“Is that a pistol in your pocket…?”: Corral Consciousness and the Performance of Enclosure and Concealment.

Misha Myers


‘Every time … the United States acts forcefully abroad to protect its interests, you can bet the farm some pencil-neck in America or Europe will whip out the charge that America once more is acting like a “cowboy” … that acting like a cowboy is about the most horrible thing one could do’ (Thornton 2002: unpaginated).

Charging onward…

It’s High Noon. A stranger comes to town. Searching. Speculating. [Close-up shot from ground level: dark figure in cowboy hat, bat-wing yoked shirt, boots and jeans fore grounded against a big blue sky with thunderclouds approaching in the distance. Theme song from Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.]

For the exhibition he co-curated with Richard William Hill at Compton Verney, exploring the American West, Jimmie Durham wrote, ‘This kit has an “understood” gun. The wearer and the public know that the gun is there. Every cowboy suit has a gun. (And a script, of course.)’ (2005: 21). This here kit comes complete with the requisite firepower and master-narrative, but wait… there’s a woman in that hat to boot. What is her role in the script? I will come back to her later, as there’s another part I want to address first, that of the silent ‘Indian’, the Tonto or Queequag who ‘is always a passive witness to the cowboy’s action’ (Durham, 1993: 176). How to intervene within the tightness of this script? In his essay ‘Cowboys and …’ written in 1990, Durham recognised that America ‘becomes more closed, but “kinder and gentler”’ as it attempts to keep up the concomitant niceties of a democratic empire and to model Europe’s forced and tokenised receptivity to interventions in its myths. This narrowing ideology, that I will call “corral consciousness”, is what Durham proposed in 1990, as a ‘potential weakness of the system’, and that triggered his continued experiments (Durham, 1993: 186). 

As the current narrative of threat to national and global security is reinforced globally, but in the United States more particularly, through the production of panic and fear, we see a corralling of codes and enactments of Manifest Destiny. This corralling delimits, erases, collapses and conceals positionalities and potentialities, while proliferating illegible, invisible, illegitimate and criminal identities within the unhomely homeland state of emergency and abroad on new frontiers of “Indian territory”. The enemy is close to home both within and without. No, this scenario is not new to the US. And I’m wondering how do I avoid that part in the script that allows me in my liberal-mindedness to walk away into the distance with a knowing smile and hands washed clean of the whole scene? In the enclosure of corral consciousness, I am searching for the strategies to avoid distancing myself or silencing an active witness in this script.

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