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Review of Cowboy Politics: Myths and Discourses in Popular Westerns form The Virginian to Unforgiven and Deadwood

Review Of Cowboy Politics: Myths And Discourses In Popular Westerns Form The Virginian To Unforgiven And Deadwood

Cowboy Politics: Myths and Discourses in Popular Westerns form The Virginian to Unforgiven and Deadwood. John S. Nelson.  Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018.


What do Westerns – books, films, serial television – teach us about the emerging political order in America? What can political theory add to more popular critical encounters with this material, and what can the material illuminate about political theory? These are the questions animating and guiding John S. Nelson’s study, Cowboy Politics. It is a major work by a senior political theorist who has spent much of his productive career studying rhetorical and mythical dimensions of popular culture as windows onto the contemporary political landscape; as materials that have enormous pedagogic value in classrooms devoted to the study of political theory; and as raw materials useful for theorizing political life today. As you would expect, Cowboy Politics is an immensely learned volume that distills a lifetime of study, thinking, reading and viewing into fascinating analyses of novels by Owen Wister, Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour and Larry McMurtry, films such as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), and also television programs such as Deadwood (2004-6).

Cowboy Politics creates a stage for conversations between political theory, westerns and politics that are mutually illuminative. For Nelson, the western is both a genre in popular culture, but also a sturdy heuristic for analyzing the politics of popular genres because it includes instruction on how to read this politics. That is, the Western is a window onto science fiction, horror, noir, romance and thrillers because its political themes are pervasive, and because its vocabulary of political thinking is clear, clarifying and “dedicated to exploring how modern politics might adjust to postmodern or postwestern conditions.” [19] The western as a genre does not fit into neat ideological categories, and this is surprising. Most of us think of westerns as entertainments composed nonetheless of scenes where forces of white supremacy, incipient capitalism and militant colonialism, slay or imprison and then justify the slaying or imprisonment, of indigenous tribes and other peoples of color. Nelson shows this to be an incomplete picture of a complex genre.  Rather, westerns are better regarded as trail guides for the myths, ideologies, and conventions of contemporary political life. Nelson shows, contrary to popular views expressed by journalists and film scholars, the substantive political claims of the Western as leaning toward the postmodern, and the liberal and the republican side of the ideological spectrum. The Code of the West combines accounts of the cool rationality of the cowboy, with a brand of republican concern with personal reputation and civic virtue and a perfectionist’s account of self-reliance. [89] Westerns are not mere celebrations of individualism or collectivism, but significant explorations of these myths, institutions, and personal ambitions.

This interesting and complex weave of the modern and the postmodern give rise to conceptions of the landscape of the western as a “wild zone” where boundaries are at best temporary. Or as a “State of Nature” that contains some social phenomena like language and the potential for alliance and contract, but is pre-political in the sense that law and order is not backed by a sanctioning Sovereign or government.  The postmodern as a spirit of anti-totalitarianism quickly gives way to careful and interesting deployments of the anti-tyrannical arguments of Locke to illuminate Liberalism as an animating and taming force in these novels and films. “Westerns,” writes Nelson, “agree with liberal politics in trying to protect what they see as the natural freedom of individuals to venture anything short of violations of the law of nature while enabling people to appropriate the world’s raw materials.” [39]

Violence in the form of shootouts, clan feuds and vigilantism is evidence of resistance to a new order by appealing to an older wildness. The violence of the new order is unecologically extractive and legitimated by appeals to the Code of the West that, like the Laws of Nature, can itself be an occasion for violence in the form of preemptive self-defense and vengeance. Vengeance, in turn, is the primary problem or “first test” of civilization. In the western, you find characters who pursue Hobbes’ first natural law – find peace and keep it – or towns that are run by a dispassionate Sovereign in the form of the sheriff. “The liberal story of the State of Nature yielding to a sheriff is a standard western tale of bringing civilization to a savage land by making a political order.” [45] As Louis L’Amour put it, “Without law, man becomes a beast.” [64] A politics based in anger or vengeance, as we learned again in post-9/11 America, moves erratically from the vicissitudes of emotion to the denigration of democracy, the unleashing of vile irrationalities, and a valorization militarism and totalitarianism.

The case Nelson makes for the study of westerns is twofold. First, he is interested in studying how “modern theories of politics [are] embedded in the conventions of westerns.” [74] This does not mean that novelists and filmmakers were consciously including themes, concepts and ideas from, say, Hobbes and Locke. But creating a just order out of the chaos and the culture of honor and anger in the feudal-ism of the frontier is just as compelling an issue in the western as it was for modern political theorists. Second, Nelson argues that westerns exceed the limitations of modern political theory by “speak[ing] in postmodern and postwestern terms to cultural situations and needs of current politics.” [75] They dramatize a past and revisit modern political concerns to address contemporary issues (i.e. gun control, immigration, women’s rights) and revivify republican codes of personal honor and direct action in opposition to an emergent culture of conformity.

And they have been and remain a popular genre. On the one hand, the appeal can be difficult to fathom. The modern world is one of growing urbanization. Postmodernity is marked by the new frontiers provided by cyberspace and life lived, partially, within broadbands of flowing information. On the other, it is precisely because of the prevalence of urbanization and the eradication of vistas to the horizon by tall buildings and the great indoors that westerns become escapist contrasts. The character of cowboys – independent, rugged, cooperative, while adhering to the rule of the (albeit) reluctant leader – clash importantly with the agoraphobia, anomie and political cynicism of the urban dweller. In acknowledging what makes westerns popular, Nelson is careful to challenge the idea that these novels and films lend themselves to fascism or justifications of fascism because of adherence to leaders or an “exaltation of will over law” in the form of crowd violence that is markedly rare in the genre. More common is the cultivation of and reflection on character and a culture of honor. These activities, personal and communal, are far closer to traits we associate with civic republicanism, argues Nelson, than to anything like the right populism of a mob mobilized by a charismatic leader.

The first half of this book is taken up with really situating westerns in themes of history of political thought, American political society, on the ideological spectrum, and among other popular genres. These chapters are enormously useful and offer encounters with a number of films and texts that only the real fans of these authors and auteurs will have read or seen.

But John Nelson is known best for his probing studies of political rhetoric and political language, particularly when these activities work to remind us of or evince political mythologies (the symbol-rich stories we tell about our collective political existence). This protracted and varied investigation is put to powerful use in the pivotal chapter eight, subtitled: “The Western Craft of Pride and Performance.” Here, Nelson offers a close reading of L’Amour’s The Tall Stranger. I explicate the themes of this chapter for their insights, but also as examples of how Nelson reads or views the western. There are similarly close readings of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and the television series Deadwood in the second half.

The protagonist of The Tall Stranger is Rock Bannon, and he is as hyper-masculine as his name would suggest. Rock is not to be confused with Steve Bannon, by the way. He is not given to speaking much, but when he does “it’s almost always to change his situation in some important respect.” [142] What Nelson analyzes is the political character of Rock’s speech. That is, he is interested in whom Rock talks to (and does not talk to), when he chooses to talk, and the context of these acts of communication and how they are altered by the speech act. This analysis leads Nelson to discern “five significant discourses” in Rock’s speeches, and another five discourses that arise in interactions between Rock’s world and those of Sharon Crockett and Mort Harper (the nemesis). This thoughtful categorization and engagement with a novel’s dialogue serves as a model for how a political theorist can use fictional works to complement her usual selection of texts from the history of political thought to illuminate features of contemporary political life for students.

The first discourse examined pertains to the paradox of tradition and innovation, wildness and protection, evident in Rock’s descriptions of his beloved valley. To protect it is to change it, and this is a constant theme in the genre itself: the sun is always setting on the West. What is loved and cherished has already passed away. The very presence of pioneers seeking escape from the corruptions and limitations of the old involves a corruption of the new. A code of respect for the land is necessitated by the requirements of settlers for survival. Often, Nelson observes, this code is enacted by moving on, westward, toward the sunset. For those who stay behind, their republican reverence for tradition gives rise to violence to defend it; and their liberal ambition to acquire and innovate leads to the rise of “cattle kings or railroad barons.” Still, Nelson reflects on the conservational impulse suggested by the popularity of westerns in film and television. Acknowledging that the Wild West is passing is an important step toward protecting it.

The second discourse is captured by the close, even loquacious relationship between the cowboy and his horse. The horse mirrors the cowboy’s own nature in a manner reminiscent of Rousseau’s state of nature. We are at our most truly human when living in harmony – exemplified in rider and horse relationships – with the biosphere. Destructiveness, inauthenticity and the distorting of instincts when regarding the character of other humans arises when we conceive of ourselves as apart from, or exercising dominion over, non-human nature. Adhering to our second nature – an important feature of republicanism – permits rider and horse to travel instinctually and safely through treacherous terrain. Liberal rationality is required for inevitable encounters with fellow humans. This kind of reflection and strategizing is situated best before entering into the valley, however.

An integral relationship of interest and character is at the heart of the third discourse. In The Tall Stranger and other “westerns, to know anyone’s interests is to know that individual’s character. And in a culture of honor and character, that’s what most people need to know about others.” [149] There is a misanthropy lurking behind this kind of realism. At the same time, to misjudge a person’s character can lead to a untimely and violent demise, even if you are the bad guy. What Nelson cautions is that assessment of character based on deeds rather than what one says should not lead us to conclude that westerns are exercises in anti-intellectualism. Rather, these works offer deep insight into the paradoxical quality of being human as (partially) a matter of entrapment in the gap between thought and action. The fourth discourse is about trusting deeds over words, but I wonder whether Rock Bannon is described best as an Odysseus-type embodiment of phronesis or practical wisdom that involves conceiving of words as deeds.

The analysis of textual discourses transitions from Bannon to the lead female character in the novel, Sharon Crockett. We are told she rides and dresses like a man, and expresses masculine virtues with a military bearing that resonates with her family name. In speaking thoughtfully and forcefully at public meetings, Crockett illuminates the imbrication between masculine and feminine roles, and private and public life that gives westerns a capaciousness for patriarchy-subverting romance that is, as Nelson notes, surprising for those expecting peons to tradition and violence.  As an aside, Crockett shows both the heuristic powers of the categories of private, public and social as deployed by Hannah Arendt, and their limitations. When presented as rigidly bounded and essential features of modern life, the categories blind us to unique contexts, gender fluidity or important inner relations between economy and governance.  This is to observe the way percepts are contoured by concepts (and vice versa); and how every way of seeing (think theory or ideology) is a way of not seeing, as the poet Theodore Roethke claimed.

A more subtle and philosophical discourse occurs within Rock when he comes into conversation with Mort Harper’s band. This inner discourse, the seventh discerned by Nelson, gives indication of just how rich and interesting westerns can be for theorists and philosophers. Comprehending Mort’s intentions and objectives is of critical importance to Rock and to the town. Rock rises to the challenge with interior conversations about strategies. He seeks a panoramic view in relation to Mort’s plot; but Rock also takes an immanent, empathic perspective to see the world through Mort’s eyes. This is to say, that Rock’s thinking mirrors the clear vision onto collective life we associate with the traveling theorist of Herodotus’ Histories and the epic tradition of political theory inaugurated by Plato. Such clear vision through movement and contemplation reflects what we hope public discussions can achieve.[1] But “western communities are vulnerable” to coercion and corruption “in part because they’re more open than before to diverse, erratically informed participants.” [163] Mort Harper knows how to play on this vulnerability with a discourse that is seductive and capable of leading even the most civic-minded astray. The antidote to this persuasiveness is the plain speaking, and plain thinking, of Rock.

But it is not an immutable or perfect antidote. The ninth and tenth discourses explored by Nelson in this novel pertain to self-deception in thinking and conspiracy theories that originate in public plans  but seek affirmation in the private. Plain-speaking avoids seduction, Nelson argues, but it can lead away from public deliberation and the code of honor and into bullying and/or deception. The line between self-deception and conspiratorial actions is remarkably thin and permeable. Conspiracy, says Nelson, “is an intrinsically political activity that tries to take place in private.” [171] Secrets are kept in order to attain political ends, but even airtight conspiracies leave public traces – signs of corrupt characters made visible — that can pursued or traced back to their source by opponents and the law.

Thanks to Nelson’s analysis, we have put to rest the idea of westerns as structured simplistically around good and evil. The works of this genre merit close readings that recognize their challenges to binary thinking and their myth-making powers. Such readings would steer political theory’s optics toward tracing backwards from corrupt character or despoiled landscape to their edenic and pathological origins. For Nelson, “westerns [are] in the position of tracking the political theory of the West, and it compounds ties between tracking and deconstructive writing under erasure.” “Westerns,” he continues, “appreciate wilderness, not as pristine newness, but as earlier worlds effaced for us or erased by us. Westerns portray our challenge as reading the signs, the tracks, left behind – in order to make sense of our situations and ourselves.” [185-6] They present us with paths to deep comprehension of how we came to be what we are. But they point also to alternative, less-trodden paths that would have produced different – better or worse – outcomes. In the West, the what-ness of the political present is conventional and thus mutable. New endings are as significant as new beginnings. Westerns are as future-oriented (utopian or dystopian) as science fiction.

The capacity for change toward the just or the unjust is emphasized in strategies for avoiding violence. In the process, reconfiguring the Code of the West is always possible because of the vastness of the landscape, the multiple publics that denaturalize any claim about what is the best political society, and the neglected capacity for forgiving and forgetting contained by the genre. But these features are attenuated and often a matter of nostalgia.  There is a line in the 1982 film Barbarosa uttered by the protagonist, Red Beard, to the effect that “what cannot be remedied must be endured.” It evokes an image of Original Sin as regretful deviation from the right course for humans. This longing for redemption and an alternative sinless life is camouflaged by stoical acceptance of the way things are. Some sins cannot be forgiven or reasoned away; some sinners are irredeemable; and, sometimes the unleashing of vengeance with alcohol is the cleansing option. This is the dialectic at the core of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

Cowboy Politics is a big book gesturing toward comprehension of a large and vital genre in American/Western culture. But it is best thought of as an entrance into the themes paved by an appreciation of the richness of these works. Nelson’s analysis of strands of existentialism and populism, liberalism and civic republicanism, feminism and ecology, rhetoric and discourse, and ideas from Arendt, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau leave me inspired to delve more deliberately into these works. They merit the kind of attention that horror, suspense and science fiction have received from political and cultural theorists. Why should zombies have all the fun and gravitas? And, yes, there are westerns that feature the undead.

But there is much more to explore in westerns too. Themes like racism, colonialization and genocide in relation to indigenous peoples are obvious areas to be studied (think of the lessons of the 2015 film, Bone Tomahawk) with an eye toward illuminating the heretofore unsurpassability of the colorline in American life. There are the anti-capitalist and anti-nationalist, literary and biblical, themes of Cormac McCarthy’s work and the critical engagements with modernity so central to films like Lonely Are the Brave. Nelson has done the discipline an enormous service in pioneering study of this important component of western cultural life and political thinking. But there is still a lot of work to be done.

As a political theorist I have been trained in the art of careful reading of difficult texts. I have labored for years to pass this study on to students not so much to train the next generation of professors of political theory, but to provide insight into the character, potential and dangers of contemporary political life that young citizens need. I see turning to films, televisions, plays and other media to complement texts as a way to reach students who struggle to see the relevance of superficial (much less close) reading. There is, I know, consonance between exposing students to the politics of interpretation behind, for example, the Second Amendment, and showing them how to notice and examine the sexual subtext of a scene from The Maltese Falcon. But I am far more comfortable conveying the former. I have benefitted from reading scholars who are also film and/or television enthusiasts to show me how to make this turn to popular culture work in a course on political theory. Cowboy Politics stands as an important piece of cultural and political theorizing. But the main contribution of the work for me is pedagogical. In this study, John Nelson has made an important and convincing case for the inclusion of westerns as worthy lenses onto the history of political theory and the emerging politics of the early twenty first century.



[1] See, John S. Nelson, “An Epic Comeback? Post-Western Politics in Theory and Film,” (Unpublished Manuscript).


An excerpt of the book is available here.

Christopher C. RobinsonChristopher C. Robinson

Christopher C. Robinson

Christopher C. Robinson is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Clarkson University. He is author of Wittgenstein and Political Theory: The View from Somewhere (Edinburgh University Press, 2009) and editor of John G. Gunnell for Routledge’s Innovators in Political Theory series (2016). He is also affiliated with Clarkson’s Institute for a Sustainable Environment and Director of the Office of Teaching and Learning for Diversity and Inclusion and completing a study of the politics of climate change that focuses on abolition democracy, restorative justice, and ecological economics.

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