The left’s misguided Realrhetorik; or, Hillary Clinton: the new Michiko Kakutani

Almost two years ago, I wrote an essay, “Realrhetorik for chicken liberals,” criticizing New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani for lambasting James Frey, author of the Oprah-endorsed and largely fabricated memoir A Million Little Pieces, using what I call “Realrhetorik”: a rhetoric that adopts as the ultimate measure of correctness a provable correspondence to the forced and faux materiality of “the real.” Tangibly this means that for Kakutani, Frey, in fabricating a memoir, has betrayed an abstract “reality” rather than, say, his readers. In that Realrhetorik is a hallmark of the U.S. political right—whose powerfully pathetic empty signifiers usually operate by suggesting an undeniable reference to a material (and often celestial) reality—Kakutani (a professed progressive who, interestingly, is not a fan of the Clintons, whom she cognitively conflates into a single entity) indicts Frey in a way that is not only feeble but productive for the right, insofar as it legitimizes the use of sloppy Realrhetorik, a rhetoric whose use, as we will see, will nearly always favor the right.

I return to this Kakutani conflict today after coming across of a passage by Argentinean political theorist Ernesto Laclau, who puts the point I made two years ago about the dangers of the left adopting the right’s Realrhetorik (in reference to Kakutani on Frey) in clearer, if more abstract, terms:

[T]he Right and the Left are not fighting at the same level. On the one hand, there is an attempt by the Right to articulate various problems that people have into some kind of political imaginary, and on the other hand, there is a retreat by the Left into a purely moral discourse which doesn’t enter into the hegemonic game. […] The main difficulty of the Left is that the fight today does not take place at that level of the political imaginary. And it relies on a rationalist discourse about rights, conceived in a purely abstract way without entering that hegemonic field, and without that engagement there is no possibility of a progressive political alternative.

Slavoj Zizek, in “Against the Populist Temptation,” quotes this passage of Laclau’s in juxtaposition with the oeuvre and Democratic Party Golden Boy and U.C. Berkeley linguist George Lakoff (whom Zizek, in “Against the Populist Temptation,” rightfully rips multiple new ones). Laclau’s point here is that the left is, by its very pseudo-rationalist, perpetually inquisitive design, poor at finding material manifestations of its empty signifiers (“hope,” “human rights”); whereas the right is very adept at finding material manifestations of their own empty signifiers. Need to concretize (i.e., make visible, make manifest), the “life” empty signifier that signifies an opposition to abortion? Show us a mangled (white) fetus! There is simply no corollary concretization for the left’s “human rights”—are we dealing here with a black African dying of hunger, or with Bosnians having free and fair elections, or perhaps with the promise of universal healthcare, or an end to global poverty? These are all signifiers of human rights, no? Yet each is far more complex, abstract, and non-material than our dead fetus—so how can any of them be expected to stand as reliable shorthand for the commitments around which the left coheres? 

They cannot, and so we get on the left a sort of sad attempt to cling to the legitimacy of “the material” as a metric of “reality,” a misguided and fetishistic and self-defeating attachment to “the real” as a materially-anchored category in itself which, in a paradoxical turn from the “realist” philosophies of denying the existence of an ideal (i.e., Platonic) form for each universal category and recognizing each particular iteration as discoverable in all its infinite singular detail (and thus accepting what Walter Benn Michaels calls “the shape of the signifier”—its particular singular profile—as the standard analogy for a singular subject-position, i.e., for distinguishable multiculturalist identitarian subjects who act of their own accord and not as the execution of the will of a Big Other), transforms the ultimate “reality” from (again, in the sense modernist and theoretical senses of “realism”) a recognition of the uniqueness of every particular into the recognition that each of these particulars is indeed an iteration of an effectively material ideal. The left, in other words, continues to argue with the right about what is and is not the case, what does and what does not get at the thing itself, when the proper thing to do, should we want to effect progressive change through calculated strategy, is to eschew the entire discourse of “the real” and its impostors in favor of a more properly progressive materialist lexicon. Lakoff wants us to do the precise opposite, to allow the notion of the real to persist as the fundamental foundation of our political discourse, and this is my severe problem with Lakoff. He suggests that we, like Kakutani, accept our rhetorical bind and try to play against a stacked deck; his “reframings” do and will not work because in almost every case, the material corollary to a rightist empty signifier will appear more “real,” more solid, more tangible, more accessible, than the material corollary of the leftist empty signifier mobilized to combat the right. To return to a previous example: the rightist empty signifier “life” in the anti-abortion sense has a clear material corollary: dead babies. What is the left’s equally communicable, equally graspable, equally materially effective corollary for its empty signifier “choice”? That there is multitude of answers to that question—a panoply of potential “material” corollaries—is precisely the point. 

This is what Zizek means in saying that Lakoff doesn’t take himself seriously: Lakoff acknowledges the need to package a message with certain “frames,” but effectively ignores the radical instability of that message’s content. Lackoff fails to acknowledge that the message itself is a sort of Laclauian void under various hegemonic pressures (a clear example here is the disagreement between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton over the definition of “universal health care”: does a universal health care plan require a “mandate” to be properly “universal”?) and in need of intelligent scrutiny and provisional popular articulation. And so Lakoff’s prescription would turns us all into Realrhetoricking Kakutanis:

Lakoff’s conclusion is that, instead of abhorring the passionate metaphoric language on behalf of the couple of rational argumentation and abstract moralizing, the Left should accept the battle at this terrain and learn to offer more seductive frames. Near the end of his Don’t Think of an Elephant!, Lakoff writes that conservatives “have figured out their own values, principles, and directions, and have gotten them out in the public mind so effectively over the past thirty years that they can evoke them all in a ten-word philosophy: Strong Defense, Free Markets, Lower Taxes, Smaller Government, Family Values.” He proposes a similar ten-word philosophy for liberals: “Stronger America, Broad Prosperity, Better Future, Effective Government, Mutual Responsibility.” The weakness of this alternative was also already noted: while the conservative formula presents what appears as clear choices that demand from us adopting strong and divisive positions (strong defense against the proponents of disarmament; free markets against state regulation; lower taxes against tax-and-spend social programs…), the liberal formula consists of general feel-good phrases nobody is against (who IS against prosperity, better future, effective government?) – what only happens is that violent-passionate engaging rhetorics is replaced by shallow sentimental rhetorics. What is so strange here is that Lakoff, a refined linguist, specialist in semantics, can miss this obvious weakness of his positive formula….

If, as has been the demonstrable case in the past century and arguably since shortly after the Enlightenment, correspondence to an ideal “reality” as reality’s universal manifestation, as Reality, persists as the principal criterion for judging the merit of an argument, the left will not win another argument in the world of popular opinion polls. In other words, strong, free, lower, smaller, and family—the adjectives in the right’s list of five slogans—are far less ambiguous, far more envisionable, than stronger, broad, better, effective, and mutual, Lakoff’s weak alternatives. The right’s terms are ambiguous in their own right, to be sure, but they don’t even approach rivaling the muddiness of the left’s: broad, better, effective? What do those mean, tangibly? By what criteria do we decide what is “better future”? Voters do not know—but they’re quite certain what “strong defense” means. Lakoff proposes that progressives simplify and sloganize in an effort to make messages more communicable, but his horses fail before leaving the gate. Is not the fact that the mantra Lakoff suggests as the foundation of a new U.S. progressivism does not in fact help us to concretize anything in the minds of voters—the fact that “better” means less clearly, i.e., is more complex, than “strong”—the best evidence of his internally-conflicted project’s bankruptcy? In a fight over what is and is not real, the nuanced view, the one that requires more effort and attention to assimilate—i.e., almost always (thought not always) the liberal, progressive, leftist view in U.S. and European politics—will lose. Unless, that is, the left adopts Realrhetorick: which is precisely what Kakutani does in criticizing Frey. 

And is precisely what Hillary Clinton has done in her effort to wrest the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination from Barack Obama by constantly posing the question: “Is Barack Obama really ready to be president?” The “really” here is crucial as a marker of Realrhetorik, but even without “really,” the question by its formulation necessitates an answer that concords with a posited material reality, and answer that either confirms or denies Obama’s readiness as a matter of objective and unchallengeable fact, that categorizes his readiness as real or fake. Yet is it not clear that there can be no proper answer to this question other than a yes or a no—an unequivocal indication of correspondence to an illusory material reality, a rightist empty signifier par excellence? This irresponsible reductionism on Clinton’s part is at least one motivation of those who accuse Clinton of aping Republican tactics: to the extent she invokes Realrhetorik to defame Obama, she deliberately forecloses on the possibility of the rigorous intellectual dialogue that is supposedly championed by progressive liberals like her and her husband—she forecloses, that is, on the possibility of having the sort of debate that could give a necessarily and irreducibly equivocal, but seriously studied and considered and constructed, account of Obama’s “readiness” to assume the presidency. As Clinton is fond of saying in reference to Obama (here, in these parentheses, lies Kakutani’s, Lakoff’s and Clinton’s common mistake, lies the left’s mistake, which is for this moment my own mistake, too): Get real.

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