The prolific New York Times columnist Frank Rich, who provides steady commentary on a distinctive and developing American politics of fear, pronounced nearly a year ago that the era of America “fearing fear itself” is over. Perhaps this is indeed a historical time whose characteristic feature is the inauguration of a culture of fear. It seems, though, that the real concern in this American moment is not the alleged authority of the current bombastic political phrasing (“war on terror,” “homeland security”) but the ability of the reigning discourse to hamper the collective spirit to question, and the relegation of the popular imagination to political despondency. For if it is true that we live in a period when the propagation of collective fear runs rampant, it is also true that there can be an intervention in this narrative, a collective rejection that we are the inevitable victims of this fear.
Perhaps we are experiencing something similar to the affect of The Lost Generation of Gertrude Stein’s 1920s. Then, at the height of American modernism, as now, we are living through material prosperity, affluence and economic success, which is also accompanied by a general deterioration of ethical priorities. And so in this inconsistent climate, we are compelled to reassess what it means to be American, to act American, and to comport oneself as American. What does it mean to slip into an American identity today? What does it means to fashion an American subjectivity sensitive to the political demands of the present, but also attentive to the imperatives of the future?
The interruption of the grand narrative of fear comes in the form of questioning predictable symbols of comfort. In a recent shoot, we dressed our models and outfitted them with signs, physically taking a stance on such huge issues as corrosion of the environment, the chronic debting of private and public economies, and the general militarization and hostile territorialization of our world. Model Tiana’s prompt for us to “Engage” is more a plea than a command.
John Dos Passos’ John Andrews, a soldier as well as a musician and a dreamer, poetically asks in the WWI novel Three Soldiers: “Would not some lightning flash of vision sear people’s consciousness into life again?” The quote compels me to think differently about the custom of ceremonial fireworks. Curiously, fireworks are not only a tribute to a familiar American tradition, but a visual signal of transformations yet to come. The familiar and sustaining sense of patriotism is perhaps always already ruptured: The overstuffed quality of American life and the inflation of current political language erupt in fireworks this Fourth of July. Deafened by sound, as the noise dissipates, maybe we will begin to listen again.