Saturday, May 15, 2010

Tea Party as Symptom

Basic, boring Foucault: language is necessary to express points of view, and indeed, its something like the condition of the possibility of points of view existing. Within our political milieu, there are certain discourses that are accessible to us and others that are not. Somewhat tautologically, those that have force or effect are those which are capable of operating differentially within what Foucault in the Archaeology of Knowledge a "discursive formation"--a cluster or cloud of notions, discourses, rhetorics, all of which only meaning in relation to the other. The upshot is: for a discourse to be intelligible it has to "make sense" in a particular discursive formation.

One quick historical example-in a powerful essay on the potential of civic resistance, Ken Cmiel points to the way in which members of the civil rights movement in the 1960's swung public sentiment in their direction by behaving in overwhelmingly civilized ways despite the abject violence directed at them by racist authorities and citizens. The result was a humanizing effect that enabled something like identification between the American public and these victims. To borrow from Kenneth Burke: its quite possible that these scenes transformed the African American victims of violence, previously dehumanized through rhetorical and social techniques into something fundamentally "Other", into fellow citizens by something like a "perspective by incongruity" in which the incompatability of competing frames (traditional notions of race vs. traditional civic belonging) is pointed to and eventually one is discarded in favor of the other. We might say that in this moment, African Americans became intelligible as "civic" actors--that is capable, of asserting themselves and behaving as someone who had the full understanding of what it meant to be a member of a polity was. This occurred in contradistinction to acts of violence on the behalf of police and racist authorities, which also simultaneously demonstrated that mere formal characteristics of citizenship (full access, total officialy recognition) were also not necessary OR sufficient conditions for a person being a citizen; after all, their actions had to be read as indexes of personal/individual/geographical biases rather than an entire national malaise for the frame "America" to persist undisrupted.

Why do I bring this up? In the 1960's the civil rights movement utilized the available means of persuasion within a political system to point to the ways that such a system operated with some measure of arbitrariness. Because the exposure of said arbitariness would threaten the coherence of the system as a whole, the system moved to address these concerns. The point is that the existing "discursive formation" provided the tools/mechanisms for this demand to be produced. When we turn to the Tea Party, I think we are seeing a symptom of a peculiar structural particularity: the tools available within our political system today for the Tea Partiers to produce arguments seem much less rich and ample than those provided to the social movements of the 1960's. Take one of the major arguments the Tea Partiers push on a regular basis--that the president and Congress are a bunch of socialists. Jonah Goldberg pushed this argument pretty hard in a recent Commentary piece titled "What Sort of Socialist is Barack Obama?" He and the rest of the righties aren't wrong that the government is displaying socialistic tendencies--but this is only because they broadened the meaning of the word socialism so far that it ceases to possess any meaningful utility for social critics, referring as it does to basically anything that the government might do that gets in the way of anything approaching a free market. However, rejecting something "because the government is doing it" isn't much of an answer to an awful lot of policy proposals. And it's not particularly persuasive either given that history still has a force--no matter how hard Rush Limbaugh tries we can't just forget about FDR and the New Deal.

It seems like the reductio about any governmental action turning into tyranny, fascism, etc. has been too played out. But the argument is hysterically repeated ad nauseam, in the faint hope that it will somehow make more sense. During the Cold War you at least had an existential threat to connect the fear of socialism too--the elements in the government behaving somewhat "socialist" could at least be linked to an alien force locked in cold combat with the United States. Today, however, its difficult to draw a link between Al Qaeda forces and the "socialist" elements of the Obama administration. So instead of being a socialism that successfully threatens the fiber of America (connecting healthcare policy to an enemy is easier, when you, know that enemy still exists and still seems politically viable) it instead seems like a nettlesome poke from some angry children. So I guess today I'm optimistic--it seems like the available resources in our "discursive formation" don't provide the conservatives with very many intelligible/persuasive arguments. There will need to be a shift that acknowledges that the Cold War is over, to allow for arguments to coalesce broader arguments now that the clarion call of "Terror! Freedom! Liberty!" is becoming less effective.


  1. Paul--two thoughts:

    1. Those who buy into the "socialist" rhetoric are "cold warriors" and still have a mindset largely locked in to that way of thinking, even if communist Russia is gone. Communist China could also rise to give substance to these fears.

    And there's always Euro-bashing to fill the gap.

    2. I think that the birther movement which overlaps quite nicely with the tea party movement supplies the rhetorical link between Obama and bin Laden/al Qaeda. And while thinking people find the birther argument laughable, what we know about cognitive psychology and heuristics suggests that we underestimate it at our own risk.

    I would contend that looking at a message/movement's persuasive capabilities in terms of "available resources" in a "discursive formation" may be short-sighted in a dangerous way. If a message/movement is built on exploiting cognitive gaps in thinking, its success is going to depend on how effectively it can short-circuit the cognitive/communicative process you outline.

    I think that right now, with no major successful terrorist attacks and a slowly improving economy, it might be tougher to short-circuit people's cognitive processes...but at the same time, if you look at the Tea Party movement, the one thing they have in common more than anything else is a love of Glen Beck. To me that suggests an echo-chamber/Groupthink effect.

    If enough people enter the echo chamber, the cries of "socialist" or "terror" will resonate dangerously. We're another major terrorist attack or bank collapse away from that being a very real possibility, I think.

  2. Hey - I'm coming off of limited sleep and being sick, so I'm hoping I'm making sense here. I had a few thoughts:

    First of all, I zoomed in on one passage in particular which seems to suggest that you want to characterize what appears to be an impossible identification between raced civil rights protesters and a generally unsympathetic public who had dehumanized them, or at become so embedded within a normalized frame of discourse where race signified a thing necessarily subordinated that it was highly unlikely that protest would work – particularly since it had not worked previously. Here’s your line:
    To borrow from Kenneth Burke: its quite possible that these scenes transformed the African American victims of violence, previously dehumanized through rhetorical and social techniques into something fundamentally "Other", into fellow citizens by something like a "perspective by incongruity" in which the incompatability of competing frames (traditional notions of race vs. traditional civic belonging) is pointed to and eventually one is discarded in favor of the other.
    For me, at least, perspective by incongruity feels a little bit clunky. Kenneth Burke is getting at the structure of an intersubjective relationship by suggesting that its structured rhetorically as a metaphor, “seeing one thing in terms of something else,” but he doesn’t provide much more than this. Here’s what Burke has to say in Permanence and Change:
    Piety, as the yearning to conform with the sources of one’s being, is shown to be a much more extensive motive than it is usually thought to be. Conversely, even the most conscientious of new doctrines necessarily contains an element of impiety, with a corresponding sense of guilt (though the doctrine may later become an orthodoxy), with its generally accepted code of proprieties and improprieties). The intermediate stage involves a shattering or a fragmentation, analogous to the stage of ‘rending and tearing’ (or sparagmos) in tragic ritual. (The equivalent of such a process in the Hegelian dialectic has been called a ‘logonomical purgatory .’) (Burke, 69)
    In effect, by sacrificing a notion of “what properly goes with what” (74) the subject becomes torn, and forced to see other than what he currently is. What Burke says later suggests that psychoanalysis might enrich the way that we talk about these issues. In the first place, Burke draws attention to the way that effort is a structure of protection of a particular piety, a series of prohibitions and ‘thou shalt nots’ that govern the stability of a given normativity:
    Justification by works still remains with us, lying behind the mortality of toil in any form, however little acknowledgement it receives in our enlightened ideologies of today. For all effort is essentially protective, a structure of defenses, however sublimated our concepts of defense may be. (82)

  3. And later, the use of Nietzche, particularly in the drawing attention to the nihilism that underwrites every perspective by incongruity, gets us toward the ‘lack’ that subtends our attempts to build coherence through language:
    These are historical perspectives, which Spengler acquires by taking a word usually applied to one setting and transferring its use to another setting. It is a “perspective by incongruity,” since he established it by violating the ‘properties’ of the word in its previous linkages. … Nietzsche establishes his perspectives by a constant juxtaposition of incongruous words, attaching to some name a qualifying epithet which had heretofore gone with a different order of names. … Nietzsche knew that probably every linkage was open to destruction by the perspectives of a planned incongruity. Throughout his life he ‘undermined,’ carefully qualifying his nouns by the juxtaposition of modifying matter that had the ‘wrong’ moral inclination. (90-91)
    Put a little more pithily, by displacing a conception of the self for a conception of the other, it becomes possible for the self to experience a loss on behalf of the other. In the process, the subject who undergoes this perspective by incongruity becomes torn and ripped, his prohibitions are placed into competition with one another, and the incongruity is permitted to instate a new normativity because of the fact that an old prohibition has been displaced by a more fundamental, or more irreproachable one. To return to your suggestion that the civil rights protests were in fact a perspective by incongruity, perhaps the more nuanced way of describing the operation of this system is to say that the competition of the prohibition of against racial equality was mitigated by the necessary upholding of a prohibition against violence. What is crucial to the preservation of the state’s self-coherence is the prohibition against violence, whereas the prohibition against racial equality, against the resignifications of race, is comparably less intense.
    Why then the political lack? In the stuff that I presented on for Dr. Dave this semester, Toby Miller makes an argument for how performativity undoes the normativity by creating a textured perspective by incongruity, exposing the possibility of multiple ‘linkages’ (in the way that Burke uses it to describe Nietzsche) by inverting the linkages which reinforce a given piety or undoing the necessity of the way that these linkages are established. Here’s Miller:
    Similarly, the soubriquet “The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence/an order of gay male nuns” makes syntagms of signifiers that are normally in paradigmatic relation to one another. Men are sisters, nuns are male, religion is indulgent, gay is ordered. Signs are scrambled, but in a way that borrows from a variety of grammars to bring together binary opposites that generally define each other through difference. To invert is to subvert when you are showing that doctrines of decency desperately need living examples of indecency. This forwards one of the critical confusions of postmodernity. The irony is that a sense of gender confusion sees the medical model of congenital maladjustment producing a subcultural corollary that plays with identity. The appearance of the homosexual as a category of person, as opposed to the description of the particular sexual practices that offers no wholesale key to identity, is now said to be a nineteenth century European invention, not a nineteenth century European finding. It is an invention to be mocked. (Miller, 203)

  4. The structure of irony does a little more to this psychoanalytic ‘preferentiality’ insofar as it suggests that the prohibition against race includes within it a necessity of violence. The exposing of violence as the necessary condition for the preservation of a piety inaugurates the realization that the preservation of the piety of racial exclusion threatens the state itself: if violence is the necessary condition upon which this exclusion is built, then violence itself, and thus the racial inequality, must be readjusted, torn, ripped, and replaced with a new piety which reinforces the fact that violence is that which must be repressed in the state. (Miller might take this an extra step, given the above passage, suggesting exposing violence as the necessary condition of the state opens the possibility of the state’s reconfiguration).
    Second, you have a strange ‘death of rhetoric’ thing going on when you move to the teapartiers:

    When we turn to the Tea Party, I think we are seeing a symptom of a peculiar structural particularity: the tools available within our political system today for the Tea Partiers to produce arguments seem much less rich and ample than those provided to the social movements of the 1960's.
    You seem to suggest that the casuistic stretch that goes on with ‘socialism’ is a ‘weaker’ maneuver than the inversion tactics which exposed the failure at the center of the system. The problem for the teapartiers is that they cannot expose the violence that subtends the mythos of democracy by marginalizing particular actors because the kind of violence that they experience cannot be personified in anything other than ironic demonstrations which reenact the self-destructive impulse of capitalism. The statement by the guy on the floor of the stock market is a good example: “we’re tired of paying for your houses” or whatever it is that he says exposes the logic of the tea party insofar as it suggests that the market in its current form sustains itself upon the notion that market egalitarianism in the form of taxation or market measures which force the ‘silent majority’ to assist the ‘lowest common denominator’ effectively short circuits the ability of the market to function properly. It is not that the available means of persuasion do not exist to make this point clear. It is that the market, which is itself an ephemeral performance, cannot be re-performed through a literalized, embodied ‘tea party’ without acquiring the baggage of signifying all that came before it: “sic simper tyrannis” and all that bullshit.
    Finally, I think drawing attention to the impossibility of making a casuistic stretch between Obama and Al-Qaeda is a symptom of the failure of the tea partiers to perform coherently their critique of the market. It isn’t because the casuistic stretch is a less viable means of persuasion, but that in the absence of their ability to make a coherent critique of the market through their performances, their performances have lent themselves to making comparisons of the embodiment of current market policy and the enemy other.

  5. @Jason: While Eurobashing does some good, its difficult to imagine that it could function well enough as THE existential/external threat. They are more like a lesser version of us in the national imaginary, a slightly perverted bunch of cousins who have weak stomachs. I do really really think its tough to imagine how Russia or China could begin again to function like the existential-threat Other--they'd have to do something that geopolitically is highly unlikely, Russia given its own internal economic issues and China given its economic ties to the U.S.

    Re: second point--Yea i think you're totally correct about that. A mass terror attack or a major economic disruption and I think we're back in a bad place. I do, however, think there are substantive limits on the size of that echo chamber more and more, limits created by the bad "socialism" reductios thrown out even by mainstream conservatives--the more the history of the U.S. contradicts those, the harder it is for the cognitive processes to interrupt the mapping or whatnot.

  6. @Atilla: Interesting - you're making a Butlerian-esque argument here about one taboo preceding another in terms of the state's prohibitions. However, it seems to me that these kinds of prohibitions are deeply contingent. I.E., the prohibition against violence being more influential than the prohibition against equalizing race seems to me to be completely conjunctural - it must be suffixed with "at that moment." Any earlier, and we have clear evidence that the prohibition to violence was *not* enough to function as it does for the sit-ins when they succeed. And why? One might look to the cold war, as Paul does for socialism. There is evidence that federal positions on race were impacted by considerations of international perceptions in relation to communism (see McAdam, 1999), or the rising military engagement in Vietnam, but previous external threats had not forced such internal change. One might consider a new ethic of limiting internal violence against citizens evolving post-holocaust, but if so, it would seem to have been a temporally limited prohibition, considering later uses of violence ("Don't taze me, bro!") that seem to provoke more humor than outrage. Miller's observations may have been made out of date by 9/11, GW, I'm suggesting.

    @Paul: I think you may want to take seriously some of the quantitative survey data. It may not be the silent majority, but the silent 49% could make an f'n mess. When GW was in office, those of us in the slight under % kept saying we were under-represented. It think we overread the president sometimes. If you read the TP's as a symptom, they may not be a symptom of the *position they speak*. They may be a symptom that functions metonymiclly for a bunch of unspoken unhappiness, making the silent majority still matter but in an altered way?

  7. @Meryl:

    I think you're right, in the sense that in the symbolic economy of the government the President "means" more than the other three branches. A last vestige of a carefully smuggled sense that a single, strong individual is the "thing" to protect us, and more importantly, to be "sovereign" in an individualized sense that provides us with the most security (decisionism) possible?