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.


Filed under Blanchot, politics

2 responses to “Politicians as Literary Texts: An Attempt at Interpretation

  1. Elyssa

    this is quite possibly the most amazing thing ever written in the history of humanity. you did this on no sleep??? can I e-mail this to all my friends? god, your brain is so much more amazing than mine… just so you know…

  2. julikins

    lol thank you for makingme feel like it was worthwhile… i did this on too much coffee and schtuff. sigh

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