Monthly Archives: March 2008

Politicians as Literary Texts: An Attempt at Interpretation

Can I apply the techniques of interpreting literature to examining life? Is it appropriate to go about struggling to understand the motives and actions of human beings in the same way we might approach a novel? I think so. In fact I think it’s the best idea I’ve heard in ages. If I “read” other human beings the way I do books, that would explain, say, my dislike for Hilary Clinton. She tries to disguise the nature of her fictionality, when any good, sensible, “well-trained” reader would know that any good text is inherently aware (and may even comment directly) on its own status as a work of fiction. She tries to present herself as a basic essence. The very idea that this kind of reduction can be applied to ANYTHING in this world, let alone something as complex as a human being (especially the human being who presents herself to us as Hillary Clinton)–to me, this concept is an absolute travesty and misses what is integral to the act of reading and indeed to life itself. In all fairness, to an extent Obama does so as well. HOWEVER, as I go on to argue, he acknowledges the possibilities of misreadings and ambiguity, very important qualities in any well-written work of fiction!

In contrast, Hillary presents herself within an over-arching framework with an emphasis on locating ‘meaning’. The ‘Hillary-text’ moves solely within the world of knowledge, concerning herself with unification, trying make everything seem clear and understandable (“sleep deprivation” as the excuse for the Bosnian debacle, for example), and in doing so, she reduces everything to atoms. There’s no beauty in it, no signs of willful creativity or joyous energy (even her lies lack subversive energy); for me, everything about her and her campaign presents her as a corpse that can be dissected. Additionally, her reiterated emphasis on her ‘experience’ brands her as a closeted positivist (which, HELLO? is sooo 18th CENTURY). The concept that anything that cannot be verified by direct experience is therefore without value and thus intrinsically meaningless is A VERY PROBLEMATIC NOTION. My bestest thesis friend of late Blanchot would not like Hilary: he saw positivism as a form of modern nihilism, as the positivist does not believe in values or morals or ethics or any of those tricky ineffable things that can’t be verified in the the form of facts or sensory experiences, and thus they do not exist. If that isn’t an accurate diagnosis of the fundamental creepiness that is the Clinton idea of morality…

For all these reasons, the political community of Hilary Clinton is fundamentally apolitical, and this is why she should not be the Democratic nominee. She wants to gather us into a totalizing community in the manner of bees and termites, viewing us voters in terms of our utility value. We’re like pound coins for her to put in a slot: there are certain things that a pound coin can do for her, but essentially they’re all the same and exchangeable. Hillary does not deal with the community of human beings beyond the question of its organization; she concerns herself with the language of community only in order to accumulate and exert power. My problem with Hilary lies with her fundamental attitude of theorizing the world, of taking it as something that can be mastered by her explanations and in turn presenting herself as a constructed totality. This is reflected in her constant referral back to the matter of her ‘experience,’ as if only ‘hard facts’ of her existence (and Obama’s) can determine quality. If we are to speak of the concept of a political community under Hillary, it is a political community defined in terms of production, work and action. Under her, the very existence of community is taken for granted, and instead of rebuilding the American community (the very thing it so badly needs right now), her primary concern is how she is destined to lead it. All rigid structure, no creativity. I resent the gross oversimplification of the theory that humans ‘bond’ and form communities through the anonymous administrative machinery that the Hillary-text embodies. It is misleading to believe that a human community forms through shared knowledge, religion, history, custums, experience, laws, or political institutions. Rather, (and this is probably me remembering Benedict Anderson from Diego’s class completely wrong), community is constructed through language.

In contrast, the ‘Obama-text’ does not give way to such an easily transferable meaning (despite his best efforts at times to reduce himself as such). Instead, what everyone keeps noting about Obama is his plurality, his fragmentary nature, and I’m not just referring to his race (though it’s an appropriate visual metaphor for multiplicity, no?) Obviously the ‘Obama-text’ is problematic and is not by any means a perfect work of art a la Kafka: his “yes we can!” is an attempt to communicate a simple meaning, and yeah, all his talk about being able to “unify” and so on, that can be understood as indicative of him trying to reduce himself into the simple category of “the uniter”, appropriately matching the discourse about Hilary as “the divider.” Unfortunately, when most people ‘read’ (I use the word ‘read’ interchangeably with ‘interpret’, and in this case I mean both books AND politicians), this is the kind of meaning they expect to find: something easily summed up in a sentence, a phrase, or better yet, a single word; the faster, the better. We watch TV, listen to political commentary on the radio, skim the most e-mailed articles of the NY Times, and go to bed with a feeling of fat lazy contentment, without any action actually taking place. Sure, we might remember some facts later (remembering the ransacking of cultural artifacts in Iraq? Or how the purpose of the war was liberating the Iraquis from Saddam Hussein, oops, I mean WMDS?), but these events no longer communicate any real meaning to us. Blanchot writes, “There should be interesting events and even important events, and yet nothing should take place that would disturb us: such is the philosophy of any established power, and, in an underhanded way, of any cultural service.” w.o.r.d. This attempt to erase the meaning of our experiences is the biggest danger to the formation of genuine communities.

That was a long digression, but it was also a build-up. Americans, I am sorry to say, do not want to see a politician who is self-reflective or self-critical. Fortunately, it is not these qualities that will make him president, irregardless of how I admire them. My sister has said it before and I’ll say it here now: in Obama you can find the essence of human community, not just in the way that he represents different races, countries or cultures. To start off, he’s good in the way that all good books are good: on a very simple, primal level, the words of the “Obama-text” are a pure pleasure to read. They’re well-written! They’re coherent! They’re good. At one point in one of his essays Blanchot speaks as a language that is spoken by no one, the ‘murmur of the incessant and the interminable’, citing Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable,, a beautiful passage I will quote in full (as Blanchot did):

“The words are everywhere, inside me, outside of me… I hear them, no need to hear them, no need of a head, impossible to stop them, impossible to stop. I’m in words, made of words, others’ words, what others… the whole world is here with me, I’m in the air, the walls, the walled-in one, everything yields, opens, ebbs, flows, like flakes. I’m all these flakes, meeting, mingling, falling asunder, wherever I go I find me, leave me, go towards me, come from me, nothing ever but me, a particle of me, retrieved, lost, gone astray, I’m all these words, all these strangers, this dust of words, with no ground for their setting, no sky for their dispersing, coming together to say, feeling one another to say, that I am they, all of them, those that merge, those that part, those that never meet…”

This may sound silly, but this image of language as murmuring and rustling makes me think of youtube and facebook, even blogging itself. It makes me think of the folks chopping up the words of Obama’s speeches to make music videos out of them. On a purely sensory level, it makes me think of voices coming together. This is undoubtedly overtly complimentary (sorry Beckett), but I’m even reminded of Obama himself. Reading Obama’s speech on race, it’s tempting to think that the ‘narrative voice’ emerging in the speech is the voice of the speaker, the voice of the individual Barack Hussein Obama, and undoubtedly there are some sorts where the presence of this voice seems very real indeed (his personal anecdotes and heightened degree of self-awareness help, especially in his comments about how he cannot disown the Reverend completely). It is for this quality that I liked the speech, because it reminded me of literature. It reminded me of literature because it expressed language in its own singular way–not in a groundbreaking, innovative sense, but in the way that the main thing the speech speaks of is that of a particular individual speaking. It is the singularity of Obama as an individual that shines through that speech, and through his campain in general, and that, I think, is what is truly hitting a nerve with people, rather than the exact details of his policy plans.

Unfortunately for him, Obama is not a literary text, but rather a man (and a politician, at that!), and thus is obliged to impart certain moral and political messages to please the soundbyte makers. I am realistic in my acknowledgement that Obama cannot subvert this deemand, that to a certain extent the “Obama-text” must be compromised by wishing to “teach” voters what he “stands” for. Books that deliver clear political messages and morals are just plain bad, but that’s just what you gotta do in politics, and ironically enough it’s the main thing that people are going to criticize him for when they view him as the boxed-in message he’s forced to give due to the nature of the game.

However, despite this inevitability, there is a displacement and elusivity about Obama that differentiates him from Hilary. For Obama, communication (the relation that characterizes the community) is not the exchange of information. For Hillary, communication is a tool for the externalization and preservation of Hillary-thought. It is the expression of the potent subjectivity that is the brand name of the CLINTONS and the 90’s and all that disgusting, comfortably familiar nostalgia people find appealing. Obama’s communication, and hence his conception and formation, is different. I think this is reflected in the way Obama’s speeches have been dissipated and disperesed throughout the Internet with a fever that neither Hilary nor any politician (since Kennedy, if I am to believe my father!) has been able to inspire. This is the reason why I think Obama is more literary than Hillary: at the same time that the “Obama-text” presents an idea, he also very much embodies absence. Ironically and interestingly enough, by hinting at exteriority, at inaccesibility, Obama seems more inviting. There is an empty space there that people can place themselves and their own stories (there are no empty spaces in the Hillary book; everything is indexed, cited and cross-referenced). In Obama, I find the kind of quality which I refer to so much throughout my thesis as something ‘unsayable,’ something opaque, mysteriously thick and dense, like cake batter. There’s “just something about him” that people find appealing, something that people can’t appropriately put into words without falling prety to the discourse of celebrity worship (the primary “I-like-Obama” discourse that the media exposes to people). He comes from a position of narrative, rather than knowledge. It is a language that is not governed by its subject; it is language that is aware that it is language. It is a language that speaks of a community that is fully aware and reflective of what makes a community of human beings possible in the first place, as opposed to taking the human community for granted. He wants to ‘rewrite’ the story of the American people. He wants to give money to college students and make them volunteer, encourage parents to turn of their TVs and read poetry to their children. It is a very strange and exciting voice. It feels as though it is coming from outside this world. It makes some people uncomfortable, even if it is only faintly discerned and it is not clear to them what precisely is making them uncomfrotable. It may even cost him the election (the nomination, even–we’re not there yet!). Still, it is a voice that I am glad to have heard during my lifetime, especially in an arena as unexpected as politics.

This turned out way to long.

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"But there’s that danger in her eyes that tells such desperate lies, and all you want to do is believe her"

I’m having an incredibly hard time focusing for the final push to finish the first draft of my thesis. In some ways this is to be expected: after such a rigorous spring break, it isn’t surprising that I spent most of this week feeling burnt out and exhausted. So I thought a “writing” excursion, any kind of writing, would be a good way to get my brain gears turning on the right track again.

It’s lonely in the house today. My housemates are all either acting in or watching a production of “The Vagina Monologues.” My sister is in the hospital, getting operated on for an erupted cyst. I know it’s a fairly routine procedure and I shouldn’t be using it as an excuse to be too distracted/distraught to work… and yet, here I am.

Last night Corey and I went to a Bruce Springsteen concert. BRUUUUCE! I remember hearing those calls on his live albums and wondering at first why the audience was booing. In contrast to the Justice concert we went to on Wednesday (we’ve had a surprisingly and undeservingly busy social-outing week, considering my FIRST DRAFT IS DUE MONDAY), we were the youngest people there, as opposed to clumped among the oldest. Our seats were behind the stage but it didn’t end up mattering, as I think we got a better view than the people sitting in front, who were further away. Upon seeing the Boss arrive on stage I was surprised how he was less chunkier than I expected–I guess the camera really does add ten pounds!

I didn’t really get into the concert until the band kicked into the third song, “Lonesome Day.” Suddenly I was bouncing on my feet, singing along and waving my arms, as corny and cheesy as everyone around me. Every song seemed to come attached with the memory of a certain moment in my life–listening to “The Rising” album over and over again after Patrick and I broke up; “Darkness on the Edge of Town” album jogging doggedly along the dark and cold winding country roads of England; “Dancing in the Dark”–how is this song *not* about everyone’s high school experience? He played three of my favorite songs, “Candy’s Room”, “She’s the One” (the ONE song I wanted to hear live!) and “For You” (Elizabeth Wurtzel, if you could have been there!) All about damaged, elusive women, I note with interest.

Bruce Springsteen reminds me of the movies or bands you liked when you were a really young or impressionable kid, like “Return of the Jedi”: you know inherently that the Ewoks are corny, that the dialogue is cheesy, but goddamn does it still get to you, the way Luke is has come into his own dressed in black and stomping around, and the way the camera pans to the night sky after Darth Vader’s funeral (Old version only! Not the remastered travesty!). It gets you, and you can’t explain why to anyone. I can’t explain why “Candy’s Room” gets me so much, or why the lyrics that serve as this entry’s title seem to hold some kind of deeper and incredibly powerful, important significance to me, and even if I did, you wouldn’t understand, because it wouldn’t be comprehensible. It’s like my thesis–God! Like everything!

Gadamer talks about this effect that art has on us in “The relevance of the beautiful”–things get us, and we can’t explain why. It’s unexplainable, it’s ineffable, and we can’t quite put our fingers on it. It is not a type of knowledge that results from positivism, objectivism, or logical thought processes, but rather a “different type of knowledge” (a phrase I am fond of frequently using in my thesis, though it desperately needs a more concrete definition!).

Gadamer gives the example of an organist improvising during a concert, a piece that was not transcribed and thus will never be heard again (I think of the bridge in “Yes Anastasia” that Tori never plays live, supposedly because it was improvised on the spot). Gadamer writes:

“Nevertheless, everyone says ‘That was a brilliant interpretation or improvisation,’ or on another occasion, ‘That was rather dull today.’ What do we mean when we say such things? Obviously we are referring back to the improvisation. Something ‘stands’ before us; it is like a work and not just an organist’s finger exercise. Otherwise we should never pass judgment on its quality or lack of it. So it is the hermeneutic identity that establishes the unity of the work.”

For Gadamer, this thing that “stands” before us that makes improvisation “art” as opposed to meaningless banging on the piano is tied to the idea of “hermeneutic identity,” or the idea that we are all rooted in a tradition and history that leads to us understanding what is a work of art, and what is meaningless banging:

“To understand something, I must be able to identify it. For there was something there that I passed judgment upon and understood. I identify something as it was or as it is, and this identity alone constitutes the meaning of the work.

Is this all fairly obvious and self-explanatory? For Gadamer, meaning arises from our place in history and tradition. One of the things my thesis is arguing is that this can be authoritative and dangerous.

This biggest problem currently facing my thesis is I have yet to explain exactly what this “different type of knowledge” is. As of now I just vaguely make references to “ineffability,” “dreams,” and “forms.” My adviser wisely advised me to avoid the word “aesthetic” because Gadamer’s fond of it, and I’m arguing against (or presenting an alternative) to Gadamer. But all this is turning into putting off finishing the “A Rose For Emily” section at this point. I guess it’s a good sign, though, if a review of a Bruce Springsteen concert can turn into Gadamer’s discussing of the hermeneutic identity of a work.

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Filed under bruce springsteen, Dear Diary, Gadamer, thesis, truth

refeshingly depression

I highly recommend watching this video. I almost never follow the news, let alone on Iraq. I guess lately I’ve been looking for distraction on my thesis, but what I have been finding instead is perspective.

There’s something really cathartic about hearing these words spoken on a screen (if only my tiny glowing blue computer):

“The Americans in Iraq are like a virus, like a disease. And for us we need to get rid of the Americans, because the Americans just don`t know what they`re doing.”

and

“it’s a crime after five years that electricity is not back to prewar levels, because Saddam Hussein, who was a dictator I detested, was able to have electricity back in 45 days. So, why is the United States not having achieved that in five years? It’s not just miscalculations. The priority was, you know, to make sure that the oil flows. Sorry, but that is true. The only sector that`s working well right now is the oil sector. It`s not the schools, not the hospitals, not the reconstruction. The oil sector is working.

What a mess. It’s telling that this makes me think of my thesis, specifically the relationship between truth and fiction. I was reading excerpts from Ricardo Piglia’s “Critica y Ficcion” today. He’s an Argentine writer and was my advisor’s advisor at Princeton, and has provided me with a good quote on the relationship between truth and fiction:

“Me interesa trabajar esa zona indeterminada donde se cruzan la ficción y la verdad. Antes que nada porque no hay un campo propio de la ficción. De hecho, todo se puede ficcionalizar. La ficción trabaja con creencia y en este sentido conduce a la ideologia, a los modelos convencionales de realidad y por supuesto también a las convenciones que hacen verdadero (o ficticio) a un texto. La realidad está tejido de ficciones.

Reality is woven out of fictions. Hmm.

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whoa

that was a ridiculously long work session. definitely a record. it was worth it, because the result is 18 pages 1.5 spaced! and a lot of it’s good writing too! more again tonight. and it’s going to be for the scary books i’ve been avoiding, too. well, now is the time for sleep.

but briefly, here are some of the thoughts running through my head these days, which basically involve me sitting at the living room table literally all day, scrounging carrots, celery and chocolate, while impressing my housemates with my prodigious amounts of books:
– man, the life of an academic intelectual is hard. so monkish. so committed. you’ve just locked away all day in hermetic isolation, you and your brain and your books. thinking great thoughts, writing great things. yep.
– i wonder where my spring break went to. i know that it pretty much broke my brain
– this week is going to hurt (thought every day since march 14th)
– hey! I actually really like this topic! this is actually really interesting, and i am really a pretty good writer! man, I wish I’d worked on this more during the school year.
– man, i really wish i’d read blanchot earlier. like, in november when my advisor told me to. it would have made my life a tad easier.
– i wish i could go to the beach/bar/party/resteraunt with corey and his visiting cousin from new orleans, but i can’t because i-have-to-work-on-my-thesis-i-havetowork-onmythesis ihavetoworkonmythesis ihahiiihjihtttthhhhshshshshssi
– SLEEP is for the weak! RARWR! (only last night; before then i was getting up at 11am every day and going to bed at midnight)
– i don’t like how i’ve somehow regressed to the stage where the lakers not winning makes me annoyed
– i wish i could stop grinding my teeth; my jaw hurts
– I had no idea that there was a difference between a headache and a brainache, but there is!

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things that I like, and that I may be able to do with my life

– freelance journalism in Latin America
– creative writing MFA at U of O, University of East Anglia or another university
– getting a TEFL certificate
– teaching literature at a high school or university leavel
– teaching English
– teaching Spanish
– leading groups of teenagers around on service project trips a la Los Embajadores
– coordinationg service project experiences
– illigal immigration and border issuess
– learning more about microfinance and fieldwork a la Kiva
– studying more Onetti in Uruguay or Argentina
– School For International Training Social Justice masters in Vermont
– Peace Corps (blech)
– AmeriCorps
– Teach for America
– New Orleans
– Teaching fellowship in Spain
– apply for a Fullbright
– write a novel!

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