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Apr 20, 2016

(AUDIO) The Populist Fantasy: Social Media and the Fifth Discourse

I've updated this post with the audio of my LACK presentation. Download here: The Populist's Fantasy: Social Media and the Fifth Discourse

This is the script for a talk I'll deliver this weekend in Colorado Springs.  For the first time, I'll be introducing the algorithm on which I base my dissertation.  You will have to forgive the writing style—it's tailored to my speaking style, not my writing style.  And there’s a lot of jokes hidden throughout that won’t make any sense if you aren’t immersed in the psychoanalytic literature, but that’s probably the most pretentious sentence I’ve ever typed!

The Populist’s Fantasy: Social Media and the Fifth Discourse

Introduction

In his 1972 Milan lecture where he described a fifth discourse—not University, nor Master, nor Hysteric, nor Analyst, but instead a uniquely Capitalist discourse—Lacan’s humor shined through in one of his eminently quotable quips that makes me wish the advent of Twitter had come a bit sooner.  The question posed to him was about political revolution—there’s finally a question of political revolution among the youth today, yes? Well when Lacan was asked about the possibility of mobilizing the drive, he had this to say about the political sphere (I quote): “You would like for it to go differently. Obviously it could go better. What would be needed, would be for the master’s discourse to be…not so fucking stupid.”

What is needed is to be not so fucking stupid? Well it might’ve helped if we knew a bit more about that Capitalist discourse.  You Lacan scholars already know that while he gave a whole year’s seminar to the four discourses, he devoted only a single paragraph exploring the fifth.  I’m writing my dissertation on these discourses, but I’m also a part of that generation they call the Millennials; I spend hours each day within the “hive mind” of social media.  We think in groups—my colleagues from all over the world bounce questions off each other, we criticize, we build our research in collaboration, but then we also say things that are stupid, inane, worthless.  And that’s just in our academic world, up in the University discourse.  Most of social media—so far as I can see—is nothing but populist narcissism. A most effective political tweeter—a notable semi-fascist and overtly white supremacist candidate that shall not be named—gives us a perfect picture of what it means to be, as Lacan put it, “so fucking stupid.”  And just as Freud told us that “where id was, ego will be,” so the impulses, misinformation, and rage tweeted out 140 characters at a time will soon become, overnight, a part of a national conversation.  So I thought I might make a presentation of it.  I call this “The Populist’s Fantasy: Social Media and the Fifth Discourse,” but if I weren’t concerned with the CV line, I might have called it, “Stupidity has to be nourished”—we’ll come back to that. I’m arguing that as social media continues its affective drift, we might be served best by analysis of objet a in the social media age of narcissism, specifically with a configuration of a Populist discourse. Social media is language and speech, but it works regardless of whether that speech has any knowledge caught up in it.

The Capitalist Discourse

Well I won’t rehash the four names of Seminar XVII—you already know them—but how can we frame a Capitalist discourse, the one that breaks with the clockwise logic of the other four? Just to refresh, the four positions of each discourse are 1) Subject, 2) the Other, who does the work, 3) the Product of that work, and 4) the Truth, the remainder, which has little direct relation to the product but which sustains the Subject.  In the Master’s discourse, the Subject position is S1, the Master Signifier, which speaks to the Other, who puts S2 (or knowledge) to work and yields the Product of objet a, which Lacan calls surplus jouissance and Marx calls surplus value. A Lacan quote: “Freud doesn’t bullshit... What is characteristic of the two of them, Freud and Marx, is that they don’t bullshit.”  The barred-subject ($) exists in the position of Truth below the line of identification, below the Master Signifier. In short, when the Master Signifier of the employer says “Jump!”, the Other (the workers) jump and produce the Product.  What is left over as the Truth of this relationship is that the Master is really nothing more than than a barred-subject.  The factory only works so long as we all agree to never recognize the humanity of the employer and employee alike.  Of course, as Lacan observed (I quote), “Does [the master] have the desire to know? A real master…doesn’t desire to know anything at all—he desires that things work. And why would he want to know?” 

Well that’s the clockwise turn of the Master, so what’s different in Capitalism? Well, if you don’t know the algorithm, Lacan took the Master’s discourse and simply inverted the left-hand positions so that the barred-subject is now the Agent and the Master Signifier is the Truth.  But Capitalism also breaks the clockwise turn: the subject no longer speaks to the Other as a person but instead relates to the Other only indirectly, via Master signifier.  In other words, Capitalism means that there is no intersubjective relation—not even transference?—that is without the mediation of the Master Signifier.  If this is confusing, you know you are on the right track; again, whereas Lacan spent a whole year on the four discourses, he spent barely a paragraph explaining the fifth.

Populist Discourse

So what’s the relation between Capitalism and populism, especially when populist speech is transmitted through the vehicle of social media? As much as Lacan wished to see his orthodoxy transmitted intact, he also had this to say about orthodoxies of all kinds (I quote): “One remains true to propriety because one has nothing to say about the doctrine itself.”  And he actually did free students to rearrange the algorithms—while holding that we won’t be able to make them work any other waybut then in the Milan talk he does indeed postulate a new mode precisely by breaking his clockwise logic. Instead of the Agent proceeding left-to-right, the Agent instead proceeds down. So my dissertation’s question has been how to frame populism within a Capitalist algorithm.  My starting assumption is that we cannot allow knowledge (S2) any place in within a Populist discourse, because populism—particularly the rightwing variety—is the domain where knowledge is proscribed and speech is “fucking stupid.”  So I resolved to come up with my own algorithm—on which I would welcome your critiques—where we frame populism as a self-contained discourse within the Capitalist Production.  My Populist sub-algorithm also intentionally proscribes the S2 (knowledge), and it flows via the same directional vectors guiding Capitalism.  Perhaps it makes sense if you’re fluent in Lacanese, but just as Lacan spent too little time on the capitalism, I won’t spend any more time on my algorithm.  

I’ll simply say that the Populist cannot relate to the Other except through the big Other, which is assumed whole and never barred, and that relationship produces the barred-subject that in turn re-generates the lost objet a; it should not be lost on you that I place objet a in the same position we find it in the Analyst’s discourse. In other words, the Populist wants liberation from the status quo; she simply doesn’t yet know how to articulate her desire. What happens when human begins desire, but don’t know how to articulate their desire? Well one solution is to let our epistemically-closed social networks mediate our knowledge—even if that knowledge might be counterfactual, paranoid, and narcissistic, as it often is for the rightwing social media landscape.

Now, in Enjoying What We Don’t Have, Todd McGowan makes a very important theme out of the observation that we are not Subjects who desire to know. It would be far more accurate to truncate that sentence.  We are not Subjects who desire to know but instead Subjects who desire.  We don’t know what to desire, or who to trust, and we definitely don’t understand the desires of other subjects with other big Others.  That’s a lot of “others,” so perhaps an example helps.  I hope I don’t butcher his argument, but McGowan takes on our hysterical scattershot of explanation emerging after 9/11.  For those who know about Anna O.’s “Chimney-sweeping treatment,” we might say the West’s reactions to 9/11 were sweeping out that chimney in the most hysterical way possible.  We imagined the Islamist martyr must be hoping for 72 virgins, or we might say—without any hint of irony—that the terrorist “hates freedom.”  What couldn’t be acknowledged, says McGowan, is that the extremist might genuinely enjoy their faith.  That couldn’t be acknowledged, because no such commitment is found in American Evangelicalism, wherein, at an unconscious level, hypocrisy actually is a primary value. 

This works perfectly for the Era of Narcissism. The type of person who believes in “common sense” and fears the “indoctrination of the university” might turn to whatever source purports to be “fair and balanced” to be reassured daily not only that they are right but that everyone with whom they disagree is a treasonous saboteur.  The narcissist enjoys what she doesn’t have, feels nostalgic for imaginary pasts, and feels paranoid of enemies that don’t exist (which is seen every few months with these anti-sharia ordinances or anti-trans bathroom laws). Again, knowledge is not part of the conversation, and every attempt to combat populism with a counteractive “gotcha!” list of facts will merely strengthen the Populist’s Truth, which is the big Other you have betrayed with your treasonous facts. 

The popular satire site The Onion delivers a stream of perfect examples for how this works. For politics, The Onion essentially takes whatever Fox News is propagating and cranks it up just the slightest notch.  Outrage recently erupted when they debuted an article called “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex,” wherein Planned Parenthood’s new slogan “No Life Is Sacred” naturally lead them to build a facility with 2,000 abortion-dedicated surgical rooms. A secondary website called “Literally Unbelievable” sprung up to document those poor, outraged, pro-life souls who posted the story to social media without recognizing it as satire. Counted among the fooled victims was a Louisiana family-values congressman, who posted the story to his Facebook page with a lament of our culture’s “abortion by the wholesale.” I’ve seen a few outraged Facebook friends post these Onion articles, but when informed it’s only satire, the most common retort is not a retraction but instead, “Well alright, but my point still stands: this is exactly the kind of thing we’d expect in Obama’s America!”  And that’s no joke, for what we see when knowledge has no algorithmic function is a sphere where belief itself is taken as circular evidence. Can knowledge counter a discourse with no place for knowledge? Well as the Analyst’s discourse suggests: a direct test of strength will not overcome a defense—indeed, a direct test of strength will only result in further repression.  We never wake up until we are ready to awake.

Social Media, Stupidity Incarnate

Well as Deleuze and Guattari wrote—I don’t know if we like them or hate them here—but they wrote of encoding. (Perhaps its no coincidence they were writing Anti-Oedipus at the same time Lacan was developing a similar critique in Seminar XVII). But the point is that we are always in the process of encoding our identities, constructing them from the milieu of available materials (which is unfortunate when the available materials are half-formed thoughts in 140 characters). Again, it is entirely disjointed from Freud’s “Where id was, ego will be” or the critical observation of the fort-da game played by his grandson: we are our repression, our symptoms and synthome we had best enjoy.  Likewise, social media is an omnipresent demand that we display a filtered symptom.  I say filtered because when I post an image to Instagram, I have the option of adding color filter pre-programed into the app that make my image more pleasing. Of course, nobody gives a shit about my filters; I merely want to look more interesting for people who won’t notice, which means the filter was really just for me. As the master said, the letter always reaches its destination. And though we are narcissists, God was, of course, the first narcissist. As Lacan put it (I quote), “It is when the Word is incarnated that things really start going badly.  Man is no longer at all happy, he no longer resembles at all a little dog who wags his tail or a nice monkey who masturbates.  He no longer resembles anything.  He is ravaged by the Word.”

I like that phrase, “ravaged by the Word,” because social media is where a letter reaches its destination. Perhaps most importantly, it collapses the distance between the unknown user and the public celebrity, who’s no longer a purely imaginary figure existing far off. If I tag a name, there’s s a chance the owner might take notice. The political candidate who shall not be named gives us the perfect example, because the majority of his tweets are actually retweets of his followers.  This gives him the aura of a constant stream of popularity, but it also gives his followers a sense he’s reading and genuinely cares about their every tweet.  In this moment, social media has changed conversation from two egos to a conversation between the id and superego; the crowd’s rage-filled id is now directly organized and promoted by the superego evidenced by the public figure engaging them.  It is not so different from how the religious person imagines she prays to a God (a conversation between two egos) when she is really seeking her superego’s authorization of her id.

Conclusion

There isn’t much of a Master anymore, except for a faceless machine demanding we yield our surplus value.  And it’s in this perverse “transference” of surplus (from Product to Agent) that we are configured as uniquely capitalist subjects.  Lacan is clear that the University discourse will not be sufficient to counteract the machine.  The only avenues for liberation are (perhaps) the Analyst’s knowledge and (definitely) the Hysteric’s/Masses’ demand.  What I’m arguing in my dissertation is that we, here in a 21st century American context—and perhaps it works elsewhere—need to understand that fields such as religion or social media exist without concern for authorization by knowledge; knowledge is entirely outside this field that I am calling the Populist’s discourse.  Therefore if psychoanalysis wants to avoid becoming what Lacan called a PEST—“truly pestilent, wholly devoted, finally, to the service of capitalist discourse”—it’s going to have to think through algorithms wherein an Analyst’s discourse does utilize desire but doesn’t utilize knowledge, which is impotent. How else will the subject realize the big Other does not exist?

To conclude, what might Lacan say of all this? Well in Seminar XX, he did tell us something about stupidity. Populism looks an awful lot like paranoia (Yes?), but it isn’t really paranoia.  Or at least the individuals involved are not themselves psychotic.  They are instead a normally-adjusted, broadly neurotic cohort that must be employed for the Capitalist machine, which means they must to serve as the objet a.  It simply turns out that social media provides a constant stream of self-reinforced identity-construction, which seems to work by using the ego’s narcissistic cathexis against itself.  Online, we are not barred-subjects but instead we are whatever preferred ideation we so desire.  The Populist is not the Agent but merely the Product of Capitalist discourse.  Once more, the Master does not care how things work but only that they do work—it’s up to us to select our repression, fixation, paranoia, denial, or whatever else—the Master doesn’t much care. We are truly encouraged to choose whatever serves our narcissism best today.  I mentioned that Lacan says something to this effect in Seminar XX, and I’ll close with the brief quote: “Stupidity nevertheless has to be nourished. Is everything we nourish thereby stupid? No. But it has been demonstrated that to nourish oneself is part and parcel of stupidity.”

Tags jacques lacan four discourses capitalist discourse populist discourse political populism social media

Apr 13, 2016

Still Not Dead

“The Christian resolution to see the world as ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.” - Neitzsche, who God rightly killed with syphilis

I wasn’t disappointed. When the latest installment of the God’s Not Dead franchise debuted on April 1st, no day for fools, I knew it was time once again to make a pilgrimage into the populist imagination. Whereas the first film was about Freshman Josh defending God’s existence against Prof. Raddison (who God kills off, just like Nietzsche), this film is about a trial. When the first film rudely exposed itself to the world, my review saw only two ways to read these films: either as absolutely brilliant satire of Christian Culture or the most xenophobic, anti-intellectual pandering smut imaginable. Let’s keep running with satire!

 In an early seen depicted above, to which I shall return when I spoil the ending below, a group of concerned brothers in Christ fear the end of their freedom to flaunt IRS regulations. It happened in Houston, he says. It could happen here, he says. We are at war! Liberals (who have all the rifles) will soon be persecuting Christians at gunpoint. Our fearless Rev. Dave will refuse to submit his sermons to what seems to be an American Censorship of Anti-Gay Sermons Committee.  These are dark times for White Religion.

Thankfully, all the hot characters from the first installment of this sadomasochistic fantasy are back! With the exception of a few on-location Arkansan extras (which a native southerner like me can spot with peculiar ease), the Christians are looking phenomenal.  Rev. Dave is back! I’m happy to report everything about his immaculate existence and sublimated internal contradictions still screams secret life. He looks to have bulked up a bit, which is hopefully helping his Grindr prospects. Classmate Token Asian has seriously stepped up his attire, and oh my God, the defense lawyer (hereafter referred to as LILF) is suave as hell. Victim Teacher (played by Clarissa Explains It All/Sabrina the Teenage Witch) is keeping it classy and chaste, and the director is careful not to introduce any tension between her and LILF, obviously because teachers are sexless, friendless creatures who only exist to serve your children. The hottest scene was when Rev. Dave goes before the American Censorship of Anti-Gay Sermons Committee and refuses to hand over his bigotry-with-a-smile sermons: the clerk and Rev. Dave lock eyes for long moment until the clerk just blurts out that he wants to hammer him.

Reporter from Lamestream Media is back too, and that’s a clever twist that will blow the audiences’ mind. She should have died after blaspheming the Holy Spirit by asking a Duck Dynasty guy how gay=sin when they regularly trick ducks into landing in a pond to mate with them.  God then smites her with cancer, but God Is Good, All the Time™, and He is a jealous and fickle God who gives and takes away cancer like He forgot why He did it in the first place! With her spiritual codependence now at a cosmic high, she leaves her Lamestream Media job and embarks into uncharted territory: a Christian writing a blog about faith.

Obviously to placate PC culture, this film steps up its black-person-per-film rate from two to four.  Returning are Michael My-God’s-Not-Dead-He's-Surely-Alive Tait and Happy African Guy (who the director knows Evangelicals will love, because AFRICA!), but we also meet Concerned Principle (a woman, no less) and Reasonable Judge.  Now for context, GND2 comes packaged with a preview of Dinesh D’Souza’s new film, which is all about how Democrats have tricked black people into being mindless drones.  Concerned Principle is the perfect embodiment of this stereotype of a subservient African American tricked into serving at the behest of liberalism.  So to be clear, we get Christian Culture’s three main stereotypes of blackness: the good one in Africa, the other good one participating in White Religion World, and the leftovers that probably vote Democrat.  Bases covered!

The hotness rule for Christians is sadly broken when Mike Huckabee wiggles onto the screen and asks some fair and balance questions filled with common sense. But let’s get into the mind-bending plot!

In Christian Culture, teachers unions are vicious, self-absorbed enemies of our precious children. Teachers want fair pay, evolution, and, above all else, Common Core math. After the opening panoramic shots of my hometown’s wanting skyline, we pan to a teachers’ lounge where angry Democrats confess their hatred of children and eagerness to retire. Only one teacher actually likes kids, but I won’t spoil it for you. Unchurched Teenager, the daughter of Freethinker Parents, has grown up in Arkansas without ever hearing about Christianity.  She asks Victim Teacher if Jesus is kindof-sortof saying the same thing as MLK and Gandhi, and so it begins…

This is the first moment of the film’s true brilliance.  Victim Teacher explains that Jesus, MLK, and Gandhi all had in common an unflinching commitment to nonviolence.  The director chose the one similarity that Christian Culture ABSOLUTELY NEVER GIVES A DAMN ABOUT.  But since hypocrisy actually is a primary value in Christian Culture, the director knows he can slide that in like a family-values congressman slides into a bathroom tryst.

The ACLU has been waiting for a case like this for years, we are told—a direct contradiction of the scores of cases listed in the credits as being the basis for this story, but of course our daring director knows it won’t matter. During jury selection, the idiot ACLU lawyer accidentally blows his last juror strike on a Marine (soldiers being the paragon of loving, non-violent discipleship of the One True God) and is unable to knock Rev. Dave from the jury pool.  “Many are called, but few are chosen” Rev. Dave had said of jury service, but wrong! You get to sit in on this debacle!

Opening Arguments: Did you know that “separation of church and state” isn’t in the Constitution?  Zing! Checkmate, Atheists! I just about dropped my second beer, but I won’t lie to you; It wasn’t looking good for Victim Teacher until a precise PLOT TWIST. Instead of arguing for the right to proselytize to school students, they decide instead to argue EXACTLY WHAT ANY ADULT WOULD ARGUE, which is why this story would never happen in the first place: Jesus was a historical guy.

They bring in apologist-in-chief Lee Strobel, who delivers this delicious food for thought: the very fact that the court uses an A.D. dating system already shows how Jesus was important! Checkmate again, Atheists. They bring in the author Cold Case Christianity, a true-to-life real adult who claims he was never a Christian until he applied his detective skills to the Gospels and realized what every true cop already knows: Jesus was real!

Another clever PLOT TWIST erupts when God predestines Rev. Dave’s appendix to explode, requiring Edgy Millennial Girl to fill the jury vacancy.  Though she has all the markings of a hedonist with her colored hair and tattoos, it turns out we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, guys, because one of those tattoos was a cross all along.  Didn’t see that coming, did you?

There are only two ways this could end: either A) Victim Teacher can be vindicated, proving God’s Not Dead, or B) she can be convicted, vindicating the Evangelical Persecution Complex. The right path isn't immediately clear, so let’s weigh the pros and cons.  

The downside of going with God’s Not Dead vindication of Victim Teacher is that it also means liberal, democratically-established jurisprudence wins in the end such that the film would clearly and irrefutably demonstrate that no actual persecution was at stake and the entire movie was a completely unnecessary fabrication playing off the baseless, aforementioned Evangelical Persecution Complex, which means the director would end the movie with a clear, abrasive insult to Evangelical Culture’s intellectual acumen which may or may not notice it has been taken advantage of for years and years by charlatans and psychotic paranoia stoked by 24/7 propaganda and the Christian Industrial Complex evidenced foremost by the God’s Not Dead franchise that fights imaginary enemies with no basis in reality and instead accomplishes nothing more than a means for taking advantage of people so that they will ceaseless fight for their own mental enslavement, do irreparable damage to their children, and ultimately ensure the eventual end of Christianity in America.  What to do?

Well why not have your cake and eat it too?  (SPOILER ALERT)  In the end, Victim Teacher is vindicated, but (post-credits PLOT TWIST!) Rev. Dave is handcuffed and put into a police squad car to be carted off before the American Censorship of Anti-Gay Sermons Committee. Will he turn into a gay in prison? Will he sign a lucrative book deal about his experience? Will Huckabee stage a protest? Only GND3 (and hopefully 4, 5, 6…) can tell us how the story ends.

Tags god's not dead 2 review

Apr 8, 2016

New Interview

I have a new interview out with Joel Kuhlin, David Capener, and Ludvig Lindelöf at the Freestyle Christianity podcast. We talk about mythology, Lacan's psychoanalysis, Tillich's symbolism.

Listen here.

Mar 24, 2016

Publishing Anxiety

Last year, Dr. Carl Raschke was the first person to extend an invitation to the Univeristy of Denver to discuss my work. He recently asked if I'd share a few reflections, so this is me discussing the anxiety of publishing:

Nietzsche’s advice to young authors was to never admit error, for our critics will neither give an inch nor forgive our humility in siding against ourselves. The aphorism’s hubris stands in stark contrast to the insecurity all too commonly felt when publishing for the first time.

Read the rest at JCRT.

Mar 23, 2016

Publication Announcement

This new book just landed on my doorstep. My hope is that Justice Calls becomes a great tool for those trying to think beyond patriarchal and heterosexist lines. Many thanks to Phil Snider for inviting me to contribute a small chapter!

Find Justice Calls at Amazon.

Mar 14, 2016

Where Id Was, Ego Will Be

What events in Chicago and Kansas City showed us over the weekend is that it's increasingly dangerous to protest these rallies. We start to wonder how long it will be before someone is killed. We haven’t any excuse for our surprise. As Freud put it, “where the id was, the ego will be”—we desire unconsciously, and then we craft justifications for our brutal actions. He likened the relationship to a rider (ego) struggling to control a much more powerful horse (id).  At the moment, that horse is called rage and racism, paranoia and nostalgia.  It doesn’t care whether you understand the world that is changing, just as it doesn’t care that you might have preferred a “reasonable” candidate,” and it scoffs as your vain attempts to rein it in. 

Deleuze said this ravenous id is a machine that eats and breaths and heats.  It is a desiring machine that can’t and won’t stop; it will drag the ego along with it, and the ego will search out excuses for wherever it is dragged. While many by November will equivocate and find clever ways to trick themselves into thinking there could be a morally coherent reason to support an implicitly fascist and overtly white supremacist candidate, he is only popular because he is their truth, their id. One could only cheer for this out of a lack of information or a poverty of morals, and the ignorance excuse is quickly fading.

When I think back over the political events that have shaped me during my graduate and doctoral studies, there have always been three that stood out: 1) the recession from which I wrongly assumed we would learn, 2) Occupy Wall Street, where the taboo against speaking ill of capitalism was broken, and, most importantly, 3) Black Lives Matter, where we found out just how controversial it could be to suggest we shouldn’t kill unarmed human beings. I’ve protested alongside both of the latter two movements, and I’ve watched friends in social media space openly talk about how protesters should be pepper sprayed, jailed, or worse. The “desire not to know” is an entrenched beast. 

But I’ll finish my doctorate during a fourth event, one which scholars in my fields have discussed and expected for decades but which is now happening before our eyes. In each of these events, I’ve watched people who doubtlessly think themselves moral consistently take the easy, regressive, and brutal path, and those without “eyes to see” have armed themselves with every ounce of self-deception imaginable. As a privileged, straight, and white male, I haven't much to fear beyond the continuous assault on education (dire as that may be, it isn't even close to life-threatening). On the other hand, those without such privilege—especially those who are shamelessly called "thugs" and troublemakers—are living in dangerous times, and many were assaulted over the weekend. People of color, immigrants, and Muslims have legitimate concern for their safety right now, and their fears lie in those who (without any trace of irony) actually consider themselves Christian. This is an interesting time where nostalgia for imaginary pasts reigns, where paranoia over fantasized threats wins over any inconvenient barrage of reality, and where xenophobia expresses itself with open vengeance. When psychosis is the new normal and the “talking cure” won’t work, opposition has to be framed as a moral argument.

—————————————————————

A friend I quite respect, who is viewing this from outside the US, pushed back on framing the Trump phenomenon as a matter of ignorance and/or bigotry.  I wrote this for context, and perhaps it’s helpful to put it here.  * Be aware, this description includes very terrible southern comments on race.*

For those who don't know me, I should probably say that my comfort with framing this as a matter of ignorance and/or bigotry has to do with growing up in exactly the culture that enthusiastically supports Trump. My home state, Arkansas, just went for him in the primary.

I’m either the first or among the first in my family to ever graduate college. I hesitate to discuss college, because while many of my friends dropped out at some point, several of them are also among the most intelligent people I know.  So I’m not talking about intelligence here at all but instead about the perceived role of public education. College education is difficult enough as it is, but for much of our culture, education is often considered unnecessary and even derided as counterproductive. Universities are seen as liberal indoctrination sites. With few exceptions, America as a whole doesn't really teach political theory below the graduate level, so many literally don't know that there is any difference between "liberal" and “left” (I am often called a liberal leftist, as if that is a thing). I was taught (and this is a very common belief) that teachers and their unions want only whatever is worst for students, and they are selfish and can't be trusted. Many truly believe that Obama desires the worst for them, is trying to kill them through healthcare reform, and is helping ISIS invade. Fox is viewed as news, and I would regularly listen to extremists on talk radio during my lunch breaks without realizing the views I heard wouldn't be taken seriously by anyone with training in political theory. When I visit home now, I'm sometimes told I'm "learning too much for my own good," as if that's a thing. Many close friends from earlier days cut ties with me when I started reading philosophy and left fundamentalism. I hold a BA, two MAs, and I’m nearing the end of a doctorate, and it is precisely because of my educational formation—because my views changed as I was exposed to more information—that I am often told I am delusional (and not uncommonly, as the last time this happened was yesterday). And this is in Little Rock, where rates of education and progressive views would be higher than throughout much of the south.

On the bigotry side, I grew up in a world where it is not so uncommon to hear people say that slavery was actually good for African Americans. So many seldom need to say "thugs," because they openly use the "n" word as their preference in offline conversation. The vast majority (polls have shown as much as 3/4ths) don't believe Obama is American, and Trump launched his political career by tapping into the birther conspiracy and the prejudice on which it depends (that's to say, even if the birther conspiracy turned out true, it still doesn't absolve the reasons for its popularity among statistically more prejudiced groups). The entire network of private schools and the widespread phenomenon of homeschooling (at least, in the Evangelical south) is historically almost entirely a response to desegregation and, later, the removal of prayer from schools. In my home town of Little Rock, AR, when they began desegregating schools the city responded by shutting down all schools for a whole year rather than let black and white students interact. To this day, people still talk about desegregation as an example of government overreach in a state's rights issue. It's sometimes the case that white people will talk about the African American friends they do have as "good blacks” (literally, I've heard this throughout my lifetime). We are also taught that the civil war had nothing (not a little, but absolutely nothing) to do with slavery, and this version of the civil war is taught in schools just as creationism and abstinence are taught in schools. It's partly why, after the Charleston shooting, it was controversial to suggest Confederate flag has any connection whatsoever to slavery. It's a different culture, and none of what I've described above is statistically abnormal or a fringe viewpoint.

Pundits and self-proclaimed wonks ask why Evangelicals are flocking to Trump, but, as many are now pointing out, I would argue that what we are seeing is the white id of Evangelicalism. They'd have less trouble describing Trump’s appeal to Evangelicals if they admitted what they already see but can’t openly state: hypocrisy actually is a primary virtue throughout much of our culture. It is what you inwardly say and not what you outwardly do that defines your righteousness. It has always been about whiteness more than confessionalism, just as it has long been more about conservatism than faith. Just as Evangelicals promote purity codes and design theocratic measures built around those codes even though 95% of Americans have sex before marriage (see NCBI), we need to listen when the id speaks louder than the ego. We should ask why it is that 54% of GOP voters and 66% of Trump supporters report believing that Obama is Muslim (see PPP). You can explain a lot of anti-Obama rhetoric through policy differences, but you can’t explain the Kenyan/Muslim conspiracy theory through policy alone.  This is precisely what Trump used to exploit a gap between the GOP’s tacit support but overt hesitancy regarding conspiratorial, race-based delusion (recall that after the Tea Party revolt of 2010, not one 2012 candidate was willing to admit Obama was definitely a citizen). Sometimes I’m told I make too much of the birther conspiracy, and perhaps that is so, but we need to be honest about the fact that Trump’s exploitation of that singular conspiracy theory was his self-selected point of entry into the GOP field.  It was cynical, wrong, and brilliantly effective.

I fully recognize that Trump support must be analyzed through the lens of economic disenfranchisement, but one of the defining features of fascism (as far as I've read) in any post-war critical theorist is that fascism (in order to justify the disenfranchising aspects of the capital-state union) deploys traditionalist and racist animosities. The fascist deploys these techniques in order to convince citizens to support the very antagonisms that created their trouble in the first place. As many critical theorists have said in some form or another, every instance of fascism is the aftermath of a failed revolution. I take that to be the reason that Sanders and Trump appear similar in their populism: one is calling for small yet genuine reorganizations, while the latter is calling for reorganization-without-reorganization and using the fantasy of the rapist immigrant or the invading Muslim. There might be rightwing populists who could be explained without incorporating prejudice discourse (perhaps, though I'm not sure that any examples come to my mind), but Trump support simply can't be explained without taking southerners at their word when it comes to race.

Feb 29, 2016

Excerpt from the next book

I’m nearly through a second draft of a new book, the working title of which is The Cynic & the Fool.  While editing over the last week, I stumbled across this example, which I swear I wrote before He Who Must Not Be Named declared his candidacy. It seems appropriate to share now.

So to examine the role of the cynic, let’s suppose a journalist attends a rally for an ambitious figure mounting a Presidential campaign. Let us further suppose this figure comes from a wealthy family with vast resources, that he attended an elite university and studied abroad, that he has friends all over the world, and that he finds no difficulty in winning people from diverse backgrounds. He now finds himself in a rural community holding a rally for people who value their traditions and take pride in their heritage. We can imagine strong family ties in this community keep high school graduates close to home, and we can imagine family, tradition, and faith play a crucial role in tying the community together. They hope the world never changes from the one in which they were raised, and they lament so much has been done to undermine that world.

In order to identify with those in the crowd, the politician speaks of the ills of the East coast and Washington elite. He decries the massive influx of immigrants that bear little regard for traditional American customs. He speaks of the need to ban those who don’t share our faith. He speaks boldly of our need to maintain American supremacy and military might, and he laments the government regulation that supposedly decimated the job market. All of these ills, he tells the cheering crowd, will be rectified, and the day is coming where America no longer tolerates the out-of-touch elite who look down upon tightly-knit communities There is applause and laughter. Resentments are triggered and hope is stoked. Our candidate needn’t stretch far for examples of what the crowd will hate, for in a very real sense, he merely describes his own upbringing as everything wrong with the nation.  He essentially describes himself while framing himself as a man of the people, the protector of the blue collar. Most importantly, he frames his talk in such a way that the audience never notices he was describing himself. Nostalgia is an effective tool for a society obsessed with imaginary pasts.

After the rallying crowds have left, our journalist finds the politician sitting at the hotel’s bar reading over his poll numbers and schedule for the following day. With no small amount of fear and trepidation, the journalist approaches the candidate to ask: “Is that really how you see the world?  I wonder how a man of your stature, with your education and experience, could say so many negative things about those struggling to survive—do you really believe all that?”

The charlatan sets his papers down and smiles. “Come now, do you understand so little? Don’t insult my intelligence. I am doing what they pay me to do!”

All this rage must be preached to cheering masses, for as the philosopher Michel Foucault used to say, the masses have a curious desire for fascism. It was true when a very clever Hitler took power of a nation where Christianity comprised ninety-five percent of the population, and, no less, he did it by stoking the prized values of patriotism and traditional family values. It was true then, and it isn’t as if we evolved passed that desire for fascism in the few years since. What this story of the journalist and the candidate suggests is not merely the cynicism of hypocrisy. The political charlatan actively believes his cynical ends (election) justify the means (using his constituent’s biases against them). Rather than seeing himself as a hypocrite, he genuinely believes this is the game we are demanding he play. And he is right.

Feb 2, 2016

Program Update

I'm very pleased to say that, as of yesterday, I have passed my qualifying exams and am now a doctoral candidate! These exams were the most challenging aspect of my programs so far, but the work paid off with truly encouraging praise from my committee advisors. 

I'm now on to my dissertation, which is titled Theologies In Five Discourses: Critical Theory, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolism of Anxiety. It aims to produce a novel theory of religious symbolism using Nietzsche, Lacan, and Tillich to examine resonances between American Christianity, late capitalism, and populist politics. I'm also excited to have more direct engagement with the Frankfurt school, liberation theologies, feminist critiques, and queer theory. By the end, I'll be discussing concrete social movements (BLM, Occupy Wall Street, fundamentalism, and the rise of neofascist or theocratic populism). With any luck, I'll have a (very) rough draft by summer. Thanks to everyone who has supported me!

During this phase, I'm continuing to polish up my second book (The Cynic & the Fool), which will present a more popularly accessible version of the theory I do in God Is Unconscious. So the dissertation will be my third, and it will round out these first three books which I collectively think of as my overarching project at the moment. I'm excited to do this!

Tags dissertation Theologies In Five Discourses

Jan 16, 2016

Taking Lacan Public

I was recently reminded that I never posted this talk from last April at the University of Denver. Shortly after the launch of God Is Unconscious, Dr. Carl Raschke invited me to present on my work at a conference called “Taking Lacan Public,” which brought together a number of clinical psychoanalysts and academic theorists from three continents to discuss this peculiar line of theory in which we are all caught up.

My talk summarizes some of the salient themes from my book, and though I was a bit nervous with presenting in front of clinicians for the first time, I think it went well.  The video’s audio quality isn’t the best, so I’m posting a higher-quality MP3 as well.

Denver Book Event, "God Is Unconscious".mp3

 

Dec 9, 2015

The Desire of the Masses for Fascism

They came for the American education, and then nobody saw reasons to speak out. We didn’t know how to identify problems anymore, and an irresponsibly polite relativism reassured us that both sides had a good point.

There is a curious phrase that floats around in my niche of studies: "the desire of the masses for fascism." It rings immediately true and then triggers the question why?. A proto-fascism has been brewing under careful watch for years now, and it is currently bearing its fruit, as always, by those who haven't any clue their ideals are fascist. What percentage of Americans could correctly articulate where fascism sits on the political spectrum or what the common characteristics might be? To even ask such crucial questions make you a pariah.

Nobody "Experiences" Themselves as a Bigot

An exercise I use in my class presents the arguments Civil War-era Christians used to support slavery; oddly enough, the arguments are perfectly clear extensions of specific biases. Nobody experiences themselves as a bigot, and every example of bigotry has its clever self-justification in the bigot's heart. You only ultimately detect bigotry by listening to the minority voices who've been excluded from the picture. It takes very little effort for students to see that each argument is still alive and active today, used by those who imagine they'd have reacted differently.  The detail missed (or never taught in the first place) is that for every horrific instance of oppression of the past, there were always specific reasons for that oppression.  You think this is different because Muslims are dangerous? I know that feels reassuring, because I thought that same way before I learned to read.

If an outright fascist (who is merely expressing the full, rational conclusion of a carefully-cultivated sentiment) is dethroned, it will only be so that a crypto-fascism may take his place. The Citizens United decision made sure of this. This is very much a “big picture” post, because it needs to be said, but that means there are details over which I admittedly skim. You might see Umberto Eco’s 14 points on fascism, and I highly recommend Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, which is a fascinating study of fascism in the real time of the war. I have my own ideas about why fascism has become so suddenly popular, but history will not look kindly on this moment of white rage.

A Close (But Not Quite) Symptom-Disease Relationship

There are only thin shades of grey between neoliberalism and a new fascism; it isn’t clear where one ends and another begins. In old fascism, the state exerted its full control over economic processes. By the late-twentieth century, an emerging crypto-fascism (with the full support of Cold War era “anything but Communism” sentiments) rendered this explicit state control unnecessary. Government and economy were intertwined such that state desire and corporate desire were one and the same. This was true whether corporations and PACs wrote legislation for which a small-town congressman could take credit or whether instead the DC/NY “revolving door” ensured the Federal Reserve board and Wall Street boards were literally the same people. The conscious reasons don't much matter; the effect was the same. What emerged from this arrangement was financially beneficial for a few and disastrous for most; how does a system with disastrous results keep itself voted into power?

It should go without saying that prejudice must be called out for what it is. I’ve been really proud to see so many of my friends in academic and religious fields calling out this behavior even though they have a lot to loose by doing so. What concerns me is that I also see many supremacists denouncing outright supremacy so that we can instead have “supremacy with a smile.” The prejudice of fascism is not merely a symptom-disease relationship; to be sure, the fascist leader uses the tool of prejudice regardless of his personal beliefs, but prejudice is only useful because it is already there, operating in the background with massive social support.

The Desire of the Masses

Thus as a political category, fascism has undergone revisions of definition throughout the twentieth century. We already see supposed experts telling us the candidate is not fascist, and they can reasonably make this argument by pinning the definition of a polymorphous term to a specific historical iteration.  Educators know all this, but elections bring with them the frequent transgressions of Godwin’s Law that decry a term while never defining it. We do this all the time; it isn’t an accident that we have no standard definition for “terrorism.” The term needs to float on a case-by-case basis in order to keep us from asking critical questions. The same is true of fascism. Fascism has a set of fairly specific definitions in political theory, but on Facebook it gets misrepresented as nothing more complex than prejudice and fear. A fascist system doesn’t mind. In fact, it thrives on being misrepresented as xenophobia, which is merely the preferred affect that fascism deploys in order to keep the masses cheering in its favor. And the masses certainly do desire fascism, because control feels safe.

“In the affirmation of the desire of the masses for fascism, what is troubling is that an affirmation covers up for the lack of any precise historical analysis.  In this I see above all the effect of a general complicity in the refusal to decipher what fascism really was a refusal that manifests itself either in generalization—fascism is everywhere, above all in our heads—or in Marxist schematization.  The non-analysis of fascism is one of the important political facts of the past thirty years.  It enables fascism to be used as a floating signifier, whose function is essentially that of denunciation.”  - Michel Foucault [1]

I’ve always loved this quote from Foucault, because it has a chastising effect on me. As an educator, I have a responsibility to think in systems and give people a certain picture. The risk is that sometimes the picture is overly broad, and at other times the picture seems clear to me but nobody else. My friends who’ve devoted themselves to critical theory would have more to say, but this is how I try to make this understandable in my book: 

The right-wing leader has the education and experience to know that much of what he needs to say to win the hearts of a demographic will be purely foolish. Take the extreme example of fascism, an abused word with a rather simple meaning, namely, the perfect union of capital interests and the state. Fascism, like liberalism, exists in a democracy and requires the support of the people. The obstacle it faces is the simple matter that capitalism’s defining profit reallocation does not work out well for the vast majority. Capitalism thrives when its population lacks the understanding of a system that, by definition, cannot ever pay its workers for the value they contribute to their corporations; if we are paid for all the value we contribute, it is by definition not a specifically capitalist enterprise. Economic crises, wealth inequality, and even lack of basic necessities are not accidents of this arrangement but are instead predictable and required sacrifices. Thus the fascist, in order to capture the support of a population whose lifestyle is directly threatened by moneyed interests, must deploy the perverse strategy of fetish disavowal. 

The figure of the Jew became the standard exclusionary device in the West, but modern forms of fascism in Europe and North America deploy the same basic structure by blaming the immigrant, the ethnic or sexual minority, education and science, etc. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, who are interesting to read as intellectuals processing anti-Semitism during the war, describe the phenomenon as a repressed mimesis. “Anti-Semitism is based on a false projection. It is the counterpart of true mimesis, and fundamentally related to the repressed form; in fact, it is probably the morbid expression of repressed mimesis. Mimesis imitates the environment, but false projection makes the environment like itself.” [2] Psychoanalysis views anti-Semitism (and xenophobia in general) as a case of morbid projection where the subject’s own unconscious taboo impulses are transferred upon an external object.[3] The exclusion of the object (whether in sacrificial or murderous form) reveals some truth about the subject. They continue, “But in Fascism this behavior is made political; the object of the illness is deemed true to reality; and the mad system becomes the reasonable norm in the world and deviation from it a neurosis.”[4] The consequences between extremist exclusion in the 1940s and today clearly have vast differences, but the structure of exclusion—for the purposes of projection and distraction—remains the same. Also remaining the same is the fact that the leader on the far right does not need to believe what he says in order for his rhetoric to function. 

When in the upcoming election you feel tired of choosing between lesser evils (perhaps a neoconservative and an all-but-in-name fascist), what you are actually tired of is a natural, predictable, and likely inevitable result of politics in late-capitalism. 

[1] Foucault, Power/Knowledge, 130.

[2] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 178

[3] Ibid.,192.

[4] Ibid.,178

Tags fascism the desire of the masses for fascism

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