a journey of 8500 miles begins with …


…  a layover in Newark.

I’m on my way to Hong Kong for “Imperial Benevolence: U.S. Foreign Policy in American Popular Culture Since 9/11.”  Thanks to the organizers for the tantalizing invitation!

I’ll be discussing a new project called “Imperial Cry-Faces: Women Lamenting the War on Terror.”  You can click here for an abstract.

And here’s a preview of the first couple of pages …

“It’s okay,” she says through her tears, patting the bald eagle on the head.  She has shifted her torch and tablet to the crook of her left arm, and stretched out her right to console her feathered friend, who weeps with his talons wrapped around a flagpole extended over the waves.  This crayon drawing of a crying Statue of Liberty—by an elementary school student named Eddie Hamilton from Knoxville, Tennessee—is held by the Library of Congress as part of its September 11, 2011 Documentary Project.[i]  But young Eddie was far from the only person to imagine this kind of emotional life for the cast-iron woman.  One of his classmates imagined her similarly distraught, and so did a number of political cartoonists, along with more than a few tattoo artists (as I discovered serendipitously during an internet search).  But if crying for the victims of the September 11th attacks is so necessary and so automatic that even a statue can do it, the appropriate emotional response to the wars that followed the attacks is much harder to discern.  In my current book project, entitled Figuring Violence: Affect, Imagination, and Contemporary American Militarism, I trace the currents of affection, admiration, gratitude, pity, and anger that circulate around privileged objects of sentimental investment: children, military spouses, veterans with PTSD and TBI, detained enemy combatants, and military working dogs.  Here, however, I ask a different question: who cries for U.S. empire?  Perhaps the passing of time and the balms of revenge and pre-emption have offered Lady Liberty the same comfort that she extended to the eagle.  But apparently not everyone can survey the landscape of contemporary American militarism with so stiff an upper lip.

Accordingly, this paper maps the intersections of gender, sadness, and imperial violence as embodied by the crying female protagonists who populate the American media landscape of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).  The ruthless interrogator who weeps quietly at the end of Zero Dark Thirty, the drone operator whose eyes spill over during every strike in The Good Kill, and the CIA agent who sobs theatrically all the time, over everything, in Homeland: these women do the lethal affective work of empire.  And it makes them feel bad … not necessarily bad about it, but certainly bad around it.  My goal here is not simply to analyze these representations of emotionally frail female warriors; rather, I want to consider the political and emotional complexities of their crying.  This inquiry emerges from my abiding curiosity about the role of emotion in contemporary American militarism and, more specifically, my skepticism about the capacity of sentiment to challenge it.  Marita Sturken has argued that in the aftermath of September 11th, “the paradoxical effect of the nation under threat is that modes of sentiment that might have been perceived as weakening its stature become the terrain through which it is recuperated.”[ii]  In this way, feeling bad for the victims of U.S. imperialism coexists easily with ideas of American exceptionalism, on the logic that only so enlightened a nation would be sensitive enough to lament its casualties.

Two assumptions about the act of crying, in general, inform my analysis here.  First, tears do not always lend themselves to interpretation.  Anyone who has ever tried to soothe an inconsolable child or has found themselves crying without really knowing why understands this intuitively.  Tom Lutz, in his singular volume on crying, identifies this inscrutability at the heart of the interpersonal dilemma that crying poses, because crying appears to be such an insistently communicative behavior.[iii]  Second, tears, like any other emotional phenomenon, have both individual and structural origins.  Ann Cvetkovich, in her work on depression, raises the possibility that systems like neoliberal capitalism, along with war, states of exception, and intense securitization might manifest in individual depressions.[iv]  Working from these premises, my focus here is not so much on the narrative contexts in which these female protagonists cry, but rather on how their crying might register the historical moment from which these texts emerge, and what kinds of affective pleasures and pedagogies they might offer their audiences.

The act of crying, at least in contemporary Western cultures, is gendered feminine.  Lutz notes that in canonical depictions of crying, like literature or epic poetry, men cry, but predominantly about matters of state, like war, peace, and political ideals; women’s tears are reserved for the personal.[v]  Yet the films and television show I analyze here deviate from that pattern, at least partially, as all the female criers emote for reasons that cannot be reduced to individual woe (though many critics, both within the diegetic universe of the pieces and in commentaries about them interpret their crying as signs of personal weakness).  Elisabeth R. Anker’s work on the ascendance of a melodramatic style in American politics since the mid-twentieth century suggests a pervasive emotionalism in U.S. policy, both domestic and foreign.  The melodramatic style, as Anker describes it, “casts politics, policies, and practices of citizenship within a moral economy that identifies the nation-state as a virtuous and innocent victim of villainous action.”  She continues: “By evoking intense visceral responses to wrenching injustices imposed upon the nation-state melodramatic discourse solicits affective states of astonishment, sorrow, and pathos through the scenes it shows of persecuted citizens.”[vi]  Melodramatic political discourses, like melodrama itself, are driven by the affliction of the innocent and the helpless; translated onto the nation-state, they “draw upon a moral economy that locates goodness in national suffering, and that locates heroism in unilateral state action against dominating forces.”[vii]  Hence the weeping Statue of Liberty.  Conversely, the crying ladies of Zero Dark Thirty, Good Kill, and Homeland cry from positions of state-sanctioned power.

[i] Eddie Hamilton, “It’s OK,” 2001, Library of Congress American Folklife Center, AFC 2001/015: gr015d.  Available at https://www.loc.gov/item/afc911000239/.

[ii] Marita Sturken, “Feeling the Nation, Mining the Archive,” Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies 9, no. 4 (December 2012): 353-364, quot. 357.

[iii] Tom Lutz, Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999), 19.

[iv] Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 11-12.  She also contends that most theorizations of these systems are too abstract to capture their emotional consequences for individuals.

[v] Lutz, 64.  Of course, when women don’t cry in situations where they apparently should, they are regarded as unfeeling at best, suspect at worst.  For example, many people have noted that Mariane Pearl (the widow of Daniel Pearl, a journalist who was beheaded by Pakistani militants in early 2002) does not cry in public.  The filmic adaptation of her story, A Mighty Heart, reflects this.

[vi] Elisabeth R. Anker, Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 3.

[vii] Anker, 31.



civics lesson

Mine is not a tragic story of disenfranchisement.   Mostly, it’s about a mistake and my chagrin.  But also an unintentional affective instruction in the vicissitudes of citizenship, will, and agency.

On the day of the Maryland primary, eager to do my civic duty, I untethered myself from my laptop and headed out to vote.   I am quite thoroughly unimpressed by any of the candidates for president, but was very keen to vote in the local elections.  I’ve become deeply fond of Baltimore, and fallen totally in love with my neighborhood, and so I felt invested in a way that is unfamiliar to me, but instructive as a reminder of how it feels to want to belong to something, or someplace.  Voter registration card and ID (just in case) in hand, off I went.

voting booth
Schoolhouse Rock: Why didn’t you warn me?

I proffered my documents to the friendly election worker, who typed my name into her computer and then squinted at the screen.  She asked me to confirm my date of birth and my address.   I did.  More squinting.  And then she read aloud, pausing heavily between each word, the error message my information had generated: I was ineligible to vote in the primary because I had not registered with a political party.

Philosophically, my Independent status is a response to my profound disappointment with the Democrats and my sense that the two-party system is less than ideal.  It’s also a holdover from my time in Ohio, which has an open-primary system, so free-thinking “Independents” like yours truly can simply saunter into the polling place on primary day and request whichever ballot they’d prefer.

Not so in Maryland.  And so I left the polling station in defeat, taking the long way around to avoid the cheerful electioneers whom I had so confidently stiff-armed as I breezed past on my way in, saying I did not need their flyers because I already knew who I would be voting for.

Certainly, this failure is my fault for not learning the Maryland voting laws (and not trying to vote in a previous primary election during the six and a half years that I have lived in Maryland prior to this one – I am a latecomer to this particular civic obligation.)  And I take comfort in the fact that I am not the only person who thinks that this current electoral system, with its seemingly arbitrary variability from state to state, is a bit of a shambles.

But the thing that surprised me the most was the intensity of my own anger, muddled with embarrassment, at what transpired.  Once my ire had waned, I realized that in many ways, the experience of not voting was much  more interesting than the experience of voting would have been, affectively.

For as much as I think and write about citizenship, and argue often that it is an affective as well as a political phenomenon, I often forget-by virtue of my privilege, for sure-how it feels.

There was my initial enthusiasm, my feeling of purpose as I set out on this civic errand. This feeling was pronounced, but I can’t quite specify its origin or orientation – a reminder, I guess, of how the abstract notion of citizenship can inspire us to act on motivations we might not be able to articulate.  I was eager to participate in the political life of my community, even as I knew, rationally, that my one lonely little vote was not going to make a difference.  And yet.

Because I am so used to exercising my franchise, and accustomed to the state’s recognition of my citizenship, my first reaction to the election worker’s pronouncement of my ineligibility to vote was noncomprehension.  I was befuddled, and heard myself asking repeatedly for clarification.  The election worker fidgeted nervously (though I don’t think I looked like someone about to make a scene) and asked if I wanted to “talk to someone.”  No, thank you.  My confusion reflects, I think, what happens in the space beyond the state’s matrix of intelligibility and recognition, where rights and procedures become incompatible.

And then I was embarrassed.  By my own lack of preparation, but also, and more sharply, by my (inevitable) failure, the foolishness of my attempt.  I imagined the election workers and the other, successful voters, shaking their heads and chuckling once I was clear of the elementary-school gymnasium.  I was reminded how exclusion from the body politic feels, and how ludicrous demands for inclusion can suddenly seem when they are denied.

By the time I got home, I was angry, but diffusely and aimlessly, stomping mad at the whole ridiculous system.  I Googled the laws governing Maryland primaries just to be sure I wasn’t the victim of bureaucratic incompetence.  Nope.  Not this time.

So I remained angry until the election results came in, and somehow the revelation that my hypothetical votes would have been inconsequential made the whole thing more palatable, a cold resolution to the abiding conundrum posed by the relationship between individuality and the democratic process.

And now my dilemma is whether to declare a party affiliation so I can vote the next time around, a possibility that strikes me as disingenuous and expedient in equal measure.