Monthly Archives: May 2010


“Well I am moved. I want a kinder, and gentler nation.”

— George HW Bush, Republican National Convention Acceptance Speech, 1988

“Got a thousand points of light

For the homeless man.

We got a kinder, gentler,

Machine gun hand”

— Neil Young, “Rockin’ in the Free World”, 1989

“Ideology is, strictly speaking, only a system which makes a claim to the truth… which is not simply a lie, but a lie experienced as truth, a lie which pretends to be taken seriously.”
– Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 1989

If the first quotation above has been absorbed into political discourse as an ironical commonplace it is in part because the desire expressed in the statement itself was immediately shown to be false.

George Bush I– now derided on the red blooded Right as too patrician, a kind of ersatz conservative who ruthlessly edged out televangelist Pat Robertson in the Republican primaries, clawing his way to the nomination only to prove an Eisenhower-style moderate– invoked kindness even as he perpetuated a cynical-realist foreign policy which most notably led to the first US invasion of Iraq.

After 8 years of Ronald Reagan– a figure whose own postmortem political fortunes have since risen to such a degree that he now occupies a position among conservatives analogous to the one held by Dr. King in the eyes of elementary school children– Bush I seemed to be simply a richer, grayer embodiment of the New Right’s campaign to “take back America”, a project which would mean, soon-to-be-convicted-felon John Mitchell crowed on the eve of Richard Nixon’s re-election, that “this country is going so far to the right you won’t even recognize it.”

The contradiction, then, between Bush I’s call for kindness and the violence of his administration’s policies was easy enough to establish. The violence of capitalism– deforming the lives of the unemployed, the homeless, those deemed redundant by the market– and the violence of what another Republican president called the military-industrial complex precluded the possibility that the nation could be kind or gentle. Neil Young had only to underscore this disconnect with an image, a “machine gun hand”, to perforate Bush I’s election year rhetoric.

Such an operation, demonstrating the gap between expression and reality, is a fundamental practice of ideology criticism– one we encounter daily in casual cynicism and the pervasive irony that characterizes contemporary culture– a procedure encapsulated by the phrase “the emperor has no clothes.” And while we ought to acknowledge the value of calling out the implicit hypocrisy of the powerful– an act which can be as fleeting and automatic as a satirical eye-roll while watching commercials– we should not feel content in having drawn attention to the irreconcilability of words and deeds. Ideology, after all, is not simply a content, a misleading appearance which conceals the truth. It is altogether more complex than either a bundle of consciously adopted beliefs or crude “false-consciousness”. The latter version of ideology is in truth a form of evasion, an emergency exit from political problems, as with the standard interpretation so often advanced by observers of American life who– when pressed to explain the apparent persistence of the Tea Party Movement (admittedly a confection of grass-roots rage, media obsession and regular “astroturf” cash infusions)– observe that whether or not it is merely a kind of reflex or a genuine political tendency Tea Partiers themselves actively aid in their own disenfranchisement. They’re too stupid, you see, the false-consciousness thesis implies, to understand that they support policies and political figures who ultimately work against ordinary people’s best interests.

In his first work in English Slavoj Zizek examines ideology as something more than the act of masking reality. To establish the necessity of a theory of ideology which goes beyond, as Marx wrote in Capital, the formulation “they do not know it, but they are doing it” Zizek proposes that at present almost everyone is already aware of “how things are” but persist in behaving as if they do not. Marx’s formula, then, must be revised: “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it as if they did not know.” The key here for Zizek is to question on where exactly ideological illusion lies– in knowing or doing? By way of example he discusses money. People understand that money is purely symbolic– cash, of course, is nothing but strips of paper covered in ink– but they use it and invest it with meaning anyway. In this case the illusion lies not in knowing but in doing: we realize currency has no “reality” but even so we act “as if money, in its material reality, is the immediate embodiment of wealth as such.”

“The illusion,” he continues, “is therefore double: it consists in overlooking the illusion which is structuring our real, effective relationship to reality. And this overlooked, unconscious illusion is what may be called ideological fantasy…. The fundamental level of ideology… is not that of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social realty itself…. Cynical distance is just one way… to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironic distance, we are still doing them.”

Cooking the last traces/words

I haven’t been to a proper grocery store in weeks. Instead I’ve been hitting the corner bodega and the produce store to pick up a bag of cherries, a loaf of bread, spinach, milk, etc… Until tonight, when I decided to cook whatever was on hand. This evening’s menu consists of tomatoes, half an onion coarsely chopped and mashed into ground beef, roasted turnips, a still-edible avocado. Yesterday’s experimental split pea soup has already congealed and dried like spackle, crusting the rim of the Big Pot. I’d clean it but I can’t get myself into motion.

Paul Auster tells a pretty good story in Hand to Mouth about living just outside a small French village for a summer, penniless. Towards the end of his stay he finds in the back of a cupboard a single onion and a pre-formed pie crust. He and his companion do the obvious, preparing an onion pie, slipping it into the oven and then taking a stroll as it bakes, anticipating in the semi-delirium of real hunger how good it will taste. Except that somehow they are detained and they return home to find the pie burnt beyond salvage. Things aren’t quite so desperate here. But as an exercise I’ve decided to cook the last traces clean and begin again. Not sure I can do it, to be candid. What happens when I’m down to pickles, dried beans and jam?

Grading continues. Words and more words. Ideas, some of them quite good. Others still in the fetal stage. Inevitably, during this process, I think about my own work as an undergraduate. The time Bruce Perry asked me if I had written a paper while drunk. Of course not, I lied. Well the prose is quite purplish, he apologized.

As a break from the words of others I read other words. There is a gap here, I tell myself, between this end and a beginning. I am permitted 2 novels “for me”– unrelated to dissertation or teaching. And I appear, in the first instance, to have chosen wisely: Aldous Huxley’s deeply funny After Many a Summer Dies the Swan–“his Hollywood novel,” the blurb on the back says– to be followed by one of three possibilities including Melville’s Redburn, Zhang Wei’s The Ancient Ship and Le Clezio’s The Prospector. 140 pages in, the Huxley book is a mix of satire and profundity. Mr. Pordage,a fussy scholar hired by a bilious millionaire to organize a collection of medieval texts, plunges into the semiotic swamp of Southern California. Driven by chauffered limousine to the millionaire’s castle he watches the passing signs:




It’s a bit like Day of the Locust, but the story is focalized through the hyperliterate, humanistic, tentative consciousness of Pordage and, so far, it’s not quite as brutal.

Time to turn on the oven.

Autobiography Recs

The standard reading list for “American Autobiography” is probably a reformed canon of “great works” and texts picked up in the wake of Ethnic Studies (a discipline which has been under attack for some time now and is even, extraordinarily, deemed “racist” by White Christian nationalists of the sort who have enacted curriculum revisions in Texas and Arizona). So, for example:

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Recs for Contemporary Culture

We’ve come to the semester’s end. Grades will very likely be up by the middle of next week. You’ve managed to plough through some Big Ideas and good books, yet no doubt as the summer unrolls your intellectual hunger, momentarily sated, will sharpen again. Here’s a short list of books and films which I’ve found helpful in coming to terms with that most obscure of all moments, the Present:

Middle East/ Central Asia:

US involvement in the Middle East (a geopolitical tag invented by Alfred Mahan in 1902) extends back to the Barbary Wars during the Jefferson administration. The worm only truly began to turn, however, with FDR’s visit to Saudi Arabia during WWII. It seems very likely that US “involvement” (a euphemism notable for its romantic connotations) will continue into the near future. What should a well-informed citizen know?

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Wrapping Ghosh (HUM415)

Tomorrow we wrap our discussion of Ghosh and, time permitting, screen a video in order to critique it for its ideological content.

Recall that the name of this unit is More (or Less) Human Than Human, a riff on the Tyrell Corporation’s motto from Blade Runner. The first novel we read for this unit, Neuromancer, presents us with a scenario in which humans have transcended their natural limits by means of technology: Molly’s amped up nervous system and ocular implants, Case’s Ono-Sendai deck, Peter Riviera’s holographic equipment– these are prostheses which enable their owners to perform otherwise impossible feats. This emphasis on superseding the human, of developing human capacities via technology beyond their boundaries is a central concern of transhumanism, a field of endeavor which, according to Nick Bostrom “has roots in rational humanism.” Bostrom points to the words of mathematician and philosopher Marquis de Condorcet for evidence of this claim:

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