Postmortem on My “Hail Caesar Project”

Hail Caesar | Well He Certainly Is a Great Talent.gif
Gee, thanks Robert Picardo playing the rabbi in Hail, Caesar! (2016/Working Title Films)

I’ve gotten in the habit of writing about some of my essays here when they go live, so I thought I’d share some random thoughts about my latest, “‘Sometimes a Bee Can Move an Ox’: Biblical Epics and One Man’s Quest to Promote Jewish Values in Blacklist-Era Hollywood,” now online at the journal Modern American History (MAH), which, in a reflection of the paper’s provenance, still sits in my computer in a folder labeled “Hail Caesar Project.” I like to write these postmortems just to get some of my thinking on the record, so to speak, but if you’ve already read the essay and might like to know a little more, please do read along.

The Moonlight Connection and the Lost Judith Butler Paragraph

As a historian, it was a little strange to write a 2,500 word essay on the movie Moonlight, one emphasizing a posthumanist/antihumanist theoretical approach, since this was so far afield from what I usually write about. It all started because of this MAH journal article. I was thinking about the line from Ben-Hur, “I am Judah Ben-Hur,” which I write about in the essay. And I guess I was rewatching Moonlight when it struck me that the line “Who is you?” was an inversion of the sentiment, or episteme, that undergirded Ben-Hur’s humanism. Where Ben-Hur offers answers about the self, Moonlight offers questions.

Reading Mark Greif’s book had already set me down a path of thinking in these epistemological terms, but it was only at this point that I decided to take a deeper dive into the literature of posthumanist theory. Most useful to me was Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism?. I was never trained in Derrida, and as so it takes me about five minutes to read each page written by Wolfe, and I probably understand a third of what he is saying. But I find his writing to be some of the most rewarding and innovative theory that I’ve encountered since I was reading Foucault and governmentality scholars like Nikolas Rose some several years ago. (I’m actually working through another one of Cary Wolfe’s books, Before the Law, right now. Veeerrrry slowly working through it, that is.)

Although my essays ended being published a year apart, I was very much working on them simultaneously, and my thoughts about one would naturally bleed into thoughts about the other. And I wanted to bring some antihumanist insights directly into the Ben-Hur discussion, to make my perspective on liberal humanism more clear, but I ran up against word counts as well as the limitations of what is expected in historical writing. (In short, I find that peer reviewers hate the linguistic turn and editors are eager to remove what they perceive as “jargon.”) Here’s a draft of a paragraph where I was attempting to bring in and cite Judith Butler:

To be clear, the critique of liberal humanism from which I am writing might be put this way. Ben-Hur is accurate in diagnosing power as a kind of miasma that infects the bodies of its subjects, and in this way, the film’s leprosy metaphor is quite sophisticated. Where Ben-Hur errs, and where it and the other biblical epics reflect liberal humanist thinking, is in seeking an antidote which is the removal of the self from those matrices of power that necessarily constitute the self. We are all always-already infected—this is the insight of antihumanists like Judith Butler—and it is with that acknowledgment that we might find solutions to the problems that DeMille, Stone, the NCRAC, and others were trying to solve.

The point about the metaphorical role that leprosy plays in Ben-Hur ended up being really underplayed in the final, edited version, and in a perfect world I would have been able to explore it a little more, because I think it points to the key theoretical takeaways of the essay.

In an alternate version of the final paragraph that I had begun to draft, I suppose I hoped to bring it back around again:

Perhaps in 2017, we believe too readily that a single bee can move an ox. The mythology of the potentially unfettered, unchained individual still has a hold on our collective American dreams. It shapes the political demands that we make and the visions of the society in which we want to live, having us place our faith in atomized individual acts as a means to redeem liberal democracy. The mythology also infects our waking nightmares, in which our very own reigning American pharaoh appears to single-handedly wield an oppressive executive power. Such analysis makes such a figure out to be a man out of time, a metaphysical manifestation of the threat of modernity itself. The truth is more complicated, and deserves better stories. Like Judah Ben-Hur’s family, we are always already infected, not only by the state, but by a multiplicity of institutions….

I hasten to add that I’m ambivalent about the phrase “always already,” and likely would have changed it. But otherwise, I like all this stuff.

Liberalism and the Rule of Law

The other connection that I wanted to make more explicit was that between the liberal discourse of the “rule of law” in the fifties and that of today. To be quite clear, although I value liberal norms and institutions to the extent that they are truly democratic, I am deeply suspicious that the language of the “rule of law” can be ameliorative or restorative in a sense of justice. Two essays in particular highlighted for me the way that academics might have a role in cutting through the ubiquitous post-Trump discourse of the “rule of law”: an essay by Samuel Moyn and David Priestland at the New York Times, and a couple of posts at the Boston Review by Umut Özsu.

As I wrote in the MAH essay, the “rule of law” is an important idea and signifier for Cecil B. DeMille, particularly in The Ten Commandments, and it clearly stands in for those established norms and institutions that constituted “the free world” and/or “western civilization.”

I wanted to bring the rule of law back around in the end. This is the final paragraph of the version of the paper that was accepted by the journal and my reviewers. But subsequent journal edits saw chunks of the paragraph cut and rearranged:

In 2017, the cultural language of anti-authoritarianism serves as a useful check against nationalist, corporatist state power. But the primacy of civil libertarianism—an ideology rooted in liberal humanism—in contemporary political and popular cultural discourse makes it unlikely for solutions that seek to move past “Anglo-Saxon” conceptions of the self to find a footing in mainstream American culture. The persistence of liberal humanism is reflected in today’s omnipresent calls for the “rule of law,” and in the concomitant absence of calls for active programs of justice. And the American fetish for individual freedom makes it difficult to start a conversation that sees executive power—even that of our own orange-hued American pharaoh—as not simply originating from state “organization,” but rather from the social relations that both govern and constitute our selves, a conversation that calls for positive freedom rather than negative. The story of John Stone, the Motion Picture Project, and the biblical epics of the 1950s thus serves as a useful history of the present. Stone’s nearly decade-long hunt for the right stories to tell reveals the contingency upon which liberal humanist symbols and narratives were elevated and spread. It makes their embrace by (Jewish and gentile) liberal leaders strange. It suggests we might similarly look for such strangeness in other corners of postwar American popular culture history, and in doing so, perhaps sunder the mystique of American liberalism.

I kind of liked the “orange-hued pharaoh” phrase, but more importantly, I fear that having cut some of this stuff means that the final paper lost some of its argumentative weight. (I was very pleased that they let me keep in the final phrase though!) And I think you can see the influences of Butler and Foucault a little more clearly here. Anyways, I have some more thoughts about the process of undergoing peer reviews and edits in the Trump age—when poststructuralism and the cultural turn seem to be under even more attack inside the academy than before, and there are continual pressures on history journals to appeal to a kind of normative audience—but I may share these at a later date.