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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Plank dismantles a critique of Obama recently published by Harper's publisher John R. MacArthur, demonstrating in the process that much of the gap between the Obama administration some hoped for and the Obama administration they got originates in their own wishful thinking. But at the same time American Stranger's post on opacity from last fall springs to mind here, particularly this section on the calculated plasticity of Obama's rhetoric:

We are now finally able to get at the truly unique aspect of Obama’s politics. Almost no one seems to recognize that he has already anticipated the most common criticism of him, that his rhetoric and even his person are ‘empty’ and meaningless. The point of his slogans is not just that they remain open to different meanings, in the typical fashion of traditional advertising. They are open to different uses; they open outward, as a call to fill an empty signifier with concrete action (like contemporary advertising). Reid Kotlas of Planomenology is one of the few to get it right: “The republican criticism that Obama talks a lot about change, but doesn’t tell us what exactly this change is, is thus poorly aimed: it is by virtue of leaving the goal of this change open, by entrusting us with its realization, that Obama’s message is truly effective.”

...His opacity, his refusal, we might say, to entirely identify with himself, instead offering his biography and campaign together as a kind of open-source “vehicle” for emotional and practical investment, is his most important political move. As Critchley does note, the prophetic plays a big role here. “Change we can believe in” is pure speculation, open to further speculation. If we have (as the pessimists say) been witnessing the steady deterioration of political discourse over the past however many years, then this would have to be its absolute nadir. And yet at the same time it spawned a massive popular mobilization. What Butler has to say about left disavowal should also be applied to Obama himself, with the proviso that his provoked the movement that got him elected while ours produced it: beyond liberalism’s politics of anti-politics, Obama, by visibly taking a step back from his own power, has inspired the masses to create their own anti-politics under his brand. His election is not his victory, it’s our victory — his win has nothing to do with his race, but our enlightened attitude toward race — he’s done everything shy of announcing that his office will not be in his power but in our power. We are not led to identify with him. We are led to identify our politics through him.

This is not to say that his supporters do not think, only that the campaign is (pragmatically) indifferent to any thoughts they might have which can’t be incorporated into the ‘movement.’