It was the title of a large introductory lecture course in my university’s American studies department. When I teach the course, I find some students hope for a final answer to this question. It implies a built-in optimism, the sense of a collective national project. It suggests narrative arcs of progress and freedom, one arc nestled inside the other. Everyone already knows those arcs, always about advancement: the pilgrim, the pioneer, invention and industry, all the implicit versions of Johnny Appleseed—a white guy spreading his stuff across the land. Now, from our own time and place, we also tell a story of progress: the critical narrative that finally reveals the histories of violence, racism, and exploitation in the stories that precede it. But that last arc, the necessary one whose perspective I teach from, so easily takes the same shape as the ones before it: another story of advancement and overcoming. It is hard to escape it.
One day last year, in my city not too far north of the Mason-Dixon line, graffiti appeared on multiple surfaces—overpasses, brick walls. Heil Trump. You couldn’t tell whether it was a racist victory cry or an ironic critique. There is no way to tell, just from the words. Mirages are everywhere. People I knew walked around looking lost and stunned for a while. I can’t believe it, they said. What is America, they said.
Why can’t people believe it?
Toby Austin Locke asks: what is it, anyway? Is it something that floats and surges through the understory? There was something already, and now it is starting to come into shape. Had it always been there? For how long?
People in the news start explaining it. Stories of a “hillbilly” culture bloom like a revelation, as if that overinscribed trope of white intergenerational poverty, performative emotional drama, fatalism, and violence were not already grooved into the record. The trope is re-elegized by an insider who, against all odds (the story goes), exceeded his origins to make good in the professional world outside. Loyalty and community are shown as the good of that left-behind world, but those roots are also entanglements, thwartings. Anxious debates about failure reinforce the unmarked idea of success as ineluctable forward movement. Sometimes movement dangerously veers off into cultural cul-de-sacs or turns back in a violent regression, but in success it flows on into what David Ayala-Alfonso, in his essay here, calls “urban, hyperconnected, rationally driven cultural spaces.” He writes of “the struggle to respond to cultures that have shaped themselves on the borders of an imagined mainstream, governed by rationality, progress, and economy . . . that have no regard for reproducing or celebrating systems from which they have been largely excluded.” Here, Ayala-Alfonso reminds us that the mainstream is itself an imaginary whole, a foil for other, marginal ways of being, other invisible directions in narratives of mobility.
Ayala-Alfonso’s piece, like the other essays in this quartet, resists forward-moving linear explanations of rationally driven cultural spaces. Whether in form or feeling, there is no necessary order in their beginning, middle, or end. These essays notice how things circle around, drift, pile, gap, surge. They show embeddings and layers. Memory, fantasy, history, potential, haunting, and prophecy converge. They engage with a kind of writing that, although it’s been underway in anthropology for decades, has been taking on increased urgency lately—writing that moves with, through, and into its objects instead of hovering above them. Kathleen Stewart (2017, 195) notes that writing affect is one of multiple approaches that “returned anthropology to the longstanding problem of how to open the conventions of academic argument to the generativity and volatility of life as such, to its capacity to actively shift or harden into forms of peace or violence, pleasure and pain, collectivities and chaos.” These essays sometimes poetically perform that move, and sometimes attend to why it matters. In all of them, the question that Austin Locke foregrounds—what is it?—emerges in some way or other, asking us to think of what it is we are after when we want to write about things that don’t always appear transparently literal. How do you take, as your object, the inter-affective liveness of a something that, like breath, sometimes moves consciously between people and sometimes just takes over involuntarily? How do you bring language to the simultaneous restlessness around you, to the digging in? How do you write the collective (social, cultural, biological) sense of a troubled national past as a lingering residue or a saturation?
What is it, Locke asks and asks again, and in doing so he riffs musically on the ephemeral. He follows the contours of the something you can’t name, tracing it through shifting registers and tones. He veers in and out of voices that get flooded by it. Sometimes the question is his own. Sometimes it seems to be a question he’s overheard, in some form of open ethnographic attention: “What it is is real. There’s no doubt about that. That wasn’t even up for questioning.” Something in those three sentences concretizes like pebbles in a stream, as if the voice of an embodied and particular character (I hear a character from a Raymond Carver story) has half-emerged from the ungraspable. The register of those three small lines minutely performs an ethnographically knowable world, where an utterance is always in the middle of a conversation. Then the ordinary inflection of this voice swirls back into ephemeral flow. It is a striking moment for me because in it, we get that ineffable something comprised of multiple, semidistinct voices drifting in and out of the frame, merging and separating.
The Resonance of Unseen Things is about the poetics of the uncanny. It’s an intersubjective and intertextual poetics, one that notices overlaps and parallels and that theorizes power in the place where those overlaps accumulate. Leah Eades writes about apophenia, the construction of that poetics into the weird. For Eades, the weird must be unweirded, that is, read for its material quotidian core. Austin Locke performs a poetics of connection that makes something material: “everything points to the fact that somethingis wrong and yet there is nothing,” and in this little groove the thing rises up, becomes a thing through repetition. A little cohering structure builds up from emphases of voice, concentrations, intensities of attention.
Still, what is this thing? How does it do the work we used to expect from culture? How does it express identity and history? People I knew in Nevada felt the rushing future and the residue of history in one pulse. In her fieldwork in the Mojave Desert, Julia Sizek describes the intense value of history in an area supposedly without it. As in other desert places, the discourse of historical scarcity increases its value; in Nevada, it might be a bottle or a bit of Air Force debris. In the Mojave, where Sizek notes that age sixty is considered young, the elusive something that might make a publicly meaningful history manifests itself in an unknowable object, the Desert Speaker. What is it? Who put it there and why? Sizek finds that it doesn’t matter to the people who explore it. What matters is its generative charge for the project of making history: the Speaker’s capacity to accommodate multiple narratives, to “tell the story of a bored railroad man, a military installation, Native Americans, and a miner who found it after years of driving by and looking for rare rocks of the Mojave.” Even in that tiny hint of story—a miner happening upon the mystery while looking for “rare rocks of the Mojave”—we feel the pull of value as it slips into the increasingly rare. As the frontier narrative fades in value, the instability Sizek sees in its wake become reminders of a larger history, the displacement and genocide of people who lived in what was called an empty place when it was not.
Scanning for history, in the wake of historical violence, Sizek’s companions make a real that is “a web dense in connections,” and Eades notes “the elusive ways in which historical traumas and structural violence articulate with inchoate feelings of powerlessness and shifting projects of sensemaking in the American West.” Eades foregrounds the connections people develop, how these are taken up in the uncanny or the weird. And, as she notices, there is an uncanny aspect to reading the book itself—“how the anti-government, libertarian, and anti-establishment sentiments that shoot through [its] stories resonate strongly with today’s Trumpism.” This resonance is impossible to read around, although the stories I tell come from a different time. Something was already there. And the conspiratorial impulse can be—and is—exploited in ways that serve power.
But the people of whom I write, the experiencers, are intellectually driven, restlessly poetic and philosophical. They want to look power in the face even when it has no face, or when it has a million faces. Ayala-Alfonso nimbly describes it: “By rejecting . . . institutional knowledge as tainted by conspiracy and, as a result, by creating their own language, knowledge base, and sites of encounter, the experiencers are breaking away from the histories of negligence and social injustice.”
This rejection is often lodged in an inchoate sense of things that seem wrong. It is a jolt of exhilaration or terror when you see something move in the sky that you can’t name. It is a rush of almost knowing when you see the parts almost come together. And that resistance to the imaginary mainstream can be taken up in ways that have either devastating or liberatory intentions and effects.
What does it mean now, many years after most of the people in my book hung out with me, to look at the residual conquest story still doubling back, still saturating the present and future? I feel it flooding in again, at this moment of unbearable precariousness, in our response to our vulnerable Earth. The first modern UFO drifted down as fallout soon after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan. The abductees I knew back then said: we are like the Native Americans were when the Spanish came from another world, conquering. Now, as a nuclear numbness sets in, the former director of a U.S. military program tasked to investigate UFOs has quit the Pentagon and joined something called To the Stars Academy of the Arts and Science, a science and entertainment corporation run by Tom DeLonge, the former guitarist of the band Blink 182.
All that seems to be certain in this moment of instability is the devouring forward movement of capitalism. As UFOs appear on the front page of the New York Times, Elon Musk launches his own Tesla Roadster into space. That dream, hundreds of years old, of the conquering forward movement adds another layer to the story of UFO invasions: here the story comes again, the story of sucking one world dry and moving on to another. The story of colonization floods into the surge in the air. Maybe there’s another new world, it whispers. Maybe we can use this one up: extract everything we can and then go on to conquer the next place, somewhere beyond the frontier, somewhere up there. A public resignation becomes palpable.
As the essays in this forum remind us, the inchoate, the energetic, and the uncanny flood histories into futures. Once UFOs came down like colonizers of the galaxy. The first photographs of Earth from space gave the whole thing a vertiginous jolt. Now the Earth is more center-stage in the colonizing story than it ever was before.
Stewart, Kathleen. 2017. “In the World that Affect Proposed.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 2: 192–98.