Podcast • October 13, 2009

Donald Pease: Obama’s "Transnational" Presidency

Re-read Moby-Dick and be cured of these absurd Nobel blues. The Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama underlines the world’s idea of our “transnational” President, our transnational country and our transnational moment. So does Moby-Dick, ...
Re-read Moby-Dick and be cured of these absurd Nobel blues.

The Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama underlines the world’s idea of our “transnational” President, our transnational country and our transnational moment. So does Moby-Dick, the mother of all literary imaginings of America in crisis. My teacher in conversation here is the Dartmouth analyst of novels and dreams, Donald Pease. His teacher in turn is the Caribbean prophet of post-colonialism and Melville commentator, the late great C. L. R. James (1901 – 1989). Joseph O’Neill, the post-9/11 novelist of cricket-in-New-York, Netherland gets invoked for his confirmation that the deepest dreams of humanity play themselves out in games, too.

Herman Melville, C. L. R. James & Donald Pease: deep dreams of America as the utopian world-nation.

A modern key into Melville turns on seeing that the hero of his masterwork is not the narrator and only survivor Ishmael — that was “the Cold War reading.” Neither do the feckless New England mates Starbuck, Stubb and Flask come close to checking the mad totalitarian Ahab or saving the ship or the day. Rather it’s the motley, polyglot sailors and whale hunters, Melville’s “mariners, renegades and castaways,” who sense what’s going on and stand for an alternative. It’s the crew from every nation and corner of the world who are victims of the tale and the only heroes in it. They’re not just the most skillful seamen but “the most generous and magnificent human beings on board,” in C. L. R. James words. Above all it’s the South Sea pagan Queequeg who embodies the universal ideals of skill, brotherhood, courage, heart.

Melville drew on that first and deepest dream of America, as a global utopia of transnationals — America as a trans-nation before it was a nation. Kansan-Kenyan-Hawaiian Barack Obama mined the same dream as a candidate. I was struck in the moment by how boldly, beamingly he put forth the basic premise in his campaign digression to Berlin in July ’08, where a vast crowd cheered his self-introduction “as a citizen,” he said, “a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.” He was drawing on the dream of his father, whose father had been a cook and house servant to the British, until America “answered his prayer for a better life.” Obama was holding up a renewed dream of America not as world’s policeman, much less world ruler, but as the world’s story.

Obama’s opposition picks up on the transnational theme, too, and turns it upside down. The rabid right feeds fantasies that Obama wasn’t even born here, that he’s a closet Muslim, an immigrant without papers, and/or a “soft terrorist,” a European implant or maybe a space alien. But the taunts surely say less about Obama than about the failed, fear-stricken voices that are reduced to nutbag versions of nativism and neo-imperialism.

Donald Pease leads me to believe that’s what the Nobel Committee was saying, and celebrating from the world’s perspective: that America has found its voice of glory just in time to face the transnational catastrophes: war, hunger, environmental ruin.

DP: Barack Obama is a man of dreams, a figure who solicits fantasy work. He knows how transpose waking dream work into a recognizable representation of a goal. So when Obama took the deepest American dream: that everyone can achieve prosperity–and said that I embody that, and then linked it to the deferred dream–the raisin in the sun, and then associated that with one of the most memorable of Sam Cooke’s songs–an anthem from the sixties, “A Change is Gonna Come,” he condensed all of those dream objects into a persona whereby he did not have to do anything except address the audience as you. “You.” However you project me, I will be that projection, that fantasy projection, for you. When he had done that, he was not defeatable. The Republicans ran a very savvy campaign: McCain constructed himself as a P.O.W from Viet Nam. He tried to erase Abu Ghraib from the American public consciousness by saying that he was the figure they did it to… He was working at the level of the dream figure. When they chose Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin became the equivalent of the pioneer mother. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan regressed the nation to colonial settlers in relation to the Indians. Sarah Palin was the ur-colonial mother who said she would willingly sacrifice not only the son who was already fighting in Iraq; she would sacrifice any child she bore in the name of the security of the homeland…”

CL: Donald Pease, I thought you were a literary critic. It turns out you’re a psychoanalyst.

DP: Literary critics are bed partners of psychoanalysts. You can’t be a decent literary critic without believing in the psyche…

CL: You’re known as a champion of the “trend” in “American Studies” on campus toward the “transnational.”

DP: The transnational is a fact of life. The disappearance of the Cold War enabled everybody to see that America was the node in a network of transnational relays, of economic circulation across the planet. Transnational is not a trend; it is an accurate description of the way this planet is in 2009. Barack Obama needs a global event—that is, an event that solicits the interest of everyone who is, as he puts it, a citizen of this planet—in order to connect his person with his vision. The problem with what happened with the Olympics, the reason that event was taken as such a terrible loss, was that he was supposed to be the transnational leader who would immediately solicit everyone’s agreement for whatever he asked. But he knew, or he should have known, that there were places in the Americas that needed the Olympics, both culturally and socially, much more than Chicago. What he needs now is an event that requires Obama as the figure who can respond to it responsibly.

CL: Like what?

DP: Part of it is linked now to the so-called green revolution. If and when he goes to China you will see, or I hope we will see, an event, an encounter take place, that will spell out the significance of every country across this globe living for the sake of the green revolution. The Chinese are right now embracing this as primarily a commercial venture but they are also embracing it as a planetary ideal. Obama shares that ideal, not just with the Chinese, but with everyone. That, I believe, can become the other face, the locus, of Obama.