Saturday, March 17, 2012

O'Blogging on St. Patrick's Day: Main St./Wall St.

The emergence of the Wall St./Main St. theme in the 2008 presidential campaign was a crucial narrative moment. While political narratives opposing the "big city" economists to the ordinary economic agents of flyover America are as old as the progressive populism espoused by William Jennings Bryan (if not older), the salience of such themes fades in and out of public circulation on the basis of several contextual factors, including A) the current state of the economy, B) class sensitivity, and C) the visibility of the moneyed and urbane. While previous outbreaks of outrage at white collar workers for financial improprieties had been seen not only during the Great Depression but also during the S&L scandals of the 1980's, the Wall St./Main St. division that erupted in September 2008 was particularly important because it happened at the height of a hard fought presidential campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama.

Almost as soon as the financial woes of Lehman Bros. were made public, a Wall St./Main St. narrative began to emerge in the media. On September 15, the Chicago Tribune reported that "Few Americans have a direct connection to the events unfolding on Wall Street, but practically everyone has a stake in the game." By September 18th it was reported in The Business Times that Wall Street had fundamentally "lost touch" with the economy. The explicit use of language contrasting Wall St. with Main St. increased, and became a staple of presidential campaign rhetoric up until the early November election.

Rhetorical theory teaches us one way to read the emergence of these discourses is that they serve as ways of ordering or making more understandable a world riven with anxiety and indeterminacy. As Kenneth Burke argues, the production of scapegoats is part of a ritual of victimage which serves to consolidate a collective identity in ways that render negative or threatening political circumstances as emerging in opposition to said collective identity. Rhetorical theorists have tended to focus on the political implications resulting from the use of such rhetoric, whether in Burke's incredibly important essay "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle" or more contemporary efforts like Brian Ott and Eric Aoki's work on Matthew Shepherd, Jeremy Engels work on Nietzchean victimage, and Richard Nixon, or Barry Brummett's work on symbolic form.

Engels' essay is of particular interest to me, as his argument in his Rhetoric Society Quarterly essay "The Politics of Resentment and the Tyranny of the Minority" is about how scapegoating as a political ritual perpetuates its subjects' victimized status by allowing them to perpetually wallow and identify with their sense of resentment and anger at the world. Rather than understanding anger and anxiety as temporary conditions, Engels understands that there are rhetorical mechanisms that prolong these rituals of victimization. An angle I want to add is that it seems that there are also ways in which scapegoating discourses may unknowingly or unthinkingly perpetuate the angers and resentments they attempt to foster.

In the case of the "Wall St./Main St." binary, blaming Wall St. may have the effect of accelerating rather than postponing an existential crisis for the aggrieved subject. As has been written elsewhere and ad nauseam, American politics and society is saturated with a notion that the liberal individual is an absolute sovereign, and the individual choices/decisions carry a certain kind of legitimacy not on the basis of the results they create but instead from their simple, tautological status as individual decisions. Such a fantasy works with efficacy during times of relative economic prosperity because the individual investment into the economy at large is validated with recourse to a simple kind of correspondence: I am both acting and living, and the economy is going along well. We would expect, then, during times of economic destitution and crisis, that the capacity and competency of the self as an individual actor would be threatened, because a flailing economy indexes the flailingness of those subjects operating within it.

Here is where the scapegoating mechanisms of "Wall St./Main St." come in: blaming Wall St. for the large scale 2008 financial crisis resolves the crisis offered by economic disrepair by distributing the responsibility for blame at levels far above that of the average American. Such a maneuver taps into a historically rich tableau of populist narratives which paint good and hardworking "normal" Americans against an opposed and greedy moneyed class. However, what goes overlooked is that this rhetoric may actually serve to exacerbate rather than reduce the anxiety and tension in American subjects. After all, in order to believe the finance derivates, greedy financial managers, and loan-crazy banks were behind the financial crisis, one has to admit to their own lack of agency in the realm of economic affairs. Because most people have moved away from the "storing money under a mattress" financial model, they conceive of themselves as public economic actors. One needs nearly spend time detailing the wealth of financial avenues available to "normal" people, like the website eTrade which promises to elevate everyone's individual economic judgment to the plane of Wall Street and enable them to make their own sound investment decisions. However, in the case of a broad financial collapse, very few people are immune from financial ruin: not only because many people unknowingly or unwittingly invest their money in unstable sectors of the economy, but also because of a general credit crunch that results from a constricted financial environment.

One result of the "Wall St./Main St." demagoguery, then, is that it evacuates the agency of Main Street. Main St. can only be the passive victim of Wall St.'s sinister machinations if it has little to no say in the matter. This might not ordinarily be a problem, except that because of the tightly held fantasy of individual choice, the evacuation of "average America's" agency is not a minor matter but instead an assault upon the constitutive fantasy of individual identity: that the exercise of individual choice, is in and of itself, meaningful and tends towards "the good." Piling onto this is the rather massive "perspective by incongruity" that would be witnessed were Americans to interrogate their own investments and roles in the financial collapse: even if you believe that the 2008 financial crisi was primarily the fault of derivatives traders and an economic system going off the rails, it is undeniable that a collective investment in the idea of individual economic security contributes to Americans rolling the dice on risky financial decisions like "out of their depth" home loans.

Many have wondered why the political era of the Obama presidency has been besotten with extreme political rhetoric. (It is unclear whether this rhetoric is worse than in the past, but its effects on creating an atmosphere of partisanship in the Congress is uniquely terrible). I think one cause of this (aside from the obvious inputs of Obama's race, a collapse of the classic "southern states" strategy started by Richard Nixon, and the slow creep of pseudo-libertarianism into a central position in the GOP architecture) is that the 2008 financial crisis was as symbolically important as it was in real economic terms: the truth of it radically threatened to pull out the rug from the fantasy of liberal individualism held near and dear (and it should be noted, a support of liberal individualism is a fairly bipartisan fantasy). The initial anger over the collapse, which political operatives then doubled down on by facilitating and encouraging the "bailout anger" which eventually condensed around Rick Santelli to produce the Tea Party movement, was an anger that allowed subjects to disavow their own relatively miniscule agency in affairs of the economy, a miniscule amount of agency that would be tough to square with the pervasive fantasy of individual action as highly economically meaningful. The bipartisan character of this sentiment can also be seen in the emergence of the Occupy movement: both parties seem to understand that the economy is "bigger than all of us" but struggle to articulate intelligible demands to remedy the problem of extreme power disparities in our political climate (for the record, I think the incoherence of the Tea Party's political agenda signals that their disavowal is considerably more tragic: Occupy refuses to "double down" on the liberal individual for the most point, and its supposed "unintelligible demands" are a sign of its politicization of the economy rather than a kind of failure of New Social Movement).

We might then think about economic demagoguery as a type of particularly uncontrollable political rhetoric of scapegoating: in order for an audience to acede to its major premise, a major premise of American subjectivity itself is challenged and threatens. Because our identities are structured in the form of a sort of a defensive armor (qua Lacan) we should expect the defensive maneuveres on the part of identity in response to this existential threat to manifest themselves in the active affects and politically contentious discourses and actions of our current milieu.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Weird Dissertation Crowdsourcing

finding myself in something of a mental cul-de-sac: do these paragraphs seem as insane to you as they do to me?

In Bell’s explanation, the promise of liberalism finds its broad appeal in the basis of projecting an infinitely successful future, and that future is purchased with the exercise of exquisite individual judgment. In her words, “liberalism contains a necessary but potentially destabilizing point at which the ability to make promises joins the ability to hesitate, and, by the tracing of lines of causality, to imagine the future differently. The possibility of beginning anew, the possible moment at which promises are exchanged and plans laid down is a profoundly political moment.”[i] Bell uses political here in the Arendtian sense of commons making: liberalism ties people together with the promise that they might, through the exercise of individual agency, make a new community. Interestingly, the status of the indivduals that are the subject of these appeals is what makes the situation necessary but destabilizing: it is necessary that individual choice be absolute, but choice itself could potentially choose no choice. This parallels the problem of democratic representation as enunciated by Rousseau: “the people” may exist but if “the people” only exist as an interiority of themselves, their legitimacy will collapse through lack of external point of identification against. There would be a kind of lack of reflexivity about who the people are that would prove fatal to mass publicity. Similarly, individualism has to extract an infallible vision of the self out of a founding which nevertheless owes itself to the incredible fallibility underscored by the fact of subjectivity itself: the separation and owed fealty of one subject to another, made through the divisional character of language itself.

Explaining this admittedly obtuse point requires a turn to Jacque Lacan’s essay “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipation Certainty: A New Sophism.” Like many of Lacan’s short essays, this one features a confusing parable. Centered around a prison warden offering a certain gambit to prisoners, the conceit that frames the essay is that the warden offers three prisoners a chance to escape from their confinement but only if they guess right in a curious game of the warden’s choosing. In his formulation, the warden places 5 prisoners in a holding cell, where he will possess five disks “differing only in color: three white and two black.”[ii] The warden will fasten one disc to each prisoner, and the prisoners will be able to examine the discs on the other prisoners, but forbidden from verbally communicating the knowledge they derive to the other prisoners. “The first to be able to deduce his own color will be the one to benefit from the discharging material” and allowed to leave.[iii] Of course sheer guesswork will not suffice: any prisoner knowing their designation must also be able to “show their work” by providing a logical account of how they know. Moreover, the sneaky warden uses only the white disks. Lacan gives his reader the “perfect solution” from the inmates, a solution which appears to circumvent the warden’s own trickery:

I am white, and here is how I know it. Since my companions were whites, I thought that, had I been a black, each of them would have been able to infer the following: If I too were a black, the other would have necessarily realized straight away that he was a white and would have realized straight away that he was a white and would have left immediately; therefore I am not a black.” And both would have left together, convinced they were whites. As they did nothing of the kind, I must be a white like them. At that, I made for the door to make my conclusion known.[iv]

While this solution is valid, in the sense with which we in argument are intimately familiar, the validity of the solution requires that the reader ignore a curious game of time being played by the inmates in their answer. Specifically, in order to formulate this opinion as stated, the element of time must be obviated or elided from one’s consumption of the account given by the prisoners. The moment of deduction cannot be said to properly exist, because at each moment where the deduction of color occurs a kind of simultaneity that cannot be coterminous with the movement resulting from the deduction is nevertheless drawn from the decision to make a move. As Lacan notes, even if the first motion followed the logic given by the prisoners, the shared movement of all towards the door should inspire a second halt, at which the surefooted movements of each other infect each prisoner with doubt as to their color. Nevertheless, the prisoners can infer from this second cessation that his disc is white, as if his disk were black the other actors would have had no need of stopping. The actions themselves certify the “white-dottedness” of the prisoners.

Lacan declares that this solution is “valid” although perhaps not true. Nevertheless, its validity is what matters for the purposes of telling a kind of parable about subjectivity. Much like the prisoners in his tale, human subjects come to know their own subjectivity only through the production of a logical exclusion: that is, in Lacan’s “mirror stage” where a subject encounters another subject, and then formulates a seemingly coherent (yet constantly fractured) identity by excluding and exteriorizing the image seen in the mirror. Crucially, this annexation nevertheless locks subjects into a kind of fealty with their mirroristic Other, for without that figure, the self would have no cause to exist. This identification is not “true” of course: subjectivity is itself a kind of armor of fiction, an insistence of coherence in the face of a world so wide and complex that the affirmation of utter incoherence (and a lack of agency) would perhaps be more “true.” But subjectivity is valid: it establishes its own terms, and much like the halting prisoner’s in Lacan’s story, then verifies and makes more permanent this identity through a series of self-confirming halting glances. Combined with the actions taken (either by the prisoners to move towards the door or of subjects to gesture through speech towards their own totality) and we have a tautologically constituted but nevertheless valid recipe for subjectivity: the belief that one is a subject. Much as the belief that each of the prisoners hold that they have white disks is guaranteed and solidified by their decision to move towards the door, and confirmed by “valid” readings of their circumstance, so too does human subjectivity confirm itself through the exercise of a nonetheless tautologically constructed faculty: the faculty of human reason itself, which takes its own exercise to confirm the fact of its existence.

Both these engines are driven through one careful elision: the elision of the moment of reflexive judgment itself. Lacan is quick to point out that there is no spatial logic that could hold the decisions of the prisoners are logically valid because such judgments rely on a criminally unsophisticated model of communication as something like a sender/receiver model, which understands that what matters is the positive content communicated by actions. Such an understanding compresses the logic of the subject into a clear and linear mode of reasoning, when is at odds with the reasoning actually on display. To believe otherwise assumes that each subject is totally and completely free of the information provided by the actions of others: moreover, such a model of temporality spatializes in such a way that one has to assume the actions/decisions taken by a subject are the result of a particular line of reasoning rather than co-conspirators in producing the validity of that very reasoning itself. The spatial form of logic itself helps to reinforce the very myth of coherence that contributes to our ability to imagine what Joseph Frank calls “the actions and event of a particular time only as the bodying for of eternal prototypes…this timeless world of myth…finds its appropriate aesthetic expression in spatial form.”[v] To put it another way: no syllogism makes sense without our assuming the coherence of the form of the syllogism as a given fact. Similarly, the actions and account given of the actors within Lacan’s parable make a total amount of sense within the assumption of the narrative when they take the actions as he describe them occurring, but without their actions the logical solution they give (and the solution they find) could never have been. These actions of a particular time make the eternal prototype of logic meaningful in terms of communicating their reasoning. There is no universal which can make any sense without the set of particulars that make it make sense.

[i] Bell, "The promse of liberalism and the performance of freedom," 82.

[ii] Jacques Lacan, "Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty--A New Sophism," in Ecrits, ed. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 2004), 161.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., 162.

[v] Joseph Frank, The Idea of Spatial Form (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991). 63-64.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Of Barack and Bell

Here's a major problem with the next Breitbart-collective's move to sully Obama by linking him to Derrick Bell: in order for people to be terrified about an association, the associate has to have been well known enough beforehand to count as a serious "threat" to whatever conservative vision of America is circulating. To put it another way, you want people to be able to work using quick enthymemes, especially given the fast nature of campaign cycles/twitter. That kind of cognitive/argumentative speed doesn't attach when you first A) circulate a video of Obama saying some kind words about a dude and then B) have to take time explaining just who that dude was and why he's bad news for America. Moreover, for an opposition figure to be a real threat they have to be somehow least Bill Ayers could fit neatly into a kind of "commie subversive" archetype that used to do a lot of work in America. Its unclear what Bell triggers other than just "being Black" which is, admittedly, a trigger for some brands of conservative politics but not exactly the sorts that will help you win median voters come November. Perversely, the success of a certain kind of neoliberalism in neutralizing race as a meaningful category for political contestation also means that bringing up race as an attempt to sully a political opponent is fundamentally less potent a threat than it was previously, since race is reduced to an almost accidental category of circumstance rather than the strongly ontological function it serves for a left-progressive coalition. Once one is conditioned to believe that race does not argue, one is simultaneously conditioned to believe that "race" warrants less rebuttal or merit then it once did.

This move reeks of desperation: the best "vetting" the Breitbart media consortium could come up with is Obama giving a kind and somewhat humorous introduction of a law professor 20 years or so ago? In general, these political strategies which hold someone's youthful self to be coterminus with their current self fail to even meet a laugh test: college certainly influences how people view the world but it does not determine in the last instance. Otherwise we'd have a lot more folks in their late thirties drinking a lot of Keystone Light. Moreover, attachment does not guarantee agreement: how many folks read Hegel or Marx in college and yet remained unpersuaded as to their merits? This incident underscores how conservative discourse about Obama vacillates between two poles: on one hand, it must understand Obama (and his followers) as guileless ideologues subject to being persuaded very quickly about any reductionist ideological thesis with which they are confronted (see: Wright, Jeremiah), but on the other hand, Obama has to be an incredibly sinister and sophisticated individual capable of separating his public persona (serious minded progressive/moderate) from his actual Marxist/"racist" roots in a nearly pathological manner.