Monday, May 21, 2007

Putting Uncertainty to Rest

These days to be American is to be anxious to put uncertainty to rest. Such an anxiety requires a broadening of the definition of “uncertainty.” Situations before considered simply “unknown” are now upgraded to that state of uneasy unknowing that is uncertainty. In New Mexico, state officials plan to exhume two bodies for DNA testing to see whether the claim of a famed sheriff to have killed Billy the Kid is fabricated or not. “The truth” is the aim of the investigation, the proof which will settle even old disputes. Says the mayor of Capital, New Mexico, “There is so much fairy tale to this story that it is hard to nail down the facts. All we want is the truth, whatever it is. If the guy Garret killed was Billy the Kid, that makes him a hero. If it wasn’t, Garret was a murderer, and we have egg on our face, big time.”

The potential egg aimed at the collective law enforcement face is the chance that the “hero” Garret killed someone other than the kid and then claimed he had bagged the kid. The stakes are high. If Garret made false claims about the killing, then he would be on the wrong side of the law. He would no longer be a “role model,” and his likeness would have to be removed from the badges of area police. It is a matter of the “integrity” of the department. Apparently the consequences of this integrity coming under question over a role model whose offense would not be killing but killing and lying about it are so monumental that corpses must be exhumed and tests made. The hand of science will appear out of nowhere to strike down or affirm myth. The photo accompanying the story in the times shows the 2 men – sheriff and mayor of the small town – whose role model jitters have led to the reopening of the case. They are the picture of real men, as if born for the movies. They lean against a plaster wall, hands on hips, sunglasses held between thumb and forefinger, button-down shirts and turquoise bolo ties, cowboy hats, shiny belt buckles. They don’t look like they are worried.

But then putting up that show is the game of American men: a beefy scowl more often than not hiding massive and hard to control insecurities, which can only be quelled by the masculine, but disembodied, power of science and technology. Real men such as Rumsfeld and Bush, straight shooters if there ever was one (at least when it comes to who is gonna pay, get hunted down or smoked out), and so seemingly masters of any fear, are in fact dominated by fear. Nothing – not budgets, not political realities, not social injustice – will stand in the way of their galactic missile defense shield. For security could not possibly be left to the human process of political engagement between Americans and other peoples of the world. Only a closed military bureaucracy with science fiction killer rays can keep the big men safe. Could it be that when Americans regularly reveal in polls they consider the GOP to be more competent in the realm of “national security,” what they really mean is the GOP better arouses, and then assuages the fears of real men with the soothing, massive security blanket of death by science?

A parallel illustration is in the shocking observation that the US army, with its swagger borrowed from unparalleled people-wrecking systems of missiles and planes, which rolled over Iraq in 2 weeks, dissolves into a scared police force imprisoned within its own armor when shooting stops. The solution to this odd picture is that they are most cognizant that the power of the thunder they possess is actually borrowed, and they too are aware that they rely psychically on such tools, which merges with them during battle. Once the threat of obliteration has passed and they face the messy human world again, these weapons drag like useless appendages. These big men are painfully aware of a feeling of puniness. The violent life force is drained from these technological extensions of their own bodies and the dreams of omnipotent power deflates too, leaving an irritated, violence-hung over GI feeling very exposed at a Baghdad checkpoint. Where they killed thousands and could not “destroy evil,” the hidden Baathists only have to kill one a day to puncture the fantasy of the impregnability of techno-human killing machines.

A final example of how unbearable is uncertainty to male power is the sonar “fish finder.” I saw it at Wal-Mart last week. My little brother said these personal sonar devices first appeared at outrageous prices in the late ‘90’s. The two models I saw were around 170 dollars.

It was hard to reconcile what I was seeing – a device of military technology with a digital display of all fish in one’s “operating vicinity” – with that most bucolic American image of Huck and Jim on a raft, fishing rods suspended over the slow roll of Mississippi waters, corncob pipes puffing peacefully. Despite the proliferation of high-tech rods and how-to tips in fishing magazines, I had always assumed the defiantly non-productive activity of fishing (all the bumperstickers comparing fishing favorably to marriage) would retain some of the drama of man encountering a mysterious and tricky nature. One thinks of Hemingway’s “The Big Two-Hearted River,” in which the narrator’s shell-shock war traumas overlay with the brooding tension of a pursuit of a fish. Despite the high-tech armory at man’s disposal, I had thought that one attraction of fishing was its ultimate reliance on our instincts and experience in tracking unseen dwellers of the deep. Another charm lay in its staunch anti-productivity. Fishing was an enclave free of the bottom line demands of the working world. Even if no fish were hauled in, the contemplation of spaces of silent dark water was reward in itself, for the hours spent by river or lake.

At another, deeper level, however, perhaps another draw of fishing was the way it enacted on a primal stage the doctrine of competitive success or failure within capitalism. An aura of mastery was accorded the men whose superior instincts and experience led them to “success” hauling in huge fish and telling their secrets to “Field and Stream” magazine. Like more corporate-modelled sports like football or baseball, fishing was permeated by a worship of success and individual exploits. But in this regard it retains an older ethic of individual prowess, as in baseball, as opposed to the team approach of the NBA. Here we cannot avoid the racialized boundaries of sport: fishing lionizes the more reserved/arrogance of older white men, who temper instinct with Reason, as opposed to the noisy grandstanding of an impetuous Dennis Rodman. Fishing’s overlay with nature too lends a utopian fantasy of a masculinity before race – an absence of black men in the pages of fishing magazines means an absence race itself as a disturbing intrusion of modern life. Add to this the valorization of the father-son tie in representations of fishing in mass culture – the pseudo-archaic notion of an initiatory rite, the father bringing the son to the laconic world of patriarchy and brotherhood. With these two elements we see in fishing a refuge for the ideology of white patriarchate. It is a refuge from the accusations of race and gender consciousness and accusations, a fantasy space with particular social uses.

Because fishing is a false utopia, destabilized and riddled from the inside by the capitalist cult of individual success and the bottom line, the fish finder was perhaps inevitable. In an environment where the bottom line counts for all (whoever dies with the most toys wins) – the idea of going to a lake to while away the time and coming back empty-handed is simply too much to take. Its provenance in military technology is no surprise either, for the military bureaucracy has become an institutional refuge for the fantasy of a whole, genuine masculine power. As the stock market falters, the dream of certainty – whether in fog of war (night vision gear) or in a summer day with no bites on the line (fish finder) – finds refuge in technological guarantees.

Technology more and more sweeps away reliance on one’s senses, instinct, and experience, as a quaint aspect of the human past. What began with weather forecasting, which replaced one’s weather sense from time outside, as well as common preparedness, progressed to satellite navigational systems for driving, which does away with all need for familiarity with one’s landscape, now culminates in the erasure of the exceedingly minor – and once upon a time, pleasurable – suspense of waiting for a bite. With military R and D, the beleaugured male can recoup some blows to the self esteem. Fishing will be as guaranteed as walking into the pantry for a can of tuna, or to work for one’s paycheck. A plain exchange, input and outcome. And every bit as dull. Capitalist logic colonizes yet another tiny corner of popular culture, stripping away even the false utopian fantasies on which much of fishing’s appeal was based.

NOTES: interview with brad paisley, country singer.
Stress on how sportsmen respect the animal they kill more than city folk – respect for nature (p.50), story of fishing with grampa.
Juxtapose story of indian woman who eschews fancy fishing rods with the fancy product reviews (incl. Sonar) on p. 40.
p.102 – letter from judge parker written to his just born grandson, leaving him some inherited weapons and wishing him the true sensations specific to men.
p. 124 == about the “humbling,” ceremonial effect of killing bucks.
p.126 on the powerful emotions aroused in first killing == how the experience taught him hunting is an “atavistic response of a man lost in nature” and how people cannot escape their heritage. “anyone who hunts in the grip of instinct has travelled very near to those who drew pictographs on cave walls.”
The essential trauma of killing that gave meaning to them – sense of connection to life/nature in killing.

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