11.17.2007

Two books about dreaming

Recently I finished two books: Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America and Stephen Duncombe's Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. It didn't occur to me until I'd finished that both were books that had "dream" in the name and dealt with dreaming--not sleep dreams, but dreams as a metaphor for the symbolic order that I've talked about here and elsewhere, the realm of cultural meaning-making where we create and perpetuate the narratives that buttress our societal hierarchies.

In The Terror Dream, Faludi examines the narrative of the heroic male warrior and terrified female victim that emerged almost immediately after 9/11, that in fact functioned as one of the main ways our society made sense of 9/11. She brings in example after example from the mainstream media to show how this narrative got perpetuated even when it was counter-factual. Even if you start off skeptical, it's hard to dispute her point by the end. She also shows how viciously people responded when this narrative was challenged, either by women who were left out of it (when a documentary was made to highlight the women who participated in the rescue effort at the World Trade Center, responses included calling the film "a disgraceful display" and NOW, the organization that made the film, "a bunch of partial-birth sadomaso lesbos") or by the NYC firefighters themselves. The second part of the book takes a bit of a surprising turn, when she examines the historical roots of this particular American story in the captivity narratives of the colonial period. My scholarly sensibility enjoyed this twist, but I'm not sure that the general reading public is going to find this interesting or relevant. But in general, this is an important book that exposes how regressive gender politics were invoked in the aftermath of a national crisis and what the consequences have been. (As a totally unrelated point, I want to say how famous-by-proxy I felt when she mentioned my friend Jenn Pozner by name!)

Dream is a book about how progressive politicos in this country have been too fully wedded to rationality. Duncombe argues that those of us who are committed to progressive ideals seem to believe that if we just make our case reasonably, with lots of facts to back us up, we'll sway public opinion, but he explains that people don't just need rationality--they need stories, ideals, dreams. They need spectacle. The right has done a great job of marshaling the spectacle of fear to back up their points of view, but the left hasn't countered with an equally valid spectacular appeal. He says, "We need to rethink progressive politics in terms of the quality of our gameplay. Perhaps one of the reasons progressives are not winning much these days is that lately our game isn’t much fun to play." He offers examples of folks who are creating the kinds of "ethical spectacles" he believes are called for these days, folks like Reverend Billy and Billionaires for Bush who are doing creative, energizing, activist interventions that appeal to people's need for community, or entertainment, or just play, rather than appealing simply to the rational brain. (And what Duncombe doesn't point out is that all these kinds of activism are also known as interventionist art, which is what Biffle studied/did in graduate school, and there are loads more examples than he points out in his book.)

Both books highlight the importance of how arguments get made and supported. They examine how ideas become compelling--how the repetition of certain sets of images, like that of the courageous male firefighter, can create not only expectations but our sense of what's true in the world around us, even if the facts don't back us up. On a personal level, I appreciated them because sometimes I become concerned that the research I do isn't real enough, that perhaps it's foolish to study representations and created works in a world that's full of weighty material problems. What both books reminded me is that the weighty material problems are perpetuated, complicated, and enabled by the stories we tell as a culture, so studying those stories is indeed meaningful work.

4 comments:

Aaron said...

I'm just writing to say...heh heh...buttress

Anonymous said...

Interesting. The second book is similar to the article about the psychology of morality I mentioned a few months ago. Not in the way you mention, but in the sense of making arguments that get heard, and the different components/domains of a "rational" argument recognized by people on the right and left of a political spectrum. check it out (Jon Haidt is working on this now. He does work on happiness, too.) See the article "When morality opposes justice" at http://haidt.socialpsychology.org/

-djl

Christine said...

Just read your "Choosing Us" article. Do you have any children now?

jaz said...

If the last several years have demonstrated anything, it is that rational arguments don't carry a whole lot of weight with a whole lot of the population.