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American Liberation Mythologies: Democracy and Domination in U.S. Visual Culture


A myth of liberation saturates the cultural landscape of the United States, structuring the collective consciousness, guiding political action, and disguising the nation's patterns of domination. This study grew out of a concern over the United States' engagement in two wars with the stated aims of liberation and the spread of democracy. Anthropological theories of myth assert a reciprocal relationship between political action and creative expression; through myths we reflect upon culture, in culture we enact myths. Popular media is a prominent realm for the creation and performance of contemporary myths. By analyzing performances of popular culture as expressions of the myth of liberation (Bruce Willis' "Tears of the Sun," "American Idol," and Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino"), this dissertation delineates the parameters of the national myth that declares an identity of the U.S. as liberator to the world's oppressed, sanctifies the democratic ideal, and valorizes consumer capital. Analyses also reveal a U.S. identity of dominator in the global community, the betrayal of the democratic ideal through the commoditization of the democratic gesture, and the implementation of segregation and terrorization to support the exploitation of consumerism. Myths are paradoxical, and this study asserts that U.S. culture exhibits a societal tension between liberty and domination. In the form of popular culture, myths attempt to mediate this social paradox. Drawing from the methodologies and theories of cultural anthropology, folklore, sociology, media studies, performance studies, U.S. history and international relations this dissertation offers insights into four issues of vital importance: the role of the U.S. in globalization, the recent national crisis in democracy, the violence of consumerism, and the dialectical relationship between popular culture and political action. This research is grounded in the anthropological understanding that cultural products are both models of, and models for, cultural action. Following such an understanding, it concludes by asserting, through reference to the variations of the myth explored, that the producers and consumers of culture have the ability to reconstruct the myth of liberation and move U.S. culture out of its socio-historic patterns of violence and domination and toward a mythic construction of creative intervention and cross-cultural dialogue.

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