Plastering political bumper stickers on the back of your car or truck may win you friends and enemies, but paying for a customized wrap-around paint job takes vehicular self-expression to a whole new level. When I saw this SUV parked in front of my local Trader Joe’s recently, I had to tip my cap. Because even if I found the message it communicated a little monomaniacal, there was no denying the owner’s passion.
“Passion” is definitely the word, since this memorial indicates a worldview inextricably bound up with being a victim, the sort of person who acts only because she or he has been acted upon, a cipher fleshed into being by violence. In her book States of Injury, American political theorist Wendy Brown brilliantly dissects this subject position. “It is freedom’s relationship to identity — its promise to address a social injury or marking that is itself constitutive of identity — that yields the paradox in which the first imaginings of freedom are always constrained by and potentially even require the very structure of oppression that freedom emerges to oppose.”
Although Brown wrote those words in the early 1990s, they capture the feel of the post-9/11 United States much better than most of the commentaries produced in the wake of the attacks. Part of her concern was with marginalized groups that embrace the collective identities imposed on them from without, such as those who were proudly calling themselves “queers” and “niggers” at the tumultuous end of the Cold War. But the scope of her argument was broad enough to interrogate all forms of liberal subjectivity.
“In the specific context of contemporary liberal and bureaucratic disciplinary discourse,” she asked, “what kind of political recognition can identity-based claims seek — and what kind can they be counted on to want — that will not resubordinate a subject itself historically subjugated through identity.” Although more abstract and impartial on the surface, it can be argued that nationalism is just as problematic, ultimately, as the interest groups it should theoretically subsume.
Interestingly, Brown makes an implicit case for internationalism, not with the Marxist tradition usually invoked to that end, but its longstanding bête noire. The chains forged by injured and therefore injurious identities can only be broken if the need to “give up these investments” is comprehended. Only then will it be possible “to engage in something of a Nietzschean ‘forgetting’ of this history, in the pursuit of an emancipatory democratic project.”
When Americans by the millions posted images of the burning twin towers last Wednesday alongside the injunction to “never forget”, they were doing exactly the opposite. To be sure, twelve years on much of this commemoration seemed like a reflex rather than evidence of a still-raw wound. But its sheer extent speaks volumes about what American political identity has devolved into as a consequence of al-Qaida’s improbable success. Americans may disagree vehemently about how to prevent further attacks, but few would be so bold as to argue that preventing them isn’t the nation’s top priority.
As almost any athlete can tell you, though, the steps we take to avoid the recurrence of an injury rob us of the freedom to follow our instincts. Frequently, this favoring results in secondary and tertiary injuries, until the original trauma becomes the center of the body’s universe. When the analogous process plays out in the political arena, the potential outcomes are practically destined to be bleak. The insistence that we “never forget” ends up making us forget what we were like before we had something bad to remember.
Commentary and photographs courtesy of Charlie Bertsch.