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Friday, August 17, 2012

Contra Lakoff's Moral(izing) Politics

In a secularizing, racially and otherwise morphologically diversifying culture like ours -- with differing ages in our workplaces, conspicuous prostheses like wheelchairs in the streets, ubiquitous sartorial signals of ethnicity, and so on -- a culture becoming more and more colloquially diverse and yet convivial all the time, in which interracial and other multicultural relations are commonplace both in everyday life and in media representations, it seems to me it will be harder to ignore the extent to which we simultaneously are members in multiple and open-ended communities while at once always only partial members of most/any of the communities with which we presently identify.

I would expect that under such circumstances politics would become more and more a matter of shifting alliances among affinity groups and comparably positioned stakeholders from issue to issue, or to the extent that politics remains a partisan affair in respect to higher layers of governance, national and planetary, involving partial identification with party programs and the like, this will tend to be an ever more explicitly propositional matter rather than one of subcultural signaling and moralizing.

I actually wonder whether one sees this kind of difference already reflected somewhat in the fledgling difference between US policy-oriented Democratic diversifying coalition politics as against US Republican homogenizing culture-war politics? Part of the exasperation expressed by Democrats about Republicans being welcome to have their own arguments but not their own facts is the exasperation of secular multiculturals disapproving the reframing of arguable issues into matters of subcultural signaling -- eg, scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change is the most urgent frustration on this score at present, but it looms large as well in squabbles over public instruction in evolutionary biology, Keynesian macroeconomic literacy for economic policymakers, harm-reduction models for drug policy, access to healthcare, childhood sex education, for gun regulation, and against capital punishment, and on and on.

You may note that this puts me at odds with George Lakoff's popular "moral politics" thesis. I do not agree that "we" are animals more suited to moral/subcultural framing of political questions as Lakoff repeatedly insists is the case. I think we are animals whose politics are re-constituted in culture, and that ubiquitous planetary p2p-networks transform on the one hand moral/subcultural practices of identification and dis-identification as well as the contingent modes of association and solidarity in which we engage as stakeholders -- as awareness of our imbrication in global forces of exploitation or planetary environmental processes changes our sense of collective agency, for example.

I believe these changes render our politics more ethical -- matters, in my view, of contingent universalization against the grain of our identifications, dependent as they are on constitutive outsides, the thems making us uses, solicitations of agreement in unimaginable difference that render us comparatively indifferent to differences that otherwise make differences to us in our moral/subcultural lives.

Where Lakoff's rhetorical recommendations make sense (and I really do wish he would cease endlessly trying to shore up his sooper-science cognitive credentials, which make him sound like next season's sad phrenologist, and just admit he is offering up reminders from the many centuries old humanistic discipline of rhetoric) is in his proposal that there are substantial vestiges of political moralizing playing out in the political terrain -- and at war with more secular-cosmopolitan tendencies in many human hearts -- that make effective politics in our own fraught moment a matter of delicate translation more often than not, efforts to appeal at once both to subcultural moralizers and to contingent ethicians.

Even in making this practical recommendation it seems to me Lakoff tends to go off the rails a bit -- suggesting there is something deeply and essentially wrong with liberal policy-oriented issue discourse that needs to be re-canalized in toto into a subcultural signaling effort more like that in which our US conservatives still indulge, one more suited to his sense of "human nature." That liberals who prefer fact based policy and stakeholder negotiation while demonstrably remaining human is more than enough to expose the error in Lakoff's reactionary assertion of a universal moralizing human nature, however desperately he seeks to demonstrate this nature through his glib generalizations from results in the disorderly and fledgling cognitive sciences.

That Lakoff goes on to graft his "essential" human nature, and its resulting political landscape, onto a laughable North Atlantic and insistently heteronormative dyad between the "strict father" and the "nurturing parent" that cannnot accommodate historical or already existing forms of affinity let alone all logical possible ones only adds insult to injury and lets you know that I used the word "reactionary" in respect to Lakoff advisedly, however committed he may be to what pass for liberal policy outcomes in this historical moment.

To the extent that so much of liberalism in the last thirty years has been a matter of struggling to preserve welfare entitlements and international norms in the face of a global counter-revolutionary neoliberal corporate-financial developmentalism backed by neoconservative militarism, the organized left has often taken on the character of a defensiveness that renders it more congenial to conservative frames than the progressive ones more typical of its assumptions and aspirations (while the rest of the left has often settled into the unsettlement of the usual disorganized anarchisms).

Again, it seems to me far more relevant to ascribe these complexities to a moment of transition requiring an emphasis on translation rather than to the reactionary black box of "nature" and its pathologies, especially when another, better name for this "moment of translation" might well be "threshold into planetary polyculture."

11 comments:

Darth Imperius said...

For you I recommend a regimen of zazen meditation and yoga, to begin to decondition your mind away from all these useless mental constructs. You seem to suffer from a common Western affliction: substituting words for reality, politics for spirituality, externality for internality, philosophy for mystical insight, inner power for outer impotence.

Do you really find American politics so interesting? Don't you see that this entire civilization is utterly wretched, spiritually bankrupt and will soon be washed away like mythical Atlantis? There is a New Order coming my friend, a New Age, here in the twilight of the Western era, and your ideas are going to seem rather quaint as the Han, Islamic and other empires ascend to power upon your ashes.

What motivates you to produce all this useless verbiage? You have no children, your body will soon be dust, all your ideas and works totally forgotten. Are you just another worshiper at the altar of the gods of power? Why do you enslave your mind to all these meaningless abstractions, when they are nothing but illusions to be transcended on the path to the ultimate Void?

Dale Carrico said...

It's a trap!

Dale Carrico said...

"aepxc" posted this comment in the Moot in response to a comment of mine that I then elaborated into this blog-post, so I'm exporting this comment to continue this conversation here...

"aepxc" wrote:

"I agree with you about (and am gladdened by) the direction in which we're going, but I don't think we're there yet by a long shot, especially in certain parts of the country.

"But no less importantly, there's the issue of motivation. It's takes some work to figure out policy, especially in a way that gives one reasonable certitude that one was not tricked by any sources trying to provide ostensibly helpful but actually partisan summaries. The more interested will do that work, but there are likely to be be some who are motivated enough to go vote, but not motivated enough to seriously study the options they have to vote on. Not to mention people who would usually not bother voting, but get thrilled into voting for someone just like them or scared into voting against someone who looks very different.

"Such a case, I think, would be less about supporting a representative of one's culture (one of one's cultures? – forgive imprecise terminology if any, just a dilettante, here...) as a result of wanting to promote that culture's central moral(s) and/or out of solidarity (if I understand Lakoff and your critique of him correctly), and more about a lazy moral shortcut "looks/acts like me => thinks like me, and since I'm basically good and smart, (s)he'll be better than the alternative". The affinity is between candidate and voter, rather than between voter and culture and candidate and (same) culture. This is obviously false to anyone who bothers to think, but I suspect that the number who bother to vote is materially larger than the number who bother to think about their voting. And I don't see any evidence for this improving."

Dale Carrico said...

Part of what I am saying is that even if it is the case that so-called "low information" voter will vote on the basis of identification we should not be so quick to assume practices of identification function always the way they seem to do for Movement Republicans for whom identification seems to mobilizing racial typing or culture war subcultural signaling.

I think there is actually lots of evidence for this, but that it isn't being grasped as the evidence that it is, eg, what Lakoff decries as the cluenessness of liberals who want to debate issues rather than morals may at least sometimes be liberals for whom identity is operating differently in consequence of our practical experience in diverse urban setting and immersed in p2p-network formations that are more ethical than moral (as I deploy those terms).

I don't doubt that candidates will continue to mobilize mass-mediated ethos in soliciting votes, but I believe that secular multicultural practices of conviviality in dynamic diversity actually produce different strategies of identity. This is part of the reality that is being referenced when people speak of liberal voters tending to live in urban as against rural areas, being more educated than not (higher education immerses one in diversity rather in the way that urban life does), and so on.

Again, I agree with you that we are still in the midst of a transition here and so viable national politics requires tricky translations that manage to speak both to equity-in-diversity as well as to moral/subcultural identification, but I do insist that a transition is indeed afoot and in fact well along by now.

What muddies our grasp of its demands on our affiliative and stakeholder politics is, on the one hand, the fact that few secular multiculturals seem to have the language with which to attest to their reality and tend to borrow from older moraliizing vocabularies that distort their assumptions, experiences, and aspirations as much as express them, and on the other hand, the fact that reactionary moralizers grow energetic and strident as they sense their marginalization in ways that may seem to compensate for the ongoing reality of that marginalization itself by cannot sustain the mirage for long.

Darth Imperius said...

Actually it is. If you must know, you were selected as a practice target for Sith Academy memetic and mental assassination. I am trying to teach my students the arts of "mind breaking" and "memetic jihad", and since I find your ideology despicable I figured this would kill two birds with one stone.

A gay hippie liberal white male Nietzschean who constantly wields the "racist" club against members of his own demographic? What right does such a confused and suicidal creature have to exist? Why do you express your Will to Power in such a twisted and counterproductive fashion? If you were shooting up Family Research Council offices I might respect you, but the stories you tell on this blog are so delusional and out of harmony with the Dark Tao that I feel totally justified in seeking your destruction.

Dale Carrico said...

Lost a planet, Darth Imperius has. How embarrassing. How embarrassing.

Darth Imperius said...

Oh and one more thing before I forget: my next exercise for you is to deconstruct your own constructions, to realize how isomorphic your moral cosmology is to that of Christians and other slave religionists. In place of sinners and Satanists you have fascists and racists, in place of hell you have the dark racist, imperialistic patriarchal, theocratic past; heaven is the enlightened global, multicultural, liberal Federation of the future; in place of faith and God you have science and reason.

As with other religionists, you have a comforting collection of stories you tell yourself in a desperate attempt to project and escape the inescapable: your own Shadow. So my challenge for you, along with your zazen and yoga regimen, is to read and ruminate upon the work of Carl Jung, and contemplate the psychic shallowness and futility of your quasi-Christian ideology. Good luck, and I look forward to hearing about your progress.

Dale Carrico said...

Bored now, Darth. Let's see if anybody else has something to say that's actually on topic? Even if nobody pipes up silence won't be less substantial than these smug gnomic utterances of yours, a schtick getting less charming by the second. You do know I teach Nietzsche to college undergraduates for money, don't you? Thanks for playing, now go jerk off on your Death Star or something.

Darth Imperius said...

Excellent. Then perhaps you understand that while Nietzsche was a Satanic prophet and a genius, he lacked a meditative tradition and it ultimately drove him insane. Without the psychic discipline and deconstructionism of something like zazen, he couldn't separate himself from his thoughts and was destoyed by them. This is a point Osho makes very well -- google it and you will find some interesting talks on this subject. Sadly, such perspectives are hard to find in Western academia, which is full of imbalanced, psychically shallow intellectuals like yourself. However, if you heed my advice it still isn't too late for you to develop some real inner depth and gravitas. Again, I wish you good luck.

Dale Carrico said...

Okay, okay Darth, we all get it. Very exciting. Save some of your darts for tomorrow, maybe? My inner Stalinist is growing seriously bored and censorious.

Chad Lott said...

Personally, I prefer drugs and consensual violence to decondition the mind.