March 11th, 2006

operesque

Post-American

It's slightly strange for me to be back in America, because, personally, I'm post-American. Starting in 1996, I visited the US many times to play shows and do tours. I even ended up moving to New York, where I lived between March 2000 and March 2002. For a little while I might even have looked "pre-American" -- in the sense that I might have considered taking steps towards some kind of permanent residency status (as my ex-wife is now doing, though without any great enthusiasm). But after the Bush "victory" in 2000 and 9/11, I quickly became "post-American". I lost any interest in living in this country.

So it's entirely appropriate that the biennial which has brought me back is being widely described as "the post-American biennial". That term is an interesting one, and it's being used with different shades of meaning. The most trivial sense is how Linda Yablonsky in the New York Times uses the phrase: this is the "post-American" biennial because curators Philippe Vergne and Chrissie Iles are both Europeans, and because for the first time the Whitney Biennial is including foreign-born artists (like me).

Jerry Saltz, in his review of the Whitney Biennial in the Village Voice, uses the term with a wider political implication. For him the show is both "un-American" and "post-America":

"Iles and Vergne are European, more than a quarter of the 101 participating artists were born outside the U.S., and sundry others live elsewhere part-time. Even the show's title comes from a French movie, François Truffaut's 1973 film, although the movie's original title describes the biennial and the country better, The American Night."

"This show, and the art world, are trying to do what America can't or won't do: Use its power wisely, innovatively, and with attitude; be engaged and, above all, not define being a citizen of the world narrowly... "Day for Night" speaks to a nation that is no longer an ideal but only a country. That makes this the Post-America Biennial."

Over at Time Out, Andrea K. Scott tells us that "Day For Night, the new Whitney Biennial, pledges allegiance to post-America":

"Iles is British and Vergne is French, and this year the outmoded "made in the USA" Biennial mandate has been pretty much scrapped... Even the phrase "Day For Night" has foreign roots: It's the English translation of the title to Francois Truffaut's film La Nuit Americaine.... These are dark days, Iles and Vergne seem to suggest. The country is a Halliburton-backed war machine and art has pushed past its borders into a liminal twilight zone. The real accomplishment of this biennial may be in "Prying History Loose, Not Nailing It Down" (to quote Bradley Eros's essay in the exceptionally well-conceived catalog). Despite the occasional splinter, the curators have successfully dismantled the house that Breuer (and Altria) built, with an eye on a post-American world."

The origin of this talk of "post-America" is this statement of the curators in the biennial catalog: "At a moment when world opinion of the United States is at its lowest ebb... there seemed to be a particular urgency to make a bold curatorial statement about the current zeitgeist... The "day for night" that it reveals suggests an impulse that could be termed premodern, or pre-Enlightenment, confirming the sociologist of science Bruno Latour's argument that we have yet to become modern. We are, in other words, in a "post-America," in which America has become more of a nation than an ideal."

Now, clearly this "post-America" meme stands in opposition to the meme of the "project for a new American century", the fundamental document of the neo-con regime, justification for endless hawkish American interventions throughout the world. "Post-America" suggests that the "new American century" has already failed, a suspicion confirmed by any glance at the headlines from Iraq, or any comparison of New York's 20th century skyline with Shanghai's 21st century one.

There are other uses of the term "post-American", though. Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigrant lobby opposed to the granting of American citizenship to Mexicans, or to the employment of non-American soldiers in the US military, citizens of countries like the Philippines, lured by the possibility of a US green card ("Give me American citizenship or give me death", you could call it). Here's Krikorian in the National Review:

"Let me be clear what I mean by a post-American. He's not an enemy of America — not Alger Hiss or Jane Fonda or Louis Farrakhan. He's not necessarily even a Michael Moore or Ted Kennedy. A post-American may actually still like America, but the emotion resembles the attachment one might feel to, say, suburban New Jersey — it can be a pleasant place to live, but you're always open to a better offer. The post-American has a casual relationship with his native country, unlike the patriot, "who more than self his country loves," as Katharine Lee Bates wrote. Put differently, the patriot is married to America; the post-American is just shacking up.

"Now, there are two kinds of post-American. David Frum, in his "Unpatriotic Conservatives" article for NR last year, highlighted what I think is the less important kind: Those who focus on something less than America, whether white nationalists or neo-Confederates, etc. The second, more consequential and problematic kind are those who have moved beyond America, "citizens of the world," as the cliché goes — in other words citizens (at least in the emotional sense) of nowhere in particular."

This definition comes in an article entitled "Post-Americans: They’ve just “grown” beyond their country." The inverted commas around "grown" -- as well as his phrase "citizens of nowhere in particular" -- make Krikorian's attitude to these people clear: they're A Bad Thing. He ends the article with a question: "The most important long-term political question we face: Who are we — America or post-America?"

One of the pieces I do in the Biennial is a short joke, a piece of disinformation: "America will soon be a part of the European Union." It may not be true, but one thing I've noticed is that many of the young Americans who've been talking to me in the gallery are planning to leave the US at the earliest opportunity, to live in Europe or elsewhere. They're post-Americans in the way Krikorian describes... and deplores.

Unlike Krikorian, I'm not worried by these people at all; they seem sane and wise, well-prepared to deal with a post-American world. It's the ones who stay at home, the 93% of Americans who don't have a passport but who do vote for governments with a foreign policy, who worry me, and especially the kinds of policies they may start voting for when they begin to notice that the 21st century is beginning to look distinctly... post-American.