Review by Danel Olson: The American Imperial Gothic: Popular Culture, Empire, Violence.

Posted by Dale Townshend on March 02, 2015 in Reviews tagged with

The American Imperial Gothic: Popular Culture, Empire, Violence by Johan Hoglund (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2014). 211pp. ISBN 9781409449546, hardback.

Reviewed by Danel Olson

Coming one year after his impressive anthology edited with Tabish Khair Transnational and Postcolonial Vampires: Dark Blood (Palgrave, 2013) (which featured new chapters from thirteen Gothic authorities from around the world—and a poem from David Punter), Swedish scholar Johan Hoglund’s latest volume narrows its focus from the world to America in eleven enlightening chapters. As with his former co-edited title, again libraries should buy this latest, but so should readers interested in dark-souled films and search-and-destroy computer games.

A key caution is that the Gothic in this book, specifically his ‘Imperial Gothic,’ is meant more in generic sense of mad violence, disproportionate revenge, torture, and the fascist will to power (of a superpower reportedly in decline), than it is applied to exploring the canon of imperial British or neo-imperial American literature called ‘Gothic’ by academic departments. Hoglund does not enter into many of the discourses over iconic titles and authors from these traditions. Among the nineteenth century American Gothicists, we read here not a mention of Hawthorne, only one of Melville, and a scant four references to Poe; twentieth and twenty-first century literary Gothicists get light attention, too. Moreover, unlike other notable books of 2014, he will not ‘refer to the ongoing conflations of symbolic features that we analyze as “Gothic”’ (as in editor Jerrold Hogle’s superb anthology The Cambridge Companion to the Modern Gothic, CUP, x), nor will the volume root itself in a ‘conversation about the nature of belief in the paranormal, superstition, folklore, and the uncanny’ (as happens in Lorna Piatti-Farnell and Maria Beville’s insightful anthology The Gothic and the Everyday: Living Gothic, Palgrave, vii). Hoglund’s work uses ‘Gothic’ mostly as a catchall for ‘darkness’. This follows a common fashion, as with John C. Tibbetts’ 2011 Palgrave volume of genre-writer interviews and critics, which denotes an artistic consciousness ‘Gothic’, and then follows it with three genres which may not be obsessed with many of the peculiar areas of physical decay, power and legacy, and moral disease that we connect with the Gothic impulse. How ‘Gothic’ simply becomes a receptacle to store the Fantastic appears in Tibbetts’ title itself, The Gothic Imagination: Conversations on Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction in the Media.

One Gothic literary figure who does sustain intense examination in Hoglund’s work is from the American Frontier: Charles Brockden Brown. Hoglund supposes that the Native American attack and then the mysterious killing of the protagonist’s friend in Brown’s Edgar Huntley (1799) engenders a response that exemplifies the fears and patterns towards the Other that American foreign policy will follow to this day, namely invasion, a dread of captivity or attack during the occupation, and a belief in a final military solution (and superior technology) to counter the problem of the Other’s presence and competition. Extermination becomes a strategy not forbidden. In his own words, Hoglund probes how ‘images of gothic and apocalyptic confrontation and catastrophe produced in American popular culture negotiate the concept and the practices of US empire’ (167). Less by analysis of literature and more through fresh interpretations of computer games and startlingly original investigations of genre films, all grounded in historicist and world-systems readings, Hoglund reveals how ‘the exorcism of the gothic Other through extensive violence’ is defended by Americans in polls, presidents in speeches, and public discourse reflected in media. This virtuously defended violence (as if some lives are more deserving of breath than others) bursts through American horror movie franchises, science fiction themed computer games, and comics. Such killing at the hands of the superpower in these cultural forms is presented as ‘regenerative, practical, clinical, and successful’ (168). Anticipating readers’ objections at most of the stages, Hoglund builds a sturdy argument, as he is a patient questioner of American Government policy abroad. The answers he finds are uniformly bleak and numbing: America is in decline, but it is a slow death, perhaps more violent for all its agony over losing dominance: ‘Such anxieties permeated US society even in the 1990s and exploded in the wake of 9/11’ (168). Later ‘the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the prevalence of the concept of empire and the increasing feeling that American hegemony may be in decline formed very fertile ground for the … American imperial gothic’ (168).

For cineastes, the pleasure is in reading the abundance of films Hoglund raises for their telling details, for their showing of a monstrous version of draining imperialism. Many of the films have a belief in virtuous warfare where, ‘as in the British novel, the gothic Other must be annihilated in order to restore order in the Anglo universe’ (169). Such annihilating films that receive the most illuminating analysis here are Blade II (2002), Resident Evil (2002), Hostel (2005), Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Beyond cinema to games, Hoglund takes his cure from David L. Robb’s Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies (Prometheus Books, 2004) and Roberto J. Gonzalez’s Militarizing Culture (Left Coast Press, 2010). Hoglund posits his idea of a ‘Military Entertainment Complex’, suggesting that popular culture (especially computer games) reinforces the American military-political concept that new battlefields are needed to visit, or else the country faces contamination by the ‘chaos and disorder of the (gothic) savages that flock outside the borders of civilized society’ (121). When one considers that through video wargaming, the US military became among the earliest to develop hardware and software protocols, and that it has used such games to train soldiers for decades now, Hoglund’s argument seems depressingly convincing. What Hoglund then adds shows even more military-entrenchment in entertainment: along with inspiring the games Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2007), Medal of Honor: Warfighter (2012), Full Spectrum Warrior (2004), America’s Army (2002), Doom 3 (2004), Quake 4 (2005), the Pentagon has invested in projects to treat PTSD veterans with ‘the help of immersive, digital stimulators’ (124). As a one-time game player himself before becoming an academic, Hoglund admits the eerie influence of neo-imperialism within them: ‘I wanted to be the exorcist; the killer of demons whatever that meant. It provided me with a form of purpose… For a young, white, male, middle-class heterosexual citizen of a Western nation, the sense of prominence and privilege that these narratives conveyed was seductive’ (ix). When Hoglund shares that he once felt, ‘If you are not the exorcist, you are that which must be exorcised,’ he knowingly or unknowingly echoes President George W. Bush’s infamous either-or fallacy about the world either being ‘with us’ or ‘against us’.

Hoglund does not have the chance to name in his book a currently popular American political thriller now in its third season, Netflix’s House of Cards, but I think it would be appropriate here. From a quick, private, seething exchange between a doubting First Lady and her husband President Underwood in that series, we may see the whole nature of The American Imperial Gothic, or Hoglund’s eloquent analysis of the intensely projective fantasies behind the base brutalities within American foreign policy, naked at last. As film and computer games offer a revisionist history of state terror, so does the American President:
The First Lady: ‘We’re murderers, Francis’.
The President: ‘We’re survivors’.

Danel Olson
Danel Olson is a PhD candidate at University of Stirling and has taught Gothic fiction at Lone Star College in Texas since 2000. His recent works include 21st Century Gothic: Great Gothic Novels Since 2000 (2011, McFarland), The Exorcist: Studies in the Horror Film (2011), and the Shirley Jackson Prize and World Fantasy Award-winning anthology franchise Exotic Gothic (2007-2014, Ash-Tree Press; PS Publishing). His next volume premieres in May 2015, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: Studies in the Horror Film (Centipede Press). Olson is a magazine editor for the print journal Weird Fiction Review.

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