Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Another Modest Proposal

Precis on Report from Iron Mountain
Aaron Benavidez, 13875347

The more appropriately named Hoax Not From Iron Mountain is a rocky and slippery text with two argumentative faces. The first face—the internal argument of Sections 2-8—forwards the following claim: War operates not as an auxiliary phenomenon to a political-economic core, but fundamentally constitutes the productive substance of society: “War itself is the basic social system, within which other secondary modes of social organization conflict and conspire” (Lewin 48). The second face—about which Navasky’s “Introduction,” Lewin’s “Afterword,” and the Appendixes 1-7 struggle to force into a space of justification—advances the claim that Report From Iron Mountain as a satirical production generated its aim "to provoke debate ... in varying degrees” (119). To be sure, then, provocation as a precursor to the otherwise more muscular end of calling assumptions into question or changing convictions undergirds the text’s stakes more generally.

These two argumentative faces are not without dynamism. The second face’s preoccupation with the question of whether the book aggravated a dispassionate public finds its source within the necessary parameters of the first face that argues: War “is itself the principal basis of organization on which all modern societies are constructed” (Lewin 93). This relationship between the text’s two foundational arguments remains, however, an unsettled terrain. Let’s open our “report” to Navasky’s “Introduction” where he almost concludes our prologue in Iron Mountain:

“The Report was a success in that it achieved its mission which in this case was to provoke thinking about the unthinkable—the conversion to a peacetime economy and the absurdity of the arms race. But it was a failure, given that even with the end of the cold war we still have a cold war economy …” (xv-xvi).

My reading of Iron Mountain agrees with Navasky’s latter point, but I would like to trouble the former. Is it an unproblematized fact that an elaborate parody that involved the clear corroboration of a leading world economist “provoked thinking about the unthinkable”? Or is it more the case that Iron Mountain unleashed a chin-high, obsessive deluge regarding two apparently vital questions: who done it and is it really real?

To begin to answer this question about provocation in the direction of "thinking about the unthinkable," consider the following rough statistics. Iron Mountain consists of some 152 pages. The Navasky’s “Introduction,” Lewin’s “Afterword,” and Appendixes 1-7—which do the work of coming out of the authorial intention closet to set the historical record “straight”—collectively frame approximately 29% of the text. These pages attempt to legitimize the provocation claim (Navasky and Lewin) and to provide evidence for that claim (the Appendixes 1-7).

However, the project of legitimacy—a central tension that overshadows the entire text and the text as a living text producing meaning in the world beyond its birth—also directs the aspirations of other sections. Let’s recall, after all, that the “Foreword,” “Background Information,” and “Statement by ‘John Doe’” originally hustled to make genuine a fictitious document in the first place. These pages account for some 14% of Iron Mountain.

This means that about 43% of Iron Mountain is devoted to who done it and is it really real? And one might find it particularly interesting that the mobilization of authenticity in the aftermath of the publication directly responds to the uncertainty set up by the first aim at legitimizing a bogus text. Here, too, lies a particular internal-external dynamism.

Given the signification tied to authenticity, no wonder that the reviews of 1967 almost exclusively focus on the text as a “roaring scandal” or “guessing game” that may or may not be “a big spoof,” “a grim joke,” a “hoax—but what a hoax!” (Lewin 125, 140, 139, 147, and 134). With the exception of the Robert Lekachman review that begins with a remarkably thoughtful discussion on language and then tries to engage the core arguments of Sections 2-8, the authenticity anxiety overwhelming determines the focus of provocation. The reviews—the material that might provide a discourse analysis for a viable methodology to substantiate an audience-response claim—testifies not so much to an audience that feels “emotionally distraught and horrified” by Iron Mountain. Rather, the reviews reveal the way that anonymity, authorial counterfeit, and situational satire undermine an original intention to “extend the scope of public discussion” (150). All we can think about are dead Irish babies.

In short, to use Lewin to explain Lewin: “It is ironic how often this practice backfires” (7). While compelling for its conspiratorial aura, the second face disconnected from the discussion intended by the first face is the effacement of the Iron Mountain in its aftermath.

Works Cited
Lewin, Leonard C. Report from Iron Mountain. New York: The Free Press, 1996.

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