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promise of promise Arrow vol 5 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 5 Number 3, 2006


The Promise of Promise: A Respite from Contingency

James C. Ross
Colorado State University



The promise of modernity contracts the future in an economy of signs. A sign
of promise defers the presence of desire in political order. Hannah Arendt
discovered in the "faculty of promising" a nonfoundational guarantee of stability, legitimacy, and authority in a world devoid of traditional constraints. I argue
in this paper that promise goes beyond dropping extra-political anchors of legitimation. The endless promise, what I refer to as the promise of promise, creates order
by channeling, encoding, and disciplining desire in political life. The paper
examines the idea of promise as a fundamental ordering mechanism of
modernity, as exemplified in the American polity during the immigration
debates of the 1920s. The hegemonic American promise, pointed inward
then and outward now, promises the "whole ground". The problem of
order, I argue, is really a problem with desire, whose presence promise
seeks to remain absent.

Prelude to Promise

[T]he task of breeding an animal that is permitted to promise includes, as condition
and preparation, the more specific task of first making man to a certain degree
necessary, uniform, like among like, regular, and accordingly,
predictable (Nietzsche, 1998: 36).

1. The national self is an essentially contestable metaphor of the promise of modernity. This paper explores the political logic of modern promise and its connection to national identity construction in the United States. It seeks to understand the production of a singular national self through systemic definitional practices of belonging and exclusion. Given the rise of anti-Americanism and the wide-spread association of globalization with Americanization in recent years, it behooves us to look into the construction of an exemplary model of modern promise, the Promise of America, in the 1920s, as a political performative whose aim was to consolidate America's multiple and contingent identities into the secure singularity of a collective Cartesian self. A number of highly suggestive excerpts from U.S. Congressional floor debates over the 1924 Immigration Act are scattered across the pages that follow. I shall begin with an expository look at an unconventional subject: the originary political logic of the promise of modernity.

2. The promise of modernity contracts the future in an economy of signs. A sign of promise, embodied in the language of Enlightenment, defers the presence of desire in political order. In the modern world, promise infinitely postpones the problem of desire, which speaks to the character of disciplinary politics and normalization in democracy (Connolly, 1987; Foucault, 1980). Hannah Arendt (1958; 1963) discovered in the "faculty of promising" a non-foundational guarantee of stability, legitimacy, and authority in a world devoid of traditional constraints. But the notion of promise goes beyond dropping extra-political anchors of legitimation. The generative promise, what I call the promise of promise, constitutes order by channeling, encoding and disciplining desire in political life. This political performative, modern promise, is revealed below as a fantasy object: the political fantasy of promise , whose bedrock is fear...fear of the originary lack out of which desire desires and meaning means in political life.

3. Fixed meaning, however fleeting, is a product of deferred desire and a constituent of political order. The raison d'etre of political order, according to Hobbes, arises out of the innate impulsion to avoid death, read as "the desire to keep going" (1985: 119). Through our aversion of death (our absence), like our desire to keep going (our presence), "we alwayes signifie the Absence of the Object" (Ibid). Life and death, then, appear as objects out of reach, concepts of future being and non-being constituted out of lack, what might be called 'absent presence'. The promise of representation in an economy of signs lends value and meaning to presence now by deferring absence that always haunts us. Thus, political order is not presentable as such, but rather is a continuously promised order that ensures referential stability today. Democratic political order, which is a project rooted in speech, always unfolding and hence necessarily partial, gives presence a chance by controlling desire, by creating the conditions for the expression of political will in the form of a promise for a better tomorrow.

4. The first order of speech, it follows, is to escape the contingent horror of absent presence by promising the future, an originary political act that by definition "begins something new" (Arendt, 1958: 246). The original promise is a product of collective human sovereignty, the sovereignty to have some measure of independence, a respite, from contingency. Modern promise has emerged as a collective sovereign act rooted in the fear of absent presence, which is really a fear of the ever-present presence of pure desire "that ceaseth only in Death" (Hobbes, 1985: 161). From the body politic to Artificiall Man to the national self, Hobbes examines the problem of constituting political order, which becomes the task of all tasks of modernity: a "discursively structured and exercised power to create law and order" (Collins, 1989: 149-50; also see Bauman, 1991). The problem of order is thus revealed as a problem with desire, whose pure presence must remain absent. In the 1920s, the presence of foreigners, Others, embodied the presence of desire in the United States, culminating in the Red Scare and Eugenics Movement that sought to regenerate the American promise by projecting and codifying an image of pure origins into an exclusionary immigration law.

5. In the 1920s, blood became the ink that was inscribed on the horizon of pure identity in the American polity. Immigration talk was laden with "streams" of blood and desire revealing a fundamental fear of immigrants as Others. This paper reads Congressional talk as political theory, and individual legislators as different voices of the national self. Particular political outcomes are relevant insofar as they reflect a statement about a generalizable character of the American polity, which I refer to as the national self. I have chosen the 1924 Immigration Act for the official statement it makes about political identity in the United States, a tangible act of belonging and exclusion made in the name of promise. The outcome, the National Origins Quota System, alerts us to the fact that an important statement was made in the form of a statute and where to look for its articulation. The national self made a promise in the form of an official Act of belonging and exclusion that was codified into the law of the land for the next forty years.

Blood Fixation: Purity and Promise

'One burns something in so that it remains in one's memory: only what does not cease
to give pain remains in one's memory' - that is a first principle from the most ancient
(unfortunately also longest) psychology on earth. One might even say that everywhere on
earth where there is still solemnity, seriousness, secrecy, gloomy colors in the life of man and
of a people, something of that terribleness continues to be felt with which everywhere on earth
one formerly promised, pledged, vowed.... Whenever man considered it necessary to
make a memory for himself it was never done without blood, torment, sacrifice
(Nietzsche, 1998: 37-38).

6. The promise of purity often has blood as its origin. A violation of promise represents a defamation of the purity embodied in the original act. Promise extends the horizon of political being into an always already expected future. Promise reflexively (re)orders individual subjectivities into a national subject (Elliot, 1996). It removes her presence from the disorder of contingency and submits it to the order of language. Promise, I argue, is the principal ordering mechanism of modernity and the American polity.

[Political actors] order the future in the direction their dialogue gives to successive debates, in the acquiescence and resistance of their successors to the conceptual and institutional structures they provide. Yet this overcoming, which might seem to separate them from past and future, binds them ever more tightly to each (Norton, 1988: 189).

7. As a map of the future, promise pre-codes action and meaning tomorrow by indefinitely deferring the presence of desire today. Promise disciplines and normalizes desire in the here and now by deferring payment, achievement, or reward, in this case, a vision of a universalized American identity, until later. The horizon of promise gazes back upon its individual subjects, whose desire has been submitted to the rule of law to open the way for the ascendance of the national self tomorrow. The irony is that the future of the national self is a figment of an imagination about our "pure origins" of yesteryear. The promise of purity, an idealized conception of a singular identity expressed in immigration talk, had become an important ordering mechanism by the 1920s (Barken, 1996; Cose, 1992; Danials, 1997; Dinnerstein et. al., 1990; Fitzgerald, 1996; Higham, 1988; Handlin, 1959; Honig, 2001). National origins had arisen as the horizon of purity to which the promise of identity longed to return. The aporia of pure origins and future promise, the ambivalence inherent of a promise whose fulfillment relies upon the purity of the original act of contracting a future in language, in an economy of signs, exchanges what we are today for who want to be tomorrow.

8. That is why meaning and identity always exist as projects in the modern world, and it is the distance between now and then that gives projects their generative power, as Bauman aptly describes:

Delay of gratification, much as the momentary frustration it begot, was an energizing factor and the source of identity-building zeal in so far as it was coupled with the trust in the linearity and cumulativeness of time...The world of pilgrims - of identity-builders - must be orderly, determined, predictable, ensured; but above all, it must be a kind of world in which footprints are engraved for good, so that the trace and the record of past travels are kept and preserved (Bauman, 1996: 22-23).

The promise of pure origins projects a mythical past into a distant future. The national self in the 1920s feared the dilution of its memory of 'pure' identity by 'streams of alien others', to use the language of the day. Purity and promise were opposing horizons of the national self, whose political identity simultaneously receded into an image of pure origins and whose promise deferred the fulfillment of that purity into the distant future. Purity and promise exposed ambivalence, an aporia, an unanswerable contradiction between the national self and the alien other, between identity and difference, between memory and oblivion, and between order and the chaos 'streaming in'.

9. Immigration talk in 1924 was about what the national self was going to permit to flow into the political body. It was, in effect, the re-presentation of the flesh in the word, as Representative Rosenbloom vividly displays:

The body not unlike the human body. We are taught that germs of all diseases lie in the human system, and we are dependent upon the power of the system to generate enough combative force to destroy those germs... [W]hen...symptoms develop which threaten the health and perhaps the life of the body, it is advisable to take medicine, it is advisable to take treatment, it is advisable to forego eating certain things, and it is foolhardy to put more into the system than it is able to digest. It is here that I find justification for restricted immigration...I am so firmly convinced that we need some preventative method to prevent a national indigestion at this time, that I support such bill as will be agreed upon by this body (1924: H5851) [1].

The national self reified its sovereignty and acknowledged a threat to its order of identity. The sovereignty of the national self reflected the original submission of singular selves to the authority of language, a transubstantiation from the solitude of flesh into a community of speech (Norton, 1993). The national self was to be literally embodied in text and codified in law.

10. The textual body of the national self, always returning to its original Constitution, affirmed the first law of nature of the singular self. "Self-preservation is the first law of nature", reiterated Rep. Garber. "Charity begins at home. We must first set our own household in order. We must protect our own racial stock, keep the American blood line strong...." (1924: H5693). Purity and promise represented two sides of the same Hobbesian coin: survival. The national self originated in promise, a social contract, which ensured the preservation of the national memory of yesteryear and the political order of tomorrow. For this reason, the original promise of future order, the Constitution, was sanctified from the outset. It was the sanctity, the purity of the original promise, the originary submission of identity to language, which the call for an order rooted in the ideal of a pure identity appealed. Purity and promise simultaneously reflected the past and future. Promise expected a return on the original act, while the fulfillment of the purity of the original act of promise was always already deferred into the future (Beardsworth, 1996).

The Promise of Promise from Arendt to Derrida

11. Promise projects desire onto the horizon of the national self, in part, through systematic practices of inclusion and exclusion of foreign others. Promise defines a purpose and delimits responsible action for achieving it, thus ordering political life today by defining the bounds of who may come tomorrow. That is, national purpose and action inscribed by promise circumscribe the bounds of order today by channeling, encoding, or repressing desire for tomorrow.

12. The inauguration of something new through the practice of promising "derives from the capacity to dispose of the future as though it were the present" (Arendt, 1958: 245). The practice of promising provides its own source of legitimacy in the modern world: "the public subscription to an authoritative discursive practice in which performative utterances are understood to possess their own a community of promisers" (Honig, 1993: 210; also see Arendt 1958; 1963). Despite serious differences about the legitimacy of the practice of promising as having its own reflexive source of legitimacy, as in the promise of promise , Arendt shares with Nietzsche the view that the faculty of promising is a prerequisite for human sovereignty, "the very distinction which marks off human from animal life" (Arendt, 1958: 245; also Nietzsche 1998: 36). Similarly, the "agreed purpose" that holds a body of people together, allows them a respite (i.e., delay, deferral, postponement) from the contingency and incalculability of human affairs. Promise as agreed purpose, mutual promise, whether at the individual or collective level, provides order and meaning today by postulating what can be made of tomorrow. Uncertainty becomes nothing more than a foreshadowing of the unknown, unchartered, ever-imminent future, "into which certain islands of predictability [i.e., promise] are thrown and in which certain guideposts of reliability are erected" (Arendt, 1958: 244).

13. Without promise, "political action appears to have no anchor" (Honig, 1993: 210). For Arendt, the American declaration and Founding exemplify the "purely performative...moment of perfect legitimacy" upon which future political action may be grounded (Ibid: 214-15). As original promises that keep on promising ad infinitum , they were supposed to have transmuted us from objects of constative authority - "mute violence" which holds us in silence - to willful subjects who at least partially take hold of our own destiny with the utterance of self-legitimating performatives called promises. Arendt situates her "associational" view of public space, alias the modern republic, on a supposed high ground where she erects an edifice of the "powerful purity of the original performative" (Benhabib, 1992; Honig, 1993). The performative action of original promise legitimates collective purpose out of the identity (re: we ) that it simultaneously invokes. For example, the promise set forth in the Declaration of Independence invokes the authority of its signatories to legitimate itself, though only the signature, the promise, legitimates the authority of its signatories.

14. Similarly, according to Beardsworth's reading of Derrida, "the radical inability to found the law 'is' the radical inability to escape the delay of time" (1996: 100). This is, as Derrida argues, the essential aporia that resides at the base of all utterances that seek signification-in-difference (1986; 1992b; 1993). Regarding promise, it is the difference between the presence of desire and the promise of the national self, that latter of which is always already beyond fulfillment. The self-referentiality of a promise that legitimates itself in the very act that brings it into being is, for Derrida, the aporic différance that underlies the endless promise: an originary violence predicated on the delay of time. Thus, at the origin of every decision, that is, at the end of every discourse, is the aporia of promise: "literally the ever-recurrent promise of the non-adequation of the present to itself" (Beardsworth, 1996: 101).

15. In sum, the aporia of promise equals "the relation of delay between the passage of time and human invention" (Ibid: 100). Derrida agrees with Arendt on this point in that political inventions predicated on the promise of promise, a respite from contingency, enable unprecedented possibilities for the construction and sometimes illegitimate presumption and imposition of the national self. They part ways, however, when it comes to the normative justification and legitimacy of such inventions. Where Arendt sees in the American Founding and other such political inventions a purely performative event that may be reproduced by returning to the spirit of the original act, akin to Taylor's notion of "life-narration" (1989), Derrida describes an "eternal return" to an "original temporal violence" whose exclusions never cease to bedevil the presence of the act itself.

Life without Promise

16. To begin to come to grips with the effort to root belonging and exclusion in an ideal of pure origins, we will profit from highlighting one of the main (often political) functions of thought and language: that of naming and classifying. This function aims at the prevention of ambivalence and uncertainty through the creation of order and meaning in the world. The act of defining, for Hobbes at least, is a sovereign act of aversion against the always already lurking threat of disorder and death. Here modern sovereignty obtains not only its mandate to define, but also its power to enforce its definitions (Bauman, 1991). Naming and classifying become a primary ordering mechanism in modernity.

17. Definitions attempt to establish the boundaries of meaning through the designation of difference (Derrida, 1976; Norton, 1988). Definitions order the deferral of desire through their use in language. Every order, like metaphor, represses some other order from coming into being, some other definition, some other presence, some other identity. Order represses desire. "Derrida...invites us to consider that all operations with signs, all placing and spacing of writing and all timely utterance of verbal signs as well, are displacements of desire" (Krell, 1988: 7). He coins the written and verbal displacement of desire differance : "delaying or...diverting the fulfillment of a 'need' or 'desire'" (Derrida, 1978: 14). Like the promise whose fulfillment is infinitely postponed,

The sign, in this sense, is deferred presence. Whether we are concerned with the verbal or the written sign, with the monetary sign, or with electoral delegation and political representation, the circulation of signs defers the moment in which we can encounter the thing itself, make it ours, consume or expend it, touch it, see it, intuit its presence...[T]he sign, which defers presence, is conceivable only on the basis of the presence that it defers and moving toward the deferred presence that it aims to reappropriate (Derrida, 1991: 59).

Definitions by definition discriminate in the creation of order and meaning out of difference: the difference between now and then, here and there, and, ultimately, us and them.

18. The shared quality of language in communication, however, makes definitions contestable (re: political). Definitions are political because they attempt to order (encode in language) distinctions between our base impulsion of desire and our fear of its presence. The distinctions innate to the word defer the fulfillment of desire: "Yet there is ambiguity in the interior...Within the word, the name, the idea, the identity, is ambiguity, ambivalence, contradiction, a question...It is out of this ambivalence, in this constitution as difference, that language reproduces itself" (Norton, 1988: 7-8). The boundaries that delimit the word, the meaning of the definition, 'this constitution as difference', is the first order of political order. In the economy of language, every word is a promise of signification: an encoded desire, a deferral, a distance, a discrimination. Out of ambivalence comes the word; out of politics, promise. Hannah Arendt captures the important of speech when she notably asserts, "Wherever the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes a man a political being" (1958: 3).

19. The history of modern political order has been a continuous effort to subordinate, channel, and encode the desire of the "Naturall Condition of mankind" into "Artificiall Man" (state-as-self qua national self). If the natural condition is an economy of desire, then Artificiall Man is signified in the economy of signs. "And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which neverthelesse they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their End, (which is principally their owne conservation , and sometimes their delectation only,) endeavour to destroy, or subdue one an other" (Hobbes, 1985: 184). It is a mental economy originally regulated by the fear of violent death and 'the desire to keep going'. This unmediated desire to keep going, a pure impulsion to avoid death, is a state of being without promise, a metaphorical world (im)famously contrived as the Hobbesian state of nature.

20. Hobbes argues,

Felicity is a continuall progresse of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the later. The cause whereof is, That the object of mans desire, is not to enjoy once onely, and for one instant of time; but to assure for ever, the way of his future desire (Ibid: 160-61).

In the condition of "warre" called nature, wherein solitude and insecurity drive every one against every one, "in the darkness of each man's lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities", there is no promise (Arendt, 1958: 237).

21. Promise, then, is inextricably tied to order, political order. Promise is an object that arises out of the lack that inheres in disorder, the lack that is the source of an ordering promise. Order delimits desire to fulfill future being; order ensures the absent presence of desire. Disorder is equated with the presence of desire, which translates into a world without promise. Order is thus made to escape the "horror" of nature. The order of promise, like its enforcement, as least as far back as Hobbes' contract, is a sovereign act to avert the horrors of desire in nature: undefinability, irrationality, ambiguity, and ambivalence, in a word, disorder. Modern promise now works to "incite, reinforce, control, optimize, and organize the forces under it: a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them..." (Foucault, 1980: 138; quoted in Connolly, 1987: 13).

The Gaze of Promise "Before the Law"

22. Derrida offers a tantalizing peek into the workings of promise: to see yourself on the horizon, to advance yourself towards what you are not. The Derridian gaze broadens our understanding of this primary ordering mechanism of the national self by challenging the presumed purity of the original speech act that brings the endless promise into being. He characterizes promise as the essentially inaccessible , while exposing it as an impossible act predicated on violence. What has been called by others a "violent act of abstraction" that produces the modern political subject, the "Cartesian cognito" of the national self (Zizek, 1991: 163), or perhaps more appropriately "the disengaged, particular self" (Taylor, 1989: 288), represents for Derrida the originary violent and exclusionary ends of the promise of democracy (1992a).

23. The first order of promise is the word. Promise for the national self rests on the original promise of the word, just like the promise of discourse resides on the original promise of reference in language. Language, for its part, is a medium that conveys an instance prior to it, a promise of signification already deferred in the original act of expression. The identity of language withdraws the moment this instance fades, both of them into oblivion, the lack out of which promise arises. The sign, the sign of promise, remains as a "privileged object of reflection and a volatile object" devoid of origin in an economy of signs (Beardsworth 1996: 6).

24. Entry into promise, like access to the Law, is 'deferred forever', rendering passage into the 'dictates of delay' essentially inaccessible (Derrida 1992b). The 'fable' of promise is really a story about order, discipline, and normalization, necessary elements of any political community. Like Kafka's man who hesitates "before the law", promise creates order by means of deferral. Put differently, promise creates order by remaining essentially inaccessible. Ironically, it is the restless lure of accessibility that channels, encodes, and orders the always-ominous presence of pure desire: "The story of prohibition is a prohibited story.... Yet permission had never been denied him: it had merely been delayed, adjourned, deferred" (Derrida 1992a: 200, 202). The promise of promise is to harness desire - the desire of the particular, the desire of the marginal, the desire that is difference - to ensure the absent presence of desire in political life. Promise projects its desire on the early modern horizon as a respite from contingency, then extends itself into a covering law that generates the very deviance and difference that it goes on to eliminate or conform.

25. The larger promise that we are talking about here is an endless promise: the promise that continues to promise itself. It is the Promise of America, but it is more than this. It is the universal promise of modernity: namely, the promise of universal democracy, the promise of universal justice, the promise of universal security, the promise of universal prosperity, the promise of universal identity, and the promise of universal progress. A promise, for all its virtue, that remains essentially inaccessible and removed from the life worlds of most peoples of the globe. Our promise, with its revealed originary violence and exclusionary ends, is our project for their world.

26. The endless global promise feigns the pure singularity of its invention, but its original absent presence violates this very singularity to make room for its universalizing content. "Something promises itself as it escapes, gives itself as it moves away, and strictly speaking it cannot even be called presence" (Derrida, 1992c: 96-97). Only desire that is held at a distance, whose presence is deferred, can be harnessed and mastered, ordered and disciplined through its projection onto the global horizon. "For this presence is at the same time desired and feared" (Ibid: 97). For this reason, the project of modernity must forever remain unfinished, and its subjects forever unsatisfied with their present inadequacy.

27. We, as a "community of promisers", are masters of the absent presence called the endless promise. The success of our mastery, however, signals a failure in our sovereignty as subjects with 'limited independence from the incalculability of the future':

The moment promises lose their character as isolated islands of certainty in an ocean of uncertainty, that is, when this faculty is misused to cover the whole ground of the future and to map a path secured in all directions, they lose their binding power and the whole enterprise becomes self-defeating (Arendt, 1958: 244).

The promise of the national self is an unfinished project: a fantasy construed out of absent presence, the originary lack out of which the endless promise keeps promising. The subject of modernity, the universalizable state-as-national self, has emptied her contingent 'life-narrative' into the fantasy object of the endless promise.

Alien Desire: Promise as the Fundamental Political Fantasy

28. The suggestion that political fantasy is a critical, though largely overlooked, concept for political theory will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows. My aim in this section is to raise the stakes of fantasy by calling it a political concept. I argue that political fantasy and political order are inextricably tied to one another, and central to the political logic of the promise of promise. As we explore the workings of political fantasy, we will discover how a certain "fundamental fantasy", promise as a political fantasy, has worked to reproduce social and political order for the national self. The role of political fantasy has changed throughout the twentieth century, however, especially in light of the emergence of the postmodern problematic.

29. The anatomy of modern promise is embodied in the modern state as the national self and its foreign others. The promise of modernity has been the fundamental, self-fulfilling political fantasy of a singular self-referential state. The political fantasy of promise has impelled streams of migrants in search of a better life in a different order. Promise has codified streams of desire (re: streams of migrants) by inviting, inscribing, recording, and re-ordering them, "to see to it that no flow exists that is not properly dammed up, channeled, regulated" (Deleuze and Guattari, 1972: 33). The fantasy of promise has been both a 'positive attachment' and a 'tactic of evasion'. Promise has been a positive attachment insofar as the national self has been constituted by it. Promise has been a tactic of evasion in that its presence is always already deferred. Lacan refers to the underlying dominant ordering fantasy as the "fundamental fantasy" (1977). The historical, social, and political dimensions of the national self have been scripted by the fundamental political fantasy of promise.

30. Fantasy operates to keep desire more or less constant, to protect it from too much variation, from becoming unruly and disorderly, and from dissipating altogether. Fantasy, thus, disciplines desire. The two problems of political fantasy are either having its object too close or too far away. If the object of desire is too close to being fulfilled, desire begins to wane. If it is too far away, desire remains inconstant, invariable, and indirect. Fantasy thus regulates desire in politics.

31. Such "desiring-production", according to Deleuze and Guattari, is first and foremost social in nature: "There is only one kind of production, the production of the Real" (1972: 32). The distinction of the rational element from irrational desire in the social production of reality is a false dualism between "the real object rationally produced on one hand, and irrational, fantasizing production on the other" (Theweleit, 1987: 220). Reality is more than a fantasy about the other; it is in large part the fantasy of the other.

32. Fantasy is the delusion that we are different than we are, that the world is different than it is. Fantasy is the story we tell ourselves about how we want others to see us, how we fit into the order of the world around us (Smith and Ferstman, 1996: 113-41). The national fantasy of promise is a form of desiring-production that is constantly present and perceived possible, whose ultimate fulfillment is always postponed and only partially ever arrives. There is never satisfaction with who we are (identity); there is never enough of what we want (desire).

33. The embodiment of promise in the national self ensures a double play of fantasy. Promise is the "fundamental fantasy frame" of the national self; the national self is promise for its Others. In this respect, the national self is Janus-faced: at once a desiring subject and a gaze-returning object. As a subject, the national self channels its desire towards an object: its fundamental fantasy of promise. As an object, the national self embodies the fantasy of promise for its Others, who see themselves already actualized in the gaze of their Other (the national self): 'the a priori condition of the object always already returning the gaze' (Zizek, 1996). The fantasy of promise is akin to an invisible-absent master, whose function is to regulate and normalize behavior, to encode desire, not unlike the ever-watchful, unseen eyes of the Protestant God (Weber, 1976) or Bentham's Panoptican (Foucault, 1978). "The gaze marks the point in the object (in the picture) from which the subject viewing it is already gazed at: i.e., it is the object that is gazing at me" (Zizek, 1991: 125). The gaze is the point from which the subject is seen. By its elusive nature, promise is always already (un)fulfilled, beyond reach, and gazing back. It is the nature of original promise to produce something out of nothing, to enable production out of lack, to situate the absent presence of desire.

34. "Desire is always desire for another's desire" (Lacan, 1977), the lack of which sustains desire and promise fills. For instance, the national self desires the desire of the migrant; the migrant desires the desire of the national self. The migrant wants the national self (the migrant's promise) to want him; the national self wants the migrant to want her. The national self and its Others exist in a sort of symbiosis of political fantasy: each desiring the other's desire. The object of desire is always the desire of the Other. The function of fantasy is to defer, channel, encode, and order desire.

What we encounter in the very core of fantasy is the relationship to the desire of the Other, to the latter's opacity: the desire staged in fantasy is not mine but the desire of the Other. Fantasy is a way for the subject to answer the question of what object he is in the eyes of the Other, in the Other's desire - that is, what does the Other see in him, what role does he play in the Other's desire? (Zizek, 1994: 177; italics in original).

The national self is constituted out its identification with the desire of the Other: "the subject attempts to fill out its constitutive lack by means of identification, by identifying itself with some master-signifier guaranteeing its place in the symbolic network" (Zizek, 1991: 163). For the national self, the signification of promise comes in the form of the desiring Other. The political fantasy of promise that constitutes the national self is signified by the Other's desire for it.

Back to the Word

35. The political fantasy of promise is a fundamental ordering mechanism that begins with the word. "The constitution is at once text and nation. It is an act that founds the nation and the sign that marks it...In it we see not the word made flesh but the flesh made word" (Norton, 1993: 123-24). The Founders of the United States, a new sovereign order, gave their word to "overcome the isolation and incompletion of their corporeal individuality" (Ibid: 125). Out of isolation and incompletion is born one out of many: what I have called the national self. The founding encodes the individual 'desire to keep going' into a shared language; it marks the original submission of individual corporeal identity to language.

36. The founding act orders, disciplines and normalizes, desire into the word. Political order originates in the collective fantasy that "supplements a corporeal with a written constitution. The citizens of an inscribed nation, the authors of written constitutions, take upon themselves a written identity" (Ibid). The act of drafting a constitution is a collective submission of singular selves and disparate identities to language. The written word, the Constitution, becomes the constituent of our identity. The assemblage of words that fulfills Constitution is a promise of transubstantiation from the solitude of flesh into a community of speech. "In promising one wills one's own constancy. The people in constituting themselves as a nation manifest their will to be true to themselves. In constituting themselves in writing they will be true to their word" (Ibid: 130).

37. The fundamental fantasy at the base of the founding moment funnels disparate individual and group desire into a singular channel toward the original promise: the simultaneity of semiotic and political representation. It is the promise that "a thing can be what it is not", a promise whose fulfillment is perpetually deferred (Ibid). It is a promise that a metaphor, the national self, is real. The political fantasy of promise is embodied in the Word, the Constitution, whose sanctimonious gaze returns a partial, always incomplete, image of ourselves. Promise is the fantasy that a text can re-present our disparate selves as one-self. The national self signifies the promise of collective reproduction through re-presentation. The representation of the people comes more and more to mean securing the presence of the people, their desire, in their absence (Norton, 1988). The promise of representation, the original fantasy, perpetually defers the presentation of the national self in a sort of 'semantic indeterminacy' (Derrida, 1976): re-presentation-in-difference.

A Wor(l)d of Indifference

38. Indifference is a product of the political fantasy of promise, an answer to the contemporary "horror of being bound and fixed" (Bauman, 1996: 26; also see Herzfeld, 1992). The national self invests fantasy into its Other, namely the fundamental fantasy of promise that orders all Others. The fantasy of promise tells the national self what it is for its Others. Promise, which has been largely reduced to that narrow ambition of making money, encodes streams of migrants into a one-dimensional flow in the name of freedom and democracy. Promise begins and ends as "a violent act of abstraction" (Zizek, 1991: 163), one that sets in motion streams of migrants in search of a better life (Chambers, 1994).

39. In the end, the ordering fantasy of modern promise generates indifference to difference, because the promise (of America, of democracy, of free markets...of modernity) 'empties' identities of 'all content by freeing them from substantial ties'. Today, the national self, rather than untying, cleansing, and stitching together the frays of old identities into a new, singular, substantial knot of national identity, effectively diminishes all ties by posturing a generalized indifference to identity. This has been the fantasy anyway: "the Cartesian cognito as a point of pure, nonsubstantial subjectivity" in the service of the promise of the national self (Zizek, 1991: 163). Marcuse captures well the singularity of the "supreme promise" of modernity. He relates this singularity to the "closing" of the political and discursive universe, where contradiction learns to "coexist in indifference" (1964: 61). In a world of indifference, "the subject which is alienated is swallowed up by its alienated existence. There is only one dimension, and it is everywhere and in all forms" (Ibid: 11).

40. The shifting of national self from national identity-building to the empty Cartesian subject marks a shift of the fundamental fantasy frame. In the 1920s the imperative was to cleanse the old identities to make space for the new one. Today, the national self has largely abandoned the project of identity-building as an escape from uncertainty in favor of a new fantasy space: the play of uncertainty and ambivalence as an escape from imposed identity (Bauman, 1991; 1996). Escape becomes a game whose goal is to avoid singular fixation, yet the game is only possible because singularity has been largely achieved and desire is now for difference! The play of meaning against the Meaning becomes an end in itself, because when all Other meanings are inaccessible, there really is no difference.

41. The play goes on endlessly because you can never fix the meaning long enough to stabilize yourself, your singular identity, to fulfill the original promise of singularity (Derrida, 1976). "Games, in other words, are ends in themselves. Play is a voluntary activity that creates order and hence 'meaning' in a limited environment, and fantasy is a game that proceeds within the mind's playground" (Olsen, 1987: 33; italics added). The old signposts lead you nowhere because the promise has been generalized everywhere, so fixation only creates trauma. Indifference to difference becomes the only viable survival strategy for the national self. Meanwhile, difference became the desire of a vacuous singularity. Promise is everywhere and nowhere at once. "[T]he snag is no longer how to discover, invent, construct, assemble (even buy) an identity, but how to prevent it from sticking...The hub of postmodern life strategy is not identity building, but avoidance of fixation" (Bauman, 1996: 24).

42. During an earlier time, the continued existence of the national self was tied to the infusion of new bloods. Since promise situates and orders the future by deferring the presence of desire, new energies today were encoded, stored, and normalized as desire for tomorrow. The national self depicted blood and energy , like the streams of desire they represented, as flows whose quality was a measure of purity . For many in Congress, the primary reason for restricting of "the alien stream is the necessity for purifying and keeping pure the blood of America" (Rep. Allen, 1924: H5693). The alien stream was unrestrained, un-coded desire. It represented the space of the nomad against State space: desiring bodies against the Body of the national self (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). The alien stream was alien because it had no memory of promise. However, the generalization of a promise, the promise of promise, sought to produce a singular memory out of an originary lack by promising the whole ground. Public amnesia became the wellspring of a public memory of an originally pure national self, and in 1920s America's amnesia of the diversity of its origins became a major source of power, as Nietzsche had so astutely observed half a century earlier in Europe:

Precisely this necessarily forgetful animal in whom forgetting represents a force, a form of strong health, has now bred in itself an opposite faculty, a memory, with whose help forgetfulness is disconnected for certain cases-namely for those cases where a promise is to be made (Nietzsche, 1998: 35).

43. Congress worried that the inundation of alien others would wash away or dilute the collective memory of the originary promise: the fantasy object that restricted, channeled and coded, in a word, ordered , desire into a collective national memory of pure origins. "Public memory", argues Mary Douglas, "is the storage system for the social order" (1986: 70). The quality of memory, the preservation and purity of political fantasy, is an inscription, a mark, a trace of political order whose total hegemony, Gramsci (1971) reminds us, is never completely fulfilled:

Immigrants have been pouring in upon us more rapidly than they can be assimilated...The situation is alarming, and the case has resolved itself into this: 'Shall the American people lay themselves open to pollution by undesirable immigrants, and shall the Nation open its fold for the entrance of elements that can not be amalgamated and that make heterogeneity of population? (Rep. Allen, 1924: H5693).

Between the fold of preservation and progress, of purity and promise, lays the discursive space of order. By the 1920s, immigrants had been entering the fold of the national self at an unprecedented rate, but not every suitor was considered amenable to the pure order of the national self:

In this land we have established a Government, institutions, ideals, and a standard of living to which we are very much attached. We hold its unimpaired preservation to be the highest duty of every American. We cannot expect preservation and progress of our country to be accomplished except by our own people, or by those who can readily become the American type as we know it to-day....True assimilation requires racial harmony and compatibility (Rep. Lea, 1924: H5696).

Closing the Opening

44. Every memory has a point of origin in the past and a line that connects it to the present: "the point-system of memory" (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 294). The preservation of the point of national origins, by extending the line that connects us to it, was a prerequisite to the conception and reproduction of America's political fantasy of promise in the 1920s. The point of origin of the public memory was a pure point of national origins that had extended westward throughout the nineteenth century and ordered the frontier (Cushman, 1995).

I contend that we have a work to do in assimilating and Americanizing those we already have living under our flag without lifting the floodgates and permitting an inundation to come rushing in as though our western prairies were still people solely by wandering bands of Indians and herds of buffalo (Rep. Bacon, 1924: H5902-03).

The fundamental political fantasy of the 1920s was the promise to (pre)serve the purity of the national self. There was fear among Congress men that the penetration of alien desire was despoiling the purity of their prized lady, the national self, which should remain "true to [her] ideals, clean, vigorous, healthy, and united" (Rep. Schall, 1924: H5695). She was laying open her virgin frontier past to pollution by immigrants whose desire she should resist; she was opening the fold between flesh and word to the entrance of elements that threatened to stain the memory of her pure point of transubstantiation. The call for order armed itself with memories of purity:

Unless we safeguard ourselves against further influx of undesirables there will no longer be an America for Americans...I am afraid that we fail to realize how stupendous, though noiseless, is the pressure of this immigration avalanche. Immigrants have been pouring into the United States at an enormous rate...America is saturated with aliens (Rep. Allen 1924: H5694).

46. That noiseless pressure pouring in between the stable fold of flesh and word was eating from within the public memory of pure origins, threatening to despoil the originary lack that nurtured the political fantasy of promise. The public memory of the national self was being overrun , saturated , swamped , and submerged by the strain of an enormous influx of alien desire. The even, measured, and ordered streams of national life were being clogged by the entrance of elements that did not fit . "Let us begin the work of sorting out the fit and the unfit" (Rep. Garber, 1924: H5690). The orderly flow towards the promise of progress relied upon the preservation of the memory, rooted in amnesia, of pure origins . The national self envisioned itself as clean , healthy , and vigorous . "In short, our pollution behavior is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications" (Douglas, 1966: 37; italics added). That which was unfit was to be sorted out , because that which is out of place causes disorder. "Dirt is disorder" (Ibid). The flood of polluting elements threatened not only the ideal of the national self conceived of pure origins, but more importantly it exposed the bedrock of fear, the fear of oblivion...the ultimate lack, upon which the political fantasy of promise resided. The alien stream threatened to break through the dam that separated flesh from word, and dilute the national memory of its moment of pure transubstantiation.

47. Flow metaphors opened the way for many forms of belonging and exclusion. The power of flow metaphors is in their intimate relationship to the most vital forces of human existence: fear and desire.

The powerful metaphor of the flood engenders a clearly ambivalent state of excitement. It is threatening, but also attractive: the flood approaches!...Their attention is riveted on the moment when the dam bursts, the moment when the liquid crashes up against the solid and destroys it...Within this process, the desire for collision seems to be as strong as the fear of it. The desire for 'contact' is realized, in the sense that this desire instigates collision; the fear is realized, in the sense that the collision ends in death (Theweleit, 1987: 230, 234).

Flow metaphors pervade Congressional talk about immigration throughout the twentieth century, but particularly concerned the purity of the political body in the 1920s. The survival of the national self depends first and foremost on the regulation of all streams of desire. Official immigration discourse produced a surge of flow metaphors out of the fear that the promise of an exclusive American identity could not sustain the flood of alien desire. Of course, there was no doubt that the national self was indebted to earlier immigrants: "For a century", Representative Bacon reminded the floor,

we have gained the composite American, more full of life and energy than any out of which he has come... In the melting pot of America we have compounded the characteristics and the strength of all of the Caucasian races..., molded into something newer and more vital (1924: H5902).

48. The melting pot, where all flows of alien desire were collected, contained, and coded as part of the national self, was supposed to dissolve many bloods into one. The fear by 1924 was that assimilation was no longer working. That was not all. For one blood to become more full (sic) of life and energy, newer and more vital than the ones whence it came, there had to be that transubstantiation from flesh into word. Only by having an identity in language could a diversity of elements be brought together in common pursuit of the political fantasy of generalized promise. The submission of their individual corporeal identities to language, to the promise of America, meant that they had to resign the actualization of their disparate physical desires and fears to a constitutive metaphor: the national self. The promise of order resided in preserving the textual order of pure identity.

49. The instability of meaning common to the word, the 'semantic indeterminacy' characteristic to all forms of linguistic representation (Derrida, 1976), enabled them to become us. The expression of flesh-as-word encoded immigrants into a new flow, a new circulation, and a new line of memory that pointed back to a pure point of national origin. Assimilation was said to have occurred when the national memory had become their memory, when the purity of origins had become their origin, when our desire had become their desire: in short, when the political fantasy of promise had become their political fantasy.

50. This narrative has covered the inception and perpetuation of a promise: the promise of promise. We have examined promise as a fundamental ordering mechanism of the American polity, of modernity. We have pondered the role of fantasy in politics and introduced political fantasy: the political fantasy of promise. We have surmised that political fantasy disciplines desire, and that the political fantasy of promise orders the world by endlessly deferring complete fulfillment. The endless promise of a pure national identity constituted out of a lack exemplified by alien others, weakened and dissipated before arrival, as Gramsci would expect of any hegemony (1971). The hegemonic American promise of the 1920s had clung to the order of pure identity, a promise of the whole ground. The national self was a misnomer for a site that had always 'contained multitudes', to paraphrase poet of democracy, Walt Whitman (Kateb, 1990). By the 1960s, the national fantasy frame had begun to shift and new orders were in the making. Today we exist in a new fantasy space with new possibilities and new post-Cold War challenges, where renewed promises still proffer a respite from an evermore contingent existence for us, so long as we forget the originary bedrock of violence and exclusion our promise belies for them: "from which one can immediately anticipate the degree to which there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present without forgetfulness" (Nietzsche, 1998: 35).


James Ross is a Visiting Assistant Professor of political theory at Colorado State University. His current research probes the intersection between migration and metaphor, and the new biopolitics extending state borders inside subject bodies.


[1] This and all subsequent excerpts come from the Cong. Rec. of the 69th Congress, 1924.


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