College Quarterly
Winter 2007 - Volume 10 Number 1
Reviews Deforming American Political Thought: Ethnicity, Facticity, and Genre
Michael J. Shapiro
Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2006

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

“The problem with you, Howard,” said Mike Shapiro, “is that you’re a dilettante. You don’t want to understand your subject matter; you want to make love to it.” I was given this stunning (but fairly accurate and not much resented) assessment in 1967. Mike’s tone was not entirely dismissive and, about eight months later, I nominated him for a place on my MA orals committee. Through a process too whimsical to be immediately believed, I won the MA, and so I assume his judgment of me was not wholly negative.

We were acquainted mainly because I took his course in “Behavioral Analysis and Techniques.” A survey course in the latest quantitative methods that were all the rage in the social sciences at the time, it involved some reasonably rigorous exercises in theory construction, research design, statistics, and so on. There I learned the rudiments of factor analysis, multiple regression analysis and other elements of quasi-scientific methodology. There I would become acquainted with semantic differential analysis, Q-sort techniques and other procedures, largely imported from psychology, that would serve me well for many years to come. Empirical through and through, Mike’s course was a compulsory part of the training of any potentially successful political scientist at the University of Hawai’i – especially in the cheerfully entrepreneurial world of the America academy in the 1960s.

Although I have returned many times to visit the place of my first graduate degree, and to keep up old friendships with various teachers and fellow graduate students (now themselves on the verge of retirement), I didn’t see Mike Shapiro until this past January – forty years since our last meeting.

We had a decently long and convivial chat. At that time, he showed me a copy of a book that he had recently written, and that is here under review. Forty years, it seems, is a long time – long enough at any rate for this man of robust intelligence and evolving wisdom to allow his thoughtful curiosity to take him some way along an intellectual path that I would not have anticipated.

Deforming American Political Thought is an exercise in analysis, but not the sort that was featured in our course on behavioral methodology four decades ago. The index is replete with references to authors who would not fit smoothly into any discussion of chi squares, rotated factor matrices, or any other tool of behavioral science. In this book, names such as Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Felix Guattari and Jacques Rancière are interspersed with subjects including the aesthetics of African-American culture, Robert Altman’s films, Jim Crow laws, narratives and novels, landscapes and spaces, and Jeffersonian and Jewish thought-worlds. Here too are concepts as diverse as boundaries, contingencies, identities, imaginaries, language and law; in the alternative, the only “methods” given more than casual notice are those of “blues epistemology.”

While I have slogged it out in the trenches of college teaching, Mike Shapiro has taken quite a different journey.

The key term in his title is “deformation.” Discussing the pluralistic implications of Kantian epistemology, Shapiro deals eloquently with the notion of “aesthetic comprehension,” and demonstrates the multi-layered and subjectively constructed identities of American peoples through extensive analyses of American cultural productions from film (Pretty Baby and Devil in a Blue Dress) to detective fiction (The Maltese Falcon) and novels that speak to the place of Native Americans (Fools Crow).

Through his aesthetic awareness, not just of representations of cultures but of cultures themselves, Shapiro demonstrates a prodigious understanding of the depth and definition of “diversity” that mocks lame sociological jargon. This is not a book about mere multiculturalism. It is about how studies of political thought in the United States are made from fundamental philosophical assumptions about how reality comes to be understood and filtered through experience that is both individual and collective. Its task is not so much to deliver a hostile polemic against logocentric narratives that offer holistic, well integrated and ultimately purposeful descriptions and accounts of American society as it is to display the ways in which such narratives falsely construct a single world that needs to be “deformed” in order to gain appreciation of what Rancière calls a “world of competing worlds.”

The fields that Shapiro explores are eclectic, but his approach is relentlessly focused on the need to take apart what are commonly advertised as aspects of a common imagination. He demonstrates not merely familiarity but intensely grounded knowledge of the manifold examples of seemingly familiar genres. He “deforms,” which is an utterly different exercise than deconstructing, for its purpose is not to reveal the underlying political dimensions of a single work or a single category of work, but to dissolve the frame that locks works and categories within a superficially intelligible but deeply distorted whole. He approaches a variety of creations with a sense of subtlety and with supple skills that are sustained by evident and transparent expertise. This is not the work of a dilettante, but of an attentive, sympathetic and reflective intellect.

Shapiro explores the imagery of the American “westerns,” and finds that even Hollywood’s portrayal of “heroic nation-building” is complicated by a sometimes sub-textual recognition of “nation-destroying cruelty” in both the “classic” western of John Ford and the more contemporary contributions of Robert Altman, who was, of course, self-consciously intent on “sweeping away mythic or legendary forms of history.” He adds equally sensitive studies of architecture and music. Among his insightful commentaries are observations of the designs of Thomas Jefferson, which combine obeisance to the rational authority of the Enlightenment and the political economy of racism. As well, he provides a compelling account of one of my personal musical favourites, Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige,” which not only transcends George Gershwin’s “lampblack” construction of “Porgy and Bess,” but also combines an authentic musical expression “from the inside by a Negro,” with an exploration of the “spatial diaspora of African Americans.” Shapiro successfully presents it as a psychological and a political as well as a musical masterpiece.

Deforming American Political Thought is a book that could be read with much satisfaction by people appreciative of any of the cultural domains that Shapiro treats – literature, cinema, architecture and music. He is, however, mainly a political theorist and his explicitly political reflections are singular.

Shapiro concludes his book with a meditation on the “risky business” of democracy. Returning to (among other things) the internal questions of American political science in the 1960s, he explains and justifies his aesthetic preoccupations as being more revealing of the nature of democracy in theory and in practice than the data-driven research projects of empiricists. Seeing nature as enigmatic and human nature as comprehensible only through “multiple perspectives rather than a single privileged focus,” he offers much more than the sort of abstract account of American democracy that can be constructed through a review of constitutional documents, supplemented or replaced by a plethora of public opinion polls, voting studies and analyses of judicial behaviour. Referring to Kant and to Kafka, retrieving elements of the ubiquitous Jefferson and restoring the theoretical as well as the practical importance such noble historical figures as W. E. B. Du Bois, Shapiro – always with a film or two for illustration and elucidation – undertakes the very risky business of “theorizing ‘Democracy in America’ in a time of danger.” Here, in case anyone misses the point and purpose of careful cultural understanding, he addresses the current state of American democracy with courage and insight rarely witnessed “post 9/11” – or, at least, rarely seen in such sweet harmony.

The attacks of 9/11 were, he acknowledges, intended “to strike a blow against America’s democratic secularism and cultural pluralism.” As such, they provided an opportunity for or, better yet, the necessity that America “reflect on and, where necessary, enhance or repair the democratic pluralism that allegedly enraged democracy’s dogmatic antagonists. However,” he continues, “instead America went to war both against antagonists with tenuous connections to the 9/11 attackers and against itself.”

A conscientious reading of this engaging and provocative volume will not only yield a greater appreciation and respect for American culture, but it will also present readers with a striking admonition concerning the importance of “thinking the political.” In place of false arguments and unctuous rhetoric on the part of the current US administration and its few remaining foreign supporters, and of the desperate and often ineffective and self-contradictory positions taken by formal opposition parties and pressure groups, Mike Shapiro urges us to pass a more difficult test, which is to seek out the roots of democracy both as idea and action, to think it through and to live a radical democratic ideal in all aspects of our lives – in the hope and now demeaned but not yet defeated belief that democratic participation and procedures may be reclaimed in the full light of history and experience, and not traded for the further suspension of democratic due process under the phony cover of fearful and frenetic patriotism.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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2007 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology