The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring 2011)

On the Politics of Pastiche and Depthless Intensities: The Case of Barack Obama

Thomas de Zengotita

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 13.1 (Spring 2011). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The exposition will take up in turn the following constitutive features of the postmodern: a new depthlessness…both in contemporary “theory” and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum; a consequent weakening of historicity, both in our relationship to public History and in the new forms of our private temporality, whose “schizophrenic” structure (following Lacan) will determine new types of syntax…; a whole new type of emotional ground tone—what I will call “intensities”…

The disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the increasing unavailability of the personal style, engender the well-nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche.

And the stupendous proliferation of social codes today…is also a political phenomenon…advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm.

—Fredric Jameson 1

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2011

(Volume 13 | Issue 1)

Tiger Woods caused a bit of a furor back in 1997 when he told Oprah Winfrey he didn’t think of himself as black or African American. It seems he had created his own ethnic category; “I’m a ‘Cablinasian,’” he declared—as in Caucasian-black-Indian-Asian, his actual ancestry, as he saw it. Tiger’s point was representative of an entitlement many young people feel nowadays—as any educator with an ear for student discourse can attest. He felt that he could choose not to identify with the categories imposed on him by “society” (a term which in this context stands in for, and evacuates, Jameson’s historicity). “I’m just who I am,” he told Oprah, “just whoever you see in front of you.”

That’s how “free to be what you want to be” young Tiger felt back then (before a reality of another kind caught up with him). But a lot of older black Americans (representative, in their way, of Jameson’s generation) were quick to chide this callow youth for trying to shrug off the iron claims of history. Even Colin Powell weighed in, admonishing Tiger that “in America…when you look like me, you’re black.”2

That little episode is not just a convenient way to show how rooted in contemporary life Frederic Jameson’s classic analysis was—and remains. It also serves as an allegory for a much more significant manifestation of postmodern culture to be considered in this essay—the case of Barack Obama. But first, a few supplements to Jameson’s analysis, some concepts that will be brought to bear on the stunning event of Obama’s election (it is easy to forget how stunning; a mark in itself of “intensity”) and the dreary undoing that followed.

The Flattery of Representation

What all media, all representations—from street signs to photographs to emoticons—have in common is this: they pay attention to you, they address you. Sometimes generically, as with street signs, sometimes precisely, as with person-specific ring tones. And all that attention is flattering—indeed, it is a form of flattery so pervasive, and so essential to the nature of representation, that it has escaped notice as such, though it ultimately accounts for the oft-remarked narcissism of our time.3 The very process by which reality and representation become fused in the age of the simulacrum is delivered to our psyches by the flattery of representation. We have been consigned by it to a new plane of being, a new kind of life-world, an environment of representations of fabulous quality and inescapable ubiquity, a place where everything is addressed to us, everything is for us, and nothing is beyond us anymore.

Virtual Revolution

During the mass-media age (roughly co-extensive with the modernist period), the hidden blandishments of representational flattery were already at work. Broadcast representations were implanting in anonymous spectators a desire for public significance commensurate with their unconscious sense of centrality—for it was, after all, to them that all performances were addressed. But celebrities were monopolizing public attention, gorging on it. The most basic of specifically human needs—the need for acknowledgment, for significance, for a place in the world—was left unsatisfied. Spectators were craving, however inchoately, their fair share of that attention. All that was lacking were the means. Until recently.

This is a piquant historical irony that would reward more extensive examination than can be given here: With the rise of narrow-cast digital media, a revolution something like the one Marx envisioned actually took place—but in the space of representation, not in the land of bricks and mortar and machinery. In that virtual space, the “means of production” simply fell into the hands of the masses. And they proceeded to produce at a furious rate. But the revolution they accomplished wasn’t about workers displacing capitalists; it was about spectators displacing celebrities—it was about “you” being named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” It was a virtual revolution in the Age of Facebook.4

The Moreness of Everything and the Rise of the Mix: Surfing the Options5

In a mediated world, the opposite of real isn’t phony or artificial—it’s optional. Idiomatically, we recognize this when we say, “the reality is…,” meaning something that has to be dealt with, something that isn’t an option. Jameson’s qualities of “surface” and “intensity” are rooted in the “optionality” that constitutes our existence, in the Heideggerian sense, as Being-in-the-World—but now a mediated world. The expression “whatever” arose and caught on because it captured so precisely the bivalent attitude we must adopt in order to negotiate the environment of options that are soliciting our attention so incessantly. On the one hand, it is a feast, a world that offers an unprecedented array of possible experiences, “whatever” you want—“no limits” as the SUV and technology ads all say. On the other hand, it is a world of effects. Each of us is at the center of it, but there is a thinness to things, an insulational quality—as if the deities of DreamWorks were laboring invisibly around us, touching up the canvas of reality with digital airbrushes.

Haunting the moment of “I can experience whatever I want” is the moment of the shrug, of “what difference does it make?”—of “whatever” in that register. That moment is essential to our mobility among the options. And we need mobility among the options because they are representations—even food and shelter partake of the representational, for how we live and what we eat says so much about us.6 But just insofar as entities are representational, they are no more than they appear to be. And so they are never enough. And so we move on—choosing among options, and creating more options, in an open-ended project of perpetual self-construction. Jameson’s surfaces and intensities necessarily attend that kind of existence—and pastiche is what becomes of originality when just about everything’s already out there.

Complex processes of commodification and technological innovations under late capitalism have been driving these developments, of course. But at the level of content, the dominating effect is relatively easy to describe, though impossible to comprehend. Genres in general have collapsed under this pressure. Categories as fundamental as fact and fiction, news and entertainment, gender and sexuality, have eroded away. In literature and architecture, in cuisine, in music, in fashion and furnishings, everywhere, everything—it’s fusion and mix.

Barack Obama emerged as a literal embodiment of this age. To educated people, especially younger people with generally progressive views, other candidates suddenly looked parochial by comparison—or simply outdated. In his ethnicity and biography and in his personality and politics, Obama, the conciliator, was above all a combiner. Because he was from virtually everywhere—Kenya, Indonesia, Honolulu, Harvard, Chicago’s South Side—he was also from nowhere. The pastiche of his persona made him “his own man” in a new sense of the term.

The Fusion Candidate

Obama the candidate would never have made Tiger Wood’s silly mistake in so many words, of course. But on the screen of public culture, where significance is substance, he overlapped in many ways with the Tiger Woods who felt entitled to make a mix of his own when it came to his “own” identity. If Obama “came from nowhere”—as so many remarked at the time—it wasn’t just because he came to public attention so quickly; that has happened before. It was the way his every gesture reinforced the impression that he felt entitled to be who he wanted to be, that he took his instantaneous emergence pretty much in stride. That was why, when he rocketed to the top of the hype heap in a single year, a lot of veteran black leaders weren’t happy about it at all. He hadn’t paid his dues, they muttered. But it was clear that other identity issues were in play—his style, his way of speaking, his upbringing. The not-so-hidden reservations boiled down to a sense that maybe he wasn’t “black enough”—an ironic inversion of Colin Powell’s admonishment to Tiger. But hypocrisy was not behind that inversion. It is simply an effect of the fact that, as principles detach themselves from history, they invite increasingly improvisational application; they become more flexible, more pragmatic, adapting to the pastiche of circumstances at any given moment.

Their reservations were confirmed when Obama wasn’t immediately offended by Joe Biden’s description of him as “articulate” and “clean.” It wasn’t until the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton expressed their consternation—barely suppressed outrage, actually—that Obama grasped the historically resonant implications of those words. A very telling moment. For one thing, it showed that he really did represent generational change, and the fact that he hadn’t lived through the 60s was as important as he claimed.

So the Obama campaign stole a page from John F. Kennedy’s playbook and made his youth and inexperience a virtue and generational change a theme. “Time to get over the 60s” became central to his message, and it resonated with a lot of people who were tired of ideological Boomers framing the national debate and hogging the limelight. On that level, Obama simply represented a fresh start—which might describe any instance of generational change in modern history, going back at least to the seventeenth century. But something more comprehensive, and more radical, was also suggested by his candidacy—an escape from history itself,7 from the historicity for which Jameson has mourned so persuasively. The underlying question was whether, for Obama himself, history had lost the depth and weight it once had for educated and politically engaged people. Did it also show that Obama, as a product of his own design, was himself a creature of intensities and surfaces? Most significantly, might that actually be a virtue—if it reflected the order of the day, the ethos of his time?

On the plane of representation, the 60s was to the last four decades what the French Revolution was to the first half of the nineteenth century—a looming determinant of the way events were framed and understood. The expression “culture wars,” captured the nature of the ensuing conflicts perfectly. These wars were initially conducted by conscious partisans and foes of the 60s’ legacy growing into adulthood and moving into positions of responsibility, especially in cultural institutions—in schools at all levels, most importantly, but also museums, libraries, publishing, and entertainment. Throughout the 70s and into the 80s, historically conscious progressives—more or less radical, more or less liberal, more or less compromised—lined up against historically conscious conservatives. The culmination of this phase might be marked by the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind in 1987. Bloom’s book was a relentless attack on the superficiality of American culture’s prevailing assumptions and practices, especially its embrace of various forms of relativism—and the 60s were held responsible at every turn. Its astonishing success suggested that many people who were not historically conscious partisans in the battle over the 60s’ legacy were now reacting against it for more diffuse and immediate reasons.

Successor generations were necessarily less and less aware of the historical roots of the debates that raged around them—multiculturalism vs. the canon, moral relativism, third-wave feminism, gay rights, and all the rest. The efficacy of the “political correctness” trope in that context was an especially vivid illustration of the decline of historicity. In educational venues especially, responsible adults who were consciously advancing a progressive agenda found themselves in the ironic position of enforcing standards of speech and behavior on resistant young people who were more and more likely to experience these standards as, at best, over-fussy sensitivity about hurt feelings and giving offense or, at worst, as the arbitrary—and even inequitable8—imposition of adult authority.

Of course, some students continued to support an activist progressive agenda, but their ranks were dwindling, and they fell more and more exclusively into disparate groups, each with its own concerns. And so it was for society as a whole. In spite of the achievements of identity politics, there was eventually no denying that it also represented a (“schizophrenic”) dispersion of discourses, laden with intensities that rose and fell with the occurrence and passing of incidents, with the pastiche of events floating free of a past that had lost its depth, momentum, and focus. Anita Hill at the Thomas hearings, white progressives vs. African-Americans on the O. J. Simpson trial, the Clinton impeachment—these dramas riveted the nation and were charged with social and political implications. But those implications were tangled, cross-cutting. The intensities, the swirl of compelling images—the glove that didn’t fit, the “high tech lynching,” the stained dress—offered very little traction for a larger historical narrative. No clear direction forward was suggested or denied, no past struggle clearly vindicated or betrayed. These were reality shows indeed—and the social and emotional fallout that attended them was more akin to the impact of an event movie like Avatar than the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Progressives with a commitment to traditional narratives continued the struggle, of course; Jameson had company.9 But efforts to awaken a largely apathetic population to the history of social and economic injustice and to present consequences of that history had to reckon with an increasingly mediated environment. Readily dramatizable efforts to awaken the apathetic masses to the dangers of pollution and global warming were also underway. So were efforts to awaken the apathetic masses to desperate situations in Sub-Saharan Africa and Haiti. Likewise, the dangers of nuclear proliferation—what could be more urgent in an age of terror? Sex trafficking, often involving minor girls sold or kidnapped into slavery, was proliferating. Various diseases—not just identity-resonant AIDS and breast cancer—became causes that people worked for, marched for. What about the conditions under which farm animals were being raised and slaughtered? The rise of obesity, especially in children, has recently been demanding attention. Let us pass over in silence the 9/11 truthers, for it is clear that this list could go on indefinitely.

A traditional left-wing politics, informed by historical depth, was inevitably diminished by the dynamic of optionality. The attendant emphasis on surfaces and intensities was a function of the centrality of virtual revolutionaries, presiding over the flow of their experience in custom-made me-worlds. Their attention was the scarce resource that mattered most and, because they were disposed to surf, surfaces powerful enough to arrest their attention were naturally selected. As the flattery of representation took hold, people felt motivated to coherent action only by something they could consistently “identify with” or, more occasionally, by something so compelling it could not be resisted, at least for as long as the excitement lasted.

Into this situation, stepped Barack Obama. He managed to mobilize support along both those lines. First of all, through the pastiche of his persona, he embodied the possibility and actuality of self-construction—a sense of entitlement broadly shared by the young supporters who flocked to his candidacy. Simply by being himself, he represented a sort of bridge across those niches of identity politics. The holy grail of postmodern progressivism, the dream of unity in diversity going back to Jesse Jackson’s impossible “Rainbow Coalition,” now seemed to be standing in front of you, as it were, an accomplished fact, a post-historical instance.

His position as unifier through partialities ultimately accounts for Obama’s detached demeanor, the laid back reflexivity that so many have found so frustrating. But readers of his extraordinary autobiography know how essential to his personal history, how essential to his ability to navigate through the contexts that shaped him, that detachment has always been.10 So Obama could, for example, borrow from the rhetorical style of Martin Luther King, but he could not, would not, fully commit to it. He retained his authenticity by restricting himself to citing, to letting those cadences slip into his performances once in awhile and then letting them fade away. His most enthusiastic supporters—the ones who identified with him—understood that, in some space of his own devising, Obama hovered over it all, at home with his own disengagement, at home in a world in which more people are more aware of their own identities and more engaged in self-representation than at any time in human history.

The fact that Obama could represent any one niche only partially was at first an asset because it meant he could also offer the redemption of an experience of commitment to something greater than self—however simulational, as the phrasing implies. And Obama’s young supporters welcomed that. They knew of their reputation for apathy and irony and self-involvement—they had been enduring lectures from their elders about it since grade school. Here was a chance to prove their self-righteous seniors wrong and accomplish at a stroke what those political veterans could only conceive as a distant goal. A black American President. To achieve something so dramatically unlikely would be a transcendence of historicity in itself, a validation of the postmodern ethos—of themselves and their lives and the world they were making. Yes, we can!

The stark fact of Obama’s very being as a black man poised on the brink of election to the Presidency made that virtual revolutionary gesture prima facie plausible. That was the essential surface (an interesting phrase), the essential intensity. Once that plausibility was realized, the momentum behind him seemed to gather force almost overnight and that astonishing campaign got underway. It was a convergence, in a singular burst of purposeful action on a massive scale, of the coolest media technologies and processes ever and of young people—almost all of them socially effective, intelligent, and quick to learn—willing to put their lives on hold and devote themselves to the cause of “yes, we can.”

The Howard Dean campaign of 2003–2004 provided the template for the virtual revolutionaries who came out for Obama. The participants knew—they said it over and over again—that this wasn’t really about Dean; it was about the movement.11 It was about the Deaniacs themselves, those techie communards and the multiple niches they coordinated, online and off. If you were part of that campaign, you were being the phenomenon as you were seeing it represented, in “real time,” unfolding before you. You could see the impact of your role on the national stage in essentially the same way you can see the impact of your keyboarding on the screen of your computer. MoveOn understood this. That’s why they held contests for political ads, judged by celebrity professionals—and then featured the winning ads on their website. And Dean himself understood it. He acknowledged it at every turn, saying over and over again, ferociously, joyfully, pointing his finger—“You have the power! You have the power!”

But the Deaniacs went overboard. As brash as the dot-commers of the mid-90s, they poured into Iowa from out of state in their orange sweater-hats and flooded the Iowa countryside with—themselves. And the press was agog; the Deaniacs became the story. A lot of Iowa voters, often older folks who were serious enough to participate in the time-consuming caucus system, resented the intrusion and decided to refocus the limelight on themselves. All of a sudden, Dean was through. One final scream and it was over. Obama’s team learned the lesson well, however, and when the Iowa primary rolled around in January of 2008, the campaign deployed a carefully cultivated cadre of local Obama supporters to get out the caucus vote. After that victory—in a state that was 97 percent white—African American voters, in South Carolina and elsewhere, began to realize that the impossible could actually happen, and their support for the Clintons began to erode. And so began the long march to victory and that stunning appearance in Grant Park, Chicago, on election night, 2008. Yet another stunning moment, it is so easy to forget.

That was the end of the movie. Produced, directed by, and starring the we who could. And, yes, we did. And then—having experienced a commitment to something bigger than self—we went home.

Denouement

Compared with 2008, voting dropped off this year particularly among pro-Democratic groups:
—Young voters were down by 55 percent.
—African-Americans were down by 43 percent.

—From the McClatchy Newspapers (22 November 2010)

Of course, Obama’s record of compromise helped to drive those numbers down. And the dynamics of the traditional mid-term slump in voter turnout were no doubt at work as well. But the whole idea of Obama’s election had been that the traditional dynamics had been confounded. And anyone who expected Obama to be more radical than he turned out to be just wasn’t paying attention to what he was saying during the campaign. With the sole exception of his categorical stand against the war in Iraq, it was obvious all along that he stood to the right of Clinton and Edwards on domestic issues, across the board. And it was also clear that part of getting over the 60s was getting over what little remained (after Clinton, the great triangulator) of the traditional liberal/left willingness to take on the interests of corporate America in any serious way. It was never in Obama to go to the mat for the public option or Wall Street accountability, and if that could somehow be overlooked in the excitement of the campaign, it became glaringly obvious the moment he began to assemble his cabinet and top advisors.

Faced with the prospect of actually governing, Obama inevitably went about it the way he had governed his own career. He surrounded himself with the best, the brightest, and the most powerful. Inspired, perhaps, by the ongoing mash-up of himself and Abraham Lincoln (which he encouraged by announcing his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois), Obama positioned himself amidst his Team of Rivals and proceeded to do what he had always done best—deliberate, adjudicate, conciliate, compromise. He did what he had done so successfully as editor of the Harvard Law Review, where he was principally known for his balanced approach and a willingness to give more credence to conservative views than was customary at the time. And, of course, being who he was—it worked. Did he also believe that he possessed a larger transformational potential and, if so, to what extent, to what degree? Certainly, there were hints. Certainly, he was serious about being a postpartisan president, about bringing the red states and the blue states together, about reaching out to Republicans who made no secret of the fact that their top priority was to ruin his presidency. And he has persisted in that effort in the teeth of all the evidence against him. Does that suggest that, at some level of his thinking, he had conceived of a grander goal—of contributing to a postracial, postnational, posthistorical age? Was he that ambitious?

However that may be, and whatever the future holds for Obama, it is clear that the postmodern dynamic has shifted to new terrain. Obama’s Tea Party opponents and their affiliates have become the protagonists in a new political story of their own devising, starring themselves. A new pastiche of surfaces and intensities has arisen as if to mirror and invert the one that Howard Dean pioneered and Obama brought to fruition. In many ways, they are proving even more suited to this kind of public existence. For example, the seamless way the Right deploys its imagery of half-truths and lies (“government takeover” “where is his birth certificate?” “death panels”) testifies to a completely ahistorical sensibility in which the distinction between fact and convenient fiction is not merely blurred but obliterated. We are accustomed to thinking of progressive movements of one kind or another when we think of identity politics, but that is dangerously misleading. Ronald Reagan was the most successful postmodern practitioner we have ever had. His was the vision of the simulacrum that became the “real America,” the guiding light on the Right ever since.

For the environment of optionality also conditions—perhaps even most acutely—the existence of people who try to refuse that environment, people who cling to some tradition. They have to decide to do that, and deciding to be who you are is precisely what an authentically traditional person does not do. Religious fundamentalism as we know it is very much a postmodern phenomenon—and so is the Tea Party, for all its insistence on the old days and ways. Fanaticisms flourish in an atmosphere of unlimited choice.

Consider all the outlandish costumes, the signs, the atmosphere of carnival—sometimes it’s an intensity of rage, sometimes of weepy nostalgia. But, either way, these aging representatives of Nixon’s silent majority are silent no more. They have joined the postmodern age at last—in the very act of refusing to be silent, in the very act of putting on their show. It is no accident that, from a sufficiently disinterested distance, they look like something Abby Hoffman might have thrown together for a Yippie happening back in 1969. As striking an instance of political specular doubling as you could ask for. And despite the relentless emphasis on history, the references to it are a breathtakingly shallow exercise in depthless surfing that might have been designed to illustrate the basic Jamesonian concepts. Could there be a trope more completely bereft of historicity, a more shameless exercise in pastiche than Congressman Todd Akin’s widely circulated account of the first Thanksgiving as a moment when the pilgrim fathers repudiated socialism?

Endnotes

  1. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991) 6, 16, 17.
  2. Gary Kamiya “Cablinasian Like Me,” Salon (30 April 1997): <http://www.salon.com/april97/tiger970430.html>. “Light-skinned Colin Powell, responding to Woods’ comments, ‘In America, which I love from the depths of my heart and soul, when you look like me, you’re black.’”
  3. As mammals, we are wired to respond to attention. Puppies respond to attention. But only human beings need recognition. A dog won’t get insulted if you forget its name. And people feel more and more recognized the more customized the representations that constitute their life-world become.
  4. Robert Murphy, who introduced me to anthropology at Columbia, used to sum up a basic difference between modern societies and hunter-gatherer communities this way: “everyone is famous in a tribe.” By which he meant that everyone in a face-to-face society is recognized by everyone else, so that everyone means something in their world, whatever their status. Dynamics of recognition of an analogous sort have divided the mediated world into niches—not a “global village” after all.
  5. Compare the cereal section of today’s MegaSuperMarkets with its counterpart, say, forty years ago. It used to be Wheaties, Corn Flakes, Cheerios (oats), Rice Krispies—the idea was one cereal for each grain. You could take in the display at a glance. Now you have to walk a couple of blocks to cover it all. Likewise with fruit juices, makes of cars, sneaker species, and pasta possibilities.
  6. But haven’t everyday objects always been more than functional—filtered through culture, sending a message? Yes, but being aware of that is new. Awareness of “culture” used to be confined to a few reflective individuals; now it is common sense. What cultures traditionally provided was entrenched custom, a kind of necessity. Options are very different, as are the people who exist among them—people with “life-styles.”
  7. For this, too, there are modern precedents—most notably, in the attitudes of Enlightenment philosophes toward tradition, and in the modernist turn away from “evolutionist” history at the end of the nineteenth century. But each such moment has its distinctive characteristics.
  8. In the late 90s, I was asked by the head of an independent school to meet with some boys who wanted to start a “Caucasian Boys Club.” There was an African-American club, a Latino club, a Gender Issues club—so why not? They were making mischief, of course, but they were not racist or sexist. They saw themselves as rebels against an adult regime. Talk about injustices of the past and continued discrimination in contemporary society made no impression; synchronic and local “fairness” was all that mattered. I managed finally to dissuade them only by naming specific classmates and teammates who would be terribly hurt if such a club were to be started.
  9. See, for example, Todd Gitlin’s The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars (New York: Holt, 1996).
  10. With the personal historical aspect of Jameson’s notion of depth in mind, one might say that Obama is deeply detached.
  11. Samantha M. Shapiro, “The Dean Connection,” The New York Times Magazine (7 December 2003).

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