The United States’ Cold War politics of containment was as a broader postwar cultural ethos that dictates gender and sexual conservatism in the early Cold War era of the 1950s (Meyerowitz 295). It was deployed in accordance with the country’s ideologi ...
The United States’ Cold War politics of containment was as a broader postwar cultural ethos that dictates gender and sexual conservatism in the early Cold War era of the 1950s (Meyerowitz 295). It was deployed in accordance with the country’s ideological as well as geopolitical urgency of stopping the advance of Soviet communism in Asia. In addition, equally urgent at that time was its fear of communists’ psychological infiltration into the American minds and of its affective potential that American society turns “red” from within, if not entirely autochthonic. What lies in the country’s alert for the “psychic” corruption was its biopolitical desire of purging itself from being diverse and liberal with the ideological contagious. Compared to that, before the 1950s, the country was rather culturally inclusive and flexible for its citizenship despite some exceptions of its black populations and Asian immigrants under the Jim Crow laws.
For example, Jewish performers in 1930s New York had their own “bodily” capacities to promote an inclusive assimilatory ideology by performatively “whitening” their racial identity. They had faith in cultural pluralism, seeing “the US as a canopy” for immigrants of any sort to retain “their particularity while functioning under a shared political umbrella” (Most 22). As a result, they felt it easy to pass as people of a different race by acting blacks and thus assuming whiteness. Despite racial segregation, the 1930s United States has such a liberal ethos in terms of what the historian James T. Adams coined as the “American Dream.” As the capitalist myth of economic success glamorized immigrants’ narrative of becoming American, the multicultural making of the nation was set in motion in the prewar United States, to the extent that public education encouraged students’ appreciation of diversity through multicultural teaching and learning (Lal 18).
Ironically, while “becoming American” regardless of his or her birth was celebrated as a national value, it became a biopolitical object of desire for “colored” people, an affective value with the potential for assimilation into the mainstream of American capitalist society. In other words, the liberal ethos of such an inclusive assimilatory ideology, which put Americans of diversity, multiplicity, and heterogeneity under the shared umbrella of capitalism, relied upon the affective power of what Brian Massumi calls the “potential of hope” (POA 21), an affective hope of immigrants for their transformative or transversal identity. Given this, the Unites Sates’ Cold War containment in the 1950s was what directly ran counter to such a liberal potential of hope, a fascist gesture for a “return to a more intolerant and monolithic national culture” (May 2).
Due to the postwar United States’ ideological turn to domestic containment in the 1950s, it was geared to ridding itself of the liberal praxis of pluralism, diversity, and multiplicity. In other words, the vibrant form of American life radically went through a forced closure for the nation’s monolithic unity and homogeneity to achieve its ontological consistency as a self-enclosed whole against the Soviet Union. For example, originally created to uncover citizens of Nazi collaborators during WWII, the House Un-American Activities Committee launched its campaign against Hollywood leftists after the war, further playing an oppressive role in investigating and criminalizing suspects involved in homosexuality (Medovoi 178). In this age of containment, a venture for new experiences was considered detrimental and even deadly, as R. W. B. Lewis observes: It was a time when “we huddle together and shore up defenses,” such that “both our literature and our public conduct suggest that exposure to experience is certain to be fatal” (qtd. in Cruise 95).
However, it was also the time when American literature became more prone to be liberal than ever. Medovoi argues that in 1950s America, “writings by and about blacks, Jews, women, and gays began to assume a representative role for American literature” (88). Moreover, the 1950s also marked the rise of white hipsters, thus showing its affective potential of racial hybridity. In his “The White Negro,” Norman Mailer defines the term “Hip” as equivalent to “the carefree, spontaneous, cool lifestyle of Negro hipsters,” which white hipsters assumed as their own, putting down their whiteness (qtd. in Marx). Likewise, the 1950s ushered in unique changes in society as it revealed inevitable tension and anxiety ensuing from the ideological crash of both liberal pluralism and domestic containment. No wonder youth counterculture began to emerge during the time, setting off “culture wars that still rage today” (Meyerowitz 297); for different sets of ideas, policies, and cultures were, in a Spinozian sense, affecting and affected by one another, turning into a mixed assemblage of both containment and freedom.
After all, the 1950s United States was at what Gramsci calls the “war of position” (Gramsci 234) that the politico-ideological opposites perpetually remain pitted against each other (Meyerowitz 296). The Cold War language of containment never disappeared in mid-century America; rather, it continues, thereafter, to play an antithetical role by paradoxically evoking in the American minds their liberatory desire of individual freedom through the 1960s, including rebel identity, youth rebels, white hipsters, and beat generation. Put otherwise, crucial for an understanding of American nationalism in the 1950s is that the nation itself was perceived as a sort of body that is multiple, a dynamic bodily matter of heterogeneity in terms of what Deleuze and Guattari call a “machinic assemblage,” a concept that repudiates the “modern fantasy of the body as a stable, uniﬁed, bounded entity, and, instead, thinks of it in multiple connections with “bodies form with other bodies” (qtd. in Malins 85).
1950s America as a machinic assemblage was conducive to the more democratic body politics of the United States in the 1960s, affectively evoking the country’s potential for change and evolution. Joyce Carole Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is a work of liberal American literature in the wake of 1950s culture wars. Despite its publication in 1966, this short story is an affective work resonant with the potential for multicultural, democratic, and late-capitalist evolution toward 1960s America, a country that comes of age evolving from, to cite Elain Showalter, “the hazy dreams and social innocence of 1950s” (7). As “best known, most anthologized, and most widely discussed” among Oates’s works, this story is a manifestation of Oates’s literary oeuvre in terms of how it evokes as much shock and terror as to heighten its tragic effects in its most effective way, not to mention she is most noted for it.
The story is set in a social milieu that the American minds were in collective fear of, Mailer puts it, “instant death by atomic war” (Mailer), while they still lingered on triumphant memories of the war against totalitarian enemies in Europe and Asia. It draws upon the ontological crisis of American subjectivity in the aftermath of the traumatized psyche by 1950s nuclear fear in a Jungian sense of collective unconscious. Americans’ hysteric anxieties during the time much affected youths as an inevitable experience of their growing up. Having said that, I argue that Oates’s story is an allegorical reification of a “young and phobia-stricken” American subjectivity of the 1950s, one that was not only heading into the “harsher realities of random violence, war, and crime” (Showalter, “Introduction” 7) but also leaning to the ideological purgation of any emancipatory force in light of the exclusionary containment. The more glamorized, enclosed, and unified the ontological structure of 1950s America was in its attempt to survive with the exclusion of whatever “un-American,” the more intensified people’s collective fear of instant death grew. Put otherwise, as the apocalyptic threat to the American subject’s ontological unity and integrity went extreme and persistent, its affective desire to offset the fears was intensified as a gesture to “regain integration and restore equilibrium” (Clough, The Affective 10).
Not just does this paper looks at Oates’s story as a psychological allegory that portrays growing pains of Connie, the protagonist; more importantly, it examines how the work ends up being what composes 1950s American subjectivity with the potential for its “coming of age” toward the 1960s. I argues that the story is engaged in articulating postwar America’s distinctive identity to the extent that the national body becomes multiple in itself, emerging as a “machinic assemblage” in connection with the emergence of uncontainable affective bodies, including the 50s youth rebel. It is true that the United States of the 1950s is often understood in light of what Denis Jonnes calls an “air-conditioned nightmare,” a totalitarian state in accordance with the Cold War demand for national duty and unity (171). In a similar vein, the so-called “domestic containment” of the 1950s family ethos was deemed, as Ben Highmore puts it, “a prison house that can accommodate you but from which you can’t escape” (135).
With that said, this paper investigates the way in which Oates’s story is a narrative response to the emergence of rebel identity as pitted against the family ethos of domestic containment in the 1950s. It illuminates the trajectory of how the Cold War family ideology of 1950s America comes to have affective—uncontainable, unknown, and even paradoxical—capacities to transform its own body politics and produce a new social formation. This process is made possible with the nation’s affective capabilities of making a change to the American body politics; that is, the national body which is rendered a unified and bounded entity as a whole begins to be “felt” as a dynamic matter of machinic assemblage as it comes of age from the 1950s to the 1960s. It ultimately makes the postwar United States looked at as an uncontainable, multiple body, yet with a distinctive identity, calling into question the fictional fantasy of a national body and thus having it continually contested.