Center for the Study of Law and Culture Fellow 2004-2005
RESEARCH PROPOSAL: THE CINEMA OF GLOBAL CITIZENSHIP
I imagine Alexis de Tocqueville, in his landmark Democracy in America (1835), would warn against studies of citizenship that focus primarily on the mechanics of immigration law and policy. For him, to discern the “dangers” and “advantages” of the concept of citizenship, one has to understand how citizenship is mediated through, and given content, by both law and culture. However, as of late, the “cultural turn” in citizenship studies, a field historically located in the discipline of sociology, has concentrated predominantly on issues of adjudicating cultural rights and obligations. Such studies are necessary, to be sure, but they are by definition partial. The current project, while cognizant of these other studies, takes a somewhat different cultural turn in order to ask, not new questions about cultural pluralism, for instance, but rather old questions about the nature of citizenship from a new angle of vision. This new vantage is largely enabled by recent critical scholarship in the fields of law, cultural studies, and film theory. Drawing from this interdisciplinary ensemble, the present study stages an encounter between the historical figures of de Tocqueville, Homer Plessy, and D.W. Griffith in order to cast new light on the evolution of the contemporary problematic of race, sexuality, and nation in the crucible of citizenship.
In efforts to understand the assembly of a virtually unbounded American empire in the present, the encounter between de Tocqueville, Plessy, and Griffith allows us to revisit the Progressive Era (1890s—1920s) as the high-water mark of an earlier American imperialism and the dawn of the ideology of international peace. On the domestic scene, the Progressive Era witnessed, among other significant events, the consolidation of the New South and the birth of cinema. Needless to say, this complex and peculiar prehistory to the emergence of contemporary international law and a full-blown discourse of globalization was the same period in which the nation saw the development of legal “colorblindness” together with cinematic vision. Rereading the Supreme Court’s language in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) as the juridical management of U.S. national identity through legal rules and textual images of equality and colorblindness, we gain a certain access to the political consciousness (and political unconscious) of that time. Re-examining Griffith’s early work (including The Birth of a Nation (1915) and a number of prior short films) with regard to his representations of race, sexuality, and nation, we find a telling refraction of the images of equality and colorblindness fabricated by the language of the Plessy proceedings.
This project turns on the assumption that both law and film depend on narrative structure as a mode of creating meaning and consolidating power. I do not simply mean that law and film involve parties who tell stories, but rather that both the cinematic and legal institutions hinge on the deployment of narrative to produce an orderly procedure for resolving conflict and crisis, be it legal, perceptual, or affective. In other words, the effect of narrative as persuasion in law and as “suture” in film is a type of disciplinary social work to the extent that the failure of persuasion or suture for the subject in question risks the experience of physical punishment or psychic pain. This comparative analysis is required if we are to understand not only how law and film work together as cultural forms, but also how they contribute to the historical formation of American citizenship—the image of this citizenship—through participation in deeply interrelated regimes of race and sexuality.
The wider implications of this study are suggested by several questions addressed therein. For instance, how does the pernicious “race talk” of colorblindness endure under cover of various aesthetic forms and popular cultural concepts in the age of globalization, and how might it be productively reconfigured or challenged by these very same processes? What do contemporary juridical discussions of racial discrimination and diversity (e.g., Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)) suggest about deeply entrenched patterns of racial inequality in the U.S. and the discernible (if uneven) convergence between the interests of the transnational migrant and those of global capital? The responses to such questions, as I begin to formulate them in this study, will undoubtedly ramify upon public policy and planning in the broadest sense. Moreover, they may suggest areas for future intervention and engagement for scholars, legal practitioners, and cultural workers interested in promoting greater social justice in and beyond the formal channels.