Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The People-As-None?

In an influential essay in his tome The Political Forms of Modern Society Claude Lefort remarks that one of the constituent features of a totalitarian society is the primacy of the concept of what he calls the "People-As-One", an entity which is tautologically and self-referentially constructed as the central imaginary concept driving a political society. Where leader and "people" are self-same and mutually substitutable, we see the conditions of totalitarianism, conditions that perpetuate themselves through the inability for a constructed outside, or point outside power, to function effectively in contradistinction to the harmonious fantasy of the People-As-One.

Lefort applies this concept in his analysis of totalitarianism, but a central premise of both contemporary rhetorical and political theory is that the imagined harmony behind the idea of a People-As-One is a key driver in the problems that face democratic society. John Sloop and Kent Ono, among others, observe in advancing a vernacular theory of rhetoric over and above the global or macro-political views of rhetorical theory that a turn to vernacular voices constitutively excluded from the contemporary "mass public" serves as a necessary remedy to a kind of popular harmonization perpetuated by even supposedly "leftist" theories of interpellation popularized by the translation of European social theory into the body of rhetoric. The force of interpellation, ascribed to discourse, has been essentialized and reduced with ignorance of the "actually existing" effects of these interpellations in democracy, suggesting that critics might observe the activities of non-normative communities to understand the gap between the theoretical understandings of these interpellative forces and the strength of them in practice.

Similarly, the turn in political theory towards theories of hegemony and agonistic understandings of democracy as a radical rather than consensus-riven enterprise often explicitly use Lefort's work to fight against the fantasies of harmony that structure contemporary political discourse. Rather than waiting melancholically for a singularity of political unity to come, theorists like Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, and Andreas Kalyvas suggest that theorists might be better analysts of the political scene if they understand conflict and struggle to be the productive and necessary bases of politics. Rather than trying to evacuate conflict and clean up the public sphere (an exercise which might toss productive "arational" demands out with the supposedly less "liberal" conservative political rationalities that are often the targets of scholarly intervention), interested parties should analyze what conflicts might tell us about the positionalities of subjects, the effectivity of certain grammars, and the character of political contestation in a given symbolic political space.

Interestingly, this Lefort essay (and the psychoanalytic theory that it tacitly and not-so-tacitly relies on) is the basis of one of the centrally influential essays in the world of scholars working at the intersection of discourse, publicity, and politics. Michael Warner's "The Mass Public as Mass Subject" draws heavily on Lefort's work to theorize the dangers of a discursive "tyranny of the majority" that result from the curiously performative features of public space. Specifically, because the mass public, that ideal agglomeration of ideal persons to which many feel called to when subjects encounter moments of difference, is made through moves of negative abstraction wherein a body or action that appears is taken to imply the separation of that body or act from the "real" public, various ideas of the public may sustain themselves for quite some time even in the face of (or perhaps because of) certain contradictions and illogics. After all, if these positive appearances of bodies in public prove the existence of a public "somewhere else" then interruptions of the "real" public will actually sustain the coherence and existence of said mass public, because acts of resistance or criticism of it will not only imply its existence but also ontologically certify the outsideness of those who speak against it, because their capacity to speak against it is circumscribed by their having not been made a part of it.

The darker implication of Warner's argument is that, say it with me now, "we are all totalitarians" by virtue of our imagination which positions us not as part of an "out there" speaking but instead as part of an interior who "hears" only insofar as the fact of speech itself works to create a kind of presumption against that speech on the basis of its sourcing in the outside of our imagined polity. Warner clearly notes the impacts of this performative democratic majoritarian tyranny: those voices that have come to be positioned outside of the mass public, the queer, the colored, the black, and feminine, are constitutively excluded from the polity on the basis of their demands for inclusion. Because their demands come from the outside, the bar they have to pass in order to receive membership in the "mass public" is inexorably high. The more that these voices "complain" to borrow from Melissa Deem's appropriation of Lauren Berlant's work, the more their position outside the space of appearance works naturally rather than being understood an effect of history, violence, and the economy of circulation that circumscribes the performances that are intelligible to a certain set of privileged subjects.

To prove his point, Warner chooses an interesting case study: Ronald Reagan. The trick of Reagan, according to Warner, is that while his administration was riven with scandals and incompetences, his public popularity, as measured not in the rough numbers of polls but instead in various symbolic, quotidian, and affective versions of what political scientists call "political capital" remained very high. When readers of The Nation lamented that Reagan was still president despite his "obvious" incompetence this worry served to obscure a very meaningful point also drawn from Lefort: the relationship between a public and there leader is one of identification, and where that bond is strong supposedly objective "evidence" of a representative's failings may not be interpreted as such when the public's attachment to said object would also be threatened by such criticism.

At least two factors contribute to this relationship. One is the role of the office of the president itself: as the most central and least complex of the three branches of government, the president serves as the nominal representative of "the people" because it enables the reduction of the vox populi into one embodied figure. This is especially important for Lefort who observes that while the Enlightenment may have eliminated the functional form of the divine monarchy, a desire for the simplification of power along those less complicated lines strives against the messy complexity of distributed democratic power. The second role is the content of the figure: many critics have read Reagan, almost all concluding that part of his effectiveness was related to his status as variously, unflappable, a celebrity, "beyond America," and somewhat confused. Reagan is distinguished form say, George Bush Sr., whose competence became a deadweight during the economic struggles of the early 90s: he at least knew enough to know something was going wrong!

What, then, do we make of a president who actively distinguishes his interpretation of events from the public? In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Barack Obama persistently refused to take on the mantle of a class warrior (a move that did not become his signature until several years later). Instead, Obama spoke of a general American "responsibility" to suggest a collective overcoming of the economic problems, indicating that the problem was internal to rather than external to the American polity and its constituents. Immediately after his election, again during his inaugural, and again during the debate over the stimulus bill, Obama suggested that an American coming together of harmony, not the vilification of bankers and financial executives, would prove key.

I suggest that Obama's post-electoral pivot created the problem of the People-As-None. For Warner, the existence of the mass public both makes and weakens individuals: without a mass public there can be no abstraction back to the status of the individual, but the mass public also testifies to the non-universality of the individual. The latter of these facts may be productively managed through sublimated, or perhaps denied through the tragic displacement of the fact in the amplification of narratives about individual agency and power. Ordinarily, presidential opposition to a popular public sentiment would entail a rather straightforward production of identity, where classic populist objections to out-of-touch elitism may be marshalled. However, Obama was not just the president but a recently elected one, during an election which served as a a mass repudiation of his political opponents, not to mention the validation of the American project itself.  To constitute a "mass public" against Obama would require that Obama himself not be allowed to be a part of said mass public, a design which his position as the hyper-legitimate head of state would immediately undermine.

Because of his ambiguous rhetorical status but undeniable structural position in the American imaginary, Obama could not operate either as the Lefortian Egocrat nor could he operate as the proper figure of opposition around which political organizations might coalesce. Here we had a hiccup in the publication of the mass public. It is not incidental that Obama's "Othered" status as, by turns, a racial, foreign, and cultural suggested connotationally that the mass public could be organized against him, but it is a testimony to the power of the democratic imaginary that it took a few months for Obama to be "lowered down" in the words of Kenneth Burke to where these objections could circulate effectively.

With the mass public printer stuck in a paper jam, we have the problem of the People-As-None. Because individuals owe their existence to the production of the mass public, the difficulty in constituting a mass public inductively indicts the existence of the individual subject: without the technologies of abstraction available as suggested by Warner, the threat to the polity is existential rather than contingent: selves remain convinced of themselves in the abstract following rhetorics of harmony and collective identity, but they can neither establish their coherence through an attachment to the president nor through a contrast with the "noisy complains" of those who remain outside of civil society.

With the massive presumption and favor given to fantasies of individual action and agency in the American milieu, the struggle for individual subjects to distinguish themselves unsurprisingly contributed to the continued circulation and legitimacy of anger. The aftermath of the TARP bill and the financial crisis generally meant that people were frustrated, and public discourse surveyed in the wake of the crisis suggests people generally felt scared, anxious, and disempowered. Such sentiments exacerbated the crisis of mass publicity noted here. If one is looking for a nominal starting point for the populist resistance to Obama (an explanations for the contradictions that emerged internal to said movement) one should make a note that what was transpiring was not a simple misfiring of expectations between a candidate's policies and the public, but instead the expression of a certain kind of malfunction in the representational apparatus governing the American political imaginary.

Where the People-As-One finds everywhere confirmation of its status, the People-As-None finds doubt everywhere. The People-As-One are not hyper-paranoid but instead hyper-confident, certain that the relays that bind them to one another and a nominal leader remain strong ideological rocks. On the other hand, the People-As-None are searching for groundings. The result we might expect is that rather than the hyper-specific and choosy energy attached to the People-As-One (selective in the sense of its attachment to the object of the Egocrat) the People-As-None might seek out almost any object around which a sense of identity might be generated. Against Joan Copjec, we might suggest for the hyper-paranoid People-As-None, any object will do.

This theory might explain the resemblance between the early conservative opposition to Obama and a drunk at a bar tossing darts at a board and hitting, in turn, employees, the wall, the board, and pitchers of beer. The bizarre conglomeration of demands and images attached to the Tea Party (dressing up as Indians, bringing bags of Tea, the affinity for slick-dressing Rick Santelli, opposition to bailouts from Republicans who should "logically" reject other corporate welfare they find acceptable, retro-patriotic motifs, worries about liberty, freedom, tyranny, fascism, Hitler, and a litany of other concerns) is a result of this hyper-paranoia: consistency is no object where subjects proceed from the deductive principle that they do exist, and where this principle must be proved in the space of appearance.