In January, when the United States remembered the tragic death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., an urban history professor at the University of Buffalo named Henry Louis Taylor Jr., bitterly remarked: “All we know is that this guy had a dream. We don’t know what that dream was.”-Slavoj Zizek, "The Audacity of Rhetoric"
Taylor was referring to an erasure of historical memory after King’s 1963 march on Washington, after he was cheered as “the moral leader of our nation.”
In the years before his death, King changed his focus to poverty and militarism because he thought that addressing these issues – not solely racial brotherhood – was crucial to making equality real. And he paid the price for this change, becoming more and more of a pariah.
The danger for Sen. Barack Obama is that he is already doing to himself what later historical censorship did to King: He’s cleansing his program of contentious topics in order to assure his electability.
In a famous dialogue in Monty Python’s religious spoof The Life of Brian, which takes place in Palestine at the time of Christ, the leader of a Jewish revolutionary resistance organization passionately argues that Romans brought only misery to the Jews. When his followers remark that they nonetheless introduced education, built roads, constructed irrigation, etc., the leader triumphantly concludes: “All right, but apart from sanitation, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
Don’t Obama’s latest proclamations follow the same line? “I stand for a radical break with the Bush administration!” Or: “OK, sure, I pledge to support Israel unconditionally, to maintain the boycott of Cuba, to grant lawbreaking telecommunications corporations immunity, but I still stand for a radical break with the Bush administration!”
When Obama talks about the “audacity to hope,” about “a change we can believe in,” he is using a rhetoric of change that lacks specific content: To hope for what? To change what?
One should not blame Obama for his hypocrisy. Given the complex situation of the United States in today’s world, how far can a new president go in imposing actual change without triggering economic meltdown or political backlash?
But such a pessimistic view nonetheless falls short. Our global situation is not only a hard reality, it is also defined by ideological contours. In other words, it’s defined by what is sayable and unsayable, or what is visible and invisible.
More than a decade ago, when Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper asked then-Labor Party leader Ehud Barak what he would have done if he had been born a Palestinian, Barak responded: “I would have joined a terrorist organization.”
This statement had nothing whatsoever to do with endorsing terrorism and everything to do with opening a space for a real dialogue with Palestinians.
The same thing occurred when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev launched the slogans of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform). It didn’t matter whether Gorbachev “really meant” them. The very words unleashed an avalanche that changed the world.
Or, today, even those who oppose torture legitimize it by accepting it as a topic worthy of public debate – an immense regression from the Nuremberg Trials following World War II and the subsequent Geneva Convention.
Words are never “only words.” They matter because they define the outlines of what we can do.
In this regard, Obama has already demonstrated an extraordinary ability to change the limits of what one can publicly say. His greatest achievement to date is that he has, in his refined and non-provocative way, introduced into the public speech topics that were once unsayable: the continuing importance of race in politics, the positive role of atheists in public life, the necessity to talk with “enemies” like Iran.
And that is a great achievement, which changes the coordinates of the entire field. Even the Bush administration, having first criticized Obama for this proposal, is now itself talking directly with Iran.
If U.S. politics is to break its current gridlock, it needs new words that will change the way we think and act.
Even measured by the low standards of conventional wisdom, the old saying, “Don’t just talk, do something!” is one of the most stupid things one can say.
Lately we have been doing quite a bit – intervening in foreign countries and destroying the environment.
Perhaps, it’s time to step back, think and say the right thing.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
Monday, November 25, 2013
- W.B. Yeats, "To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time"
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!
Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways:
Cuchulain battling with the bitter tide;
The Druid, grey, wood-nurtured, quiet eyed,
Who cast round Fergus dreams, and ruin untold;
And thine own sadness, whereof stars, grown old
In dancing silver-sandalled on the sea,
Sing in their high and lonely melody.
Come near, that no more blinded by man's fate,
I find under the boughs of love and hate,
In all poor foolish things that live a day,
Eternal beauty wandering on her way.
Come near, come near, come near—Ah, leave me still
A little space for the rose-breath to fill!
Lest I no more hear common things that crave;
The weak worm hiding down in its small cave,
The field-mouse running by me in the grass,
And heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass;
But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know
Come near; I would, before my time to go,
Sing of old Eire and the ancient ways:
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
Monday, November 18, 2013
Returning thus to desire as a constitutive feature of human existence, we find a ready expression of how the desire for the other’s desire functions in the mirror stage. As I have shown above, the infant enters the imaginary through a process of identification with a specular image, an “other” with which it longs to be identified. The essential component to such identification, however (and the aspect that renders it impossible), is the necessity for the other similarly to desire identification with the infant. This desire for the other’s desire is not a simple matter of mutual desire such as that experienced in erotic love, but a more all-encompassing demand for total recognition; the infant wants not some part (however large) of the other’s desire, but all of it – he or she wants to be the be-all and end-all of the other’s desire. The impossibility of such a total identification is what keeps subjectivity moving from object to object in its quest for an object that will represent and capture the other’s desire and by possession of which the individual can absorb and utterly subjugate the other’s desire. Most simply put, desire is always a desire for the other’s desire; only the other’s desire for a given object transforms it from an object of demand or need into one of desire.Source
The Birth of Aphrodite, from the front panel of the Ludovisi Throne, c. 460 BC: Newly born Aphrodite, rising from the foam of the sea, is greeted by the Horae ("Hours"), goddesses of the Seasons. Despite its name, the Ludovisi Throne is probably part of an altar.
Saturday, November 16, 2013
SOCRATES: Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power—a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten?- Plato, "Phaedrus"
PHAEDRUS: Whom do you mean, and what is his origin?
SOCRATES: I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.
PHAEDRUS: You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which the written word is properly no more than an image?
SOCRATES: Yes, of course that is what I mean. And now may I be allowed to ask you a question: Would a husbandman, who is a man of sense, take the seeds, which he values and which he wishes to bear fruit, and in sober seriousness plant them during the heat of summer, in some garden of Adonis, that he may rejoice when he sees them in eight days appearing in beauty? at least he would do so, if at all, only for the sake of amusement and pastime. But when he is in earnest he sows in fitting soil, and practises husbandry, and is satisfied if in eight months the seeds which he has sown arrive at perfection?
PHAEDRUS: Yes, Socrates, that will be his way when he is in earnest; he will do the other, as you say, only in play.
SOCRATES: And can we suppose that he who knows the just and good and honourable has less understanding, than the husbandman, about his own seeds?
PHAEDRUS: Certainly not.
SOCRATES: Then he will not seriously incline to 'write' his thoughts 'in water' with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others?
PHAEDRUS: No, that is not likely.
SOCRATES: No, that is not likely—in the garden of letters he will sow and plant, but only for the sake of recreation and amusement; he will write them down as memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age, by himself, or by any other old man who is treading the same path. He will rejoice in beholding their tender growth; and while others are refreshing their souls with banqueting and the like, this will be the pastime in which his days are spent.
PHAEDRUS: A pastime, Socrates, as noble as the other is ignoble, the pastime of a man who can be amused by serious talk, and can discourse merrily about justice and the like.