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Donald Trump’s Trips Abroad And America’s Refracted “Nervous System” (Roger Green)

Indian shaman postcard

The fallout of the popular right’s success in the United States has been dusting the world for seven months now.  Donald Trump recently signified his alliance with the Christian Right by delivering a speech in Lynchburg, Virginia at Jerry Falwell & Son’s Liberty University, a private Christian school known for sparking the flame that ignited into the rightwing politicization of evangelical politics. Trump told the students to “embrace being called an outsider.”

This week,  Trump has set off to address the “Islamic world,” as the “voice” of the west.  Earlier this week he visited the Western Wall in Israel, and the political theological significance of the photo in The New York Times is saturated with incongruous polyvalence. Trump was certainly not greeted as an outsider by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Unlike Moses in Midian, Trump is not a stranger in a strange land when he visits Saudi Arabia or Israel. Like privileged Euro-American Christians who mistake a social critique of their investment in oppressive power with being persecuted as early Christians were, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he has been persecuted by the press.  Nor are neoliberal defenders of identity categories any kind of prophetic conscience for social justice.  The exclusivist rhetoric of a billionaire American president (or anyone else of extreme privilege and power) claiming a persecution narrative acts to deflect criticism by adopting the stance of a “stranger there.”

Tracy B. Strong’s recent essay in the journal Telos addresses the exceptional American and Puritan legacy of such thinking by addressing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, tales that produce strangeness in their doubling effect: “By making actual events strange, [Hawthorne] will be able to bring out their true, if hidden, nature” (122).  Strong connects, not to the stranger, Gershom, in Exodus 2:22, but to the Christian version of the fall into original sin in Genesis, emphasizing human separation from the divine and the project of how to be where we are – or how to be citizens in Hawthorne’s sense.

Ultimately Strong’s implicit argument is secularist and immanent, citing Calvin’s civic model without a transcendent God as a model for Hawthorne.

Rhetorical attempts to make twice told tales where one’s investment in power is estranged only serves to reinforce that power and to have the newly “persecuted” occupy the discursive frame.  It is the opposite of the prophetic tradition, which of course inspired Walter Rauschenbusch and eventually “mainline” Christian liberals in the U.S., who are increasingly less mainstream, though nowhere close to being strangers themselves.

It should also be mentioned, however, that not all Abrahamic traditions see the fall as taking place in the Garden of Eden.  The flood marks the fall in Judaism, and original sin has a wholly different context there, one way less concerned with the individual subject.

While their president is abroad fighting the fight of a horizontal conception of West vs. East, preserving a dualistic frame of a zero-sum game against “extremists,” Americans would do well to look at the ways the U.S. oppresses its neighbors in Latin America.

As Peter H. Smith magnificently tracks in his aptly titled The Talons of the Eagle, from its outset, American foreign policy aspired to become empire.  Currently, when we look at Latin America we see turmoil historically supported by U.S. policy.  Venezuela’s increasingly violent calls for Nicolás Maduro’s resignation, supported by Trump’s recent sanctions on the Venezuelan Supreme Court, is part of a larger narrative of resistance to any Leftist powers in the region. Maduro’s almost inevitable fall will close the legacy of the Bolivarian dream inspired by his more-able predecessor, Hugo Chavez.  Chavez famously called George W. Bush “the Devil”; one wonders what he would have called Trump.

Michael Taussig, an anthropologist at Columbia University, has throughout his career addressed The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South AmericaRachel Harding has amplified Taussig’s work in her own attention to alternative spaces of blackness in Brazil and the emergence of Candomblé religion in the nineteenth century.  As with African-inspired religious textures in north America, such as hoodoo, conjure, or root-working, Harding focuses on the material presencing in mandingas:

At the level of materiality, the meaning of the mandinga is contained in the object itself. It is not a representation of a transcendent reality; rather, its value, function, and meaning are present in its construction from elements which speak to the perils of slave life and attempt to provide magico-religious efficacy in negotiating freedom, or at least a form of refuge or defense. (31)

Part of what Taussig and Harding are addressing made international news last week when The Guardian covered a “shamanic curse” placed on Venezuelan President Maduro by Liborio Gaurulla, the former governor of the state of Amazonas, who had been banned from office due to his opposition of Maduro, leaving the state with no indigenous leadership.

In fact, as the article attests, at least one anthropologist was skeptical of appropriation of indigenous rites for Gaurulla’s political purposes, claiming: “No indigenous politician has truly emerged from within the real indigenous leadership. They are mostly political figures who parachute into government banking on indigenous identity.”

But where is the line between spirituality and politics here?  Is the political always a twice-told-tale…a collective representation?  Taussig’s book The Nervous System addresses this through a meditation on terror and Walter Benjamin.  He cites from Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.  We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.  Then we shall clearly recognize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. (12-13)

Taussig addresses this need by moving beyond subject-object poetics through attention to the ‘nervous system’ and the political situation of Colombia in the 1990s where “an official State of Emergency has been in force, now on, now off, now on again, for as long as most people can remember” (16). This situation persists in 2017 in the fragile peace that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos garnered with the Leftist rebel group, FARC, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

The White House Announced that in his meeting with President Santos last week, “President Trump underscored the United States Government’s support for the successful implementation of Colombia’s historic peace accord and highlighted the need for Colombia to make quick and concrete progress in curbing coca cultivation and cocaine production.”

Yet the Trump administration has remained silent with respect to $450 million in aid to Colombia for 2017 promised by Obama and approved by Congress last year.  Here is a situation where adhering to an Obama strategy may be the deciding factor in maintaining stability in Colombia at the same time its neighbor, Venezuela is falling apart.

In Taussig’s reflections on the unacknowledged Dirty War in Colombia during the 1980s, he emphasizes “silencing”:

Silencing serves not only to preserve memory as nightmare within the fastness of the individual, but to prevent the collective harnessing of the magical power of (what Robert Hertz, in his classic 1907 essay on the representation of death) called ‘the unquiet souls’ of the space of death – the restless souls that return again and again to haunt the living, such as the souls who died violent deaths.(27)

The United States does a very good job in its domestic discourse of silencing Latin America in order to present its own persecution complex against a terrorist “Other.”  Historically, this has been through an alignment of Soviet Russia as eastern “Other,” and the forbidding of Leftist impulses in the region.

There are a few small presences.  In Colombia’s neighboring Ecuador, the left has narrowly maintained power through the election of Lenín Moreno. As Bello writes, “Moreno . . . achieved a narrow victory, by 51% to 49% over Guillermo Lasso, a conservative banker. Even so, the result interrupted the recent ebbing of the “pink tide” in South America that has seen several electoral victories for the centre-right.”

Further to the south, Bolivia’s economy still heavily depends on coca exportation, and the Leftist indigenous (Aymaran) President, Evo Morales has had some success in removing the DEA and defending traditional cultivation of the crops.  There is concern about whether he will run for a fourth term in 2019, something which a law that was narrowly passed last year forbids.

In Brazil, we see the weekly unravelling of scandal around leaked recordings of President Temer. South American leaders desperately attempt to hold power long enough to establish stability, but the hegemony of capitalism leaves them without resources and subject to perpetual corruption, especially when drug markets dwarf nation-state economies.

Instability in the region has for a long-time been the result of the United States’ treatment of South America as its “backyard.”  This of course was exacerbated by the post WWII and prevailing Cold War tactics of supporting rightwing regimes over leftwing ones, even when the Left were democratically elected. The outlier, Cuba, in many ways was forced to side with the Soviets because of American bullying continues to have tepid relations with the U.S.

South America will likely continue to express the refracted nervous system of the United States hegemony, even as Trump visits regions in other parts of the world. Yet a strange reciprocal mimesis appears to be brewing as well.  As the U.S. continues to struggle with a potentially rigged election and increasing calls for impeachment of Trump, especially concerning his dealings with Russians, we see both a mirroring of regime change potential and slippage on the part of economic hegemony.

On the other hand, the tactics of Democrats who wish to capitalize on nostalgia for a bilateral Cold War enemy in order to defeat Trump perpetuate the same bilateral frame of ‘us vs. them’ that conservatives have done since they adopted a persecution complex after 9/11 in order to justify any and all use of force worldwide.  In other words, true progressives will need strategies more geared toward a 21st century world that we are witnessing the emergence of daily than what Julian Assange has characterized “neo-McCarthyist fervor” among American Democrats.

In this deterritorialized world, as Walter Benjamin prophetically announced, the constant states of emergency – from Turkey to Greece to Latin America to the U.S. – are not the exceptions but the rule.  We are witnessing the increasing attention to the state of oppression as it persists.

Along with this attention is an increased perceived need for “revolt,” hence the frequent mass demonstrations this year such as the Women’s March or the March for Science that simultaneously do not align with any kind of globalized sense of the Left.  Certainly, however, the Women’s March in January was not the Invisible Committee’s Coming Insurrection or Franco Berardi’s The Uprising. What is interesting is the dilution of “resistance affect” into the neoliberal order and the moral smugness of American politics and exceptionalism.

The same impulse to revolt characterizes both the rightwing populism and the center-bourgeois moral outrage in a continuing silencing of the poor and destitute. What Americans risk by not generously attending to their neighbors in the South is the territorialized promise that activated and insulated the Trump election: Make America Great Again; or reframed: re-acknowledge the specialness of exclusive U.S. citizenship.

Returning to Strong’s essay on American exceptionalism, he reads Hawthorne as critiquing American Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter for its impulse to tyranny when the establishment of the ‘city on the hill’ forgets the utopic and revolutionary impulse that gave rise to its creation: “Just as the community of Israel depends on and is consequent to the exodus from the oppression of Egypt, an exodus recalled each year at Passover, so also does that which it left shape America” (135). Strong sees a continuation of Hawthorne’s worry for the loss of authentic citizenship at work in last year’s election.

Reading Hawthorne’s polysemus ‘A’ that Hester Prynne must wear as a shifting signifier for community, Strong writes: “Hawthorne is telling us that we cannot be without sin…” (140).  Recognition of mutual sin establishes civic community and distance from the divine.  Strong’s assessment of Hawthorne’s civic call is to keep the knowledge of sin but to do away with God, hence the liberal secularism.

I think, drawing on Michael Taussig, and with attention to South America, we must do more than a subject positioning and rejection of enchantment – an attention to the workings of material and magic and semiotic construction without slippage into mere mystification.  This would characterize presence of mind. As Taussig wrote concerning the Columbus Quincentenary:

“The State’s interest is in keeping memory of public political protest, and the memory of the sadistic and cruel violence unleashed against it, alive!” (48).  And so long as silencing remains the active assault on America’s neighbors, the rage of narcissistic politics can water the red, white, and blue with the blood of the world’s weak.

Roger Green is a Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian” in Aldous Huxley Annual (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015), and “Force in Religious Thought: Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue” in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature.  He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.

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