GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

April 29, 2009

Syntactic entanglements

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:28 pm

My reading of contemporary history places the events of 9/11 as the pivotal event in the postmodern world governed by Auschwitz theology.  9/11 had, broadly speaking, two possible outcomes:  an overturning of Auschwitz theology,  White guilt, and the capitulation to victimary blackmail it compels; or a resurgence and intensification of that theology and guilt, as its adherents fight, as we all do, to preserve what is sacred to them.  I will maintain this reading of history until I see overwhelming evidency of some fallacy disabling it–from that standpoint, it is impossible to deny that the second outcome has, in fact, attained decisive ascendancy over the first one.  Ultimately, the overturning of Auschwitz theology required the dismantling of too much that is sacred, everything tied to the general reading of social reality in victimary terms.  The radical restructuring of our modes of pooling risk required for civilizational survival are simply unthinkable–no political figure would now suggest even something as moderate as Bush’s proposal for partial privatization of Social Security.  And yet the cultic Presidency of Barack Obama can’t solve any problems–if there is a meaningful politics now, it is in holding on to forms of understanding, to narratives, to habits and maxims, that can survive the coming wreck.  My own attempts to think of such a politics, in my essay on “Marginalist Politics,” in some recent posts, and in my posts on the JCRT Live blog, in terms of originary grammar, of the originary entwinement of norm and error and that I find to be embodied in habits, comprises the focus of my own work now.  How could I recommend it to others, though?    I have been recommending the courage of our habits, which is to say idiosyncrasy and eccentricity–where error, innovation and freedom overlap. 


Perhaps a trivial example:  Miss California, Carrie Prejean’s answer to a question about gay marriage at the Miss USA contest:

Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anyone out there, but that’s how I was raised, and that’s how I think it should be between a man and a woman.

For someone who teaches writing, this kind of thing is of the greatest interest (there was a bit of talk about some of Sarah Palin’s syntactical anomalies in impromptu speech during the campaign–I may go back and look through some of that, but I suspect I would find some similar phenomena as I will point out here).  “Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other.  We live in a land where you can choose same sex marriage or opposite marriage.”  Perhaps Americans as a people, governed democratically, can choose one or the other–this would be an axiomatic reference to the terms of self-government.  Maybe it is a reference to state’s rights–the people of each state can choose one or the other.  This would be more accurate in terms of the progress of gay marriage through the political system; but it would also have a different resonance, more sinister for the cultural elite by which Prejean is being questioned and monitored here, but therefore also a more overtly political claim.  Or maybe it is a reference to the choice of each individual American–this would be an inaccurate claim, but, perhaps drawing upon the hopeful naivete granted to the beauty pageant contestant, it would position her more sympathetically.  And the very odd reference to heterosexual marriage as “opposite” marriage would then be either a very canny or completely serendipitous gesture towards the deconstruction of cultural norms she is presumably resisting.  The very grammar here resists being nailed down, keeps tailing off into near incoherence–and yet we kind of know what she is saying.  “And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman.” If you are going to ask, and we’re just expressing our own personal, non-binding opinions–“And you know what”–in my country (an assertion about American “values”?  the imagining of her own, private, America?), in my family (defending the family as the ultimate source of values, a family values supporter; but, at the same time, an implicit recognition that there are many families, many different kinds of families, from each and every one of which would issue a different set of beliefs, perhaps even a different “country”) “I think that I believe” (this is probably just “stuttering,” a nervousness about finally getting to the point here, making sure that a couple of layers of subjectivity buffer her from her interrogators) “that a marriage should be between a man and a woman” (At this point, is her support for heterosexual marriage as the norm anything more than her assertion of her own intention to marry a man?–and yet it still manages to be “controversial”!).  No offense to anyone out here (precisely her attempts to buffer and defer her expression of her very personal and almost inescapable belief–it’s her family and country, after all–might generate resentment, so the more explicit neutralizing of resentment is perhaps even more necessary) but that’s how I was raised (there are root causes),  and then the positively poetic “but that’s the way I feel it should be between a man and a woman.”  Probably, “that’s how I feel it [i.e., marriage] should be:  between a man and a woman,” but why not take her to be evoking some way of being, some transcendence of these degrading arguments, “between” a man and a woman (what is “between” them, connecting them, separating them?). 

This is an idiosyncratic, even idiomatic “grammar,” produced by the intersecting pressures of the traditional woman in the modernized version of the traditional worship of femininity, beauty and fertility, the hyped, sensationalized, and yet by now strangely antiquated “beauty pageant,” and the virulent, punk, self-ironizing but no less Puritan political correctness by the “celebrity blogger” whose position as a judge is meant as a kind of revenge upon the beauty pageant from within; and/or, perhaps, and attempt to maintain its legitimacy by bringing into accord with the very norms that make the pageant a kind of mini-scandal. 

Perhaps it is in such cultural/syntactical anomalies that the possibilities of resistance and change will emerge–perhap Ms. (Miss?) Prejean here is giving us an exemplary model of deferral by defending the traditional through the singular and ambiguous to the point of resisting hostile analysis, and therefore welcoming a sympathetic one.

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