4.03.2016

Elections Shmelections, or Where is the Political?


I find election years frustrating. So many people in my periphery — people I like and respect —  pay attention to the shenanigans as if it all somehow matters, as if reading about and commenting upon who will be the next president of the United States is important. And, strangely, as if who the next president is will change their day to day lives. (There are those who pay attention for interest as, say, I watch baseball or American Idol.)

I come from a different political school. I feel as Burroughs said: elections, and the politics of government, are a matador's red flag attracting the attention of we bulls. We rush towards its enticing wave with such vim only to have it pulled away. There is no there there. And we just end up exhausted, making it easier for the matador to drive his sword through our spines.

What matters who's president? Practically speaking, the president doesn't have a whole lot of power. It's not as if whoever becomes president can, say, fund our schools, house our homeless, cut the military, reduce state sponsored killing — not to mention transform everyday assholes into mensches or my depression into bliss. That's the job of a congress that's owned by corporate interests (and, some of it, a job for me!). So who are we kidding?

Now, I understand that there is a certain symbolic condensation that happens in the figure of the president. Some people feel differently based on who's elected. I remember when Obama was elected and many around me believed their lives, and life in general, would be better.

But the president is symbolic. Ignore the symbol — don't read the paper, ignore the news — and it becomes literally and completely irrelevant. Only when you ascribe to a semiotic economy in which the figure of the president is relevant is there any relevance. It's an affective economy, easily parried by ignoring the pathetic appeals of what is essentially a state sponsored media.

Where is the political, anyway? Is it written in laws and news articles? Or does it exist in the behaviors of yourself and those around you? Does it reside in glances on the subway, in line at the café, on the roads as you drive to work, to the bar, to school? Does it exist in our architecture and roads, in our advertisements and loan structures, in our everyday conversations, in how we talk about relationships, movies, children, politics?

Indeed, there are elaborate structures — historically and culturally and naturally determined — that exceed the everyday that affect people's lives. These are what Foucault calls discursive regimes — the way our exchanges are already shaped, the ways we look at each other, the ways we consider what's possible, the ways we consider who we are and what we can do. 

Why, for instance, do we assume that we're supposed to be in a romantic couple? No one posts and exchanges and lobbies for changing that. (See Michael Cobb's smart book, Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled.) No one so ardently resists the idiotic, life draining conditions of contemporary parenting. I never see arguments for shifting the terms of argument. All I see come election time is the same old frame of the debate — a frame which excludes the things that matter.

Laws and elections and such are constitutive, not so much determinative. They are symptom, not disease. It just seems to me that putting the operation of change in an election is, well, stupid when the seat of power is a) concentrated at the site of you and what you do; and b) is disseminated through multiple and wide points of discursive condensation far, far from the White House.

I also realize that laws can have a profound effect on some people's lives. I'm just not sure a) what the President can do about it as she, or he, doesn't pass legislation; b) what paying attention to the shenanigans does; and c) what lobbying at the level of the law does. Shouldn't we cure the disease not just subdue the symptoms? Laws emerge from a combination of entrenched discourse and greed. Change those and you've changed something.

There is something hilarious, and telling, about a Prius driver with a Save the Earth bumper sticker cutting you off in traffic. Is that bumper sticker doing anything at all? One could argue that it's there to remind people about the earth. But I think it participates in a conversation that has already been determined by insidious, egregious, hegemonic forces, namely, newspapers and pundits and people content in a life that's killing them but which they prefer to living a life that's, well, alive. So rather than saving the earth, the mere presence of that bumper sticker perpetuates an idiotic and predetermined conversation — all while side swiping you.

Sometimes, I imagine if all the energy people put into posting about this Trump or this Sanders character were shifted to, say, being surprising in the course of their day — taking the day off, for instance, to go the Pt. Reyes; putting down their phones for an entire afternoon!; being kind to a stranger just for the goof; watching Godard's In Praise of Love — what the day to day would be like, what eye contact on the street would be like, what life would be like.

Pt. Reyes, north of San Francisco.

The political is all around us. It exists in the behavior of us all, how we interact with each other, how and what and when we consider ourselves. I see Marc Kate's lastest album, Despairer, as the most vehement political act I've witnessed this whole election season. Why? Because it demands a different rhythm, speed, and affect than the everyday speeding gloss of technocratic capitalism. His album literally changes the very terms of the conversation. He doesn't rail against as being against is the same as being for (prepositions are everything!). He insinuates himself into the cracks of the beast and expands, breaking the very structures of thinking, of reaction, slowing down our lives, immersing us in an affect we choose not to experience — the despair that permeates. This album absolutely refuses the terms of the consumerist spectacle (elections included).

Listen to Marc Kate's brilliant album, Despairer.
It's the most radical political act I've witnessed this election season.

Elections are a distraction meant to make us feel like change is possible — through a banner, a slogan, a post, a vote. The thing is, change is not only possible, it's inevitable. It's happening all the time, whether you like it or not. But it's not resonant if you continue the same old conversations and support the same old structures. It comes from behaving differently, speaking differently, doing differently.

Is the president totally irrelevant? Probably not. And I'm happy to have someone persuade me of his or her relevance. But it feels misguided, a dangerous distraction, to believe and act as though real change resides there when real change is ready for you always, right now and right here. 

2 comments:

Alexis said...

From Sabbath's Theater:

For years he had not read a paper or listened to the news if he could avoid it. The news told him nothing. The news was for people to talk about, and Sabbath, indifferent to the untransgressive run of normalized pursuits, did not wish to talk to people. He didn't care who was at war with whom or where a plane had crashed or what had befallen Bangladesh. He did not even want to know who the president was of the United States. He'd rather fuck Drenka, he'd rather fuck anyone, than watch Tom Brokaw. His range of pleasures was narrow and never did extend to the evening news. Sabbath was reduced the way a sauce is reduced, boiled down by his burners, the better to concentrate his essence and be defiantly himself.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Ha! Perfect! I stormed through that book eons ago. I remember that uncanny feeling while reading it, like I was home....