Sunday 5 January 2014


Here's a short essay I've written for an exhibition I've organised about what America means for people who are not Americans. The essay doesn't explain the exhibition, but is rather a side piece to it, a play on this fantastic Sergio Leone quote from an interview he did in the June 1984 issue of American Film magazine.

Amerika: idea / fantasy / dream / myth / image.

"America is really the property of the world, and not only of the Americans, who, among other things, have the habit of diluting the wine of their mythical ideas with the water of the American Way of Life. America was something dreamed by philosophers, vagabonds and the wretched of the earth before it was discovered by Spanish ships and populated by colonies from all over the world. The Americans have only rented it temporarily. If they don’t behave well, if the mythical level is lowered, if their movies don’t work anymore and history takes on an ordinary day-to-day quality, then we can always evict them. Or discover another America. The contract can always be withheld.” -- Sergio Leone (1984)

America has from its inception had a powerful mythic pull, not just for Americans, but for the world beyond. America, as well as being a place - a reality - the US - is a heady, swirling abstraction of ideas, fantasies, dreams, and myths. Forms of the imaginary and of the symbolic which belong no less to the world than to Americans, and which are not the same things for all.

A nation is always something made up of more people, places, and ways of being than can be remotely accounted for by an identity. In this way there is much about a ‘national identity’ that never fits the particular circumstances to be found in a nation. A nation is never a totality, and a national identity isn’t nearly as substantial as that - it’s a thing of vapour.

America has long been a particularly diffuse idea, no less now than ever. This idea, which is also the stuff of American identity, is not made of a myriad American images, sounds, and words, which we associate with it. It is made, rather, of some libidinal attachments, surpluses of excitation around those many moments of Americana. America in this sense is made of demands and desires - the pursuit of happiness, perhaps, but not it’s capture.  Americana is special not for what it is, in front of us, but for what we do with it, for its excitement of demands or desires for what we don’t have.

The idea of America can allow people from the US to be held in place in their sense of being Americans. It can offer a comforting semblance of fullness, that the nation is more of a totality than it is, and is something more which makes them who they are. A person can feel more well located (in more than one sense) through their national identity. The person of the US can look at their imaginary reflection in the idea of America, and see something of themselves transformed in the mirror, intimate, and yet set at a distance. They can make of themselves American subjects. This kind of imaginary settlement is one that in fixing things in place, may delimit a subjectivity. A subjectivity that demands what it thinks it needs of what already exists, and holds its subject in relation to demand.

To the extent that the mythic idea of America is about the progressive possibility of change for the better, for the well fixed American that possibility isn’t of a change in subjectivity. There is thus a limit on the radicality of America for such American subjects. Theirs is an idea of progress, only so long as subjective orientation is fixed in an imaginary fullness. A fullness that is likely to paper over the limits, the iniquities, the cracks, and the banalities of the US.

Of course the ephemera of Americana, and the possibilities to which they allude, by which people of the US interpolate themselves as Americans, are hugely varied. There is great variety in well fixed Americans. Furthermore, America is not only the stuff of an identity that might mask what is troubling in relation to the US.

A large part of the idea of America is in an appeal that is not specific to the people of the US. An appeal to those for whom America is not principally the mooring of an identity, fixing them in relation to the US. An appeal to those for whom America might be more purely a relation to ideas, fantasies, dreams, myths, and images. For many (including many Americans), the American idea in it’s affirmative, radical dimension, disrupts the sense of inevitability of the limits of the state we’re in - it is a challenge to the problems of our realities. It can be seen for an American instance, in the extended appeal to the American Dream in Martin Luther King’s most famous speech, and is not less for other people of the world than for the disaffected of the US.

This other America, rather than masking the limits of our circumstances, highlights them, and opens another space, a space aside, an object cause of our desire to actively better our circumstances, whatever they be.

There is a commonplace liberal idea now that America is synonymous with American corporate influence, but that American corporate influence is no longer that of the place of the US, since corporations are no longer nationally bounded entities. In this way we are all, in part, people of a US reality. This proximity may make the idea of America feel threatening. Threatening to engulf those around us as an identity, to fix them ‘properly’ in relation to the US. Threatening to take away their capacity to see things in other ways, ways that don’t accord with an American identity. Threatening to ‘Americanize’ them. But if we are more fervently disappointed in the failures of the US, perhaps this is because on some level we still believe in the idea of America.

America does not belong to the US, it is not contingent to the immediacy of US influence. It belongs to we the people of the world. If we of the world feel threatened by the imminence of the US, then it is all the more meaningful to take up the challenge that our America can present to its iniquities. Less than a mask, for us the radical potential of America is as a cause of our desire to refuse the restraints of what we are offered in our status quo. Not merely to demand what we need of existing conditions, but to desire what does not yet exist.