[UPDATE] The Fictional Lives of American Presidents

full name / name of organization: 
Christian Long / University of Canterbury, Jeff Menne / University of Richmond

While cinema, television, and literature have regularly imagined fictional presidents, the act of fictionalizing the lives of American presidents—that is, giving fictional account of nonfictional presidents—is an imaginative endeavor with greater entailments: it configures the actual and the virtual, the real and the fictional, as a function of our contemporary incapacity to think historically about our present. Real U.S. presidents appear in a number of recent films—Dick (1999) and Frost/Nixon (2008) tell Nixon's tale, while both Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996) and W. (2008) feature a sitting president. These fictionalized presidents sit at the locus where myth crosses human dimensions, and they show not only how the quotidian, the fallible, and the sensual continue to haunt this highest office, but also how the talented, the charming, and the cunning continue to restore the office's old licenses and procure for it new ones. Indeed, the expansion of the presidency—the powers it absorbs from the democratic infrastructure—can be indexed in the president's cultural representations. This development is duly noted in recent scholarship: the collection Hollywood's White House, Jeff Smith's The Presidents We Imagine, and Sean McCann's A Pinnacle of Feeling broadly engage the cinematic and literary presidential imaginary; Diane Rubenstein's This Is Not a President locates use-value for the presidency in everyday-life citizenship; and Dana Nelson's Bad for Democracy hopes to stem the cult of presidentialism that so undermines democratic practices. This scholarship cluster suggests a pervading need to redress the material losses that the imagined president has exacted from civic education, political debate, and community activism.
This collection, following Michael Rogin's claim that Reagan's presidency "climaxed film's ingestion of reality." will consider how the cinema's various renderings of presidents have augmented, warped, and counteracted the actual histories and meanings of the presidency. Reagan, in short, deployed a multiform image—from everyman to rugged individual, all patented in Hollywood—in the name of presidential power, hence collapsing the body politic into the president's mortal body. Reagan's performance of the office explains in part the teeming appearance of fictional presidents in the past two decades and, further, warrants an inquiry into the narratives that swarm around this office whose capacity is at once to generate and arrest all narratives.

31 March early bird special deadline for MLA-panel length presentation.

500 word abstracts concerning films that feature one of the forty-four presidents (either as himself or impersonated/acted by another) before 1 July 2010 to fictionalpresidents@gmail.com. Questions and queries can be directed to Christian.long@canterbury.ac.nz or jmenne@richmond.edu