There is a question that has been haunting me about our times and our collective condition, specifically in regard to American imperial decline: namely, how do we effectively mourn the exhaustion of the myth of American exceptionalism? My short answer is that our age of catastrophes—the catastrophic being one of the primary markers of the exhaustion of the myth of American exceptionalism—is in need of poetic responses and, in particular, what William James might call a poetic temperament.
In making this claim, I am looking for a way to open a space for a disposition and an outlook that I believe can help mourn the exhaustion of the myth of American exceptionalism. Let me be clear: I do not think that the myth of American exceptionalism has gone away quietly in the twilight of the Bush administration. In my estimation, the disenchantment of giving up the myth of American exceptionalism will involve experiencing the lived effects of the catastrophic, of coming to terms with cultural nihilism, and even with worldly collapse. It will involve relinquishing the comforts—metaphysical and otherwise—of being an imperial power.
With these severe conditions in mind, let me refine the idea of adopting a poetic disposition in the face of crisis, and propose that an effective and important response to cultural nihilism and worldly collapse will require the cultivation and adoption of what I call an elegiac temperament. The moral psychology of enduring and surviving the catastrophic—which is to say, the conditions that motivate the self, that allow the self to enact agency—requires considerable maturity and courage. It beckons an acknowledgment of what is lost, as well as a vision for making the move from one way of life to another, from one world to another; or, to use Jonathan Lear’s phrase about surviving cultural devastation, surviving the catastrophic requires “radical hope.”
So why call for the cultivation of an elegiac temperament for our times? A simple answer is that the catastrophes and crises of our times demand strategies to make sense of the cataclysms unfolding before us: namely, moral crises of war, of ecological disaster, of economic meltdowns, and the like. More specifically, the catastrophic also has the potential to set in motion a re-evaluation of political and moral commitments, whether those follow the conventions of civil religion (e.g., piety about constitutionalism) or those attending the ethos of American exceptionalism. In other words, the elegiac temperament evokes an attitude and disposition of humility and lament—one that spurs efforts to rethink the present in light of a revised view of the past and future. One finds expression of the elegiac temperament—though not quite elegy itself—in W. E. B. DuBois’s lament in “The Passing of the First Born” from The Souls of Black Folk, when he writes of “a hope not hopeless but unhopeful.” More specific to the condition of the exhaustion of American exceptionalism, the elegiac temperament registers in the concluding passages of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, where he writes of his ambivalent “love” of America:
When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty?
Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!
The elegiac temperament, as well as the modern elegy itself, begins and ends in thoroughgoing skepticism about conventions and received practices, and does so in counterpoint with the travails of the late modern self. In other words, the late-modern mourning and memory work of the elegiac temperament—akin, really, to a register of melancholia—works with and against the late modern self’s struggle for freedom, agency, authority, and identity.
So let me pose my vexing question once again: how do we effectively mourn the exhaustion of the myth of American exceptionalism?
There is a paradox here: on the one hand, there appears to be increasing popular recognition among Americans that America is an empire. This, in turn, comes with the further recognition that the animating ethos of the American imperial project—namely, American exceptionalism—has exhausted itself. This is a situation akin, as I suggested above, to worldly collapse. On the other hand, this world (here, the world of American exceptionalism) collapses, and yet it goes on. Hence the paradox.
A fundamental challenge becomes how to evaluate and judge the best means of working with the remnants of a tradition—here, the tradition of American exceptionalism and perhaps that of civil religion—after the catastrophic has done its work. In the case of mourning the exhaustion of the myth of American exceptionalism, the analysis is twofold. First, of course, is the need for acknowledging that the myth has indeed been exhausted, if not altogether “lost.” This is the strenuous work of reckoning with the catastrophic. I for one am relieved that the language of crisis and catastrophe has been re-introduced and reclaimed in American public and political discourse. Bursting bubbles, rising tides, bearish markets, homes foreclosed, dreams deferred, and abounding terrorism are just a few of the markers of our dark times, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s phrase.
The second move is the tougher one—namely, the task of finding a language, a means of intelligibility, or of making sense in a way that will help to brace the spirit through crisis, through the catastrophic.
I should also note that I am invoking the double meaning of “exhaustion” here in regard to the myth of American exceptionalism. On the one hand, I am referring to the exhaustion of the idea and the ethos of American exceptionalism, in the sense that it has played itself out and has been used up. On the other hand, I also mean exhaustion as depletion, as draining, and as extreme mental and physical fatigue.
I am dispatching the call to cultivate an elegiac temperament in response to an acknowledgment that the exhaustion of the myth of American exceptionalism comes at a price—call it pride, call it a sense of public dignity—and knowing, also, that the stakes are quite high given that empires tend not to relinquish pride and dignity gracefully, but will often resist their own imperial decline with lethal brutality.
In regard to the elegiac temperament and to civil religious traditions, let me cite the example of one robust tradition and myth of American exceptionalism—namely, the ambiguous legacy of Emerson.
So, what, if anything, survives of this tradition/myth of American exceptionalism? Perhaps the most obvious and telling example of the enduring power of what I would call a debased-Emersonian strand of American exceptionalism, finds its most prominent, and arguably most articulate, proponent in the person of President Barack Obama.
Obama is fond of invoking the language of debased Emersonianism. Its simple version finds expression in the use of Emerson’s language of self-reliance and self-determination as bromides of American distinctiveness—indeed, exceptionalism. It is an ethic that is of a piece with the providential view of America as a nation of destiny. There have been deeply problematic and widespread effects on American foreign policy and American self-conception that have yielded and been guided by the ego-ideal of debased Emersonianism. America has been a nation guided by the arrogance characteristic of empires. We are now at a moment in which the fractures and tensile relations rendered by the long war on terrorism and other catastrophes have ostensibly revealed that the myth of American exceptionalism can no longer bear the weight of the American imperial enterprise.
Obama consistently appeals to the ethic of self-reliance, often couched as a charge for “self-responsibility.” The overwhelming evidence of Obama’s electoral victory last year, and the broad resonance of his campaign, should be sufficient proof of the durability of this aspect of the Emersonian legacy. What I want to argue, though, is that it is a legacy of ambiguous expression, at least as it is articulated by Obama and reiterated by the American populace—both of whom seem to yearn for the reinvigoration of the singularity, and presumably of the supremacist qualities of American exceptionalism. Consider Obama’s election night declaration: “To those who would tear the world down: we will defeat you.” Now couple this with the legacy of American supremacy, and it should be evident that we have before us a troubling brew. This is not to say that I think we shouldn’t be fighting terrorism. Of course we should. Nonetheless, I have deep concerns about the ways in which Obama could end up, not turning America away from imperialism, but instead enabling the transformation of America into a more efficient and, frankly, a “friendlier” empire.
Now, given what I have identified in terms of American imperial practices and attitudes as promoting the myth of American exceptionalism as their horizon of meaning, it is fair and right to ask: “why would we want to mourn that world view?” After all, isn’t it a good thing, one might ask, that this imperial ethos is dead or dying? Isn’t this a cause for celebration rather than mourning? I am certainly one to argue that we as a nation not only should but must comport ourselves in the world in fundamentally different ways. And it is my hope that someone like Obama will help to render that a reality. Having said that, history teaches that the U.S. is a nation that has enormous trouble resisting the urge to act with arrogance, rather than humility. Even in his speeches, Obama incants the ringing tones of songs of American exceptionalism: “Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes […] from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.”
Let me put it more forcefully: I am trying to engage and join a project that recuperates these values of democracy, freedom, and hope. Nonetheless, I think that such recuperation can only take place through a reckoning with American complicity with evil in the world and with the acknowledgment that it will be difficult to be different from what we have been––as a nation, as a people––for the last two-plus centuries. Again, I worry that America is a nation that is too prone to arrogance, to over-confidence, to the indulgence of self-interest. And I also worry that once we realize as a people—the social imaginary of “the American people”—that we are in fact living through a catastrophic age, the relinquishing of the myth of American exceptionalism will leave us prone to reactionary forces rather than to moral and ethical ones.
So, how do we recoup a constructive Emersonian ethos from the legacy of its debased version? My strong sense is that if we are to avoid repeating the arrogance of the American exceptionalist project, it will require somehow revealing and uncovering values and virtues of redemption in the Emersonian ethos after the catastrophic. This work can begin by asking: To what remnants of this tradition does the elegiac temperament attune us? What resources can we bring to bear to render the elegiac temperament effective and generative? In contrast to what I was earlier calling “debased Emersonianism,” consider Stanley Cavell’s project of Emersonian perfectionism—in my view, one of the most effective and most fecund transpositions of the tradition. This is a legacy of Emerson that seeks deep democratic expression, rather than radical individuation and triumphalism. It finds genius in ordinary people and in the everyday. There is a hermeneutics of humility at work in this version of the Emersonian legacy, and it is one saturated with what I am calling the elegiac temperament. It finds expression in Cavell’s Emersonian perfectionist ethic and aspiration, which demands the commitment to becoming intelligible to oneself (and, collectively, to ourselves) through an active refusal of presiding norms of conformity and authority, such as an unflinching piety toward the providential view of American exceptionalism.
I am arguing for sober reflection and consideration of the debilitating, yet constitutive ethos of American exceptionalism on the parts of political liberals and conservatives alike. The challenge is finding a way to lift up the version of Emersonianism that I want to claim—call it Emersonian perfectionism, strenuous Emersonianism, or even Emersonian attunement—as a remainder worth retrieving and distinguishing from the debased Emersonianism that has served as a core of the myth of American exceptionalism. In this sense, the elegiac temperament can clarify what is often a confused (and confusing) practice of discerning honor and integrity amongst competing moral genealogies of American values and virtues.
Cultivating the elegiac temperament of the future perfect possibilities of lives not yet lived, and the sobering absorption of the past conditional of memories hard won constitute a set of pre-conditions for mourning the exhaustion of the myth of American exceptionalism. It may be that we will only be able to mourn as we live through the exhaustion of the myth of American exceptionalism if we are able to self-elegize ourselves against this myth; that is if we can engage in the Socratic practice of self-knowledge—in the spirit of Cavell’s ideal of aspiring to become intelligible to oneself—and subsequently come to realize an elegiac temperament that reflects a candor about each of our commitments and beliefs that will reveal, through psychic interrogation, contradictions that reside within each of us. Certainly, we all find contradictions within ourselves, as well as with the people that we love. I certainly know how hard it is to reconcile who I say I am, for example, and what it is that I love, with the ability and willingness to act on these claims about myself. To adopt an elegiac temperament is to embrace an ethic of aspiration, as well as the commitment to self-cultivation and attunement. It is, finally, also to acknowledge that one has to die a little in order to live fully, freely. This is an elegiac move because it requires acknowledging that with change there is loss, especially a loss of love. It requires sacrifice. And it requires courage, conviction, and the willingness to leave one world behind in order to lay claim to another world, and, further, to leave a love behind by claiming a new love. Disenthralling ourselves from American imperial ideology may mean that we will make a world with heavy hearts, but hearts that have turned, converted, shifted to a world worth dying for and living for.