August 25, 2011 11:52 AM   Subscribe

Categories as fundamental as fact and fiction, news and entertainment, gender and sexuality, have eroded away. In literature and architecture, in cuisine, in music, in fashion and furnishings, everywhere, everything—it’s fusion and mix. Barack Obama emerged as a literal embodiment of this age. To educated people, especially younger people with generally progressive views, other candidates suddenly looked parochial by comparison—or simply outdated. In his ethnicity and biography and in his personality and politics, Obama, the conciliator, was above all a combiner. Because he was from virtually everywhere—Kenya, Indonesia, Honolulu, Harvard, Chicago’s South Side—he was also from nowhere. The pastiche of his persona made him “his own man” in a new sense of the term.
On the Politics of Pastiche and Depthless Intensities: The Case of Barack Obama
posted by Rumple (22 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
PoMo, the Obama campaign & presidency, the Tea Party: this is will be one helluva MeFi Rorschach test. Thanks for sharing.
posted by joe lisboa at 11:59 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

is will be typo not deliberately postmodern, just a typo.
posted by joe lisboa at 12:00 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

pomo afro no homo?
posted by liza at 12:10 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

With no influence in Congress before the election nor since, Obama won a popularity contest.
posted by Ardiril at 12:18 PM on August 25, 2011

So, the author argues that the fading away of a sense of history among the general population (either a cause or effect of consumer society, I'm not sure) lies at the root of the Obama phenomenon as well as the Tea Party and all sorts of other political malaise. (Let me guess the author is a history professor -- not that I'm not sympathetic.) But does anyone really see that sense of history getting back into people's heads? Anyone see any strategy for doing this, beyond calling for more history professors?

Also, if he's following Jameson, that would mean he's against postmodernism.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 12:33 PM on August 25, 2011

Surfaces and intensities. I wish could have come out from that article with more than that.
posted by charred husk at 12:33 PM on August 25, 2011

Also, if he's following Jameson, that would mean he's against postmodernism.

I'll take "Massive Oversimplifications" for $200, Alex.
posted by RogerB at 12:35 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

As the parent of two boys with dual Japanese-Canadian citizenship, both of whom are bilingual (one is actually functionally trilingual), this is an Interesting Article.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:42 PM on August 25, 2011

I'll take "Massive Oversimplifications" for $200, Alex.

True enough; "very critical of postmodernism" would have been better.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 12:42 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

i think "optionality" is the central point (at least for me, and what i found interesting about the article). this article introduced me to the term.
the gist is not a new topic here on the blue... the whole notion of facts made immediately irrelevant by ideas. this is what fascinates me. and makes my head hurt. and makes me die a little on the inside.
posted by rude.boy at 12:56 PM on August 25, 2011

With the sole exception of his categorical stand against the war in Iraq, it was obvious all along that he stood to the right of Clinton and Edwards on domestic issues, across the board.

This part is wrong. Clinton was not and has never been as far to the left as commonly imagined. Before becoming Secretary of State, Clinton had a long, history of supporting Israel's increasing militancy and being strongly on the AIPAC bandwagon. Not to mention, her positions on immigration reform have been characterized as "to the right of Bush." And she did get Rupert Murdoch's endorsement, remember.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:30 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

But something more comprehensive, and more radical, was also suggested by his candidacy—an escape from history itself, from the historicity for which Jameson has mourned so persuasively. The underlying question was whether, for Obama himself, history had lost the depth and weight it once had for educated and politically engaged people.

It seems like this started a long time before Obama*. Almost everyone in the USA, political candidates included, now seems eager to escape history. This is maybe not surprising; for instance, you have to have a strong stomach for irony to look closely at our post-WW2 foreign intervention record. In large part, it has been a two-step process of 1) propping up clearly dangerous dictators in the hopes they will be useful, then 2) invading their countries when it becomes apparent they actually have their own agendas.

* Actually, the author seems to confirm this here: We are accustomed to thinking of progressive movements of one kind or another when we think of identity politics, but that is dangerously misleading. Ronald Reagan was the most successful postmodern practitioner we have ever had. His was the vision of the simulacrum that became the “real America,” the guiding light on the Right ever since.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:57 PM on August 25, 2011

There is a bad side to academia, which might be called "academics as a craft". Writing an article or paper has a formal, crafty side to it, which is about its composition, rhetorical elements and use of references and quotes, and I think this article is a prime example of this, and of the effect this has on public discourse.
Does anyone here really believe a nation as huge and diverse as the US is driven by such concepts as those sketched up by this author? Do you vote for someone because they are cute or brown or green? Do you vote to erase history, or to re-imagine life? If you don't, are you so arrogant as to believe your neighbor or friend votes without reasoning and weighing between options? I am not American, but I suspect your pundits and professors are similar to ours - older men with nice homes and university educations.
Once I was in a seminar about the rise of right-wing populists in western politics, and most of those present had strong opinions about the ignorance and racism of these voters. When I asked directly, it turned out that not one of these urban academics had ever met a person who voted for a populist party. Everything they had said was based on uninformed prejudice, and when I suggested they got their fat asses out of the room and into the field, they concluded I was a right-wing populist (which again led to lots of fun, but that is another story).
As far as I can see, Obama is a populist, and proud of it. His voters are middle class Americans who have strong feelings against extremism. They don't like the right or the left. They want gay rights, civil rights and sensible health care, but they also want low taxes, a pragmatic deal on gasoline and a big, job-providing military-industrial complex. I have an other opinion, and anyway, I am in another country. But Obama represents a real and legitimate political position, one that has leverage across the globe, and one that meets opposition from other real and legitimate political positions.
If you, like me, feel the position Obama represents is absurd, the way to deal with it is politics, not pontification. (And if I were American, I would have to vote for Obama, because your political system is crazy, but that is again an other story).
In a few months, when the Republicans have undone each other sufficiently, the Obama campaign will be able to demonstrate how Obama delivered on most of the promises he gave. And they will have video-clips to show why he couldn't end Guantanamo, provide single payer health care, or get the economy going. How many Republicans are recorded saying the US should default, or cut medicare, or invade Iran?
The test is how many of those middle-class, consensus-seeking voters have become so disgusted with politics they won't vote again. If they cop out, it seems we will have President Perry. Good luck with that.
posted by mumimor at 2:29 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Does anyone here really believe a nation as huge and diverse as the US is driven by such concepts as those sketched up by this author?

I didn't think the author believed that these concepts were "driving" the U.S. as a whole in any sense; I took it more as an analysis of what might be considered the mainstream way of relating identity, choice, and history to one another, within contemporary USian attitudes. On that level it seemed fairly persuasive. I agree with him that a significant part of why people vote for a candidate is that they feel they can "identify" with that candidate in some way. And I agree that we all (both academics and regular folk) are frequently unaware of the real reasons we do things, and that academics do have a useful role to play in bringing these reasons to light. (This role should never be taken to mean that academics will necessarily know the less educated better than they themselves do, of course.) If one were successful enough at this, it seems plausible that it might have some political effect-- surely there is a larger degree of overlap between "politics" and "pontification" than you allow! But you're right that the essay is frustratingly "academic" in not venturing any more concrete recommendations.

Also, I disagree that Obama is a true "populist" although his campaign did seem to benefit from some populist sentiment. With Perry and the Tea Party we see how quickly populism can change course.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 3:23 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

demonic winged headgear, you have some good points, and we may actually mostly agree. Also, as an outsider, it is impossible to understand the cultural issues in the US.
But your last paragraph forces me to remind you that in the US, who votes is a huge factor. It is actually very confusing to me and many others. In this particular case, it would be literally absurd to imagine any of Obama's voters moving on to Perry. But some of those who were energized by Obama are now disappointed and don't vote, while some Republican voters who gave up on McCain now feel they have a reliable leader, so they will rally. The final balance is impossible to guess from outside.
If you want actual voter movement from one side to the other, you need candidates who are able somehow to appeal across the aisle. Like Huntsmann? Or Reagan. Or Obama. But they all attract fanatical middle-people, which is a strange zone to inhabit.
posted by mumimor at 3:53 PM on August 25, 2011

Muminor, you might consider that academics work within particular traditions. You were probably taught some basic physics in school, so if you were attending a public lecture on physics today, you wouldn't have the expectation that the speaker would explain "this whole gravity thing". Nor would you turn to the crowd and loudly declare "Is anybody buying this whole world is round thing? I don't know about you, but out here in the Texas panhandle, the world looks pretty darn flat to me. I think these high-falutin academics need to take a walk in my neighborhood for a change before they go shootin' their mouths off about spherical earths and such nonsense."

That would seem silly, right?

Now if your public school is like mine, it probably didn't acquaint you with the the last 80 years of Marxist thought, years in which people like Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault and Frederic Jameson laid out a systematic case for a number of the assumptions this author makes about what drives American culture.

Now, obviously no one has to agree with these assumptions - and I'm not trying to say the case for them is as airtight as the case for gravity - but you should be aware that the author's choice not to provide lengthy justifications for his assumptions is less testimony to sheer arrogance or disconnectedness than to the fact that he's speaking from within a specific tradition.

And if you want to argue with those assumptions in good faith, you have a lot of reading to do.
posted by macross city flaneur at 6:46 PM on August 25, 2011

I got like halfway through it, but honestly I didn't feel like it was even saying anything.
posted by delmoi at 10:32 PM on August 25, 2011

macross city flaneur, I'm not certain I get your point. My criticism is that this type of free-form theory isn't useful for what the author is applying it to, and that the problem with some corners of academia is that they don't feel any obligation to anchor their theory in empirical observation. Where does physics come in?

Fun fact: I live in a country where marxist thought is part of the national high school level curriculum.
posted by mumimor at 11:17 PM on August 25, 2011

An article on Obama, race, history and postmodernity really ought to have brought up this gem from Obama's Philadelphia "race speech".

I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

Not so much postmodern as old-school American manifest-destiny milleniallism. America is where the tribes come together, as they said back in the day...It's still surprising to me how widely applauded this speech was.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:21 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

As far as I can see, Obama is a populist, and proud of it.

In that case I politely submit that I don't think you see very far.
posted by mek at 12:42 AM on August 26, 2011

Us military brats understand him completely.
posted by judson at 7:05 AM on August 26, 2011

...the problem with some corners of academia is that they don't feel any obligation to anchor their theory in empirical observation. Where does physics come in?

Fun fact: I live in a country where marxist thought is part of the national high school level curriculum.

So as a believer in empiricism and someone educated about marxist thought, what do you think of the Althusserian critique of the supposed transparency of "vision" at the heart of the empirical model of knowledge; his assertion that every empirical observation actually conceals or disavows its own participation in the "production" of the object of knowledge itself?

In other words, what of the Althusserian claim that ALL knowledge is "free form" in this sense, that the human fingerprints on the objects of knowledge cannot be erased, certainly not with the dirty rags called peer review or "scientific method" or what have you; and that all knowledge is essentially unintelligible except in relation to the "horizon" of its problematic, typically as defined by the institutions of knowledge (the lab, the journal, the university, the scientific field, etc) in which that knowledge is produced.

From Althusser's "Reading Capital":

We have now reached the point we had to reach in order to discover from it the reason for this oversight where a sighting is concerned: we must completely reorganize the idea we have of knowledge, we must abandon the mirror myths of immediate vision and reading, and conceive knowledge as a production.

What made the mistake of political economy possible does indeed affect the transformation of the object of its oversight. What political economy does not see is not a pre-existing object which it could have seen but did not see -- but an object which it produced itself in its operation of knowledge and which did not pre-exist it: precisely the production itself, which is identical with the object. What political economy does not see is what it does : its production of a new answer without a question, and simultaneously the production of a new latent question contained by default in this new answer. Through the lacunary terms of its new answer political economy produced a new question, but 'unwittingly '. It made 'a complete change in the terms of the ' original 'problem ', and thereby produced a new problem, but without knowing it. Far from knowing it, it remained convinced that it was still on the terrain of the old problem, whereas it has 'unwittingly changed terrain '. Its blindness and its 'oversight' lie in this misunderstanding, between what it produces and what it sees, in this 'substitution ', which Marx elsewhere calls a 'play on words ' (Wortspiel ) that is necessarily impenetrable for its author.

Why is political economy necessarily blind to what it produces and to its work of production? Because its eyes are still fixed on the old question, and it continues to relate its new answer to its old question; because it is still concentrating on the old 'horizon ' (Capital, T.II, p. 210) within which the new problem 'is not visible ' (ibid.). Thus the metaphors in which Marx thinks this necessary 'substitution' suggest the image of a change of terrain and a corresponding change of horizon. They raise a crucial point which enables us to escape from the psychological reduction of the 'oversight' or 'unwittingness'. In fact, what is at stake in the production of this new problem contained unwittingly in the new answer is not a particular new object which has emerged among other, already identified objects, like an unexpected guest at a family reunion; on the contrary, what has happened involves a transformation of the entire terrain and its entire horizon, which are the background against which the new problem is produced. The emergence of this new critical problem is merely a particular index of a possible critical transformation and of a possible latent mutation which affect the reality of

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this terrain throughout its extent, including the extreme limits of its 'horizon'. Putting this fact in a language I have already used,[4] the production of a new problem endowed with this critical character (critical in the sense of a critical situation) is the unstable index of the possible production of a new theoretical problematic, of which this problem is only one symptomatic mode. Engels says this luminously in his Preface to Volume Two of Capital: the mere 'production' of oxygen by phlogistic chemistry, or of surplus value by classical economics, contains the wherewithal not only to modify the old theory at one point, but also to 'revolutionize all economics' or all chemistry (Vol. II, p. 15). Hence what is in balance in this unstable and apparently local event is the possibility of a revolution in the old theory and hence in the old problematic as a totality. This introduces us to a fact peculiar to the very existence of science: it can only pose problems on the terrain and within the horizon of a definite theoretical structure, its problematic, which constitutes its absolute and definite condition of possibility, and hence the absolute determination of the forms in which an problems must be posed, at any given moment in the science

posted by macross city flaneur at 4:03 PM on August 27, 2011

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