Elisabeth R. Anker is an assistant professor of American Studies and Political Science at The George Washington University. She is the author of Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom (Duke, 2014) as well as articles in journals including Theory & Event, Social Research, Political Theory, Politics and Gender, and Contemporary Political Theory. She is working on a new book project about “ugly freedoms.”
What initially drew you to your topic?
I started graduate school just as airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and the events of 9/11 shaped the trajectory of my research. I was fascinated and deeply disturbed by the national response, in which a vast majority of people in the United States supported war against two countries that did not attack America, and also legitimated oppressive forms of state power upon themselves. Most scholars argued that Americans were duped by the mendacities of the Bush administration, or that they desired security rather than freedom in a frightening moment. I found these answers inadequate, as they were inattentive to the peculiarities of life in the 21st century, and they did not account for the face that “freedom” was so insistently the stated goal for many aspects of the War on Terror. Why, if people craved security, did they speak so much about freedom?
It seemed to me that post-9/11 support for American state actions reflected a self-defeating attempt to challenge experiences of unfreedom. I surmised that many Americans sought to enact a kind of sovereign freedom denied to them in contemporary politics, and they ironically did so through their active support of a violent and anti-democratic state power. My focus on the desire for sovereign freedom expanded my analysis far beyond post-9/11 politics into decades-long geopolitical shifts of power, political theories of sovereignty, and the melodramatic stories that shape American popular culture.
How do you connect melodrama to the politics of freedom?
In Orgies of Feeling, I argue that U.S. politics is shaped at key historical moments, and in particular in the post-9/11 period, by what I call “melodramatic political discourse.” Melodramatic political discourse 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. It solicits intensely affective responses to scenarios of wrenching injustice imposed upon the nation-state. Melodrama locates goodness in the suffering of the nation, evil in its antagonists, and heroism in sovereign acts of war and global control coded as expressions of virtue. In melodrama, the nation’s unjust suffering appears to prove the nation’s virtue. State power then becomes a moral imperative to redress national injury and re-establish an imperiled freedom. Melodramatic political discourse transmutes affectively intense experiences of unjust victimization into the anticipation of, and justification for, violence imagined as sovereign agency.
While humanities scholars have long understood the cultural significance of melodrama in America since the 19th century, neither humanities scholars nor social scientists have seriously addressed melodrama’s work within political processes. I argue that melodrama becomes influential as a political discourse in the United States after World War II, gaining popularity with the rise of cold war politics and televised political communication. Its conventions are often used to narrate the expansion of U.S. global power and justify the growth of the national security state. Melodrama can be found in the news media, official state rhetoric, popular punditry, informal conversation, public policy, and political theory. Although its use is generally not consciously coordinated across media outlets or political parties, its popularity across two centuries of American culture make it readily available to narrate political events. After 9/11, melodrama’s popularity explodes in political discourse to legitimate the War on Terror.
Melodrama is so prominent today because its conventions promise that heightened affects and dramatic acts of power can revive individual and state sovereignty, in an era when both seem debilitated by powers beyond their control. I build on the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “Orgies of Feeling,” in which intense emotions from a single injury mask an underlying despair about one’s daily feelings of powerlessness and lack of freedom. Melodramatic political discourses work as an orgy of feeling. They promise that U.S. military and state actions can transform an individual sense of being overwhelmed by power into a global scene of sovereign control. In promising that sovereign freedom is forthcoming for virtuous sufferers, melodrama implies that complex global vulnerability and interdependence can be overcome by expressions of state power reasserting U.S. global might, which will then reflect back to American individuals their own personal sovereignty. Americans pursued freedom, not security, when they authorized dramatic expansions of oppressive state power, obstructing their pursuit by the melodramatic methods they employ.
The most difficult part of the publishing process was pressing my argument to engage multiple disciplines. I wrote my dissertation with my committee as my “audience,” and that laid the formative groundwork for the project. Once I began to turn the dissertation into a book, my imagined audience grew much broader. To make the argument I wanted, I needed to engage not only political theory and film studies, but also literary studies, 20th-century political and cultural history, American Studies, and empirical political science. I made many revisions to craft the book in this way and I sometimes joke that the only two words that remained from my dissertation were “melodrama” and “and.” It is hard to speak cogently to multiple disciplines. I think this is a problem for all of us doing interdisciplinary scholarship, and I’m not sure if we ever get it completely right.
I found that feedback from conferences and lectures was especially helpful during the revision process. I presented my work to different disciplines, and took criticism seriously. Questioners’ concerns, confusions, and interventions offered invaluable advice. Sometimes I felt a questioner did not “get” the project, but often they did not get it because I had not yet developed or articulated my argument. Once I amalgamated and clarified the different parts of the project, I could also draw boundaries to explain how or why a specific topic was outside my own scope of inquiry. Marking those boundaries was liberating, and helped to finish the book.
Have you encountered any pushback from more traditional scholars of political theory?
Perhaps the biggest difficulty is the sense among some scholars that melodrama is too low-brow to be a topic worthy of serious inquiry. Of course, film and literary studies debated the scholarly value of melodrama decades ago, and now melodrama is an important topic in both of those fields. But in political science and political theory, melodrama can sometimes be seen as too “frivolous” to be part of the study of “serious” topics like freedom or state power— even as melodrama ironically influences both of those formations. The book thus had to make a case for the very legitimacy of melodrama as a topic for political inquiry.
What was the strangest or most interesting thing you found while doing research?
Even though melodrama is most closely associated with women’s weepie films, the person who coined the term mélodrame was actually the canonical political theorist and “father” of the French Revolution Jean-Jacques Rousseau! From the start melodrama was bound up with the politics of freedom, even as its uses shifted dramatically across time, cultures, nations, and media.
What do you see as the future of emotion as an analytical subject?
On the one hand, the study of emotion is not new. It can be found, for instance, in Adam Smith’s studies of sympathy, Thomas Hobbes’ work on the passions, and even Plato’s reflections on the intensity of love and the structure of the soul. On the other hand, the study of emotions is clearly in a renaissance period, most notably in scholarship on affect that rearticulates aspects of emotional experience to be publicly constituted, unintentional, and resonant with the environment, and to often originate outside the body that feels them as personal and self-generated. The proliferation of scholarship on affect challenges the presumption, pervasive across the social sciences, that people are motivated primarily by self-interest and make decisions by cost-benefit analyses. Affect offers a stronger challenge to this presumption than other theories of emotion because it doesn’t just add “emotion too!” to the study of decision-making, but fundamentally destabilizes the construct of the intentional, willing, and autonomous subject. (Psychoanalysis did this for much of the 20th century, and to my mind psychoanalysis and affect theory are closer than typically assumed.) For this reason alone I think the importance of work on affect will continue.
Where do you think studies of nationalism and political theory will move next?
I am housed in an American Studies department, and one of the many things I appreciate about the field is that it incessantly interrogates the constellated concepts of nation, national identity, and nationalism. The field’s history is rooted in American exceptionalism, so scholars today are always cautious about recurring to ideas like “national identity” not only because they have been deployed to buttress expansionist politics, but also because they often leave out both the experiences of marginalized populations and the transnational flows of people and ideas. There is also a widespread expectation that the power of the nation-state, and by extension nationalism, is supposed to wane in our globalized and neoliberal era.
And yet the political and economic power of nations, and certainly of the United States, is still a crucial fixture of politics and the global order. The nation—as political power, discursive construct, grantor of rights, economic hub, imagined community— references a fractured, contradictory, and porous set of meanings that can also seem cogent and coherent. Indeed, nationalism has even increased in the last few decades, as people seem to reinvest in national identity as a site of stability in response to rapid transformations across the globe. An unexpected dynamic has developed, then, in which nationalism increases as state sovereignty decreases. It creates a fecund site for studying political desire, collective identities, and affective connections that bind people to the ideas of nationhood. Thus, rather than presuming an all-encompassing national identity, it is important to ask how ideas of national identity and nationalism are deployed, what political desires they satisfy, and what are their material effects.
What are your thoughts on the strengths/weaknesses of the discipline’s reliance on monographs? Given the changing nature of the academy (the so-called crisis of the humanities and the drop in tenure track jobs) and changing technologies (particularly the growing availability of e-books), what are your thoughts on the future of publishing?
I love monographs. I love diving into a meticulously crafted argument built through years of careful study. Monographs are the best way to convey complex, wide-ranging, and challenging ideas. The “crisis of the humanities” is not primarily self-inflicted, no matter how many pundits claim it to be the result of rarefied and impractical scholarship. It is a manifestation of much larger problems in academe.
These problems include, among other things, slashed federal spending on higher education, the privatization and corporatization of academia, the fear and distrust of the intellect that pervades American culture, and the ways that “applicability” and “practicality” have become the new gold standard for determining the worth of knowledge. Universities are underproducing tenure lines and defunding their presses, while libraries are forced to spend too much of their dwindling budgets on astronomical subscription prices to for-profit journals.
For scholars to devalue monographs would feel like a capitulation to the current state of affairs. I think that our resources are better spent organizing faculty, staff, and students across ranks, fields, and schools to collectively fight for more full-time, tenure-track faculty positions, for increased financing for university presses, for reprioritized library budgets, and more generally for a de-corporatized university. We need to make loud and widely heard claims for the public importance of the university—not merely as an engine of economic growth but as a crucial space for knowledge development through teaching and research. There are many groups already doing this work, and we can all contribute to the fight. Yes, we need to be sensitive to the difficulties of publishing, and make sure that individual scholars are not punished for systemic problems. But if faculty respond to the crisis by participating in the devaluation of the monograph, then we only deepen the serious problems facing academic inquiry.