The Last Western: Deadwood and the End of American Empire – 2/25/2011
The Last Western:
Deadwood and the End of American Empire
“Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?” – Tony Soprano
“We are in the presence of the new.” – Al Swearingen
If Tony Soprano’s iconic remark speaks to an anxiety at the heart of the three great dramas that HBO debuted during the late Clinton and early Bush presidencies – The Sopranos (1999), The Wire (2002), and Deadwood (2004) – then Al Swearingen reminds us that the history of that anxiety is a long one. Each of these shows examines the evacuation of the agency of the imperial subject through one of the genres (gangster films, detective/cop shows, westerns) through which this subjectivity has typically narrated his (and occasionally her) ascension. While The Sopranos and The Wire have generated their own scholarly commentary, Deadwood, perhaps the most sophisticated and complex of these shows, has been sadly neglected. It is our view that Deadwood is the key to understanding the purchase these three shows have gained in contemporary culture, for only Deadwood meditates directly on the relationship between the potential end of American empire and its origins in the 19th- century frontier. Deadwood thus revises America’s historical narrative by illustrating how those very subjects imagined to benefit from Empire are, by virtue of being on its peripheries, subject to the perpetual primitive accumulation David Harvey has named “accumulation by dispossession” that is the hallmark of Imperialist social formations.
What Deadwood achieves, then, is a historicization of contemporary forms of imperial subjectivity that reads them as emergent from the very social structures contemporary Americans are most prone to be nostalgic about, and it does so by mobilizing the genres through which we typically understand this history. Deadwood, that is to say, is as much a meditation on historical continuities as it is on the forms through which we make history accessible to us.
We envision a volume that situates Deadwood within the discourse of 19th century American Studies as well as the current discourse of Empire. Potential topics could include:
– Cycles of accumulation and accumulation by dispossession
– States of exception and the rule of law
– Frontier sovereignty / forms of sovereignty outside the state
– Nationalism and expansionism
– Race war and class war
– Theatricality, sentimentality and the aesthetics of Deadwood
– Deadwood and the history of the Western
– Contemporary resonances of Deadwood