Romance Novels, Class and Abu Ghraib

Against the Current, No. 121, March/April 2006

Teresa L. Ebert

THE ROMANCE NOVEL The Ruby (1995) is ostensibly a tale of love, intimacy and caring. Yet the author, Ann Maxwell, directly addresses its heroine and its implied reader in a dramatic scene, and instructs them “to stop thinking like a good little civilian…..The law is for little old ladies who worry about burglars or for salary slaves whose flashy cars get stolen. You’re in a different world now, a world where it’s power against power, and law has got sweet fuck all to do with it.” (125)

The idea that observing the law is a sign of weakness while power serves property underlies women’s romances. In the erotic vocabularies of intimacy, caring, love and desire, women’s romances make the aggression, carnage and atrocities of capitalism seem normal and even dangerously desirable. They naturalize the class violence of global capital as acts of duty, compassion and, above all, love.

Now what does any of this have to do Abu Ghraib? I will argue here that Abu Ghraib is an extension of, not an exception to, the distorted fantasies in romances and an effect of capital’s aggression against “the other” concealed by these fantasies. Neither accidental nor an exception, the tortures and atrocities at Abu Ghraib are part of the structures of imperialism and militarism that are integral to capitalism.

The controversies over Abu Ghraib have focused mostly on whether these were the acts of rogue soldiers or part of an established policy originating with Rumsfeld, Cheney, and others. Neither theory can explain the logic of torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, or why it continues. Even the recent congressional ban on torture, as the New York Times notes, actually provides legal protection for continuing torture (12/ 16/05), and may be bypassed altogether by the President as indicated in his “signing statement.” (The Boston Globe, 1/4/ 06) The violence, repression and sexual displacement at Abu Ghraib are not haphazard but symptoms, I will argue, of the class structure manifested in the culture of capitalism.

Class divisions of labor and property are global: Imperialism and its military dynamics, as Lenin argued, are “the highest stage of capitalism” because they are essential to maintaining profit and the exploitation of labor. Capitalism legalizes systemic class violence as necessary to keep “law and order” and protect the “American way of life” — code for protecting private property.

Class violence is also justified through such cultural products as women’s romances, normalizing this violence and making it part of the affective structures of the everyday. Through fantasies of love, these romances produce a form of cultural common sense that reconciles readers to the anxieties, isolation, fragmentation and estrangement produced by the violence of daily exploitation. Women’s romances, to put it differently, are cultural crisis managers for capital.

Approving of this role, romance writer Diana Palmer argues that romances are healthy “daydreams” that “enable people to step back from problems that threaten to be overwhelming. I produce fantasy,” she says, “for people who need a one-hour escape from reality” (“Let Me Tell You about My Readers” 1992, reprinted in Women and Romance: A Reader, ed. Weisser, New York: New York University Press, 353). “My readers,” she says,

represent the hard-working labor force. They are women who spend eight grueling hours a day in a garment factory, in front of a classroom, or behind a desk. Most of them are married and have children. Some are divorced or widowed. These hard-working women leave their jobs at the end of the day and pick up their children at day-care centers. They go home to a house that needs cleaning, to dishes that need washing, to meals that have to be prepared…. Romance novels allow these women ….to live in luxury and even, sometimes, in decadence. The novels allow them to escape the normal cares and woes of life by returning in dreams to a time less filled with responsibilities… (352-53)

(“Represented as trivial literature, women’s romances are largely invisible to critical attention; yet they are embraced in the cultural common sense as spaces of caring, intimacy, and erotic pleasures, and interpreted by their defenders as texts of transgression and vehicles of guilty pleasure — part of a “resistance literature” of women.”

I read them otherwise, while at the same time I recognize that they fulfill a genuine affective need. Marx criticizes religion as an “inverted world consciousness” (“Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law: Introduction,” Collected Works, v. 3, 175). While it is, he says, “an expression of real suffering,” it only offers an “illusory happiness.” Thus, he argues, “The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions” (175-76).

Women’s romances are both articulations of the cultural imaginary of capital that normalizes the “condition which requires illusions,” and a complex illusory expression of women’s genuine need to overcome the alienation, self-estrangement and hardship capital produces. The materialist critique of women’s romances is a critique of this imaginary as part of the struggle to change the conditions requiring these illusions.

Love, Property and Aggression

“Love” is fundamentally a social relation among people. But under capitalism, the ideology fetishizing the commodity-market changes this social relation among people into a “fantastic relation between things.” (Marx, Capital, I, 165) Women’s romances are both commodities for consumption and one of the most influential cultural products of capital — according to statistics of the Romance Writers of America for 2002, there are about 51.1 million U.S. romance readers.

Romances show intimately how narratives of love under capitalism are actually narratives of property and its protection by violence — whether in the name of the law or renegade justice. The erotics of property is perhaps most explicit in Elizabeth Lowell’s many novels, in which the struggle for ownership of the prized possession fuses the sensuous desires of body and precious objects (gold, diamonds, rubies, pearls….) with global economics: for example, the crisis of the free market in China. (Tell Me No Lies, 1986, reissued: 1992, 1996, 2001; Jade Island, 1998, 1999) and the new Russia (Amber Beach, 1997, 1998), as well as the international diamond trade (The Diamond Tiger, 1992, reissued 1999,  and as Death is Forever, 2004)

Women’s romances produce a cultural unconscious that transcodes the violence involved in the accumulation and protection of capital into acts of love and aggressive caring necessary for the security of the self, safety of the family, and love of country. In one of Silhouette’s new “Bombshell” romances, for instance, a secret “Black Ops” woman’s unit is “elated” at “their night’s work on the oil field [killing terrorists]…bodies lay everywhere…the oilfield and its income restored” to allied control. “Sure, she was motivated by larger ideals…but at the end of the day, it all came down to protecting the people she knew and loved.” (Dees, Medusa Project, 282-83)

By inverting the everyday class-violence of capital into the compassionate acts of dedicated heroes, who protect their loved ones by wreaking violence and inflicting retributive justice on the enemies of freedom and property, romances expand the cultural tolerance for violence and aggression.

Culture, I argue, is an extension of material social relations. In saying this, I am opposing mainstream cultural views which insist that “culture” is an autonomous realm of post-materiality, values and spirituality, what Herbert Marcuse calls “affirmative culture.” From this point of view, women’s romances are seen as self-fashioning acts of desire that produce their own history rather than being affected by history.

Similarly, the events at Abu Ghraib are also seen as trajectories of (sadistic) desire and acts of (perverse) pleasure that express individual affects and not the historical relations of class injustice. For affirmative culture, reading the two together, in terms of the impact one has on the other, is rejected as a “reductive interpretation.” However, in materialist cultural critique, as in science, it is precisely in the reductive that the underlying abstract structures of practices and phenomena are stripped away from the cultural discourses that obscure them.

Torture As Necessity for Empire

Women’s romances are vital acts for affirmative culture: they dissolve the material injustices of empire in the discursive spiritualization called love. But how do they do so? How do they turn the war on terrorism, the brutality of Abu Ghraib and the violations of Guantanamo into the intimate pleasures of protection?

One of the main functions of the capitalist cultural logic is to isolate each part of our daily lives and, for example, to put a break between women’s romances and Abu Ghraib. Consequently we do not realize how the pleasure we take in reading romances prepares us to be shocked by the atrocities at Abu Ghraib (and therefore assert our identity as a moral person), at the same time teaching us to concede that torturing the other is necessary for the safety and well-being of our loved ones and ourselves.

This cultural logic generates a fantasy of retribution and conceals the reality that “torture,” as nearly every expert declares, “doesn’t work” and may, in fact, put us in more peril. This split cultural consciousness — which both relates and obscures the relation between women’s romances and the Abu Ghraib atrocities — is produced by the code of whatever it takes to get the job done. This code gives capitalist violence an aura of idealism and sacrifice by representing its aggressions as a principle of protection, giving it the urgency of maintaining law and order for the good of the community.  The actual goal is, of course, the protection of the property of the privileged few.

“Whatever it takes” is the stock-in-trade of espionage tales, military novels and crime thrillers and the backbone of masculine culture. To say that this code is constitutive of the underlying structure of narratives in women’s romances may seem contradictory, since they are commonly seen as the very opposite of the administrative reason of efficiency and pragmatic violence of “whatever it takes.” But the nurturing pleasures in romances are the class doubles of capitalist violence:  It is through these pleasures that capital reduces the social tensions produced by its actual exploitative practices and situates people in a zone of the emotions, affects and desires.  Romances are imaginary scripts for the necessity of violence. In a scene, for example, from Mary Jo Putney’s 1994 Regency era romance called Dancing on the Wind, we read:

“Horrified,” Kit said, “You mean torture?” Lucien looked at her. “If that’s what it takes to find your sister”….She had always thought of herself as a civilized woman, but apparently she was not, for she found herself seriously considering Lucien’s suggestion. (307)

In fact, the violent killing in the novel gets so out of hand that the hero feels the need to justify the carnage by saying “what happened tonight was justice not slaughter.”

But just when is killing “justice not slaughter”? Romances direct readers to produce the preferred responses through several strategies. The first authorizes preemptive and retributive violence in the name of protecting “one’s own” — one’s family, property or nation — against any perceived threats. In The Ruby, Ann Maxwell’s hero says, “taking care of her meant being more ruthless and murderous than the people who were stalking her.” (340) Masculinity is fundamentally tied to possession and protection — a real man protects his own and ruthlessly does “whatever it takes” to do so.

 But the ideology of protection and retribution is not enough to distinguish “justice” from “slaughter.” As one Navy-SEAL worries in Suzanne Brockmann’s Flashpoint (309): “‘it still felt like slaughter’…the truth was, Jimmy had seen too much death, too much bad for the alleged sake of good.”

Why are these narratives written, and why are they written the way they are? The philosophical incoherence in women’s romances — professing adherence to civilized codes but actually ignoring them — is part of the structure of all ideological practices. In All the Queen’s Men (1999), Linda Howard’s hero, “the CIA’s legendary Black Ops specialist,” fighting for democracy and free civilized society, openly declares that he is not bound by civilized conventions: “I’ll do whatever’s necessary….I don’t put limitations on what I’m willing to do to get a job done.” (274)

In the name of protection, then, romance novels disregard the rules of the civilized world coded into laws and revert back to the old logic of retribution. This is the same reversion that underwrites the logic of Alberto Gonzales’s January, 2002 “Memorandum for the President.” Gonzales declared the “Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War,” whose violation the Red Cross says is “tantamount to torture,” to be “obsolete” and “quaint.”  He treats such laws as bureaucratic impediments to real justice — that is, to retribution. (Reprinted in The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, ed. Karen J. Greenberg and Joshua L. Dratel, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 118-121.)

Romances develop a pedagogy of violence that teaches readers lessons they take into daily life, where they make judgments about war and peace, terrorism, democracy and the uses of force. It normalizes violence as the only way to “get things done” for the protection of self and civilization. Therefore, when the Chairman of Delta Airlines says — as he did recently — that he would do “whatever it takes to cut costs by one billion” (BBC World News, 5/19/05), everyone seems to think that he is, in fact, doing the right thing.

“Whatever it takes” is a class code for dploying violence in the interest of the ruling elite, but it has acquired a culturally reassuring aspect through popular culture. Whatever it takes,” for the Delta Chairman, is unlikely to mean cutting the multimillion dollar salaries of the top executives, but it definitely will mean downsizing and firing employees; cutting salaries and benefits and pensions.

To contain the ethical dilemmas and (ideo) logical inconsistencies in these romances, the pedagogy of violence invokes another strategy of legitimation. It tries to justify violence against the “other” by always representing the enemy as excessively brutal; morally and ethically depraved, and frequently also sexually perverted. In contrast, the hero is always represented as fundamentally good and “capable of surprising tenderness” and caring. (The Ruby, 177)

In her essay “Love Conquers All,” romance writer Elizabeth Lowell argues that the “classic romance warrior-heroes…do not enjoy destruction. Ultimately they use their strength, their intelligence, and their discipline to defend rather than exploit those who are weaker than they.” (92) No matter how brutal are the hero’s own actions, they are always redeemed by what is represented as his caring, tender ruthlessness in the act of protection, as opposed to the enemy’s extreme depravity.

To maintain this binary, romance novels represent the “enemy” as engaging in almost every imaginable perversion and cruelty from the trafficking of children, pederasty, sadomasochism, gang-rape and mutilation to mass murder, serial killings, hijackings and beheadings. In Brockmann’s Flashpoint, for example, the warlord, terrorists and gun dealers in Brockman’s imaginary “Kazbekistan” (a generic “hotbed of terrorist activity”) are represented as  sexually “debasing” and physically brutalizing one of the (American) heroines, including “carving their initials into her skin.” (240-41)

Women’s romances eroticize and normalize this inverted fantasy — rampant in popular culture and thus part of the common sense of the troops — in which the enemy is the embodiment of perversity and cruelty, and whom therefore the soldier-hero has every right to torture in order to get the job done, which is caring for America and Americans. Abu Ghraib is thus an extension of, not an exception to, the distorted fantasies in romances and an effect of capital’s aggressions concealed by these fantasies.

Many romance readers commonly “forget” these graphic scenes of violence. This is because popular culture encourages a process of selective inattention to what is read. In reading selectively, readers skip pages or avert their eyes from unpleasant scenes out of boredom or to avoid distress, especially when the violence becomes excessive. But before turning their attention away, they cannot help but notice what it is that they do not want to see.

While readers differ over what they attend to and when they turn away (even differing from themselves in what they see and what they skip in each reading), they are all taught the same cultural lesson by popular culture: to look away, to disregard what is beyond the boundaries of our tolerance and to be actively inattentive to brutality.

Violence in women’s romances is eroticized and made acceptable as part of an ethics of intimacy. Representations of cruelty, assault, and carnage all occur in close proximity to representations of sensuousness and sexuality. In Linda Howard’s Mr. Perfect, the heroine is nearly strangled to death. But in the narrative the therapy for her damaged throat is said to be hot sex. Howard writes, “she might wake up in terror, but she went back to sleep with every muscle limp from an overdose of pleasure.” (397)

The link between violence and sexual pleasure is even greater when we recognize how much of the psychic tension, thrills and stimulation of the senses in popular narratives are generated by violence. Violence is the main source of excitation, tension, emotional intensification and sensual stimulation in popular culture. Reader’s imaginations are saturated and penetrated by violence — the impact of which is all the greater since we engage it in those moments of relaxation and escape when we suspend our critical thinking.

Popular culture is a narcosis of violence, simultaneously eroticizing it and desensitizing the reader to aggression. The pleasures of women’s romances are not innocent “guilty pleasures” that simply assert the power of women. Popular pleasures fulfill a necessary social function: they teach us how to make sense of and actively disregard the violence of daily life, including how we misrecognize the reality of torture.

The Superiority of Capitalism

Capitalism has always represented itself as a superior form of social life. It claims that, unlike socialism with its planned economy, the economics of the free market and democracy offer people an equal chance in their economic life; equality before the law, and freedom of expression in their social life.  In other words, capitalism’s legitimacy depends on its promise of freedom and equality of all people both economically and politically.

However, capitalism cannot remain capitalist and at the same time maintain its promises of equality and freedom for all, because the survival of capitalism depends on constantly increasing its profits, and increasing profits is impossible without the exploitation of some people by others. Capitalism, in short, is based on structural inequalities that it maintains, in large part, through violence. Popular cultural forms like romances normalize violence, making it the idiom of daily life and numbing people to its destructive consequences.

In Abu Ghraib the enemy is portrayed as an unyielding and depraved person, just as villains are in romances. He is seen as holding the secret that will save the lives of loved ones. His silence therefore has to be broken by whatever means necessary — “by whatever it takes.” Romances prepare the reader to accept as necessary the strategies of violence deployed in implementing “whatever it takes” against the other, who only has be named as a threat.

In fact the International Red Cross Reports that “70-90 per cent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake,” as reporter Mark Danner points out.  Danner comments on the Abu Ghraib photos and asks us to
Consider the naked body wearing only the black hood, hands clasped above his head: Pfc Lynndie England, grinning back at the camera, pointing to his genitals with her right hand, flashing a thumbs up with her left. This body belongs to Hayder Sabbar Abd, a thirty-four-year old Shiite from Nasiriya ….’The truth is, he told …The New York Times, we were not terrorists. We were not insurgents. We were just ordinary people.’ (Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror, New York: New York Review Books, 2004, 3)

Women’s romances provide the cultural logic for these scenarios that are acted out at Abu Ghraib and in the photos we have all seen.  Women’s romances and the atrocities at Abu Ghraib may seem to be part of two different worlds — one the world of textuality, of love and intimacy, the other the real world of war and aggression — but they are part of the same fundamental structure in which culture legitimates the violence needed for exploitation.

Culture is not the articulation of an autonomous imagination, but an extension of labor relations. Moralizing about popular culture or the crimes at Abu Ghraib will not change culture. In the struggle for social change the task of cultural critique is to contribute to developing a consciousness of totality that can grasp the class relations in their specificity. Only changing those relations will change reality.

ATC 121, March-April 2006