by on Feb.14, 2011, under Uncategorized

The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords played out like postmodern fabulism–a paranoid Pynchonesque gunman (Jared Loughner) shoots several people in front of Safeway, including a girl who was born on 9/11 and a beautiful blonde congresswoman, whose astronaut husband, we were told at the time, was stranded in outer space. The event externalized the fictive hysterical realism we associate with blatantly unreal novels by the likes of Pynchon, Delillo and others. And after the shooting, we found ourselves in a national conversation that had less to do with gun control, mental health, or nativist hysteria, than about the violent effects of language–specifically, a non-identity-based right-wing hate speech, what you might call a hate speech of ideology. This outcome was symmetrical to the origin of the attack since Loughner’s mens rea derived from a deep skepticism with language itself.

Loughner saw himself as a revolutionary and a cultural producer: his “final words” on youtube talk about revolutionary treason against a government and The Week informs us that he was a bad poet who wrote slam poems about taking the bus and showering. While his beliefs combined an incoherent stew of anarchism, schizophrenia, and tea party currency vitriol, one of his main motives was, curiously enough, a desire to stop the government’s use of grammar as a mind control device. Obviously it’s unwise to ascribe a political ideology to someone as mentally damaged as Loughner, but what I found immediately curious about Loughner’s linguistic views is how much they resembled many things that left-wing avant-garde academic poets take for granted. Loughner, for example, believed that language was both fundamentally arbitrary (his enmity with Giffords began, miraculously enough, in August of 2007, when he asked her: “What is government if words have no meaning?”) and also a hegemonic exertion of systematic power (“The government is implying mind control and brain wash on the people by controlling grammar”). These views are either reprehensible or insane when stated by Loughner–and the former instance is not that substantively different from high theory’s anti-foundationalist take on signification and the latter is one of the central arguments of language poetry–that when an author uses language in a conventional way, he subjugates the reader with an invidious control.

Such an interpretation, when pursued too far, can be strained: Loughner is obviously not a language poet; I’m using a lot of terms outside their usual context; and I’m a fan of many of the things with which I’ve sloppily conflated him in the last few sentences (BY WHICH I AM CONTROLLING YOU!!!!!). And what struck me about Loughner is how–while many of us may take post-structuralist anti-foundationalism as an uncontroversial foundation (drum beat!)–we would find ourselves highly uncomfortable with how easily these ideas can be wielded by those whose politics we abhor. We may read Bataille, Foucault, R.D. Laing, Deleuze, and grotesque poetry, we may salute schizophrenia and revolutionary violence, but we want a subversion of aesthetics, unlike Loughner, who is actually shooting someone because they possess different views on language. While there were obviously many other causes for this devastating event: Loughner’s schizophrenia, his drug use, anti-semitism, just for starters, his manifesto contains such language-oriented proclamations as:

Secondly, my hope – is for you to be literate! If you’re literate in English grammar, then you comprehend English grammar. The majority of poeple, who reside in District 8, are illiterate — hilarious. I don’t control your English grammar structure, but you control your English grammar structure. [...]

You don’t allow the government to control your grammar structure, listener?

If you create one new language then you’re able to create a second new language.

If you’re able to create a second new language then you’re able to create a third new language.

You create one new language.

Thus, you’re able to create a third new language. [...]

You’re literate, listener? [...]

What’s government if words don’t have meaning?

And we may believe in the instability of the signifier, but most of us bourgeois leftist intellectuals were most likely arguing that conservative xenophobic rhetoric produced Loughner. We did not allege, as the right did, that words can have multiple, different meanings and that–as semiotician Sarah Palin weakly argued–the target mark she placed over Giffords indicated not the crosshairs, but surveyor marks. This also explains the failure of the mass media scramble to position Loughner’s politics in the days after the shooting. Loughner was not interested in politics, his philosophy professor wrote; he was interested in the structure of language. As one of his friends said, “He did not watch TV, he disliked the news, he didn’t listen to political radio, he didn’t take sides, he wasn’t on the Left, he wasn’t on the Right.” To which we may add, that he did not possess conventional party politics; he possessed post-structuralism.

Loughner is one data point in a larger trend: the post-structural turn of right-wing America. I would suspect that most American lefties think of themselves as the rational deliberative counterpoint to the anarchist, anti-systematic right-wing. We might see ourselves as the proponents of stem cell research and evolution, rather than creative design, the evangelical take on natural history that is essentially cultural and poetic narrative. We say that we believe global warming exists and is bad–a belief that has less to do with carbon taxes and CFC emissions, than with displaying a badge of identity that proudly says, “I believe in science, rationality, and modernity!” While community organizing has been premised on a populist movement composed of citizens, rather than experts, we look down on the tea party rabble and believe in Obama’s administration as the ne plus ultra of technocratic meritocracy–a Professor-Statesman whose office retains two Nobel Laureates. One of the things we hated about the Bush administration was actually that he broke down the system via an atavistic corruption of rule of law. We loved how Obama offered a well-reasoned, rationalist project, one premised on future hope–in other words, Enlightenment Utopianism! My use of the first person plural in this paragraph will show you which side I’m on. Obviously I don’t intend to valorize Loughner, lob ad hominem attacks on post-structuralist hermeneutics (This post wouldn’t be possible without them!) or minimize what happened via the silly jargon of the academic left. I just want to use this is occasion to think about how our private aesthetics play out differently than our public politics.

I meant to write a few weeks ago, when like everyone, I was obsesses and saddened by the shooting. If I had the proper outlet, I’d develop this in more detail, but instead I’m lazy so I’m going to throw out some more links. I really loved this article by the wonderful Michael Berube about how, decades after the Sokal hoax, the right has hijacked many of the academic left’s science studies critiques to the astonishment of a pro-science left. (Here, incidentally, is a poem Charles Bernstein wrote about the Sokal hoax.)

But what of Sokal’s chief post-hoax claim that the academic left’s critiques of science were potentially damaging to the left? That one, alas, has held up very well, for it turns out that the critique of scientific “objectivity” and the insistence on the inevitable “partiality” of knowledge can serve the purposes of climate-change deniers and young-Earth creationists quite nicely. That’s not because there was something fundamentally rotten at the core of philosophical anti-foundationalism (whose leading American exponent, Richard Rorty, remained a progressive Democrat all his life), but it might very well have had something to do with the cloistered nature of the academic left. It was as if we had tacitly assumed, all along, that we were speaking only to one another, so that whenever we championed Jean-François Lyotard’s defense of the “hetereogeneity of language games” and spat on Jürgen Habermas’s ideal of a conversation oriented toward “consensus,” we assumed a strong consensus among us that anyone on the side of heterogeneity was on the side of the angels.

But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists, just as I predicted–and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind. Some standard left arguments, combined with the left-populist distrust of “experts” and “professionals” and assorted high-and-mighty muckety-mucks who think they’re the boss of us, were fashioned by the right into a powerful device for delegitimating scientific research. For example, when Andrew Ross asked in Strange Weather, “How can metaphysical life theories and explanations taken seriously by millions be ignored or excluded by a small group of powerful people called ‘scientists’?,” everyone was supposed to understand that he was referring to alternative medicine, and that his critique of “scientists” was meant to bring power to the people. The countercultural account of “metaphysical life theories” that gives people a sense of dignity in the face of scientific authority sounds good–until one substitutes “astrology” or “homeopathy” or “creationism” (all of which are certainly taken seriously by millions) in its place. [...]

Fifteen years ago, it seemed to me that the Sokal Hoax was [...] deepening the “two cultures” divide and further estranging humanists from scientists. Now, I think it may have helped set the terms for an eventual rapprochement, leading both humanists and scientists to realize that the shared enemies of their enterprises are the religious fundamentalists who reject all knowledge that challenges their faith and the free-market fundamentalists whose policies will surely scorch the earth. On my side, perhaps humanists are beginning to realize that there is a project even more vital than that of the relentless critique of everything existing, a project to which they can contribute as much as any scientist–the project of making the world a more humane and livable place. Is it still possible? I don’t know, and I’m not sanguine. Some scientific questions now seem to be a matter of tribal identity: A vast majority of elected Republicans have expressed doubts about the science behind anthropogenic climate change, and as someone once remarked, it is very difficult to get a man to understand something when his tribal identity depends on his not understanding it. But there are few tasks so urgent.

Also, Jacob Weisberg on the tea party as the right’s New Left:

What’s new and most distinctive about the Tea Party is its streak of anarchism—its antagonism toward any authority, its belligerent style of self-expression, and its lack of any coherent program or alternative to the policies it condemns. In this sense, you might think of the Tea Party as the Right’s version of the 1960s New Left. It’s an unorganized and unorganizable community of people coming together to assert their individualism and subvert the established order. But where the New Left was young and looked forward to a new Aquarian age, the Tea Party is old and looks backward to a capitalist-constitutionalist paradise that, needless to say, never existed.

And Freddie deBoer has an article in a culturally conservative magazine about how the contemporary right functions like a ’70s revolutionary party, motivated by vague revolutionary passions and convinced that the personal is political. I have some problems with this piece, such as its tendentious tone and its shallow, fairly conservative take on anti-racist movements, but it’s pretty insightful.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Corey

    Ken, you do very well to locate the use of a vulgarised, general, poststructuralism by the political Right. We must remember, though, language is not simply a method of control that can be obliterated, nor does it make any sense to reduce its heterogeneity to a homogeneity of total codification. This was Loughner’s problem and failure as a poststructuralist, if we at all believe any verity in this, the notion that a whole grammar be ligatured with ideology, that its scope be absolute, is preposterous and paranoid. What poststructuralism, on the other hand, gives us is the resources to analyse how malleable language is, how impressionable and reliant on its user and its context it is. Deleuze’s Logic of Sense is a treatise on how two opposed schizophrenic usages of language – Artaud’s morphemes and semantemes, Lewis Carroll’s portmanteau words – reveal the sophisticated troubledness of language’s relationship to meaning, how one might emerge from the other, the intuition implied in thinking language, and so on. “What if words have no meaning,” might be a statement that is taken for granted by academics, and might be due in part to the event of poststructuralism (but is also quite old, Enlightenment poets can be seen to find this), but is not simply an application of its general thought. It has more of a relation to Althusser’s structuralism and “interpellation”. Meaning is fundamentally, for Althusser, subjectified by ideology, there is no overcoming the tetheredness of the language act to the laws of cultural arbiters, one must merely overthrow them to begin purifying the language. Loughner could then be seen as an Althusserian hero, a critique of language is not enough to be given the name poststructuralism. Anyhow, if the fight is with language, bring the fight to language. Murder grammar dead, using methods we’ve learnt from Burroughs’ cut-ups and the culture jammers. If Loughner really believed his own manifesto, he would’ve attempted to promote illiteracy, attempt to overthrow the government, something else hubristic, not simply shot one congresswoman and some bystanders. I like to think of this murder as an example of a banal Foucauldian binary, the fidelity to the implicit claim to overcome the enemies of conservative thought in Palin’s crosshairs is only bolstered by Loughner’s belief that he opposes a conservative regime. I love how ruthlessly this bites the hand that feeds in its manifestation, and should mean the death to this particular kind of pugilistic, conservative rhetoric, but undoubtedly will not.

    Thinking about creationists and poststructuralist techniques for deconstructing truth as it is for science, one hopes they then make the logical leap into applying the same techniques to their own scientific postulates. Again, it’s the vulgarisation of a notion, simply looking for the tool to open the lock, not at all studying what it is the tool is capable of as a skeleton key. Do you know what I mean? They do not go far enough. To unlock the assumptions a scientific postulate is based on is not to make it defunct, deconstructing it should reveal the very real associations it’s based on, how comprehensive indeed its mechanism is, how far you really need to go if you wish to debunk it. As we know with Derrida, it involves uprooting the assumptions the process of analysis is based on also, so for the creationists their own reliance on the account of a handful of prophets cannot be seen to take the place of the theory they wish to debunk. This phenomenon of using poststructuralist theories is fascinating, though, Ken, thank you.

  2. Adam

    Interesting stuff, Ken, thanks for bringing it up. I had a bunch of complicated rejoinders and amplifications about it last night, but Corey’s mostly pre-empted them, and much more artfully than I’d have done. Instead maybe I’ll just share some link/thoughts, bloggily? In this context, won’t call them bullet points…

    1. On the history of reactionary uses or “uses” of poststructuralist thought: the most explicit example I know of is the Israeli army and Deleuze, which folks were discussing in some detail a few years back. Fascinating business.

    2. With due respect to Berube, he’s off-base on Sokal generally and specifically in reference to science and the left. He doesn’t provide any actual examples of climate-change-deniers, creationists, et al challenging the hegemonic language game of Establishment Science in a poststructuralist fashion. Instead, they challenge the authority of particular scientific claims with discursively identical (although empirically bankrupt) claims to alternative scientific knowledge. Our science is better than your science! If the political leverage of this strategy depends on a tribal loyalty thing as Berube suggests, it’s hardly the fault of any kind of academic leftism (post-S or otherwise) — the typical denier narrative has more to do with the bias of the liberal media, the corruption of fat-cat scientists and their big$$$ grants, etc. A straightforward economy of interests that owes little to Lyotard.

    3. Does it make sense to think of this dynamic in Loughner’s case as “right-wing”? I mean, he shot a Democrat, but nothing that could be identified as post-structuralist in this scenario necessitated that… All of which makes me think that the odd afterlife of poststructuralism is less a matter of crypto-conservatism at its core (Jameson to the contrary) and more to do with the way any body of ideas becomes something new in particular contexts, particular struggles. Because eugenics emerged from evolutionary biology doesn’t mean evolutionary biology is racist.

    4. Which raises the issue of accountability; should the ghost of Derrida feel guilty about the Gifford shooting? My thoughts head this way as someone who does ethnographic fieldwork, so any Big Thoughts I might manage to generate and share potentially affect the lives of particular folks in ways I have to plan ahead for. There’s been some interesting things written about how research enters political struggles in unexpected ways — my grad advisor and another anthropologist I like, among others.

    5. Stepping from research to theory, the critical folks in science studies have fought this out pretty thoroughly, following Latour’s provocative “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” There’s a lot of good sources on this, but the upshot to me is that Berube’s wistful comment:

    perhaps humanists are beginning to realize that there is a project even more vital than that of the relentless critique of everything existing, a project to which they can contribute as much as any scientist–the project of making the world a more humane and livable place.….

    …is in fact what many practitioners of critique have been up to all along, at least in science studies and certainly in the feminist theory that’s so critical to contemporary anti-foundationalist thought. Maybe not Derrida himself, but think Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, even Foucault…

    6. Finally, Berube believes right-wing co-optation of critique reveals a problem with critique. Couldn’t we just as easily see it as a failure of imagination or will on the left? Why are we letting Republicans, creationists, and wacko lone gunmen beat us to the toolbox?

    Way too long – sorry! And thanks again, Ken!

  3. Corey

    Adam, point three’s example of evolutionary biology and eugenics is such an apt one, just makes this problem of bad hermeneutics all the more clear to me. Philosophically, we can make the same claim for Nietzsche’s will to power and its Nazi application. This is not to say these two applications do not have relevance or do not stem from these theories, such are possible interpretations and highlight a thread. But, evolutionary biology is also a method for possibly the most radical biological understanding of variety and multiplicity, and the will to power an inconceivable emancipation for any yet-to-form collective. We must keep these extremities in mind, I think.

  4. Tweets that mention JARED LOUGHNER, LANGUAGE POET [OR POST-STRUCTURALISM IS RIGHT-WING] - Montevidayo -- Topsy.com

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by THE THE Poetry!, Ken Chen. Ken Chen said: I wrote a post about Jared Loughner. I say he's a language poet & a sign of the post-structural right-wing. http://ow.ly/3Wbno [...]

  5. Lucas

    Hi, Ken–

    Good comments above. Just wanted to say, though, that I don’t “look down on the tea party rabble.” Instead, I mourn for how they’ve been swindled, taken advantage by forces and interests who do look down on them. I suppose my view of them is the mirror image of how the Republican elite might look down at me and union members. If there’s any post-structuralism to it, it’s just that (and I’d say it’s been going on since before Reagan) the corporate right-wing has figured out how to exploit some of the things that our favorite French thinkers have been noticing for a long time. I guess we’ve got to be more vigilant, then.

    irregular Lucas

  6. Ken Chen

    Hi all,

    I have a crazy job–which in some ways could be described as professional post-structuralist!–so I don’t have a lot of time to think and respond. I actually do a lot of work that reacts to how language can serve as a form of power (“illegal immigrant,” “enemy noncombatant”) and my organizations, The Asian American Writers’ Workshop, obviously has affiliations with postcolonial studies, which owes its intellectual lineage from French post-structural theory.

    Joshua — Used to be a long-time reader of your blog when I was more invested in poetics and actually went to your reading in the east village many years ago, so nice to meet virtually!

    Adam — Your projects with social work and environmentalism sound really interesting! That IDF article is insanely interesting and your take on the form of creationism is very astute. I’m not a professor or grad student, so I can’t access your journal articles.

    A feeling I get from these responses is that there’s an attempt to defend or recover post-structuralism from a right-wing stain. These seem to me to be attempts to save a certain purified concept of real post-structuralism (our home team poststructuralism, the good guys!). This makes me uncomfortable for a few reasons: (1) We end up separating the concept from history. Granted, I myself am doing this by mis-applying this term onto a new context–and this can be seen in some ways as a classic post-structural move. This is why Terry Eagleton, who I don’t agree with, criticizes Spivak by saying that she can have multiple readings because she has no political project. (2) Such an essentialist definition of post-structuralism works contrary to the decentering, anti-essential process of post-structural interpretation.

    (3) More importantly — I don’t know if I actually believe that the right is post-structural, but if they are, it doesn’t really make a difference to me, because my allegiance isn’t to a certain Western European genre of post-war thinking, but to the alleged pragmatic benefits from that thinking–that is, not destabilizing language, but challenging power. For me, the more persuasive argument against the post-structural turn of tea party or Loughner, if we can conflate them, isn’t that Loughner didn’t challenge language enough (who cares?), but the fact that the tea party isn’t really challenging power, they are power: they’re not an authentic grass-roots movement, but an astro-turfed marketing campaign by the Koch brothers, two right-wing billionaires.

    Another way of putting this is to say that if post-structuralism has any value, then it’s not just about play for the sake of play or multiplicity as its own goal, but about when these things serve as tools in reaction to pernicious uses of power. In this way, it seems to me that Joshua and Adam–you two are actually arguing from different positions. Adam, I take you as being more concerned about challenging certain power blocs (the IDF, the wealthy Christian right) deploy language as an instrument of power–for example, the way we define what a “forest” is may have real world effects on people. Joshua, I take you as most likely agreeing with this, but mainly arguing that the exposing malleability of language is its own end, whether it’s the Jabberwocky or the Department of Homeland Security. Is this accurate? If so, then it seems like where we differ is that I’m much more ethically concerned about the former than the latter. I’m very interested in the latter intellectually and aesthetically. And in my not terribly original way, I don’t see how it activates as a political battleground when it’s disconnected from the direct exercise of power. This is why I’m also unconcerned about whether the lineage between the right and post-structuralism is genuine or intentional or vulgar or appropriative–if we separate the term from power, if it does become just about re-centering readings, then it doesn’t really produce an outcome that changes power relations–it just becomes another deployment of a neutral idea.

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