The Christo-Terminator

The Unsustainable Present, the Nostalgic Glance Back as Prequels to the New American Legitimation Principle.

Petite Prequels

In the spring of 2005, the axis of U.S. popular culture products and entertainment formats tilted swiftly and decisively away from a decade of individualist and Social Darwinist narratives. The syndicated descendants of MTV's The Real World and the British faux quiz show, The Weakest Link, were abruptly supplanted. At the center of the current mediascape are either dark psychosocial geographies, in the form of prequels to constitutive pop culture epics (such as Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins, the post-revisionist frontier history of Into the West) or retrofitted marquee motifs (such as The Honeymooners, War of the Worlds, Bewitched, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Four or The Longest Yard) culled from the iconic portfolio of mid-20th Century Empire. The very recent and abrupt retreat from the pseudo hard-edge of representation to vividly reimagined fantasy is no accident. Amidst the bellicose execution of the militaristic idée fixe of The Project for a New American Century,[1] exemplified "by the total disaster of Iraq," [2] and the zealous, bilious propagation of what Arthur Kroker terms Born Again Ideology, [3] reality has become all "too real." The desultory effects of this military and pre-millenarian crusading, in concert with a phalanx of structural and ideological fault lines, have set in motion an American "countdown to a meltdown." [4] As the class system intensively re-stratifies, as creativity and mobility morph into rigidity and stasis, while the country heedlessly, frantically squanders the remainder of its future to reinforce an unsustainable present, the fading viability of the master narrative of aspiration, social mobility and meritocratic reward, "the American Dream," is at the panic center of an emerging legitimation crisis. In July 2005, James Fallows, an American political essayist, effectively encapsulated these trends, in the context of an imagined memo from a top policy adviser to a front-running third-party Presidential candidate, at the start of the 2016 primaries:

Compared with the America of the past, [the present America] has become stagnant, class-bound, and brutally unfair ... Compared with the rest of world, [we] are on the way down ... We think that we are a great power ... Everyone else thinks that ... we finally pushed our luck too far ... We've thrown away every one [of the past sources] of our growth: savings, investment, education, innovation ... [No wonder we have a persistent and ominous] sense of sunset, decline, hopelessness. America has been so resilient [because] the myth of equal opportunity has been closer to reality here ... and the [perceived legitimacy] of the myth itself has mattered. [5]

In a December 2004 On Point radio interview, 95 year-old Peter Drucker emphasized similar themes, placed in the context of globalization and Western history:

As to America's [non-military] role in the world, fortunately, thank God, we are no longer dominant ... That realization will be very hard to swallow, especially as we have had thirty years of delusions of grandeur ... What do we stand for, in terms of values, not in terms of power? America's great strength was that it stood for values ...

We are in a period of transition as fundamental as the 18th Century, before the Napoleonic Wars ... It is going to be a very difficult and rough transition -- thirty years of transition. [6]

These are de facto paraphrases of John Lennon's utterance: The "[Middle Class American] dream is [indeed] over." Having consumed the future (both the faith/hope in the future and the resources for materializing said faith/hope), American culture is voraciously consuming its past. Even (or especially) in these times, armies of cultural "dream weavers" deftly ply their trade, selling a palatable variety of diversionary and/or pseudo-recuperative multi-media narratives. In a society where probable and imagined futures are of imminent decline, personal desperation, durable diminution, and the inevitability of generational death, the consumption of culture turns toward metaphorical prequels or to the reconstituted icons of a more hopeful past. The menu of current, first-run attractions at any Cineplex this summer attests to a desperate cultural cannibalism of ersatz pasts. These reconstructed pasts function as a complex, if temporary, palliative and as a form of personal and socio-cultural prescription. Arthur Kroker is right: "The past will not be denied." [7] But how prequels and other narratives of the past are constituted is a variable and multifunctional phenomenon.

In Born Again Ideology, [8] Kroker plumbs a number of intertwined ür-cultural prequels (such the transmutation of the traditional Weberian Protestant ethic and the techno-revivification of the Calvinist Jehovah) to trace the emergent reconciliation of techno-science with Dominionist pre-millennialism. If the cardinal impulse of the fundamentalist wing of current political elites is the desire to globally incarnate a primal Imperial eschatology, it gestures back to the inaugural lines of the foundational prequel of prequels, Genesis: "In the beginning, there was the word." (And "the" word, culled from Genesis 1:26, is "dominion," dominance over everything on the planet).

Armed with "the word" and the knowledge that God speaks exclusively to them (and that they speak exclusively for God, pace George W. Bush), these crusading pre-millenarians press onward to remake the world in their image. [9] Given their passionate intensity to efface other cultures and civilizations in the name of their Lord (and the self-referentiality and nihilism at the core of this particular desire), there's no denying the salience of Kroker's urgent analysis. However, the fundamentalist project's inherent political and fiscal recklessness has concurrently accelerated a profound secular legitimation crisis. The future of the broadly held secular religion of America, the American Dream, is now seriously in doubt. [10] Current cultural products vividly reflect and refract an endemic and escalating anxiety about future prospects, for individuals, communities and the nation.

Given the compulsive, angry and desperate angst of this Zeitgeist, it's no surprise that political pre-millenarians (even with their key discursive assets, the ultimate prequels, the New Testament and the Book of Revelations) have no lock on the profuse socio-cultural mutations of the prequel (or its associated narrative brethren) as resource and product. If these alternative narratives channel a society-wide anomie of "losing one's [secular] religion," i.e., "the American Dream," then, these narratives, too, are necessary objects for examination. These non-evangelical prequels function both as supplement to and/or as oppositional expressions against the "grand narrative" of techno-fundamentalist eschatology. To facilitate an examination of these 21st Century pop-cultural narratives of the past that take the American Dream as foundational, I've identified them as "petite prequels." And I begin below, of course, with a prequel.

Prequel One: Robert K. Merton, Depression-Era Anomie and the Ideology of the American Dream in the 21st Century

In the midst of the last major legitimacy crisis (for the U.S.) that was triggered by the onset of dire economic circumstances (the Great Depression), a young Robert K. Merton tendered a theory (and a taxonomy) of anomie tied to that American context. For Merton, anomie was a macro-structural effect which emerged from a rupture between culturally prescribed ends and the conventional means for attaining these ends. At the heart of Merton's 1930s Depression-era analysis was the gap between the dominant cultural goal (of upward economic and social mobility that has been the American Dream, with its emphases on material success and social status) and the availability of conventional means for achieving this goal in 1930s America. Formulating a mid-level structural-functionalist theoretical analysis of deviance, Merton posited that when the public demand to fulfill the American Dream was greater than the legitimate means available (through jobs or education), people re-orient themselves vis-à-vie the means, the goal, or both. In his general typology of how individuals and social groups respond to culturally defined means and ends, Merton offered up five possible adaptations. Commonly taught in introductory college and university sociology courses, the table (below) summarizes Merton's oft-cited (and taught) taxonomy: [11]

Table One: Mid-20th Century Progressive Capitalism's Mertonian Taxonomy
Adaptive Response Ends

(+) (-) (±)


(+) (-) (±)

1. Conformity + + Practitioners of the Protestant Ethic: College students enrolled at inexpensive institutions, thrifty savers those who practice deferred gratification of desires, etc.
2. Innovators + - White Collar Criminals
3. Ritualism - + Formalistic bureaucrats, OCD sufferers
4. Retreatism - - Drug addicts, alcoholics, hermits, etc.
5. Rebellion ± ± Social and Political Revolutionaries

In the table, (+) symbolizes acceptance, (-) symbolizes rejection, and ( ±) rejection and substitution of new ends and/or means.

For the next two generations, this model had considerable suasive power. Facing internal threats to legitimacy in the 1930s, and the real and imagined threats of the Soviet Union and China during the height of the Cold War, U.S. domestic economic policy, from the mid-1930s to the late 1970s, favored the growth and maintenance of the middle class, as a bulwark against domestic destabilization and as an ideological lynchpin of post WWII anticommunism. For these reasons and others, mid-20th Century progressive capitalism fortified the creation of conformist stakeholders in the American Dream, even while generating all five types of Mertonian responses to social and economic conditions.

From the early 1980s on, the major components of this configuration dissolved. As Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren has noted,

There was a fundamental change in the early 1980s, and the fundamental change was that we switched over to letting all of those little boats go it alone. And the focus moves to the two ends of the spectrum. We all thought the middle class was strong enough to take care of itself. [12]

Neo-liberalism and its political agenda took root precisely as an avalanche of structural changes and economic events reconfigured the social, cultural, financial and fiscal makeup of the U.S. and much of the rest of the globe. In the U.S., some manifestations of these recursive changes are as follows: Wholesale outsourcing of manufacturing and white collar jobs; the rapid and discontinuous effects of the information revolution; multiple rounds of massive tax cuts for the meta-wealthy, the aftermath of the tech-stock speculative bubble of the late 1990s, the current real estate bubble of the 2000s, the obese tumescence of consumer credit card and fiscal debt, and the still-to-come tragic consequences of irresponsible domestic and international political decisions promulgated on a portable mélange of lies, self-deception, cowardice and a lust for short-term gain. Arguably, the current operative political and economic "game plan" mimics a political ideology (and class stratification schema) exhumed from the zenith of the Gilded Age, the McKinley Presidency.

The result of this amalgam of policies, practices, and ideology has been a "creative destruction" that has gutted the long-term constitutive ground for a reinvention of the American middle class during the first part of the 21st Century. James Fallows is right. Since the late 1980s, the U.S. has abandoned any substantive commitment to savings, investment, education and innovation, in maintenance of an unstable and materially voracious status quo. In that sense, the traditional notion of the Protestant ethic, with its historically defined ethos of deferred gratification, is on Schiavo-like life-support. Structurally, it has been replaced by a short-term arrangement whereby the U.S. gobbles up, on a daily basis, more than four-fifths of the world's available savings/lending capital. With a debt level accelerating toward six trillion dollars, the current frenzy is an unsustainable level of consumption, as the U.S. has become the globe's only net consumer nation. The baby-boom generation has already bequeathed a long-term fiscal, financial and political indebtedness that will consume the prospects of subsequent generations. [13]

The present arrangement (currently financed by China, India and Caribbean-based speculators) has glutted the U.S. lending market, for the time being, with artificially low long-term interest rates. And it's not just macro-analysts such as Prestowitz, Drucker or Fallows who are chronicling these effects. Even at the micro-level, it has produced a number of bizarre and instructive configurations. For example, consider this interchange on the Boston-based NPR talk show, On Point. The show's host, Tom Ashbrook, is clearly intrigued as a caller, Mark, discusses personal finances. This excerpt is from the June 9, 2005 program titled "The Interest Rate Conundrum." [14] (The program examined the recent history of the U.S.'s long-term low interest rates. It also explored Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan's anxieties about what the bizarre directionality of these rates signifies):

Tom Ashbrook: Mark is calling from Lowell, MA. Are you there?
Mark: India and China want to give us as much money as they can to keep the interest rates low so that our housing prices appreciate, and then when they appreciate, we can take equity out of our homes and buy their goods and employ their people [who] make much less than us. They keep their employment going, we keep sending our technology there and setting up their manufacturing until they can subsist on their own ...
Ashbrook: Yes, that might work. But does it look sustainable to you, Mark? Or is there a crash landing, a soft landing? What do you see?
Mark: I believe that there's a crash landing coming, and you say, how do we protect ourselves?
Ashbrook: Yeah.
Mark: Here's what I did. They're actually throwing money at you, so much, that I'm taking money at zero percent and I'm putting it into ING Direct and getting three-and-a-quarter percent.
Ashbrook: So you're talking about credit card money? Zero percent credit card?
Mark: [Yes] ... I have, um, fifty-five thousand of their money now, and I'm making two-hundred and fifty dollars a month, and that ... is my income. I'm doing the reverse of what a credit card company would normally expect me to do ...
Ashbrook: (Chuckles in the background)
Mark: The fact that they're throwing the money at me [via numerous unsolicited offers] shows me that there is something wrong. If they are willing to give me that money, they may think that they're going to catch some people because they spent the money, and later on, they're going to raise the rates.
Ashbrook: But you're turning right around and investing it.

Mark's innovative redirection of obscene levels of "teaser" consumption-inducement credit into savings is worthy of a scene in an imagined text: "Merton through the 21st Century Looking Glass." Given the current economic and political configuration (where the very rich are getting far richer and everyone else is increasingly vulnerable to becoming the Deleuzian "man enclosed in [perpetual] debt,"), [15] any contemporary consideration of Merton's famous taxonomy compels a reformulation of categories (and boundaries). Mark's form of innovation is another sign of the usefulness of a revisionist taxonomy that would "stand Merton on his head." Some offerings in that direction follow (below):

Standing Merton on His Head

We begin with this question: What does it mean to be an American conformist, in the early 21st Century? The mid-20th Century conformist pursued conventional goals through deferred gratification (a key characteristic of the traditional Weberian Protestant ethic). To conform to the norm, in early 21st Century America, is something quite different. Today's conformist precariously maintains a middle-class lifestyle through the amassing of debt. It's a 180 degree turn from the Weberian/Mertonian archetype.

Who are those living in perpetual debt? They are the downwardly mobile bulk of the middle and lower classes. Their perilous situation is the result of one or more of the following factors: A reduction of the social safety net, divorce, illness, structural economic dislocation, escalating educational costs (tuition and loans), state infrastructural disinvestment, an increasingly regressive tax and benefit structure, the seductive and exponentially growing availability of easy credit for the sub-prime consumer market, the durable desire to adhere to the material signifiers of the American Dream, such as home ownership, finances notwithstanding, and finally, affluenza. [16] Differentially, all of these have contributed in reconstituting the current "American Dream" as a dimly dreaded prelude to the subsequent "Freddy Kruegerization" of the "dreaming" American citizen/consumer.

Note the constant in this: The notion of deferral remains. What has changed is the object of deferral. Costs are deferred into the future, rather than satisfactions. Chronic fiscal and personal indebtedness is statistically assumed, on every level, except for state and local governments. The result is that la cuenta, the bill for today's excesses and neglect, is displaced onto post-boomer generations. With either a negligible or negative percent of income deferred to savings, the profligate financial sins of boomers-as-fathers will be visited upon their sons and daughters, con venganza. [17] Who knew, back in 1967, when George W. Bush was a Yale cheerleader, that the plaintive prescription offered up by The Grass Roots pop hit, "Let's Live for Today" would become the de facto monetary and fiscal policy of Born Again (Boomer) Ideologists as they steer the world's behemoth debtor economy as if it were the Titanic: Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today/Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today/And don't worry 'bout tomorrow/hey, hey, hey. [18]

The "new American conformist" senses the unfolding economic and social calamity, but cannot directly confront it. Not surprisingly, the country, through its cultural products and political activities, engages in collective maneuvers of displacement and condensation. These processes of condensation and displacement are usefully folded into a revisionist Mertonian taxonomy. How? Displacement and condensation manifest in behaviors and narratives that are often ritualistic or retreatist, or a mix of both. Modifying Merton's taxonomy, the ritualist and the retreatist are no longer separate and deviant responses to "the American Dream." With the dream (and future hopes) in a death agony, ritualism and retreatism are but variations of a conformity that defers confrontations with consequences into a fervently dodged future. Until then, the collective behavioral motif is a thorough, if uneasy, milking of present circumstances. Ritualism and retreatism are often forms of such "milking." In support of these propositions, consider the following:

For Merton, mid-20th Century ritualists were those whose aspirations of social and economic mobility had permanently stalled out. They went to work (the means), but no longer aspired to (nor had any realistic expectation of) upward mobility. Tending to the stability of their limited income and status became their cardinal task. It's a conservative attitude of vigilance at the bulwarks, a sensibility and defensive posture well-geared for these security-conscious times. Who are today's ritualists? They include the perpetually defensive rank-and-file of industrial-era unions; mainline members of the Democratic Party, reactive rather than creative in their response to wrenching structural and cultural changes; a Fawcettian cadre of disengaged and declining 1970s "conservative radicals" [19] distractedly going through the motions of pedagogy, more interested in consuming the regular round of Oriental noodles, kayaking, Botox, face-lifts and Wednesday night rumba-dancing than fashioning a positive legacy; compulsive gamblers twitching their way through Vegas or Native American casino resorts; aggressive white male Southwest border vigilantes, securing the Sonoran boundaries from hungry and ambitious brown bodies, while ensuring their own bellicose decline and subsequent ignominious death in the blast-furnace streets in the Valley of the Sun [20], and so on.

While the many variants of ritualism provide an illusion of fixity and normalcy, ritualism is but one pole in the brave bipolar world of the New American Conformity. A desperate and intermittently self-aware retreatism fuels the current round of scripts, plots and profits of the culture industries. Successful first run films at the Regal/Loews/AMC multiplex this summer include the allegorical descent of a once virtuous Republic into techno-Fascism (the Star Wars prequel, the Revenge of the Sith); a fumbling, partially-nascent Batman simultaneously wrestling with his own demons and a cartoon Orientalist obsessed with a global deployment of WMDs (the prequel, BatMan Begins); the ironic desire for Lebensraum exhibited by aggressive zombie-corpses (in the Land of the Dead); and, of course, the reverse temporal vector of looking at the future through digital images of the past, darkly, in War of the Worlds. LA Weekly film critic Scott Foundas perceptively notes that

Those of us used to consuming cinematic death and destruction as if though it were popcorn have found ourselves choking on some not so small socio-political bones ...

[This] War of the Worlds announces itself as a reverse inventory of 20th and 21st Century atrocities, beginning with 9/11 ... working its way through . .the corpse-strewn rivers of Rwanda, the battlefields and deportation trains of World War II ... and even the sinking of the Titanic, with its eternal reminder of man's hubristic folly. [21]

To its credit, Spielberg's War of the Worlds iterates some of the primary symbolic functions of H.G. Wells' original novel (assailing the smugness of decline, while refracting concurrent fears of attack or invasion). The current film also rolls up some themes from the 1953 U.S. cinematic version (filmed at the height of the HUAC-McCarthy hearings). The overall result of reprising elements of earlier narrative iterations, the inverted temporal sequencing of a century of horrors, all placed in the supercharged visceral energy of the film, combines to make War of the Worlds a complex intertextual product. One plausible, but to date unexplored, intertext is that the havoc wrought above, below and up from ground level by technologically sophisticated alien ships signifies the "creative destruction" wrought by structural economic changes. As America is laid waste by the devastation of working-class neighborhoods and garden-variety industrial parks, such infrastructural detritus mirrors the legacy of techno-globalization in the industrial heartland. The raison d'être of the film's alien invasion -- the "aliens" biological thirst for the "red blood" of Americans -- mirrors Foucault's observation that wars are best justified on the basis of biological survival. In part, the film can be understood as a metaphor not only for the effects of cutthroat global economic competition, but as a coded genocidal race war (through the blood lust that animates the plot), where the victor voraciously consumes the life-blood of the vanquished.

In its orientation to both the future and "the other," this film stands in stark contrast with the Spielbergian products of previous decades. Characters filled with awe, trust and hope in encounters with aliens and/or the future abound in the Spielbergian products of the late 1970s and early 1980s (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T, The Color Purple). In each, unexpected encounters with larger and unknown worlds are a source of inspiration, transformation and salvation. They mirror the exploratory and vivifying aspects of the American mythos, and the idea of reinvention or rebirth in a new and still largely unexplored world. At the end of War of the Worlds, the protagonist, surveying the result not of the beneficence of difference, but of the malevolence of difference, peers at a probable future through the de facto curled temporal lens (the temporal equivalent of a snake eating its tail) of accumulated past and present horrors. Tom Cruise's Ray Ferrier, Spielberg's very flawed "everyman," implicitly, silently equates the future not with rebirth, growth, an opportunity for transformation or even continuation, but with the recurrence of danger, decline, destruction, disruption, and death. In its stance toward the future, the film is an inversion of the Mertonian conformist's future-based faith.

Spielberg's current artifact does not stand alone as a testament of this sea-change. The current escapist fare of recycled mid-20th Century entertainment vehicles and the related profusion of genealogical prequels which invert the naïve expectation of a progressive futurism are tangible pop culture signifiers of retreatism. After all, how many citizens, at this point in time, fully apprehend the utterances of a blunt old man, the novelist Norman Mailer? Sans sentimentality, Mailer delimited the de facto prequels to this new retreatism, in a February 2003 address to The Commonwealth Club:

[With Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Adelphia, Tyco, HealthSouth, etc.] came a more complete exposure of the ... economic gluttony thriving at the top. Criminal behavior was being revealed on the front pages of every business section. Without 9/11, Bush would have been living in the non-stop malaise of uglier and uglier media publicity. America was taking a series of hits that were not wholly out of proportion to what happened to the Germans after World War I when inflation came and wiped out the fundamental German notion of self, which was that if you worked hard and saved your money, you ended up having a decent old age... By the same measure, 9/11 had done something comparable to the American sense of security. [22]

Subsequent events, from the human damage, infrastructural detritus, and fiscal hemorrhaging of the Iraqi War, the emerging behemoth pension-plan defaults, briskly escalating energy prices, accelerated fiscal risk-shifting and structural disinvestment to a hyper-ballooning fiscal and personal indebtedness; all of these present and unfolding outcomes are now thoroughly stewed in the psychosocial soup of a profound physical insecurity born from recent acts of terror. The entire package signals the death knell of the material and structural supports that sustained the mid-to-late 20th Century American Dream, as a credible legitimation principle. Now, in this interregnum, the "don't worry, be happy" [23] coping strategy (a happiness comprised of insatiable consuming and casino-like speculating) is a viable, if fleeting, patina because of the self-interested "kindness of strangers" (Asian Central Banks and Caribbean speculators). However, underneath the slick surface of the myriad "enjoy the moment" marketing campaigns, a palpable mix of disillusionment and anxiety is discernable on the streets, and in the intermittently filled shops, malls and colleges, here, in the old factory and mill towns of the Northeast. Arguably, there is a preconscious collective understanding that as a long-term strategy, the "fix" of indefinitely devouring the world's available lending capital isn't sustainable. Detached observers (de facto) echo this paraphrase of the notable 1990 sentiment of the elder Bush: "This [inordinate level of consumption and indebtedness] will not stand." [24]

Neo-Mertonian Rebels/Revolutionaries

The last Mertonian type is the revolutionary. The revolutionary rejects both the conventional ends (the mid-20th Century version of the American Dream) and the means (deferred gratification) for achieving those ends. With the "dream" on its deathbed, and a legitimacy crisis upon the U.S. soon enough, we can anticipate rounds of vigorous scapegoating. It's a predictable and necessary prequel for establishing a new hegemonic principle. Some entity (person, people, group, ideology and/or network) must be unambiguously blamed (and subjected to public degradation ceremonies) for these social ills.

Tentatively, we can identify two machinic phyla (rough assemblages, often with disparate components, that function, more or less, as a unitary phenomenon) at work in service of whatever revolutionary and/or retrograde discourse emerges as the new legitimacy principle in the U.S. These two broad apparatuses are already well entrenched, in the U.S. One machinic phylum we can call apparatuses of blame, the other, apparatuses of capture. In the context of this discussion, both concepts are broad reappropriations from Deleuze.

Apparatuses of blame: When international central banks and speculators present, as they eventually must, the accumulated IOUs to the U.S. government, U.S. corporations and American citizens and residents, the consequences (such as a rapid and steep devaluation of the dollar coupled with a sharp rise in interest rates) are predictable. In domino-like fashion, home foreclosures exponentially ramp up, while fortified and profitable armies of Repo (repossession) men become roaming fixtures in the streets. When this happens, pre-existing media apparatuses of blame (such as Fox News and Clear Channel Radio) will intensify already highly modulated flows of blame-claims. The truth of such claims is tactically irrelevant, in terms of shaping political perceptions of blame. As Richard Viguere, the grandfather of neo-conservative media propagandists recently explained, there is no de facto political difference, in public discourse, between fact-based claims and those based on raw emotive reaction. In a 2004 interview, Viguere briskly dismisses the un-useful distinction with a self-serving and reductive quip: "It's just all opinion. Just opinion." [25]

Given this raw equivalence of fact-based claims and emotive opinion on the part of such as Viguere and his allies, unmasking the complex decision chains that lead to decline (a task that Fallows takes on) is less important, or more to the point, even counterproductive, in light of the penultimate task: Channeling the resultant panic fear and anger into the constitutive cementing of a new ür legitimacy principle, the successor to the American Dream. The public and cathartic repudiation of an imagined past (and the thorough excoriation of a nefarious class of elites) is a necessary precondition for the wholesale replacement of a constitutive social and political principle. However effected, the result is revolutionary.

To successfully accomplish such tasks of (first) causal reduction, followed by effective control of "the definition of the situation" (and the role of actors in that definition) Mark Nunes offers up a short, useful article, a brief and recent exemplar. Nunes applies Deleuzian concepts to describe how some key elements of these definitions were reshaped. Specifically, he analyzes contemporary representational tensions between descriptions of terrorism as part and product of complex networks, and how this nuanced mapping is replaced, in subsequent governmental and media discourse, with a flat, reductive binarism:

Apparatuses of capture modulate flows by eliminating the interstitial and regulating transmission as a mode of order... As the US military force mounted, one heard less and less talk of the distributed network form of terror, as an uncontrollable threat coalesced in the modulated image of a handful of figureheads: a "line up" in its most literal sense connecting bin Laden, Zakawi, and Hussein... The topology of fear had changed. Within months, the U.S. government's rhetoric had [been redeployed] from [a mapping of] terrorist networks to an "Axis of Evil." Gone were the references to the complex webbings of distributed systems, and in its place, the reassuringly linear, gravitational orientations of good and evil. [26]

Note the resonance between Nunes' observation and Howard Fineman's description of the modus operandi of George W. Bush's meta-advisor, Karl Rove:

In the World According to Karl Rove, you create a narrative that glosses over complex[ity], mitigating facts to divide the world into friends and enemies, light and darkness, good and bad, Bush versus Saddam. You are loyal to a fault to your friends, merciless to your enemies. You study the details, and learn more about your foes than they know about themselves. You use the jujitsu of media flow to flip the energy of your enemies against them ... everything is political -- and everyone is fair game. [27]

In a mediated environment, then, apparatuses and activities of blaming/attribution/capture meticulously research complex, nuanced and loosely linked networks, but then represent such findings in a binary meta-format. These binaries are shorn of such interpretative and political inconveniences as "shades of gray."

As a "ground clearing" set of operations, apparatuses of blaming are a subset of apparatuses of capture. This is because successful blaming de-legitimizes rival ideological and regulatory assemblages. On the cusp of legitimacy crises, the intensified jockeying of such apparatuses makes this phenomenon all the more visible. There's a tension between what such assemblages do and how they represent themselves (regardless of political orientation), as they constitute narratives of blame and disgrace.

For example, consider David Horowitz's burgeoning apparatuses of blaming. There are three discernable websites: The Center for Popular Culture (, FrontPage Magazine ( and the youngest of the three, "," launched in February 2005 ([28] Collectively, they are an expression of a substantial investment (Apparently, they are reflective of a commitment of 4.765 million dollars of funding from the Bradley, Scaife and Olin foundations).[29] On the newest site, "Discover the Network," site maintainers are busy amassing a panoptic data set:

The site is made up of two principal data elements [and] a search engine ... The first of these elements is a database of PROFILES of individuals, groups and institutions, which can be accessed ... The PROFILES provide thumbnail sketches of histories, agendas and (where significant) funding sources. More than 1,500 such groups and individuals have already been delineated in the PROFILES sections ... Information has been culled from public records readily available ... [30]

On the other hand, there are articles about how such information is editorially represented:

The second data element consists of a library of articles, which analyze the relationships disclosed in the database and the issues they raise. These analyses are drawn from thousands of articles, both scholarly and journalistic ... entered into the base and linked in the TEXT columns that appear on the PROFILE pages. The judgments that inform these analyses are subjective, reflecting informed opinion ...

Elsewhere, I have noted how this second element, the "subjective ... informed opinion" iterates, with its twin on the left (the "conservative radicals" of the 1970s, such as Ward Churchill), as each manifests Manichean political logics. [31] In the context of this article, what is noteworthy on the site is the disjuncture between the probable findings of data mining (which can be complex, shaded and even paradoxical) and the flat binary nature of the "subjective, informed opinion[s]" that are subsequently expressed. With such notable features as "Moonbat Central," [32] biographical dossiers that have a decided narrative tendency to flatten all personal and political histories into dark, unflattering caricatures (with thumbnail photo portraits, sometimes aspect/ratio distorted, that reinforce the effect), the underlying meta-editorial tone of the site is, for this reader, as follows:

These entities (and the many others that we will discover) are ALL the enemies of the people. Either profoundly mistaken or deeply malevolent, they are solely responsible for the socio-cultural and economic malaise afflicting the U.S. Here are their institutional collaborators. They too must all be known for what they are. In the end, they are all the same. They must all be degraded in status and reduced to powerlessness. When this task has been accomplished, all will be as it should be. Freed of the enemy from within, we will be more secure. The U.S. will be great again. Heart, mind and soul, the staff here at (or FrontPage Magazine, or The Center for the Study of Popular Culture) is fiercely dedicated to this momentous task. [33]

The Manichean message is not unique to Horowitz's assemblage (or to any particular position on the socio-cultural-political spectrum). However, the consistency of the demonization, however prima facie absurd, may be the most important element of the website. [34] However, we should all take Horowitz at full face value when he says that "My motivation has to do with a young man whose parents were Communists in the McCarthy era ... " [35].

Like Spielberg's War of the Worlds, has a discernable affinity with this Zeitgeist. Presumably, a one-trick discourse of blame is too negative to be a new, standalone legitimacy principle. But either as precursor and/or supplement, as an apparatus of blame functioning with other apparatuses embedded differentially within institutional bases (media, religion, politics, marketing, etc.), Horowitz's initiative is well-timed. In the midst of wrenching structural and economic change, as a much-adhered-to-and-beloved legitimacy principle bites the figural and literal dust, the populace, those who have "lived and played by the [deposed] rules" will be induced to find ritual objects to vent their anger and angst. For a population suddenly facing a diminished present and future, David Horowitz (and/or his institutional heirs) may well have an instant and usable list (and supporting documents) of activists, artists and intellectuals ready to offer for public catharsis: "It was they who did this to us." And, given the historical realities of such rituals in the recent past, the possibility cannot be dismissed. In this way, the ground may well be cleared for a new legitimacy principle, the firmly in-place successor to the American Dream. At this point, we can point out the likely candidate for this new meta-legitimacy principle. We have no absolute surety. As Deleuze might have said, the un-thought works through the fold, toward the cusp of embodiment as that which is thinkable and sayable. We move this way, as we must.

Toward the New Legitimation Principle

In an April 2004 radio interview with literary critic Michael Silverblatt, the 85 year-old novelist, Doris Lessing [36] pinpointed the following:

Lessing: If you look back to previous times, this kind of thing (the devaluing of once prevalent socio-cultural norms), will not last, and will slide off into something better and I do spend quite a bit of time wondering where in the world something is being born that we don't recognize. You know, that is "slouching toward Bethlehem to be born," a poem of Yeats ... this theme of things slipping through one's fingers, I think that a lot of us feel it ...

Tell me, do you never amuse your thought by thinking where in the world, not noticed yet, is a new thing being born? Don't you ever think that? Because it is very obvious that so many things are played out, worn out. We're coming to the end of something. Somewhere else, you see, something is being born. It must be. It always is. It's probably a very rough beast -- a rough beast slouching is not something pretty, perhaps, probably something very clumsy. But it's there, full of vitality and I wonder where it is? Don't you think like that?

Silverblatt: Of course. But aren't you also afraid of its vitality, sometimes?
Lessing: I'm going to die sometime quite soon, that's all (laughing). Other people can cope with it.
Silverblatt: (A surprised belly laugh) It can be born, as long as you're not around to see it, eh?
Lessing: Well, I shall observe from some little pink cloud, with much interest, what this thing is. And I'll think, my God, how is it that I didn't see it. This will probably be my thought.

For subsequent generations (those considerably younger than the generation born in the years immediately before or after World War I), this in-progress transmutation is more than just a stimulating intellectual curiosity, however incisively apprehended. If the rapidly constricting possibilities for broad self-reinvention and mass social mobility disappear, leaving barely a trace, lost under the weight of stratified layers of debt, the recently re-concretized privilege of inherited wealth, and the intensive monitoring of surveillant-security assemblages, what will be the new legitimation principle?

Looking back, this much we can say: This recent round of socio-economic permutations renders Merton's taxonomy as something just short of pure semiotic and historical marker, a key relic in The Onion's imagined but not improbable "Museum of the Middle Class." My neo-Mertonian revisions are meant as a record of the passing of this particular moment in time and place. These revisions are perhaps useful as a conceptual bridge to apprehend some aspects of the interregnum between the in-progress death rattle, and still-to-come messy, noisy and perhaps violent burial of a beloved secular religion, and the concurrent demise of its material embodiment in a historical social class. All the while, the Beast (a new legitimacy principle, and new institutional practices and discourses enacted in its murky name) is clearly on the move. [37]

What distinguishes Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class, Weinstein's and Kroker's incisive, complex and unflinching analyses from the casual musings of Lessing, is the following (in telescoped form): What if this "slouching Beast" represents, not a rowdy-link-in-a-long-chain (as Lessing assumes) but the expression of a Terminal will (as a much-transplanted descendant of the Puritans and the Confederacy) fused with the products of 21st Century techno-science, consumed with rage, intolerant of difference, disdainful of historical legacies, aggressive and vengeful in imposing its inscriptions on the World?

In a 2002 essay for CTHEORY, Priming the Pump of War, I cited Walter Benjamin's definition of Fascism. At the risk of redundancy, I reprise parts of it here:

Fascism sees its salvation in giving the masses ... a chance to express themselves ... Fascism give[s] them an expression while preserving property [relations]. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of ... an apparatus ... pressed into the production of ritual values. [38]

The political birth of the current aggressive assemblage and tactical promotion of the ritual values of Dominionism emerged as the wealth and stratification system began shifting away from the [then] broader middle class in the late 1970s. In an article posted on, out of Cornell, Chris Hedges recalls the 1980 prediction of the late James Luther Adams of the Harvard Divinity School:

[Adams, who had worked in Germany with Bonhoeffer and Schweitzer in the mid-1930s] told us that when we [the Boomer generation] were his age, he was then close to 80, we would all be fighting the "Christian fascists."

The warning came at the moment ... Pat Robertson and other[s] began speaking about a new political religion ... It's stated goal was to use the United States to create a global Christian Empire. [39]

Among the obstacles that stood in the way, arguably, the most durable has been the de facto secular religion of the U.S.: the mythos of the American Dream. In a provocative (but not unique) elective affinity, the cultural and political viability of Dominionism has risen as the socio-economic supports for the realization of the American Dream have, first incrementally, then decisively, fallen. Structural economic and regulatory changes have had the effect of "slashing and burning" the constitutive material ground of the American Dream. Until the recent and fateful tipping of the scales, the American Dream was Dominionism's pervasive and tenacious obstacle and rival.

Put alternatively, in the context of Robert K. Merton's famous taxonomy, a corporatist-supported Dominionism rejects both the means and ends of mid-20th Century American society, sweeping away both means and ends. In Merton's classification schema, Dominionism is not conformist, retreatist, ritualist or innovative. It is revolutionary, with a well-established and burgeoning network of communities, schools, businesses, and media outlets in tight alliance with geopolitical neo-conservatives, and their extended network. These extended networks are working to rewrite the cultural and political DNA of the country and the planet. The last shreds of the Enlightenment, and its governmental disestablishment of religion, would be reversed. Intended or not, putting the wrecking ball square onto the American Dream was a necessary piece of "creative destruction," in the Anti-disestablishmentarian's playbook of "How to Achieve Global Dominion."

Let's give this intolerant "slouching beast" a name: Call it the Christo-Terminator, a Borg-like fusion of the Dominionist, the skilled media manipulator [40], and the techno-soldier. I ask about its ancestors: Is this Christo-Terminator, the anti-Leviathan, the return, after 350 years, of the Cromwellian repressed, reborn on American soil? And if this is so, what kind of world is the Boomer generation bequeathing to its children, in the near and longer term?

Finally, we remember that Robert K. Merton was a perceptive observer of the human condition. He coined two terms that remain in wide circulation. One, the notion of a "self-fulfilling prophecy" fills us with dread. The other, the notion of "unintended consequences," offers up some hope. In between, we move and act in a world where nothing, and no one, can be as they were.


[1] Promulgated in 1997, and signed by future Bush protégés Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Lewis Libby (Cheney's Chief of Staff), (an apparently recalcitrant) Paul Wolfowitz as well as by Bush sibling, Jeb Bush, the foundational principle of The Project for a New American Century called for aggressively "extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles." (

[2] This is how Peter Drucker characterized the Iraq War, in a December 8, 2004 interview with Tom Ashbrook, host of the nightly public affairs show, On Point, on NPR affiliate WBUR (Boston). The streaming audio archive is available at

[3] Arthur Kroker, "Born Again Ideology." CTheory, article td153,

[4] The term is borrowed from James Fallows' provocative article, "Countdown to a Meltdown" in The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2005, 296, 1. Additionally, Fallows discussed the article in a June 7, 2005 interview with Tom Ashbrook, host of the nightly public affairs show, On Point, on NPR affiliate WBUR (Boston). The streaming audio archive is available at

[5] Fallows, ibid.

[6] Drucker, ibid.

[7] Kroker, ibid.

[8] Kroker, ibid.

[9] Former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges claims what distinguishes pre-millennialism, or Dominionism, as an evangelical dogma, is the credo that Christian activists must produce a Fundamentalist Christian political and social order as a necessary precondition for Christ's return. For more, see "Soldiers of Christ II: Feeling the Hate with the National Religious Broadcasters," from the May 2005 issues of Harpers' Magazine.

[10] Commentary about the death of the middle class in the U.S. (which is the material embodiment of "the American Dream") is increasingly common. For a sampling, see the following: "The Vanishing Middle Class" with David Cay Johnston (NY Times reporter and author) and Jacob Hacker (Yale) in a June 10, 2005 interview with Tom Ashbrook, host of the nightly public affairs show, On Point, on NPR affiliate WBUR (Boston). The streaming audio archive is available at; "Class Matters: A Special Section:" New York Times Online. The digital archive is available at; "The National Museum of the Middle Class Opens in Schaumberg, IL." The Onion, November 4. 2004. The satirical article begins as follows: "The Museum of the Middle Class, featuring historical and anthropological exhibits addressing the socio-economic category that once existed between the upper and lower classes, opened to the public Monday." A digital archive is available at news/index.php?issue=4044&n=1 Or, see my 2003 CTHEORY article, "The Digital Death Rattle of the American Middle Class."

[11] Originally, Robert K. Merton's article "Social Structure and Anomie" appeared in the American Sociological Review 3, October 1938. The article was more recently published in On Social Structure and Science: Essays by Robert K. Merton, edited by Piotr Sztompka, pp. 672-82. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. A Google search the terms anomie and Robert K. Merton yields thousands of hits. Many of these hits reproduce Merton's taxonomy.

[12] PBS Now interview between Bill Moyers and Elizabeth Warren on her book, The Two Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke. Online transcript of the interview is available at Streaming video archive of the interview is available at

[13] These figures are from Clyde Prestowitz's Three Billion New Capitalists: The Great Shift of Wealth and Power to the East. New York: Basic Books. 2005. Among the data that Prestowitz marshals are the following: The U.S. is the only net consumer of goods in the world (among nations), running an imbalance of $700 billion dollars annually. To keep this skewed consumption pattern going, fiscal and corporate entities must turn to foreign capital sources to finance this level of overconsumption. The result is a kind of Ponzi or pyramid connivance (as the Financial Times termed it). The result is that the U.S. soaks up eighty or more percent of the world's available lending capital, each year (to finance the consumption of five percent of the world's population). To hear an archived streaming audio discussion on this and related topics, see the following: "Asia's Great Rise," a June 3, 2005 conversation with Clyde Prestowitz, Marvin Zonis and Tom Ashbrook, host of the nightly public affairs show, On Point, on NPR affiliate WBUR (Boston). The streaming audio archive is available at See also the op-ed piece by Prestowitz, reprinted in The International Herald Tribune: "The Yuan Might Shift; Imbalances Won't," June 1, 2005. Available at

[14] "The Interest Rate Conundrum." A conversation between Greg Ip, Campbell Harvey, Jeremy Siegel and Tom Ashbrook, host of the nightly public affairs show, On Point, on NPR affiliate WBUR (Boston). The streaming audio archive is available at

[15] Gilles Deleuze, "Postscript to Societies of Control," 1990. Although the article first appeared in L'Autre journal, no. 1, it is widely available on the Web. My link was from

[16] Warren, ibid.

[17] Fallows, ibid.

[18] The Grass Roots, "Let's Live for Today." 1967. lyrics.html

[19] Brian Fawcett coined this term in a provocative book, published in 1986: Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow. Collier Books.

[20] Consider the beginning May 5, 2005 article, "Alienated," by Michael Lacey, from The Phoenix New Times:

Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas announced at a press conference yesterday that he would not prosecute three off-duty baggage inspectors from Sky Harbor Airport who held the entire congregation at Immaculate Heart Church hostage at gunpoint. The South Phoenix churchgoers, virtually all Mexicans, were detained May 1 until police officers could be summoned to arrest the suspected wetbacks, red-light runners, Medicare-fraud beneficiaries, car thieves and assorted homies.

The citizens' arrest of 800 Mexicans in the church is the largest-ever roundup of its kind ... One of these "baggage handlers" is evidently an ex-Saudi prince, who goes by the name (no joke) of "Sheik Yer Bouti."

[21] Scott Foundas, "Starfire and Brimstone: In Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, an alien invasion cuts mankind down to size." LA Weekly, July 1-7.

[22] Norman Mailer,"Only in America." Transcript of Norman Mailer's speech to the San Francisco-based Commonwealth Club, February 20, 2003. Streaming audio archive of the speech is available at

[23] According to a Wikipedia entry, Bobby McFerrin's song, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," was the first a cappella to reach number one on the Billboard song chart, in September 1988, as the Dukakis-Bush I Presidential campaign was well underway.

[24] Prestowitz, ibid, Fallows, ibid.

[25] Richard Viguere, in conversation with Bill Moyers on the NOW segment, "A Matter of Opinion." This was Moyers' final appearance on the PBS show on December 17, 2004. Online transcript: Streaming video:

[26] Mark Nunes "Distributed Terror and the Ordering of Networked Social Space," M/C Journal, Volume 7, Number 6, January 2005.

[27] Howard Fineman, "Rove at War," MSNBC/Newsweek, July 17, 2005.

[28] Note that while the site's banner refers to multiples (networks), the URL references the idea of a single network: What this minor discrepancy represents is open to speculation.

[29] Jennifer Jacobson, "What Makes David Run," The Chronicle of Higher Education, p9, May 6, 2005. Retrieved from LEXIS/NEXIS, 07/18/05.

[30] David Horowitz, "What This Site Is About." A Guide to the Political Left.

[31] Dion Dennis, (forthcoming), "Public Intellectuals, Information Politics and the Manichean Moment," in Fast Capitalism, Volume 1, No. 2, Fall, 2005.

[32] David Horowitz.

[33] In Priming the Pump of War, I discuss the Janus-faced task of propaganda, for Goebbels. In the pro-social billboards of Philip Anschutz's Foundation for a Better Life, the "positive" and highly aestheticized representations of domestic and national life are offered. Briefly, the article also discusses Goebbels' construction of the negative pole of representation: Targeted groups and individuals were subjected to intense stigmatization, dehumanization and systematic degradation. It served as a precursor to much greater and more systematic violence. I argue that both poles are necessary, as a form of political strategy, in Fascism.

[34] Chris Hedges cites Hannah Arendt, in her Origins of Totalitarianism, where she discusses the use of repetition in the service of consistency, as a form of propaganda. See Comment 39.

[35] Jacobson, ibid.

[36] Doris Lessing, in conversation with literary critic Michael Silverblatt, on his radio show, Bookworm, from NPR affiliate KCRW, Santa Monica. Originally aired on April 1, 2004, the streaming audio archive is available at: 04&tmplt_type=show

[37] These signs are recognized, even on the margins. For example, I was surprised by a serendipitous encounter with an obscure song, by an obscure singer/songwriter, Rob Glaser. The lyrics of Glaser's Bruce Cockburnsque song, Revelation (2004), are effective shorthand for some of the themes (such as apparatuses of blaming, the emergence of a "Terminal Will," and the widespread anger that characterize the Zeitgeist) in this essay. Below is an excerpt:

We should think in black and white, and avoid all complications.
We'll be easier to love if we try.
Rage is everywhere,
No one is above temptation.
There's no reason to be fair
Break the seventh seal.
Nothing ever seems to change. Nothing ever stays the same ...

Though we long for something new,
We need endless repetition;
Same old stories, same old songs, same old lies.
It's a wonder we don't scream,
Choke upon the contradictions
Of the fascinating schemes we devise.
Rage is everywhere,
No one is above temptation.
There's no reason to be fair
Break the seventh seal.

The mp3 of Glaser's "Revelation" can be downloaded from the following link:

[38] Walter Benjamin, 1969. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Epilogue." Pg 246. In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Edited and with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books.

[38] Dion Dennis, ibid.

[39] Chris Hedges, "The Christian Right and the Rise of American Fascism."

[40] In a discussion between Chris Hedges (See Comment 9), Harvard Divinity School Professor Harvey Cox, Jr. and Tom Ashbrook, Cox makes the following point, toward the very end of the conversation:

I do take them [Dominionists] seriously, especially [in regards] to their enormous skill with the media ... These people really know how to run the media. When I visited Pat Robertson's University, they had the most advanced media lab down there to train their students, more [technologically sophisticated and] elaborate than anywhere I've ever seen. It's much better than what we have at Harvard. They know the power of communication. They're working hard at it.

From the April 27, 2005 On Point public affairs show on "Christian Dominionism." Streaming audio archive available at

With enduring interests in representation, communication, culture and technology, Dion Dennis is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Bridgewater State College, MA.