subversive vs. coopted fantasy

our discussion on monday emphasized the subversive and liberating function of fantasy (eg. how keats’s embrace of an illicit, corrupted version of Homer undermines the authority of a literary establishment invested in distinction of the canonical Homer); but we also talked about the vulnerability of such fantasy to being manipulated or ‘coopted’ (along the lines – arguably – of how the dreams of obama’s supporters were manipulated to get him elected, or how a utopian dream of “writing the future” is exploited by the nike ad).  Such cooptation effects a ‘matrix’-like scenario where my fantasies are anticipated or prescribed by forces beyond me and put to uses i’m oblivious of.  Ultimately i think the inherent ambiguity of fantasy means that fantasy is unavoidably always potentially conducive to both subversion and cooptation:  we can never have 100% confidence that we stand on one side or the other since to have such confidence would be to dispell the ‘dreaminess’ of the dream.  Indeed, exposing oneself to the risk of cooptation is arguably key to what makes fantasy potentially subversive (remember the notion that, since consumer ideology is essentially a promise of escape, the only way genuinely to escape such ideology is to give up the claim to escape it).  the subversiveness of fantasy is (not wholly but in crucial part) a matter as nietzsche says of “living dangerously:”  forgoing the assurance of knowing ahead of time (i.e. reifying) the determinate value and purpose of what i’m doing (e.g. becoming “nothing more than something i invest in”).  in other words the subversiveness of a dream hinges on asserting a ‘negative capability’ that needn’t “grasp after fact or reason” to justify itself, but is instead self-justifying: justified just by the act itself of ‘wild surmising,’ or as plato says, ‘bringing to birth’ new worlds, and, concomitantly, new forms of radically autonomous political and erotic agency a la keats’s ‘crew.’

walt whitman’s poem ‘o pioneers’ celebrates the liberating potential of such ‘pioneering’ negative capability; so its use in the ad below–titled “go forth;” i.e., break free, let yourself explore unencumbered, negatively capable–is a good case for considering this liberation vs. cooptation problem.  the ad offers an amazing, haunting reading of the poem, the poem’s call to arms is bracing and dangerous-seeming in our age of the ‘war on terror,’ the ad’s imagery has an (arguably) transgressively non-heteronormative eroticism, and the levi’s brand has some undeniable connection to the american dream of youth, freedom, individualism, etc.–the dream whitman clearly has in mind when he calls on us to be pioneers.  yet can we heed whitman’s call just by buying some pants? by suggesting that we can does the commercial preempt the subversive potential of the dream? finally what does pioneering mean according to whitman vs. according to the commercial?  the full text of the poem is below.

Pioneers! O Pioneers!
By Walt Whitman
1819-1892

Come my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

From Nebraska, from Arkansas,
Central inland race are we, from Missouri, with the continental
blood intervein’d,
All the hands of comrades clasping, all the Southern, all the Northern,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O resistless restless race!
O beloved race in all! O my breast aches with tender love for all!
O I mourn and yet exult, I am rapt with love for all,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Raise the mighty mother mistress,
Waving high the delicate mistress, over all the starry mistress,
(bend your heads all,)
Raise the fang’d and warlike mistress, stern, impassive, weapon’d mistress,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

See my children, resolute children,
By those swarms upon our rear we must never yield or falter,
Ages back in ghostly millions frowning there behind us urging,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

On and on the compact ranks,
With accessions ever waiting, with the places of the dead quickly fill’d,
Through the battle, through defeat, moving yet and never stopping,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O to die advancing on!
Are there some of us to droop and die? has the hour come?
Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is fill’d.
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the pulses of the world,
Falling in they beat for us, with the Western movement beat,
Holding single or together, steady moving to the front, all for us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Life’s involv’d and varied pageants,
All the forms and shows, all the workmen at their work,
All the seamen and the landsmen, all the masters with their slaves,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the hapless silent lovers,
All the prisoners in the prisons, all the righteous and the wicked,
All the joyous, all the sorrowing, all the living, all the dying,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

I too with my soul and body,
We, a curious trio, picking, wandering on our way,
Through these shores amid the shadows, with the apparitions pressing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Lo, the darting bowling orb!
Lo, the brother orbs around, all the clustering suns and planets,
All the dazzling days, all the mystic nights with dreams,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

These are of us, they are with us,
All for primal needed work, while the followers there in embryo wait behind,
We to-day’s procession heading, we the route for travel clearing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you daughters of the West!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Minstrels latent on the prairies!
(Shrouded bards of other lands, you may rest, you have done your work,)
Soon I hear you coming warbling, soon you rise and tramp amid us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Not for delectations sweet,
Not the cushion and the slipper, not the peaceful and the studious,
Not the riches safe and palling, not for us the tame enjoyment,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Do the feasters gluttonous feast?
Do the corpulent sleepers sleep? have they lock’d and bolted doors?
Still be ours the diet hard, and the blanket on the ground,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Has the night descended?
Was the road of late so toilsome? did we stop discouraged nodding
on our way?
Yet a passing hour I yield you in your tracks to pause oblivious,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Till with sound of trumpet,
Far, far off the daybreak call–hark! how loud and clear I hear it wind,
Swift! to the head of the army!–swift! spring to your places,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

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4 Responses to subversive vs. coopted fantasy

  1. Aron says:

    I may have made a bit of a jump but this reminded me a lot of the discussion we had in class about doing things, not because we think we will make a difference by doing them (we’re not that narcissistic), but for a different reason that I’m having trouble enunciating. For lack of a better way to put it, I know that not eating meat that’s factory farmed, isn’t going to stop factory farming but I have this vision of an ideal world (subjective perspective noted) and I’m dedicated to it.

    “All the past we leave behind,
    We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
    Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
    Pioneers! O pioneers!

    On and on the compact ranks,
    With accessions ever waiting, with the places of the dead quickly fill’d,
    Through the battle, through defeat, moving yet and never stopping,
    Pioneers! O pioneers”

  2. boearle says:

    one thing that really strikes me is the emphasis (as in any true testimony of faith) on *doubt,* and even despair and failure:

    O to die advancing on!
    Are there some of us to droop and die? has the hour come?
    Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is fill’d.
    Pioneers! O pioneers!

  3. Vlad Cristache says:

    And yet I feel as though Whitman is being ironic. That writing such a devotional poem betrays precisely what it’s saying. The commercial’s failure is maybe the inability to capture this irony in more than a hipster way: that is, the irony is blended into the commercial so well that one merely enjoys it aesthetically and identifies with the intelligence of those who made it: Levy’s.

    • Alyzee Lakhani says:

      This poem makes me anxious. This reading might be off since I missed Monday’s class, but I think one could read the poem as both subversive of a collective, nationalist patriotism and also supporting of it – it could be a rallying cry or an ironic statement about propaganda. There is a lot of detail in the poem that glamorizing the marching on of army, and its utility (e.g. “We to-day’s procession heading, we the route for travel clearing”, “…not for us the tame enjoyment”), but also a lot of jarring violence and (I think) self-conscious propaganda:

      O you mothers and you wives!
      Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,

      Which probably means that mothers and wives at home are part of the march in their support of it. I don’t think it means that they are part of the march because they’re probably grooming the “the followers in embryo that wait behind” at home. I think these lines could be read as not supporting a national war effort (if the ideological unity of mothers at home and fathers at the front sounded ridiculous) and also used to excite loyalty and support to one. At the end of the poem I am only marginally convinced of Whitman’s position as someone against glamorizing war and the mass-manipulating emotions by state propaganda – there is such an intoxicating rhythm to him poem that his subtle gestures toward the slavery/co-opting of these “Pioneers” could easily be lost to a reader, especially one that’s inclined to be persuaded to by Levi’s jeans after that commercial.

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