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Obama as historical rupture

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Tuesday, Nov 18, 2008

In this LRB essay, Slavoj Žižek ponders the significance of Obama’s election. While it seems to represent a temporary triumph over political cynicism—“what the cynics don’t see is their own naivety, the naivety of their cynical wisdom which ignores the power of illusions”—does it also imply some sort of decisive break in historical continuity? Has Obama introduced a whole new game rather than merely adjusting the rules of the existing politics? (See Larval Subjects’ thoughts on that here.) As the transition has been assembled, we’ve seen some of the same Washington power players from the Clinton era shuffled back into prominence, which has led to articles (like this one) pronouncing that nothing’s really changed. This allows some pundits to dismiss the outpouring of emotion when Obama won as overdramatic self-congratulation by liberals who will deserve to be disappointed by politics as usual. (Update: See leftist philosopher Simon Critchley’s view here.)


Of course, politics will largely remain the same—various interests will continue to compete for priority and so on. This is a good thing; dreams of post-partisanship are misguided in presuming some underlying consensus among peopple with irreconcilable differences. Žižek makes this point in an aside: when the financial crisis led to bipartisan action, what that meant in effect was “that democratic procedures were de facto suspended.”


But it’s hard to look at something like this, the first of what promises to be a weekly YouTube chat from Obama, on a government website that is almost unprecedented in its user-friendly slickness, and not feel that something is fundamentally different about this administration. That difference—a comfort with new media and the opportunities that stem from it—seems irreversible. (I’m sure this has already been called Politics 2.0 somewhere.) I have to admit that it’s a little sinister and Big Brotherly in feel, and I am still cynical enough to suspect these traits will help make it go over well with the general public.


What Obama’s team seems to want to do is establish Obama as an untarnishable brand, anchored in images of youth and progress (hence YouTube), that can then be used to win approval for policies without having to convince people of their merits. Participating in politics tends to make people uncomfortable, and few people do it at any level beyond voting. It involves compromise and confrontation and a willingness to be reminded again and again that reality falls short of ideals. But people love participating in brands—no compromise necessary there, as the engagement takes place on the fantasy level and consists of pure vicarious pleasure. If we become invested in brand Obama, we will end up absorbing the progressive ideology he may espouse as a kind of by-product. And this can then inform the polls that inform political decisionmaking by legislators. Maybe this is nothing new; this is the “bully pulpit” theory of executive leadership. We just have been without a credible leader for so long in the U.S. that’s it is hard to remember what that is like.

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