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Re: <nettime> Obama and the dawn of ...
Dan S. Wang on Mon, 17 Nov 2008 03:25:58 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Obama and the dawn of ...

Hi Nettime,

Grateful to the list for collectively continuing to process the election,
some of us resisting the easy temptation to write off the Obama victory as a
simple reversion to a Clinton-style neoliberal program, a temptation that
looks to me more like an escapist fantasy with the new economic fallout
figures emerging everyday (bad debt now being cited in the *low, single
$quadrillions?!*--how can anybody say this is not a world-shaking crisis).
Some of us strongly making the case for low, zero, or even negative
expectations. Hm. I say, there is reason to fear what's coming down the
pipe, but also opportunities that will indeed make the election of the first
black president seem like a superficial achievement, people. I hope we can
all feel it.

So, there was that widely circulated text by Judith Butler on the election,

My response is pasted below, and has been posted to the EIPCP
website. There is a German translation up as well, for any of your
German-language friends who may take an interest.

In cahoots,

Dan w.


A Response to Judith Butler: Working the Optimism

Dan S. Wang

Judith Butler's commentary Uncritical Exuberance? continues what the left
has been doing for so long it is now almost second nature: distance itself
from the power structure.  Critical voices on the left are always the first
to see the likelihoods of cooptation, neutralization of radical elements,
assimilation of grassroots formal innovation into the institutional sphere,
misreadings of a political figure as a messianic force, looming conflicts
and frustrations with erstwhile allies, and all the various pitfalls of
politics at the mass, national, mediated scale.  But when Butler asks, to
where is our wholehearted and emotionally-rewarding identification with
(first) the Obama campaign and (now, maybe?) this president leading us, I
cannot help but think, there is a slightly different set of questions the
critical left needs to be asking right now.

Not that Butler's questions are without merit.  It is fair to ask, are
leftist positions in danger of traveling in an emotional bubble, the skin
stretching as some mass illusion of Obama-as-redemption takes hold, putting
itself at risk of blowing up with the first great disappointment?  But I
think this question is rather easily answered:  No.  If the unity/new
politics/change/hope bubble was not popped long ago by Obama's two year-old
team of brass-heavy foreign policy advisers, it has been in the mere days
since the election.  From within, the appointment of so many former
Clinton-associated figures to the transition teams dispels illusions, and
from conditions outside, the daily onslaught of announced mass layoffs and
other bad economic developments does the same thing.  We all know this is a
president going into the job with his hands tied and choices limited, no
matter his intentions.  If any of his domestic initiatives--serious health
care reform, big time green tech investments, national service programs,
etc.--gain early traction, he will have proved himself a political Houdini.
And if the unfolding conditions in Washington do not splash cold water onto
the face of a hopeful electorate, then perhaps the news of fresh suicide
attacks in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the last week, resulting in scores
of dead, served to remind just how awful and messy these next few years will
be, everywhere, always.

It is true, America felt like a new country for about a day, maybe two.
Those denying reality stretched it into the weekend.  But by the time Obama
took the televised walk to the Oval Office with George W. Bush at his side
six days after the election, any residual exhilarations had been flattened
into the self-congratulatory feelings which accompany the achievement of a
first:  yes, there goes the First Black President-Elect.  As in, there is a
first time for everything.  No more messiah, no more euphoria, no more
fantasies of redemption.  Is the mood much improved?  How could it not be
with the first concrete signal of the impending departure of the evil,
disasterous, and violent Bush regime?  Given the literally torturous tenure
of George W. Bush, identifying Obama--and identifying with Obama?as the
cleansing agent ready to flush the White House of its eight-year build-up of
scum seems perfectly reasonable.  While Butler's theoretical analysis of
this identification remains impressive for its sheer, uncompromising
criticality, ie that such personal identifications which are at least
partially the result of strategically produced affects perform functions
essential to the machinery of fascism, it is undone by the example she
herself cites.  Liddy Dole, bursting with love for 'each and every one of
us,' and a heavily favored incumbent and national Republican figure, lost
the US Senate seat held only six years ago by paleo-conservative Jesse Helms
to a little known Democratic state senator.  This time around, the voters of
North Carolina rejected all that 'love'?by nearly ten points.

But more to the point, in this crucial moment is the primary job of critical
theoreticians to poke holes in our optimism, our satisfaction, our good
feelings?  Even if the exuberance has run its short course and rendered the
question moot, I still answer, no, not as an end in itself, or as a
precondition for further political work.  Butler cites voter contradictions
to remind us of our reasons to remain sober.  Disunity on gay marriage and
the rights of Palestinians are only the two most pronounced of the
disagreements internal to the grand coalition that elected Obama.  There are
other divides and gaps, as well.  But is this news?  When Butler says we are
faced with new configurations of political belief that make it possible to
hold apparently discrepant views at the same time: someone can, for
instance, disagree with Obama on certain issues, but still have voted for
him, I say, has there been anybody, anywhere, who fully agrees with Obama on
all the issues?  For the hard activist left, the 'new configuration' may be
simply this:  we have finally, for one election cycle, gotten over our
insistence on being right at the expense of being effective.  I do not have
a problem with being rewarded, for once in my lifetime at least, with the
feeling that comes riding an insurgent campaign to a win on a grand scale.

Critical voices on the left do need to be heard right now, but the most
pressing task is to conduct self-analyses apropos the conditions now defined
by a successful national campaign that featured and relied on the essentials
of a grassroots organizing model.  Rather than merely reminding us of
Obama's shortcomings, or, as Butler does, of listing the left's minimal
demands that must be met to prevent a 'dramatic and consequential
disillusionment,' the urgent responsibility right now for the critical left
is to dissect this victory and map workable strategies for pushing a
progressive agenda, including in intra-coalition campaigns.  This involves
recalling what kind of thick-skinned work brought us that moment of Election
Night joy, and, just as importantly, to study how the reactionary forces are
likely to respond to this administration.

If we who supported Obama all gulped a bit of the Kool-Aid, for its part the
campaign squeezed the tube.  The grassroots are now out, volunteers by the
thousands, trained and invested?one might even say habituated?and the more
the theoreticians among us attend to the strategic tasks of continued
organizing, based on the actualities of activist work plus the lessons of
the campaign recently won, the more the grassroots element will evolve and
mature.  Ideally, Obama-identified grassroots constituencies and work forces
will grow to become not fully directable by Obama, and will have the
potential to outlast him.  Progressive dreams have always included building
movements with leverage over national politicians, and here we have the
chance.  So even though I agree when Butler says many of us '"set aside" our
concerns in order to enjoy the extreme un-ambivalence of this moment,' I
think her worries about uncritical exuberance are, while not necessarily
overstated, somewhat misplaced.  When those of us who are committed to full
gay rights, or Palestinian rights, or another progressive cause that goes
against Democratic Party liberal orthodoxy and/or the moderation of Obama
himself, begin the difficult and tedious work of lobbying our
opponents/one-time coalition allies (and their constituents, on their
doorsteps, in their neighborhoods, instead of on our blogs), looking for
those individuals (the ?each and every? of grassroots organizing) who just
may be convinceable but for whatever reason have fallen into the opposing
camp, any lingering good feeling over the election victory will seem very
distant.  But if we show up and do the work, future victories for
progressives in those areas will at least be in the cards.  Whether, why,
and how we should show up to do this work are the questions we need to be
thinking through.  Butler is right in identifying that space of a 'critical
politics' as moving between illusion and cynicism.  Widening that space
depends on our continued political work, that is, on our continual
generation of concrete contestations, the analyses of which will
automatically recalibrate the emotions to a more restrained register, but
would do so without turning to the crutch of measuring Obama's imminent
actions and non-actions according to the default moralism of the left.  And
we do the work to win?precisely so we can feel that feeling again.

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