Hope and despair

1. The latest version of the series of Netflix radio ads—in which a trivia host asks contestants questions to which the answers have no relation to the clues—opens with the following exchange: “if revenge is a dish best served cold, how is justice served?” The contestant confidently answers: “with a side of fries!” This is a quintessentially American sentiment, recognized even in Iraq when, after the capture of Saddam Hussein, Suleiman Qasab opened a “MaDonalds” in northern Iraq after he failed to get permission from McDonald’s who said at the time that the company did not want to enter Iraq “because there is no democracy”. While it is a common object of satire in popular culture to identify the “spread of democracy” with the proliferation of McDonald’s around the world, it is difficult to imagine that this is in fact quite literally the case, such that what is intended to be parodic is actually the most accurate representation of the truth, especially insofar as we are to take these characterizations as parodic. The semiotics here are astounding. A parody is inherently a second-order structure: the truth of the matter, we say, is that a democratic politics serves the interests of justice, which is subsequently parodied by mapping that sign onto the mythologies and intensions organized by the signifier “McDonald’s”. But when the “truth” of the matter is the actual homonymy of the two levels, the literality of the truth consists not the homonymy but, rather, in the maintenance of the parody as parodic (such that we can still laugh at it). The “truth” of the matter is then nothing other than the fact that the most accurate representation of the truth is the hierarchy of truth and parody that cannot, reflexively, name its own truth lest its own structure collapse. “Democracy” or “justice”, then, fail to rise to the level of the concept but neither is their polysemy focused in something like Marin’s images precisely because it is of a pure neutrality such that it is not possible to produce a space of articulation between the concepts and material perceptions of something like “democracy” (which always fails to appear).

The semiotics of these Netflix ads fails reflexively in yet another sense. The final answer to the series of meaningless questions—which articulates some “truth” about Netflix—is no different than the ones that precede insofar as the relation between the question and the answer consists of an infinite series of significations, particularly insofar as these are causal relations. Whatever terms are featured about Netflix subscription, that these are the case at all is the result of a complex but hidden algorithm of libidinal manipulations (that result, for example, in “personal recommendations”) that implicate the user before s/he has even subscribed merely by virtue of being interpellated by the advertisement at all. And, as we know, it is the inability to have an account of the causal relations to which one is subject that results in the vacillation of hope and despair.

2. If there is despair, it is because the truth can never be made manifest (truth being, of course, more than a judgment). Amidst the pomp and ceremony of the Olympic games, for example, what remains invisible are the material conditions necessary for the glitter and spectacle (which is true not only of the current games, of course): the squalor and poverty only a few blocks from the taxpayer-financed Olympic Village are veneered behind the capital of commercial sponsors and publicity that make the rewards and literally “million-dollar views” possible (in short, the original politicization of the games has been completely usurped by its economization). Truth never appears in our world when, automatically and preemptively translated into the universal language and immaterial flows of capital, the thing itself never appears but always already reticulated into what, after Baudrillard, we might call the “system of objects” according to which the demands of economic necessity colonize the production of meaning in language itself (it is also, incidentally, for precisely this reason that Badiou thinks the study of number is necessary for a critique of capital since “Number is the place of the being qua being, for the manipulable numericality of numbers. Number ek-sists in number[s] as the latency of its being”).

3. Some, however, have persisted in their faith that there is hope because it is always possible to demand “democracy now!”. Both the left and the right agree at least on this: that our task is to honor the founding act of the Fathers either by returning to or finally accomplishing their task. We have the principles, we now have the communicative technology for the dissemination of information necessary for deliberative discourse and “consciousness-raising”; now all we need is a people and a majority.

Both sides, however, can already lay claim to the requisite conditions. When a flight attendant forces a plane to land because a Jewish teenager was praying or a college student is detained and interrogated by the TSA for possession of Arabic flashcards and a book critical of US foreign policy, these actions are condemned by those on the left as “violations of the Constitution” when the real question is whether it is precisely the kind of commitment we currently have to the empty signifier “America” that causes and sanctions such actions.

In a remarkably frank book (Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies), Jodi Dean argues that a truly critical (my word, not hers) politics cannot continue to insist on the name of “democracy”:

“Because the appeal to democracy presuppose democracy is the solution to the problem of democracy, because it incorporates in advance any hope things might be otherwise as already the fundamental democratic promise and provision, it is a dead end for left politics. Entrapped by such an appeal, left and progressive contestation remains suspended between the discourse of the hysteric and the discourse of the university. … Left reliance on democracy thus eschews responsibility not only for current failures … but also for envisioning another politics in the future.”

“America is ready for another revolution!” Palin announced at the Tea Party convention, without realizing that she is calling for nothing but the prolongation of the same revolution glorified in history. And what Palin herself signifies is the futility of an oppositional politics that insists on calling itself either “democratic” or “republican” (in the strict sense of those terms). What could be more representative of the American mythology than the anti-elitist, anti-academic (“we need a commander-in-chief, not a law professor”, she quipped) suburban mom thrust onto the stage? It is precisely for this reason that Stanley Fish praises Palin for the way she presents herself “authentically” with “the voice of small-town America, with its folk wisdom, regional pride, common sense, distrust of rhetoric (itself a rhetorical trope), love of country and instinctive (not doctrinal) piety”. She is, quite literally, the ideal American politician, particularly when “going rogue”, i.e., not being a career or expert politician, means re-claiming the ideology that “anyone can govern” in a democracy.

We know, of course, that Palin’s rhetorical habits are the usual fare of simplifications and ideological drivel that are, however, also characteristic of any other dinner table conversation, which is precisely what she is able to mirror for “the people”—the people who are not law professors, economists, or environmentalists but the ones who simply speak the vernacular: “how’s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” Is not that question—the most brilliant preemptive maneuver to any oppositional politics the right has mustered in years—precisely the one question both sides are asking—and for exactly the same reasons? The left, however, is at a disadvantage insofar as it can only point to what has not happened (the recession wasn’t worse than it might otherwise have been); where it fails, strategically, is spinning such negative evidence in the way the Bush administration managed to present the “prevention” of a second 9/11.

Palin offers despair disguised as hope, while the left simply continues to hope. But as those such as Pieper and Marcel have noted, to hope is ultimately to be beholden to that over which one is powerless (otherwise, one could not say that it is “hoped for”) and, therefore, whether “the aim of describing and elucidating what is to be hoped for [is] supplanted by a program of practical action, of changing and producing things” (Pieper). This could be asked of either the left (the ones who demand revolution) or the right (the ones suspicious of “grand change”). What a truly oppositional or critical politics requires is not hope but discipline.