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U.S. | Government & Elections | Racial Justice

Uncritical Exuberance?
by Judith Butler
Wednesday Nov 5th, 2008 7:19 PM
This became most salient in the emergence of the counter Bradley-effect, when voters could and did explicitly own up to their own racism, but said they would vote for Obama anyway. Anecdotes from the field include claims like the following: "I know that Obama is a Muslim and a Terrorist, but I will vote for him anyway; he is probably better for the economy." Such voters got to keep their racism and vote for Obama, sheltering their split beliefs without having to resolve them.
Very few of us are immune to the exhilaration of this time. My friends on the left write to me that they feel something akin to "redemption" or that "the country has been returned to us" or that "we finally have one of us in the White House." Of course, like them, I discover myself feeling overwhelmed with disbelief and excitement throughout the day, since the thought of having the regime of George W. Bush over and gone is an enormous relief. And the thought of Obama, a thoughtful and progressive black candidate, shifts the historical ground, and we feel that cataclysm as it produces a new terrain. But let us try to think carefully about the shifted terrain, although we cannot fully know its contours at this time. The election of Barack Obama is historically significant in ways that are yet to be gauged, but it is not, and cannot be, a redemption, and if we subscribe to the heightened modes of identification that he proposes ("we are all united") or that we propose ("he is one of us"), we risk believing that this political moment can overcome the antagonisms that are constitutive of political life, especially political life in these times. There have always been good reasons not to embrace "national unity" as an ideal, and to nurse suspicions toward absolute and seamless identification with any political leader. After all, fascism relied in part on that seamless identification with the leader, and Republicans engage this same effort to organize political affect when, for instance, Elizabeth Dole looks out on her audience and says, "I love each and every one of you."

It becomes all the more important to think about the politics of exuberant identification with the election of Obama when we consider that support for Obama has coincided with support for conservative causes. In a way, this accounts for his "cross-over" success. In California, he won by 60% of the vote, and yet some significant portion of those who voted for him also voted against the legalization of gay marriage (52%). How do we understand this apparent disjunction? First, let us remember that Obama has not explicitly supported gay marriage rights. Further, as Wendy Brown has argued, the Republicans have found that the electorate is not as galvanized by "moral" issues as they were in recent elections; the reasons given for why people voted for Obama seem to be predominantly economic, and their reasoning seems more fully structured by neo-liberal rationality than by religious concerns. This is clearly one reason why Palin's assigned public function to galvanize the majority of the electorate on moral issues finally failed. But if "moral" issues such as gun control, abortion rights and gay rights were not as determinative as they once were, perhaps that is because they are thriving in a separate compartment of the political mind. In other words, 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. This became most salient in the emergence of the counter Bradley-effect, when voters could and did explicitly own up to their own racism, but said they would vote for Obama anyway. Anecdotes from the field include claims like the following: "I know that Obama is a Muslim and a Terrorist, but I will vote for him anyway; he is probably better for the economy." Such voters got to keep their racism and vote for Obama, sheltering their split beliefs without having to resolve them.

Along with strong economic motivations, less empirically discernible factors have come into play in these election results. We cannot underestimate the force of dis-identification in this election, a sense of revulsion that George W. has "represented" the United States to the rest of the world, a sense of shame about our practices of torture and illegal detention, a sense of disgust that we have waged war on false grounds and propagated racist views of Islam, a sense of alarm and horror that the extremes of economic deregulation have led to a global economic crisis. Is it despite his race, or because of his race, that Obama finally emerged as a preferred representative of the nation? Fulfilling that representative-function, he is at once black and not-black (some say "not black enough" and others say "too black"), and, as a result, he can appeal to voters who not only have no way of resolving their ambivalence on this issue, but do not want one. The public figure who allows the populace to sustain and mask its ambivalence nevertheless appears as a figure of "unity": this is surely an ideological function. Such moments are intensely imaginary, but not for that reason without their political force.

As the election approached, there has been an increased focus on the person of Obama: his gravity, his deliberateness, his ability not to lose his temper, his way of modeling a certain evenness in the face of hurtful attacks and vile political rhetoric, his promise to reinstate a version of the nation that will overcome its current shame. Of course, the promise is alluring, but what if the embrace of Obama leads to the belief that we might overcome all dissonance, that unity is actually possible? What is the chance that we may end up suffering a certain inevitable disappointment when this charismatic leader displays his fallibility, his willingness to compromise, even to sell out minorities? He has, in fact, already done this in certain ways, but many of us "set aside" our concerns in order to enjoy the extreme un-ambivalence of this moment, risking an uncritical exuberance even when we know better. Obama is, after all, hardly a leftist, regardless of the attributions of "socialism" proffered by his conservative opponents. In what ways will his actions be constrained by party politics, economic interests, and state power; in what ways have they been compromised already? If we seek through this presidency to overcome a sense of dissonance, then we will have jettisoned critical politics in favor of an exuberance whose phantasmatic dimensions will prove consequential. Maybe we cannot avoid this phantasmatic moment, but let us be mindful about how temporary it is. If there are avowed racists who have said, "I know that he is a Muslim and a terrorist, but I will vote for him anyway," there are surely also people on the left who say, "I know that he has sold out gay rights and Palestine, but he is still our redemption." I know very well, but still: this is the classic formulation of disavowal. Through what means do we sustain and mask conflicting beliefs of this sort? And at what political cost?

There is no doubt that Obama's success will have significant effects on the economic course of the nation, and it seems reasonable to assume that we will see a new rationale for economic regulation and for an approach to economics that resembles social democratic forms in Europe; in foreign affairs, we will doubtless see a renewal of multi-lateral relations, the reversal of a fatal trend of destroying multilateral accords that the Bush administration has undertaken. And there will doubtless also be a more generally liberal trend on social issues, though it is important to remember that Obama has not supported universal health care, and has failed to explicitly support gay marriage rights. And there is not yet much reason to hope that he will formulate a just policy for the United States in the Middle East, even though it is a relief, to be sure, that he knows Rashid Khalidi.

The indisputable significance of his election has everything to do with overcoming the limits implicitly imposed on African-American achievement; it has and will inspire and overwhelm young African-Americans; it will, at the same time, precipitate a change in the self-definition of the United States. If the election of Obama signals a willingness on the part of the majority of voters to be "represented" by this man, then it follows that who "we" are is constituted anew: we are a nation of many races, of mixed races; and he offers us the occasion to recognize who we have become and what we have yet to be, and in this way a certain split between the representative function of the presidency and the populace represented appears to be overcome. That is an exhilarating moment, to be sure. But can it last, and should it?

To what consequences will this nearly messianic expectation invested in this man lead? In order for this presidency to be successful, it will have to lead to some disappointment, and to survive disappointment: the man will become human, will prove less powerful than we might wish, and politics will cease to be a celebration without ambivalence and caution; indeed, politics will prove to be less of a messianic experience than a venue for robust debate, public criticism, and necessary antagonism. The election of Obama means that the terrain for debate and struggle has shifted, and it is a better terrain, to be sure. But it is not the end of struggle, and we would be very unwise to regard it that way, even provisionally. We will doubtless agree and disagree with various actions he takes and fails to take. But if the initial expectation is that he is and will be "redemption" itself, then we will punish him mercilessly when he fails us (or we will find ways to deny or suppress that disappointment in order to keep alive the experience of unity and unambivalent love).

If a consequential and dramatic disappointment is to be averted, he will have to act quickly and well. Perhaps the only way to avert a "crash" – a disappointment of serious proportions that would turn political will against him – will be to take decisive actions within the first two months of his presidency. The first would be to close Guantanamo and find ways to transfer the cases of detainees to legitimate courts; the second would be to forge a plan for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and to begin to implement that plan. The third would be to retract his bellicose remarks about escalating war in Afghanistan and pursue diplomatic, multilateral solutions in that arena. If he fails to take these steps, his support on the left will clearly deteriorate, and we will see the reconfiguration of the split between liberal hawks and the anti-war left. If he appoints the likes of Lawrence Summers to key cabinet positions, or continues the failed economic polices of Clinton and Bush, then at some point the messiah will be scorned as a false prophet. In the place of an impossible promise, we need a series of concrete actions that can begin to reverse the terrible abrogation of justice committed by the Bush regime; anything less will lead to a dramatic and consequential disillusionment. The question is what measure of dis-illusion is necessary in order to retrieve a critical politics, and what more dramatic form of dis-illusionment will return us to the intense political cynicism of the last years. Some relief from illusion is necessary, so that we might remember that politics is less about the person and the impossible and beautiful promise he represents than it is about the concrete changes in policy that might begin, over time, and with difficulty, bring about conditions of greater justice.

Comments  (Hide Comments)

by Darwin
Thursday Nov 6th, 2008 8:25 AM
Judith,
I find your analysis spot on in so many ways. What I would add to your conclusion is that while it matters very much what Obama does in the first few months of his administration (or what he does not do in the case of appointing the likes of Summers as Sec. of Treasury, or sending more troops to Afghanistan), I think it matters equally what WE do.

Obama is now surrounded by former Clinton staffers. All of them are neoliberals. These are the men and women who first and most convincingly formulated the foreign policy tropes of "terrorism" and "rogue states" in the 1990s following the first Gulf War and disappearance of the USSR. They dismantled welfare and succeeded in transnationalizing the power of capital in ways the Bush administration did not. They built on the domestic prison expansion and made no meaningful effort to combat institutionalized racism in the US. With this team Obama is likely to do very few of the things you lay out except perhaps closing Guantanamo.

It matters what WE do. The anti-war movement above all could be a major catalyst here. Obama owes his presidential candidacy to the anti-war movement in so many important ways. It was the early touchstone that set him aside as different and better than the rest of the Democratic Party's contenders. A major mobilization over these next few months to demand not only a withdrawal from Iraq but serious reappraisals of his stance on Afghanistan, Palestine, etc. could do a lot to boost Obama's ability and will to make more just decisions. Equally, there should be mass mobilizations against the homophobic and patriarchal turn in California and other states. The immigrants right's movement, the Right of Return Movement in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, both could play leading roles in demanding economic justice.

My point is that Obama could do this or that, as you say, but the likelihood of him doing what is socially just and peaceful is virtually nil unless he is pressured by the social movements that provided the initial sparks to his campaign. Just today the New York Times is reporting, "Obama Aides Tamp Down Expectations." We cannot allow this. It is precisely the expectations he aroused in us that got him elected with such unprecedented grassroots support. If his incoming administration succeeds in demobilizing our movements and lowering expectations again then the prospects for meaningful social change are not good.

Thanks for your analysis, it's the best I've seen so far in the aftermath of this truly historic election.
by Jackie
Thursday Nov 6th, 2008 9:13 AM
Hi Darwin,

In the spirit of your comments on Judith's essay, I wanted to mention that yesterday I drove from the UCSB campus protests against the Prop 8 vote into a traffic mess in Los Angeles that was finally caused by a good cause: thousands of people who had moved from a rally in West Hollywood into an impromptu march on Sunset Blvd. to television studios.

Obama's interest in the Clinton neo-liberals is ominous: the awful immigration measures and crime bill responsible for hundreds of thousands of US residents being held in detention or deported were ushered in by the Clinton administration through their Congressional point man Rahm Emmanuel, who, if we're lucky, will turn down Obama's offer to be his chief of staff.

Jackie
by Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer
Friday Nov 7th, 2008 3:08 AM
Everytime I read someone saying that the exuberance around the election of Obama is overdone, my mind flashes to my campus--an historically black seminary in the deep South--on which there have been nothing but tears of joy, and words of amazement that an African American could even BE elected in the United States of America. We belittle that exuberance at our peril. This is the coalition that got us elected--a coalition not of a majority of white Americans but of a majority of NON-white Americans in addition to a sizeable minority of white Americans. And I don't think there can be too much exuberance, either for the history that was made on Tuesday in terms of WHO was elected, nor in terms of WHO elected him.

As for me, a progressive foreign-born, naturalized (I hate that word) black woman, I didn't vote for Obama because he was a member of the progressive left. [If I had wanted to do that, I would have voted for Cynthia McKinney]. I am far too pragmatic for that. Members of the progressive left have not even tried to build up enough of a coalition to be elected on a national level, because they are unable or unwilling to bring together a broad base of people with whom they do not always agree to work together on key issues on which folks CAN agree.

I voted for Obama because he's a member of the center left. And, as a member of the center left, he was able to do what no left wing candidate has been able to do for at least 8 years (possibly for as many as 20)--mobilize a broad base of support around: the illegality of Iraq, the economic crisis, health care, and foreign diplomacy. I voted for him because he is a Constitutional scholar--an egghead--who understands the fundamental need for the right of habeas corpus and who I expect to shut down Guantanamo.

Regarding Proposition 8, while I am heartbroken, I am not surprised. I am not surprised because--at least here in GA--the gay rights movement has not done NEARLY enough reaching out, talking, listening, agreeing to disagree and finding common cause with homophobes and other straight folks. Those who are not singing backup in the choir already--like me--have been given no real reason to cross over in the way that racists were given a reason to cross over for Obama. And, we have a conservative Supreme Court that will not overturn the laws of the states.

Obama's election is a miracle in the US, your caution notwithstanding. But it is not just a miracle of the beginning of the end of 232 years of constitutionally-scripted second-class citizenship. It is also a miracle forged by a person who could find a way to bring to the table people that haven't talked to each other for a long time, who in many ways deeply distrust each other, to work on key issues for the sake of the US.

How about we let him choose his cabinet and get elected and actually do something before we second-guess him, huh?
by Eric S Gregory
( ericsgregory [at] msn.com ) Friday Nov 7th, 2008 6:12 AM
I don't believe there's any second guessing in Butler's thoughtful consideration of what Obama's victory represents in terms of the complicated disavowals at work. Obama himself tells us that this is "our" victory--"our" moment. Does this then mean that "our" work is over? Why is it so difficult to simultaneously experience the elation of this moment while still thinking critically from inside the moment? If Butler is "second guessing" anyone, it's "us" and our hyper-eagerness to embrace easy fixes over a process that requires committed, emotional, playful and ongoing engagement.
by Eric S Gregory
Friday Nov 7th, 2008 6:25 AM
The 3rd sentence in the above should read: "Does this then mean that "our" work is over now that we've elected Obama president?"
by Doug Tarnopol
( tarnopol [at] cox.net ) Friday Nov 7th, 2008 9:05 AM
Brilliant, accurate, all-important -- an instant classic.
by Michael Buitron
Friday Nov 7th, 2008 2:41 PM
It doesn't matter if you're a dedicated liberal or social conservative, there's bound to be disappointment from all sides. Butler's hope that Obama will jump in with some initiatives to placate his liberal base, doesn't figure in those who voted yes on Obama and Proposition 8 in California. Amazingly 64% of African Americans polled in California were against gay marriage, and 62% were against gay civil unions. There doesn't seem to be compromise in those numbers. I expect that Obama's support for "amnesty" for undocumented workers will be turning his back on the black working poor.
by Moira Sullivan
Sunday Nov 9th, 2008 9:12 AM
"Amazingly 64% of African Americans polled in California were against gay marriage, and 62% were against gay civil unions'.
This statistic not mentioned in Butler's essay but glossed over. But to be accurate, just how many of the African Americans against gay marriage voted for Obama? I find this statistic saddening, but it is to be expected. Remember that a white woman lost to a black man in the Democratic nomination and many sexist slurs made against her, just as racist slurs were made against Obama.
Sexism (or genderism as Butler might argue) is the root oppression and will the last to be rooted out if ever. All other forms (race, class etc) emanate from this including the myth that lesbians are not real women and gay men not real men.
by Jasper Bernes
Sunday Nov 9th, 2008 10:16 AM
I am a long-time admirer of Judith Butler's writing and presence, but I find even the measured optimism here all too uncritical. The fact is this: not a single one of the economic advisors he's drawn around himself are better than Lawrence Summers. Robert Rubin, Paul Volcker, Timothy Geithner, these are enemies of the working-class in the US and abroad and exponents of neoliberalism one and all. . . As it stands now, there is no chance that, without significant militancy from people on the streets, we'll get anything even remotely resembling European social democracy.

On the military front, things look just as grim. Not a single one of his advisors there is seriously in favor of a full withdrawal from Iraq or a deescalation of the war in Afghanistan. And, I hardly think closing the base in Guantanamo and shipping the prisoners off to the black sites where most of the victims of the war on terror are held anyway is an improvement.

The commenter above is correct. Our choices are clear: militancy or Clinton II. The only reason to be optimistic is that Obama and his ilk are opportunists. If there is a serious threat to the established order, they will no doubt enact progressive reforms to forestall it. But without militancy, we can expect them to cast the poor overboard at the first chance they get. Just as the real reason to celebrate (and bemoan) this victory is the news that it tells us about the electorate, there too is our true messiah, the growing number of people who oppose unfettered capitalism, war, racism, sexism, homophobia.

by Jane Dark
Sunday Nov 9th, 2008 11:32 AM
To Jasper's all-too-accurate comment, I would merely add that the upwelling of enthusiasm around Obama, while surely a kind of real abstraction that indexes actual desires, is also a critical mislocation of the place of possibility. What will distinguish the Obama regime from Clinton is something extrinsic to his policies: largely, an accelerating geopolitical shift away from a US-centered world system. There is already little doubt (as commenters note) that Obama will pursue a neoliberal agenda: indeed, "compassionate neoliberalism" will turn out to be his presidency's slogan. But this will take place in straitened circumstances: the current crisis is not simply cyclical, but an exclamation point in a secular trend, and the forthcoming U.S. "recovery" of 2010 or so will crest at a point far lower than that from which it started. This is, from the perspective of militancy, a sort of good news: it indicates weakness in the command-and-control structure. But the political opportunities have very little pro or con to do with the election, which is a symptomatic event within a historical transfer of global power. Militancy can, and must, take place within this understanding.
by kvond
Wednesday Nov 12th, 2008 2:44 PM
Butler writes: "Maybe we cannot avoid this phantasmatic moment, but let us be mindful about how temporary it is. If there are avowed racists who have said, "I know that he is a Muslim and a terrorist, but I will vote for him anyway," there are surely also people on the left who say, "I know that he has sold out gay rights and Palestine, but he is still our redemption." I know very well, but still: this is the classic formulation of disavowal. Through what means do we sustain and mask conflicting beliefs of this sort? And at what political cost?"

I fear that there are very few of the fantasmic right wing electors that Judith Butler has dreamed up, any of those that have swallowed whole the illusions of the slander of Obama, rightfully believing them, yet somehow found themselves voting for the terrorist-muslim nonetheless. One has to ask oneself what does this fantastic, dreamwork of a rightwinger doing for Judith Butler, balancing out somehow the likely to be more real Leftist who compromises on her or his vision. Instead of a the disavowal of (castrating) facts, we have the invention of a rightwing counterpart to justify a wanted diagnosis of the betraying Leftist. We have the invention of facts, a strap-on of beliefs and actions, apparently. We pretend that there were others who masked their conflicting beliefs, in order to diagnosis and impune our own masking. How odd. Oppositional thinking must be preserved at all costs I suppose, even at the level of diagnosis.


by kvond
Wednesday Nov 12th, 2008 8:52 PM
Judith Butler: "As the election approached, there has been an increased focus on the person of Obama: his gravity, his deliberateness, his ability not to lose his temper, his way of modeling a certain evenness in the face of hurtful attacks and vile political rhetoric, his promise to reinstate a version of the nation that will overcome its current shame. Of course, the promise is alluring, but what if the embrace of Obama leads to the belief that we might overcome all dissonance, that unity is actually possible? What is the chance that we may end up suffering a certain inevitable disappointment when this charismatic leader displays his fallibility, his willingness to compromise, even to sell out minorities?"

Kvond: We know that Obama as a Chicago basketball fan takes as a model the success of Michael Jordon, a black man who dominated the dreams of white school boys for a generation, but I suspect deeper than that there will be the unspoken model of Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrior in baseball, not only through unique skills, but through the force of his character, the blemishless way he comported himself amid adversity. I think that we should not fear the self-tarnishing of the image of Obama, for curious thing happens when one takes upon oneself the mantle of an Ideal. One approximates it at first, perhaps even using it for your advantage, but then it comes to live you, to enact you. I do not think that "fallibility" will be the thing that mars the man. King had serious character flaws to be scratched at. It is only the failure to grasp the precidence of the moment, the failure of our own perceptions to see the event as eruptive, despite the man, even despite the policies that follow...only that will disappoint.

Further, I would say, let us be betrayed. Only something that you love can betray you. And in loving it, you surpass what you were. Lincoln came to be a very unpopular, much doubted president. Courage for what follows.



by Judith Butler
Friday Nov 14th, 2008 12:18 PM
Not one word on the criminal policies of the duo Bush/Sharon and their coded arrangements where Peace is "Hit them hard" and "Stop" is "finish them up" (Jenine......)l the all the massacres perpetrated during the last 60 years on the Native People of Palestine.

This is my first reaction to hopes and reality about the election of Obama as President. His change seems to be very selective, especially when it comes to countering the most powerful lobby that tarnishes the US around the globe ant puts at risk our coutry while continuously inflicting terrible human and ecological dammage on many peoples in the world, among them and formostly the Palestinian People who have been facing a systematic ethnic cleansing process with our funding, arming and diplomatic immunity.

Mahjoub EGhorfi
Shutesbury, MA
November 11, 2008
Dear President -Elect
We made numerous phone calls during the primaries to make you THE CANDIDATE for the Presidency for the Democrats. We jubilated late that night into the next day, when you appeared with your beautiful family as the winner of this historical transition in the American History tarnished by so many injustices and violence.
Unfortunately, your first nominations were disappointing regarding the fate of the longest occupied and ethnic cleansed people in Modern Times. Congressman Biden is known to be biased against the Palestinian People and an eager supporter of the extremist segments of the Israeli occupation. Furthermore, Congressman Emmanuel is known to be a fanatic lobbyist for the most expansionist version of the Zionist brutal dispossession of the Natives of Palestine. He is known for having initiated and lobbied for the letter to Bush stating that Bush was not supporting Israel strongly enough (sic or rather ...sick!). And here is his father making racist comments about a whole kind of people, after his well documented savage participation in the initial ethnic cleansing of more than 2/3 of the Palestinian population in the infamous D plan in 1948.
You have been perceived by all the people suffering from oppression and marginalization in this country – which gave us all a chance to thrive-, but also around the World: Africa, Asia, and South America. Among the marginalized and the oppressed, and after the fall of the Apartheid system, twin brother and long time ally of Israel, no people have suffered longer and more deadly than the Palestinian People under the most brutal military occupation, dispossession and publically aimed and daily practiced ethnic cleansing. The goal of the discrimination-based Zionist ideology has been and still is the eradication of the Native People of Palestine and the settling of uprooted people exclusively on the basis of their religious beliefs.
So, Mr. President, the hope of change you have so eloquently instilled in us, does it include the most oppressed people in the world or are you going to bend to the most powerful lobby that makes our country vulnerable and abhorred because of the injustice inflicted on 4.5 Million Refugees and another 4 Million people under cruel military occupation, let alone the 1.5 Million supposedly rendered "citizens" but suffering from blatant discriminations and dispossession? Or are you going to be the principled, brilliant intellectual that we look at as the hope of this nation and the World?
The choice is yours to be or not to be what you symbolize for the huge majority that brought you to the most powerful position in the world.
by Angus Cook
( xangus [at] tav.org.uk ) Sunday Nov 16th, 2008 5:15 AM
'Anecdotes from the field include claims like the following: "I know that Obama is a Muslim and a Terrorist, but I will vote for him anyway; he is probably better for the economy."'
If Judith Butler really believes the person (if such a person exists), who she claims related this absurd anecdote to her, then she's even more out of touch with reality than her poorly expressed ideas would otherwise suggest. The extent of her insularity is confirmed by the distance she proudly displays between herself and ordinary life — 'the field', as she calls it. So removed from the concerns of daily life has Dr. Butler become, that fantastical hearsay remains the only evidence available to her, of what goes on outside the sheltered head of her tenured boredom.
by Rifat Mahbub
Friday Dec 12th, 2008 2:19 AM
Baptized as christian,brought up by white grandparents,communicated in American accent English...can any body suddenly become Black American or African-american president in America? Can any body give my answer :how black is black or how much whiteness is needed to be white?
by Why?
Saturday Dec 27th, 2008 12:03 AM
While I agree that the quotation you cite seems a bit outlandish, I am sure that you could ask her for her source.
I am not here to defend JB - she doesn't need me to do that. The only reason that I have replied is because you seem to be so hostile toward academics, regardless of whether or not they have something to say. Why does it hurt you so when she writes, "the field" in place of 'everyday life' or something like that? This has nothing to do with her actual argument(s), which are about the fact that we seem to be more concerned with 'results' than we are with 'causes.' What good is the answer when you don't know what the question was? The fact is, the "answer" is meaningless when no one knows WHY the question had been asked in the first place.

That's all, I guess.
by George Gonzalez
( ggonzalez [at] hds.harvard.edu ) Tuesday Feb 17th, 2009 2:30 PM
I am so glad that Professor Butler has offered this piece. I remember very much having a similar reaction to Rev. Eugene Rivers’ contention on national cable news in the days following that historic day that President Obama’s election was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream “fulfilled”. I much preferred the metaphor of “down payment” on Martin’s dream though the irony is, of course, that we say these things amid a terrible housing crisis in which actual homes have been lost and real families have been stressed to the maximum. From my perspective, capitalism and totalizing thought share in common the desire to render payment on that which cannot be “priced” or “resolved”. Professor Butler makes the specific point later on in the thread that the Israel-Palestine issue is an issue about which we might not want to conflate our exuberance with the need for concrete changes in policy that would make US geo-politics in the region more even-handed. On this point, let us not to underestimate the role of Zionists, Christian and otherwise, in projecting the desire for a totalizing fulfillment, an end time harmony, onto the politics of the region. One shudders when it becomes evident that some Christian Zionism is premised on the totalizing, dialectical incorporation of Jews (and the Jewish State of Israel) in a historical progress towards Christian Truth. Many broken Arab bodies must lay strewn on the ground in this scenario, of course. The desire to “return” to the biblical borders of the “the land of Israel” follows a similar logic of final fulfillment. I am happy thinkers like Butler, Cornel West (who says that symbols do matter but takes a critical, pragmatic approach to Obama) and oldies but goodies like Reinhold Niebuhr, Kierkegaard, the humanist Marx, Adorno, Arendt and Sartre remind us that we tend to do much violence when we let the facts on the ground be absorbed by even the prettiest and most comforting stories. By the way, isn’t one way of putting the question this: how is President Obama’s election both historic and yet how must it also, already, partake of an irresolvable dialectics?

Totalizing, soothing euphoria can be viral and opens new markets for quenching thirst: See the “Obama brand” commercials put out by Starbucks (http://wp.randyr.net/videos/grass-roots-starbucks-commercial.html) and by Pepsi (http://www.youaintnopicasso.com/2009/01/21/video-pepsis-awesome-generation-commercial/) Ikea has one too
by George Gonzalez
( ggonzalez [at] hds.harvard.edu ) Tuesday Feb 17th, 2009 3:06 PM
It occurs to me that the second posting in the thread attributed to Prof. Butler might not actually be hers. I am familiar with her published work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though, and would let my comments stand. Whether it is resisting the idea, when the time comes, that just because people say the economy is *GREEN* this does not necessarily guarantee that it is “good”, once and for all, for the environment or a panacea that runs contrary to the ecological evidence, issues of LGBT rights, Israel-Palestine, the economy (and other issues and political work), Obama the ritual expert and Obama the pragmatic politician must be distinguished and held in tension. The work he does, as we all do, operates on at least these related registers of symbolic and structural effect.