Jewish hauntology in HBO’s ‘The Plot Against America’

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“Hauntology”, a portmanteau of haunt and ontology first coined by Derrida but evolved by Mark Fisher is concept wherein upon realising that historical visions of the future are unobtainable, we become nostalgic for such cultural artefacts. It can applied to a range of cultural artefacts but especially the recent HBO mini-series The Plot Against America.

Production companies are no stranger to selling nostalgia. The endless spate of Star Wars films is a vulgar manifestation of this. Having been cryogenically unfrozen from our childhoods, characters and phrases amongst other objects are removed from the past to be resold in the name of profit. The more recent incarnation in the franchise, 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker, despite being a nauseating chimera of senseless diegesis, nebulous noises, and schmaltzy special effects grossed 1.074 billion US dollars worldwide. Audiences will pour out stuffy cinemas warmed by memories of long disseminated childhoods watching the Original Trilogy, paying for and playing with countless Star Wars brand toys, oblivious to the fact that their memories are being commoditised.

But Fisher’s Hauntology is more than this. He describes how visions of futures become lost and these potential utopias are realised as nothing more than fictitious apparitions that we then become nostalgic for. That nostalgia translates to demand which is vampirically sold back to consumers through entertainment.

Production companies are no stranger to selling nostalgia.

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, the most recent book to gutted and stuffed onto our screens by HBO , would appear to fall into the category of period dramas draped in historicism that hypnotise us into longing for a time “when things were simpler” a la Downton Abbey or Stranger Things. But this would be an egregious underestimation of Philip Roth’s genius as a writer. The series follows a Jewish family navigating an alternative history America where Charles Lindbergh, a prolific Anti-Semite, is elected President in 1940 instead of Roosevelt and instead of launching into the War in Europe signs a peace deal with Hitler.

The family, including a fictionalised version of Roth as a seven-year-old, undergo inevitable Anti-Semitic attacks and persecution as a result. Even the Klu Klux Klan show up even show up. But this is not Nazi Germany where swastikas are abundantly dangling from buildings and children are goose stepping in the streets, but America, the country that so many minorities and ethnic groups fled to as a safe haven.

For Jewish audiences, whose trauma still lingers in religious and social consciousness, this anti-nostalgia will undoubtedly be cathartic.

It is a lost future, but not one that culture artefacts ever predicted. It presents a world, unaesthetically different from the real 1940s yet with the repugnant ideology of Social Darwinism and authoritarianism present throughout. But where does nostalgia fit in?

The family, including a fictionalised version of Roth as a seven-year-old, undergo inevitable Anti-Semitic attacks and persecution as a result. Even the Klu Klux Klan show up even show up. But this is not Nazi Germany where swastikas are abundantly dangling from buildings and children are goose stepping in the streets, but America, the country that so many minorities and ethnic groups fled to as a safe haven. It is a lost future, but not one that culture artefacts ever predicted. It presents a world, unaesthetically different from the real 1940s yet with the repugnant ideology of Social Darwinism and authoritarianism present throughout. But where does nostalgia fit in?

I, a Jew, found himself clutching a fist in the air when revenge is exacted on a German who attacked a Jewish store owner in the first episode.

Mark Fisher wrote “The future is always experienced as a haunting: as a virtuality that already impinges on the present.” The Plot Against America certainly utilises cultural signs to cast a spell over its audiences with its period accurate garnish, the gaudy art deco, meticulously combed hair, and lumbering cars, yet it does not make us long for its world.

The TV series is better regarded as anti-nostalgic; as the credits roll we feel as if we have emerged from a terrible nightmare where we are totally alienated and persecuted in the lands which we fled to as refuge from the very same terror, only to realise that this future is unreal. This is what is commodified and what haunts us, not the longing for the future, but the relief that it never happened.

This is where things fracture. For Jewish audiences, whose trauma still lingers in religious and social consciousness, this anti-nostalgia will undoubtedly be cathartic. It is easy to project the self onto the screen when the characters’ on-screen idiosyncrasies are your idiosyncrasies, vis a vis the sporadic use of Yiddish intertwined with everyday parlance. Consequently the Jewish experience of this anti-nostalgia becomes unique given our context: I, a Jew, found himself clutching a fist in the air when revenge is exacted on a German who attacked a Jewish store owner in the first episode.

The TV series is better regarded as anti-nostalgic.

But will this sense of anti-nostalgia hold for POC audiences in a post BLM protests world where many are still alienated from hegemonic society in the way that the Jewish characters are in The Plot Against America? Can we really be expected to be relieved that a fascist autocrat does not sit in the Oval office when one kind of does? (hopefully for not much longer). Produced before the BLM protests, The Plot Against America may become impotent in rendering social commentary when the very unreal future it sells to us, may in fact be very real.

Photograph: Flickr via Creative Commons

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