Friday, February 23, 2024

Master and Commander: Or, Must Love Dogs II



In undergrad I got really into theory, all of it, reading Baudrillard, Deleuze, Debord, Foucault, etc., most definitely etc, all the time. My theory fascination was a byproduct of reading zines and little semiotextes, the more polemical, the more outlandish its claims, the more I loved it. One little book I particularly loved was First and Last Emperors: The Absolute State and the Body of the Despot by Kenneth Dean and Brian Massumi. It is an odd little book, a reading of the Reagan/Bush years framed as much by the legalist philosopher Shang Yang's The Book of Lord Shang as it is by the expected references to Deleuze and Guattari. (Brian Massumi of course translated A Thousand Plateaus). That odd idiosyncratic nature is precisely what I loved about it. I dreamt of writing something similar, not on Reagan and legalism but something which brought together a variety of disparate references to think through a specific problem. I guess my book which talks about Spinoza and Marx along with Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, might be an attempt to realize that wish. 

It does not talk about dogs though, which brings us to this post. I read with horror and interest the story of Biden's dog Commander and the number of times that he has bitten secret service agents. Part of this has to do with my own history. People who follow me on social media probably have seen my dog Bento. What people who only know him online do not know is that Bento is what some refer to as a reactive dog, or in other terms, he is fear aggressive, mostly towards humans. This pretty much fits Plato's definition of dogs in the Republic, he loves the people he knows, not just love, he adores them, but if he does not know you he is at least suspicious of you, if not openly hostile. He loves meeting new dogs, but is not really interested in meeting new people. He is generally distrustful of people. This is something I imagined he learned on the mean streets of Memphis (where he came from before I adopted him in Maine). In turn I had to learn how to deal with it and manage it. I have gone through three different behaviorists, eventually taking him to work with the behaviorists at Tufts, who I cannot recommend more highly. (Yeah, I spent a lot of money). What they taught me is that this is a condition than can be managed but never entirely changed. We do manage, mostly this just means that anyone coming to the house has to go through a lengthy introduction process; he wears a muzzle to the vet, and we mostly keep our distance from people out in the world. If you ask "Can I pet your dog" (and by all means you should always ask) the answer is always "No, sorry, but thanks for asking." On some immediate level reading about Commander was reading one of my worst nightmares. To be clear, Bento has never bit anyone. Like I said, we manage his reactions. 

Bento at his daycare where he has many dog and human friends 

My nightmare was always what would happen if Bento bit someone. I could only imagine a string of events which ended with Bento going to an "undisclosed location," but in his case the undisclosed location in question would be a euphemism for the final undisclosed location we are all heading towards and not the farm that imagine Commander has retired to. I guess that is what separates me from the President. The sovereign is he who decides the exception, and in this case that includes a dog that can bite people repeatedly without legal ramifications. However, it got me think of the politics of dogs again, something that I wrote about briefly with Trump.  The fabricated image of Trump putting a medal of honor on a dog stands in sharp contrast with Biden's dog taking a chunk out of secret service agents arm. One is a fabricated image of command and authority, and the other is one of a force out of control.

This brings me back to Dean and Massumi's little book. In that book they draw a sharp distinction between Reagan who functions as a kind of figure of transcendence, a despot in Deleuze and Guattari's term, who manages to appropriate all of the various functions of the nation and and the state to embody them. Reagan became America. This stands in sharp contrast to Bush. As Dean and Massumi write:

"Old Glory's magic dust didn't stick to Bush's lapels. Try as he might to pledge himself to it, if fell from his shoulders like dandruff. Whenever he drew attention to himself, it was in a way that highlighted his inability to rise above, or even remain seated--to maintain his presence at all. For example, Bush could never garner for himself the kind of political capital Reagan did with second-hand war stories, even though he had a true one to tell. Bush actually was a fighter pilot in World War II. The story he tells is about being shot down. It ends with him floating aimlessly in a little yellow raft thinking wistfully about his family as he waits for rescue. In his hour of danger, a raft away from death, the thought of family did not unify the Bush substance(lessness) with that of the nation, as if had for Reagan reminiscing about his birth; rather, it led him to reflect on "my faith, the separation of church and state." Church/state...mind/body, spirituality/materiality, self/other. This split, which Reagan tried to hard to overcome, was a given for Bush, his "faith." It was his ultimate element, his destiny, it was to Bush what the sea was to his doomed fighter plane."

Whereas Reagan could appropriate the various machines of the state to the point where everything American seemed to emanate from him, Bush constantly lived the division between his person and his power. This is seen most immediately in the first Gulf War, in which the power of the state's war machine was split between Bush and his generals, most notably Schwarzkopf. It is tempting to read Biden as embodying a similar division, one that Commander exemplifies. It is not the division between the president and his power, but between word and actions. The story linked to above is riddled with statements from the Biden's about their concern. As the piece states, "A White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter said the president and first lady were “heartbroken” over what had happened, had apologized to those who were bitten and had even brought flowers to some of them." 

This division between the deep concern and the sheer number of attacks, brings to mind another, more pressing division: the division between Biden's repeated statement of deep concern for the situation in Gaza coupled with his continued support, actual military and financial support, for Netanyahu and Israel. I do not know how the Secret Service agents felt about getting flowers, but it is increasingly clear that the words of concern and heartbreak many very little to the people in Gaza, and the people in the US who want a ceasefire. 

Dean and Massumi theorized Reagan and Bush as transcendence and immanence, unity and division. Looking at Trump and Biden through dogs gives us another division. One between an ersatz toughness that is somehow convincing, and gestures of concern that are less so. A president who gleefully identifies with the Machiavellian beast of the state and one who does not even now how to appear to be of the people, out of touch with what it means to live with a dog, and, more importantly, with how the very voters he would count on feel about an ongoing genocide. The simulacrum of power or a division between sentiment and action, these are the choices that voters are facing. 

Updated 5/5/24

Commander returned to the news today. Kristi Noem, the Governor of South Dakota, who made it in the news recently for shooting her dog, Cricket, not only defended her decision to shoot her dog, but suggested that the same thing should happen to Commander. Noem's remarks reveal not only the media politics of the current moment, which have as their basic rule, "Never apologize, always double down," but also her vision of political power. The initial anecdote was meant to illustrate her willingness to do the difficult and messy things needed to "get things done." As someone who worked and volunteered in an animal shelter I just want to say there are myriad other ways to get rid of a dog besides getting a gun, there are shelters, breed rescues, etc., there is also dedicating more time to train a dog. I volunteered at a shelter in Maine and failed working dogs, hunting dogs that do not hunt, often make wonderful pets. Those other options are beside the point, what matters, and what is being espoused is violence as the epitome of power, and offending others as the measure of righteousness. That people are offended and outraged is the point. As with Trump and Biden, the dog is once again being used to articulate a particular vision or ideal of political power. In the case it is one in which violence is synonymous is decisiveness, the outrage of others is synonymous with righteousness. Years ago confessing to killing a dog would have been seen as the end of a political career; the revelation that Mitt Romney made the family dog ride on a career outside the car probably played some role in ending his presidential bid. That Noem is doubling down could be seen as evidence of her cluelessness and cruelty, but it also could be seen how deep we are in a micro-politics of fascism. 

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