Thursday, January 29, 2009

Can You Hear Me Now?

Over at anotherpanacea, there's a really fascinating and mature consideration of what AnPan calls "Critique in the Age of Hope." The basic concern underlying AnPan's essay, as I read it, is that the general ethos of good-will and hope that has accompanied President Obama into the White House might find its expression in an unwitting subordination, by the American citizenry, of the role of critique. (By "critique," AnPan means the basic Kantian exercise of public reason, of deliberation and debate concerning matters of shared/public interest.) That is, he worries that the dramatic-- and dramatically positive--change from the last administration's practices of suppression, secrecy, lies, and general mismanagement of the public good will lull us into believing that we shouldn't criticize the current administration. Or, rather, he worries that Obama's symbolic representation of (what AnPan calls) "post-factional politics" may convince us that we all really are on the same page, so we can put away our soapboxes and rest assured that we are being heard.

Solidly couched within the long and storied tradition of enlightened (and Enlightenment) "critique," AnPan's essay is a warning: Don't be bamboozled. All is not yet well. He offers his own specific criticisms of government-business-as-usual, including three very astute platforms (1. Restore the Middle Class, 2. Make War on War, and 3. Shrink the Penitentiary) that the Obama administration ought to adopt post haste. On those counts, I have no issue, as I wholeheartedly agree with AnPan's analysis. But the real crux of his post is centered on the following question, in his words:

So what is role of political theory in the age of hope? When progressive politicians gain power, what role does critique still have to play? What is to be done, if Obama’s already doing it?

AnPan's answer is, as might be expected, to insist that we be cognizant of the fact that Obama may not be "already doing it," and consequently to keep pressure on just the sorts of real, and really legitimate, ideological disagreements we have about how to best manage the public good. Interestingly, he references Foucault's (critical) definition of "critique" in the course of making his case, in which Foucault defines critique as that which teaches us "how not to be governed." I am very sympathetic with this appeal: the appeal to resist, as much as possible, the battery of practices and institutions that train us to be docile, passive, non-critical subjects and citizens. The fear, of course, is that criticisms of Obama--especially this early on in his Presidency-- may be taken as abrogations of allegiance to his administration. But that fear is a fear that was instilled in us and cultivated as a civic posture by the last administration, in which critique was synonymous with treason. That sort of comportment towards our civic responsibilities will be, in the words of the 80's band Chicago, a hard habit to break. It may be time for the reintroduction of serious philosophical inquiry, of the Socratic sort, into the public sphere.

As unlikely as this seems, it is a possibility. Remember that for the last eight years we saw an unrelenting assault on science, only to hear in the Inaugural Address that it was now time to "restore science to its proper place." Philosophy needs the same restoration. This is the Age of Hope, after all.


Chet said...

restore the middle class? while you're at it, more starbucks. i mean, can't we dream higher than this?

in general, I dont' share the concern because of my trust in our slight, but nonetheless extant intellectual culture. I just think this is not soemthing we need to worry about happening. if anpan is saying that we need to worry about the media at this time, well, sure, of course, what's new.

Yet there is a deeper question about the compatibility of hope and critique.

Chet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
petya said...

I agree that we shouldn't let all the warm fuzzies of the Obama campaign get in the way of our ability to see clearly through some serious political bullshit. I, for one, am still in shock how easy it was for the Obama camp to give up low-income women's reproductive health for the sake of bipartisan agreement.

HOWEVER, I am deeply bothered by the cynicism that permeates arguments in favor of "caution" and "criticism"... In particular, I am thinking of the Butler piece that came out shortly after the election, I think. I think that HOPE and OPTIMISM are GREAT!!!

Read this piece by Zizek if you haven't read it yet:

anotherpanacea said...

Thanks Dr. J. I especially agree with your parting words: philosophy is in need of a renewal after having weathered a few decades of badly-trained Straussians and Rortyians. We've been too busy practicing ordinary critical thinking in the public sphere the last fifteen years, calling fallacy fouls for the Crossfire-style media. We could use some Hope as a profession, not to mention some big research projects that aren't parasitic of science or medicine to carry us forward.

Petya: I agree with you about Butler's article, but she's generally a great scholar, whereas I grew tired of Zizek's self-promotion and Lacanian resistance to sense-making a while back so I tend to ignore him. In the LRB article you link, though, he makes a good point: "The true battle begins now, after the victory: the battle for what this victory will effectively mean...." That's it exactly. We've won: now what?

Critique isn't meant here to be synonymous with cynicism. I'm not demanding that the emo left return to its roots in brooding self-exclusion from power where we can be comfortably anti-establishment. I think we need to preserve the energy, inclusiveness, and yes, hope! of the campaign in the moment right after the victory party and inauguration, when politicians, even progressive ones, typically are too busy governing to organize and listen to their constituents. Participatory democracy starts with us!

steventhomas said...

This reminds me a lot of that stuff you and others wrote on the Zeleza Post way back in September or sometime... I can't remember exactly.

I've noticed that when I criticize Obama (for instance, by pointing out that he's hired the same economists to run the global economy as previous administrations... so much for the so-called "change"?), some of my Obama-fanatic friends seem to act like I'm against Obama. They retreat into their own fear of the alternative. But they're coming around lately.

Obama's real message is that the true leaders are us, not him, and I think we can use that message rhetorically to convince the fans that they need to stop worshipping and start the real work of change. I'm convinced that Obama would like to do better with regards to Palestine and better with regards to health care and better in so many ways, but he can't if his own followers remain nothing more than dumb followers instead of vocal leaders.

John said...

Question: doesn't the act of responding with a critique imply that what is critiqued is a given, a known quantity?

To me what is so fascinating about Obama is that while on the one hand he may be part of a present configuration of power (a resurgent Democratic center-left coalition and such), on the other hand he represents the introduction of something not yet written, unscripted into the political "equation"; he is not, or not yet, a known quantity. As man of the law (but is this completely real or does it also involve a persona?) he effectively climbs the steps of the law court to make his case, on behalf of some existing power no doubt, but also more interestingly, he speaks to power, on behalf of the powerless.

Whether one is cynical about Obama or not may largely depend on whether one views the narrative of America as a closed circle, a known quantity, or if instead one is willing to grant that it may contain something as yet unknown, some overflowing of the total picture.