The Unperformative President

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2015-07-13 20:31Z by Steven

The Unperformative President

TDR: The Drama Review
Volume 59, Number 2, Summer 2015 (T226)
pages 7-8

Richard Schechner, University Professor; Professor, Performance Studies
New York University

Who is President Barack Obama? What will his legacy be? Why is he so unpopular that his own Democratic Party shunned him during the 2014 elections? The Dems got whupped in those elections, losing the Senate, falling further behind in the House and in governorships. Paradoxically, the defeat roused Obama to action. Even before the elections, Obama — sensing that he could not depend on a flaccid Senate and a toxic House — governed increasingly by executive order rather than legislation. The trend is accelerating. By means of executive order, Obama is reforming immigration policy, raising the minimum wage for Federal contract workers, extending rights to same-sex couples, giving paid parental leave to Federal employees, making it harder to buy guns, instituting major new limitations on greenhouse gas emissions, as well as signing a long-term agreement on climate control with China.

And of course the big turn around, one that will have reverberations for years to come: normalizing relations with Cuba.

Add to this, Obamacare (if it is not trashed by the Supreme Court). And don’t forget the stinks of the Bush years that Obama at least partly cleaned up: atrocities, dead-end wars, and economic collapse. Obama has not done enough, granted, but by comparison the nation is much better off now than in 2008.

If even a substantial part of what I’ve just written is true, why does the Obama presidency feel inadequate, to say the least? Why do so many on the Left disparage him while those on the Right despise him? A big part of the answer is the endemic racism of American culture. I won’t analyze this here except to note that Obama embodies a gap that he cannot transcend: African father, Euro-American mother; “black” Chicago street activist, “white” Harvard Law School graduate; country club golfer, ’hood high-fiver. Somewhere deep down Obama knows he isn’t having it both ways, or either way, so he has “chosen” (in quotation marks because I do not think it’s a conscious choice) to have it no way. He really wants his actions to speak for, of, and about him. He does not, or maybe cannot, perform himself as President.

He can’t be General Washington crossing the Delaware, pious Biblical Lincoln bringing his grief to Gettysburg, Rough-Rider Teddy Roosevelt leading the charge, patrician FDR having a “fireside chat” with 125 million Americans, camera-savvy Reagan ordering Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, or beer buddy Dubya Bush landing on the flight deck of aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln decorated with a banner boasting, “Mission Accomplished.” Obama’s public image is of a man who dislikes putting on a show. He’s not larger than life, holier than thou, or one of the folks.

Obama is the Unperformative President.

Which is both his greatness and his undoing.

Nowhere was Obama’s unperformativity more (in)visible than on 11 January 2015 when in Paris 40 world leaders led more than one million people marching for “free speech” and against the murder of 12 people at Charlie Hebdo, an officer directing traffic, and four hostages at a Paris kosher grocery. The front row — carefully staged for media — featured French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and — on either end of the line — Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama and Vladimir Putin of Russia were conspicuously absent. Putin’s absence is explained by Russia’s behavior in the Ukraine and Putin’s former position with the KGB, the Soviet secret police. What was Obama’s excuse?

Clearly, he does not like to perform, if by perform one means playing the symbolic role assigned to him. Indeed, the US presidency has from its inception been a Great Figure in Jean Genet’s sense: in The Balcony the Great Figure is a necessary public performer representing one of the four quadrants of society: Queen, Police Chief, Judge, Bishop. Of course, other presidents have not wanted to play and some could not perform effectively. History also has its say. Crises have provided presidents with their best chances at performing well.

Obama took office at…

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Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Rebekkah Paulin (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2015-07-13 20:00Z by Steven

Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Rebekkah Paulin (review) [Black]

TDR: The Drama Review
Volume 59, Number 2, Summer 2015 (T226)
pages 178-180

Alex W. Black
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction. Diana Rebekkah Paulin. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 336 pages.

Imperfect Unions is Diana Rebekkah Paulin’s award-winning study of “the symbolic and material implications of interracial unions” in the United States from the Civil War to World War I (3). During this period, interracial sex was often “the black-white headliner that overwrote stories featuring other intersecting relationships,” including those of gender and class (xvi). For example: In her 1892 pamphlet Southern Horrors, Ida B. Wells demonstrated that black men were lynched in the postbellum South not because they were a sexual threat to white women, but because they were an economic threat to white men. Paulin calls the process through which miscegenation came to stand in for such conflict “demographic distillation” for the way it “elided other types of power relations” (x, xiii). Interpreting drama and fiction to investigate “the contours of the color line,” Paulin argues that “the black-white encounter overshadows the complex” identities of, and relations between, all Americans, regardless of their race or ethnicity (xi, ix).

Paulin’s “miscegenated reading practices” draw on performance studies and literary history to examine formally hybrid productions like Thomas Dixon’s play The Clansman, which he adapted from his own novel, and Pauline Hopkins’s Winona, which she began as a play but rewrote as a novel (xiii). If the name Paulin gives to her method is provocative (one may argue how parallel the lines of color and of scholarship are), the method itself is productive. Her approach is consistent with the objects of study, which often make their arguments in theatrical terms — many are filled with spectacular enactments of identity — and with their creators, who worked in multiple media. More than viewing performance as a metaphor, these writers saw their texts as “mediating between the imagined world and the realities of everyday experience” (3): Louisa May Alcott based “M.L.” on the well-known case of a black male professor eloping with a white female student (30); Charles Chesnutt sent a copy of The Marrow of Tradition to Congress (104); James Weldon Johnson wrote The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man while serving as an American consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua (206).

In the first chapter, “Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire: Interracial Unions as Surrogates,” Paulin shows that miscegenation was viewed as a threat to the family and the nation it represented. In the Civil War era, America was figured as a divided house and as a mixed race. The title character of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon embodies and inspires transgression: the other characters respond to her resistance to classification by revolting against their own classes — and races and genders (13, 10). Both of Alcott’s 1863 short stories, “M.L.” and “My Contraband,” feature white women who desire mixed-race men and their own liberation from patriarchal society (32, 44).

In the book’s second chapter, “Clear Definitions for an Anxious World: Late Nineteenth-Century Surrogacy,” Paulin describes how Americans dramatized national issues on an international stage. In the period between Reconstruction and Plessy v. Ferguson, they imagined Europe as a place where miscegenation originated or where it could settle and be resolved. The ambiguous racial status of the heroines of Bartley Campbell’s 1882 play The White Slave and William Dean Howells’s 1892 novel An Imperative Duty are resolved through marriage. In the former, a man declares his granddaughter (fathered by a foreigner and born abroad) to be his slave’s daughter to hide her illegitimate birth; her whiteness and their property are redeemed when she marries her grandfather’s adopted son (70–71). In the latter, a woman who learns that her mother was an octoroon chooses marriage to a white man and emigration to Europe over the cause of black uplift (87).

In chapter 3, “Staging the Unspoken Terror,” Paulin finds that Americans at the turn of the century connected the future of the nation’s government to the issue of miscegenation (102). This is the first chapter to present texts by a black writer and a white writer who take opposing positions, even if they foresee the same outcome: In Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, a white woman is killed (and rumored to have been…

Read or purchase the review here.

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