Editor's Introduction


by

Deborah Wyrick

North Carolina State University



Copyright (c) 1998 by Deborah Wyrick, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. One of the many gratuitous characters in James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie (1827) is Obed Bat, Ph.D., a scientist accompanying a sorry group of pioneers slouching toward the American West. Dr. Bat--or Dr. Battius, as he prefers to be called--apparently represents pretentious, useless European culture and its farcical mimicry in the United States. He also parodies the colonial-complicit scientific project so aptly described by Mary Louise Pratt and others: his Linnean endeavors produce not a disciplinary taxonomy but a random collection of words and objects. He is anything but the master of all he surveys. For example, during an evening expedition, he returns to the camp, terrified, and reports sighting a monster:

    Quadruped: seen by starlight and by the aid of a pocket lamp in the prairies of North America; see journal for latitude and meridian. Genus, unknown, therefore named after the discoverer from the happy coincidence of having been seen in the evening--Vespertilio horribilis americanus. Dimensions by estimation--greatest length, eleven feet; height, six feet; head, erect; nostrils, expansive; eyes, expressive and fierce; teeth, serrated and abundant; tail, horizontal, waving, and slightly feline; feet, large and hairy; talons, long, curvated, dangerous; ears, inconspicuous; horns, elongated, diverging, and formidable; color, plumbeous-ashy with fiery spots; voice, sonorous, martial, and appalling; habits, gregarious, carnivorous, fierce, and fearless. (Cooper 74)
    Soon, however, Dr. Bat's trusty mount follows him into camp and is revealed to be the Vespertilio horribilis americanus. As Ellen Wade, one of Cooper's imperiled heroines, explains to the chagrined naturalist, the apparition is not a monster: instead, "it is your own ass" (Cooper 75).

  2. In this scene, Dr. Bat plays the bumbling scientist who literally cannot find his own ass in the dark. But the Vespertilio horribilis americanus offers itself as a somewhat more complex metaphor. In The Prairie and the other Leatherstocking Tales, Cooper constructed what became a national myth of rugged individualism and territorial expansion built upon violent technologies of (dis)possession. The hapless Dr. Bat, his domesticated monster, and his meaningless catalogue of fearsome data burlesque this myth and in so doing, help mask the horrible reality underpinning continental conquest. If we move the Vespertilio horribilis americanus ahead a century and a half, what might be an American horror parallel to that rendered in The Prairie as farce? Is it a fear that science-in-service-to-national-interest can be, like Bat's chimerical monster, dangerous, formidable, appalling, and fierce? Or the fear that mechanisms of power will be revealed as impotent: self-destructing satellites, military jets that fall from the sky, unexploded ordnance and mines that hide undetected beneath the earth? Or the fear that no matter how smart our weaponry, their guiding human intelligence may lobotomize them--revealing, perhaps, that a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum may really be, primarily . . . . a pharmaceutical factory? Or that of a more personal exposure: that underneath technical dazzle and national wealth lies a vulnerable, even ridiculous body politic?

  3. Cooper takes up this fear of corporeal exposure later in the book, when Obed Bat is captured by the Sioux, a tribe conveniently demonized in order to contrast with the noble savages, here marked Pawnee. In a bizarre spectacle of mimicry, Dr. Bat is stripped, shorn, and painted . . . tied to his ass . . . and festooned with the trappings of his scientific trade.
    Obed was led forth from the lodge mounted on Asinus with a ceremony and state that was certainly intended for derision, but which nevertheless was greatly enhanced by fear. . . . His head had been shaved, after the most approved fashion of the Sioux taste. . . . Thick coats of paint had been laid on the naked poll. . . . He had been despoiled of his upper garments, and in their stead his body was sufficiently protected from the cold by a fantastically painted robe of dressed deerskin. As if in mockery of his pursuit, sundry toads, frogs, lizards, butterflies . . . were attached to the solitary lock on his head, to his ears, and to various other conspicuous parts of his person. . . . [T]he legs of the naturalist were attached to the beast in such a manner that the two animals might be said to be incorporated, and to form a new order. (Cooper 315-16)
    He has himself become the hybrid of his nightmares, a Vespertilio horribilis americanus akin to the monsters lurking in the oceanic corners of early exploration maps, a prophetic parody of "the specular border intellectual," to use Abdul R. JanMohamed's phrase. Through cultural cross-dressing (Clifford 73) and metonymic reduction, the Sioux have subjected Dr. Bat to a Foucauldian visiblity apparatus.

  4. To Cooper, such a figure would no doubt suggest the florid inconceivability of racial and cultural mixing. Today, such a figure irresistibly brings to mind the spectacle of the United States president tied to and eclipsed by the metonyms of scandal, a hostage to a scopic regime that dictates visibility and hiddenness. The body politic has collapsed into the body personal, visible through its most "conspicuous parts."

  5. Obed Bat is tied to his ass. He represents both an unnatural conjunction and the composite "new Order" resulting from that conjunction. Nineteenth-century discourses of hybridity, as Robert J. C. Young reminds us, keep returning to the mulish issue of fertility: is a racial hybrid fertile or not? Thus "the link between culture and race in the nineteenth century involved sexuality as its third mediating term. . . . Colonialism was a machine, a machine of war, of bureaucracy and administration and, above all, of power. . . . [I]t was also a machine of fantasy and desire" (97-98). In The Prairie, miscegenationist sexual fantasy is displaced from white men to red, as a procession of Indian potentates cast lustful eyes on the white women who come under their gaze, but no actual intermixing is allowed. And Cooper's regulation of class is just as rigid as that of race: upper-class unions are shadowed by bourgeois ones, while the Indians and lumpenproletariat stick to their own kind (for Cooper's preoccupation with non-mixable "kinds," see Jane Tompkins 105-09).

  6. If Peter Stallybrass and Allon White are correct, bourgeois sexual fantasy often solicits the return of the excluded, even abjected Other. One could posit that the President, raised to the apogee of power, indulged in a nostalgia for the "low domains" (Stallybrass and White 191) he has left behind; conversely, established structures of power may need to visualize the president as sexual body, specifically as a tawdry sexualized spectacle. One reason may be to discipline class transgression--a racially inflected class transgression, according to Toni Morrison. She calls Clinton "our first Black president," his Blackness made visible by the fact that he "displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas." She continues her editorial with a persecution narrative that shows how the body personal (Clinton-as-black-man-or-white-trash) can be forced to destroy the body politic (Clinton-as-president-and-leader-of-the-free-world):
    And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President's body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: "No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and--who knows?--maybe sentenced and jailed to boot." (32).

  7. The Starr Investigation has been termed 'sexual McCarthyism.' McCarthyite McCarthyism emerged near the beginning of the cold war, when the United States geopolitical position had altered significantly; defeating the Axis powers necessitated a new enemy. A former ally filled the role conveniently, yet the Soviet Union existed not only without national borders but within them--'we have met the enemy and he is us,' as the McCarthy-era comic strip Pogo explained. Within the past few years, the United States geopolitical position has changed again, and the Evil Other so handy for constructing national purpose has not been definitively located. The rest of the world presents murky situations, ambiguous opponents, impossible moral choices: how many American soldiers' lives are worth risking in the face of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia (answer: as few as possible) or in Rwanda (answer: none)? Starring the United States President in a ludicrous multi-media morality play is one way to simplify these confusions. The enemy may be us, but it's the libidinal part of us that can be chastized, exorcized, and exteriorized in the overdetermined presidential body: the Vespertilio americanus horribilus. Further, such reductive desire may signal nostalgia for an unproblematic geopolitical position . . . as in the 'big stick' diplomacy of American Imperial adolescence, when the space of the United States was perceived to be manifestly expandable throughout the hemisphere.

  8. Cooper also constructed expandable American space, but in The Prairie its emptiness contains few echoes of the Madisonian triumphalism then sounding throughout the country. Obed Bat had attached himself to the wagon train of Ishmael Bush and his family; the Sioux are described as the "Ishmaelites of the American deserts" (Cooper 41). All these wanderers--plus characters as diverse as Natty Bumppo, hero of all the Leatherstocking tales; an U.S. army officer and his troops; a Spanish-American damsel-in-distress; a love-struck bee-hunter; an array of stereotyped Indians (e.g. inscrutable chief, drunken coward, abandoned squaw)--meet on the apparently infinite space of the prairie. Cooper's prairie is an uncanny space, as vast and featureless as the oceanic metaphors Cooper employs to describe it, yet as intimate as a small town general store. People are always running into each other, dispensing cracker-barrel wisdom over roasted buffalo hump, unable to stay out of each other's business. The prairie is a place of homelessness, of various Ishmaels from various cultures meandering toward no discernable destination but away from legal regulation of 'home.' Part of the surprising power of The Prairie resides in this unsettling evocation of displaced place, of a global contact zone lurking underneath the American frontier, of the collective American psyche as spectrally possessed wasteland.

  9. Place, displacement, space, third space, home, and homelessness: these concerns thread through this issue of Jouvert. Lawrence Phillips' materialist critique of Homi Bhabha's influential notions of space sets the tone by questioning the translation of socially inhabited material space into "an entirely abstracted linguistic metaphor." The populated spaces in Karen Tei Yamashita's novels provide one answer, according to Jean Vengua Gier and Carla Alicia Tejeda's interview; they explore the novelist's engagement with hybrid national identity, "the politics of mobility," and the postmodern mapping of displaced, migrating populations as well as her thoughts about literary craft, anthropological research, and Asian-Americanness. Floyd Cheung addresses United States' cultural-political-historical identity in a different way, through examining the constructive function of the Other--e.g., the Japanese, the female, the Alien--in two novels-turned films, Rising Sun and Stargate. Jon Thompson's poems, by multiplying and broadening the 'American Dream' cliché into 'North American Dreams,' take us into unsettling dreamscapes of national desires and historical memories.

  10. Klaus de Albuquerque fashions another vision of home. His evocation of colonial childhood affiliates his own experiences to those of other children located and relocated through Empire and diaspora: geographical place can shift, but repeated material and cultural 'goods,' like food and toys and household utensils, keep 'home' recognizable. Juniper Ellis's article on Albert Wendt investigates the Western Samoan author's "productive space created in the simultaneous return to and search for a homeland," particularly in his novel Sons for the Return Home. Christine McCarthy analyzes a different type of South Pacific home, the New Zealand 'bach' (beach cottage): her essay traces connections among the architectural, the political, the colonial-historical and the televisual that redefine the map of the nation.

  11. On the Jouvert homefront, S. X. Goudie, our interviews editor, has relocated to Vanderbilt University (his new addresses are now in the main page submission and contact materials). We'd like to thank him for his continuing fine work. We'd also like to thank Chris Perrius for his contributions as Reviews Editor--and to express our appreciation to Katerina Ruedi, H. K. Kalkat, and Marian Staats for the reviews in this issue. Finally, we are grateful to our home department for promising to provide us new computer equipment to replace the Vespertilio horribilis technologicus with which we've been struggling.

Works Cited

Clifford, James. "Spatial Practices: Fieldwork, Travel, and the Disciplining of Anthropology." Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1997, pp. 52-89.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Prairie (1827). New York: Signet, 1964.

JanMohamed, Abdul R. "Worldliness-Without-World, Homelessness-Without-Home: Toward a Definition of the Specular Border Intellectual." In Edward Said: A Critical Reader. Ed. Michael Sprinker. Cambridge MA: Blackwell, 1992, pp. 96-120.

Morrison, Toni. "The Talk of the Town. " The New Yorker. Vol. 74, number 30 (October 4, 1998): 31-32.

Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. London: Metheun, 1986.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Young, Robert J. C. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London: Routledge, 1995.


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