In the vast cultural, economic, and political space of America, there is, on the one hand, the government, and on the other there is what governs us. There’s a lot of room between the strictures of law and the practicalities of daily life—a space occupied by family, bureaucrats, preachers, landlords, and doctors, by love, by money, or that thing you feel in the absence of money, by corporations, even by art. We can’t speak of empires today in the way that Edward Gibbon might. Even the new Star Wars is post-imperial. There is no monolith, no American Empire that provides all the rules, sets all the standards—what we have instead is only America, messy pastiche. So what could we rightly call a modern empire? A business, or a church, if it’s considerably big, or a natural resource, with its attendant corporate and environmental concerns? They can be powerful enough, and more than willing enough to wield that power. But this raises another question: Should we even give them that moniker? To crown a Wall Street tycoon or Silicon Valley technocrat an emperor might imbue them with power they don’t otherwise have. An exercise in rhetoric, maybe—but then again, how we define something influences how we see it, and, in turn, how we behave toward it.
In this special issue of Guernica, the third of four made possible through your generous support of our Kickstarter campaign, we offer a few panels from this sprawling imperial mosaic—its victims and beneficiaries, the merciful and the mercenary. You won’t find these empires on a map, tucked as they are behind the names of can’t-say-I’ve-been-there towns. Be on the lookout instead for an office complex, someplace awash in the soothing hum of data centers and microwave transmitters. Their borders are the perimeter of the boardroom table, the cut of a sharp suit. If, that is, you decide they exist at all.
In this issue: features from Richard Price, Laura Gottesdiener, Christopher Leonard, Jessica Machado, Ed Winstead, and the Guernica staff; interviews with Shannon Brownlee and Dr. Vikas Saini, Ben Wizner, and Anthony Pinn; an interview with artist Ben Davis; new fiction from Karen E. Bender and Constance Squires; and poetry from Danniel Schoonebeek and Rachel Richardson. We hope you enjoy the read.
American Empires: Power and Its Discontents - Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics
Did you miss our latest special issue? Brighten up this gray Monday with a few choice reads on American Empire.
Can it be? Yes, it’s true— the Guernica Annual has arrived, and it’s a real book you can hold in your hands. Shown here in the hand of our publisher Lisa Lucas, but if you’re hankering to get your hands on one, too, head on over to our online shop, or come to our launch in Brooklyn this Monday at Greenlight Books.
If you’re not in Brooklyn, never fear: next week, we’ve got Guernica Annual events in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Manhattan!
It was five o’clock in the morning one day this past spring when Dave, a former Department of Defense contractor, eased his 1996 Isuzu pickup into Williston, North Dakota. Downtown, the remnants of Williston’s former days—the mid-century-modern J.C. Penney Co. building, the family-owned pharmacy—were dark. But the roads of this once-prairie outpost were already bustling. Tankers and eighteen-wheelers were rolling to and from the drilling and frack sites that have transformed North Dakota into America’s second-largest oil-producing state, behind Texas.
Dave, a wiry man with a Carolina twang, was recently returned from the Pakistan desert province of Balochistan, where he was working for the giant military contractor DynCorp International. It was his most recent in a thirty-year string of assignments, first as an Army Special Forces medic and then as a military contractor, that took him from the coca fields of Colombia to the airspace over Afghanistan. He has asked to be identified by only his first name, as the State Department is “a little sensitive about the particulars.” When the Pakistan gig went south, he decided to deploy himself and his expertise closer to home.
“I was looking at the computer. And of course, as you know, the story is out there: the oilfields are booming,” he said. “So here I am.”
From Baghdad to the Bakken by Laura Gottesdiener - Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics
Feature image by Thomas Struth, Blowout Preventer, Mountrail County, North Dakota, 2010. Chromogenic Print, 169.5 x 204.7 cm. © Thomas Struth.
Elbow-deep in the cool white
they flayed into strips, rolling
the winnowing body
as they unraveled her
and the sharks,
smelling their work, circled
and snapped. Unlucky men
hot-stepping the planks.
Lucky men feasting on stars.
Misfits and criminals.
Whittlers, prophets, magicians, boys.
In distress, smothering in fog
or storm, they hoisted mattresses
into the crow’s nest
and set them on fire.
(Melville: Who are hearsed
that die on the sea?)
If not the body itself
if not the body
they would use
their beds, the brightest thing
the body itself
such thin skin
and gold beneath—
Rachel Richardson’s “A Brief History of the Whale Fishery,” originally published in the American Empires special issue of Guernica. Feature image by Kaspar Kägi.
Haven’t you heard? Guernica's new American Empires special issue is out. What are American Empires, you ask? You want facts and figures—you want numbers? Well, do we have those:
Total number of items purchased on Amazon.com on “Cyber Monday” last year: 36.8 million
Miles walked, per day, by employees at Amazon’s fulfillment warehouses: 7 to 15
Current federal minimum wage in the United States: $7.25/hour
Annual earned income of a minimum-wage employee working 40 hours/week, 52 weeks/year: $15,080
Net worth of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos: $6.5 billion
Of the top ten richest people in America, number who are members of the Walton family (heirs and descendants of the founders of Walmart): 4
Number who are Koch brothers: 2
Total annual charitable grants awarded by the Walton Family Foundation in 2013: $325 million
Amount of federal assistance spent annually supporting Walmart employees: $6.2 billion
Number of Americans who attended a pop music concert in 2011: 54.3 million
Average nightly revenue of Jay-Z and Beyonce’s “On the Run” tour: $5.2 million
Percentage of US concert sales controlled by Ticketmaster: 80
Total amount the American pharmaceutical industry spent on drug promotion in 2012: $27 billion
Factor by which spending on physician-facing marketing outstripped spending on patient-facing marketing: 9
Number of countries other than the US that allow direct-to-consumer drug advertising: 1 (New Zealand)
Consumer spending on antipsychotics, antidepressants, and drugs to treat ADHD (in 2010): $16 billion, $11 billion, $7 billion, respectively
Percentage of corn acreage in the US growing genetically modified crops: 93
Percentage of soybean acreage in the US growing genetically modified crops: 94
Percentage of cotton acreage in the US growing genetically modified crops: 96
Factor by which total US student debt increased between 2004 and 2012: 3
Total US student debt at the end of 2012: $966 billion
Total American consumer debt as of June 2014: $3,211,211,800
Number of US counties that account for one-quarter of executions carried out in the US since 1976: 3
Total amount of government fines, penalties, and judgments assessed against Koch Industries for violating regulations, between 1999 and 2003: $400 million
Koch Industries total annual revenue: $115 billion
It just makes a point that there is a subtext to the universalizing of Koons’s message about turning off the critical mind and just embracing what makes you happy. You really realize that you can only get away with it as a white guy, because people are only willing to read the kinds of simple pleasures you are into as universal if you are coded as universal yourself. — From our interview with art critic Ben Davis, part of the American Empires special issues of Guernica.
This is what they did: they handed over their IDs and boarding passes; they answered questions about their destinations; they took off their shoes; they put their belongings in the plastic bins; they surrendered liquids over 3 oz. (or they didn’t and then were sent for questioning); they collected their belongings; they walked through the scanner; they lifted their arms; they stood, frozen, like dancers or criminals, while the scanner took its picture; they walked through the scanner. The light, in the general area, was a dim blue. It made everyone look holy or sick. I was usually the first one they encountered. I stood at a podium and asked them questions. I had been trained in behavior detection. I looked at the brief quirk of an eyebrow, the tension in a lip. I looked at how long their hands scratched their faces. For a short time and with purpose, or longer, for no reason. They told me where they were going. For what purpose? I asked. Always, there was the brimming hope, the expectation that we would find someone, the liar, the criminal. There was the hope that we would find someone who was dangerous.
Read Karen E. Bender’s fiction, “For What Purpose?,” in the American Empires special issue of Guernica.
Feature image by Robin Cameron, Photogram, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Room East.
I woke & was ancient
the tramps sleeping
in Bank of America
& dressing the sores in the heat the earth let escape her
It was a menagerie of tramps
like a handful of nightcrawlers
& dreaming they’re eating
themselves back inside her — From Danniel Schoonebeek’s “Nachtmusik,” originally published in Guernica's American Empires special issue.
American healthcare isn’t in need of reform, it needs a radical transformation. It is dominated by hospitals and specialists, despite the volumes of evidence that the path to better health requires major changes: a much stronger primary-care infrastructure, and the labor and infrastructure to care for people in their communities and their homes as much as possible. — Read our interview with medical journalist Shannon Brownlee and cardiologist Dr. Vikas Saini about the US healthcare system, part of the new American Empires special issue of Guernica.
This is the architecture of the new meat empire: row upon row of immense, identical barns lined up neatly on the top of a hillside. Each has giant fans on one end for ventilation, and twin silver feed silos rising up from the other. In a small room near the door, computers control the watering lines, feeding trays, and airflow systems. The interior is a dim cavern, and the air is noxious with the burn of ammonia fumes. Twenty-five thousand chickens cover the floor, a moiling white carpet of movement that clucks and squawks and quickly spreads apart when people walk inside.
Read Christopher Leonard on “The Chicken Competition” in the new American Empires special issue of Guernica.
Feature image by Roger Ballen, Conversation, 2005. Courtesy of Roger Ballen.