Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Imaginary Institution of Realpolitik: Or, When Theory Becomes Practice

Hegel wrote that all events in history occur twice, he forgot to add: the first time as theory, the second as reality. This is of course not the famous passage from Marx, but it did occur to me in thinking about contemporary politics. For decades, at least throughout the eighties and nineties, there was a great deal of attention paid to "the imaginary." This imaginary was approached from multiple angles, with multiple theoretical sources, Lacan, Spinoza, Castoriadis, and qualified alternately as social, political, and historical. However, this work, the work on the politics of the imaginary was left to comparative literature departments and continental philosophers. Real politics, it was claimed, were always elsewhere, where competing interests and perspectives debated.

It seems that it is increasingly hard to maintain this distinction between imagination and reality in contemporary politics. Of course the entire materialist tradition of political thought, the line that runs from Machiavelli through Spinoza to Marx, to borrow a trajectory that Althusser and Negri are fond of (and in some sense invented), has argued that politics is inseparable from the constitution and management of appearance, imagination, or ideology. What perhaps distinguishes the current moment, however, is a particular breakdown of the division between the constitution of imagination and reality.  The imagination encompasses even those who would claim to know better. To borrow George Orwell's terminology, prolefeed is no longer just for the masses.

The reference to dystopian literature is useful. Many dystopian novels, Orwell's included, rest on a division between imagination and reality. There is generally some scene, some passage, in which the persecuted protagonist, the one who sees through the lies, meets the rulers of the dystopian world in their secret lair, a lair stocked with the forbidden literatures and music. In this scene they explain perfectly well that they understand the fictions that they have subjected the world to, but that this fiction is necessary to maintain order and power. It is this division, itself borrowed from a cold war imaginary of Soviet rulers awash in Levis and other Western commodities, that has broken down. Our image of "the man behind the curtain," of the concentrated spectacle, is itself partly a product of the iron curtain and thus no longer applies to contemporary diffused spectacle.

The history of this change would require an involved chart of the transformation of the entire media-sphere, with its fragmentation and increase of spectacle over analysis, but it there are a few signposts that could be used to mark this transformation. Some would point to the instance of Bush's aide's reference to the "reality based community" as a starting point for some transformation of the role of fantasy in politics. Another important signpost would have to be 9/11, which is less, as some argued at the time "America waking up to history," than a rupture of the American imaginary, as the twin ideals of American omnipotence and lovability came tumbling down. The wound to the imaginary was so great that it often seems that it takes all of popculture and politics to heal it.

There are other signposts between then and now, and I have spent sometime on this blog documenting, in my own Spinozist-Marxist way, this break down. When I first thought of writing a blog, I considered names like "mythos and logos" and considered making the blog's central theme the political dimension of the  imaginary and the imaginary dimension of politics.  I decided that the title was too restrictive, but this has been a persistent theme, along me to combine film criticism with political observations. Along the way I have occasionally documented the rise of the imaginary domain, as in the case of "Joe the plumber" in the 2008 election.

I have said less about Obama and the presidency itself. Arguably, the President has always been a figure of collective fantasy, more about ideas and ideals of the nation than policy. It is not surprising that Obama central figure of various imaginaries, democratic and republican, managed and unmanaged.  What is perhaps striking is the sheer excess of these images, their excess over and above reality on both sides. In one he is a figure of "hope and change" who has inherited the mantel of Stonewall and Selma, and in the other he is a Kenyan, Muslim Marxist (what did Freud say about the unconscious not obeying the principle of noncontradiction?) These imaginaries sometimes seem to converge, at least in that they both exclude the actual points of overlap between Democrats and Republicans, wars, drones, renditions, eroding civil liberties, and a government that understands its central task as guaranteeing the profits of the dominant financial interests. More important than Obama, however, is the way in which the imaginary aspects of his presidency have constantly crossed the line between conspiracy theorists to so-called legitimate politicians until it was difficult to tell the difference. Both the Nobel Prize committee and Donald Trump bought the image at face value.

The entire 2012 presidential campaign seems to increasingly point to this breakdown of the divide between imagination and reality. This can be seen in Romney's famous 47% remarks. The media, and democratic party, focused on his scandalous dismissal of 47% of the population in front of a group of wealthy supporters, but what is really striking is that Romney used a terminology popular in right wing blogs (the famous 53% response to Occupy) in front of wealthy insiders. This 47% claim does not stand up to scrutiny as reality, but it mobilizes powerful anxieties and ideologies that have their origins in Reagans "Welfare Queens." It is the same logic on both sides of the curtain. This same breakdown continued up through the election. The vitriolic campaign waged against Nate Silver, the polster and statistician, by the right was an attack on an agreed upon reality, on data. No longer would polls function as a kind of baseline reality to be interpreted differently by pundits and analyst of different political positions, but different political positions would have to have their own polls, their own reality. This breakdown produced perhaps one of the funniest moments of television to air on Fox News, when Megyn Kelly walked behind the curtain confronted the network's own number crunchers demanding that they fit the tailor their equations to the spectacle on air.

Much of the post-election discussion of the imaginary dimension has focused on the right-wing media, portraying it as hopelessly out of touch. Post-election analysis continued the idea of Obama's reelection being made possible by those who "want stuff," to cite Bill O'Reilly. This accusation of underclass greed and materialism is interesting coming from a party that has made holding onto stuff, tax breaks and wealth acquisition for the wealthy, its central and only idea. As Spinoza says, we imagine the other in the image of our own desires, our own striving. (One could also say something here about Badiou's concept of "interest" as a destruction of political subjectivity). Much could be said about this particular imaginary of class fear and hatred, but it is important to stress that supporters of Obama are no less implicated within an imaginary relation to the real conditions of existence. Many swooned to the rhetoric of his inaugural address, overlooking its distance to reality, the fact that drones were bombing Yemen as he spoke. The two hardest conversations to have in contemporary politics are to discuss Obama's birth certificate to a "birther" or NDAA to an Obama supporter.

I realize that I have played a bit fast and loose with the distinctions between different versions of the imaginary, and my periodization is, as is often the case, a bit overstated. Perhaps not even the excuse of blogging can justify such a loose analysis but my objective is to raise two points. First, and I can only really suggest this, is that we are living through a strange reversal of the relationship between realpolitik and radical politics. One of the assumptions underlying this divide was that radical politics was stuck in the world of utopian fantasies while "real" parties and politicians focused on the actual issues. Perhaps this was never true, but nothing could seem further from the truth today; the established parties are dedicated to maintaing the imaginary institution of society while any serious reflection on the ecological, economic, and social catastrophes facing society comes from the so-called fringes. My second point, however, has to do with the state of theory, and that old question of theory and practice. The shift of the imaginary, the post-spectacle age, in which there is no distinction between what is on the screen and what is behind the curtain, entails a shift for both theory and politics. Various discussions of the imaginary are no longer left to the dissection of the superstructure, as Jameson once argued, but have the potential to be directly political. Second, and perhaps more importantly, political practice cannot simply be about contrasting truth to fiction, but must be capable of countering these myths on their own term, mobilizing the powers of fantasy and the affects. 

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