Some Uncritical Exuberance
Judith Butler’s “Uncritical Exuberance?” has been making the rounds in that time-honored internet way, traveling first via email among email lists and listservs, and finally across blogs. You can read the whole thing here. I was bothered by it.
Butler opens the piece with the almost tender plaint: “Very few of us are immune to the exhilaration of this time.” And though she goes on to note that she is, herself, “feeling overwhelmed with disbelief and excitement,” it’s hard not to read a particular narrative in the metaphors she chooses (especially in the argument she goes on to develop): most of the things to which one can be immune are diseases, to be “overwhelmed” is usually an experience of personal inability in the face of a greater force, and when a critic talks about “exuberance” as “un-critical,” it should be clear that it is, at the very least, being held at arms length.
I don’t mean to be too harsh on this piece, though I probably am. And if I’m only pointing out very carefully what she herself goes on to say very clearly, I’m doing so because I’m struck by the gesture towards open-mindedness which she makes even as she poisons it. This is simply not an essay that can address the sorts of possibilities that have opened up — many of which will close down, I’ll grant you, but which are still the rock on which we have to build — because from the very start it adopts a position well known to connoisseurs of the genre “dit Tour Ivoire,” the “I’m surrounded by people who can’t think for themselves” conceit.
For example, she writes:
“if we subscribe to the heightened modes of identification that he proposes (“we are all united”) or that we propose (“he is one of us”), we risk believing that this political moment can overcome the antagonisms that are constitutive of political life, especially political life in these times. There have always been good reasons not to embrace “national unity” as an ideal, and to nurse suspicions toward absolute and seamless identification with any political leader. After all, fascism relied in part on that seamless identification with the leader, and Republicans engage this same effort to organize political affect when, for instance, Elizabeth Dole looks out on her audience and says, “I love each and every one of you.”
While I’m not denying it’s a valid concern, it’s also a completely specious argument. After all, to say “he is one of us” does not naturally lead to believing that the political moment can “overcome” constitutive antagonisms (as she implies), nor that we have put aside suspicions of “absolute and seamless identification” with this guy (as she implies), nor that “national unity” has become the ideal (as she implies). In point of fact, he has very rarely emphasized “national unity” as the goal in and of itself; his discourse is all about working together, finding ways to deal with concrete issues across party divides, etc, and my sense is that his supporters largely have too. This, after all, is the huge difference between his “race” speech and the “exuberant” pronouncements of dimwitted pundits: the occasional idiot trying to sell copy has tried to claim that his election has overcome race in America, or some such twaddle, but why should we care what someone trying to be the useful idiot for the lowest common denominator thinks? Unless we think such people actually represent America, shouldn’t the most reasonable response just be to ignore them? In contrast, Obama’s contribution has been the “racist old uncle” trope, by which we recognize, cordon off, and isolate people who hold outmoded beliefs, yet dismiss the belief without de-humanizing the person (disavow the belief without disavowing the person). That’s a powerful move, and one which she ignores, conflating Obama’s own self-representations with those of the dimmest hacks who editorialize about him.
It would, on the other hand, be quite fair to note that Obama tends to be (unsurprisingly) vague about which issues precisely we’re supposed to be working together on, and in this vein Butler’s underlying point that there are “good reasons not to embrace ‘national unity’ as an ideal” could be on its way to a very strong critique of this kind of bipartisanship: it is one which politicians often gesture towards, and often turns into a euphemism for some sort of sell-out. But instead of zigging, she zags. The gestures he’s made towards terms like “Bipartisanship” and learning to talk to people who we fundamentally disagree with — a gesture of amity in the face of visceral distaste — somehow, rhetorically, gets magically transformed into pop-and-fresh republican love-fests and creeping fascism. It is disingenuous.
I got much more critical of the essay from that point on, I’ll confess, and maybe I do her a disservice. But I think she’s simply wrong to assert a cause and effect relationship between Obama’s “cross-over” success and the “politics of exuberant identification,” such that when “he won by 60% of the vote, and yet some significant portion of those who voted for him also voted against the legalization of gay marriage (52%)” she can offer as explanation the fact that “new configurations of political belief make it possible to hold apparently discrepant views at the same time.”
There’s an interesting direction this argument could have gone, I think; as I wrote here, I’m fascinated by what she calls the “counter Bradley-effect,” where people would say things like “I know that Obama is a Muslim and a Terrorist, but I will vote for him anyway; he is probably better for the economy” because it represents something of a shift in the way a certain part of the population understands its place in the world vis-à-vis other people’s place, and especially the ways such people prioritize. If class can trump race, that’s an ambivalent thing, but it’s pregnant with opportunity, not creeping fascism. Voting for a progressive black candidate in the face of the conservative groupthink machine is not how one displays one’s fealty to “real America” uber alles. It just isn’t. And to assert then that “such voters got to keep their racism and vote for Obama, sheltering their split beliefs without having to resolve them” is to miss what seems really important about all this. How do you have a president who is black — who you voted for — without the term black coming to signify something different than “un-American”? You can quibble all you want about whether or not Obama is really black, but that’s just as much a sucker’s game if Judith Butler is doing it (is she? I’m not sure…) as it was when Stanley Crouch did it. Obama is black. He just is (and here’s the reposte to Crouch from Ta-Nehisi Coates). If people voted for a black candidate, then they voted for a candidate who is black.
I’m interested, therefore, in her assertion that “the force of dis-identification” might have played an important role in the election, that “a sense of revulsion that George W. has “represented” the United States to the rest of the world” might have made the “real America” candidates less attractive, and her question of whether it is “despite his race, or because of his race, that Obama finally emerged as a preferred representative of the nation?” deserves at least to be thought about very carefully. But my hair catches on fire when she seems to act as if nothing has changed in the process, because that change is the thing we need to better understand and foster a lot more of. When she says “the promise is alluring, but what if the embrace of Obama leads to the belief that we might overcome all dissonance, that unity is actually possible?” I get very antsy. What if she’s just described precisely the thing we want to happen? Wouldn’t it be a good thing if fewer Americans saw half the country as “un-american” or substantial portions of its population as only provisionally part of the country? And isn’t Obama’s election a sign of progress towards that kind of horizon?
She herself says exactly this, writing: “If the election of Obama signals a willingness on the part of the majority of voters to be “represented” by this man, then it follows that who “we” are is constituted anew: we are a nation of many races, of mixed races; and he offers us the occasion to recognize who we have become and what we have yet to be, and in this way a certain split between the representative function of the presidency and the populace represented appears to be overcome.” But here, as at every other point, she almost instantly wags her fingers at those of us investing “messianic expectation” in this man, ignoring the kind of possibilities that exist so that she can deflate the kind of crazy beliefs that I simply don’t see out there. Maybe I’m wrong, but the only people I’ve seen calling him messiah have been right wing hacks trying to tar his campaign with the dubious charge of his having gotten people enthusiastic. Why Judith Butler wants to deploy the talking points of the right is absolutely beyond me, and she does so at great cost to her argument. How it is that in a political landscape still dominated by the messianism of George Bush, and after a narrow election in which an end-times candidate like Palin only underscored the crucial absence of such an ideology in McCain, that a candidate like Obama gets called on his “messianism”? It is exactly as perverse when someone like Judith Butler says it as when this advertisement does.
Yet it’s only with the benefit of this straw man that she can wax soberly on the fact that “the man will become human, will prove less powerful than we might wish, and…politics will prove to be less of a messianic experience than a venue for robust debate, public criticism, and necessary antagonism.” Well, of course he will! I think he already has. But without the aid of this straw figure, she might have to engage with the fact that Obama has never presented himself as a messiah, has spent a lot more time tamping down exuberance than fanning the flames, and that maybe, just maybe, his supporters aren’t a bunch of mindless zombies incapable of thinking for themselves. When she writes “it is not the end of struggle, and we would be very unwise to regard it that way, even provisionally,” I want to know who she’s been talking to that believes this. Who thinks Obama’s election will be the end of struggle? Who, seriously, thinks that a president inheriting two long failed wars and an economy which is consistently compared with the Great Fucking Depression will somehow wave his messianic wand and fix it all? And perhaps I’m wrong; perhaps the perception of Obama as godlike philosopher king is much more widespread than I think it is, in which case Butler is right to make this argument. But I don’t think it is. You cannot argue that people voted for him because they recognize the gravity of our national clusterfuck, yet also argue that they don’t realize the gravity of the situation. If Obama got elected because even North Carolina would go democrat, then that seems like a mark of discernment, not group-think, and a hopeful sign. In Butler’s essay, on the other hand, it shows up as what she calls “the classic formulation of disavowal” and she demands to know “Through what means do we sustain and mask conflicting beliefs of this sort? And at what political cost?”
But who says we do sustain and mask conflicting beliefs? Why is it that the part of her argument where she writes that “who “we” are is constituted anew” by the act of casting a vote gets so utterly buried under the part of her argument that pathologizes people who are interested in exactly this process of reconstitution? Why is it that people who are happy to have a progressive president instead of a neo-conservative can be so clearly tagged with the adjective “uncritical,” without any real attempt to argue the case? Who is being uncritical here?
* * *
Okay, I’m cooled off now. After I wrote this — in the uncritical heat of my own self-righteous “I’m surrounded by idiots” indignation — I took the time to remind myself that her essay is, like my own, no less a product of its moment than any other, and, at that, it’s only symptomatic of concerns I share with her. So let me get off my high fucking horse, and leave it more as a reaction than as an argument I deeply feel needs to be waged. And after I wrote it, I started trawling the interwebs to see if there had been any other responses (should have been my first move, really) and I found a few really good ones. For a start, Luis in Paris, much more soberly than I, takes issue with the manner in which we so quickly presume that “disappointment is the only proper political affect, and that happiness can only be stupefying-a modern-day political ‘opiate.'” He continues:
“Butler’s position also represents the difficulties of shifting critical gears at full speed. Throughout the entire Bush administration, scholars were playing the Adornian game of “spot the emergent fascism”, concerned that his post-9/11 popularity was a sign of a “charismatic” leader (an adjective that has become euphemistic shorthand for “charismatic like Hitler”), and then concerned that his increasingly forceful defense of his position in the face of declining public opinion were the first steps in the suppression of political dissent. None of these fears were entirely unfounded, that is certain, but after expressing apprehension and dismay at the religious right’s elevation of Bush Jr. to messianic status, it’s hard not to apply the same lens to Obama’s current popularity.”
I think that’s right on. And following his links, I discover that Lauren Berlant also engages much more constructively with Butler’s piece over here than I have, taking the time to think about the kind of work that critically engaging with our affective responses might be doing. As she puts it:
“When the pulses that brought you to the person subside you ask, “What did I want when I wanted that?” Then your affect and intelligence shift around, trying to make new sense of things. If the object is a political figure, perhaps you start circulating screeds to your friends, reminding them not to be stupid where there is desire. But these efforts to manage the anxiety of political attachment and of optimism about it are actually oversimple about how (political) emotion can work. I don’t have the space here to make the long argument. Here’s a bit of it. Attachments are intrinsically optimistic. The event of attachment does not make us stupid but releases a slew of smart but often overwhelming thoughts about how complicated attachment is. We are ambivalent about what we want, for lots of reasons. Attachment reveals our dependency on something, our need for reciprocity and recognition, and the place of fantasy in managing life. One strategy of managing this is sometimes to pretend that our feelings aren’t mixed. Then when the world disappoints us we can say that we were true while the other was false. Another way to manage this is to claim that we are complex while the other people are disappointing, limited, and deserving of critique and complaint. But presuming a self-interested distinction between complexity and simplicity where attachment is concerned itself performs a fantasy that there are unmixed feelings and that people are ever simple. Even your grandmother wasn’t that simple, trust me. But you knew that. You just wanted someone to be simple so that you could reliably rest in proximity to the scene of the love.”
And as Cathy Davidson puts it, here, in a sentence much more interesting than it is reader-friendly:
“If the Frankfurt School’s idea of critique is rooted in a horrific historical moment, one in which intellectuals were not just derided but jailed and killed, if the major theorists of the late twentieth century, virtually all of whom consider critique to be foundational to their method, came of age in the 1960s in the midst of struggles, riots, assassinations, unjust wars, and radicalism generated by a sense of political urgency and agentive hopelessness, what will the cultural criticism of the future look like for eighteen year-olds who voted for the first time for an utterly improbable and historically unlikely president who won?”
This, I guess, gets at the heart of why I got all hot and bothered by the original Butler piece. There is tremendous hope in this historical moment, but it has less than it might seem to do with the particulars of what Obama does. This isn’t to say that he won’t have the potential to squander everything he’s got going for him and grind our hopes into the dust, Clinton-style, but simply that when he proclaims that his election really isn’t about him, he’s right. Despite whatever messianic hopes anyone might have right now, and no matter how starry-eyed we might be (even if you grant Butler the conceit that optimism has made us stupid), we will be disappointed almost immediately and the bloom will be off. The gravity of Obama’s concession speech was, I thought, just the right tone; he looked as if, deep down, he wouldn’t have minded trading being president of the US for a presidency of some country that wasn’t so thoroughly fucked, and who could blame him? The odds are steeply stacked against anything but a spiral into the abyss. But if something good is going to start happening, right about now, it will happen because the left suddenly realizes that the overwhelmingly powerful opposition to everything good and decent in this country — that has had us under its heel for eight years — has suddenly shot itself in the face, and looks to be (in a way I certainly never anticipated) completely riven by its own problems. This historical moment is an opportunity, not because Obama is “the One,” but because King George is dead and because the banks are foreclosing on Nixonland. I mean, good lord, when has a Marxist critique of capitalist finance been more cogent, clear, and full of examples ready at hand than now? As the Palinites take aim at the fiscal conservatives and vice versa, we can take pleasure in the spectacle, but we should also take careful note of the fact that things are now possible that weren’t before, and political rhetoric that was unspeakable before now is not. Not because Obama will do it for us, but because the Republicans no longer have the power to stop us; in this sense, Obama’s election is only the first by-product (not the cause) of that conjuncture. Space is opening up in the political landscape for the emergence of a genuinely progressive coalition that might actually be able to do something, a thing neither Clinton nor Carter were ever able to bring about. Maybe because they didn’t want to, and maybe Obama doesn’t either, but suddenly it’s not so inconceivable a prospect. As Michael Berube puts it, Obama’s election is a good thing if you “want to see significant structural and political changes in the Democratic Party,” not because he will do it (and don’t expect him to), but because it is now a remote possibility. Not so many months ago, it sure didn’t seem to be.