Jul 5, 2010

We always think we know the real version

Privately, Senator Ted Kennedy would work with Republicans. He'd be cooperative, conciliatory, compromising, even tempered, and always eminently reasonable. Then, in public, according to Senator Lindsey Graham, Kennedy would lambaste the exact same Republicans he was working with. He might rip into them with a scalding speech, characterizing them as despicable and detestable, hard-hearted, cold-hearted and sub-humanly stupid and evil, i.e. Republicans.

Which would work to ensure they'd get re-elected back home in their conservative, Kennedy-hating states, despite extensively working with Kennedy. And also that he'd get credit with his own constituency for reaching that far across the aisle.

Now, there are two discourses going on here, and such a speech, apparently duplicitious, is designed to be read in different ways for different audiences, but the way Graham makes it sound, one is theater1 and meant to manipulate, and the other is "real." There's a tendency to do that, to take dual discourses and treat one of them as the Freudian2 slip of the other.

Consider a fundamentalist such as Jerry Falwell: When he makes conciliatory statements to non-fundamentalists, to those not on the Christian right, and says, for instance, that homosexuals should not be denied their civil rights, and then in another context, in a discourse for fundamentalists and those "inside,"3 says that gays etc. are responsible for incurring God's wrath against America and are responsible for terrorist attacks, the former statement is taken as crafted and crafty, while the second is conceived of as a simple and true expression of Falwell's position.

To do that, though, is to take the one without context, as not a discourse at all. The "inside" discourse is still a discourse, though, and has to be understood, to be understood, as having a context, as crafted and also meant to move (and manipulate). It is no more "true" than the less offensive things Falwell has said. It's actually just as constructed, and only really taken as "true" because of the way it appears to conflict with how he would want to appear in public, that is, the way an "inside" discourse looks "outside"4. The statements directed to the "outside" are of course theater, but part of that theater is to convince those inside that there is an inside, that they have access to the unvarnished version, when really that conversation is just as fraught if not more with manipulation and half-hidden motivations, and is no less designed than any other discourse. It is also theater. Context is still necessary5. Politically active fundamentalists have, in fact, spent more time and energy attempting to politicize and politically mobilize fundamentalists, who have historically shied away from politics, than they have attempting to directly influence American culture, and sometimes a fundamentalist's rhetorical excesses and apparent extremism should rightly be understood as an attempt to scare/shock/move certain Christians, and shouldn't be taken as the simply true version.

Graham, likewise, seems to have taken Kennedy's performance as only meant for other people, missing exactly the part where it was a performance for him.

Which is exactly what we do all the time, analyzing the discourses directed at others in such a way as to ignore or not notice the ones we're involved in -- construing it so that somehow everyone else is wrapped in elaborate layers of context and modes of manipulation while we have access to the "real," missing or not knowing or choosing not to know that discourses are like double agents, who could also be triple or double-double agents, and there is, of course, no simply "real" version. It's discourses all the way down.


1. The New York Times is specific to what type of theater this is: Kabuki. As if other types of theater are somehow not enough of a metaphor ... but, actually, the whole analysis of different types of discourse, and how there's no "real" version, but there are versions meant to convince the recipients of other versions that there's is real version, could probably be done again with just the Time's use of this word.
2. One of the downsides of the success and broad acceptance of psychology is the way in which it allows us, as a culture, to take certain things as "real." Consider, for example, how racism is today commonly understood to mean something like the condition of one's heart, an internal reality, having nothing to do social definitions, cultural contexts, acts, etc. Which means, in practice, that no one's a racists. This is, of course, one of the ways Freudianisms have been used to protect us from responsibility, instead of moving us to accept it (cf Zizek's In Defense of Lost Causes, 225).
3. Perhaps Falwell's single most famous statement, made on Sept. 13, 2001: "The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'"
4. Think about why overheard comments appear to be true. The overheard comment is, of course, a common political tactic, but it can be both used and counter-used.
5. Of course, the giving of context should also be understood as part of a discourse and having context, as, for example, Rush Limbaugh posts a daily list of links to articles he talks about, and Glenn Beck has an appendix to his "faction" book. The context communicates something quite apart from the actual content of the context.