Žižek on Obama and Words (Updated)

Žižek explains in the In These Times:

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.

I think this argument might not work for the American public that, although dealing with politicians who do almost nothing but talk, still believes that “Obama gives a great speech” is actually a negative thing to say – that it is the essential political act, I think, not many would agree with. But what is the essence of the political but a rhetorical 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.

I think I agree – despite the fact that, we are told, the age of great ideas and explanations is over (again, says who?), today’s American reality is such that Obama is able to get almost half of the voters so far, according to polls, to get behind his message and GOP’s continuous critique of his “inexperience” doesn’t seem to work as much. Plus, what irony, while accusing Obama of lacking experience and being a celebrity, we are now witnessing a media circus related to Palin’s lack of experience and what is to become an even larger, now tabloid, circus once she’s officially confirmed and begins appearing in public and making speeches…

UPDATE: Obama confronts McCain/Palin outfit with this

On McCain: “He says I’m going to tell those lobbyists that their days of running Washington are over. Who’s he going to tell?” Obama said. “Is he going to tell his campaign chairman (Charlie Black), who’s one of the biggest corporate lobbyists in Washington? Is he going to tell his campaign manager (Rick Davis), who was one of the biggest corporate lobbyists in Washington. Is he going to tell all the folks running his campaign, who are the biggest corporate lobbyists in Washington? “Who is he going to tell that change is coming?” he said. “I mean, come on, they must think you’re stupid.”

On Palin: She’s a skillful politician,” Obama said of Palin, “but when you’ve been taking all these earmarks when it’s convenient, and then suddenly, you’re the champion anti-earmark person, that’s not change. Come on. Words mean something. You can’t just make stuff up.”

This is an interesting confrontation, I think, because it basically positions Obama as a sort of a modern hermeneutical “straight-talker” – Words mean something – not necessarily as in a naive positivist reductionist manner – Words mean something and we can always tell exactly what that “something” is – but in a very sober – Words are attached to specific contexts and cannot be simply used to produce affects that are not at least to some degree correspond to reality – way. In the opposite corner we have McCain/Palin who keep saying things like “We will challenge the lobbying culture” or “We will bring real change” without, according to Obama, having anything to show for it, i.e. they are attempting to use words as kinds of performatives: Just saying so will make it so, if you say it often enough

It would be easy, however, to juxtapose McCain’s demagoguery and Obama’s telling-it-like-it-is-ness, but the reality of contemporary political (and philosophical) discourse is such that a large country could be persuaded that something indeed is the case with almost no evidence (think Iraq war) – what is this power of repetitive insistence that McCain is using to draw in the votes? Is it possible for Obama to completely ignore this angle? What about those who are stupid out there and will buy into this “say it until it is so” strategy? I mean, Palin’s talk about the bridge is just an outright lie – everyone now knows she supported it – or is it a rhetorical strategy based on a very human (decent) reaction to someone’s outright lie: “She can’t seriously think we don’t know she’s lying, unless, of course, we don’t know something here and she is telling the truth” – is this “in your face” insistence on things we know are untrue a strategy?

5 thoughts on “Žižek on Obama and Words (Updated)

  1. I think Zizek’s simply pointing out the importance of that very “rallying cry” regardless of what it is about – i.e. not that the form matters more than content, but that we’ve been paying less and less attention to the form and a good public speaker all of a sudden stands out as somewhat unusual, while excellence in public speaking and imagination regarding slogans is Politics 101…

  2. The importance of appearances is at work much closer to the ground, as it were. I’ve vented a bit of this over at I Cite, so I will try not to repeat much, but the one appearance that the Left seems determined to keep up is their sacred freedom of choice (i.e. to vote for whomever they want).

    This has a way of creeping into phrases that have a cynical veneer, like “he’s the lesser of two evils” or “he’s the best choice we have. The same more obviously goes to those who simply support and believe in Obama. The sentiment is the same: our vote is a special endorsement of our beliefs, which we must cast with our full conscience. The same is true of those on the Left who not only criticize Obama, but refuse to vote for him. Why, you may ask them? The usual response has something to do with (a) an assertion of their freedom to vote for whomever they want and/or (b) their desire to cast their vote with a clean conscience.

    What all these conscientious voters have in common, also, is their acceptance of a forced-choice inherent to the appearance of choice: your critique or your vote. As I have been putting it in other places, this could also be seen in the equation of your vote = your support, “your support” being something that by definition is “your choice.” This appearance veils a pathological electoral system and the general disconnect between The People and the effects of (lack of) political will. The choice the Left has to make this fall is: the (formal) freedom of choice or (actually) achieve political determination.

  3. I have heard this man speak in the past, and continue to be floored by his utter lack of substance. Snort less coke and learn some basic argumentative structure.

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