A seismic shift in the racial landscape of the United States occurred in 2016. The prevailing discourse about a “postracial America,” though always, in the words of Catherine Squires a “mystique,” was firmly and finally extinguished with the election of Donald J. Trump. Race, in the form of racial prejudice, erupted in Trump’s political rhetoric and in the rhetoric of his supporters. At the same time, the continued significance and consequences of racial division in America were also being asserted for politically progressive ends by the increasingly prominent #blacklivesmatter movement and by the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, DC, not far from the White House. This article tracks the resurgence of race in the US cultural landscape against the racially depoliticized myth of the “postracial” by focusing first on the HBO television series Westworld, which epitomizes that logic. The museum, which opened its doors against the backdrop of the presidential campaign, lodges a scathing critique of the very notion of the postracial; in fact, it signals the return of race as an urgent topic of national discussion. Part of the work of the museum is to materialize race, to move race and white supremacy to the center of the American national narrative. This article points to the way the museum creates what Jacques Rancière calls “dissensus,” and thus becomes a site of possibility for politics. The museum, in its very presence on the Mall, its provocative display strategies, and its narrative that highlights profound contradictions in the very meaning of America, intervenes in what Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible” and thus creates the conditions for reconfiguring the social order. In part, it achieves this by racializing white visitors, forcing them to feel their own race in uncomfortable ways. The article suggests that this museum, and the broader emerging discourse about race in both film and television, offers new ways to think about the political work of culture.
Post-Postracial America: On Westworld and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Alison Landsberg is professor of history and cultural studies at George Mason University. She is the author of Engaging the Past: Mass Culture and the Production of Historical Knowledge (2015) and Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (2004), as well as numerous articles and book chapters. Her research on film, television, and museums has focused on the modes of engagement they solicit from individuals and the possibilities therein for the production and acquisition of empathy, memory, politics, and historical knowledge in the public sphere.
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Alison Landsberg; Post-Postracial America: On Westworld and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Cultural Politics 1 July 2018; 14 (2): 198–215. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/17432197-6609074
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