After watching the inauguration on the Internet, I thought to myself that I just felt like a cheerleader for the State. The jingoism of flag waving, empty symbolism, demonstration of military might and the worship of celebrity demonstrated how the inauguration contained seemingly incompatible ideologies that still coexisted with each other and maintained ideological hegemony. In other words, U.S. State power appeared permanent, fixed and “real”, as well as, a place to locate social change. This idea comes despite the historical and primary source data that highlights imperialist States, like England and the U.S. for example, have been the biggest perpetrators of violence against people of color, indigenous societies, women, people categorized and labeled “disabled,” working class communities, homosexuals, etc. over the past 350 years. This last part is important, as social and progressive change cannot be realized within a hierarchical, racist, sexist, classist, ableist, colonialist, and an inherently oppressive institution like a State as I hope this blog will demonstrate. I know that I refer to the United States, but by no means am I trying to paint “villains” or “evil-doers” and other nation-states have just as much to answer for as the United States does. Instead, as you will see, power is reproduced much more sophisticatedly than just top-down or through simplistic binaries of Us vs. Them, but also through what we consider knowledge or how we understand the world around us. States are merely one piece to a much larger puzzle.
However, I am quite aware of the historical significance of the election of Obama. It effectively demonstrates what radicals have argued all along: that political hope can amass people out of complacency into action. I am also aware that an election of an African American man speaks volumes that people are willing to adapt their beliefs about race and ethnicity, which points to the possibility of social change occurring in the future which should sustain hope for all of us. I am not critiquing the President per se, but more his symbolic and representational existence and the political frameworks we are given that are deemed appropriate, real, or possible. I am not concerned with Obama the individual, then, but Obama as representational of a larger system of meanings, discourses, ontological frameworks, epistemologies, and ideologies. The individual, as it has been constructed in the West, is more of a testament to the emergence and rise of mercantile capitalism rather than some empirical reality of us overcoming odds, persevering, and working hard to master and tame our world.Metaphorically, the individual no longer exists and is instead a series of internalized hegemonic discourses, or ways of talking about social and natural events that emerge from institutions such as schools, the media, the academy, and the family. These discourses regulate knowledge and what is considered normal, sane, rational, scientific, and, in the adverse, abnormal, insane, irrational, and non-scientific. Depending on one man that is firmly entrenched within these discursive and ideological frameworks does not bode well for the alleviation of our current social ills like rising unemployment, inflation, the destruction of the natural world, and the unfettered war in Afghanistan for example. Thus I return back to my previous claims that, during the inauguration, many different discourses were operating, despite the fact that some were ideologically incongruent.
Discourses of the state, democracy, Truth, justice, celebrity, and patriotism were all present during the inauguration and do not have to form a congruent whole necessarily, but still interact with each other to make one reality seem correct or True. For example, we can look to other social constructions, such as insanity, to help demonstrate this idea. There are a variety of discourses at work when the notion of insanity is called into being. Discourses of psychiatry, psychology, religion, labor, and biology all help inform what we “know” about insanity. Despite the idea that insanity is only a socially constructed concept that a society agrees is “true,” various discourses that are enveloped in power relationships help reproduce frameworks that allow a label like insanity to even exist. When we say, psychology, education, or science, these are all discursively oriented that determine rules on what can and cannot be said, known, or what is considered True and valid.
As Michel Foucault wrote, these allow for, “a certain way of regulating and constructing discourses that define a particular domain of objects, and, at the same time, determine the place of the ideal subject that can and must know those objects.” Bound with these discursive constructions then are a variety of power relationships that exist that are reproduced by not only top-down types of situations, but also through social interactions and what is considered knowledge. Discourses also construct and help reproduce our social world. When the notion of “modern” is mentioned when describing home décor, the age we live in, or any feature of life, the meaning is readily understood because the discourse of modernity is informed by a variety of others in academia, popular culture, and so on. These all help (re)produce certain “Truths” about the world that we all have come to accept. Again, turning to Foucault, “truth is a thing of this world…[and]…each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourses which it accepts and makes function as truth; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.” What emerges from these discourses are not only what we consider knowledge, but a whole series of relationships that determine the True and the real and are guided by relationships of power just as much as they are invested in the acquisition of new forms of knowledge and discovery
However, getting back to the recent inauguration, even incongruent ideologies and discourses can be present and still maintain hegemonic continuity. For example, we now have an African American president that was walking in the same parade with men dressed in Revolutionary War uniforms. Although that may be a common trope in the foundational myths of the United States, those colonial soldiers still stand in direct opposition to the historical experiences of people of color in this country. In fact, those soldiers represented unbridled colonialism, the theft of indigenous lands at the hands of British military and economic might, and the exclusion of African Americans, indigenous peoples and those deemed “Other” in the civic, political, and economic development of the United States. As the crowds that lined Pennsylvania Avenue cheered, I was struck with the lack of historical dislocation that allows these kinds of ideologies to be included within the same social and ideological space. This of course points to the types of history that most people are exposed to that does not provide room for a critical examination of how the State developed based upon slavery, exclusion, war, and capitalist enterprise. But it also systematically demonstrates how competing discourses are often enveloped in each other and still maintain ideological continuity.
Another example of incongruent discourses interacting that day was the notion of social change and civic responsibility present within the spectacle. Obama spoke eloquently about social change and ushering in a new era of civic responsibility. Although this is commendable compared to our last President who gutted key social programs, systematically engendered and encouraged secret global prisons and torture and took us to the brink of global war, the reality is that little will change in light of the nature of how the State operates and the various functions it serves. Contrary to popular belief, the State was founded upon domination and has been reproduced through a series of legal, social, and economic discourses that help perpetuate the same problems that President Obama bemoans in his speeches. So although he “means well,” Obama and the rest of his supporters are quite naive in believing that change will occur within the confines of the current social order. Moving towards a more sophisticated understanding of the operations of power, Truth, and knowledge may help us recognize the various games and regimes of Truth that operate and flourish under our current economic and social conditions.
As you can quickly tell from this critique, I move beyond the notions of the individual, as it does not encompass the reality of how power and discourses sometime operate independently from the individual and are reproduced through institutions (like the State), social processes, and events (like the inauguration). I believe the upcoming challenge for radicals like myself is trying to articulate a new vision that sits outside of the dominant features of the State, while also simultaneously demonstrating the inherent flaws in believing that a change in staff will somehow bring some momentous social change. In essence, shaking the very foundation that social constructions like the “individual” or “race” rest upon. Although the election of an African American man into the Oval Office is a feat, it denies the fact that class was also a fundamental component, along with educational access, heteronormativity, religion, and gender. It also demonstrates a simplistic understanding of how power is reproduced.
With this reality, the shifting in personnel only helps demonstrate that the State is such an entrenched discursive reality that even seemingly incongruent ideologies and discourses can co-exist with each other and perpetuate hegemonic continuity. The problem is, radicals like myself do not have, nor would we want to have, all the answers to solve our current social predicaments. However, as I claim in many of my publications, the highly symbolic nature of late capitalism not only demands direct political actions and strategies, but also working towards rethinking common representations, discourses, and ideologies to address this symbolic nature that occurs in music, film, textbooks, fiction, and other cultural artifacts. Western conceptions of the individual or democracy may actually hinder us from achieving a more socially just society. Until then, the spectacle of U.S. State power, enveloped in discourses we all accept as True and valid, will perpetuate and wreak continued damage upon our bodies and minds, our society, and the environment we all must inhabit.