Prospecting in The Martial Imaginary

Both halves of Legal Lacuna have been cramming for comprehensive exams and producing our dissertation prospectuses this spring, and I’m happy to report that we’re now both ABD. This magical point of the PhD program—all but dissertation—is when some aspiring academics chuck it all and go to law school. Luckily, that ship has sailed for us. Instead, we are heading full steam into our respective projects.

My dissertation examines race and militarism from World War II to the post-9/11 era by analyzing what I call “the martial imaginary.” This is the field of images, signs, narratives, values, and feelings that surround and structure representations of the military. The dominant martial imaginary—the one we are taught by school and Hollywood—is where we find stock elements of literature and reportage about war. The soldier carrying his wounded brother away from battle. The ultimate sacrifice. Flags, monuments, and more flags. This is where we sublimate the “horrors of war,” as they say, into palatable narratives of heroism and patriotism. But the twentieth century showed us that the martial imaginary is also rife with dissonance and moral danger. The alienated veteran driven to his (it’s usually “his”) breaking point. Soldiers run amok, killing for revenge or profit. Interchangeable Third World villages laid to waste. In this sense, the martial imaginary is where we negotiate collective beliefs about violence, the nation, and, increasingly, globalization and American hegemony.

As a conceptual device, the martial imaginary foregrounds the figures, gestures, objects, and emblems we associate with the military, and detaches them from the more familiar “war literature” paradigm. It allows us to see how these elements operate far outside the space-time of war, appearing throughout American literature and culture in both recognizable and abstract forms. I begin by observing that literature, visual media, performance, and discourse by and about racial minorities often feature troubling or seemingly anomalous expressions of martial (of or relating to the military) power. These expressions include, among other things, governmental violence enacted inside the U.S. against minorities (think Japanese American internment or the zoot suit riots) and resistive uses of military style and gestures by radical minority activists. To the extent that the military is (supposed to be) an instrument of the U.S. as a unified, sovereign nation-state, these expressions challenge core nationalist beliefs about American democracy and state power.

Black Panther Party for Self-Defense demonstration against new gun control legislation, California state capitol, 1967.

The “texts” I have chosen range widely and include, to name a few, the Black Panther march on the California state capitol in 1967, Luis Valdez’s play Zoot Suit (1978), Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony (1982), and the popular Berlin Wall tourist site known as Checkpoint Charlie. Following the wisdom that you shouldn’t write your first chapter first, I’ve decided to start with Chapter 2, “Regulating the Militia: Spectacles of Black Power and the Right to Bear Arms.” The chapter examines how “militant” activists of the 1960s and 1970s manipulated and recast a racialized martial imaginary, most notably with the Black Panther Party using the Second Amendment as the basis for its campaign against racist policing. I argue that gun rights are fundamentally connected to how we imagine the nation—and how we imagine the horizon of violence that keeps the nation whole.

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