Tuesday, August 09, 2005


While rereading Allucquère Rosanne Stone's 1995 seminal critical study-performance, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (MIT Press), which explores the relationship between cyber/technologies, society and social relations, and self-articulation and constitution in the physical and virtual realms, I had an aperçu, which was this: the fixation, particularly among Fox (or Faux, as I've called it elsewhere) News Channel viewers, and more broadly among cable news channel viewers, with "missing white women" (MWMs, and most of the women the media and its viewers fixated on tend to be middle and upper-middle-class), is symptomatic of the fact that these MWMs, and especially Natalee Holloway, the young Alabama woman who went on a class graduation trip to Aruba and disappeared, function--are reconstituted--as a kind of narcissistic, psychomythic proxy/prosthesis. These Natalee-fixators are living in profound fear of and denial about the United States's current status, role and actions in the world, and particularly in Iraq, as a hyperpower. Whew! I got that out.
Now I acknowledge that someone else somewhere may have articulated this before me. So be it. Also, let me state for the record that I wish the best for any person, of any background, who goes missing, and hope she or he is found, alive, well, unharmed. I am not the first person to call attention to this current media fixation, which of course predates the recent spate of cases. I also do sincerely believe that Natalee Holloway's parents, and her larger family and friends, desperately and sincerely want to know what happened to her, and seek justice for whoever did harm her. But what about the millions of others who keep Fox News and its advertisers grinning all the way to the bank, when there are countless other missing people--poor, male, elderly, White, Black, Latino, Asian, Mixed, differently abled, etc.--as well as countless other pressing issues facing our society, imperative issues that really deserve public debate and discussion? After coming across a piece in New York Newsday that described how Fox News program "On the Record"'s host and lawyer Greta Van Susteren (who cut her chops on the OJ Simpson trial) dramatically increased her viewership once she began focusing on the Natalee Holloway case, and once I read the statistics that Fox News Channel had covered the case far more than its other rivals (434 mentions in just the last two months), and that on the very night that President W, for whom Fox News Channel serves as a propaganda organ, nominated an ultraconservative Washington lawyer, John Roberts Jr., to serve on the Supreme Court, yet Fox News Channel devoted more time to the Holloway case, I devoted a little more brainpower to this.

So what do I mean? Well, my conjecture is that in addition to all the other international problems the US faces, the military situation in Iraq, as should be obvious to anyone who has functioning brain waves, is not going well, and this is a paramount concern for many Americans, especially the ones who are hyperpatriotic and yet not totally zombified. On the one hand, we have a President and his Secretary of Defense telling us that things are succeeding and a Vice President who tells us that the insurgency-rebellion-resistance is in its "last throes." Surrounding them is a vast right-wing echo chamber, with some still not-dissillusioned, dismayed, dissuaded or simply deluded moderate and liberal hawk choralists. Yet we have US military commanders on the ground who claim that the insurgency is strengthening and that Iraq not only cannot defend itself (Iran has stepped into the breach to do that) and has become a terror bootcamp, but that the war may be unwinnable. 1821 US troops have been killed (forty in the last 12 days), hundreds of other "coalition" troops have died, more than 40000+ have been wounded, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens have died or been badly maimed, and Iraq is in a worse physical and infrastructure state than before the invasion. In addition, the administration and US military have suffered grave damage to their reputations as allegations and proof of torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and other prisons and military facilities, as well as other brutal, savage non-constitutional acts, like extraordinary rendition, have been revealed over the last three years. On top of all of this is the basic fact that the chief rationales for the war, the threat of Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction," which a daisy chain of administration officials trumpeted in the run-up to the war, and the oft-stated link between Saddam Hussein (who was aided and abetted for 8 years by Ronald Raygun and George H. W. Bush) and Osama bin Laden-Al Qaeda, both were proved to be false. No "weapons of mass destruction" have been found in Iraq, and no credible authorities have established plausible links between Hussein and Osama bin Laden, particularly concerning the 9/11 atrocities. Now many Americans, as millions overseas did three years ago, see the neoconservative boondoggle for what it is--or at least are seeing enough propagandistic fog dissipate to begin doing so.

So what does this have to do with poor Natalee Holloway? I see it like this: as a young, blonde, Southern, attractive, middle-class white woman, she serves, at least in the social and cultural imaginary of the people both of the people who are fixated on her, as well as for the nation as a whole, as a once embodied but now virtual psychomythic proxy, or constellated sign, for an imagined and idealized US, one that is virtuous and good, innocent, white, Christian, youthful, blond, comprising attractive middle-class people; a US that not only has a future, but that is still the world's imagined promise for the future, the "envy"--in whatever positive sense you might construe that term--"of the world," as former Vice President and Heartlander Dan Quayle once put it. Natalee Holloway wasn't not dark-haired or dark-skinned, poor, fat, unattractive, a sexual (as far as we know; in fact, the assertion of her sexual "virtue" as a "virgin" was not uncommon early on in the news coverage), religious or political minority (did she even have political stands?), mentally or physically challenged, an immigrant, from a blue state or the coasts or in any way associated with the frequently derided "cultural elites," that is, in any way alien. She embodied and represented a quintessence which which we're bombarded on a nonstop basis by a web of discourses in this society--the psychomythic sign Natalee Holloway is supposed to represent is discursively constructed, produced and reinforced.

This US, as embodied by the mythic Natalee Holloway, would not attack people unless threatened; this US follows the codes of society, the rule of law, the immutable law of a Christian God that some would like to have supplant our civilly derived system; this US is uniquely blessed by God, is special, is chosen, and so will be protected against the dangers of those who seek to harm it, that is, after it acts to protect itself. The signifier lies in the images of Natalee Holloway that Fox News Channel shows repeatedly, her smiling yearbook photo, this body reduced to a one-dimension headshot, while the signified is, as I said, this very powerful mythic construct. Amidst the horrors in Iraq (and elsewhere, like Haiti, which the US's fingerprints are all over, and let's not even broach the other Al Qaeda-related terrorist incidents in foreign countries that the American media seem not especially interested in), Natalee's disappearance, in a small, foreign (and colonial, no less) outpost, full of brown-skinned people, serves as a (perverse) kind of counterweight. The missing fiancee in Atlanta, and Lacey Peterson, served a similar purpose, but their personal crises (the flight of the fiancee, the horrific murder of the pregnant young woman) place on or close by American shores, while the dark specter of a foreign society and nation--and its unknown representatives--devoured Natalee Holloway.

Whereas the US government and military, despite their efforts, best or otherwise, cannot contain the metastasizing horrors emanating from the now renamed "Global Struggle against Violent Extremism," to which the War in Iraq was wrongly attached, Natalee's family and friends, other interested parties, and the media, with Fox News Channel and its commanding officer Greta van Susteren leading the charge, have responded by enacting not only a media but a physical autopsy on the suspect, dangerous, now terror-ridden body of Aruba itself--Americans and Arubans combing the seabeds, dredging an artificial lake, foraging through garbage dumps and woods, demanding to inspect the well and backyard of the father of the current chief suspect, a young White Dutch national, Joran van der Sloot, though initially the media reassured Americans with the initial arrest of two Black men who turned out not to have been involved--anything to open up this body and wrest Natalee, and metonymically, American virtue back, particularly when the Iraqi national body not only is in an advanced state of gangrene, but literally being torn apart (by nationality, ethnicity, religion and sect, class, gender, etc.).

Greta van Susteren, then, is an empowered analogue of generals like Myers, Casey and Petraeus; while they cannot stem the flow the blood from the diseased national body which they occupy, despite commanding the best military on earth, van Susteren, who represents another aspect of the American ideal and functions as a mother-figure/sign (the signifier being the appealing persona she presents, with her White, middle-aged, plastic surgery-altered face and preppy outfits, the signified being the upper-middle-class, highly educated authority she commands as an officer of the law and a media celebrity). For her viewers, and especially the Natalee fixators, she may prove much more capable of effective work (drawing as she can on the American media and legal apparatuses), by somehow "rescuing" the real Natalee Holloway--or at least locating and returning her "real" body or even elements of it (bones, hair, clothing, even DNA tags, however infinitesimal), the virtuous American psychomythic prosthetic, to American hands. She can be buried, honored, memorialized. There's no way we could ever get our military back or national reputation whole after the Iraq debacle is over, at least not any time soon, and in any case, sovereign Iraq never was ours to begin with, despite the bonds of pragmatism and finance that held together the Reagan-Bush administrations and Hussein. But the mythic, phantasmal Natalee Holloway and the saga of her disappearance and possible return remains a promisinng possibility, and so millions, it seems, cannot do without this prosthetic, hold out hope against hope....

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