America: The Usable Cliché

America: The Usable Cliché

2001-09-01
Reciting America
Christopher Douglas
University of Illinois, 2001. 240pp.

Sue Im-Lee reviews Reciting America by Christopher Douglas.

In Reciting America, Christopher Douglas examines the discursive facility of the “American dream” as the fundamental cliché that “America,” as a national, historical, and social body, uses to talk of itself to itself. Douglas by no means assumes a monolithic vision of “America” as a geopolitical and cultural entity, nor does he delineate a singular narrative or genealogy of the American dream. Rather, what he rightfully brings to the fore is the extent to which the discourse of the American dream, like other ideals of American national exceptionalism (liberty, justice, right of self-determination, self-reliant individualism), functions as a national ideology, as individuals past and present invoke its vocabulary, myths, and ideals to map themselves as American citizen-subjects, economic-subjects, and literary-subjects. Hence Reciting America explores the linguistic, semiotic, and most importantly, the social significance of reciting American clichés.

In this venture, Douglas proposes a “theory of citational practice” in which a “praxis of quotation” transforms individuals into “American” subjects in and through the language of the American dream. At the same time, he reads Russell Banks’s Continental Drift, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and T. Coraghessan Boyle’s East Is East precisely for their critique and resistance to the “American dream” ideals - for example, the promise of a democratic, egalitarian access to upward mobility, ceaseless progress, and ever-expanding inclusiveness of belonging. Hence, the drama of Douglas’s analysis lies in the contradictory nature of the American dream as a cliché: its deployment in an individual’s act of instating herself into a recognizable American subjecthood, and its ideological smugness and political placidity in an individual’s struggle against its iconic stature:

I regard the ideological material by which the citizen becomes representable and self-intelligible in the nation not as a kind of false consciousness that acts only to limit perception and determine action but as a language that fundamentally enables reflection, affection, and action – albeit only in certain already established paths and trajectories. (13)

By taking the discourse of “America” as his object of analysis, Douglas continues recent works in American Studies, particularly the works of Sacvan Bercovitch (esp. The Rites of Assent, 1993) and of Lauren Berlant (The Anatomy of National Fantasy, 1993) which examine narratives of American national self-description as discursive sites of affective power as well as of innumerable fissures. But Douglas’s study of American self-description through the American dream’s “words, stories, and discourses that are said again and said differently” conducts an innovative exploration of the social life of clichés as a “preoccupied form of speech” (19). The first chapter is an invaluable introduction to the semiotic, sociological, and hermeneutic dimensions of the cliché, preparing the reader for Douglas’s reading of American dream-clichés of exceptionalism and progress, as well as the racial and cultural clichés (“stereotypes”) trained upon racialized ethnic subjects. As he reads the works of “ethnic majority” writers alongside those of “ethnic minority” writers, Douglas reflects the growing interest in the interethnic comparative approach in recent scholarships of contemporary U.S. fiction. Reciting America is particularly exemplary in intervening in the canonicity debate, paying close attention not only to interethnic concerns, but also to intraethnic conflicts that accompany literary acts of ethnic minority representation (in particular, the controversial reception of Invisible Man in the African American community and that of The Woman Warrior in the Chinese American community.)

As Douglas examines the contradictory significance of the American dream, two theoretical precepts inform the shape and the direction of his argument. His exploration of the American dream as a cliché begins with Bakhtin’s theorization of “heteroglossia,” the always-already socially and ideologically inflected nature of language: “[T]he word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intention” (Dialogic Imagination 293). Douglas calls upon an impressive array of language theorists to problematize the notion of “populating” language (here, the discourse of the American dream) with an individual’s own “intention.” Douglas ultimately returns to Sacvan Bercovitch’s work to theorize the impossibility of this venture. Bercovitch identifies in American culture “an omnivorous oppositionalism that ingest[s] all competing modes of radicalism,” an oppositionalism that displaces “radical alternatives” to current structures of power and knowledge (The Rites of Assent 19). As Douglas examines the works of Banks, Ellison, Kingston, and Boyle for the ways their respective characters seek to “populate” the cliché of American dream with their own intentions, the two pillars of Douglas’s theoretical framework, in essence, have already answered the fate of their success. Although the writers and their characters may passionately criticize and creatively modify the American national and cultural ideals, their discursive acts of resistance, inasmuch as they are compelled by the promise of the American dream, cannot throw off the vocabulary, language, and values of the American dream.

For these authors, there is no counterdiscursive vantage point from which to view the nation and develop its evaluation by way of an alternative measure that does not then become absorbed into already existing vocabulary. (10-11)

Although Douglas’s conclusions seem bound by the conditions of possibility set forth by his theoretical premises, he excels in showing the multiplicity and diversity of discourses that challenge the iconic dominance of the American dream. This is particularly true in his discussions of ethnic minority writers whose marginalized subject positioning testifies to the hollowness of the American national ideals. In his discussion of Invisible Man, for instance, Douglas traces a direct correlation between the narrator’s material and discursive quest for self-determination. The narrator’s physical movement across America is inseparable from his attempts to work through a series of existing discourses of race and American citizenship, such as the assimilative politics of Booker T. Washington, the Communist party ideology, and the Marcus Garvey-inspired black nationalism. Similarly, in his discussion of The Woman Warrior, Douglas effectively demonstrates the ideological significance of the narrator’s treatment of traditional Chinese stories, myths, American grade school recitations, American cultural codes of femininity, and more - acts of recitation that always take place with modifications.

As he concludes that these oppositional acts of recitation never lose their attraction to the discourse of the American dream, Douglas argues the extent to which the narrators employ

ideological material [by which they position themselves in the larger social body] as a language that fundamentally enables reflection, affection, and action – albeit in certain established paths and trajectories. (13)

Hence, Reciting America shows a keen appreciation for the consequences of engaging in politics of inclusion: one may modify, and sometimes even flout, the conditions of inclusion, but one may not entirely forego the discursive terms of American self-description. In the reflexive pattern of its argument, Reciting America shares what N. Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman (1999) Are We Posthuman Yet? describes as a determining characteristic of contemporary critical thinking – the “move of showing that an attribute previously considered to have emerged from a set of preexisting conditions is in fact used to generate the conditions” (9). In delineating how the concept of reflexivity in cybernetics challenged the liberal humanist model of the subject, Hayles defines “reflexivity” as “the movement whereby that which has been used to generate a system is made, through a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates” (8). The reflexive operations of the American dream, like Bakhtin’s theorization of “heteroglossia,” the word that is already “half someone else’s,” or Bercovitch’s identification of an “omnivorous oppositionalism” in American culture, can only return to the fold that enables its adventures in the first place. What we talk about when we talk about America is inescapably bound by American self-description – the recitations of various narratives featuring the American dream.

At the same time, it is interesting to wonder how the theoretical trajectory and literary analysis of Reciting America would be different if Douglas had taken, as an example of a literary “counterdiscourse,” works of someone like William Burroughs or Kathy Acker, whose formal incoherence rejects the politics of inclusion. How would deliberate acts of reciting “babble,” or “non-sense,” be situated in Douglas’s theoretical terrain? The possibility of a “real” counterdiscourse is one that Douglas briefly raises, when, in the concluding pages, he points to the contemporary native American writers (Leslie Marmon Silko, Sherman Alexie, Ray Young Bear) as offering “a set of truly alternative discourse” (180) which departs from the “reformist critique” (179) of Banks, Ellison, Kingston, or Boyle. But since Douglas limits his discussion of this exciting and unexpected possibility to less than a page, and only hints at a “reservation-based aesthetic” that “escape[s] the constraints of national discourse” (180), his celebration of their “truly” oppositional recitation of the nation stands awkwardly outside his theoretical framework. Reciting America is an impressively researched work, fleshing out the discursive manifestations of the American dream in the form of political proclamations, legal decisions, literature, and popular culture; but most admirably, its analysis of the language that America uses to represent itself to itself always maintains a crucial balance between critique and appreciation. Like the four authors he reads so carefully, Douglas gives full articulation to the compelling pull of the American dream.