[Trick or Treat?
A bit of both. this Whiskey Horror Film Society post is less about horror and more about westerns but, really, how terrifying is and has-been western colonialism?]
A while ago I responded to a conference call for papers (aka request for proposals) on Western Film Studies by emailing my abstract (a paragraph-ish paraphrasing what I might talking about if they accept). Here’s how I responded to their call:
Wooing the West: The Future Aesthetic of a Historical Genre
James Baldwin places an impactful conundrum on our plate to debate: Who shapes our image when we don’t identify as Euro-American in Western films? If we are honest about what we see will the genre’s themes of loyalty, bravery, property, and unreflexive violence continue to be upheld? Will our romanticized interpretation of agency, sovereignty and manifest destiny expand? Entering the debate through an art-historical mirror we can reflect and refract a new outlook on the future of the Western storytelling aesthetic.
Before we get to futurisms, alas, the “[Western] history is a history of ego, not of its soul.” From these altered sentiments of Dr. Hamza Yusuf, smelted with the works of many Iliffians, my addition to Baldwin’s debate springs: the image of the American Indian, when present in western culture, often depicts stereotypes and suffering. The lack of cultural nuance, the dehumanization, within Westerns has created a genre without true soul that can, yet, be revived as humane.
It was accepted. Next month, I’ll be saying something to the extent of:
Will the western genre continue to reenact fallacious pursuits of glory? Or, will it be revived into an exploration of consciousness and knowledges? Can westerns act as storytelling medicine to help people cope with the past? Or, will it continue to retraumatize?
Allow me to provide brief materials from Wendell Berry, Emilie Townes, and Baldwin to be considered before we explore these questions.
Berry’s “Rugged Individualism” from the book The Way of Ignorance, pages 9 & 11.
Berry: “The career of rugged individualism in America has run mostly to absurdity, tragic or comic. But it also has done us a certain amount of good. There was a streak of it in Thoreau, who went alone to jail in protest against the Mexican War. And that streak has continued in his successors who have suffered penalties for civil disobedience because of their perception that the law and the government were not always or necessarily right. This is individualism of a kind rugged enough, and it has been authenticated typically by its identification with a communal good.
The tragic version of rugged individualism is in the presumptive “right” of individuals to do as they please, as if there were no God, no legitimate government, no community, no neighbors, and no posterity. This is most frequently understood as the right to do whatever one pleases with one’s property. One’s property, according to this formulation, is one’s own absolutely.
Rugged individualism of this kind has cost us dearly in lost topsoil, in destroyed forests, in the increasing toxicity of the world, and in annihilated species. When property rights become absolute they are invariably destructive, for then they are used to justify not only the abuse of things of permanent value for the temporary benefit of real owners, but also the appropriation and abuse of things to which the would-be owners have no rights at all, but which can belong only to the public of to the entire community of living creatures: the atmosphere, the water cycle, wilderness, ecosystems, the possibility of life.
…Conservative rugged individualists and liberal rugged individualists believe alike that they should be “free” to get as much as they can of whatever they want. Their major doctrinal difference is that they want (some of the time) different sorts of things…A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighborliness, and peace. That language is another precious resource that cannot be “privatized.” (2004)
And from Emily Townes’, of Vanderbilt University, Communal Repentance. Searching for Paradise in a World of Theme Parks, p. 184
“Our minds are priceless
Our souls are to be cherished
And we must resist the western model of ripping apart
the Christian dogmas that encourage us to neglect parts of blessed createdness
the made in America brand of violence against everybody and everything and re-cast our ways of being
for many of our ways of being are killing us
none too softly and with a song that assaults our very souls and spirits
hope sustains us as we refuse to accept the smallnessess of life
the amazing acts of violence and hatred
the awful indignities we inflict on others and others inflict on us
hope reminds us to celebrate the spirit that lives and breathes life into us beyond the seeing and knowing and believing we can do
It is a spirit that refuses destruction and is impolite when it says a bodacious “no” to praxeological frameworks that serve the masters’ and
mistresses’ houses of hegemony”
Where do we take Berry & Townes’s words to turn them into action? Baldwin gives us a direction in which we can turn:
An Interviewer asks: “Mr. Baldwin, recently, you have talked about the possibility of a boycott by Negroes across the country as a type of leverage to bring this country to understand the gravity of this problem. Would you tell us something about that?
Baldwin: [Looks up and pauses. Looks at the interviewer] What I, we, demand, it is a country, the people that make up this country, to not allow the massacre of the innocents to pass unnoticed–its much worse than passing unnoticed.
Christian Nation and Christmas in this country, as in other countries but we’re responsible for this one, is mainly like the church, let me say so A tremendous commercial endeavor, A tremendous commercial enterprise. Well, I don’t think we have a right to celebrate Christmas this year. And, since it’s not a Christian nation, it’s certainly a commercial nation. If all the people of the country…who would like to have the country back again, who would like to begin again, to honor the ideals, we say we do. I think we should not buy anything for Christmas…at least if you can’t reach a man’s consciousness you must reach his pocketbook. I think when you tell God’s children, there will be no Santa Claus this year because your brothers and sisters
–your co-citizens–were murdered in Sunday school and until this country deals with this fact we will not have a Christmas. I think this is very important. I really urge anyone who is listening to me now to buy nothing buy nothing for Christmas and furthermore to try to find out what national companies operate in [your locale] and boycott every single one of them.” (Min 21)
The conclusion will figure itself out at the conference but for now:
If we decide to take up Baldwin’s challenge, notice, that if people choose to observe Christmas that still leaves them space to patron local shops, non-profit and NGO markets, farmer & holiday markets, consignment & thrift stores, & home-make their presence for the holiday. In our modern economy where we vote with our pocketbooks as much as we vote in a ballot box, it’s important to consider what and how we consume that sustains our ability to make future westerns at all. Should that future arise, Westerns might follow the paths laid down by film projects such as
If my identity is socially constructed I’ll look to the mirror for my opinion. There, there, in that echo chamber is compassion for self and others.”
James BALDWIN Reinhold NIEBUHR – “The Meaning of the Birmingham Tragedy” – September 1963 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Cpkka1MTfg min 21:30
Wendell Berry’s chapter “Rugged Individualism” from the book the Way of Ignorance pages 9,11.
Townes, Emilie. “Searching for Paradise in a World of Theme Parks: A Womanist Ethic of Care and Healing.” In Breaking The Fine Rain of Death: African American Health Issues and a Womanist Ethic of Care, 168–186. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006.
In 46 weeks this year, there have been 44 school shootings. Elizabeth Wolfe and Christina Walker, CNN. Updated 6:00 AM EST, Fri November 15, 2019 https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.cnn.com/cnn/2019/11/15/us/2019-us-school-shootings-trnd/index.html
Thanks for reading. Raise hell Peacefully these All Saints Days,
hm? What’s that?
The recommended beverage for this post?
Whether you’re nursing a Halloween sugar high, playing at high altitudes, or near the many raging fires -remember-
is more precious than diamonds or gold.