My friend at Le Français en Suède brought to my attention a particularly interesting article by Christian Salmon published recently in the Le Monde, entitled “Le degre “Xerox” de l’écriture.”
It’s a very interesting piece that expresses a lot of the same ideas and doubts I’ve been feeling towards Obama. Obama’s discourse and presidential campaign has been largely successful because of his “beautiful words” and “moving poetry.” He often attempts to dream up a solution while avoiding stepping on anyone’s feet, meaning he avoids the real problem that makes conflicting people and their beliefs and values to be awkwardly forced together and deal with their problems as unavoidably together, in spite of or because of our so seemingly fundamental differences. I suppose Hillary Clinton sometimes falls into a similar tactic of “not steeping on anyone’s feet.” Unfortunately I think Obama’s rhetoric should be, as Hillary Clinton has occasionally been doing, stepping on people’s feet in ways that make change real and in-conflict-together and not simply virtual, disconnected and magically resolved through words and dreams.
In any case, as this piece provides both an outsider (i.e. French) perspective as well as an intellectual perspective through the work of Jean Baudrillard (a French cultural theorist and philosopher) on the American presidential election, I think this article merits both reflection and, as I will do in the rest of this post, translation.
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Could it be that Barak Obama, who seems so authentic, so unique in comparison with his predecessors and who ties in so well to the “aura” of a Kennedy and the eloquence of a Martin Luther King, reveals himself merely as a pale copy, to speak the language of auctioneers, lacking the value of the “original”? Could it be that this long, Kafkaesque silhouette will end by dissolving into the banality of Andy Warhol’s infinitely duplicated portraits?
Jean Baudrillard who died a year ago would have particularly enjoyed this Warholesque moment when Hillary Clinton characterized the change proposed by Obama as “Xerox” change: “When you lift two whole passages from someone else’s speech, it’s not change you can believe in, it’s change you can Xerox.”
Barack Obama should have responded that Hillary Clinton’s little phrase didn’t have anything authentic about it either and that they weren’t “her own words” but those of James Carville, the architect of Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, expert in sound bites who has been advising the candidate since her defeat in Iowa. At the core, the argument is specious, being that Obama is one of the rare candidates in American political history who writes his own speeches himself. But that isn’t the essential.
“Here’s the difference between my democratic adversary and me,” said the democratic candidate, “He utters speeches, I offer solutions.” To this Obama answered by a lesson in rhetoric: “Don’t tell me that words don’t matter. “I had a dream.” Only words? “All men are created equal?” Only words? “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Only words? Only speeches?”
Do we not see opposing in this Democrat Primary two conception of how to run a campaign, one based on programs and acts; the other on dreams and words? One “in prose” and the other “in poetry,” as Hillary Clinton has said. A seductive hypothesis but not very convincing: Jame Carville, who has advised the Clinton clan since 1992, is the most informed (averti) of American political storytellers. After the defeat of John Kerry in 2004, he claimed: “I think that we could have elected any actor in Hollywood** on the condition that he has a story to tell, a story which says to people what this country is and how he sees it.”
Hillary Clinton’s campaign doesn’t exactly turn its back on narrative tales. Indeed isn’t the best tale in the sage of the Clintons, their return to the White House after two presidential mandates by George W. Bush, a 90s fairy tale evoking the return to peace and prosperity for the American middleclass? That was without counting Barack Obama, who has gone on to oppose, against the nostalgia of Clinton era, the aspiration to change and lift up, above a divided America, the “rainbow” tale of reconciliation. One nation. One narrative. What really is the point of clashing expertise to change, concrete projects to vague promises, the real to the virtual, acts to words, when the Obama campaign pulls its force from the very narrative of embodied change, a narrative of both promise and intrigue?
The accusation of plagiary constituted an escalation in the attempt to illegitimate the democrat candidate. It doesn’t aim at the life or personality of the candidate, his human qualities or his political expertise. No eye-openers here: the behavior during the Vietnam War (Kerry), the sexual chronicle (Clinton), alcoholism (Bush) or any other biographical episode of the candidate, but a suspicion cast against the narrative competence of the candidate, against his credibility as a narrator.
Since some time now, political campaigns have been unfolding in a performative space where rhetorical arguments has taken precedence over political programs and the qualities demanded of a future president have moved from the administrative, juridical, economic or ethical domain to that of rhetoric. Not the regime of social security but the regime of belief. Not the status of public service but that of fictions circulated in the world. Political expertise has given way to fictional competence. Is the future president a good narrator? What is his or her credibility? What is the status of his or her speeches? What is his or her way of speaking? “Senator Obama bases his candidature on the force of his rhetoric and of his promises,” affirmed the Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson, “and, as we could have noticed these last few days, he doesn’t keep his promises and his rhetoric isn’t his own.”
This is an old suspicion that was often directed at post colonial writers and at cross-cultural literatures, and which aims at throwing doubt not only on the authenticity of texts but on the possibility of the “former-colonized” being able to possess an “original” or “authentic” identity. If you aren’t the author of your speeches, then who inspires them? What devil wrote them? What credit should be given to these beautiful narratives that charm us so? A question which has already been answered by David Brooks in the New York Times: “He is perpetually engaged in an internal discussion between different pieces of his hybrid self…and he takes that conversation outward into the world.” [NOTE 1]
Note 1: The following was left out from original quotation: “Kenya with Harvard, Kansas with the South Side of Chicago”