Monthly Archives: June 2009

The Holy Grammar of Presence

Eric Gans’ talk at the Ottawa GA conference on June 20 ( articulated the problem of victimary discourse in relation to the originary scene in what, I think, is a new way.  Gans had already re-situated scapegoating (for Rene Girard the founding moment of the human) within the emergence of hierarchical orders, which themselves emerged as the “big man” centralized distribution as kingly priest thereby transcending the unstable and more egalitarian gifting order.  Using the concept of “firstness,” Gans now situates the possibility of hierarchical order on the originary scene itself, well before such firstness could be given any institutional embodiment.  Gans can now speak about two paradoxes of the human:  the paradoxical relation between God and human, wherein we define ourselves as mortal by reproducing the immortal sign; and the “ethical” paradox, in which hierarchies must be affirmed in language which is itself essentially egalitarian–both the slave and slaveowner understand the words by which the former’s dispossession and domination is affirmed.  The advent of victimary discourse in the post-Auschwitz era has, for the first time, subordinated the primary paradox to the secondary one, leading to the widely shared assumption that the elimination of hierarchies between subjects would abolish all conflict, thereby forgetting the need for a mechanism of originary deferral, regardless of the terms of social order.  Gans concludes:

But it is the very excess of victimary thinking in the postmodern era that has provided the impetus for the return to the primacy of the transcendent, understood this time from a minimally anthropological perspective.

This is true as an account of the origins of GA, but it would be a mistake to take this “return” as one likely to be replicated socially.  (Gans doesn’t seem to be suggesting something along these lines in this talk–it is overwhelmingly analytical rather than presciptive.)  The victimary order has installed itself not only by reversing the priority between transcendence and inequality; it did so by “implicating” transcendence in inequality–that is, victimary thought scapegoats representations of transcendence as “alibis” for the continuance of social hierarchies.  Attempts to reverse the hierarchy of human-divine and intra-human relations once again would be instantly “tagged” as calls to return to traditional, hierarchical orders:  even on esthetic grounds, the notion of “elevation” implicit in “transcendence” is too reminiscent of the “heights” oppressors placed themselves upon vis a vis the oppressed. 

The re-prioritization of the human paradox, then, must take on another form.  I would first of all suggest that we can stop speaking of the immortality of the sign–first of all, because it’s not strictly true, as human beings could destroy themselves and leave the universe devoid of signs; second, because it leaves the human as a sort of spectator, gazing at the sign–as Gans insists, the transcendent sign is always in some relation to what has been transcended, but nothing in the notion of transcendence implies the dependence of the transcendent upon those “acquainted” with it.  But the sign is, of course, thus dependent.  And if the fundamental human paradox is to brought back to the center of cultural life it will have to be through an awareness of the way all of us need to contribute to the subsistence of the signs that sustain us.  At the end of the event, with all the participants arrayed at the periphery, the sign and object would appear simply to be there; but, if acknowledgment of “firstness” is the initial step towards rooting hierarchy and its discontents back in the scene, we should also note that firstness simply points to the sceneness of the scene, i.e., to the fact that something happens, which means something happens first, then second, then third, and so on, until the last.  And along the way each “iterates” and “norms” what the others have done–that is, each puts forth the sign in a way that both highlights the distinctiveness of an earlier emission and adds to its “contours” so as to facilitate its further assimilation by the group.

Indeed, what we can call the “transcendent” quality of the sign can equally be referred to as its iterability.  The problem “transcendence” addresses is why the word “dog” is the “same” word when I use it now and when some other English speaker across the world uses it years from now (of course, words change their meanings, but that’s a distraction right now–they aren’t completely changing their meaning at every moment, so the problem I am addressing here remains).  The simplest answer to the question is that signs are iterable because they are iterated.  I would like to distinguish “iteration” from “imitation” here:  you imitate when you follow the rules embodied in another’s activity, but you iterate when you apply the rules another is following to that activity itself.  This distinction can be articulated with the one Richard van Oort ( draws from Michael Tommasello’s study of primates and humans, between “emulative” learning, in which “the disciple focuses not on the model’s particular behavior but on the objects with which the model is interacting” and “imitative” learning where one “enter[s] into the model’s particular intentional stance toward the object.”  The difference between imitation and iteration, then, can be put as follows:  if imitation enters into the model’s particular intentional stance toward the object (what I just called “following the same rules”), then iteration is the next act in a series initiated by the interaction between the intentional stance and the object (applying the rules to the subject’s behavior).  To put it in colloquial terms, imitation plays the man while iteration plays the ball— in activities where we must obey the same set of rules but towards opposite ends, and our roles are therefore distinct as well as reversible, I need to be able to act within the “field” your activity is generating.  To return to the originary scene, the iteration of the sign is the imitation of the central object, which “attends to” the organization of the group as a whole as its collecting intelligence.  By anticipating, facilitating and channeling one another’s moves we simultaneously sustain the game itself; and, since social life is ultimately more open-ended and therefore play-like than game-like, we keep playing by inventing new rules out of the anomalies of the existing ones.  We keep things going, and protect the rules not by exclusion but by improvising tactics for inclusion.

So, in iterating the sign I not only do what you do but I spread what you do–I enter your relation to the object but I also recognize that the object is encompassed by that relation as well.  Here the object is the social relation itself, which is constituted by the thing we let be between us, but also by the infinitely varied ways that thing can mediate our relations.  Your use of the sign requires my use to be complete–if the first gesture had been ignored in the rush to the center, it wouldn’t have been a sign–and so my sign both completes yours and “requests” that another do likewise for me.  The word “first,” indeed, is the superlative form of “for,” in the sense of “before,” ahead of, representative of, holding the place of–the first is the “most for,” the “for-est.” It implies, and only exists as first, if others are coming after, who will be first in a way as well since others will keep coming. 

This sustaining relation towards the sign I would call “presence” rather than “transcendence.”  Presence is the open acknowledgement that the central object is amongst us and we part of it.  Presence was present on the scene, before its “closure,” but it would have been far too risky to make it explicit in a ritualistic order where claims of human contribution to the center would destabilize it, while introducing it would have introduced conflict into a hierarchical order, since the politics of “presence” under such conditions would be insupportably radical (of course it did emerge in the various known and unknown revolts and heresies through the ages).  But now that the hierarchical order has been sufficiently pounded by the victimary barrage, while the awareness that the absolute elimination of all hierarchies can only lead to terror is widespread, ways of turning or renaming hierarchies into or as provisional forms of firstness as the inflection of presence can be freely discussed.  Each of us, in some sense, has been “delegated” to watch over some region of signification at each moment, and in that region we are the guarantors or “spreaders” of meaning.

The shift from transcendence to presence, meanwhile, would further involve shifting sacrality or holiness away from specific objects, even transcendent ones, to language itself.  The “linguistic turn” of 20th century, post-metaphysical thought was inextricably caught up in victimary discourse, perhaps most forcefully in Derrida’s work, where metaphysical hierarchies are transcribed into social ones, so “logo-centricism” easily flows into “phallo-centrism,” “Euro-centrism,” etc.  But this need not be the case–indeed, the understanding of language as constitutive, rather than derivative of something more fundamentally human, true, or permanent, might be the antidote to victimary thinking.  Victimary claims address themselves, perhaps above all to language–the source of “political correctness” is the awareness that language does constitute our shared world, while at the same time the formulation of those claims must, needless to say (or, inevitable to say) take place in that very same language.  Perhaps we have a third paradox here, between the expression of resentment and the donation of that resentment to the circulating center.

Victimary thinkers are scandalized by the implication of language in inequalities while universalists are horrified by the recruitment of language for narrowly partisan ends, so as to define, so to speak, oneself into power–perhaps the deferral of this rivalry (which may, in the end, run very deeply through all aspects of at least Western politics) will lie in the shared attention to those elements of language which evade all conscious control.  In other words, not simply language, but language’s infinite generativity is holy–the very fact that neither the most “hierarchical” terminology (the universal “Man,” for example) nor the most politically engineered jargon (like, say “homophobia”) can escape the generative processes through which terms get treated ironically, descriptions get mixed up with prescriptions, the boundaries between exclamations, imperatives,interrogatives and indicatives are constantly blurred and redrawn, and so on, might provide us with endless resouces for sustaining presence.  Moreover, attempts to exploit language’s infinite generativity would not exhaust it–quite to the contrary, such attempts would further deepen our sense of it–the more we attend to language, the more of it there is to attend to.  Language is separate enough from us to be worshipped, as every utterance becomes other the instant it is “released,” without ever really being separate from us.  The creation of idioms, the problem of translation–these are ever-present realities of profound moral, ethical and political import, and into which all, as users of signs, are capable of inquiring and inscribing their situation within the field.


Obama’s Symmetries

I hadn’t fully realized it before reading the text of Obama’s speech in Cairo but what is certainly most interesting, in my view at least, about Obama’s rhetoric is his sense no issue has been properly represented until it has been satured with symmetries.  This seems to be a compulsion on the President’s part or, more productively, a habit.  So, I am going start paying attention to Obama’s discourse in these terms–as the construction of a set of symmetries, across a continuum ranging from sensible but obvious, to startling and provocative, and  finally to outrageous and obscene.  Where and when he crosses over from one “region” to another should be telling; and it is likely that this rhetorical focus will yield insights into not only Obama’s own thinking and likely political direction, but to what he represents for so many–what those many take him to be transcending, and how.  And I am happy to start here, with the Cairo speech, because despite the challenging topic and venue, it seems to me that Obama kept the portion of outrageous and obscene symmetries to a minimum.

Here’s the speech:

Let’s start with the following symmetry, offered as a cause of current “tension” between the United States and Muslims:

More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

This is a good place to begin.  “More recently” seems to cover a large period of time here–and sometimes you need a lot of time if you are going to establish an equivalence.  “Colonialism” was not only quite a while ago but also actually very brief and had little effect in the Muslim world–from the middle to late 19th century until the mid 20th, and with the exception of the French in Algeria in particular, the occupation of Muslim lands was not heavy handed.  What little constitutionalism ever existed in countries like Iraq and Egypt seems to have been left there by the British–and then swept away afterward.  The Cold War is a little more “recent,” but with the famous exception of helping to install (or re-install) the Shah back in 1953, it would be very hard to give an example of a Muslim government that would have been very different if not for America’s insensitivity toward the wishes of the people of that country (perhaps Indonesia, where we supported a very violent suppression of a Communist rebellion in 1965–are Muslims complaining about that?).  But this broad temporal sweep also enables Obama to put the Islamists’ rejection of modernity in a larger context that would, implicitly, at least, implicate the Muslim world as a whole in that rejection.  So, our representation of modernity in the Muslim world has been bullying and hence gave modernity a bad name; while many in the Muslim world, perhaps because they over-generalized from those actions of ours, or because modernity and globalization are hard (for us as well), have failed to distinguish better from worse elements of modernity.  Now, if we set aside all questions of truth and fairness, and just think in originary terms of the purpose of such supposed symmetries (on the originary scene, who first reached for the object, who first elbowed another out of the way, etc., is all irrelevant once the sign is extended), we must judge them as follows:  can acknowledged representatives of both “sides” sign onto these provisions as a starting point, in which case their truth need not be determined until after we have tried to live up to them.  From that standpoint, “we will eschew more aggressive impositions of modernity and globalization if you will determine to embrace some version of modernity and globalization that will get you into the system” seems reasonable.  Of course, what will then count as “aggressive” or “destructive” versions of modernity, what it would mean to get inside the “system,” etc, would all bve open to debate, which would also be part of the point here.

So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.


But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words – within our borders, and around the world. We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum: “Out of many, one.”


Here, on one side, there are “negative stereotypes of Islam” and on the other side the “crude stereotype of America as a self-interested empire.”  The President obliges himself to fight against the former “wherever they appear”; it’s less clear who is obliged to contest the latter.  In other words, there is an odd asymmetry here, which Obama  must have felt was needed for the larger symmetry in which each side opposes stereoytpes of the other.  Perhaps the asymmetry lies in the fact that the speaker can make the initial gesture by obliging himself; he can’t oblige others.  All he can do is disprove the stereoype held by the other.  The extent to which this symmetrical formation holds together depends upon whether the main objection to America on the part of Obama’s audience is, indeed, America’s imperialism, or (another odd phrase) its “self-interestedness” (as opposed to disinterested empires?), which I must assume is an oblique gesture to our “materialism.” In other words, the fact that we have always tried to give meaning to our principles “around the world” must be distinguishable for that audience from the “imperialism” itself.  Otherwise, Obama’s very words here would confirm the stereotype.  On the other side, what will count as a “negative stereotype” of Islam–and in what sense does it fall within the President’s responsibility to fight against them?  This symmetrical formation is more tenuous than the previous one, insofar as the President might be taken to be pledging to oppose those of his fellow citizens who are critical of Islam.  The weakness here may lie in the opposition of “America” to “Islam”–America is a nation and can do good or evil; Islam is a religion which doesn’t “do” anything, so Muslims agreeing to see the US in more complex terms doesn’t really line up with us not saying anything “offensive” about Islam.  Why, then, couldn’t Obama here have contrasted the actions and principles of Americans with the actions and principles of Muslims (as he did in the symmetry I just examined)?  Here, we hit a serious obstacle:  which liberatory or universalistic actions carried out by Muslims as Muslims could Obama have pointed to here?  When he would, by the laws of symmetry, need to point to some complexity (good and evil) in the actions of Muslims, at least in terms of engaging the principles of the modern world, he falls short.  So Obama here has to commit himself and us to something both impossible and wrong–to avoid criticizing Islam.  The alternative would have been to split the “Muslim World,” and single out proponents of democracy and human rights at odds with their government, and whose existence would therefore enable Americans to arrive at a more complex view of Muslims.


Now, here is a symmetry that has already been generating quite a bit of controversy, and is well worth examining:

 Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.


On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.


For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers – for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.


That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest. That is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires. The obligations that the parties have agreed to under the Road Map are clear. For peace to come, it is time for them – and all of us – to live up to our responsibilities.


Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.


Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.


At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.


Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society. And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress. 

 There is a lot to go through here.  Obama begins be weighing, not so much Jewish suffering against Palestinian suffering, as the unacceptability of us today denying either suffering.  That is, I don’t think he is equating what the Palestinians have gone through to the Holocaust–we need to find the point of symmetry, and not every element of each side of the equation has to line up with some element on the other side.  Obama suggests that threatening Israel with destruction today is equivalent to denying the atrocities committed against Jews in the past–actually, a rather subtle and reassuring thought.  Now, let’s go to the “other hand.”  That the situation of the Palestinians is “intolerable” is as “undeniable” as the suffering of the Jews.  (Note the way the imperative of formal symmetry works here–what holds this part of the speech together is the equivalence of “undeniability” that pertains to both Israelis/Jews and Palestinians–a rather thin thread, but it forces Obama to make the connection I just noted between “denial” and “threats.”)  So, America will not reject the claims of either side.  I don’t see what would prevent this from being a starting point:  it is undeniable that threatening Israel with destruction or denying the Holocaust will not resolve anything; and it is equally undeniable that ignoring the situation of the Palestinians will not resolve anything.  All this seems undeniable.  Obama’s reference to the “humiliations of occupation” seems out of date as most of the Palestinians’ territory is presently unoccupied, but this claim is not really necessary to this equivalence, anyway.

Soon after comes the equivalence between the Palestinians and blacks in the American South and non-violent revolts elseewhere.  Here, again, Obama is not saying that Palestinians are “like” American blacks, South African blacks, East European dissidents, etc., in every way–the equivalence here is forward looking and projective and therefore one it would be incumbent upon the Palestinians to redeem.  That is, the comparison is not between different forms of oppression, but different models of liberation.  And, yes, the slaves were freed by the “violence” of the civil war but, again, that doesn’t fall within the scope of the proposed symmetry here, which is between various “sublatern” struggles for liberation against “advanced” nations in the late modern world.  In other words, it’s a salutary redirection of anti-colonial resentments toward more “post-colonial” ones. 

The Israeli side of the symmetry seems to me especially weak here.  Unlike his account of the Palestinians, there is no distinction between what Israel has done and what they should do; there is no proposal of another model for Israel to follow–Israel is just given orders.  “Israel must” is the prevailing locution here and, with the exception of the very vague comment on “continued Israeli settlements,” Obama never acknowledges that Israel might be very willing and may even be trying to do what they “must,” but may need cooperation from the Palestinians.  One consequence of the demand for symmetry here is that Obama “must” insist that Israel hold up its end all the more forcefully precisely because the Palestinians can’t or won’t hold up theirs–in other words, if both sides are in place, you can simply apply pressure wherever it’s likely to be effective.

I do like Obama’s assertion that we will say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs–I don’t remember hearing that in a Presidential speech before.  I also don’t believe it, but it’s a good thing to say, if only because it provides a standard for judging Obama here (why not aim at symmetry here as well, though, and insist that all sides follow the same logic and say the same things publicly and privately?  Would it have been hard to establish an equivalence between Muslims and Israelis on that score, since Israel is already as transparent as any society can be and the divergence between what Muslim governments say to their own people and to others notorious?  So, is that what places certain topics off limits–their resistance to symmetrical rhetorical formulations?).  But, to end this–if anyone wishes to examine other parts of the speech in the comments, I’m game–the biggest problem with symmetries is that they leave out the question, who goes first?  And, in the end, that’s the only question.  I can hypothesize, then, that part of the attraction of Obama is his belief that any conflict or dilemma can be framed in a symmetrical form such that the very framing appears to transcend that conflict or dilemma; and, that the other part is that the symmetries need not, indeed should not, lead to any reciprocal action.  Indeed, if we take those symmetries I have portrayed most favorably, as possible starting points, where, indeed, would one go with them?  Let’s say we go first and stop imposing our forms of modernity and globalization upon the Muslim world–in fact, we can read Obama’s speech as such a going first.  All we will have done is leave the field open for the various competing positions on modernity and globalization to fight it out among themselves–our move ties into no reciprocal action, we can’t point to anyone going in one direction rather than others, someone whom we could join.  Obama can’t even point to more productive approaches to modernity and globalization within the Muslim world–indeed, one strange thing about his speech is that he doesn’t praise anyone doing anything right now–all he does is recognize grievances and propose better models for pursuing them.  To praise some would be to dispraise others, and that would be to impose.  One could say that he therefore represents the Muslim World more negatively than Bush ever did, even though his explicit criticisms are usually very mild.   Obama’s symmetries, then, require us to believe in mass conversion throughout the Muslim world, a spontaneous conversion, in response to Obama’s presence, with Obama himself as the guarantee that the conversion will be reciprocated (here, his bizarre pledge to commit himself to stamping out steretypes of Islam makes sense).  This is the result of the rejection of the attempt made by Bush to split the Islamic world, which ended up splitting the West as well–it is the terror of those entwined civil wars that gives Obama’s symmetries their mystical force, at least for his followers in the West.  For his Muslim audience, Obama’s speech can readily be translated into homilies on the need for self-improvement, but at our own pace–we are already on the way to becoming what we are supposed to be.  Indeed, the proof of that would be that we are addressed by and can appreciate the speech.  There is very little Muslims can do–other than support al Qaeda, deny the Holocaust, etc.–that would leave them outside one of these symmetrical formulations.  And what is now gone is any sense of being monitored by an other, from within the “system”–the symmetries are reversable and allow one to shift one’s gaze back to one’s interlocutor at will.

Futurity and Presence

For years I have been convinced, and I remain convinced, that there is a simple and infallible way of breaking the victimary spell:  for the “dominant” to use their power to defend those who are the victims of those who claim to be our victims.  This should involve not merely charity or altruism, but a genuine alliance, however asymmetrical the contributions of each party, against a common enemy, leading to lasting covenants and institutions.  This principle can be applied in infinitely varied ways–conservatives who have tried to liberate students from the public school monopoly, or poor inner city blacks from their “civil rights” leadership through enterprise zones and other initiatives have intuited that this is the way forward.  It demystifies victimary claims as another mode of resentment without the potential for generating much intellectual content besides a few, rapidly aging maxims (regarding the virtues, of which there are certainly some, of seeing things from “below”).  It acknowledges the inevitability of asymmetry in human affairs, and that the establishment of symmetrical relationships is not meant to eliminate such asymmetries but to establish arenas with a shared sacrality and prescribed objects of desire that are open to all regardless of those asymmetries or, to put it differently, where resentments are directed towards attempts to introduce the asymmetries into that bounded space.  And so that the assymetries that will then arise within that space (we are all free to own property, but we won’t all get equally rich; we are all free to speak but don’t all become equally influential, etc.) reveal new possibilities within that field of human activity, that is, new objects of desire and means of appropriating them (inequalities in propery increases productivity and wealth; differentials in influence lead to models for refining our persuasive capacities). 

So, for me the obvious question is, why hasn’t this happened?  To be more precise, why has the one attempt (the “Bush Doctrine”), despite having been launched in response to the most propitious of events (the reductio ad absurdum of the victimary that was 9/11), turned out to be so feeble?  What desires and resentments have been more compelling, and why?  It’s very hard to get a sense of this from Leftists themselves, who answer questions about what they believe or how they conceive of the results of their actions (still!) primarily with diatribes about Bush–even Obama seems incapable of presenting any policy without framing it as a “new beginning” leaving behind a period of medieval darkness.  Everything then, can be described as “cleaning up the mess,” “turning a corner,” “restoring our image in the world,” etc.–i.e., phrases devoid of information, even the involuntary kind one provides when stating a any view, or communicating any sense of where one really sees things going. 

Here’s another, more conventionally political, way of thinking about where we are.  From 1932-1968, “Progressives” ruled America almost unchallenged, and seemed unlikely to be challenged.  They had seen us through–if not actually extricated us from–a depression, and had won the largest and most important war in history.  They had managed, in the post-War world, to meld a relatively mild welfare state to a revised version of traditional American, middle class values, and to produce leaders like Truman and Kennedy who could plausibly articulate those values. They ushered in, under quite a bit of pressure, it’s true, a new era of racial equality.  They even, after some problematic entanglements, managed to get the question of Communism mostly right. 

The progressive alliance, including the media, universities and most of the political class, then stumbled quite a bit over the next 40 years.  The first blow to liberal hegemony came from the Left,  in the form of resistance to the Vietnam War and cultural assaults on bourgeois morality.  In getting the question of Communism right, the liberal elites ultimately alienated a large chunk of the next generation, which tapped into the tradition of anti-imperialism that had been exorcised during the McCarthy period.  And the cultural split alienated an important chunk of the middle class.  The first political result of this was the election and re-election of Richard Nixon, who completely accepted the welfare state, but represented the resistance of the “silent majority” to attacks on middle class values and patriotism. 

A series of blows followed:   the election of Reagan, on similar grounds as Nixon, but with the important addition of a rejection of Carterite weakness in foreign policy and with a much more coherent, counter-Keynsian economic agenda.  And then, in the 90s, figures like Newt Gingrich, on the one hand, whose Republican majority actually promised to roll back important elements of the welfare state, and Rudy Guiliani, who restored the hope of decent urban governance which had almost been lost.  And, finally, Bush’s cooptation of liberal themes of human rights and democratization (following up on Reagan here) and tying it to an assertive foreign policy that involved the first serious use (and ultimately successful) of American military force since Vietnam. 

For a while the Democrats incorporated these themes, moderated their views on things like welfare, the market and regulation, kept their pacifism and tendency to blame America for its enemies in check–while still demonizing their opponents, usually in more coded terms like “competence.”  Perhaps most important, cultural transformations in the areas of sexuality, family life and popular culture continued unimpeded–enough common ground here with libertarians and the general desire of most people to stay out of others’ business made any counter-revolution other than verbal unlikely here.  But now, perhaps in part because of some of the successes resulted from these counter-revolutions against progressivism–the reduction in crime, the enormous generation of wealth over the past 30 years, the fall of Communism, the prevention of further attacks after 9/11–it seems, like a rubber band that has been stretched to its limits and then released, we have snapped back pretty much to where liberalism was in the 1960s–if you think about what they had in mind, had not the New Left and the debacle in Vietnam not derailed them, even taking into account our specific historical moment and our economic crisis in particular–wouldn’t any good liberal circa 1965 or so see, at least a first glance, today’s government as essentially picking up where they left off?  Indeed, all the complaints that have accumulated about the “Right” over the past 30 years, all the griping in publications like The Nation and Mother Jones, among aging graduate students and community activists–none of it seems to have been wasted.  The Obama Adminstration’s rhetoric and plans are all formulated in an idiom intimately familiar to anyone hanging around the (mostly hopeless) Left between 1980 and 2008.  In other words, however catastrophic (in my view, of course) the path Obama and the democratic congress have put us on, in some sense it looks like the “natural” condition of post-traditional (post-WWI, really) America.  In the end, the Left conceded nothing, and the link between Bill Ayers and President Obama represents the return of the New Left cultural and anti-American radicals back into the fold.  This is where we have been heading–the Republican revolts were simply detours.  

Auschwitz theology has proven so powerful because its roots lie deep in victimary modernity–in the compulsive self-liberation from obscurantist tyranny.  If you can’t imagine freedom in any other terms, you will keep imagining yourself enslaved in new ways with each new liberation from previous enslavement and you will keep seeking out previously invisible modes of victimization to abhor.  There is a covenantal modernity which displaces the victimary brand, but the US was really the only strong representative of covenantal modernity and, ultimately, the lasting influence of slavery gave victimary modernity a foothold here which it has prodigiously expanded.

But victimary modernity is impossible as a way of life–its triumph must lead to catastrophe.  The best thing to do, as far as I can see, is to stay out of the way as the catastrophe unfolds–predict nothing, don’t gloat, quietly offer alternatives which will be contemptuously rejected.  Unobtrusively abstain from the narrative of victimary modern liberation–that would include “tea parties,” references to Jefferson and Paine, etc. (although, of course, we need not criticize any of that, either, nor exclude the possibilities that some movement will emerge from it).  The new narratives will have to emerge out of disciplinary spaces, and they will coelesce around the discovery and invention of modes of symmetry which leave pre-existing asymmetries alone.  And symmetry seen not as equalizing liberty but as esthetic freedom–see all the beautiful ways in which we can exist on the same plane with each other!  Create spaces that people will want to join once the victimary state starts to go bankrupt, and that will ultimately be able to find public representation by applying its idioms and habits to devising novel compromises.  I would think of this as a continuous presence, as opposed to transcendence–transcendence sees some idea embodied in reality, while presence is awareness that only one’s activity sustains reality, with ever-renewed signs rather than ideas.  Presence will involve a recovery of imperatives and ostensives for public use–of course, they could never fall out of disuse in private life–and a proliferation of models which are adhered to tenaciously but in very restricted circumstances.  I feel like going on to talk about auxiliary verbs as a model for this kind of activity, but that seems to be a discussion for a discipline that doesn’t quite exist yet.  To get it started, though, why shouldn’t language serve us as a source of models for reality–now that we have finally dispensed with the notion that reality must be the model for language?