It is an exquisitely delicate and dangerous time in America and in the world. Equally, it is a time of great confusion and disorientation and, perhaps too, a time of potential change so vast and deep as to still be unimaginable, hidden as it is just below the lip of tomorrow’s horizon. As counterintuitive as it may seem, it is on President George W. Bush’s watch that America finds itself awash in liminal space.
We are in the midst of a great rupture of the American Mythos that is political, social, cultural and psychological in its scope. It is a rupture that is still unfolding and expanding, wherein the dust has yet to settle. For the purposes of this essay, I am locating the start of this historic rupture on December 12, 2000, when, 36 days after Election Day, the United States Supreme Court ruled George W. Bush the winner and new President.
Other major nodal points within the unraveling are: the attacks on the Word Trade Center and the Pentagon; the war in Afghanistan and the dispersal of the Taliban government; the preemptive military invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq; the revelations that all justifications for attacking Iraq have been found to be lies and the subsequent “apology” by the likes of The New York Times over their suspension of any kind of critical journalism; and, finally, the photographic exposé of the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. While there are many other threads indeed, they reveal themselves daily that are part of the overall fallout connected to these episodes that could be pointed to and even brought into the foreground, these will suffice to lend a graphic description of the disorienting and destabilizing nature of these last three-and-one-half years.
The dominant myth about America, both domestically and regarding its role in the world, is that the United States is founded on the principles of democracy, guided by Enlightenment rationality and the rule of law, has created a cornucopia of commodities through cleanly refereed competition and good old American know-how, and merely wants to assist the rest of the world in sharing in the American Dream. As a nation, this heroic myth continues, we have consistently stood our ground against tyranny and oppression, never once violating our own guiding principles. At our best as a people we are personable, optimistic (though perhaps sometimes innocently naïve), and generous and God-fearing; at our worst we may be loud, brash, arrogant, and insensitive. Ours is a history of progress over all obstacles, triumphalist images of “One Nation Under God,” and the magnanimous inclusion of all “the homeless and tempest tossed” within the Great Melting Pot. Overall, we are the Good Guys.
It is not difficult to imagine that the years under the current Bush Administration beginning with the ballot-counting process itself have indeed slammed head-first into the very solar plexus of America’s guiding and orienting myth. Everywhere we look, we are being asked to look again and assess who we are as Americans and what America really stands for. Yet generations of reinforced social conformity, via schools, religious institutions, businesses and civic organizations, makes any open-eyed, critical examination akin to swimming upstream through a raging torrent. For, as Dr. Helene Lorenz (2000) makes clear,
" [I]t is very likely that our entire understanding of the world is shaped by the habits of the home-culture, for it is through this formation that we come to know ourselves as gendered, embodied persons with specific identities and norms of behavior. It would not be unusual for most people to be in a state of, at least, partial identification with the collective [or dominant] consciousness, which Jung believed would lead to psychological disaster in modern Western culture" (p.229).
It is exactly our identifications partial and otherwise with the American imaginary that are being rent and torn under a daily bombardment of dissonant images and revelations about our political leaders, our reasons for going to war, the objectivity of our press and media, and our rapidly eroding “standard of living.” Psychologically, the majority of the American people are reeling under what can only be described as “shock and awe.” As disruptive as this can feel, the entry into the liminal space that has been opened up by this current rupture is the first step in breaking the spell of the myth that keeps us in thrall to the status quo.
"If this pressure toward social conformity is so intense, it can be only with the greatest experience of personal conflict or opposition that we can begin to make a break. In other words, from the point of view of Jungian depth psychology, an interior experience of ambivalence, struggle, alienation, and doubt could be the beginning of an important process, enabling an individual [or a society] to overcome some of the dissociative tendencies constantly reproduced within our culture" (Lorenz, 2000, p.229, emphasis added).
An interior experience, a felt experience in the body and in the body politic is indeed the first signs of waking up. There is no doubt that in America the alarm clock is ringing insistently, yet waking, looking around and really noticing, and opening to a real critique of everything that formerly held meaning and stability is not a simple, linear process. Not only are the forces of inertia and habit still in play, but fear of the unknown (along with the lack of any clear guide) continues to hold movement through the liminal in check, however spasmodically. Equally important, at least at this initial stage of the journey, is the outright threat of repression (Patriot Acts and police state realities), and all manner of “alternative” realities being advanced with the explicit goal of renormalizing the American Myth.
As someone who has considered himself at one time a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist, it is quite possible that my assessment regarding the profound nature of this current moment in history is colored by the persistent and wishful image of a gathering “revolutionary situation,” that though fraught with danger also holds the opportunity for the marginalized to make a clean sweep of all oppressive conditions and institutions. Yet even as I place this “lefty” magical thinking to one side, it remains clear to me that unlike the 1930s and the 1960s, the people of America and the entire world teeter on the cusp of a rupture so radical and all-encompassing a global rupture within which what is taking place in America is but the ignition device that the question of how we choose to live together on this planet will no longer be able to be denied or determined by a single power.
To understand this more fully, it is important to examine exactly what the roiling waters of this rupture-produced liminal space are forcing to the surface. I will describe what I see as the two most important openings wherein “prophetic dialogues” might take place.
First, even before the world exploded into the polarized clash of fundamentalisms, Literalist Christianism versus Literalist Islamacism, the issue of a rigged Presidential election was forcefully driven into all aspects of the mosaic that makes up the American psyche. The tampering with voter rolls in Florida and the subsequent use of the Supreme Court to decide the contest has rendered the electoral applecart, if not quite overturned, exceedingly unsteady. Counterpoised with fears about pro-Republican computerized voting machines stealing the 2004 election and open discussion over the possibility that another terrorist attack would demand the suspension of the Constitution and the declaration of martial law, strident voices continue to shout the slogan “Anybody But Bush” as a rallying cry to get out the vote come November.
It is here, in the arena of electoral politics, that “the drag and weight of our historical, cultural, and personal complexes are [so] forceful…[that]we cling rigidly to the constructs of the past, ceremonializing them and rejecting all new elements as polluting” (Lorenz & Watkins, 2003, p.27).
The incredible fetishism surrounding the inviolability of the “right to vote,” which can lead to outright anger and ostracizing anyone who chooses not to exercise this right, has kept most Americans in the dark when it comes to understanding that elected officials are continually enacting laws that serve very specialized interests and in which the electorate has no say.
The whole electoral construct is but a spinning hamster wheel designed to give the illusion of forward motion and change. Even after the experience of Election 2000, the current alarms about computerized voting, and growing rumors of suspending the next election, many are still clinging to voting Bush out of the White House as the lifesaver of “normative restoration” for our frightened psyches.
Yet the debate is not about whether to vote or not to vote that is indeed not the question. For at rock bottom, the compelling issue living betwixt and between these two polarities is not how we might elect good leaders but how we might become good leaders. Implicated in this re-imagined role for ourselves is the issue of finding new forums within which all voices most especially the marginalized and disenfranchised might testify to the shortcomings of “representative democracy” and, out of that dialogue, finding the new forms for self-governance. In fact, a dialogue needs to go right to the heart of what the construct “We the People” actually means within contemporary America. Homi Bhabha (1990), explains the incisive importance of engaging in this inquiry:
"The concept of the people is not 'given,' as an essential, class-determined, unitary, homogeneous part of society prior to a politics; 'the people' are there as a process of political articulation and political negotiation across a whole range of contradictory social sites. 'The people' always exist as a multiple form of identification, waiting to be created and constructed.
"This sort of politics, articulating minority constituencies across disjunctive, differential social positions, does not produce that kind of vanguardist 'lead from the front' attitude. If you have this notion of “the people” as being constructed (through cultural difference and hybridity as I’ve suggested above), then you avoid that very simplistic polarity between the ruler and the ruled: any monolithic description of authoritative power…based on that kind of binarism, is not going to be a very accurate reflection of what is actually happening in the world" (pp.220-21, emphasis in original).
Yet it is exactly this kind of binarism the power of the rulers over the ruled that has characterized what has taken place in America since its founding and now liminally proposes its own undoing. Here we see, on a national scale, the potential for what Bhabha describes as “the importance of the alienation of the self in the construction of forms of solidarity” (p.213) in this case the alienation of a monolithic “American self” as embodied in “We the People.”
This kind of dialogic inquiry into the nature and history of the American political trajectory could create further cracks and fissures in the mythical melting pot (so often stirred by calls to nationalism and patriotism); it is a dialogue that could open a field for real translation and negotiation that leads to true solidarity between the many cultures within and without America’s borders.
The second major opening that this current period of rupture has revealed has to do with the nature of America’s role in the world. It is a testament of the times just how dramatically the velvet glove, that for decades has disguised American aggression (principally from the American people themselves), has, as a result of all the machinations prior to and including the invasion of Iraq, been ripped off to reveal the iron fist that has long characterized American foreign policy. There are currently four major books that have rushed in to fill the vacuum created by the shift to preemptive war (and all that is associated with that shift), each one aimed at renormalizing the devastating glimpses provided of America’s global shadow.
Gore Vidal’s Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia, and Chalmers Johnson’s The Sorrows Of Empire, both harken back to the heady “remember when” days of Franklin D. Roosevelt: all the people regardless of race or class pulling together as a united citizenry, the government truly assisting those in need, and America skillfully forging alliances with its international allies. While Johnson feels that America has crossed the point of no return and that disaster likely awaits the United States, Vidal essentially poses the question “where do we go to get our good name back?” The answer, in a voice that desires to ingather the unraveling threads, is indeed to “go back.”
Two other books, attempting to couch their efforts at renormalizing America’s image as world leader, appear to come from the opposite end of the spectrum than Vidal and Johnson theirs is an image of “going forward,” an image made all the more insidious by their appeal that America’s power can be used for the good of all.
Jim Garrison, co-founder (along with Mikhail Gorbachev) of the State of the World Forum, has recently written "America As Empire"; economics historian Niall Ferguson has offered into the mix, Colossus: The Price Of America’s Empire. The throughline in both of these books is the authors’ realpolitik assessment that America is indeed an empire and the only question, therefore, is how the American colossus can most effectively remake the world in its own image.
The overriding problem with this particular fantasy, as I’ve written elsewhere, is that “Absent from this view is any consideration that the world may not share this vision of an even greater American hegemony, or that U.S. imperialism may not be the pinnacle of human evolution” (Donovan, 2004, online essay).
Repeatedly citing the chaos and crises engulfing the world today, the myriad countries bogged down under tyranny or anarchy, both authors advocate a 21st Century resurrection of the “White Man’s Burden.” As Ferguson (2004) writes:
"First, remember that people may kill one another even more in the absence of empire see sub-Saharan Africa. Second, if we don’t extend our civilization, an even worse empire may emerge see the Cold War….So liberal empire has a discrete and distinct function to perform. It has to impose and I stress impose the rule of law. That has to happen before you hold elections" (online interview).
Jim Garrison’s (2004) perspective, while attempting to lend a nobility to this willful hegemony by using phrases that paint America as “a transitional empire” that will midwife itself out of existence as “the final empire,” echoes precisely the same kind of superiority and chauvinism as expressed above:
"What both Americans and the world must internalize is that no one is even remotely capable of leading this effort but the United States….Other powers that could one day serve as regional sources of stability and order…are themselves either unformed, unstable, or not sufficiently coherent….
Until there is a sufficiently strong matrix of global institutions to ensure global stability and prosperity, there is literally no one else to lead the world but America" (pp.36-37).
This is a powerful illustration of what David Spurr (1993) describes as the “rhetoric of affirmation,” wherein "colonial discourse…continually returns to an idealization of the colonialist enterprise against the setting of emptiness and disorder by which it has defined the other. Colonialism must always reaffirm its value in the face of an engulfing nothingness" (p.109).
And perhaps even more prophetically, this unbridled affirmation of empire belies the fact that empire itself is being called into question in this time of rupture. Spurr (1993), elaborating on Homi Bhaba’s insight as to the “fundamental ambivalence inherent in positions of authority,” explains this seeming paradox thusly:
"Once authority begins to be asserted, however, there opens up a split between assertion and authority itself, in which the latter is revealed as conditional and contingent on its representation. Affirmations of authority can now be seen as strategic devices necessary for the maintenance of that authority, rather than as simple manifestations of an unquestioned presence.
"[T]he rhetoric of affirmation has this curious feature, that the intensity of is repetition 'for always,' 'for the entire world; increases as its authority loses its grasp. It begins to protest too much" (pp.124).
These words are a good reminder of the great potential and the great complexity that lie immanent when moving through ever-shifting liminal space. As I have scanned the contemporary landscape, attempting to understand the rupture that has been suppurating over these last three-and-one-half years, as well as my response to it, I have had to struggle through a despair that travels on the back of an impatience born from an uprooted and truncated sense of my own ancestors and my own history. A quick-fix mentality and my own arrogance (isn’t anybody waking up!?) have also clouded my appreciation for the seemingly small ways the rupture is being responded to; after all, as physicists and shamans have taught us, due to the non-local nature of the universe, every local act reverberates throughout the soul and psychic field of the world and each of us. I hope that these images of possible openings to dialogue that I have described herein will also be local acts that ripple outward.
One day, during a long reverie on the state of our planet, I found myself engaged in what Aurora Levins Morales (1998, pp.45-49) calls “nightflying.” In allowing myself to pierce and be pierced by the darkness, I unearthed this poem. In simple words it performed a poignant enantiodromia on the concept of “White Man’s Burden,” filling me with a sudden and distinct sense of what it might be like for someone to carry the burden of its affects. It was a move that completely immersed me in the sadness inherent in loss of land, of roots, of memory. Yet simultaneously it showed me that remembering is the exquisite and necessary pain that provides safe passage for all of us through these uncharted, living waters.
The White Mans
Lost in the forest, I
broke off a dark twig
Wakening from the
dreaming forest there, the
Let us find the scent
that enables us to help
T. Patrick Donovan is a doctoral student in Depth Psychology. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by T. Patrick Donovan
Bhabha, H. (1990). “The third space.” In J. Rutherford (Ed.). Identity: Community, Culture and Difference. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Donovan, T. (2004). The seduction and recruitment of progressives. Santa Rosa, CA: Dissident Voice. Retrieved June 16, 2004. http://www.dissidentvoice.org/April2004/Donovan0415.htm.
Ferguson, N. (2004). Our imperial imperative. New York: The Atlantic Online. Retrieved June 1, 2004. http://www.theatlantic.com/cgi-bin/?page=http%3A//www.theatlantic.com/unbound…
Garrison, J. (2004). America as empire. In What is enlightenment? magazine. Lenox, MA: Moksha Press.
Lorenz, H. (2000).”The presence of absence: Mapping postcolonial spaces.” In L. Corbett. & D. Slattery (Eds.). Depth psychology: Meditations from the Field. Einsiedlen: Daimon.
Lorenz, H. & Watkins, M. (2003). Depth psychology and colonialism: Individuation, seeing-through, and liberation. Quadrant XXXIII:I.
Morales, A. (1998). Medicine stories: History, culture and the politics of integrity. Cambridge: South End Press.
Neruda, P. White Man’s Burden. Retrieved June 14, 2004. http://oldpoetry.com/oprintall/Pablo%20Neruda
Spurr, D. (1993). The
rhetoric of empire: Colonial discourse in journalism, travel writing, and
imperial administration. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.