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This review appeared in Volume 5 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America. By Sacvan Bercovitch. 1993. London: Routledge ISBN 0-41590014-X ( H R)-0-415-90015-8 ( PB)
In 1969 the Professors of the College de France decided to transform the chair for the history of philosophy into a chair for the history of the systems of thought. This is indicative of a dramatic change in consciousness, for it suggests a turning not only with respect to the field of the discourse of and training in philosophy in the narrow sense but one with respect to the very conditions for, and nature and expectations of, knowledge at least in the human sciences. What is implied by the replacement of the history of philosophy by the history of the systems of ideas? For one thing the announcement suggests a change in the cultural and intellectual status of philosophy and its history. One might say the loss of its perennial role as privileged cultural carrier.
What has come to an end is the positioning of an autonomous and elevated discursive formation called philosophy to provide "canonic" cultural representations. This has not meant the end of thought, if not variants of philosophy itself. Culture abhors vacuums and the end of philosophy as "canonic representation" has been marked by what might be taken as a variety of dispersions and displacements, that rerouted thought elsewhere. Both Lyotard and Rorty reassign the epistemological to be embedded in practices of the everyday and commonplace, and to find privileged expression in a variety of other discursive carriers, among the most favoured literature and visual art -- the revenge of art against philosophy. Strategies to invest the practices of everyday life with epistemological value, and couple these practices to their reiterated expression in literature and art have tended shift the ground away from critique and the transcendental toward the expressive, the emergent and the immanent. The two twentieth century thinkers, putting aside Heidegger, who most typify this turn to, and investment in, the practice of everyday life, with all its attendant historicist and culturally relativistic implications, are Wittgenstein and Foucault. Thus Wittgenstein:
"When philosophers use a word -- "knowledge", ''being" "object" I'l" "proposition" "name" -- and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home?--What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday us age."(1953:& 116).
But this rerouting and redirection recuperated and reorganized the claims for a second order discourse as operating upon ordinary language in which philosophy was to have a niche because ordinary language itself possessed a deep structure, Grammar that allowed for a general representation. The house didn't have to be built from the foundations up since the house was already there. The mirror of philosophy would reside in the penthouse. The task of philosophy then was to give a "perspicuous representation" of that deep structure in a way analogous to the formalist school of semiotics with its aspiration to produce a science of semiotics -- semiology, yielding a universal system of signs.
The early Foucault resembles both the early and the late Wittgenstein. Episteme behave as if possessed of a general representational form analogous to the representational form of logic in the Tractatus and yet they underlie everyday practice as practices' deep structure. That deep structure is enunciated through discursive practices, casting in the remoteness of "structure" the illusion of metaphysical depth. "Structure" is so conceptually disposed by Foucault of Les Mots et Les Choses and Folie that it surfaces as an eerie allusion to, if not a refashioning of the metaphysics of presence.
Now the point to be made here concerning the later Wittgenstein and the earlier Foucault is that theory has now shifted from a classical orbit of self-authenticating discursive practices into an investigation of the practices of every day life in so much as the practices themselves are epistemic carriers whose carrying capacity is itself apodictically inscribed as the absolute ground of a groundless way of acting. Whether the more traditionally formulated Heideggerean world picture or the later Wittgensteinean "Bild" or the Foucauidean epistemic structure, a turn to the inquiry of mentalités has been effected. Ideology, its delineation, contextualization and decipherment, become the focus for epistemological investigation. Since there is nothing but Ideology, methods with respect to how it is to be investigated and attitudes with respect to its status, mark the difference between schools and approaches. All this might be summarized hence as an inquiry into Ideology, not from the position of a prior apodictically constituted position (the old school of ideology critique) to expose false consciousness but from a reflexive scepticism that reads texts and documents as already being incorrigible. Exposing that something is ideologically tainted is replaced by the demonstrations of the operations of the tain, what it does, how it works, who and what it serves and finally, and most elusively how the real comes to be evidenced through such unfaithful apparatus.
Such displacement, rerouting and investment have come to inform an extended family of approaches called institutionally "cultural studies," a portmanteau that covers so much fermentation that there isn't anything anymore in the humanities that cannot be described depending on the exigency, bureaucratic or otherwise, as"cultural studies."
Sacvan Bercovitch's research over the past twenty years in the field of American literature represents a regional contribution to this revolution in discourse. His most recent book Rites of Assent, made possible through this revolution in discourse, is an original contribution to the study of American literary and cultural modernity. It occupies a place within this Foucauldean moment, even though Foucault himself receives the scantiest of end-note mention. The importance of Bercovitch's work rests less as a contribution to approach about which he has a lot to say, characterizing his analysis of ideology as cultural symbology," informed by a "hermeneutics of transcendence." Rather his most enduring contribution is to have redirected the whole field of American Studies so that it is no longer exempt from literary-theoretical investigation. His contribution is to have lifted the exemption that has been placed by Americanists on their own literature as if somehow it was exempt from deconstructive and theoretical treatments. In a way Bercovitch accomplishes the first step, the step of casting a suspicion that places the American literary canon within the parentheses of ideology. This step is such a major accomplishment that the fragilities of his apparatus have to be balanced against it. It wasn't long ago that everyone else's ideology had come to an end in American liberal ideology but America itself as an ideological formation was, needless to say, unsayable. In this respect Bercovitch is a pathfinder in the bush of Americanist Ideology.
Curiously, Pragmatism, the contemporary staging point for resurgent Americanist Ideology is barely a topic let alone a thematic in Rites of Assent even though his systematic reworking of the canon of American literature from Pilgrim Rock and 17th Century election sermons, to Jonathan Edwards. Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson and Melville to summarize the comprehensive and relentless chronology of its table of contents, should be considered the veritable first step in what might be called after Foucault, the archeology of American pragmatist desire.
What is that step?
"Transformations in the symbolic construction of America," the subtitle of The Rites of Assent, offers the strongest of indicators to the conceptual reorganization that Bercovitch seeks to implement with his analysis. It is to give critical exposition to the "world-picture" or ideology of The United States = American. I use the " = " because the key to Bercovitch's analysis of the "symbolic construction of America" is just how these original English colonies came to articulate a destiny by figurally hijacking the symbolic of America to become the emblem for the New England Puritan politico - theological project of occupation and settlement. Bercovitch's aim is to demonstrate the all-pervasive saturation of a distinctive, indeed exceptional, legitimating picture that comprises the symbolic foundations of the United States = America way of life. Through this symbolic refiguration, the New England Colony fashioned itself as the original and exemplary modernity. Speaking about the political theology of Cotton Mather, Bercovitch evokes that refigured vision of America:
The nationalist-universalist vision of New England arose out of similar circumstances. Having been left behind by Europe, the Puritans proceeded to recapture Europe for themselves, rhetorically, as part of all that was not America -- the benighted "old world" awaiting its redemption by the mighty works of Christ in America. Confronted with the uncertain meaning of their locale, the Puritans discovered the New World in Scripture -- not literally (in the way Columbus discovered it) as the lost Eden, but figurally (in the way the church fathers discovered Noah in Moses and both in Christ), as the second paradise foreseen by all the prophets. (57).
Through this uniting of "geography, textuality, and the spirit into something genuinely new", Puritan New Englanders fashioned into a grand narrative, an allegory. For Bercovitch, The New England Way is the unexpungeable and irreducible crystal of the American Republic. The clock starting ticking with the arrival of the Arbella in the New World and the declaration of William Bradford. The arrival and the declaration mark the historical moment of caesura... This is the absolute beginning point, the zero degree of the United States. Not the terrible voyage, not the dissenters and the puritan sects of Christopher Hill's English Revolution, (see note #1) there is no English-New English condominium. The Uhr-Clock has begun to tick with the Arbella declaration. Synchrony is diachrony for Bercovitch. 'America' commences the narrative of its history ab initio as steps in the unfolding narrative that comes to organize America as having a transcendental and unfolding historical meaning, from this moment. America begins to write itself as destiny from the moment of Pilgrim Rock. The Uhr-text is the Bible for it was in Scripture as Bercovitch says that "the Puritans discovered the New World." Scripture fused together the sacred and the secular, millenial expectation with pragmatic opportunity into a corporate allegory. This is the modernity of America, finding itself repeated in endless textual representations in documents, speeches, sermons, literary texts, stamps, money, arcana and most exaltedly the Great Seal of America, no less. All of these are grist for Bercovitch's hermeneutics since all are expressions of that cultural symbology:
... in sum, it wed modernism to the errand, conferred on both the blessings of continuing revolution and certified the union with the Great Seal of the United States: "Annuit Coptis, Novus Ordo Saeculorum--"God prospered this undertaking; it shall be the new order of the ages". (43)
So Bercovitch is America's latter day young Hegel of the Theological Writings. The United States= America has historically fashioned itself chiliastically in terms of what Mircea Eliade has called the "rectangle of historical or final time," except the final time is not to be deferred, it is unfolding in the spatial present of the New World. Narrative is converted into master narrative through a ritual process of representative ritual re-enactment.
The "cultural symbological" belongs to the apparatus of symbolic figuration that transforms a narrative into corporate and performative events having the capacity to reinvent America culturally. American revolution is not episodic, violent transformation. American revolution revolves so to speak. It is episodic, cyclic and symbolic reenactment. In the Bercovitch drama, only select individuals, typically politicians, divines and writers, came to embody in their persons through the discursive effects of their textual representations, a quality of "representative personhood" that made them the subjects and bearers of collective history, the fashioners of American history. Because they themselves advanced the grand narrative, they were the instruments and fabricators of American "cultural symbology." Literature and politics fuse together at the interstices where event becomes action through the symbological process of textual representation. Take for example The Emancipation Proclamation, enacted during and not before the Civil War. Toward the end, most Northerners wanted an end to the war because of it. After the War, the War came to be fought because of it. The discursive capacity of the Proclamation was to transfigure a bloody, internecine conflagration into a world symbolic event that would come to epitomize America as the world emancipatory project.
In a ritual procession of speeches and sermons that made oratory a high national art form the spokesmen for the republic invested "America" with the double powers of materiality and the spirit. As the myth's dominant symbol, interchangeably sensory and ideological, "America" came to signify both selfgratification and the self-evident good, the most pragmatic of communities and the abstract of ideals. Social organization, if American, was by definition noble. And to be noble in the American grain was ipso facto the practical way to get things done." (43)
The purpose of these monumental corporate textual discharges was to effect an active and ongoing process of consensus, a kind of consensus that required such symbolic re-enactments (Proclamations, Investitures, National Holidays, Hearings, Inaugurations). "Cultural symbology" is the glue of legitimation whose function, as part of the obvious and general function of cohesion, the mark of all ideology, viewed as Bercovitch himself takes special care to note, anthropologically, is to create and assure a consensus, a consensus succinctly characterized in the following terms:
"In effect (as events proved) they were conforming to a ritual of consensus that defused all issues in debate by restricting the debate itself, symbolically and substantially, to the meaning of America." (49)
One might say that before the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War was an internecine family matter but after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War was a step in the advancement of American Destiny and the South had been declared through the proclamation to be the unamerican other. Sherman's march to the sea was thus an act of righteous retribution for having transgressed the covenant of America and not a plain and expedient an act of unmitigated barbarism.
Such "mimetic doubling" to borrow from Girard was thus an episodic, public and representative act, to be compared to Greek Civic religion and the performance of Tragedy or the periodic performance of liturgical dramas or the episodic masques, rituals, rallies and processions of the rival modern European Nation-State. Bercovitchean ideology is an expressive, corporate, episodic and representative masque.
Bercovitch should take satisfaction for having delineated and exhibited this picture, arguing for its all-pervasive and global effectivity, and seeking to claim for it an inherence that comprises the essence of America as a form of life. This scheme of legitimation is so deep, thick and imbricated in American social, political and cultural practice that to imagine Americans divested of it, would be to unmake America itself. It is, in short, a foundational picture. Bercovitch asks whether America could survive the elimination of its scriptural symbolic of the New World of America. Could it not survive the reduction of "America" to the level of common sense"?
What if, under the pressure of history the errand should come to rest, where it began, in the realm of the imagination? What if this country were to be recognized for what it was, not a beacon for mankind, as Winthrop announced in his Arbella address of 1630, not the political Messiah annually proclaimed through the mid-nineteenth-century in July Fourth addresses--not even (in Stud's Terkel's reformulation) a covenanted people robbed by un-American predators of their sacred trust--but simply goy b'goyim, just one more nation in the wilderness of this world? What would happen, in short, if "America" were severed once and for all from the United States? (65)
To answer his own rhetorical question Bercovitch draws a distinction between the outsider's and the insider's view of this reduction of America to common sense. From the outsider's perspective, it would not amount to very much.
Nothing much, from an outside's point of view: only a fresh non-apocalyptic sense of the exigencies of industrial capitalism; a certain modesty about the claims of nationality; a more mundane distinction between the Old World and the New, as denoting metaphors of geography, rather than the progress of humanity; a more traditional sense of "frontiers." as signifying limits and barriers rather than new territories to conquer; a relativistic assessment of the prospects and constraints of liberal democracy (the benefits of open competition, for example or abuses of representative individualism), none of these heaven-ordained either as a sign of national election or as an augury of doom. (65)
This outsider's view is certainly not that for example of de Tocqueville's post modernist tourist, the outsider par excellence and anathema to Americanist thought, Jean Baudrillard. Rather it is varieties of contemporary American Pragmatism. The outsider's view is epitomized by the standpoint in the figure of the Rortyean Pragmatist. For the Rortyean Pragmatist, pragmatism, as a working philosophy of practice, takes place on the flat plain of common sense. Not only that, it owes its currency precisely from the giving up of foundational pictures. Now Rorty speaks about the European modern philosophical picture and never to my knowledge, this homegrown fabula that got off Bercovitch's boat at Pilgrim Rock. (See note #2) In any case this new pragmatist standpoint would allow for a "relativistic assessment of the prospects and constraints of liberal democracy," a defense of procedural justice and so on to cite some examples from a list that Bercovitch and Rorty might share. Indeed it is no small irony that of the staunchest and most inspired defenders of the ideological America, Richard Rorty, would epitomize for Bercovitch the outsider view of America.
But from the insider's point of view, the opposite, according to Bercovitch, would be the case. Without this foundationalist picture of America, it would spell the end of America as a form of life because
It would dissipate the very core of personal and communal identity. It would undo this society's controlling metaphors and narratives, its long-ripened strategies of cohesion, assimilation and cris control. (65)
With the elimination of its fictions, The United States of America would cease to exist. An astonishing claim for post modernist sensibilities. The implications of this claim are goads to contemporary attitudes and must be savoured at least for their heuristic possibilities.
I return to our previous discussion concerning foundationalism. In general terms what I called the Foucauidean move displaced the epistemological from philosophy in order to reinvest it in everyday commonplace practice, making practice the absolute groundless ground. This turn to practice and the "pragmatic" seems to issue in two rather different, if not contrary, approaches. There is the direction of interpretation of Foucault, Jameson and, weakly, Lyotard that narratives organize practice and thus perform foundational roles. Frederic Jameson speaking in criticism of Lyotard puts that claim rather neatly:
Since, as we have seen, the older master narratives of legitimation no longer function in the service of scientific research--nor, by implication, anywhere else (e.g. we no longer believe in political or historical teleologies or in the great "actors" and "subjects" of history -- the nation-state, the proletariat, the party, the West, etc.) This seeming contradiction can be resolved, I believe, by taking a further step that Lyotard seems unwilling to do in the present text, namely to posit, not the disappearance of the great master narratives, but their passage underground as it were, their continuing but now unconscious effectivity as a way of "thinking about" and acting in our current situation. This persistence of buried master-narratives in what I have called elsewhere our political unconscious".
Bercovitch's cultural symbology of America is a paradigm case of this very process of the submergence of the symbolic within the practices of everyday life -- the master narratives of America episodically surface from the American political unconscious. The loss of philosophical foundations had little effect on the foundations. Master narratives reside elsewhere; they are embedded in common sense practice. The foundationalism of philosophical discourse is epiphenomenal it marks a symptom not a quality.
Mention was made of the Rortyean Pragmatist whose notion of foundations and the consequent loss of foundations seems to have a rather opposite and curious result. The Rortyean claims pragmatism to be the consequence or resultant of the dispelling of foundationalism. An important aspect of critical analysis is to eliminate foundationalist pictures -- to eliminate Ideology, in short Pragmatism emerges as a consequence of such elimination. At best pragmatism seeks to eliminate myths, at worst to deploy them locally and with immediate consequentially effect. Is it not surprising that Rorty has so little to say about the existence and persistence of such global ideological formations sitting just on or below the surface of common sense? But the question is how does one square Bercovitch's claims concerning the necessity and persistence of American foundationalist ideology with Rorty's claims that pragmatism arises from the elimination of foundationalism? From Bercovitch's point of view the Rortyean Pragmatist is the outsider, the deracinated American. The Rortyean Pragmatist is the American ideologist turned inside out. One might also extrapolate from Bercovitch and say that American pragmatism is the way this foundationalism expresses itself as conduct but this would make pragmatism as foundationalist a philosophy as all the foundationalist philosophies it eschews. Pragmatism turns out be the retardataire philosophical outcropping of American foundationist bedrock.
This leads to two further comments. First, the story concerning foundationalism that Rorty tells to reach pragmatism is not the story that has to be told, if one accepted his claim that pragmatism emerges as the consequence of the giving up of all foundationalism. He is only right that American pragmatism arises from the conversion of European philosophical foundationalism into political theology. America fashioned a distinct, if not unique foundationalist picture, the source and ground of latter day American philosophical Pragmatism that it saw as a rival to the European. I thereby substituted one foundationalism for another. This being the case Pragmatism is American Ideology philosophically refigured. Bercovitch might have a history lesson for Richard Rorty: pragmatism had its origins in early modern political theology not Cartesian epistemology.
"New World" is an overdetermined figure for Modernity. One domain of its operation designated geographically distant places discovered by European explorers. One need only think of the New World of seventeenth century science and its articulations in Bacon and Descartes and Vico's critique of that new world. It would seem that "America" came to denominate modernity simultaneously with the New World coming to be a sign for geographical topoi of exploration and conquest -- simultaneous and double metonymic substitutions. How did the puritan rediscovery of "the new world in scripture" become a pivotal episode in the constitution of modernity? Further, what made the New England politico-theological project of conquest and settlement not only a pivotal moment but also contain the key to understanding why this colonial actus foundation was not only an original version of modernity but what makes the New England experiment, as Bercovitch claims, "exceptional." Bercovitch does not anywhere establish the interplay between the project of America and the project of modernity. Modernity and the modern appear usually as after thoughts, appearing sometimes in the jargon of an unproblematized "modernism" and other times in a social scientific jargon of "modernization." There are conceptual and textual reasons for this regrettable confusion and tailending. I will attempt to show just how intimately they are linked and why Bercovitch can make a claim for exception only by side stepping a requisite problematics of modernity. A text from Bercovitch outlines the symbolic and scriptural basis for the American claim to cultural exception. Speaking about the Puritans' "three lasting contributions to the American Way," Bercovitch describes the first in terms of the innovative and successful strategy of appropriating the new land which was intimately tied to the textual inscription of the geographical metaphor:
...They justified the New World in its own right. Other colonists and explorers brought Utopian dreams to the New World, but in doing so they claimed the land (New Spain, New France, Nova Scotia) as European Christians, by virtue of the superiority of Christian European culture. In short, they justified their invasion of America through European concepts of culture. The puritans denied the very fact of invasion by investing America with the meaning of progress and then identifying themselves as the peoples peculiarly destined to bring that meaning to lite." "Other peoples," John Cotton pointed out in 1630 $'have their land by providence; we have it by promise." The next generation of New Englanders drew out the full import of his distinction. They were not claiming America by conquest, they explained; they were reclaiming what by promise belonged to them, as the Israelites had once reclaimed Canaan, or (in spiritual terms) as the church had reclaimed the name of Israel.
By that literal-prophetic act of reclamation the Puritans raised the New World into the realm of figure. (81)
It is to be noted just how referentially rigid and literally geographical is Bercovitch's treatment of the figure "new world". It is post-contact "New England." Bercovitch pores 'new world' into the template of Plymouth Rock. The symbolic landscape unfolds from this cairn. There is a second figuration, pivotal for permitting the puritans to write scripture on the tableau of the new world. It is the figure of the wilderness since wilderness, not new world, is a veritable biblical topos. "Errand in the Wilderness" is a phrase that almost hypnotically vibrates throughout Rites. Constantly alluded to, it is never cashed in or explicated, especially not as a rhetorical device because it makes a tacit appeal to be a meaning that a community of readers is already predisposed to understand: Wilderness and the American Mind, deep ecology and so on. It is in and outside the text -- a formula in short like the epithet "wide-eyed Athena." From the way Bercovitch deploys the formula, it first of all names the New England foundational project, specifying as it were, the state or condition of the geographically fixed topos of the New World. "Errand in the Wilderness" is a metaphorics, naming a project as the unfolding in the wilderness condition of the New World. By extension it would be consistent to say: America as modernity is the project unfolding in the Wilderness state or condition of the New World. Wilderness is a mode of the topos. Wilderness thus names, as it were, the condition of the project of New World foundations. This naming through scriptural refiguring is intended to be both differential and deixic. 'We are speaking about the wilderness that opens up from Pilgrim Rock -- not Nova Scotia or the German night. Nova Scotia might be New World but it isn't in the scriptural of the Wilderness.
"Errand in the Wilderness" names a tradition of interpretation to which Bercovitch's interpretation adheres. He is following in the footsteps of the father, of Perry Miller. "Errand in the Wilderness" refers to Miller's original formulation which secures and validates Bercovitch's commentaries. Monument is the apt term for his formulaic of 'errand in the wilderness' because in his almost flaunting of it, he manipulates it as a surd in order to impose a hermeneutical closure. He reaches that hermeneutical terminus that Paul de Man has effectively demonstrated to be the inevitable resultant of the hermeneutical enterprise: "The ultimate aim of a hermeneutically successful reading is to do away with reading altogether. The Resistance to Theory, (1986:56).
The deconstructive step here has to be to release the play of signs in Bercovitch's monumentalized formula "errand in the wilderness." Explanation and justification have become inseparable in this circle of interpretation. They have to be split apart.
To return to the paragraph at the outset, Bercovitch affirms that the American exception -what distinguishes it from Nova Scotia or New Zealand -- is intimately tied to symbolic refiguration -- to the way that the puritans as New Israelites biblically inscribed their occupation of new lands, not through a justification in terms of cultural superiority, but in terms of a "promise" which established the new world as the site for the promise to be fulfilled. What is the difference here? What does John Cotton mean when he says "Other peoples have their land by providence; we have it by promise."?
To address this difference, the metaphorics of wilderness have to be entered into more deeply. We pass from the son back to the father, from Bercovitch to Perry Miller. In his essay Errand in the Wilderness, Perry Miller noted the curious void character of the wilderness as comprising the "core" of the Puritan metaphor:
"But if they had set it up in America -- in a bare land, devoid of already established (and) corrupt institutions, empty of bishops and courtiers, where they could start de novo and the eyes of the world were upon it -- and if then it performed just as the saints predicted of it, the Calvinist internationale would know exactly how to go about completing the already begun but temporarily stalled revolution in Europe. (Miller 1976:(2)
As an afterthought in a footnote, he then detects the systematic character of the Puritan "concoction" that made up their "metaphor of the Wilderness."
It made it "all the more striking a concoction because they attached no significance a priori to their wilderness destination. To begin with, it was simply a void".2s How does this admission about the void character tally with the Bercovitch wilderness? It tallies well. Neither the puritans nor its leading contemporary Americanist commentators seem aware of the potency of the implications for significance behind "wilderness as void" since it offers the cue to its signifying role in the formation of a symbolic apparatus. Bercovitch, following Miller, treats it as a placemarker, a picturesque flourish with respect to a geographically specific topos, the New World of America. Wilderness as the atmospheric state or condition of that topos, akin to the picturesque landscape art of Frederick Church and the Hudson River School of the 19th C., might contribute to investing that place with the here and now, a rhetorical power of destination that the place occupied by these settlers was where the promise was to be fulfilled and not somewhere else.
As immigrants, they declared the New World another promised land, counterpart of Canaan of old but greater because closer to the Millennium and they documented their claim with scriptural prophecies as befit a chosen people. 'Know this place is the place' wrote the first historian Edward Johnson 'where the lord will create a new Heaven and new Earth.' For him and his fellow exiles, the meaning of place, the actual terrestrial new continent before them, lay in the prophetic figures of Psalms, Ezekila, Isaiah, Revelation. In effect, the New England Puritans delivered. (12)
The sacred space here is New World America in the condition of wilderness, not the biblical wilderness of the desert, which is scripturally the topos devoid of the sacred, the original void noted by Miller. There is, accordingly something deeply amiss with the treatment of wilderness in Rites of Assent, because it refers topologically to the condition of the New World as a sacred place, the hallowed ground, in the early time of the formation of the New England Way. The void of the wilderness and the wilderness as desert of William Bradford suggest an alternate reading, a reading that will constitute the topos and not merely fill it with substance. The wilderness trope moves semiotically, in two directions. Bercovitch wants to fill the signified up with the symbolic. The other direction empties the sign of the signified to discern the workings of the signifier -- the void of the sign from whence the symbolic emerges and not the contents of the symbolic. It is moving in the direction of the signifier and the trace and the uncoupling of the signified (sacred topos) from the signifier (terra nullius /wilderness).
Indeed this voiding of meaning or this notion of an emptied sign correlates strongly with the very European declarations of right of possession that link Columbus to Jacques Cartier to the Puritans and the Nova Scotians and James Cooke at Botany Bay in 1788 as well as the dispossessing proclamations of contemporary America wilderness deep ecology. The correlation is between Miller's metaphor of "wilderness as void" and the speech acts of occupation whose performances declare and emblematics seal these "new world" spaces to be void, to be terrae nullius... "Columbus's formalism", Stephen Greenblatt writes, tries to make the new lands uninhabited -- terra nullius -- by emptying out the category of the other. The other exists only as an empty sign or a cipher ..." (Greenblatt 1992 p.60)
Indeed we might say that "wilderness" is the scriptural refiguring of these juridico--theological declarations and emblems of terra nullius. "Wilderness" is the scriptural figure of terra nullius for the New England Puritans. Dallenbach notwithstanding, such declarations are juridicotheological mise-en-abîme. By symbolically refiguring terra nullius as wilderness, it makes an emblem of terra nullius on one side and the zero degree of the sign on the other. The emblem is contained in the signifier: the zero degree of the reduction of the sign to a null point of the sign itself is emblematize as the name of the sign, Wilderness. It has a life as signifier only in that domain of "New World" as capture and appropriation. What Greenblatt says about Columbus and the erasure of the indigenous other can be said doubly with respect to the Puritan occupation. The indigenous other comes to exist only as "an empty sign or a cipher." It vanishes from the signified and reference to become absorbed as the trace within wilderness as a signifier. In other words wilderness as a signifier is inscribed over the indigenous other. The indigenous other is there, so to speak, as a trace sous rature. Wilderness allows the symbology to speak allegorically both in terms of presence and absence.
Thus we can say that the New England Puritans were no different than the Spanish or the French or the Nova Scotia English or the English at Botany Bay in 1788 in terms of the juridico-theological operations of possession requiring reduction of land to terra nullius. That such a mise-en-abime was required is a crucial operation of an emerging modernity. The critical difference might lie in the symbolic refiguring of the juridico-theological operations of terra nullius. The conversion of the zero degree of the sign as terra nullius into the scriptural inscription of wilderness might mark the difference between Puritan New England and English New Zealand and Nova Scotia but there are a lot of counter examples that would weaken such a claim especially when wilderness symbolic is being used by Bercovitch to stake out the claim for exception. On this reading then, the void of wilderness is myth written over fiction. It erases "terra nullius" by symbolically refiguring it. No wonder Perry Miller notes an inconsistency between the haphazard way that the Puritans deployed their "wilderness metaphor" and his own essentialist symbolic figuring of wilderness to be the chrysalis from which the America mission -the erring -- is to unfold as a condition of fulfilling a promise. There is an incongruence here because Miller and his successor Bercovitch are unable or unwilling to address the question of the legitimation of occupation except by justifying the fait accompli by themselves subliming the operation of rendering null through the aufhebung of their genealogies. The official story is brought up to date and made official once more. Myth, as Jean Luc Nancy, reminds us, is only Myth only so long as it is contemporary. Explanation becomes justification -- a hermeneutic closure accomplished. The myth of America is culturally reproduced and preserved.
The implications of this misconstruction have broader conceptual implications concerning the nature of modernity and its relation to America.
Wilderness represents a particular, if not special, tropic refiguring of the juridico-theological and itself symbolic operation of terra nullius... As such, then it is representation of a representation and makes sense within the overall apparatus of modern representation, being related to that apparatus of representation not simply as token to type but more to the point as itself operations of reduction or aporia that are characteristic constituting acts for modernity. The aporias of modernity as reductions to the zero degree of the sign include the constitutive conditions with respect to the formation of civil society by recourse to a reduction, fictive and anthropological, to the prior state of nature, reduction to the subject as an apodictitically selfcertifying ground as manifested in early modern picturing practices, not to mention Descartes's cogito and the theological theories of the covenant and the emerging political theories of the contract and the state. The mise-en-abîme of Wilderness is thus an aporia with respect to "covenants of the land" in new found lands, acquired by force through the legitimating operations of modernity.
Within the domain of new found land and the practices of covenanting, the land arising from their occupation, the symbolic of wilderness is part of the prior episode of deconstructing which precedes and establishes the condition for the construction of a general frame for representation whose relation to the world and the real is to be established from within representation itself. Thus "new world" designates that frame of representation whose contents might be physical theories, constitutions of new societies, officially commissioned portraits or emblems or seals of power. Wilderness belongs initially to the constitutive moment with respect to the construction of the frame and not a mode, condition or contingent aspect comprising the contents of representation. Wilderness, in this its initial constitutive position, does not name a place not only because it is always a-topic, placeless rather it names the method of reduction for the formation of the symbolic. This can be schematized in terms of the following metonymic string of signs:
(Modernity) =>Sr terra nullius/wilderness => SrNew World => Sg wilderness => Sg "America"
But here the wilderness as that empty sign constitutes precisely the process of establishing the site for representation. The name of the representation is New World. Wilderness is an emptying of the sign as a special aporia of modern legitimation, whereas the schematizing of Bercovitch's symbolization as a semiotic string seems to look something like:
America => Sg New World => Sg wilderness => Sg modernity
America is a sacred-secular geographically locatable topos in the found or original state of wilderness, where the unfolding American modernity takes place.
On this line of interpretation we can say that all of those cultures that engaged in such operations with respect to the occupation of new found lands, shared in that modernity-- Australia in 1788 and British North America much earlier. Indeed British Canada is coincidental with, having a source or deriving from and running parallel to the New England experiment until it splits off with the American Revolution. The early 20th century symbolic of the Wilderness of the Canadian movement of art called The Group of Seven might well be the remarkable eruption of that original Massachusetts Bay wilderness fragment -- a fragment preserved by the United Loyalist walking North and away from the American Revolution. The North American wilderness splits in two, from an original source. And by that same token one might also say that the contemporary wilderness of deep ecology is the myth of the America errand. Hence it is important to draw a distinction in accounting for the special character of the name "wilderness" as mise en abîme, positioned as the signifier at the site for the emergence of the symbolic, and wilderness as a "tableau" as content and referent. Bercovitches treats wilderness exclusively from the side of the signified, as a tableau. He works from the completion of the semiotic operation, treating it as the initiating point. My revision of the metaphorics of wilderness in this topological grid points to a serious weakness in Americanist studies of early modernity going back to Perry Miller. The account that Miller gives of the Puritan mind, echoed in the cultural symbological accounts of Bercovitch, are able to account for the American exception only by excluding just what it is about the American cultural project that is decisively and originally modern. By denying the aporia of terra nullius, the Americanist hermeneut offers us a medieval or gothic account of the operation of the play of the sign. By encapsulating wilderness as marking a grade or condition of America as a sort of gothicized sacred place and finding that to be the difference between Europe and America, Bercovitch evades the semiosis of the trope of wilderness, substituting the closure of the hermeneutics of symbols for an analysis that opens the symbol to release the play of the sign.
Thus the distinction between Wilderness as mise en abîme and Wilderness as tableau opens up a gap in Bercovitch's hermeneutics that reflects back on his interpretive apparatus and how it is that contemporary theory might have assisted his project. It allows one to begin to identify just what comprises the "radical" and "original" modernity of "America" while finding a way of articulating just what is improbable and counter-intuitive about Bercovitch's claims for the American exception.
Recent theoretical literature from Foucault to Marin and even such American thinkers as Greenblatt and Alpers have recognized that modernity is in part marked by a revolution in the apparatus of representation. It is marked by representation as being constituted through performative acts of representation which require the appeal to a constitutive subject -- "the modern subject" -- from which and for which the picture is secured as a picture. The subject is the launching point for representation: to represent means to assert projectively and performatively the subject as the necessary condition for representation and as the basic content for representation. Representation is inseparable from performativity. Modern Representation builds into itself a principle of reflexive self-assertion. The wilderness symbolic is inextricably linked to the constitution of a frame of representation that allows for covenants of the land as the foundation for community in the condition of the zero degree of the sign as wilderness. By descending into the mise en abîme of Wilderness, the compulsion is created for the covenant, the covenant once constituted creates the City on the Hill surrounded by the void of the sign, the Wilderness.
In a word the trouble with Bercovitch's account of the Puritan project as the foundation and avatar of modernity is that there is nothing modern about its semiosis. An authority on Gothic form would consider that mode of symbolization which inscribes analogically through textual representation, an analogy of the bush. What is the difference in symbological inscription between the iconic representation of the dispersion of meaning in a Gothic Cathedral organized through the initiating point of scriptures textualizing the space of the Cathedral as the body of Christ and Bercovitch's American hallowed ground? What is the difference somatically and epistemologically?
On Bercovitch's account America is a corporate tableau in which to be an American is more like what it was like to be medieval Christian at the time of Saint Louis or a German at a Nazi consecration rally or the Girardean civic witness in the throes of Sophoclean ritual reenactment. An American is someone encapsulated by the emotion of belief, enforced through corporate representations, ceremonially consecrated in public events like rallies, inaugurations, congressional hearings, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July and the Rose Bowl, issuing forth in periodic outbreaks of collective bloodletting from the Indian Wars, through Sherman's March to the Sea, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Vietnam to the Gulf War. Bercovitch's grand notion of cultural symbology, indexed in corporate texts (including literature) and periodic events, violates the outsider's commonsense prejudices about what one loves to dread most about Americans -- self reliance, hyperbolic will to success, gaugetrys Impiety and the next. It is not that Bercovitch's history is subjectless. On the contrary it is that his history is the official history that makes of the promulgators of cultural representations world-historical subjects -- not the proletariat or the Volk but the fabricators of representations: The American historical geist unfolding as Show Business.
A shift in focus is needed from this macro, corporate and foundationalist tableau of American destiny to an almost infinite variety of micropractices of subject inscription that generate the fiction of the American corporate body. Bercovitch's failure to grasp the significance of the subject principle in the way that it constitutes a new kind of representation on the one hand and the new social, political and legal micro-practices of the subject, on the other, practices inaugurated in speech acts of covenanting and compacting, themselves micro practices, going back to the original contractarian situations of the British Colonists in North America. Cultural reproduction took place through such micro-practices and not through Bercovitch's macro-textual cultural representations, which mark parenthetically a theoretical regression on Bercovitch's part to the Marxist ideology of base and superstructure. This is why Baudrillard, the latter day de Toqueville, traversing the desert of American hyperreality, comes closer than Bercovitch to arriving at the original and radical quality of American modernity:
America made a break with all that and found itself in a situation of radical modernity: it is therefore, in America and nowhere else that modernity itself is original ... We are still at the centre of the Old World. They who were a marginal transcendence of the Old World are today its new eccentric centre. Eccentricity is stamped on their birth certificate. We shall never be able to excentre or decentre ourselves in the same way. We shall therefore never be modern in the proper sense of the term. We shall never enjoy the same freedom--not the formal freedom we take for granted, but the concrete, flexible, functional, active freedom we see at work in American institutions, and in the head of each citizen. Our conception of freedom will never be able to rival their spatial, mobile conception, which derives from the fact that at a certain point they freed themselves from that historical centrality. America.
The truth of America rests less in the corporate and ritual oaths and testimonies than in the casual and daily disposing of the symbolic instruments of contracts as instruments of money and power. An American Express Gold Card a la Baudrillard is The Great Seal of America -- each shareholder his own. A foreign neighbour like a friendly Canadian meets contract-as-covenant in the shakedown that routinely takes place at a border crossing where the degree of alienness to America is determined through a quick computer check of basic credentials. All such contractual operations, in their most banal and trivial form being implicit and sometimes explicit oath taking operations that require a witnessing subject to potentially bear witness against itself, have an ancestry that goes back to the mise en abîme of the original American covenants of the land. In such ways, it is not through collective textual incorporations that America reinvents its modernity moment by moment but through the almost minute and pious micro practice of the symbolic instrumentality of the contract in its infinite and routine variety.
At the outset the question concerning the site and positioning for the study of mentalités was raised. It wasn't enough for grand narratives merely to be embedded in practice in the manner of a world picture or ideology. Two more steps were needed. One required that such pictures or structures be demonstrated to inscribe and be inscribed in micro practices and moments of cultural reproduction. Such an account would link the American exception to its modernity. A third requirement would be to deconstruct the symbolic closure itself. For pragmatism to fulfil its Rortyean program, it would have to deconstruct the non-conscious hold of a signifying apparatus that imposes such strict closure. An Un-American task to be sure since it would:
dissipate the very core of personal and communal identity. It would undo this society's controlling metaphors and narratives, its long-ripened strategies of cohesion, assimilation and crisis control. (65)
Even so it perhaps is a task still worth undertaking although I doubt that Rorty or the Rortyean Pragmatist would be the likely candidate to undertake such a task. Rites of Assent is not only a canonic representation of America but a consecration of a canonic picture of America and as such its achievement is that it is the last book in the line and offers the outsider an insight into just why America in the name of pragmatism would resist such an overture, while feigning openness and resist theory by claiming to practice it. Bercovitch demonstrates that Modernism is the inescapable horizon of America. How bad is that fate for the rest of us planetary dwellers at the approach of the third millennium?
Baudrillard, Jean, "America," Verso,1988.
Dallenbach, Lucien. "Le Récit Spéculaire," Seuil, 1977.
De Man, Paul. The Resistance to Theory, U. of Minnesota Press,1986.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvellous Possessions. University of Chicago Press,1992.
Lyotard, Jean Francois. The Post Modern Condition, University of Minnesota Press.
Miller, Perry, Errand into the Wilderness, Harvard University Press 1976.
Nancy, Jean Luc, The Inoperative Community, University of Minnesota 1991.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, The Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell: 1953.
Jonathan Bordo is an associate Professor of Cultural Studies at Trent University. He is presently a visiting fellow at the Humanities Research Centre, The Australian National University at work on a monograph on the allegoric of wilderness and modernity. Recent and forthcoming publications include Ecological Peril and the (post) Modern Sublime, The Jack Pine, -- Wilderness Sublime or the Erasure of Aboriginal Presence JCS 1993 and "Niche and Frame" in Paul Duro (ed.) The Rhetoric of the Frame, CUP 1995.