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Life between Two Deaths, 1989-2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties

Phillip E. Wegner

(Duke University Press; US: Jul 2009)

A Politics of Inaction?

With the passing of the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, many of us find ourselves trying once again to accomplish that impossible task—to make sense of the seemingly unimaginable, to forge meaning out of a seemingly nihilistic act. While many commentators are tempted to utter the trite banality that this was a moment when everything changed, Phillip E. Wegner attempts to demonstrate in his new monograph Life Between Two Deaths, 1989-2001: US Culture in the Long Nineties that the 9/11 attacks were in some ways an echo of an earlier “death”, that is, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.


Wegner, drawing on ideas set forth by Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek, sees the attacks as the “second death” that makes sense of the earlier traumatic end. Hence, 11 September 2001 brought to a close the “long ‘90s”, inaugurated by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Citing Walter Benjamin’s conceptualization of the Jetztzeit, Wegner depicts this period as open to all possibilities, possibilities that come crashing down with the World Trade Center attacks and the subsequent War on Terror. In writing of the historical openness of the period under consideration, Wegner hopes to encourage the reader to see the present as open to possibility despite the seemingly bleak closure brought about by the War on Terror.


Wegner then examines several cultural products from the period of the long ‘90s (and a few from after the attacks) in order to discern the ways in which they engage with the openness of the period and, in some ways, portend its closure. The author’s specific concern is with the notion of periodization and a concern with repetition (specifically in the manner of the “second death”, a repetition that clarifies the meaning of the original Event—in the manner in which Alain Badiou uses the term). Thus he examines such cultural texts as the Terminator and Matrix trilogies (texts that have the issue of repetition built into them through the very nature of sequels); the Scorsese remake of Cape Fear, and the Joe Haldeman’s trilogy of novels The Forever War, Forever Peace, and Forever Free. Wegner also tackles texts in which the importance of repetition is less immediately apparent such as the films Independence Day, Fight Club, and Ghost Dog; the television series Buffy, the Vampire Slayer; and Don DeLillo’s remarkable novel Underworld.


This is a heady and arguably uneven mix. While Wegman insists that these cultural texts are “some of the most interesting work in popular, mass, and genre fiction, film, and television produced in these years”, I fear that I fail to find the Terminator films and especially the horribly contrived Independence Day to hold anywhere near the interest (for me) that I find in DeLillo’s book, Fight Club, or even the better episodes of Buffy. What makes Independence Day of any interest in the book is Wegner’s virtuosic attempts to make that film seem relevant to the social concerns and aspirations of the ‘90s.


And Wegner throws everything he has at the film. He opens with three epigraphs (Marx, Derrida, and Kracauer), opens the chapter with a consideration of Hegel and Francis Fukuyama’s ideas concerning the End of History, reads the film in tandem with Derrida’s beautiful but flawed (my opinion not Wegner’s and I will come back to this below) lecture Specters of Marx, compares the alien invaders to Freud’s notion of the “death drive” (why does everyone in literature studies obsess over a tepid faux-Lacanian take on the death drive?), and manages to reference everything from Zizek to The Simpsons to Laclau to Dr. Strangelove. If it sounds like a bit much, it is—at least in this case. One gets the impression that Wegner marshals these other texts into the conversation merely to have something more interesting than the film to discuss.


In other cases, however, Wegner’s readings are enlightening and truly fascinating. His handling of Buffy is an engaging exploration of the kinship structures articulated by that television series. But already we can see the difference between this and Wegner’s discussion of Independence Day. In grappling with Buffy as cultural text, Wegner relies largely upon the work of Judith Butler (specifically her concern with the creation of extra-familial kinship structures) and plumbs that work to its depths. The Independence Day discussion, on the other hand, reads like an act of hermeneutic desperation.


And this is one (relatively minor) flaw with the book. When Wegner has interesting material to develop, all of the critical theory he employs (Lacan, Zizek, Jameson, Derrida, Badiou) seems warranted. But when the material proves less fruitful, the critical theory strikes one as supererogatory at best and downright misleading at worst. At his best, Wegner avoids the voguish and empty use of jargon; at his worst, he slings critical jargon about with such abandon that the purported topic on an essay gets altogether lost. Even at his best, Wegner demands a reader that has some basic grasp of Lacan, Derrida, and Jameson. Without those foundations, much of the writing here will seem incomprehensible.


There is a deeper problem with the book, however, and it is perhaps not a problem that Wegner could have possibly avoided. It has to do with Derrida’s aforementioned Specters of Marx and Wegner’s endorsement of Derrida’s hope for a “New International” and a “messianic without messianism”. As Derrida presents it, the messianic offers up “another historicity—not a new history or still less a ‘new historicism’, but another opening of event-ness as historicity that permitted one not to renounce, but on the contrary to open up access to an affirmative thinking of the messianic and emancipatory promise as promise: as promise and not as onto-theological or teleo-eschatological program or design” (Specters of Marx, 74-75 and quoted by Wegner on p. 143). Thus the New International will be without nation, without status; it will lack a name and perhaps be unnameable.


But how will any of this work? How could any of it work? This isn’t revolution so much as the hope for spontaneous structural change. But revolutions don’t just happen. People make them happen. Social change doesn’t just arise; it is the end result (sometimes the unwitting result) of human action. The desire for utopia (no matter what its intellectual pedigree) is hopelessly naïve and ultimately a waste of our time. But worst of all is the total inability to work actively in the world while having the audacity to label the unwillingness to act as the best possible hope for an equitable revolution—as though any revolution of any kind could ever be equitable.


People patient with critical theory will find this work an enjoyable read. Wegner sometimes pushes some of his points (several of the works only find their meaning long after they were produced as pre-echoes of the 9/11 attacks—a claim I cannot help but find preposterous) but for the most part his voyages into these cultural texts are highly nuanced and revealing. But while perusing this book, I can only hope that careful readers will question whether a politics of inaction is really what best preserves the openness of a given historical moment (our historical present) or whether what is important is to act, to do, and to take responsibility for the openness that those actions bring into being.

Rating:

Chadwick lives in New York City and teaches Music History and Theory at The City College of New York. He earned his doctorate in Musicology at Columbia University. He has given papers on topics ranging from 12th Century lament to Duke Ellington and early radio to the use of Wagner's music in Bugs Bunny cartoons. He has published in scholarly journals on the music of John Cage, Richard Strauss, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He has taught courses on music history, the history of rock, and the history of jazz at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Columbia University


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