Generally speaking, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the relations among the covert state, democracy, and culture. I’ll summarize its main points, talk about the best aspects, and then move on to a couple of criticisms.
Melley’s argument is that the institutionalization and expansion of the covert state since the Second World War1 has profoundly altered US democracy, and, most relevantly, the conditions of knowledge about government activities. This has made for a substantial transformation of the democratic public sphere, leading to a predominance of fiction in how people understand foreign and domestic policy and themselves as individual citizens or a democratic public.
In the early years of the Cold War, Melley recounts, government began to shift in the direction of institutional covert action and public deception and manipulation. The National Security Act established the CIA in 1947, followed the next year by NSC-10/2, authorizing
propaganda, economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups, and support of indigenous anti-Communist elements in threatened countries of the free worldall undertaken such that “if uncovered the U.S. government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.” “When President Truman signed this directive on June 18, 1948,” Melley suggests, “he institutionalized not simply secret warfare but also public deception as a fundamental element,” indeed “a structural requirement,” of government policy. Furthermore, the US – like so many other countries - has lived under an almost constant state of exception throughout this period.
These changes have had far-reaching consequences, the significance of which is not often adequately appreciated. “While there was nothing new about espionage,” Melley argues, “the degree to which foreign policy matters were sequestered from the public sphere during the Cold War fundamentally – and perhaps permanently – transformed U.S. democracy.” During the Cold War, the government “made a considerable investment in transforming the conditions of public knowledge at home and abroad.” However, the state always needs public acceptance of, or at least acquiescence to, its actions, and so it “has an interest in generating a public that thinks it has a general knowledge of such work but does not and cannot know in detail.” A key aspect of these transformations is that the public lives in a state of half-knowledge and open secrets - we don’t know what the secret government is doing, but we know that it exists:
In an era of covert action, citizens are offered a modified social contract in which they are asked to trade democratic oversight for enhanced security. In so doing, they tacitly acknowledge that their elected leaders will deceive them about some actions taken on their behalf.In this situation, as I’ll discuss in more detail below, the public sphere gives way to the covert sphere – “a cultural imaginary shaped by both institutional secrecy and public fascination with the secret work of the state.” The covert sphere is fiction-based, according to Melley, in three significant ways. First, covert agencies themselves continuously produce fictions in the service of their perceived aims: “The projection of strategic ‘fictions’, in fact, is a primary goal of clandestine agencies.”2
Second, instead of publicity and rational debate concerning government policy, the covert sphere “is dominated by narrative fictions, such as novels, films, television series, and electronic games, for fiction” - considered comparatively “nonserious” - “is one of the few discourses in which the secret work of the state can be disclosed to the citizens.” While some of these fictions are critical, most serve the covert state’s purposes:
The fictions of the covert sphere simultaneously make visible the secret work of the state and consign this work to the realm of fantasy. They confer a half-knowledge that makes government secrecy tolerable because it offers the public the opportunity to proclaim its official ignorance – and then to be shocked when the details of secret programs leak, via nonfiction discourse, into the ‘sheltered’ public sphere.3
Through a combination of state secrecy and public representation, the covert sphere not only smooths over the central contradiction of the Cold War state – that Western democracy can preserve itself only through the suspension of democracy – but it turns this troubling proposition into a source of public reassurance and even pleasure.This is particularly the case with what Melley calls the “geopolitical melodrama.”
Third, the rise of the covert state “had a powerful role in fostering the forms of suspicion, skepticism, and uncertainty that would eventually find their fullest expression in postmodernism.”
As noted above, Melley develops the concept of the fiction-dominated covert sphere by contrasting it with the principles and practice of the Enlightenment public sphere, whose “dominant discourse” is “journalism, history, jurisprudence, and other approaches grounded in an ethical insistence on ‘truth as correspondence to fact’.” He explains:
[T]he astonishing growth of clandestine institutions since World War II has produced a qualitative change in the structure of public knowledge about U.S. foreign affairs. The institutional infrastructure of the covert state – particularly its commitments to ‘plausible deniability’, hypercompartmentalization, psychological warfare, and covert action – is a significant barrier to certain forms of public knowledge. As the ideal of rational democracy came into increasing tension with what can be called psychological operations, the result was not simply a reduction of public knowledge but a transformation of the discursive means through which the public ‘knows’, or imagines, the work of the state.
If the watchwords of the Enlightenment public sphere were rationality and publicity, then the watchwords of the Cold War covert sphere would be irrationalism, secrecy, uncertainty, and suspicion.
Unlike the ‘rational-critical’ public sphere, then, the covert sphere is marked by a structural irrationality, for the democratic state prohibits citizens from engaging in public oversight of its covert activities.The Covert Sphere is quite good at analyzing how the rise of said sphere has been seen in gendered terms. The Enlightenment public sphere conceives of citizens as autonomous, informed (male) agents actively participating in the formulation of public policy, which takes place outside the sheltered, “feminine” domestic sphere. But
[a]s the Cold War covert sector became the arena in which foreign policy was made, U.S. citizens were shuttled into a more passive civic role. By offering security in exchange for submission to the inscrutable will of a state protector, this new social compact placed the public in an increasingly feminized relation to a paternalistic state.4The “exclusion of the Cold War public from the male realm of state policymaking” meant that “the public sphere was tacitly reconceived along the lines of the feminized domestic sphere,” which raised the masculine anxiety level. Melley offers a fascinating discussion of how these fears about the institutional decline of liberal individualism were expressed in the discourse surrounding “brainwashing” - the “nightmare of masculinity undone.”
In response, “the fictions of the covert sphere compensate for this structural ‘feminization’ with fantasies of masculinist bravado and heroic agency.” In these fantasies, “feminized civilians…project themselves into the hypermasculine bodies of professional warriors.” Further, these popular fictions “also critique the public sphere as a domestic fantasy.” In other words, what people have been deprived of in terms of real democratic knowledge and participation is returned to them as fantasy through popular entertainments, and “an entire cultural machinery is now in place to cultivate such fantasies” in the form of fiction for adults and children, television shows, movies, video games, and so forth.
Melley argues that the most important of these today is what he calls the “geopolitical melodrama,” whose “ideological function… is to defend the operation of a Cold War security state in a post-Cold War climate.” The geopolitical melodrama
is defined by the yoking of two distinct but related nightmares. First, an external enemy of state – usually a cell of terrorists – takes aim at the U.S. population and security apparatus, which is depicted as a technologically miraculous apparatus that is nonetheless vulnerable to external attacks. Second, this massive system itself goes awry, threatening the democracy it was designed to prevent.The masculine hero - generally a Western covert agent - who saves his family and the population from both the state’s enemies and the overweening security state itself is in the mold of “the classic ‘rugged’ male individualist of the western or the noir detective tale: a clearheaded maverick with a penchant for breaking social rules and an abiding disgust for the political infighting, inertia, and rule-bound strictures of bureaucracy.” Projecting themselves into this figure “compensates” the audience “for the dread terror of becoming a feminized ward of the security state.” Additionally, the genre serves the needs of the covert state to secure acquiescence by “articulat[ing] a defense of pragmatic illegal action”: “If the hero must do ‘whatever it takes’ to protect his family, then by extension the government should do the same to protect its citizens.” And “whatever it takes” often includes torture.
This has become a significant film and TV genre, and it’s worthwhile to examine its (anti-)democratic and compensatory functions. Melley’s discussion of several of these works is among the best parts of the book.
The general argument of The Covert Sphere is solid and innovative, and the sections on the responses to the growth of the covert state in a context of anxious masculinity and the geopolitical melodrama are particularly insightful. But I’m now going to discuss some of the book’s weaker points. These are related and really overlapping, but involve two basic issues: first, the lack of clarity and consistency in Melley’s view of the public sphere and thus in his critical evaluation of the covert sphere; and second, his often-unconvincing argument that postmodern fiction offers not just a reflection but a meaningful critique of the covert state and sphere.
Judging from what I’ve presented so far, it would be reasonable to assume that Melley’s critique of the covert sphere comes from a standpoint of support for the democratic public sphere. And that implicitly seems to be the case, but Melley seems inexplicably resistant to declaring such a stance. “My goal,” he insists,
is neither to suggest a means of ‘healing’ the wounded public sphere – as if the revelation of secrets would suddenly restore ‘real’ democracy…nor to depict the public sphere as a transparent, democratic ideal that has been sullied primarily by the rise of Cold War secrecy. Government has always had secret components, and as so many of Habermas’s interlocutors have shown, the democratic public sphere has long seemed ‘secret’ or off-limits to large segments of the public, particularly women, minorities, and the lower classes.First, sure, but that has nothing to do with the principles of transparency and democracy, of information and participation. Habermas’ original depiction of the “bourgeois public sphere” has indeed been criticized, but at the same time over the years people have developed analyses of democratic public spheres that are far less exclusionary and even subversive. The masculinist aspects of the public sphere aren’t necessary to or even compatible with real democracy; in contrast, its basic values certainly are opposed to those of the covert state.
Second, defending the values of the democratic public sphere and “restor[ing] ‘real’ democracy” (the scare quotes are oddly telling) doesn’t involve simply the “revelation of secrets” but a radical challenge to existing institutions in the name of democratic values. Melley is right to question the effects of “heroic public sphere” narratives, like the films with a fantasy ending of public exposure that’s somehow expected to bring about real change. But the exposure of any particular truth or set of truths of course doesn’t exhaust the possibilities for democratic action.
At some moments, Melley seems to suggest that democratic activists’ only hope is the captive media of the covert sphere, as there’s nowhere else to turn. “[T]he deeper one digs in the clandestine archive,” he argues, “the more one doubts that public reason can be guaranteed by the institutions of the public sphere. One of the most important functions of the intelligence services is to manipulate public opinion through propaganda and disinformation, which is most effective when circulated by unwitting civilian journalists and presses.” Indeed, “some journalistic representations of the covert state turn out to be in fact strategic fictions produced by state agencies for instrumental purposes. Such influences create confusion and, when discovered, foster public skepticism, distrust, and uncertainty – a sense that the business of covert warfare can never be publicly known.”
Again, very true, but there’s a whole world of media critics and alternative-media practitioners who see both exposing manipulation and disinformation and continuing to do investigative journalism as fundamental to the democratic project. Melley remarks, strangely, that his argument “is not that the covert sphere represses discourse while the public sphere circulates it. It is rather that institutional constraints on public knowledge shift discourse in the direction of fiction.” This is dangerous in that it elides any differences between the sham public-sphere operations of the covert sphere on the one hand and the basic values of the public sphere and actual efforts in service of those values on the other.
This dismissive attitude toward the (possibilities for a) public sphere is all the stranger in light of the fact that he suggests in several cases – Jane Mayer’s articles in the New Yorker, the book Invitation to an Inquest - that journalism and historiography have provided important counternarratives to the strategic fictions of the covert sphere. Melley’s point is well made that
[a]s state security increases, it hinders the privileged forms of modern narrative knowledge – history and journalism - that insist on the correspondence of narrative to events. Such correspondences are difficult to trace when it is hard (or illegal) to obtain documents, official confirmation, and other traditional forms of evidence.This is a major public issue. The questions, then, are: Is this a problem, and if so why? Does the rise of the covert sphere reveal basic problems with these privileged forms of knowledge themselves, or should they be defended and reclaimed, and if so how? For some reason, Melley seems to wish not to take a clear position on these questions, at times appearing to lament the decline of the public sphere and side with its defenders and at others to appear more neutral (or at least to suggest that its return, even if potentially desirable, is all but impossible).
With regard to the “public” of the public sphere, there are some issues here, too. There’s certainly a critical tone to Melley’s (correct) depiction of the narcissism of the geopolitical melodrama – its “almost total erasure of the history and claims of those who are the real targets of the state’s clandestine apparatus.” Unlike many Cold War fictions, the geopolitical melodrama “does invite U.S. citizens to imagine themselves targets of the security state - not in an expression of solidarity with minoritized targets, but rather in a narcissistic fantasy that ‘disappears’ populations with grievances about U.S. policy.”
Melley notes the “striking differences between U.S. and postcolonial narratives of U.S. foreign engagement” in this context of US narcissism and exceptionalism. But after pointing this out, he presents his analysis from an almost entirely US-centric perspective (with a few references to French philosophers and social critics). The book is clearly “about” the US public, but even the US public doesn’t appear to be its audience. In fact, Melley writes about the US public almost as though they/we have no political agency – to some extent adopting the disdainful perspective of the covert state itself. The US public is presented as eminently manipulable and irresponsible, and often as eagerly participating in our own deception. The various ways the public and the media acquiesce to and even cheer government secrecy and violent covert action appear as inevitable and not as failings which can be addressed or choices for which people can be held accountable. (The flip side of this is that Melley pays little attention to domestic covert action that works tirelessly to suppress dissent.) All of this contrasts starkly with, for example, the existentialists’ writings about colonialism, which were addressed to a French (and often a global) public, presumed to be real political agents who could choose to change course.
All of these issues come into play in Melley’s presentation of the relationship between postmodern fiction and the covert state. I’ll first say that this is an original and fascinating discussion, and Melley makes a strong case for the existence of a correspondence between the two. I can’t begin to do justice here to the detailed and nuanced analyses of the various works Melley considers. I’m going to focus on the aspect of the argument that I find most problematic.
Melley argues, I think correctly, that postmodernism (and pomo fiction specifically) is in some part a child of the rise of the covert state and its epistemological effects:
My claim…is not that postmodernism is a simple product of the Cold War, but rather that national security institutions were among several crucial factors – including the postwar triumph of new mass media, strategic communications, and multinational capitalism – that altered the conditions of public knowledge in postwar Western societies, generating a pervasive skepticism about the public’s ability to know what is real and true. A good deal of U.S postmodernism expresses this epistemological skepticism.Postmodernism’s
central quality is skepticism about how to know and represent the world, particularly as history. Postmodernism emphasizes the constructed nature of narratives, philosophical and social structures, and even persons. It reflects the institutions of mass culture, and it thematizes the artifice of nearly everything, especially nature (or ‘nature’) itself. Its distinctive effect on readers and observers is disorientation or confusion about the nature of the real.Melley does an excellent job in showing how many of postmodernism’s central tenets and themes seem to have grown in the context created by the construction and expansion of the covert state. Pomo themes closely reflect the epistemic conditions of the covert sphere. Indeed, “for a number of influential literary figures, the covert state” itself “has become a central object of reflection and…a major stimulus of postmodern epistemological skepticism.”5
It’s the second part of Melley’s argument that I find far less convincing, however: his contention that many pomo writers successfully “critique the epistemological conditions of the Cold War by reproducing them in fictional form.” Of course, determining the effectiveness of any attempt at critique is always a complicated matter, involving knowledge of audiences and their understanding of artistic traditions and intent, the larger political context, and so on. And naturally each work and author has to be examined individually.6
In a general sense, though, given the evidence as Melley presents it, I don’t think he supports his repeated claims that pomo fiction not only reflects the conditions of the covert sphere but challenges them. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that much of it goes a long way toward normalizing them. This is primarily for three reasons. First, what postmodernism fundamentally set itself up in opposition to, as he notes, was not the covert state but modernism, characterized as a regime of facts. Postmodernism is “at bottom an expression of skepticism about the project of modernity, particularly its commitments to scientific rationality, individualism, and universalism.” Postmodernism as a project challenges an image of modernism that includes the very public-sphere means of knowledge – science, journalism, historiography – that are undermined by the covert state. In this sense, postmodernism, the covert state, and corporations have had the same target and mission. As Melley notes,
In a quite literal way, the National Security State institutionalized a critique of modern rational knowing…by engaging in what George Kennan called ‘irrationalism’, ‘unreality’, and ‘the necessary lie’….
Within the rhetoric of the public sphere, this transformation produced a contest between rational democracy and psychological operations….
If intelligence collection is the analogue of empiricism or realism, then covert operations, and Psy Ops in particular, abandon faithful representation for something akin to the postmodernist’s deliberate conflation of reality, simulation, and myth.It’s difficult to see how pomo critiques of the modern “regime of facts” in this context are supposed to threaten the covert state; quite the contrary.
Second, postmodernism tends to present the very political and institutional conditions which Melley recognizes as the result of political choices as an ontological condition in which real knowledge and truth are impossible chimeras. Again, this naturalizes and universalizes the political conditions created by the covert state. Even if individual pomo works recognize the rise of the covert state as an important political cause of contemporary epistemic difficulties, they enter a river of pomo naturalization that undercuts that recognition.
Third, while Melley argues that postmodernism adopts the forms of the covert sphere in order to challenge them, the whole idea of critique through serious imitation is questionable. To argue that postmodern “texts that emphasize epistemological or ontological confusion” effectively work to challenge the covert state requires that a very strong case be made to support it, especially in light of the context described in the first two points – a postmodern tradition that questions the existence of realities that can be legitimately known and recognized, that challenges “the modern ideal of truth as a correspondence between statements and evidence.”
Over and over, Melley describes the points at which the covert state and postmodernism converge. His argument “is not that the clandestine world is ‘postmodern’ but that it produces the sort of extreme epistemological uncertainty that postmodernism would later convert into an aesthetic.” Feature after feature of the covert world is shown also to characterize postmodernism: an emphasis on suspicion and the difficulty or impossibility of knowing what’s real or true; the blurring of fact and fiction; the “confusing of the real with its representations”; the deployment of instrumental or strategic fictions;… The similarities are everywhere:
[T]he conditions of public knowledge under a regime of state secrecy generate forms of suspicion and unknowing uncannily similar to those typically associated with postmodern representation.
[The covert state’s] operational goal…was often to blur the authentic and the fabricated, reality and representation – precisely the sort of ontological confabulation that has come to define postmodernism.Melley explicitly acknowledges this strong resemblance, and how it complicates some postmodern claims to effective political opposition, as in his discussion of Doctorow’s arguments in “False Documents.” He also recognizes, to some extent, that others have seen in postmodern fiction anything but a genuine subversion of political power. Oddly, it’s in the discussion of the most clearly critical work of those he analyzes - Robert Coover’s 1977 The Public Burning, which “brilliantly critiques the state’s ‘spectacle of secrecy’ through a revolutionary postmodernism that stresses the fictional quality of the Rosenberg affair” – that he raises this issue. The novel, which “parodies the irrationality of the Cold War covert sphere” and is “specifically designed to mock [the] undoing of Habermasian public reason,” “powerfully illustrates,” Melley argues, his “claim that postmodern narrative is both a reflection of, and a response to, Cold War epistemology.”
What’s strange is that Melley presents Coover’s parodical challenge as both postmodern and ironic:
Ironically, Coover’s postmodernism critiques problems themselves associated with postmodernism – a confusion of the real and the fictional, the hindrance of critical reason, and the conflation of distinct ‘realities’ or ontological zones. This irony is what Linda Hutcheon means when she speaks of postmodernism’s ‘complicitous critique’….The problem here is that Coover’s work as presented by Melley isn’t postmodern in the sense of accepting or even reproducing in form the covert sphere’s confusion, hindrance, and conflation; it explicitly criticizes them. While it uses some pomo forms, it does so in a context of overtly parodying the covert state and the epistemic problems to which it gives rise. So it isn’t complicit in Hutcheons’ sense. In contrast, though, the other works Melley discusses, and postmodernism in general, are more suspect in this regard.
My point, however, is not that Coover has reinforced the very logic he wishes to critique. On the contrary, his brilliant critique of Cold War hysteria reflects back the epistemological constraints of the covert sphere, in which state secrecy impedes the public’s attempts to disentangle fact from fiction. If…there is a sort of ‘postmodern’ quality to the Cold War security state, then Coover’s work rearticulates the quality in order to expose and critique it.
Some examples: First, the image of the CIA. Melley suggests that “[t]he CIA has cultivated its own secular mythology in which it is a vast organism unknowable through the protocols of the rational public sphere.” The “critical” pomo response to this, as described by Melley, is to reproduce the myth:
Popular narrative frequently represents the CIA as a quasi-divine being with extraordinary powers of surveillance. No one has captured this sense better than Don DeLillo, whose characters consistently view the agency as vast, omnipresent, and supernatural.How is this critical?
Second, the possibilities of accurate narratives. Melley notes that the writer Charles Baxter “views narrative dysfunction as a symptom, and not a critique, of official obfuscation.” But Melley disagrees, insisting that it’s paradoxical:
Narrative dysfunction is a central paradox of covert-sphere postmodernism. On the one hand, narratives in which ‘events never gel into “facts”’ seem to reproduce the effects of deniability and ahistoricism that Baxter and others find so problematic. On the other hand, deliberately ‘weak’ or dysfunctional narrativity is a powerful way to reveal the conditions of knowledge in a regime of state secrecy.“Many postmodern novels develop intentionally incomplete or ‘dysfunctional’ narratives to critique the conditions of knowledge in a regime of state secrecy,” Melley argues. DeLillo’s novel Libra, for example, uses confused narrative “to critique the conditions of knowledge produced by the Cold War security apparatus. Its historiographic skepticism is both a symptom of state secrecy and a powerful commentary on it.” Joan Didion similarly “is…a master of ‘narrative dysfunction’ as a vehicle for understanding the feminization of the Cold War public sphere.” Works like Democracy are “preoccupied with the difficulty of telling a story. From the beginning, the narrator expresses hesitation and doubt. She compulsively emphasizes her own authorial perspective and suggests alternative ways in which the story could be told.” The book’s “halting, elliptical, ironic style clearly reflects Didion’s vision of dysfunctional Cold War democracy”; her style “imitates the logic of Cold War democracy in order to critique it. It is the narrative embodiment of the dysfunctional covert sphere.”
But the issue with regard to these works (again, as Melley presents them) is different from a work like Coover’s, which is so plain in its parodic purpose. Where does the postmodern critique of modernity leave off and the contrary critique of the covert sphere begin? How simple is it to see the critique in the narrative embodiment? The “complicitous” aspect is clear – not so much the critique.
Third, the ontological status of the spaces of violent covert or military operations. Melley argues correctly that “[t]he colonial imagination…projects a demonological and racialized anxiety about unknowing onto the distant sites of Cold War battle.” The covert sphere “converts the frontiers of U.S. empire into a site of epistemological confusion.” Denis Johnson’s 2007 Tree of Smoke, which “rewrites the Vietnam War as a story of psychological operations in order to critique the Bush War on Terror,” critically reproduces this projection. The colonial “vision of covert warfare as a step beyond reason informs Johnson’s entire portrait of Vietnam as a place that seems wholly other to its U.S. invaders.” Johnson’s portrayal of Vietnam is characterized by “a wonderland quality,” a “radical otherness,” an “atmosphere of hallucinatory horror and insanity.” In this, the work connects to “an entire tradition of Vietnam narratives.”
As he notes, this perfectly “reflects the discourse on postmodernism. Whether there is a single totalizing order…or multiple realities…is among the central questions of postmodernism.” Further, “postmodernism renders the Third World, from a Western perspective, an incomprehensible parallel universe.” So for the USians depicted by Johnson,
the incomprehensibility of Vietnam makes it seem a place outside laws and reason altogether. The postmodern sense of different ‘realities’ thus becomes a vehicle for managing racial and cultural difference. It permits Americans to recast Vietnam as a literal ‘state of exception’, a place outside the law, a zone of supernatural horror in which every form of normality has been upended.
Tree of Smoke is thus filled with American sociopaths who cannot understand or explain their world. …This is the portrait of a nation that has lost its way.So the novel, as described by Melley, presents the sites of US military action as – to its characters, at least – alternate realities beyond morality, law, reason, and comprehension, places of inherent horror and violence. Once again, I’m not sure how powerfully this reproduction can convey the sociopathy of this view, particularly when the idea of such “multiple realities” is so much a part of postmodern thought. By way of contrast, Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Henri Alleg’s The Question (for all its speciesism, masculinism, and other assorted problems) openly challenges the French public’s similar attempts at escapism surrounding their government’s use of torture in the Algerian War. The torture cells of Algeria aren’t an alternate reality but the real sites of political crimes, he insists:
We were fascinated by the abyss of the inhuman; but one hard and stubborn man, obstinately carrying out his role as a man, is sufficient to rescue us from our giddiness. The ‘question’ is not inhuman; it is quite simply a vile, revolting crime, committed by men against men, and to which other men can and must put an end. The inhuman does not exist anywhere, except in the nightmares engendered by fear. And it is precisely the calm courage of a victim, his modesty and his lucidity, which awaken and demystify us: Alleg has just seized torture from the darkness that covers it; let us now have a closer look at it in broad daylight. [emphasis added]It’s not that reproducing a character’s colonialist vision can never be used to challenge it (as I’ve suggested, Ursula Le Guin brilliantly does so in The Word for World is Forest). But it’s a tricky thing to do, especially when your audience is prone to accept the projections and when allegedly critical traditions are in many ways complicit with them.
Fourth and finally, collective amnesia and the “problem of cultural memory,” especially concerning violent military/covert operations. Melley suggests that amnesia is a major theme in postmodern fiction, which has underlined how “the difficulty of grounding historical narratives has led to dangerous forms of collective forgetting.” Again we see the connection to the security state: amnesia is both “a pervasive trope for the historiographical dilemma of postmodernism, a way of articulating the conditions of knowledge in postwar society through the psychoanalytical framework of repression, disavowal, and forgetting” and “a prominent trope of the covert sphere, a way of addressing the problem of democracy in an era of covert foreign policy.” And “[t]he coincidence…is no accident, for…U.S. postmodernism was substantially shaped by the institutions of the Cold War.”
The work on which Melley focuses here is Tim O’Brien’s 1994 In the Lake of the Woods, which “recounts the My Lai massacre through a disturbing tale of posttraumatic amnesia.” The story presents the main character’s amnesia as “inseparable from more serious collective-memory failures,” and Melley contends that its “radical ambiguity indicts the amnesia of the public and the dysfunction of the public sphere.” The protagonist’s amnesia is plainly the result of traumatic violence, both inflicted on and perpetrated by him.7 It’s less clear from Melley’s description, though, how well it works as an “indictment” of collective amnesia in the US surrounding the Vietnam War. With regard to the shattered public sphere and its forms of knowledge, it does seem to provide a critical commentary:
The novel’s historical narrative…expresses a realist desire to terminate the experience of trauma by putting it into perspective…. But in the precincts of the covert sphere, this proves impossible. No matter how much the narrator wants to critique the society that has forgotten these events, he must admit that he, too, has no purchase on them. …He, too, has learned to forget.The “realist impulse” is thwarted by the dysfunctional public sphere. But is it an indictment of the covert state or a picture of the tragic fate of the modern condition?
I believe that many of these authors do intend to challenge the covert state, in addition to their other artistic goals. But in several cases I don’t think that Melley has convincingly supported his argument that the specific use of postmodern forms and tropes has done more to challenge than to reflect or even support it. As I said (far) above, I share Melley’s concerns about “heroic public sphere narratives.” And I’m not suggesting that all critical approaches to the covert state have to take the most traditional journalistic and historiographical forms, which would be boring. But reproducing the forms of the covert state to challenge the covert state always risks leaving the reader confused, or, worse, can in effect be complicit with anti-democratic state and corporate agendas.
1 Today, “forty-five agencies, 1,271 government organizations, and 1,391 private corporations...do intelligence and counterterrorism work.”
2 This includes the leaking of truths or half-truths; as Melley points out, even true information comes to take on a fictional cast in the covert sphere in that it’s provided in a limited, strategic, manipulative manner.
3 Melley notes that “The surprises of the covert sphere often lie less in the revelation of secrets than in the public’s astonishment at ‘discovering’ what is already public.” It’s especially interesting in this context to note that in this 2012 book he discusses James Mitchell and the reverse-SERE torture program, which the public was again astonished to “discover” last year with the publication of the Senate report.
4 And not just a paternalistic state, but one that institutionally and necessarily treats the public with contempt and disdain through its lies and manipulations.
5 These include, as Melley lists, Kathy Acker, Margaret Atwood, William S. Burroughs, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Joan Didion, E.L. Doctorow, William Gibson, Graham Greene, Michael Herr, Denis Johnson, Tony Kushner, John Le Carré, Norman Mailer, Joseph McElroy, Tim O’Brien, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Robert Stone, Jess Walter, and John A. Williams. He discusses several of these authors’ works in depth.
6 I’ve read few of the works in question and so can’t offer an analysis independent of Melley’s of their success as critiques of the covert sphere. Nor can I comment on the writers’ motives for the most part, and generally accept their intent as critical. And this shouldn’t be read as an evaluation of the books as works of art. What’s important here is how they’re portrayed by Melley as critical of the “covert condition” specifically in their postmodern aspects.
7 Almost all of the novels discussed by Melley are about USians; virtually none about the victims of US state violence in other countries.