Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Finished my Pound chapter today. By "finished" I mean it has a beginning, middle, and end; that doesn't mean it won't require tweaking and reworking. Worried now that I'm paying insufficient attention to what makes him and the other poets formally distinctive, "avant-garde," or what have you. In some ways mine is an old-fashioned genre study, in which I try to make explicit the peculiar territory covered by "pastoral," neither private-lyric nor public-epic in its orientation. The "social private"?

Over at Sugarhigh, Joshua/Jane takes apart the Times' article about the Bush Administration's attempt to retool its language from G-WOT (Global War On Terror) to G-SAVE (Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism). Now I couldn't agree more when it comes to Jane's analysis of their motives; yet I'm curious to learn what game beside "symbol management" is available to a national political party given our current system. Yours truly gets picked on for not stepping outside the heinous rhetorical mode that is the Debordian spectacle: "if one pursues a strategy of images, for example, one has committed to a politics in which capital itself remains the unchallenged power." I'm uncertain about this proposition because I'm uncertain where it leads. As anarchist thought it's all well and good because anarchists want to explode or at least ignore the normative political process, which certainly has a lot wrong with it. But I was mostly talking about what the Democrats ought to do, and let's be honest: the Democratic party is not about to begin an attempt to disassemble the machinery of capital. However, the best instincts of its members, and its roots in the labor movement, lead it to try to mitigate capital's worst effects, of which the Bushies are a particularly painful symptom. I don't want to perpetuate the system that perpetuates capital, and yet I can't help but think that having a Democrat in the White House would have real and immediate good consequences for the safety of our people, the safety of other nations' people, the environment, Social Security, and individual rights—just for openers. That's the prisoners' dilemma of the left: vote for the Democrat and maybe get nothing, maybe get a little; don't vote for the Democrat and get nothing, period, at least for the foreseeable future. Of course it's a radical's job to say there's no such thing as the foreseeable future, that the future might erupt into the new thing at any moment if we work for it. Perhaps I'm not radical enough, or perhaps I'm worried that we are once again (I realize this comparison came up a lot in the eighties, too) in Germany in the early thirties, and on the cusp of a fatal decision: to fight the Nazis, or to fight capitalism by permitting the Nazis to accelerate things toward the supposedly inevitable crisis. The devil we have has a face, at least; "can't move 'em with a cold thing like economics." But of course, Jane would say, this is exactly our problem.

So if the answer is not a withdrawal from politics as we know it, it must have something to do with a change in the language that's far more radical than anything George Lakoff proposes: a politics that transcends the "symbol management" that leaves real material and power relations safely in place. I find myself wondering if what we need might be some good old-fashioned rhetoric: the kind of eloquence summoned in living memory mostly by civil rights leaders like King and Malcolm X, who in stirring the passions and aspirations of their listeners broke through the eternal "wait a little longer" framework set by the establishment. Or maybe what's important is who's doing the speaking, a focus on ethos. After all, as Joshua/Jane implies, the present scandal of symbol management has come about through the seamless merger between the political and national security apparatuses of the Bush White House. It's politics wearing the mask of the state, and the iron fist of the state in the crushed velvet glove of politics. I would submit that who is doing the speaking does matter: that even if Democrats are practicing symbol management, they are doing it from a position of relative powerlessness that many of us identify with, and that changes the content of their speech.

I don't have a simple answer. Jane maybe does: thinking the "material history" that both sides, in his analysis, insist must remain unthought. But I'm not sure that's wholly true: don't we accept the Democrats' basic ideology, though distorted, as being closer to the truth of material history than the Republican ideology is? Any ideology has to be at least partially immanent to its particular circumstance, right, and it seems to me that the Democratic party does a better job of responding to the material needs of its constituents than the Republican party does. (That is, to the majority of its constituents: the Republicans serve the interests of wealthy corporations just fine, it's the working class people whose emotions Republicans appeal to that get screwed.) That doesn't mean the Democrats don't cling to capital's coatstrings in an unsightly way: I have to laugh every time I hear Hillary Clinton being described as some kind of pinko, when the woman is working hard to keep every one of New York's military bases open (by far the most regressive way of providing social benefits through government spending). Hillary's way too conservative for my tastes, and yet if she's the candidate in '08 I'll be out there campaigning for her because the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate and a REAL alternative hasn't yet emerged (Ralph Nader, anyone?). BUT: I do think material history might work on the state and local level; I think it is possible for local politicians and community leaders to educate people about the material consequences of, say, a new WalMart, or building yet another prison, or cutting down a patch of woods for a parking lot (as, depressingly, happened recently here in Ithaca in spite of protesters chaining themselves to trees, etc.). From there the effects might trickle up, so to speak; and if, as seems likely, the federal government becomes both more intrusive and more irrelevant to people's daily lives, the chance exists for real political change on the state level. "States' rights" is starting to sound pretty good to this young socialist.

Well, I'm not going to solve the problems of the American Left in a single blog post. It's time maybe to return to some of the poltical theory that I found so stimulating a few months ago. Finish Zizek's >The Ticklish Subject for starters. And I was glancing into Ernesto Laclau's new book The Populist Reason at the Bookery this evening; I think he's someone I might want to spend more time with.

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