by Ken Chen on Feb.14, 2011
The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords played out like postmodern fabulism–a paranoid Pynchonesque gunman (Jared Loughner) shoots several people in front of Safeway, including a girl who was born on 9/11 and a beautiful blonde congresswoman, whose astronaut husband, we were told at the time, was stranded in outer space. The event externalized the fictive hysterical realism we associate with blatantly unreal novels by the likes of Pynchon, Delillo and others. And after the shooting, we found ourselves in a national conversation that had less to do with gun control, mental health, or nativist hysteria, than about the violent effects of language–specifically, a non-identity-based right-wing hate speech, what you might call a hate speech of ideology. This outcome was symmetrical to the origin of the attack since Loughner’s mens rea derived from a deep skepticism with language itself.
Loughner saw himself as a revolutionary and a cultural producer: his “final words” on youtube talk about revolutionary treason against a government and The Week informs us that he was a bad poet who wrote slam poems about taking the bus and showering. While his beliefs combined an incoherent stew of anarchism, schizophrenia, and tea party currency vitriol, one of his main motives was, curiously enough, a desire to stop the government’s use of grammar as a mind control device. Obviously it’s unwise to ascribe a political ideology to someone as mentally damaged as Loughner, but what I found immediately curious about Loughner’s linguistic views is how much they resembled many things that left-wing avant-garde academic poets take for granted. Loughner, for example, believed that language was both fundamentally arbitrary (his enmity with Giffords began, miraculously enough, in August of 2007, when he asked her: “What is government if words have no meaning?”) and also a hegemonic exertion of systematic power (“The government is implying mind control and brain wash on the people by controlling grammar”). These views are either reprehensible or insane when stated by Loughner–and the former instance is not that substantively different from high theory’s anti-foundationalist take on signification and the latter is one of the central arguments of language poetry–that when an author uses language in a conventional way, he subjugates the reader with an invidious control.
Such an interpretation, when pursued too far, can be strained: Loughner is obviously not a language poet; I’m using a lot of terms outside their usual context; and I’m a fan of many of the things with which I’ve sloppily conflated him in the last few sentences (BY WHICH I AM CONTROLLING YOU!!!!!). And what struck me about Loughner is how–while many of us may take post-structuralist anti-foundationalism as an uncontroversial foundation (drum beat!)–we would find ourselves highly uncomfortable with how easily these ideas can be wielded by those whose politics we abhor. We may read Bataille, Foucault, R.D. Laing, Deleuze, and grotesque poetry, we may salute schizophrenia and revolutionary violence, but we want a subversion of aesthetics, unlike Loughner, who is actually shooting someone because they possess different views on language. While there were obviously many other causes for this devastating event: Loughner’s schizophrenia, his drug use, anti-semitism, just for starters, his manifesto contains such language-oriented proclamations as:
Secondly, my hope – is for you to be literate! If you’re literate in English grammar, then you comprehend English grammar. The majority of poeple, who reside in District 8, are illiterate — hilarious. I don’t control your English grammar structure, but you control your English grammar structure. […]
You don’t allow the government to control your grammar structure, listener?
If you create one new language then you’re able to create a second new language.
If you’re able to create a second new language then you’re able to create a third new language.
You create one new language.
Thus, you’re able to create a third new language. […]
You’re literate, listener? […]
What’s government if words don’t have meaning?
And we may believe in the instability of the signifier, but most of us bourgeois leftist intellectuals were most likely arguing that conservative xenophobic rhetoric produced Loughner. We did not allege, as the right did, that words can have multiple, different meanings and that–as semiotician Sarah Palin weakly argued–the target mark she placed over Giffords indicated not the crosshairs, but surveyor marks. This also explains the failure of the mass media scramble to position Loughner’s politics in the days after the shooting. Loughner was not interested in politics, his philosophy professor wrote; he was interested in the structure of language. As one of his friends said, “He did not watch TV, he disliked the news, he didn’t listen to political radio, he didn’t take sides, he wasn’t on the Left, he wasn’t on the Right.” To which we may add, that he did not possess conventional party politics; he possessed post-structuralism.
Loughner is one data point in a larger trend: the post-structural turn of right-wing America. I would suspect that most American lefties think of themselves as the rational deliberative counterpoint to the anarchist, anti-systematic right-wing. We might see ourselves as the proponents of stem cell research and evolution, rather than creative design, the evangelical take on natural history that is essentially cultural and poetic narrative. We say that we believe global warming exists and is bad–a belief that has less to do with carbon taxes and CFC emissions, than with displaying a badge of identity that proudly says, “I believe in science, rationality, and modernity!” While community organizing has been premised on a populist movement composed of citizens, rather than experts, we look down on the tea party rabble and believe in Obama’s administration as the ne plus ultra of technocratic meritocracy–a Professor-Statesman whose office retains two Nobel Laureates. One of the things we hated about the Bush administration was actually that he broke down the system via an atavistic corruption of rule of law. We loved how Obama offered a well-reasoned, rationalist project, one premised on future hope–in other words, Enlightenment Utopianism! My use of the first person plural in this paragraph will show you which side I’m on. Obviously I don’t intend to valorize Loughner, lob ad hominem attacks on post-structuralist hermeneutics (This post wouldn’t be possible without them!) or minimize what happened via the silly jargon of the academic left. I just want to use this is occasion to think about how our private aesthetics play out differently than our public politics.
I meant to write a few weeks ago, when like everyone, I was obsesses and saddened by the shooting. If I had the proper outlet, I’d develop this in more detail, but instead I’m lazy so I’m going to throw out some more links. I really loved this article by the wonderful Michael Berube about how, decades after the Sokal hoax, the right has hijacked many of the academic left’s science studies critiques to the astonishment of a pro-science left. (Here, incidentally, is a poem Charles Bernstein wrote about the Sokal hoax.)
But what of Sokal’s chief post-hoax claim that the academic left’s critiques of science were potentially damaging to the left? That one, alas, has held up very well, for it turns out that the critique of scientific “objectivity” and the insistence on the inevitable “partiality” of knowledge can serve the purposes of climate-change deniers and young-Earth creationists quite nicely. That’s not because there was something fundamentally rotten at the core of philosophical anti-foundationalism (whose leading American exponent, Richard Rorty, remained a progressive Democrat all his life), but it might very well have had something to do with the cloistered nature of the academic left. It was as if we had tacitly assumed, all along, that we were speaking only to one another, so that whenever we championed Jean-François Lyotard’s defense of the “hetereogeneity of language games” and spat on Jürgen Habermas’s ideal of a conversation oriented toward “consensus,” we assumed a strong consensus among us that anyone on the side of heterogeneity was on the side of the angels.
But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists, just as I predicted–and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind. Some standard left arguments, combined with the left-populist distrust of “experts” and “professionals” and assorted high-and-mighty muckety-mucks who think they’re the boss of us, were fashioned by the right into a powerful device for delegitimating scientific research. For example, when Andrew Ross asked in Strange Weather, “How can metaphysical life theories and explanations taken seriously by millions be ignored or excluded by a small group of powerful people called ‘scientists’?,” everyone was supposed to understand that he was referring to alternative medicine, and that his critique of “scientists” was meant to bring power to the people. The countercultural account of “metaphysical life theories” that gives people a sense of dignity in the face of scientific authority sounds good–until one substitutes “astrology” or “homeopathy” or “creationism” (all of which are certainly taken seriously by millions) in its place. […]
Fifteen years ago, it seemed to me that the Sokal Hoax was […] deepening the “two cultures” divide and further estranging humanists from scientists. Now, I think it may have helped set the terms for an eventual rapprochement, leading both humanists and scientists to realize that the shared enemies of their enterprises are the religious fundamentalists who reject all knowledge that challenges their faith and the free-market fundamentalists whose policies will surely scorch the earth. On my side, perhaps humanists are beginning to realize that there is a project even more vital than that of the relentless critique of everything existing, a project to which they can contribute as much as any scientist–the project of making the world a more humane and livable place. Is it still possible? I don’t know, and I’m not sanguine. Some scientific questions now seem to be a matter of tribal identity: A vast majority of elected Republicans have expressed doubts about the science behind anthropogenic climate change, and as someone once remarked, it is very difficult to get a man to understand something when his tribal identity depends on his not understanding it. But there are few tasks so urgent.
What’s new and most distinctive about the Tea Party is its streak of anarchism—its antagonism toward any authority, its belligerent style of self-expression, and its lack of any coherent program or alternative to the policies it condemns. In this sense, you might think of the Tea Party as the Right’s version of the 1960s New Left. It’s an unorganized and unorganizable community of people coming together to assert their individualism and subvert the established order. But where the New Left was young and looked forward to a new Aquarian age, the Tea Party is old and looks backward to a capitalist-constitutionalist paradise that, needless to say, never existed.
And Freddie deBoer has an article in a culturally conservative magazine about how the contemporary right functions like a ’70s revolutionary party, motivated by vague revolutionary passions and convinced that the personal is political. I have some problems with this piece, such as its tendentious tone and its shallow, fairly conservative take on anti-racist movements, but it’s pretty insightful.