Date: Fri Jan 23 2009 - 20:01:23 EST
23 Jan 2009
Obama and the American void
Barack Obama walking in front of a big US flag, courtesy of Barack Obama
Democratic Presidential Nominee, US Senator Barack Obama speaks at a rally
in Victory Landing Park in Newport News, VA on 4 October 2008
The US president inaugurated on 20 January remains a political enigma. What
are the true lineaments of his character, his vision, his faith, and his
appeal? Philosopher Simon Critchley writes for openDemocracy.
By Simon Critchley for openDemocracy.net
There is something desperately lonely about Barack Obama's universe. One
gets the overwhelming sense of someone yearning for connection, for
something that binds human beings together, for community and commonality,
for what he repeatedly calls "the common good". This is hardly news. We've
known since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention
that "there's not a black America and a white America and Latino America
and Asian America - there's the United States of America."
Obama's remedy to the widespread disillusion with politics in the United
States is a reaffirmation of the act of union. This is possible only
insofar as it is possible to restore a sense of community to the nation.
That, in turn, requires a belief in the common good. In the face of
grotesque inequality, governmental sleaze, and generalized anomie, we need
"to affirm our bonds with one another". Belief in the common good is the
sole basis for hope. Without belief, there is nothing to be done. Such is
the avowedly improbable basis for Obama's entire push for the presidency.
A subjectivity of vision
The obvious criticism one could make is that Obama's politics is governed
by an anti-political fantasy. It lies behind the appeal to the common good,
that "no one is exempt from the call to find common ground"; or "not so far
beneath the surface, I think, we are becoming more, not less, alike." This,
one might claim, is the familiar delusion of an end to politics, the
postulation of a state where we can put aside our differences, overcome
partisanship, and come together in order to heal the nation.
The same longing for unity governs Obama's discourse on race, with his call
for a black-brown alliance and his appeasing remark that "rightly or
wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself." Obama dreams of a
society without power relations, without the agonizm that constitutes
political life. Against such a position one might assert that justice is
always an agon, a conflict, and to refuse this assertion is to consign
human beings to wallow in some emotional, fusional balm.
One might add that the source of this longing for union is its absence. We
anxiously want to believe, because we don't and we can't. The yearning for
the common good comes from the refusal to accept that perhaps Americans
have very little in common apart from the elements of a sometimes
successful civil religion based around a sentimental, indeed sometimes
teary-eyed, attachment to the constitution and a belief in the quasi-divine
wisdom of the founding fathers.
In the face of George W Bush's ultra-political presidency - his massive
extension of executive power and his prosecution of a politics of fear
based on the identification of an enemy as morally evil - it is not
difficult to understand the popularity of Obama's anti-political vision.
Against the messianic certainties of Bush, Obama promises a return to a
beatific liberalism whereby everything is seen sub specie consensus. This
is a world where good old democratic deliberation replaces decisionism and
where the to and fro of civil conversation replaces religious absolutism.
Democracy is not a house to be built but "a conversation to be had". After
eight disastrous years of gross mismanagement, secrecy, and lies, it sounds
like an absolutely blissful prospect.
True, one might wonder how Obama's evacuation of power relations in the
political realm goes together with his faith in the agon of capitalism,
competition, and the salutary effects of free markets. One might also
wonder how such a political position might genuinely begin to deal with
poverty. But I don't want to go down the route of the classic critique of
liberalism, according to which politics is evacuated in favor of the
bifurcation of ethics, on the one hand, and economics, on the other, and
the former is the veil of hypocrisy used to conceal the violence of the
latter. I do not even want to propose a critique of Obama. Rather, I'd like
to describe a puzzlement that I don't think I am the only one to
experience. What fascinates me is what we might call Obama's subjectivity
and how it forms his political vision and how this might begin to explain
his extraordinary popular appeal.
An opacity of genius
After watching countless speeches and carefully reading his words, I have
absolutely no sense of who Barack Obama is. It's very odd. The more one
listens and reads, the greater the sense of opacity. Take The Audacity of
Hope: there is an easy, informal, and relaxed style to Obama's prose. He
talks about going to the gym, ordering a cheeseburger, planning his
daughter's birthday party, and all the rest. He mixes position statements
and general policy outlines with autobiographical narrative in a compelling
and fluent way. Yet I found myself repeatedly asking: who is this man? I
don't mean anything sinister by this. It is just that I was overcome by a
sense of distance in reading Obama, and the more sincere the prose, the
greater distance I felt. He confesses early on that he is not someone who
easily gets worked up about things. But sometimes I rather wish he would.
Anger is the emotion that produces motion, the mood that moves the subject
to act. Perhaps it is the first political emotion.
At the core of The Audacity of Hope is someone who lives at a distance,
someone distanced from himself and from others and craving a bond, a
commitment to bind him together with other Americans and to bind Americans
together. There is a true horror vacui in Obama, a terror of loneliness and
nothingness. He yearns for an unconditional commitment that will shape his
subjectivity and fill the vacuum. He desires contact with some plenitude,
an experience of fullness that might still his sense of loneliness, fill
his isolation, silence his endless doubt, and assuage his feelings of
abandonment. He seems to find this in Christianity, to which I will turn
But perhaps this opacity is Obama's political genius: that it is precisely
the enigmatic, inert character of Obama that seems to generate the desire
to identify with him, indeed to love him. Perhaps it is that sense of
internal distance that people see in him and in themselves. Obama
recognizes this capacity in an intriguing and profound remark when he
writes: "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different
political stripes project their own views." He is a mirror that reflects
back whatever the viewer wants to see. Somehow our loneliness and doubt
become focused and fused with his. Obama's desire for union with a common
good becomes unified with ours. For that moment, and maybe only for that
moment, we believe, we hope. It is a strangely restrained ecstasy, but an
The occasional lyricism of Obama's prose is possessed of a great beauty.
His doubts about being a father and a husband in the final chapter of The
Audacity of Hope are touching and honest. And when he finishes the book,
like a young Rousseau, by saying that "my heart is filled with love for
this country," I don't detect any cynicism. Yet Obama writes and speaks
with an anthropologist's eye, with the sense that he is not a participant
in the world with which he so wants to commune. Experience is always had
and held at a distance.
The passage in The Audacity of Hope that both focuses this sense of
distance and complicates the problem I want to address is the death of his
mother from cancer at the age of 52, when Obama was 34. He writes, for
once, in a flare of directly felt intensity:
"More than once I saw fear flash across her eyes. More than fear of pain or
fear of the unknown, it was the sheer loneliness of death that frightened
her, I think-the notion that on this final journey, on this last adventure,
she would have no one to fully share her experiences with, no one who could
marvel with her at the body's capacity to inflict pain on itself, or laugh
at the stark absurdity of life once one's hair starts falling out and one's
salivary glands shut down."
His mother was an anthropologist. She died as an anthropologist, with a
feeling of distance from others and an inability to commune with them and
to communicate her pain. Perhaps this is the root of Obama's horror vacui.
But to understand this, we have to turn to his discussion of religion.
A question of belief
Why do we need religion? Obama recognizes that people turn to religion
because they want "a narrative arc to their lives, something that will
relieve a chronic loneliness or lift them above the exhausting, relentless
toil of daily life." The alternative is clear: nihilism. The latter means
"to travel down a long highway toward nothingness." Religion satisfies the
need for a fullness to experience, a transcendence that fills the void.
Obama's path to Christianity plays out against the background of his
anthropologist mother's respectful distance from religion.
Like many of us, Obama initially looks to what he calls "political
philosophy" for help. He wants confirmation of the values he inherited from
his mother (honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard
work) and a way to transform them into systems of action that "could help
build community and make justice real." Unsurprisingly, perhaps, also like
many of us, he doesn't find the answer in political philosophy but only by
confronting a dilemma that his mother never resolved. He writes:
"The Christians with whom I worked recognized themselves in me; they saw
that I knew their Book and shared their values and sang their songs. But
they sensed that part of me remained removed, detached, an observer among
them. I came to realize that without a vessel for my beliefs, without an
unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be
consigned at some level to remain apart, free in the way that my mother was
free, but also alone in the same ways that she was ultimately alone."
Freedom, for Obama, is the negative freedom from commitment that left his
mother feeling detached and alone, a solitude that culminated in her death.
Such is the freedom of the void. Being anthropologically respectful of all
faiths means being committed to none, and being left to drift without an
anchor for one's most deeply held beliefs. To have such an anchor means
being committed to a specific community. The only way Obama can overcome
his sense of detachment and resolve his mother's dilemma is through a
commitment to Christianity.
More specifically, it is only through a commitment to the historically
black church that Obama can find that sense of grounding and fullness. It
culminates in his joining Trinity United Church of Christ under Pastor
Jeremiah Wright on Chicago's south side. Whatever one makes of it, the
absolute centrality of black American Christianity in the arc of Obama's
narrative is what makes his fractious relationship with Pastor Wright so
important and intriguing. Ultimately, everything turns here on the relation
between the prophetic word (Wright's "God damn America") and the activity
of government ("My heart is filled with love for this country").
What is certain about Obama's commitment to Christianity is that it is a
choice, a clear-minded rational choice, and not a conversion experience
based on any personal revelation. He insists that "religious commitment did
not require me to suspend critical thinking … It came about as a choice
and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear."
Although he goes on to add that "I felt God's spirit beckoning me," it is
the coolest, most detached experience of religious commitment, without any
trace of epiphanic transport and rapture. I can't help but feel that
Obama's faith craves an experience of communion that is contradicted by the
detachment and distance he is seeking to overcome. For example, when he is
unsure what to tell his daughter about the question of death, he says: "I
wondered whether I should have told her the truth, that I wasn't sure what
happens when we die, any more than I was sure where the soul resides or
what existed before the Big Bang."
Such skepticism about matters metaphysical is understandable enough and has
a fine philosophical ancestry. But where does it leave us and where does it
leave the question of belief, the cornerstone of Obama's entire
presidential campaign? We come back to where we started, with the common
good. Obama wants to believe in the common good as a way of providing a
fullness to experience that avoids the slide into nihilism. But sometimes I
don't know if he knows what belief is and what it would be to hold such a
belief. It all seems so distant and opaque. The persistent presence of the
mother's dilemma - the sense of loneliness, doubt, and abandonment - seems
palpable and ineliminable. We must believe, but we can't believe. Perhaps
this is the tragedy that some of us see in Obama: a change we can believe
in and the crushing realization that nothing will change.
Simon Critchley is the chair of philosophy at the New School, New York.
Among his books is The Book of Dead Philosophers (Granta/Vintage, 2008).
To view the original, please click here.
This article originally appeared on openDemocracy.net under a Creative
* Obama and the American void
© 2009 ISN, Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich, Switzerland
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