Filed under: affect, Belonging, emotion, Love, Ordinariness, Politics, writing | Tags: affect, emotion, Obama, Politics, yes_we_can
(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.
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