An Issue That Won’t Go Away

Things are getting out of hand. There’s even a call for papers on Sarah Palin, together with a definitive Lacanian analysis by the current Pope (Jacques-Alain Miller, Lacan’s son-in-law) and a typically cretinous and self-congratulatory effusion by Camille Paglia, who has never met a butch woman, or for that matter a misogynistic woman, whom she didn’t swoon over.

I’ve already written more than enough about Palin; I don’t have the desire (or maybe I just don’t have the stomach) to engage in further analysis here. I just want to note that the problem I have with all these accounts (and even with infinite thought’s far more thoughtful response) is that they all take the question of gender, or of the construction of femininity, or of sexual difference, as being far more central to the situation than I think it actually is.

Of course it is true that McCain chose Palin largely on account of her gender; and that her affective effect upon “the American people” (an entity that I do not believe actually exists, but that I am using, in scare quotes, for convenience here), is rooted in her gendered (and explicitly marked as gendered) performativity.

But to redefine the election in terms of some analysis of how Palin reconfigures the essential figure of Woman seems to me entirely to be missing the specificity of what is happening in this election. There is little to choose here between Miller, who says that Palin “knows that the phallus is only a semblance and, furthermore, one not to be taken seriously: it is the de-complexified femininity”, and Paglia, for whom Palin represents the “robust and hearty” femininity, and a “can-do, no-excuses, moose-hunting feminism”, that supposedly existed in American frontier society before it was spoiled by the “whining, sniping, wearily ironic mode of the establishment feminism” of the last thirty years.

Such analyses transform the socially and historically conditioned gender relations that are at work in American society today into transcendent and trans-historical structures. They blithely ignore the ways that Palin’s media persona (the “hockey mom” entirely dedicated to Family who is also the ferocious “pitbull” or “barracuda”) could never have been imagined in another time and place, because it is so closely tied to the economic situation of American middle-class families today (in which the necessity for both parents to work subsists uneasily alongside the still unequal distribution of household and child-raising chores), to the ways that the feminist movement of the 1960s and after, together with the “sexual revolution” of the same era, the explosion in technologies of contraception, etc., have radically restructured gender conceptions and roles even among the most “conservative” and familialist sectors of the population, to the revival of fundamentalist Christianity in the last forty years on an entirely new basis (which is inseparable from the latest technologies of business and marketing, so that it has has very little in common with any sort of “old-time religion”), to the reconfiguration of shopping and consumption in our post-Fordist era (e.g. the new kinds of malls and the ubiquity of chains like Walmart, Target, etc., without which “hockey moms” could not possibly exist), to the ways that race has been reconfigured in post-civil-rights American (something that is, of course, essential to Obama’s image as well), and so on almost ad infinitum.

Any consideration of gender roles and positions aside from all these factors (and many more) simply misses the mark. Palin has not substituted plenitude for lack, or “physical fortitude and indomitable spirit” (Paglia) for wimpy, shrill, “politically correct” feminism. Rather, she is a phenomenon of the contemporary mediascape in which such binary oppositions are meaningless and pointless. Both the excitement she has generated (as a super-Mom who can do it all) and the disdain she has attracted (with bourgie liberals openly, and old-style country club conservatives more circumspectly, looking down on her as “white trash”), need to be understood, rather, in terms of communicative capitalism and its relentless premediations.

If Palin embodies any sort of plenitude, it is that of the commodity economy, rather than that of an economy of gender. Palin was (quite brilliantly) chosen by McCain because — like any successful commodity product in the postmodern marketplace — she embodies what Alex Shakar, in his novel The Savage Girl, calls a paradessence: a “paradoxical essence,” a conjunction of contradictory qualities. “Every product has this paradoxical essence. Two opposing desires that it can promise to satisfy simultaneously.” The paradessence is the “schismatic core, [the] broken soul, at the center of every product.” Thus coffee promises both “stimulation and relaxation”; ice cream connotes both “eroticism and innocence,” or (in more psychoanalytic terms) both “semen and mother’s milk.” The paradessence is not a dialectical contradiction; its opposing terms do not interact, conflict, or produce some higher synthesis. Rather, the paradessence affirms everything indiscriminately; it is a matter of “having everything both ways and every way and getting everything [one] wants” (from pp 60-61 and 179).

Palin is a paradessence, and hence a wildly popular commodity, because she combines the family-centeredness of the ideal suburban Mom with the ruthlessness of a corporate “warrior” in the dog-eat-dog neoliberal economy, or of a hard-core ideologue/foot soldier for the Far Right. She is sort of a perfect combination of June Cleaver and Ilse Koch. She both energizes the GOP’s fundamentalist-Christian base (which was previously very suspicious of McCain), and appeals to non-fundamentalist, independent white voters (who find her even more charismatic than Obama — with the added advantage that she’s white, to boot). It is probable that, given how gender formations work in America today, so powerful a paradessence would have to appear in the form of a woman, rather than a (heterosexual) man. But the most valid categories for comprehending Palin remain those of media theory and political economy, rather than those of the metaphysics of gender difference.

23 thoughts on “An Issue That Won’t Go Away”

  1. Agreed. It’s absolutely central to all the speculation about Palin that she is, for all intents and purposes, a total blank slate. And after she was announced by McCain, she was kept away from press or anyone who’d ask questions as much as possible. Into the void swarmed hordes of speculation, which, in 2008, will pretty much always become excessive immediately.

    Her own campaign’s embrace of regressive feminine stereotypes is indeed frustrating, but everything that needs to be said about the biggest imbalance in this election can be seen in every speech given by Palin, in which she repeatedly pounds home the “glass ceiling” slogans about the historic nature of her own candidacy – about a month ago Obama made an attempt at a lighthearted remark about how he doesn’t “look like the presidents on the dollar bills” and the right went crazy, calling “foul!” because he was “playing the race card.”

    The discussion about gender in recent weeks might be monumentally unproductive, but it’s clear that race is still the topic that can’t be mentioned in American politics.

  2. It seems that the left was totally caught by surprise by the choice of Palin, and does see her as some kind of terrifying cypher. The middle and the right have been talking about her as the best choice for at least a year.

    I think the big problem for the left now is that they only read each other.

    As Sun Tzu or others will tell you, the only possibility of winning a war is to study your opponent very carefully, and to know what they are going to do in any given situation.

    It was obvious to me that McCain was going to choose Palin for at least a year.

    The problem is that you guys won’t want Fox News, or read the books of Buchanan, or read centrist blogs. It’s very odd. It’s kind of ostrich-like.

    You can’t even stand to have a centrist commenting here.

    How on earth do you expect to find out about anything?

    The dwindling circles of the left as they gather in the remote pools of thought in the cavernous wastelands of what’s left of humanities departments seems to be creating a fishy creature that is almost completely blind to what’s happening outside of its environment.

    Everyone has a blind spot — Mrs. Palin’s was her daughter’s sex life, perhaps.

    But she is not the only one with blind spots. It’s part of humanity to not look at what you find troubling. But it’s paradoxically the only way to avoid trouble.

  3. in which such binary oppositions are meaningless and pointless.

    it´s not so much that they are meaningless and pointless, it looks more like the Palin-simulacrum er—modulates them, in order to satisfy opposed camps and get the highest number of voters. But behind it´s ´´uniform, chloroform, sanitized, vaporized´´

  4. Olson, who’s the centrist, you? Anyway, in the older post Shaviro put up, he calls her a right-wing maniac, which she of course has been proved to be, among much other filth–such as today recycling lies that were debunked 3 days ago, and now proved effective again. It was a brilliant political gamble which does seem to be paying off, and this is because all the exposes won’t be read by the lunchpail types and Evangelical illiterates she’s pandering to, but doesn’t give a shit about. The Times and the WaPo have good pieces, but it’s true that the metropolises don’t matter any more, just quick junk food such as Ms. Palin has served since she ‘fired her chef’.

    “Everyone has a blind spot — Mrs. Palin’s was her daughter’s sex life, perhaps.

    But she is not the only one with blind spots. It’s part of humanity to not look at what you find troubling. But it’s paradoxically the only way to avoid trouble.”

    Well, you had made some good points about how leftists (I’m not one, but you’re no centrist) should watch Fox News, but the rest of it goes out the window, which you’ve proved with the above: That Ms. Palin’s blind spot ‘was her daughter’s sex life’ is quite the blind spot for someone, that’s clear enough. And it is, of course, fabulously interesting that other people have blind spots.

    I agree with you only that she’s winning, and that Obama is very stupid politically, because any idiot knew he should make Hillary VP, and stop spending all this time trying to be ‘logical’ and ‘talk about the issues’. The American public doesn’t care about that sort of thing. They just want another ‘Mamma Mia!”

  5. Read this military / political blog post about ” OODA Loop” it offers another way of seeing what Shavior is describing with the paradessence concept.

    “The key is to obscure your intentions and make them unpredictable to your opponent while you simultaneously clarify his intentions. That is, operate at a faster tempo to generate rapidly changing conditions that inhibit your opponent from adapting or reacting to those changes and that suppress or destroy his awareness. Thus, a hodgepodge of confusion and disorder occur to cause him to over- or under-react to conditions or activities that appear to be uncertain, ambiguous, or incomprehensible.”


  6. Yes, Steve, I think you’re right on the money here. The gender issue, the question of feminism, is part of Palin’s “paradessence.” She’s a feminist who leaves intact the patriarchal family structures of conservative Christian America. I agree entirely that Palin needs to be understood through media theory and what you call “metaphysics.” I’ve been working through this myself on my blog, where I’ve argued both that Palin’s candidacy frames the race as a contest between reality TV and social networking and that Palin is the first virtual presidential/vice-presidential candidate.

  7. …she combines the family-centeredness of the ideal suburban Mom with the ruthlessness of a corporate “warrior” in the dog-eat-dog neoliberal economy

    Given Palin’s career has been made by opposing large corporate interests — specifically in the oil industry — and given her career has been as a small business owner and civil servant, there is nothing of the “corporate warrior” in her persona. Unless, of course, you are just throwing around terminology that is scary to ersatz progressives.

  8. I’m very surprised too that Obama didn’t choose Hillary. But I don’t think this would have saved the election for him.

    The problem for the Democrats is that they have come to believe that every problem is reducible to race, gender, and class. Any problem that falls outside that rubric is seemingly outside their competence.

    Steve here seems to think the problem is race rather than gender is the category that is sous rature as they used to say.

    I don’t think that’s the problem. The problem is that Obama can’t make any clear hard calls on any matter and the whole notion of any kind of limit is not within his bailiwick (“above my pay grade” as he put it). Even if he was saying that God should decide such matters, not him, he is the one who has to make the call since no one much has been able to get God to sit in the Oval Office and sign bills. He has to interpret what he thinks God is saying, at the very least, or has said. He can’t just pass the buck.

    He hasn’t said anything so far in two years in terms of a clear hard principle that he will stand by. He’s just floating with the electorate, adrift. His book The Audacity of Hope is wonderfully written, but if you go in search of a principle, as Diogenes went in search of a man, with a lamp, you will find that you come up as empty-handed as Diogenes himself did.

    That’s fine for the left, but I think that the center and the right will ask for something like a clear clean set of principles.

    Matriarchy doesn’t need principles. It’s by nature unprincipled, or rather, DESIRE is the only principle (which by nature is always shifting).

    This is why Sade really is different from Kant, in that for Kant the Ten Commandments are the codes he turned to.

    Do what thou wilt, on the other hand, especially if the other person seems to like it, or something like that, might be the code of the new left. It’s pretty vague.

    I, personally, wish that Ms. Palin was a Lutheran, rather than part of this Assembly of God crew. They believe in speaking in tongues. We definitely don’t. People in a church should speak in known languages, and address each other clearly, and talk about the principles involved.

    I’m not in favor of the far right churches (this is why I consider myself a centrist, although I am clearly light-years away from the likes of Toni Negri, and am probably closer to Palin than to Deleuze or to Negri, at this point, but only because I can at least understand what Palin is saying, for the most part).

    With the left it could be this, it could be that, you never know. The left has lost all principles except whim, and fashion, and the anti-principle of tolerance. Tolerance is something that is intolerable, because it basically precludes any kind of limit, or any kind of hygiene, or any notion of a norm.

    But the president and the legislature and the judiciary have to set norms. That’s what they are about.

    If no one’s going to do that, we might as well call the country an anarchist one, one without any kind of principles whatsoever. (An-arche.) Arche, meaning, principle, in the Greek.

  9. @Flea by throwing around terminology do you mean stuff like “ersatz progressives”? Or something else?

    And Kirby! haw hah haw! Are you sure? I mean, some Lutherans speak in tongues, they just don’t tell anybody about it. They wouldn’t dare. Plus, pshaw, only the most deluded think that there is something you can call “the” left with any authority. Ridiculous! The left has lost all principles. Man, when is the last time you actually met an actual leftist in this country? Talk about Diogenes’ lamp!

    Thanks for the Greek lesson but come on! First off arche is not just “principle” but rather the principle, as in the first or bottommost. Plus anarchy derives from no rulers, not from “no principles.” But keep striving, striver! I’m sure you’ll get through.

  10. In the ancient Greek philosophy, arche (ἀρχή) is the beginning or the first principle of the world.


    Please stretch your imagination to see how rulers and rules are related, Jon. It’s not so hard!

    I have little Latin and less Greek, but this is something that you should probably work on, since it’s part of your vocabulary.

  11. Here’s a kind of lengthy article that I think explains the rationale behind many voters who vote Republican. Of course, it’s easy to scream and to say, Republicans are just pigs with lipstick!

    But this article actually tries to assume that half of the American population (and lately, more than half) has a brain, and tries to do the hard work of understanding it.

    (NB: I first found this on communist poet Ron Silliman’s blog under the moniker — The Pathology of the Republican Party.)

    I was surprised to find that someone in academia had this ability to leave their own mindset in order to try to understand that of another.

    The article is almost poetry.

  12. “The article is almost poetry. ”

    Or not. It interprets holism from parochialism, with that shifty little anecdote about Bhubaneswar. And moreover, Greil Marcus would have a field day with the line, ” America lacks the long history, small size, ethnic homogeneity, and soccer mania that holds many other nations together, so our flag, our founding fathers, our military, and our common language take on a moral importance that many liberals find hard to fathom.” It’s both tragic and unsurprising (though, Ktismatics would have a lot to say on this affiliation) that this guy teaches at the University of Virginia, ironically overlooked by Monticello and Blue Ridge.

  13. But maybe the political economy of ‘paradessence’ and the dynamics of gender are more closely imbricated than you suggest. The right-wing Evangelicals you refer to have never separated the questions of economics, faith and desire…

  14. The one thought which should be on every American’s mind is this: Should McCain not finish out his term, how the heck can Palin possibly run our country?
    Nuf said.

  15. Palin was chosen precisely because her persona was so rich with contradiction – and therefore potentially attractive to many different sectors of the electorate. Authentic but inconsistent – this is what Lacan would call the Discourse of the Hysteric. As you say, the American people may find it easier to attach that kind of fantasy to a woman.

  16. Nice article. I especially like the introduction:

    ‘Paglia, for whom Palin represents the “robust and hearty” femininity, and a “can-do, no-excuses, moose-hunting feminism”, that supposedly existed in American frontier society before it was spoiled by the “whining, sniping, wearily ironic mode of the establishment feminism” of the last thirty years.’

    That’s not analysis, that’s interpreting current events to support what you already believe.

    Just one question, what is a Hockey Mom? Is it the re-interpretation of Soccer Mom but not polluted by foreign culture?

    Personally I think that Palin was a vat born human who didn’t exist before 2001, grown to order for this election by the Gnomes of Zürich or maybe by Kirby Olson and the Centralist Kabal. Perfect running mate n’est-ce pas?

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