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The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America from the Kennedy Assassination to September 11

The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America from the Kennedy Assassination to September 11

by Ned O'Gorman


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Bloody, fiery spectacles—the Challenger disaster, 9/11, JFK’s assassination—have given us moments of catastrophe that make it easy to answer the “where were you when” question and shape our ways of seeing what came before and after. Why are these spectacles so packed with meaning?

In The Iconoclastic Imagination, Ned O’Gorman approaches each of these moments as an image of icon-destruction that give us distinct ways to imagine social existence in American life. He argues that the Cold War gave rise to crises in political, aesthetic, and political-aesthetic representations. Locating all of these crises within a “neoliberal imaginary,” O’Gorman explains that since the Kennedy assassination, the most powerful way to see “America” has been in the destruction of representative American symbols or icons. This, in turn, has profound implications for a neoliberal economy, social philosophy, and public policy. Richly interwoven with philosophical, theological, and rhetorical traditions, the book offers a new foundation for a complex and innovative approach to studying Cold War America, political theory, and visual culture.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226310060
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/10/2015
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Ned O’Gorman is associate professor of communication and a Conrad Humanities Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Spirits of the Cold War: Contesting Worldviews in the Classical Age of American Security Strategy.

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The Iconoclastic Imagination

Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America from the Kennedy Assassination to September 11

By Ned O'Gorman

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-31037-4


The Neoliberal Legitimation Crisis

It was a black-and-white tapestry. The dress, prepared and pressed for this most ominous of occasions, hung solidly on the shoulders of Elizabeth Eckford as she walked outside Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, on September 4, 1957. The dress had been made especially for the day, and pressed that morning as images of crowds gathering at Central High played on the Eckford family's television set. The dress, like the crowds, had been crafted to communicate: the lower part of the skirt, like the depths of the American republic in and for which Eckford stood, was fashioned in checked black-and-white (fig. 1). The skirt flowed outward, reaching toward the bystanders, bodyguards, belligerents, and photographers that would surround her — as if to remind them too that the threads of history, though individually indistinct, when combined together create patterns that intrude into our civic spaces. The many images of Eckford that day — published in newspapers and magazines and shown on television — similarly communicated, spreading out into the republic and into the world, causing some to feel outrage, others spite, others perplexity, and others even a curious indifference.

For President Eisenhower, however, the images caused alarm. Quietly watching from his vacation spot in Newport, Rhode Island, in early September, they gave ample indication of the mob violence that would ensue that month. Eisenhower himself was "profoundly ambivalent" about the 1954 Supreme Court decision that had led to integration efforts in Arkansas and elsewhere; he preferred an approach consistent with "free enterprise" that balked at any "coercive" measures on the part of the federal government with respect to race relations. In fact, he had insisted in a July 1957 news conference, only two months before Eckford donned her checked dress, "I can't imagine any set of circumstances that would ever induce me to send Federal troops into a Federal court and into any area to enforce the orders of a Federal court, because I believe that [the] common sense of America will never require it." So much for common sense, Eisenhower must have later figured. On September 24, he authorized his secretary of defense to use "the armed forces of the United States as he may deem necessary" to put down the willful "obstruction of justice," and thus uniformed troops with helmets and rifles appeared in Little Rock amid an Eisenhower presidency that, as we will see later, was bent on overcoming such martial iconographies.

It was an extraordinary measure, one — as Eisenhower explained in a televised address the evening of September 24 — that had everything to do with the repair of "the image of America." Little Rock was doing a "tremendous disservice ... to the nation in the eyes of the world." It was, he continued "difficult to exaggerate the harm that is being done to the prestige and influence, and indeed to the safety, of our nation and the world." In the black-and-white images of racial hatred coming out of Little Rock, we were witnessing, Eisenhower suggested, an American crisis of global proportions, as all Cold War crises involving the "image of America" would be.

Of course, Eisenhower was right to see in the images of violence against Elizabeth Eckford and other activists a challenge to the image of America. He was wrong, however, to claim to be able to speak for its authenticity. It had been sewn from the bottom up, so to speak, and there its authenticity would be arbitrated. The pictures Eisenhower and countless others saw were "image events," but ones fashioned out of years of struggle for civil rights and recognition. When Eckford put on that checked black-and-white dress, she offered it, and herself, as a kind of image of America. Reflecting on its significance, political philosopher Danielle Allen has written,

The dress reports on the gap between ideals and actualities, and also on the importance of symbols to the efforts of democratic citizens to deal with that gap. Although her fellow citizens across the country did not, Elizabeth knew that the integration of the public school system would require a made-from-scratch reweaving of the relationships among citizens. When she made the dress, she expressed the autonomy of the democratic citizen who desires to be sovereign and to effect new political orders but also must confess her own disempowerment. She had at her disposal the means to reconstitute not the "fabric" of society but only her daily uniform, and hers alone.

Lest we retroactively romanticize the moment, it needs to be said that the spitting, the shouting, the slurs and shoving — all frozen in the chemistry of film — were also expressions of citizens seeking to effect, or at least protect, a social and political order. These were also images of America. Indeed, none of this was accidental. Here we had the black-and-white tapestry of America woven in discordant threads. The result was a crisis that, as Hannah Arendt suggested in her immodest essay "Reflections on Little Rock," challenged the legitimacy of the entire "political and historical framework of the Republic."

It is little wonder that Eisenhower, trying to manage the ideology of the Cold War and offer to the world a new look at America, saw in these images an attack on the image of America. His militaristic intervention in Little Rock was decided upon, very likely only decided upon, against this backdrop. Enemies of America, he claimed in his televised speech announcing his intentions to intervene, were seizing upon the discordant images of racial strife to "misrepresent our whole nation." Therefore, extraordinary emergency measures were necessary: a man, the president, would authorize another man, the secretary of defense, to send military men to Central High School so that it might be "demonstrated to the world that we are a nation in which laws, not men, are supreme." The logic here, though purportedly liberal and democratic, was Hobbesian and authoritarian. Indeed, Eisenhower retold the Hobbesian story in his televised address: "Unless the President did so, anarchy would result. There would be no security for any except that which each one of us could provide for himself." Thus Eisenhower would offer to the world his own accidental image of America: the troops of the 101st Airborne escorting children to school (fig. 2).

As the United States' first "total cold war" president, Eisenhower was caught historically and ideologically between two different political logics regarding the image of America, and the image more generically. The first, what I will refer to as a liberal logic, takes the image seriously as a locus of political meaning and therefore invests a great deal of energy (even if that energy seems futile) in its production and control. The second, what I will refer to as a neoliberal logic, insists that too much meaning engenders political crises. This neoliberal logic therefore critiques, even attacks, the role of the image in political life. In this chapter, I sketch out a typology of these two political logics by considering their respective theories of "legitimation crisis," for it is the question of political legitimacy, more than any other single question, that motivates the differences between the liberal and neoliberal political logics that I explore in this book.

Liberal and Neoliberal Legitimation Crises

In addition to neoliberalism, the cluster of political and economic phenomena that began to unfold in dramatic fashion in the 1970s — among them the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system of global monetary management, the rise of free markets as an ideological centerpiece in the discipline of economics, the political push for deregulation, an increasing global division of labor, the decline of unions, the minimization of substantive institutional investments by corporations, and corporate diversification — has been discussed under notions of advanced capitalism, late capitalism, globalization, reflexive modernity, and even postmodernism. Neoliberalism and its kin have been the subject of numerous analyses, ranging from those looking at the breakdown of the postwar liberal international system, to those concerned with the withering of the welfare state and social democracies, those about the dissolution of established cultures and traditional social institutions, and even those reflecting on the evaporation of the notion of history itself. Moreover, there have been numerous attempts to define neoliberalism, a matter that I addressed in the introduction to this book. A common theme running through all these terminologies and analyses, however, is what Jürgen Habermas called in 1973 — but two years after the "Nixon shock" and the same year as the fateful Arab oil boycott — the "legitimation crisis."

In Habermas's view, the road to legitimation crises begins as the state, an administrative apparatus, expands the scope of its activities in order to serve the private goal of capitalist profit maximization by managing, in Keynesian fashion, the economy. But this expansion does not overcome the tensions and contradictions of a class-based society. Hence, met with its inevitable failures, the state appears as overreaching, unable to manage the demands it has assumed. As a consequence, it attempts "ideology planning" — the management of meaning in order to maintain legitimacy. But, as Habermas writes, "There is no administrative production of meaning." That is, the sort of substantive meaning that lends legitimacy to government is derived, in Habermas's view, from culture (in a kind of bottom-up manner), not bureaucracies, and culture is "peculiarly resistant to administrative control." Consequently, the state's effort to win legitimacy for itself through the management of meaning in ideology and symbol is "self-defeating." At the same time, advanced capitalist societies tend to erode the cultural traditions that lent legitimacy to the state in the first place. Hence, advanced capitalist societies fall into legitimation difficulties, indicative of an even more basic "motivation crisis." Capitalist interests, in turn, approach this crisis as a short-term opportunity to be exploited.

The legitimation crises of late capitalism that Habermas describes are rooted in the state's administrative overreach in the name of protecting profits, together with the erosion of traditional cultural forms of meaning under the joint pressures of rationalization and the irrational quest for unlimited capital expansion. The state ever tries to compensate for the thinning of meaning, but its efforts are seen through, which only compounds the state's legitimation difficulties. Economic metrics and language, Habermas suggests, represent an effort to compensate for the attenuation of political institutions with economic mechanisms:

We have seen now that the state cannot simply take over the cultural system, and that expansion of the areas of state planning actually makes problematic matters that were formally culturally taken for granted. "Meaning" is a scarce resource and is becoming ever scarcer. Consequently, expectations oriented to use values — that is, expectations monitored by success — are rising in the civil public. ... The fiscally siphoned-off resource "value" [via taxes and expenditures] must take the place of the scanty resource "meaning." Missing legitimation must be offset by rewards conforming to the system. A legitimation crisis arises as soon as the demands for such rewards rise faster than the available quantity of value, or when expectations arise that cannot be satisfied with such rewards.

That in the 1970s and especially the 1980s dominant forms of social science abandoned an institutional framework and replaced it with theories of the market is one indication of this broader legitimation crisis. We might also look to the advent of the "post-bureaucratic organization," deliberately designed to replace traditional state and corporate bureaucracies with a flat, free-floating network of contractors, temporary workers, and managers tasked with measuring and monitoring organizational efficiency according to a market paradigm. Indeed, the market, the god-term of neoliberalism, systematically as well as ideologically excludes from relevance not only political institutions, but a wide range of social structures. Instead, we are presented only with individuals (even corporate "individuals" in the United States!) acting in abstract exchange systems, and the occasional appearance of the state operating in an autocratically declared state of emergency to preserve or create markets. In this new, market-driven order, as Margaret Thatcher infamously declared, "there is no such thing as society." It is arguable, as well, that there is within its confines no such thing as meaning, at least not meaning generated through representation.

Habermas offered in 1973 a poignant account of the legitimation difficulties felt by late twentieth-century advanced capitalist societies. Yet, several decades earlier the story of legitimation crisis had been told differently, and in fact far more effectually, by Friedrich Hayek. This neoliberal account of legitimation crisis not only differed from Habermas's liberal one, but also anticipated the cultural-political logic that began to take hold in the 1970s in the United States.

In the mid-1940s, as war was wrecking Europe, Hayek wrote a book warning socialist intellectuals in Great Britain (where he had been teaching at the London School of Economics) of the dangers of extending Britain's planned war economy into the postwar period. Published by the University of Chicago Press, The Road to Serfdom gained startling traction in the United States, traction that left even Hayek surprised. When the editors of Reader's Digest, the most widely circulated magazine in America, read the book, they promptly published a condensation of the text as the lead article in their April 1945 issue. The condensation — more of a re-creation of Hayek's text than a mere weaving of excerpts — was sent to newsstands as Hitler's forces were crumbling in Europe. This gave Reader's Digest editors room to turn their sights on the threat of Soviet Russia. Indeed, the Reader's Digest version of The Road to Serfdom stressed "the extraordinary similarity in many respects of the conditions under 'communism' and 'fascism.'" The magazine told its readers, "The question is whether we should create conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals are given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully; or whether we should direct and organize all economic activities according to a 'blueprint,' that is, 'consciously direct the resources of society to conform to the planners' particular views of who should have what.'" Reader's Digest's condensation was so successful that the magazine quickly found itself facing requests for more than one million reprints of the article, many of them ordered by corporate and political crusaders against the New Deal.

Earlier that year, Look magazine offered a cartoon version of The Road to Serfdom, which General Motors, led by Eisenhower's future secretary of defense, Charles Wilson, would reprint and disseminate as part of their "Thought Starter" series of publications. The Look version departed far enough from Hayek's original text that it hardly merited the same title. Nevertheless, it did present the outlines of a popularized version of the neoliberal account of legitimation crisis that Hayek articulated. Hayek had argued in The Road to Serfdom that the path to totalitarianism passes from the "will of the people" through a technocratic regime that progressively morphs into an autocratic one:

It may be the unanimously expressed will of the people that its parliament should prepare a comprehensive economic plan, yet neither the people nor its representatives need therefore be able to agree on any particular plan. The inability of democratic assemblies to carry out what seems to be a clear mandate of the people will inevitably cause dissatisfaction with democratic institutions. Parliaments come to be regarded as ineffective "talking shops," unable or incompetent to carry out the tasks for which they have been chosen. The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be "taken out of politics" and placed in the hands of experts — permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies.


Excerpted from The Iconoclastic Imagination by Ned O'Gorman. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


Part I: Image

1: The Neoliberal Legitimation Crisis
2: The Iconoclastic Sublime

Part II: Catastrophe

3: Zapruder
4: Challenger
5: 9/11

Part III: Economy

6: America’s New Look
7: (Neo)Liberal Genealogies

Postscript and Acknowledgments

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