Carl Freedman, The Age of Nixon

I am happy to report that Carl Freedman’s superb new book, The Age of Nixon: A Study in Cultural Power, is now in print from Zer0 Books and available for purchase. I wrote a blurb for this book, which appears on the inside front cover, and which I will reproduce here:

Richard Nixon was real, for all that he seems like a fictional character concocted in the course of some strange literary collaboration between Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Theodore Dreiser, and J. G. Ballard. And Nixon continues to fascinate us, and to haunt our dreams, even these many years after his death. Carl Freedman’s compelling book takes the full measure of Nixon the man, Nixon the media image, Nixon the myth, and even Nixon the ideal type, the quintessential expression, and the most capacious representative of the political and economic system under which we continue to live today.

So, admittedly, I am not a neutral observer with regards to this book. I have known Carl Freedman for something like thirty-six years (can it really be that long? — amazing), and during all that time we have shared a fascination (an obsession?) with Nixon and all things Nixonian.

I can also say that I grew up, as it were, with Nixon. My parents taught me Nixon-hatred from the cradle. Indeed, my parents actually knew (and I once met) Jerry Voorhis, a one-time Democratic Congressman from southern California who had the dubious honor of being the very first victim of a vicious Nixon smear campaign. 

Obviously, American politics today is far different from what it was in Nixon’s time: today, Nixon’s policies would place him far to the left of any of the current batch of Republican Presidential contenders, and in many respects to the left of Obama as well. But Nixon was both the architect (via his “Southern strategy”) of the current, horrifically reactionary political alignment, and the still-unsurpassed master (as well as, in some respects, the inventor) of the sort of over-the-top political sleaze that we take for granted today without so much as a second glance.

But whereas, for me, Nixon-analysis has all been just talk, Carl has actually sat down and written the book. Sifting patiently through vast quantities of Nixoniana, he has detailed “Nixon as the quintessential petty-bourgeois, as a man of ressentiment, as an example of the anal-erotic character, as anti-Semite, as racist.” But Carl also writes, to the disquiet of many who might agree with the preceding designations, of “Nixon as liberal”: which means that, in his very slipperiness and obsessive insistence upon the virtues of the supposed “even playing field”, Nixon signifies or embodies (I am not sure which word is better) an “essential emptiness…at the heart of liberalism,” an opportunism, together with an insistence on proceduralism rather than substantial values, which means that “liberalism, in actual psychological practice, can with fearful ease become the opposite of itself.” (Though I am quoting the book here, my scrambled summary comes off a bit too convoluted; it fails to convey the clarity and eloquence that the book has, if it is read straight through). 

All in all, Carl’s book drives us to the conclusion that everything horrific that Nixon did (or was) is “deeply rooted in American history and tradition.” Carl demonstrates that Nixon was (and still is) truly the “obscene supplement” (to use a Zizek phrase that Carl himself does not employ) of American optimism, idealism, and exceptionalism. I am tempted to put it this way. In the 19th century, writers like Poe and Melville revealed a disturbing underside to the great and beautiful idealisms of Emerson and Thoreau. These are the two sides of American culture, which actually run continuously with one another, and transform into one another, like the seeming two sides (which are really one) of a Moebius strip. Nixon was the 20th century living embodiment of this situation — which is why his twisted legacy continues to haunt us today. And this despite the fact that we live under a neoliberal economic regime far harsher than anything Nixon supported or imposed (remember that Nixon’s Keynesianism caused him to be denounced by Milton Friedman himself as a socialist).

Also — since I have just described Nixon in aesthetic terms, in relation to Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, and Melville — it is important to note that The Age of Nixon wonderfully contains an Epilogue discussing “Nixon in Art.” Carl is the first (to my knowledge) to point up the significance of the fact that Nixon figures prominently as a character in the works of a whole generation of American artists: novelists such as Robert Coover and Philip Roth, painters such as Philip Guston, filmmakers such as Oliver Stone and Robert Altman, and even opera composers like John Adams. 

I doubt that Nixon can be as much an object of fascination to younger generations today as he always was to aging Boomers like myself, who actually grew up with him. But The Age of Nixon captures and explains this fascination, and also demonstrates how “the meaning of Richard Nixon” (by parallel with Badiou’s The Meaning of Sarkozy and Richard Seymour‘s The Meaning of David Cameron) remains, unfortunately, all too relevant for us today in the 21st century.

5 Responses to “Carl Freedman, The Age of Nixon”

  1. Ales Kot says:

    “These are the two sides of American culture, which actually run continuously with one another, and transform into one another, like the seeming two sides (which are really one) of a Moebius strip.”

    Can you elaborate, please? This is quite exciting.

  2. I am of course extremely pleased by Steve’s characteristically eloquent post. But it is not mere gratitude–it is also plain truthfulness–that leads me to say that THE AGE OF NIXON would be much poorer (or, perhaps more likely, would never have been written at all) had it not been for Steve’s friendship and the many hours of Nixonian conversation I enjoyed with him: not to mention his patient, detailed, and extremely useful comments on the manuscript itself. As Steve says above, Nixon is unlikely to mean as much to those who know him only as a figure from history as he does to those of us who grew up with him. Yet he remains, in Steve’s words, “all too relevant for us today in the 21st century,” and I hope younger as well as older readers will find my book an enjoyable and convincing explanation of how, and why.

  3. Nixon was Hollywood’s favourite ‘character actor’ during the 70s:

    http://andwhatwillbeleftofthem.blogspot.com/2010/10/featuring-richard-nixon-as-someone-else.html

    Nixon could be the most interesting elected head of state of the 20th century. Think I’ll check this book out.

  4. […] Steve Shaviro reviews Carl Freedman’s The Age of Nixon. I actually bought this one just on the strength of the author and […]

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