Monday, December 26, 2011

Shades of gray blues

In Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial, a group of scholars looks at the receding legacy of a great national drama

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

To say that the Civil War ain't what it used to be is to indulge a postmodern cliché: by this point, we all understand that what we "know" is socially constructed -- and contested. The takeaway from this anthology edited by Tom Brown at the University of South Carolina seems more prosaic but is actually a good deal more pointed: the Civil War is not what it used to be because it matters less than it once did. Which is not to say it's unimportant; the war continues to be engaged, in some cases with real intensity. But these essays collectively assert that it is now less a defining touchstone of national identity than a point of departure or iconographic warehouse for cultural productions that invert, bend, or reconfigure the conflict in ways that previous generations would hardly recognize, much less endorse.

Significantly, this cultural shift is not simply that of the avant garde. One of the more compelling pieces in the collection is Brown's own contribution, which looks at the lingering contemporary obsession with the Confederate flag. He notes that in the century following Appomattox, the flag was a rallying point for a sense of shared Southern identity, one whose resonance intensified in the mid-twentieth century as a response to the Civil Rights movement. Now, however, he argues that the Stars & Bars, along with related iconography, have become emblems of a self-conscious white minority that defends its civil right of self-expression with consumerist logic that would appall earlier guardians of Confederate identity, who regarded selling flags or t-shirts as a form of sacrilege. Insofar as the Southern experience of defeat has any compelling moral or psychological legitimacy, it's via a Vietnam analogy that is itself fading into history.

One also sees the recession of the Civil War in Robert Brinkmeyer's piece on contemporary Southern literature. Brinkmeyer notes that for African-Americans in particular the military conflict seems far less important than the antebellum decades leading up to it, and the battles are less important than various aspects of the home front. (The Wind Done Gone, Alice Randall's 2001 parody of Gone with the Wind is discussed by a number of essayists.) And for many white writers such as Bobbie Ann Mason or Ron Rash, the Civil War is a tangent, even a dessicated husk.

In many of these essays, local, even private, concerns trump national ones. In his piece on the growth of Juneteeth celebrations marking the anniversary of emancipation's arrival in Texas, Mitch Katchun observes that February 1, the day Abraham Lincoln signed the joint resolution that led to the Thirteenth Amendment, would be an apt candidate for a national holiday, especially since it comes at the start of Black History Month.  But it has been only one of many, and not a particularly beloved one.

Even the stock of the blue-chip Lincoln has sunk a bit. Amid his analysis of how the Left in general and Barack Obama in particular have tapped into the mythology of the Great Emancipator, C. Wyatt Evans notes that the contemporary Right has largely given up on him, uncomfortable with his Big Government reputation and awkward in invoking his Civil Rights legacy. The Tea Party invokes the Revolution, not the Civil War, as the source of its power and legitimacy.
The primary focus of Remixing the Civil War, however, are the visual arts, where collective memory of the conflict functions as a postmodern closet that gets raided for varied acts of bricolage. Essays by Elizabeth Young, Gerard Brown, and W. Fitzhugh Brundage all look at the way images, particularly photography, have been used to destabilize inherited notions of what the war was about. Sometimes contemporary artists complicate racial hierarchies or essentialized notions of blackness; other times their work involves the expansion or projection of alternative notions of sexuality or gender into nineteenth century settings. Ironically, some art carefully uses patiently recreated artifacts or settings to call attention to the artifice involved in remembrance.

Such work can be impressive in its passion, creativity, and intelligence. But it's a little depressing, too. In part that's because written history, scholarly and otherwise, seems to lack some of the same spark these artists show, as even the most avowedly transgressive or revisionist scholarly writing remains helmeted in academic convention. Conversely, the deeply fragmented quality of contemporary Civil War remembrance suggests a larger crisis of confidence in which grand unifying themes or aspirations can only be looked on with a sense of irony or suspicion. It's remarkable to consider that the versions of the Civil War that do evince such confidence, like Ken Burns's celebrated documentary or the 1989 film Glory are now (already!) a generation old. In becoming what can plausibly considered the first real 21st century rendition of its subject, this book provocatively suggests that the Civil War may really be running out of time.