eipcp News
11 2008

A Response to Judith Butler: Working the Optimism

Dan S. Wang

Dan S. Wang




Judith Butler’s commentary Uncritical Exuberance? continues what the left has been doing for so long it is now almost second nature: distance itself from the power structure.  Critical voices on the left are always the first to see the likelihoods of cooptation, neutralization of radical elements, assimilation of grassroots formal innovation into the institutional sphere, misreadings of a political figure as a messianic force, looming conflicts and frustrations with erstwhile allies, and all the various pitfalls of politics at the mass, national, mediated scale.  But when Butler asks, to where is our wholehearted and emotionally-rewarding identification with (first) the Obama campaign and (now, maybe?) this president leading us, I cannot help but think, there is a slightly different set of questions the critical left needs to be asking right now.

Not that Butler’s questions are without merit.  It is fair to ask, are leftist positions in danger of traveling in an emotional bubble, the skin stretching as some mass illusion of Obama-as-redemption takes hold, putting itself at risk of blowing up with the first great disappointment?  But I think this question is rather easily answered:  No.  If the unity/new politics/change/hope bubble was not popped long ago by Obama’s two year-old team of brass-heavy foreign policy advisers, it has been in the mere days since the election.  From within, the appointment of so many former Clinton-associated figures to the transition teams dispels illusions, and from conditions outside, the daily onslaught of announced mass layoffs and other bad economic developments does the same thing.  We all know this is a president going into the job with his hands tied and choices limited, no matter his intentions.  If any of his domestic initiatives—serious health care reform, big time green tech investments, national service programs, etc.—gain early traction, he will have proved himself a political Houdini.  And if the unfolding conditions in Washington do not splash cold water onto the face of a hopeful electorate, then perhaps the news of fresh suicide attacks in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the last week, resulting in scores of dead, served to remind just how awful and messy these next few years will be, everywhere, always. 

It is true, America felt like a new country for about a day, maybe two.  Those denying reality stretched it into the weekend.  But by the time Obama took the televised walk to the Oval Office with George W. Bush at his side six days after the election, any residual exhilarations had been flattened into the self-congratulatory feelings which accompany the achievement of a first:  yes, there goes the First Black President-Elect.  As in, there is a first time for everything.  No more messiah, no more euphoria, no more fantasies of redemption.  Is the mood much improved?  How could it not be with the first concrete signal of the impending departure of the evil, disasterous, and violent Bush regime?  Given the literally torturous tenure of George W. Bush, identifying Obama—and identifying with Obama—as the cleansing agent ready to flush the White House of its eight-year build-up of scum seems perfectly reasonable.  While Butler’s theoretical analysis of this identification remains impressive for its sheer, uncompromising criticality, ie that such personal identifications which are at least partially the result of strategically produced affects perform functions essential to the machinery of fascism, it is undone by the example she herself cites.  Liddy Dole, bursting with love for ‘each and every one of us,’ and a heavily favored incumbent and national Republican figure, lost the US Senate seat held only six years ago by paleo-conservative Jesse Helms to a little known Democratic state senator.  This time around, the voters of North Carolina rejected all that ‘love’—by nearly ten points.

But more to the point, in this crucial moment is the primary job of critical theoreticians to poke holes in our optimism, our satisfaction, our good feelings?  Even if the exuberance has run its short course and rendered the question moot, I still answer, no, not as an end in itself, or as a precondition for further political work.  Butler cites voter contradictions to remind us of our reasons to remain sober.  Disunity on gay marriage and the rights of Palestinians are only the two most pronounced of the disagreements internal to the grand coalition that elected Obama.  There are other divides and gaps, as well.  But is this news?  When Butler says we are faced with new configurations of political belief that make it possible to hold apparently discrepant views at the same time: someone can, for instance, disagree with Obama on certain issues, but still have voted for him, I say, has there been anybody, anywhere, who fully agrees with Obama on all the issues?  For the hard activist left, the ‘new configuration’ may be simply this:  we have finally, for one election cycle, gotten over our insistence on being right at the expense of being effective.  I do not have a problem with being rewarded, for once in my lifetime at least, with the feeling that comes riding an insurgent campaign to a win on a grand scale.

Critical voices on the left do need to be heard right now, but the most pressing task is to conduct self-analyses apropos the conditions now defined by a successful national campaign that featured and relied on the essentials of a grassroots organizing model.  Rather than merely reminding us of Obama’s shortcomings, or, as Butler does, of listing the left’s minimal demands that must be met to prevent a ‘dramatic and consequential disillusionment,’ the urgent responsibility right now for the critical left is to dissect this victory and map workable strategies for pushing a progressive agenda, including in intra-coalition campaigns.  This involves recalling what kind of thick-skinned work brought us that moment of Election Night joy, and, just as importantly, to study how the reactionary forces are likely to respond to this administration.

If we who supported Obama all gulped a bit of the Kool-Aid, for its part the campaign squeezed the tube.  The grassroots are now out, volunteers by the thousands, trained and invested—one might even say habituated—and the more the theoreticians among us attend to the strategic tasks of continued organizing, based on the actualities of activist work plus the lessons of the campaign recently won, the more the grassroots element will evolve and mature.  Ideally, Obama-identified grassroots constituencies and work forces will grow to become not fully directable by Obama, and will have the potential to outlast him.  Progressive dreams have always included building movements with leverage over national politicians, and here we have the chance.  So even though I agree when Butler says many of us "set aside" our concerns in order to enjoy the extreme un-ambivalence of this moment, I think her worries about uncritical exuberance are, while not necessarily overstated, somewhat misplaced.  When those of us who are committed to full gay rights, or Palestinian rights, or another progressive cause that goes against Democratic Party liberal orthodoxy and/or the moderation of Obama himself, begin the difficult and tedious work of lobbying our opponents/one-time coalition allies (and their constituents, on their doorsteps, in their neighborhoods, instead of on our blogs), looking for those individuals (the ‘each and every’ of grassroots organizing) who just may be convinceable but for whatever reason have fallen into the opposing camp, any lingering good feeling over the election victory will seem very distant.  But if we show up and do the work, future victories for progressives in those areas will at least be in the cards.  Whether, why, and how we should show up to do this work are the questions we need to be thinking through.  Butler is right in identifying that space of a ‘critical politics’ as moving between illusion and cynicism.  Widening that space depends on our continued political work, that is, on our continual generation of concrete contestations, the analyses of which will automatically recalibrate the emotions to a more restrained register, but would do so without turning to the crutch of measuring Obama’s imminent actions and non-actions according to the default moralism of the left.  And we do the work to win—precisely so we can feel that feeling again.