. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

Other people’s optimism
May 6, 2008, 4:19 pm
Filed under: affect, Belonging, emotion, Love, Ordinariness, Politics, writing | Tags: , , , ,

(Column 1 in a series; the Long version; experiment in political journalism; see “Credibility and Incredibility” below)

Sometime in fading recent memory, it seems that we were debating about “hope.” Has hope’s moment passed? How did the Yes We Can moment come to feel so long ago, a shadow second before all the bowling and cake and bitterness? Can you even remember the beginning of this sentence? If you’re thinking, as you read this, “Oh, “Yes We Can” was so February!” that’s because political time moves with the rising and falling intensities of scandal and speculation.

But it’s also because other people’s optimism is so often felt as a threat. Optimism? I’m serious. Get me out of here! We are taught to respect our own pain, and to respond compassionately to that of others. We have a word for taking pleasure in other people’s pain: schadenfreude. But there’s no word for the anxiety that arises from other people’s optimism.

Why is that? Did Hillary Clinton’s deflationary anti-aesthetics–as in Mario Cuomo’s “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose”–burst the hope bubble? (Apparently not.) Was her disrespect for the mereness of “just words” actually effective in its dismissal of desire for the political? Did the skies open up not with hope, but with shame? Was it an accident that the appearance of organized collective inspiration suddenly got widely equated with the threat of fascism and the shallowness of rock star celebrity?

For a few days, some students and colleagues and I had an intense email conversation about the will. i. am video, “Yes We Can.” If you haven’t seen it yet, go to You Tube: it’s been viewed in excess of seven million times. Many of us revealed that they started to watch it but had to turn it off after a minute. Why? Aesthetic aversion–and too much emotion. The pressure of not identifying with other people’s optimism. As quickly as our collective discussion started, it stopped. It was too interesting; it was too compelling. The whole thing, the whole bolus of contradictory emotion it released, was overwhelming. We were revealing to each other our political desires, plus the compromises we were half-willing to make with them.

This video of “Yes We Can!” takes a speech by Barack Obama, delivered on the occasion of not winning the New Hampshire primary. Will. i. am, of the Black Eyed Peas, writes that he produced it because the speech lingered, induced an earworm. An earworm is a musical phrase that dominates your mind, echoing there despite your best efforts. The earworm–presumably the phrase, “Yes We Can”–made him make some work, possibly just to shut his brain up. But he also took being haunted by a phrase to be a sign of a political desire that he had not yet either felt or expressed in his own words. Prior to that, he’d been disengaged from the election.

Phrase is a musical term as well as a grammatical one. The video drapes a musical version of Obama’s speech onto the speech as he gives it. Many beautifully-lit people sing along with the speech, individually and in harmony of sorts with Obama. Their repetition of his words is often slightly out of synch with him, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind. Sometimes they repeat his phrases on their own time, during his pauses, while the audience chants. Once in awhile the soundtrack goes quiet while he continues talking: for example when he says, “We have been told that we can not do this by a chorus of cynics . . .”

“Chorus” is a perfect, classic word for the culture of commentary that flourishes to one side in the theatrical drama. We overhear the political. It’s an oral culture, a gossip culture, something whose sense of things we pick up in asides, over meals, skimming the headlines as we walk by kiosks, or wait in the drugstore, or the airport. Just this minute the people sitting near me in a Borders cafe are debating the Democrats: I can’t quite follow, but I’m getting some gist. Cynics perform their dog-like barking as a chorus. But so do the rest of us, voice by voice. We also encounter that culture of commentary vulnerably, for fear that someone will buzzkill our optimism.

I can never detach myself from being moved by people’s desire for the political. Wherever they are on the political spectrum, when they manifest a desire for social and economic and juridical reciprocity and accountability I take it as a tender moment, and not always just a will to power, or a shallow greed. Sometimes it’s all of them: that’s an empirical question.

But midst the noise and nonsense of the political in this season is the cracking of a frostbite-like defense against wanting something–from the mainstream political sphere. This column is no brief for Obama. In more ways than I like he’s a centrist. But it is a brief for meditating on the phenomenon of what feels like oversimple, ridiculous political emotion. What does it mean to want “change”? When someone says that a term is “empty” it really means that it’s overfull. Words like these, in this season, stand-in for a desire for the political sphere to be accountable to the humans who populate it. It expresses a desire for a revitalized sense of social reciprocity. No significant social transformation can take place without the strength of that ridiculous desire.

It is always fragile-making to have a political desire, even more so to say it. You’ve been there, you know what I mean. Someone says, shifty-eyed: “Who are you supporting?” You say your view–maybe boldly, maybe hesitantly–but whatever the tone, your eyes shift around to assess whether you’re going to be admonished, flipped off, held in contempt, or held in the relieving embrace of a “me too!” This is especially true in a season of contradictory desires. Little in ordinary political speech is more threatening than the phrase that may reveal your fundamentally weak constitution as a political thinker and hoper.

People are politically incoherent. We want what we can’t get, what we can’t stop wanting; we don’t want to give up, give out. We don’t want to give in to our political depression; we want our anger to be reflected in someone else’s policy commitments. The people and terms presented to us are like most objects of desire, compromised from the start. The work of processing disappointment while staying in the room with the object of desire is as much the work of politics as of love. This will be the topic of my next column.

9 Comments so far
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I agree that there is something embarrassing about other people’s political optimism–you’ve hit this one on the head. Not so other kinds of optimism. Hope for the future, hope for one’s friends or one’s children or one’s life, hope that one will find love again, or a cure for a disease–these hopes move us. A woman with breast cancer who gives up traditional medical treatments for something more holistic, or experimental, or spiritually-engaging–these I’m on board with. But political optimism? Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss. Fool me twice? That’s where the shame comes in. Is it because it feels so limited? After all, I’m being told I can drive one of two cars, but after I ‘choose’ one, I have to pretend it expresses my personality, and that it is the only one I ever could have wanted. A third one–a dodge minivan–is being forced on me too, but I can claim i hate it from the beginning, as it does doughnuts in my yard. It feels so 1984 to watch the recitation of “yes we can.” So Triumph of the Will. Like the space between individual agency and conformity folds together neatly, its edges touching. Maybe I feel like cynicism is the the only resistance I can make–the great refusal. Yes we can close down Guantanamo Bay? Abu Ghraib? Well, I guess I hope so. “Can” “we” do that? Do “we” want to? Do “we” want to roll back DOMA? Have national health care? Cause Obama isn’t gonna give us national health care, and we need it worse than any single thing, even ending the war. How different will the new boss be? Not that different, I’m afraid. Convinced, even. So I look away. I’m not sure why–I believed for maybe a couple of weeks. Not really now, though.

Comment by Sfrajett

I agree with you, generally, Sfrajett. Other people’s political optimism. Your corollary point is, in a way, what I was writing about in The Female Complaint. Intimate publics are organized by narratives that foreground the optimism of survival. There’s much less shame and anxiety around that. The optimism and education in survival that an intimate public provides trumps the shame about bad taste and being naive that induces anxieties about attachments in all matters of taste, including, for example, in one’s lovers. To be exposed in an attachment, to be judged by what the normative world thinks it reveals about your need, your character, your value, induces big feelings of relief when it turns out that they’re shared or confirmed by other people.

But it is also worth saying that the forms of optimism about surviving the grittier zones of life can still produce anxiety: for example, when people make fun of the kitschification of disease (breast cancer or AIDS ribbons, New Age spirituality, secularist splenetics against the religious, therapy culture, etc); or when people make fun of the Lifetime channel or Oprah.

As for “believing” in Obama: I never believed. He’s not as empty as Adolph Green says, but he’s not radical or all that progressive on most things. The health care plan isn’t good; on the environment and immigration he’s mixed; he’ll return the US to a centrist-liberal jurisprudence (a relative relief from where we are), and dismantle the strong executive that Bush has constructed; he won’t be a hothead hawk; he won’t get goaded into cowboy diplomacy; Robert Reich works for him, so he won’t be the worst neoliberal; but Sam Nunn has just signed on, which is pretty scary. But to me when someone actually creates institutions for political organizing (the Obama fellowships) to turn a generation of politically engaged 20 year olds into politically identified workers, I have to be happy: after 30 years of political parties that wanted apathetic voters, that wanted the political to be delegated to them, we have a mainstream politician who wants people to build their political skills for activism. OMG! But this is what I mean about the shaky ground, the contradiction, of ambivalence/attachment.

Comment by supervalentthought

I wonder – prosaically – if the bursting of the Hope bubble is unrelated to the dissonance (conscious or otherwise) between what animated that political desire and the reality of Obama’s platform and agenda (think “Audacity” as you read his stance on pressing issues for a withering experience). Hence the emergence – widespread in my world – of what I might call crypto-optimism or post-optimism – maybe precious optimism is better. Precious optimism is the hope that beneath Obama’s bi-partisan, centrist politics he is actually progressive, more progressive than can be openly demonstrated if he is to remain a viable nominee. His true colors are too precious to publicly reveal.). At best, I experience this with sympathy: like the pathos one feels for genuine fans deeply moved by a derivative and insipid band (say, Coldplay), or for the desperate parent who believes a precocious child can redeem her unhappy life.

I agree with Reed’s comments on Democracy Now!: Obama’s base is more fan club than movement (his calls for it to step up and be otherwise, notwithstanding). There is currently nothing analogous to the progressive and radical grassroots movements which pushed FDR and JFK in progressive directions after taking office. Rather, Obama “fever” embraces another post-political presidential candidate who would fold cheery grassroots activism into the presidency itself.

An incident put things into stark relief for me over the winter: one afternoon I witnessed a desperate, really crazy-seeming African-American woman ranting to a bus full of passengers in southside Chicago. She was screaming at the front of the bus when I boarded. I think she had a small child with her (seated near her). It seemed that her fare card was a dollar short of the needed fare and the driver had told her so. She had silenced the entire bus with her shouts that this was a conspiracy, that the card was to blame, that everyone in the bus needed to stick together on this, that otherwise we would all be next. She ranted for blocks, the driver long-since having dropped the matter, and just before I exited the bus she began to chant, “O-bama!, O-bama!, O-bama!, O-bama!”

Comment by traveler

Right, great. Optimism is now sprouting desperate sub-genres all the time, modes of bargaining against losing the possibility of attachment to possibility. But let’s think about *why* that story about the Obama-spewing woman is a story about the standard voter’s craziness. Obama is like another dollar, in that woman’s head: Obama means that she has capital that the white people on the bus don’t have, special Obama money in the pride bank. She might be poor, but she’s got the wealth of an identification that lifts her. That’s kind of awesome. He claims he’s going to use that glowing sense that he distributes to do courageous things. I really do think he’s going to matter a lot to rehardwiring the law back to a state of liberal balance. But he’s probably not going to do much to get her that dollar.

Comment by supervalentthought

In that reading identification with Obama sort of functions as cognitive therapy for the oppressed. The woman is buoyed by a feeling while her material circumstances and the structures which ensure them remain the same. This is one thing I love about your work and your thought: it forces me to pause and realize that the woman’s desperate and economically futile “attachment to possibility” isn’t merely a matter of false hope, that there’s more there (there) than I would have thought.

I really do think he’s going to matter a lot to rehardwiring the law back to a state of liberal balance.

I would need clarification on this as I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what it means for the law – of all things – to have been hardwired for “liberal balance.”

Comment by traveler

Thanks for your kind words about the work, very nice. Meanwhile, to clarify, Zizek is the locus classicus of suspicion about people’s political attachment, the shallowness of which, in his view, produces political stupefication (in his early work) and ethical atrophy (in his later work). I’ve always thought that he was really unimaginative about ambivalence because he’s so organized by a truth/falsity economy in the end, a disrespect for fantasy, in the end, and a belief in what a fierce rationality can do. A fierce rationality can do a lot, but there’s a lot it can’t undo, and in fact ties in tighter knots.

Anyway, I’m thinking about this here because I don’t mean to say that the Obama money is enough, especially if all it buys is more Obama money. What we want is for that money to buy a political will for a serious reorientation of US economic, legal, and administrative resources toward fairer economic and legal justice. In re the law, all I meant was that from all I’ve read, he’s not going to maintain the strong executive presumptions of the republicans (which I predict HRC would, since she’s so authoritarian and hierarchical, as we see in the centrality of a culture of loyalty and deference in her political practice, and also in her hawkishness, which I fear is not just political compensation but actual).

Obama believes in a strong constitutional law tilted toward the progressive side, and so would issue, I feel confident, a more balanced set of relations between the three governmental branches; not rely so much on extra-juridical practice, etc. It might also provide alibis for lack of political courage: In *The Root* last week, for example, Michael Dawson berates him for not condemning the police in the Sean Bell case on the grounds that the law had decided, and we have to respect the rule of law. I agree with Dawson: Obama could have had it both ways by respecting the rule of law in given instances while talking about interfering with the pattern of racially motivated excessive force. At the same time, I believe that while the current administration sees law as a tool and a weapon, Obama would return it to its rightful place as mediating institution that protects citizens from the state as well as each other, that *ought to* have a politically inconvenient relation to governmental will.

Comment by supervalentthought

Wow. In hindsight you couldn’t have been more wrong. Maybe those lefties were right: it was stupid optimism all along.

Comment by Danny Mayer

I don’t know. I wasn’t a strong Obama supporter, as I said: too neoliberal (and now, it turns out, too close to Bush era security policies). I was talking here about not disrespecting the attachment to the political as a way of preserving a space of fantasy about the social being a place for flourishing. I don’t think being disappointed in the object that organized that fantasy (and the actions around it, more people than in recent memory being politically active) means that the desire for an adequate object was stupid. That would be like saying that a bad love was evidence that love was bad. What’s harder here is the question of the relation of the object (here Obama, or any politician) to the world one wants to bring into being. Here too it’s a nauseatingly mixed mixed bag. (doing book revisions now just on this topic! see my recent piece Opulism…)

Comment by supervalentthought

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