Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Craft of Hope

Building on my last post, which pitted a "masterful" Obama against a "tragic" McCain, I want to say something about the aesthetics of politics. (In an important sense, the Pangrammaticon is not "political", just as it is not "scientific". It traces science and politics back to their immediate presence in experience.)

Bismarck defined politics as the art of the possible. In that light, one should, perhaps, not be surprised to find one of its major artists today pursuing a tragic vision. If he loses, he can be considered a failed artist of his own possibilities. But even in failure an artist retains his dignity (even his loss of dignity can be construed as tragic!). While "possibility" conjures up a somewhat wonky technicity, "art" gives the pursuit a nobler aura. (Bismarck's pith depends on this collision.) Thus we do not call McCain a "failure" but a tragic destiny. A man of character who struggled with his contradictions and went down in that struggle ... in one sense, so we would not have to. He sacrificied himself for his art.

In Obama's case, the opposite is true. His message is not the measured real-politik of possibility, but, the, yes, "audacious" promise of "hope". But he somehow does not get carried away. Obama has redefined politics in a way that will take us some time to understand. It is no longer the art of the possible but the craft of hope. His sobriety lies not his message but in his method. His message rocks.

Just to nail this down: for contrast, consider McCain's somber message and scrappy method. And what I have just said is, of course, very much in line with McCain's critique of Obama's "eloquence". The point is that the immediate political problem is aesthetic. Its substance, right now, really is secondary. Perhaps it always has been; we just feel it more intensely right now. Our polity must regain a sense of style.


soren buhl said...

Wonder if you read the piece on Obama as a brand in Politiken today? THe message there was somewhat similar to yours, but stripped from what we might at this point dare to call your infatuation with Obama.
To think of Obama as a brillant marketing performance is to say that the conflation of form and content isn't art, just a different kind of strategy. Obama, as you'll aggree, is not the first to pull such a thing off. The remarkable about him, if we believe said piece in POlitiken, is that he is about to win the precidency on little more than abstraction: the promise of a very powerful, yet extremely elusive notion of change.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Give me an example of a modern president who didn't win on an abstraction. The decisive factor is his network, neatly summarized in his "closing" ad: "endorsed by Warren Buffett and Colin Powell". The generals and the billionaires are on board. That's why he is going to win. It's a promise with a reassuring authority behind it.

(I'll grant the infatuation jab. This is all actually quite frightening when you think about it.)

Thomas Basbøll said...

Okay, I've read the Politiken piece now. I don't really buy the "no substance" argument. Obama's substance may pale a bit in the light of his form. (Nice image: paling in the bright light of rhetoric.) But his program is pretty clear: universal health care and better access to education, funded by higher taxes on the wealthy (and especially the corporations). He's a social democrat, a North American Hugo Chavez. (I'm kidding a little.) It's a good question whether he'll put his plans into action. But he does have those plans.

(Consider Buffett: maybe he can get Obama to put a huge tax on inheritance. That would go a long way to breaking down the class system in the U.S. without in any way undermining the American way. It would force people to put their time into their children, not into their jobs.)

That said, I do think that Obama's main contribution is a kind of formal experiment (sort like experimental poetry) ... an exercise in style. But we need that.

And that now said, with my sympathy clearly noted, I have said before that I suspect my "infatuation" with Obama is like Pound's infatuation with Mussolini. So my enthusiasm has an edge, or at least a limit.