The Politics of Motives

During the Vice Presidential debate last Thursday, there was a point when I scrambled for a pen and paper, and it was to write down the final two lines of this statement from Senator Joseph Biden:

I have been able to work across the aisle on some of the most controversial issues and change my party’s mind, as well as Republicans’, because I learned a lesson from Mike Mansfield.

Mike Mansfield, a former leader of the Senate, said to me one day — he — I made a criticism of Jesse Helms. He said, “What would you do if I told you Jesse Helms and Dot Helms had adopted a child who had braces and was in real need?” I said, “I’d feel like a jerk.”

He said, “Joe, understand one thing. Everyone’s sent here for a reason, because there’s something in them that their folks like. Don’t question their motive.”

I have never since that moment in my first year questioned the motive of another member of the Congress or Senate with whom I’ve disagreed. I’ve questioned their judgment (see the entire transcript here).

It was a strong statement, and it was delivered with force. But I was left thinking about how Biden must understand the difference between judgment and motive or, better yet, how he wanted his audience to believe he understands them.

I promise I’ll try not to talk too much theory, but at any mention of “motives,” my mind immediately travels back to Kenneth Burke, a notoriously difficult-to-comprehend mid-twentieth-century theorist, who would have us believe that the finale of one’s decision or action comes out of a motive regardless of how it may seem. One’s motive, even if unknown to the individual, is what drives a person to act and is what underlies that person’s judgment throughout the process. Motives, in other words, precede and therefore shape judgment.

But this point isn’t what Biden is getting at. In this instance the senator sounds more like Wayne Booth, another scholar, who argued that politics would be more straightforward and productive if politicians would simply agree on their commonalities first and lay out their differences second. If I’ve understood correctly, then, Biden is stating his commonality with all of Congress by saying he does not question a politician’s motives: A politician is elected based on her commonalities with her constituency. A politician is the people. The people are right because they are the people (and please note I’m not advocating circular reasoning here. I’m more so stating a basic assumption of democracy). Therefore, the politician – by virtue of having commonalities with the people who voted for her – automatically has good motives. If you question the motives of a politician, then you question the motives of the people. It’s an idealistic statement that doesn’t complicate itself by taking into account the imperfections of humans and the systems of order we create, but it’s a lovely idea.

Another important distinction Biden’s statement marks is the difference between logic (judgment) and a sometimes-unknowable drive (a person’s motives). Debating at the level of motives can often be fruitless in a Western, outcomes-centered society like our own. (Could you imagine Zen-like Congress?) But during the two presidential campaigns of the current administration, we saw a different move. George W. Bush spoke from his “gut” – not logic, but feeling and faith. His beliefs were undeniable because he felt they were true. And it worked. He’s been President for two terms. Regardless of all the talk about whether the Republicans stole the elections, the fact that so many people believed in his approach speaks volumes.

And so I’m left wondering whether Biden’s divorcing of the faculties of the mind (reason and will) is a move that’s appreciated by the voting public. It’s not a new idea. Certainly not – it’s been around since the Age of Enlightenment. But it’s a shift from the current administration. I understand that social consciousness changes according to its own rules, but if it turns out that the public respects this distinction, I wonder what has driven the shift. The bad marks of the current administration? (And I’m not revealing my own leanings here. The President currently has a job approval rating of anywhere from 28% – 34%.) Or a shift back to the ideals of the separation of Church and State? (Not that believing in one’s gut translates into religion, but both are a matter of faith.) Hmm.

Well, that’s all I’ve got. Questions but no answers. In fact, I have a bunch more questions related to the VP debate:

  • Journalism: During the first presidential debate, American Cable News Network CNN showed at the bottom of its screen (in the form of a line graph) real-time reactions from Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. During the vice presidential debate (and the following second presidential debate), they swapped out the three categories for those of Men and Women. What is CNN News reflecting latest news and breaking news by choosing and televising these distinctions? On the other hand, what is CNN creating in the minds of its viewers by feeding us such content?
  • Presentation: Folksy versus refined. Which works better in the current climate? How is the current administration (and its two preceding election seasons) affecting our responses? What other (dis)identifications can we point out between current and past political candidates?
  • Interactions: From the initial greeting of the candidates to their conversation on the stage, who referred to whom by first name? Who spoke directly to the other candidate and when? How did such moves affect the tone and content of the debate?
  • Taking jabs: The candidates occasionally played with and prodded at the terminologies used by the opposing campaign. When did or didn’t they work? Were there times when the points hit hard but were made at the cost of the candidates’ own standing?

These topics are not by any means exhaustive, but they’ve been on my mind. What’s on your mind?

What would Bakhtin do?

I’m reading Bakhtin’s Discourse in the Novel on a sunny Labor Day afternoon (ah, the odd joys of studying for comps), and just ran into this:

Opposed to the language of priests and monks, kings and seigneurs, knights and wealthy urban types, scholars and jurists–to the languages of all who hold power and who are well set up in life–there is the language of the merry rogue, wherever necessary parodically re-processing any pathos but always in such a way as to rob it of its power to harm, “distance it from the mouth” as it were, by means of a smile or deception, mock its falsity and thus turn what was a lie into gay deception. Falsehood is illuminated by ironic consciousness and in the mouth of the happy rogue parodies itself. (401-2)

As we’ve been preparing for Harlot‘s October launch (woo hoo), there’s this natural impulse to reflect on the project, its ideals and actuality, its goals and challenges. And so reading Bakhtin’s admiring description of the “merry rogue” immediately challenged me to consider how–and how well– Harlot will live up to the rogue part of its persona.

The rogue speaks ironic, parodic truth to, and more importantly about, power. The rogue is a member of the folk culture, a person of the masses, one who stands on the edge of dominant culture, points its finger, and dares to laugh. And in that laughter there is a shifting of power and authority.

So I wonder: How can Harlot perform the role of the rogue, to not just analyze but critique, to playfully (as Kaitlin says) kick the stuffyness out of intellectualism? To participate in what Bakhtin calls “the common people’s creative culture of laughter”?

Or more to the point, how can Harlot encourage YOU to perform that role?

tricky, tricky

Since my last post, I’ve been considering the responsibilities and possibilities and challenges of entering the conversations of public discourse. What are the forums and affordances of public “conversation”? What constitutes (conventional, alternative, productive) participation?

Today I read:
“Trickster discourse does ‘play tricks,’ but they aren’t malicious tricks, not the hurtful pranks of an angry child; instead, the tricks reveal the deep irony that is always present in whatever way we choose to construct reality. Trickster discourse is deflative; it exposes the lies we tell ourselves and, at the same time, exposes the necessity of those lies to our daily material existence. Trickster discourse asks ‘Isn’t the world a crock of shit?,’ but also answers with ‘Well, if we didn’t have this crock of shit, what would we do for a world?’ The trickster asks us to be fully conscious of the simple inconsistencies that inhabit our reality.”
— Malea Powell, “Blood and Scholarship: One Mixed-Blood’s Story” (1999)

…and breathed a sigh of relief and recognition at this reminder of the endless permutations of participation in “public” (however constituted) “conversation” (in the broadest sense).

A story of tricksters: In May, Tim and I went to Seattle for the “Rhetoric Society of America” conference, where we diligently balanced academic presentations with tourism with hipster Seattle-philia. One night as we wandered looking for a “real” bar off the tourist track, we found one with a small patio occupied by several punks (to use a convenient label — sorry), one of whom wore a Mexican wrestling mask and all of whom jumped and roared in wrestling-style voices. As we grabbed a drink and settled in for the show, the guys soon engaged us in their (‘shroom-enhanced) fun; within 10 minutes Tim was wearing the mask while I chatted with one about various definitions of rhetoric. By the end of the evening we were exchanging cheek-kisses and invitations to crash in our respective cities.

“The trickster asks us to be fully conscious of the simple inconsistencies that inhabit our reality.”

That evening, these guys messed with some versions of reality: mine for one, by revealing yet again the radical inconsistencies between most connotations of/associated with punk culture and my actual experiences of their open-minded, friendly invitations to join their trickster play.

But more “publically,” they conversed with everyone around them — those that dodged their sidewalk wrestling only to receive polite apologies, those that expected something entirely different from a zen-themed bar, those intrigued to hear academic conversations commingled with affection violence and tattoo show-and-tell — and all of those that just wanted to get their heads in that pink-and-gold mask… and, I think, become tricksters in turn. Now that’s influence…

Post on the Rhetorics of Post-(Fill-in-the-Blank)

So I’m in this Deleuzian reading group right now and it’s generating some really fascinating conversation. Lots of the discussion so far has been around the metaphor of the rhizome (click here for a quick break-down of what a rhizome is and sketches on how it might work as a methodology; also, feel welcome to post on Schizophrenic Summer, our group blog). Anyway, one of the problems that Deleuze and Guattari have with the majority of philosophy and more generally the whole of scholarly inquiry, is that it is overwhelmingly and detrimentally obsessed with linear history. Their goal is to fix points of origin and show how things are related in a straight-forward cause-and-effect line.

I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about the rhetoric of Post-Marxism. Or Post-Structuralism. Postmodern. And I just finished reading an article about social movements and “post-identity.”

All these “Posts” retain the rhetoric of modernism’s sense in progress — in an end destination, a final point of accomplishment, whether that’s Utopia, Communism, or Whatever.

Think about all the other places it continues to pop up: Neo-conservatism. Neo-liberalism. Neo-Neo-Post-Post.

What type of rhetorical detritus remains when “post” or “neo” is attached to an “older” concept? Why is our society sporting so many of these “post” movements? What is the atmosphere that cultivates these, um, neologisms?

We want to move beyond, but the “post” implies we haven’t . . .


Judging Greatness

Either I’m on a roll today, or I’m just wasting time. But I came across another interesting something on my way over to Yahoo! to check the weather (in hopes the temperature has crawled above 30).

How do we judge greatness? This question was taken up by Yahoo! Sports as they tried to ascertain how great the Patriots team is. The conversation starts out straightforwardly enough, but then someone asks how the Patriots compare against any professional team in the history of sports. Sure, the question should require a logical-enough answer — athletes run a certain number of yards, throw a certain number of passes, and score a certain number of points. The comparison gets more difficult, it would seem, when we’re talking about different sports, but the members of the conversation seem friendly enough toward the direction of the talk. The Patriots apparently (I really don’t keep track of this stuff) have a perfect record this season, but are they “great?”

I’m not surprised at their answers, but I’m not fond of the idea. It takes a team having all-star players in addition to a stellar record (wow, all these astronomical analogies) in order for a team to be great. In other words, image seems to play a “great” role. It doesn’t seem to matter whether a team of athletes come together to work like a machine. We need to see someone who climbs above the rest, a representative of the team. A face. A name. Individual stats. But how does an athlete get into the Hall of Fame? How much does it come down to image and how much does it rely on the actual numbers related to their performance? Do they have to win the crowd or just win the game? Hmm. I would say winning the crowd. The crowd hears the stats, but they also have to love the player. And yet loving the player without the logic of stats is not enough. Okay, I hope you get the point. I’ll stop before I drive myself in circles.

I’ll be honest, though. The only reason I clicked on the link to this video is because I saw the title, “Best Sports Team Ever?” along with an image of Michael Jordan. “Oh, no, no,” I thought. “If they’re putting the Chicago Bulls up there, they’d better add the LA Lakers. . . .” They didn’t. I’m hurt. Didn’t the late 80s have some of the best games when Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and so many others hit the court? I’m going to complain now. Clearly folks who are trying to properly represent sports history are suffering from a selective memory 😉

Adam ate from the Tree of Rhetoric . . .

I was thinking today about the quote Vera provided below, while reading a different discussion that used a similar rhetoric of genealogy.  In an article on Nietzsche’s genealogy of the Sophists, similar issues about language, knowledge and their relation to rhetoric are brought up; paraphrasing Nietzsche, Scott Consigny writes,

“Protagoras would hold that every use of language is made within a ‘game,’ wherin the validity of any assertion is determined by arbitrary protocols of each game, as they are interpreted by the participants and observers of that game, and not by reference to an ‘independent’ or universal criterion that governs all games.”

Since the game (and its players) is always changing, we’re continually asking about knowledge: “Is this offspring legitimate?”  And our answer almost always depends, as Condit, I think, rightly points out, on the evolving, hereditary ways of understanding.