“For today, as I go groaning among the shadows, I miss, inevitably, the spectacle that is now taking shape.” —Lévi-Strauss
Miss, inevitably, the spectacle? Barack Obama’s people would never. So, if they take Lévi-Strauss to heart, they must avoid “groaning among the shadows,” reliving and rethinking the past. Throughout the campaign, there was nary a groan to be heard nor a shadow to be seen. Instead, the idea that Obama had no history, in Washington or in “real America,” was artfully transformed from a liability into his greatest strength.
Obama was billed as the man of the moment, unencumbered by the partisan or racial politics of the past. And so, given this unrelenting insistence on new over old, I have been struck by the recent prominence of the word “history” since that remarkable night in Grant Park.
This morning’s inauguration, especially, has sold itself as “your ticket to history,” available at various prices. Such rhetoric is only natural given the singular significance of bringing a black family to the White House. The election of Barack Obama will indeed become a chapter in the narrative of the past in a way other elections have not.
Nevertheless, there is a memorializing tendency, a deathwardness, in any declaration of history-in-the-making. Like the Notorious B.I.G.’s classic debut album, “Ready to Die,” it is half snot-nosed boast and half prophetic panic. History is paradoxically invoked not in an attempt to situate the hero in time but to transcend the temporal situation.
David Plouffe finds himself dealing awkwardly with a related paradox when he sells the inauguration to supporters over e-mail: “You shaped history, and now you can be a part of it.” Wait, what? Was I not a part of history when I was shaping it? Is the history I shaped not the same as the history I can be a part of if I enter the sweepstakes advertised in this form letter? Historian Michel Rolph-Trouillot remarks that we often use the same word, “history,” to refer both to what happened and to the narration of what happened. Every person engages both these meanings; we are both actors and narrators.
Plouffe’s confused construction subtly suggests that history as things that happened is nothing without history as a story about things that happened. The spectacular might not become history unless we make a big spectacle of it. This invitation to be part of the spectacle is not an invitation to narrate, but an invitation to become an extra in a state-sanctioned narration. Events like inaugurations consolidate and discipline narrations rather than proliferate them.
If I seem to take a cynical attitude towards such ceremonies, know that I, too, bought a ticket — to see the freshly minted Notorious B.I.G. biopic. The movie was masterminded by Biggie’s mother, and his partner in crime, Sean “Puffy” Combs, so no one expected a straight-shooting portrait of the crooked and charismatic artist behind rap’s most memorable rhymes. We knew it would be framed to flatter the remaining members of Biggie’s Bad Boy Records crew and to absolve them of the lingering accusations that they had anything to do with Tupac’s murder. But still, the hope that rookie actor Jamal Woolard would resurrect Biggie’s imposing swagger and impish, cock-eyed gleam was enough to tempt me into the movie’s delicately set trap.
I am not suggesting the movie is merely a publicity stunt designed to puff up Puffy any more than I am suggesting Obama’s “ticket to history” is merely a publicity stunt designed to polish his image as a populist prince. In any case, the vivid realities of Obama and Biggie as historical actors exceed the stories told about (or by) them. The two can never be entirely reconciled, not even in death. Obama is grave and restless rather than messianic. And Woolard, in playing Biggie, cannot confine himself to the narrative project of mimicry; he acts as well as acts. The incongruities between these two histories represent the space from which we can hold each accountable to the other.
Carina del Valle Schorske is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.