Politics

Every Man a Derrida

A nation on the verge of self-deconstructing

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Are the great American habits of directness, foursquare honesty, and a hearty handshake being undermined by fancy-pants French critical theory? You betcha! From the Obama-McCain struggle to find the proper meta-analysis of the word celebrity to the deconstruction of the mainstream media's treatment of John Edwards, from the "framing" and "repackaging" of political constructs to the rise of identity politics for white people, the trend is clear: We are all postmodernists now.

The mainstreaming of pomo thinking has been largely a stealth project, something Americans do without committing overt acts of academia. We thought we were trying to clear away the cobwebs of shoddy analysis and elite hypocrisy, but all along we were bringing the tools of critical thinking to the masses. Go into any bar in the country, and you'll find somebody unpacking the assumptions in someone else's text.

Yet the mainstreaming of critical theory hasn't necessarily been good for its original practitioners. Just as the old media were left cold as their once difficult and rarefied functions were ceded to any slob in his pajamas, so the bards of meta-analysis are struggling to survive in a world of front-porch semioticians. The brilliant Berkeley linguist George Lakoff 's most recent book, The Political Mind, purports to give new critical (but not New Critical!) tools to Democrats. Lakoff invented the popular "framing" concept, in which repellant concepts can be made attractive, and vice versa, depending on how you describe them. (We don't call them "taxes," we call them "investments.")

Yet Lakoff 's star has dimmed since the first half of this decade, when hapless Democrats found him a welcome answer to Frank Luntz, the pollster who does pretty much the same shtick for the Republicans. An excellent August 15 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed how Lakoff 's principles have been falling out of favor—not so much because of any failings by Lakoff but because the Democrats are back to winning elections. "After a heady few years when he seemed the person Democratic policy makers wanted on the other end of the telephone, Lakoff is finding that what they're asking for—and are willing to put money behind—is not always what he can provide," Evan Goldstein wrote. "Lakoff's foray into politics is a story marked by intellectual breakthroughs, the allure of influence, and a fall from great heights."

The problem may not be that Lakoff, or Luntz, faded as thinkers but that their ideas have proved so enormously popular. When the McCain campaign lashed out at Obama as a "celebrity" candidate, Obama launched a textbook pomo counterattack, cherry-picking clips to demonstrate that McCain was the real star-humper. Faced with this kind of interpretive standoff, the mainstream media usually settle for a truth-is-somewhere-in-the-middle compromise, but independent bloggers and commentators took it to the next level, charging that the McCain ad's use of the supreme xanthochroid Paris Hilton against the mixed-race Obama implied miscegenation. So who, if anybody, had the truth in all this? It all depends on how you frame it.

Except when it doesn't. This summer the National Enquirer caught former Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards (to Lakoff, an anti-corporate crusader; to Luntz, an ambulance chaser) meeting with his mistress in a Beverly Hills hotel. The Los Angeles Times demonstrated a pronounced lack of enthusiasm for the story in its own back yard, even putting out a notice to its bloggers to avoid mentioning it. Before long, Mickey Kaus and other prominent media critics had jumped all over the paper. As a participant in the fun (I approved the one blog post the L.A. Times had on the matter prior to the gag order; I and the author of the post were both subsequently fired, though the events were unrelated…as far as I know), I can say that while some of the principal players' roles were misinterpreted, the overall characterization was accurate. The L.A. Times desperately wanted to avoid this damaging story, dressed up its desires in media-diligence drag (we were told not to comment until the paper's reporters were through looking into the matter), and as a result was beaten and humiliated in its own backyard. Tim Rutten, the sanctimonious endomorph who leads the paper's columnist lineup, ended up admitting as much in a column written after Edwards had confessed and everybody else had stopped caring. Bias unpacking: 100 percent successful.

For many people, postmodern analysis and semiotics are dirty words, products of a rising barbarian anticulture bent on replacing Edward R. Murrow with the paparazzi. One of the bracing things about old-school postmodernism was the way it provided the tools of Enlightenment critical thinking to anti-Enlightenment folks: Islamists, post-colonial nationalists, psycho feminists, and so on. Deconstruction and anti-Orientalism were essential means for undermining what was perceived as a white male power structure.

It was only a matter of time before the white males would start getting in on the action. In the recent reaction of Hollywood conservatives against entertainment liberalism, critical and satirical tools are used to undermine consensus and elevate pre-Enlightenment ideals. David Zucker's comedy An American Carol tries to get yucks by standing up for old-fashioned patriotism, while Ben Stein's flat-earth documentary Expelled posits a conspiracy of evolutionists to keep creationism out of the academy. The message is as clear as a Pluggers cartoon: We, the salt of the earth, are being systematically undermined by the American elites whose monopoly on good thinking is just a cover for self-interest.

Interestingly, the most gifted exponent of this way of thinking is a liberal Democrat: Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, whose 2004 history of the Scots-Irish, Born Fighting, movingly and angrily evokes a tradition of trailer-trash Americans who built the country yet have always ended up at the bottom of its society. These are identity politics, deftly transposed for white people.

Is Webb's argument true? As good poststructuralists we should not be so gauche as to ask such a question. But like all the flavors of popular postmodernism, it is invigorating. Nobody (except those with positions of authority to protect) can argue that muddying up elite opinion has been anything other than liberating. That it's used so often by people who believe in absurd or bedrock truths just sweetens the pot, because critical thinking was never about saying there's no truth out there. It's about saying no one of us has all of that truth.

Of course, that's just my opinion.

Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh is a Los Angeles-based writer.

NEXT: I'll Stop This Bus Right Here, Young Man

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  1. Someone’s gonna think that’s a picture of Tim Cavanaugh unless you say otherwise.

  2. American handshakes have nothing on German ones for cardiac quotient.

  3. made me want to barf.

    everybody sounds so stupid when they use this so-called “academic jargon” because, hm, duh – it’s no longer academic jargon. even when tim c. writes an article about… i don’t even know what this article was about – wasn’t it just an opportunity to use big words like post-structural and a photo of good-old Jacques?

    whenever i have a professor use the word “deconstruct” i drop the class. it’s really a sign that the course will not be about facts. we cannot forget that these words and tools are as dated as their creators and i think we’re in a newer age.

  4. Deconstruction isn’t critical thinking. It is merely a simulacrum of critical thinking.

  5. whenever i have a professor use the word “deconstruct” i drop the class.

    God, I should have done that…It would have saved me a lot of wasted time and money.

  6. This is the kind of crap that people, who need to get out and actually do something for someone other than themselves, sit around and ponder over brandy in the middle of the day, while hating everything around them for being so unenlightened and too busy with real lives to take time to ponder such inconsequential bullshit.

  7. That was a whole lot of words used to say pretty much nothing.

  8. Oh I dunno, I thought it was interesting.

  9. …wasn’t it just an opportunity to use …a photo of good-old Jacques?

    That’s Lacan? I thought it was Nader on a bad hair day.

  10. I like big words, and you, my friend, have used a lot of them. I sure wish I were brainy enough to understand this post-modern-whoozits stuff, but I’ll leave to the boys in the colleges with the brandy sifters.

    I disagree about deconstructing not being about facts though. Last week my car was wheezin’ something fierce and my gas mileage went to shit. I popped up the hood and deconstructed things til it sounded better. I sure learned a whole lot, and figured learning to replace my air filter is lot more factual than your intellectual offal.

    and how!

  11. Lacan jus’ beleef you noh reconahz mah peectoor.

  12. …even.

    joe’s law, he izz a kaw-sroock!

  13. I didn’t know the LA Times fired Tim Cavanaugh. He’s such a shining bright light in a field fading fire flies.

  14. Lefiti, that was beautiful.

  15. Tim Cavanaugh,

    Two reactions:

    (1) I think it would be interesting to compare/constrast the popularization of pomo in current times with the popularization of Enlightement thought during the 18th century.

    (2) …to the rise of identity politics for white people… I don’t think there is anything new to this (consider the white identity politics that garnered the KKK so much support in the 1920s for example), though it may be coming out of the woodwork a bit more these days.

    Anyway, good article.

  16. i think we’re in a newer age.

    are you joking?

    have you seen youtube lately? the internet?

    good piece cavanaugh. sucks ’bout the whole firing thing, though.

  17. That was a whole lot of words used to say pretty much nothing.

    Or maybe that was a whole lot of words used to say pretty much EVERYTHING. (Depends on how you frame it.)

  18. I’m trying to decide which is the worse characteristic of commenters to this post: the intellectual inferiority complex or the intellectual vanity.

  19. why privilege one state over the other?

    🙂

  20. “Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.” –G. K. Chesterton

  21. I’m trying to decide which is the worse characteristic of commenters to this post: the intellectual inferiority complex or the intellectual vanity.

    First you should decide what your definition of ‘is’ is.

  22. Sean, I am of the mindset that inferiority complexes are almost always worse than vanity. They’re more annoying, and almost always more dishonest.

  23. because critical thinking was never about saying there’s no truth out there. It’s about saying no one of us has all of that truth.

    True…

  24. intellectual inferiority complex

    You know, Sean, I resemble that remark and would appreciate it if you’d quit pointing it out.

  25. I don’t think there is anything new to this (consider the white identity politics that garnered the KKK so much support in the 1920s for example), though it may be coming out of the woodwork a bit more these days.

    Seward,

    Interesting point. I do think, however, there’s a difference between the hate filled invective of the KKK, and the hey-look-at-me brand of I.D. politics espoused by Webb.

    Personally, I dislike both, but for different reasons.

  26. the article had a great premise, but failed to deliver. the posts, however, are great… i say Reason should ditch the article and attach the headline to the comments.

  27. What comes after postmodernism?

  28. “Craig | October 14, 2008, 8:47pm | #

    What comes after postmodernism?”

    Time being cyclical, premodernism. Time not being cyclical, it gets replaced by another interesting idea that becomes bastardized into meaninglessness by a bunch of socialists.

  29. Sad to say, but this has a lot to do with the degradation of the hoi polloi’s composite i.q. The movement (in this case postmodernism) that compromises values such as “the great American habits of directness, foursquare honesty, and a hearty handshake” are inextricably coupled with blatant cultural confusion, vanity, sloth, etc.
    It’s ok people; great societies have fallen before. Many more will…

  30. “This is the kind of crap that people, who need to get out and actually do something for someone other than themselves, sit around and ponder over brandy in the middle of the day, while hating everything around them for being so unenlightened and too busy with real lives to take time to ponder such inconsequential bullshit.”

    You just defined Libertarians.

    As usual, Libertarians stumble when it comes to irony.

  31. I would also like to add that the inferiority complex demonstrated by Libertarians on academic issues is always entertaining.

    It’s their biggest button, and it’s fun to push.

  32. that’s just the thing: we don’t consider this an academic issue. the reception of french theory by american popular culture was an everyday affair. it’s not that we couldn’t talk about derrida or jameson or foucault or de man or spivak or butler or de certeau or beaudrillard or said. i simply don’t find it as rewarding as i used to as a dreamy undergraduate being lured into the glamour of the academic world.

  33. i’m really perturbed by this word pomo. sure, french theory had a heavy influence on the so-called thinkers of postmodernist thought, but postmodern has more to do with economics (see jameson on late capitalism), consumerism and transhumanism. transhumanism or posthumanism is primarily a libertarian’s issue, so our button is probably worth pushing. j?rgen habermas on the public and the private spheres is certainly worth discussing in a libertarian forum and his thoughts on post-secularism have got to be considered.

  34. Tim,

    You weren’t fired. You were given space to explore other opportunities.

  35. Was this article a joke? Like that one where the guy wrote a jargon-riddled paper full of balderdash and got some prize for it?

    There are so many things going on in the world right now, can we please not get caught up in annoying, elitist abstraction?

    Or maybe it really was a joke.

    Oh man, I used to think I was really very smart. Now I just don’t care either way…

  36. The article would have more authority if Cavanaugh had not confused ‘postmodern’ and ‘poststructuralist.’

  37. your thesis that we are all post-modernists when submitted to the law of non-contradiction, deconstructs itself. Asserting we are relativists assumes a truth is in play, and therefore cannot stand.

    Hogwash.

  38. Just great.

  39. the reception of post-structural theory in america has been nothing short of abysmal – particularly of Jacques Derrida’s work. yes, that’s Derrida, not Nader, not Lacan. Derrida has given a corpus that will take a long while for us all to get through, and this isn’t because of its obscurity or what some perceive as senselessness – it will take time for us to become more hospitable to these works. Derrida is a writer of extreme sensitivity and each word is chosen very carefully. Without reading the Western canon of philosophy, there’s really no point in starting out with his work. It pulls from Plato, to Augustine, to Heidegger. Without knowing their work thoroughly, there is no way to understand what kind of rhetorical stance he is taking. if this seems exclusive, if this turns your off, it’s perhaps worth considering what it is that greater specialization in knowledge actually does. We should consider where we draw the lines of elitism. Though one may condemn elitism, it may be beneficial to see what kind of elite systems one does participate in and why. My feeling is that the answers two these questions won’t be half as noble as the field of rarified academia. But that’s just my opinion….
    The inane notion that deconstruction is out to destroy truth is an idea that is long overdue for dismissal. Anyone who were to read more than 30 pages of Derrida’s work would realize that it has nothing to do with banishing “truth.” In any case, this article spoke very little of postmodern thought, let alone post-structural thought. It seems like an utterly feeble attempt to insist on a kind of criticality or methodology, usually reserved for the ivory tower, finally seeping into the greater public sphere. While there may be a way to point to this more distinctly, this article does not accomplish this. A better knowledge of these ideas is required, and a much higher word-count as well.

  40. This piece isn’t even good enough to be called sophomoric; its final sentences are juvenile and insulting. In addition, way before Lakoff, Aristotle and Kenneth Burke were making the same points, so I’m tired of all these claims to novelty and insight, really.

  41. There can be no post modern politics without a paradigm change in ethics. Not a return to any model of a premodern past, but a future, new postmodern ethical conception. Those ethics are already be pioneered at:

    http://www.energon.org.uk

  42. When someone say’s we are all postmodernists now, you can figure he’s looking for moral support. Or maybe amoral support since he has to hold there is no moral or immoral.
    No, I am not a postmodernist. I’ve read some pitiful piffle in my time, but nothing comes close to Derrida & Barthes. No thank you.
    Most of us are not post-modernists. A lot of us don’t like them. Or any other kind of liar.
    Mr Cavanaugh, you should speak for yourself. For me, not even a dead post-modernist is a good post-modernist.

  43. Great article!

    I wonder whether the fear of “postmodernism” is the closest thing we Americans have to the ancient fear of philosophy?

    Fortunately, Jacques Derrida is already dead, so that we do not have to kill him, as the Greeks would do.

    And yet, as Hegel once said (or was it Nietzsche? Freud? I forget now…) “what is dead wields a very specific power…” Seems to be true in these comments, no?

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