Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Birth of Empire

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The "Anonymous" K__l R__e

I sometimes argue that politics is not about facts but (their pangrammatical homologue) acts. Politicians don't discover what is true, they decide what is just. (As for the legal system, Billy Bragg said it best: "This isn't a court of justice, son. This is a court of law.")

A great example of this can be seen in the current "birther" controversy, which I follow as a long-time aficionado and sometime fellow traveller of conspiracy theories. The recent passage of a bill that, in effect, declares Hawaii to be President Obama's birthplace, clearly illustrates the "active" rather than "factive" quality of politics.

Birthers, like all conspiracy theorists, believe in "the facts". Though their brethren won't acknowledge them, conspiracy theorists are the indestructible core of the "reality-based community". If you think facts subtend the policy realm you will, at some point, sooner or later, come to the conclusion that there is a vast conspiracy (usually "in Washington") to "cover them up", i.e., "the facts". It begins with the idea (recently dealt with in the Economist) that "all politicians lie". It ends with the idea that once the lie is exposed, the facts will come to light, and the world will "grow honest". As Hamlet astutely pointed out, then the end is near.

Anyway, Congress just passed a bill that, at least in opinion of Eric Kleefeld at TPM, puts the congressional supporters of the birthers in a tough spot. They were asked to affirm or deny that Obama was born in Hawaii, i.e., to vote for or against a bill that declares (albeit in passing) that Obama is a "natural born citizen" of the U.S. Kleefeld deftly brings Bill Posey's vote in this matter into contact with his previous statement that 'he wouldn't "swear on a stack of Bibles" that Obama is a natural-born American citizen'. That is, Posey has (arguably) been forced into the position of taking a position on a matter of fact that he wanted to leave open. Though he doesn't "know" (to his own satisfaction) where Obama was born, he has had to vote in favour of a bill that "enacts" this as a truth. It's a sort of "Ha, made you say it!" joke.

While this playfulness is going in Washington, of course, reality-based America (what Palin might call "the real America", I guess) only grows more disenchanted, and arguably, disenfranchised. The facts don't matter. Congress simply declares what they are. As politicians and journalists increasingly define what issues are "relevant" and what stories are "dead", the general population loses faith (or, worse, interest) in what is really going on. Ultimately any interest in what the facts are, in what "really happened", will mark you as a "conspiracy theorist", a wingnut, a nutbag, a loon. More respectfully, it will make you a kook, one of Old Ez's impractical cats. I.e., those who judiciously study what imperial justice is, i.e., what the empire does.

8 comments:

Doug said...

conspiracy theorists don't believe in the facts, they don't know how to evaluate facts

there's no link either between 'reality-based America' and the 'real America.' as defined by Sarah Palin. Your attempt to draw a connection there is absurd.

Thomas Basbøll said...

They do believe that facts can trump acts. Specifically, in this case, they believe that if it is a fact that Obama is not a natural-born citizen, then all his acts as president are invalid. We can agree that it's a desperate ploy to annul policies they don't agree with, but is very clearly an insistence on the material facts over formal acts of "certification".

As for the "absurd" connection between real and the reality-based America: I'm not really drawing it. My point was that this is how the identity of "real America" (i.e., Palin's America) is constructed. Mike Stark at FireDogLake has been explicitly making that argument that the birthers should be "marginalized".

I think that margin already exists. My post is a first attempt to understand it, to measure it. Marginalized America is an important part of its demographic; it's part of the kulchur.

vathek said...

The connection between grammar and conspiracy theory is a very interesting subject. To my knowledge, the only extensive treatment of this connection is implicit in the work of Wyndham Lewis, in which it is related to the politically marginalized "Enemy." Do you know of any others?

Your post also reminds me of posthumous writings of Jeremy Bentham which discuss the inevitable role of "fictional entities" (related to your "acts") not only in politics, but also in language, jurisprudence, and scientific method. These writings were the subject of a book by C K Ogden and heavily influenced his design of Basic English, a program that interested both Ezra Pound and James Joyce.

Just thinking out loud while I digest your interesting post ...

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks. Yes, I'm sure Lewis's work could be drawn into this. I've read mainly the Art of Being Ruled and Time & Western Man. What were you thinking of specifically?

I'm quite interested in the role of "kookiness" in modernism (WCW quotes from anti-Fed pamphlet in Paterson; much of Pound's prose on money is directly kooky.)

I hadn't thought about Bentham and Ogden. I'll have a look. There is definitely something worth studying here: how the marginalization of ideas constitutes the language itself. Perhaps language (as we know it) is not based on attempts to say things, but attempts to silence them.

But I'm a long way from any definitive statement here.

vathek said...

The Lewis texts I had in mind were "Doom of Youth," "Paleface" and "Hitler," which treat the conspiracy theory element somewhat more explicitly than do the two more famous works you mention.

Lewis also deals with the issue of "kookiness," singling out by name the monetary theories of Major Douglas which directly influenced Ezra Pound. Lewis states in "Hitler" (written and published in 1931) that "the whole of this hitlerist movement is, on the economic side, little else but a most revolutionary form of credit-crankery." He also discusses Nazism's cranky racial theories specifically in terms of the fact/act dichotomy.

On the issue of how language mediates between center and margin, Jean Pierre Faye's "Langages totalitaires" (1972) is very good and also uses Weimar politics as his primary case study. But I don't think Lewis or Faye or anybody else ever achieved the definitive formulation of how all these ideas are connected, so I'll be watching your own efforts with interest!

Doug said...

sorry for my harshness, I don't think I understood your intent. I appreciate your attempts to understand our culture.

American politics is complicated. Sometimes facts do trump acts, or the other way around. Some acts are facts and some facts are acts. But it is the case that in many ways the federal government has walked away from the interest of the people, and follows its own interest, which includes among other things producing "facts."

In America there are numberless powerless poor people and they are susceptible to bad theories largely because certain groups would rather keep them in the dark, but partly sometimes out of their own ignorance. I prefer to spend time considering what contributes to states of willful ignorance, rather than target Republicans for their bigotries, which has become too easy.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Lewis's remark is interesting. The financial motivation for the fascism of the 1920s and 30s (to break the cartel of international finance by having the state assert its absolute - total - sovereignty) is rarely emphasized in history books. Pound's "credit-crankery" in this regard is clear in statements like this:

"Usury is the cancer of the world, which only the surgeon's knife of Fascism can cut out of the life of nations." ("What Is Money For?", SP, p. 270)

Thanks for the refs, Vathek. I have noted the connection between usury and language elsewhere on this blog. See this post for example.

Thomas Basbøll said...

No problem, Doug. Pretty standard harshness on the margins.