It is essential to remember that only the mind can create, and that correction belongs at the thought level…. Change does not mean anything at the symptom level, where it cannot work.
– A Course in Miracles
My coworker handed me a copy of this week’s issue of the New Yorker yesterday. I wasn’t paying attention when she passed off the magazine so my reaction to the cover was a bit belated. As I ripped open the magazine’s plastic covering, and my eyes adjusted to the image, I was simultaneously dumbfounded and relieved. Dumbfounded because, on one level, I couldn’t believe Mr. Friedman and the New Yorker editorial board thought it was a good idea to refigure George Washington as Barack Obama, or, to convert Barack Obama into George Washington. But at the same time, I was relieved because I could believe – and shouldn’t have been surprised – that the folks at the New Yorker would release such an image to visually signify how our political present heralds a new beginning.
Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up and it’s a relief that I don’t have to, otherwise my entire analysis of our contemporary malaise would seem like a figment of my imagination. The cover image, this “commemorative” picture that you can order online and keep for posterity, is a symptom of a deeply rooted problem that must be corrected at the level of thought, at the level of the episteme, not at the level of the regime.
Alas, the break is always a repetition.
I won’t rehearse the full argument here, check out Firefighting on MLK Day and All in the Family 1, 2 and 3, for that, but suffice it to say that “New America” is only new to the extent that it has fully duped itself into believing inclusionary politics is tantamount to radical social change, rather than superficial rearrangement of the chess pieces. Such delusion is also symptomatic of the root illness. Speaking of symptoms, let me explain my title.
Our friend, Slavoj Zizek, possibly one of the most influential thinkers of our time, wrote a book by the same title in the 1990s. Zizek’s book concerns itself with Lacanian psychoanalysis and popular culture, or the ways in which some of Lacan’s central motifs can assist in the analysis of popular culture. In its strictest sense, the “symptom” is understood as an embodied, corporeal metaphor for a repressed desire. That which is deeply yearned for, but cannot be consciously entertained due to some powerful social interdiction, pops back up in a new form, either as a compulsive behavior or physical ailment. Following Zizek’s shift from the analyst/analysand context to the domain of popular culture, we can read certain cultural objects as symptoms betraying a repressed collective desire.
For clarity’s sake, I should say I am intentionally weaving together two connotations of the word/concept “symptom” into one, where I mean to suggest that the symptoms in question (primarily the image of Obama-Washington above, and secondarily the delusion of Progress) are both indicative of a repressed desire and a systemic imbalance, in the physiological sense.*
First, the repressed desire. It seems to me that the image betrays a yearning for more of the Same, by which I mean more of the same structural arrangements that Washington helped establish. Sure, Washington represents a break with English rule, but such a break was itself a repetition if we consider that the overarching theory of what it meant to be human didn’t change, a theory that had embedded in it both the presumption of capitalist exchange as the only logical mode of social organization and a notion of race that supersedes the race-as-phenotype model.* Yet, desiring white supremacy, desiring heteropatriarchal family structures, US global dominance and the continued peonage of workers are desires that rarely find their way into language. Rather, what we hear is “Change!” This is what must be said in the face of a social interdiction rendering identity-based discrimination not only passé, but straight-up uncool, thus racism turns into multiculturalism, patriarchy turns into liberal feminism, and heterosexism turns into gay pride and queer weddings.
But, the systemic imbalance persists, such that all of the above “social transformations” are themselves symptoms of said imbalance. What, you ask, is out of whack? Well, two things at two different registers. First, the very idea that one world view could possibly get it right, that is, get the description of reality right, is, quite simply, egocentric, delusional, and well, wrong. The multiplicity of human explanatory systems suggests that all are partial, imperfect knowledges with which we may weave a fuller, better picture. Nevertheless, Eurocentric thought universalized its local knowledge into global knowledge via colonization and enslavement. This error is an error at the epistemic level, at the level of knowledge, at the level of thought. Second, the practice of including previously “excluded” populations into the existing power structure mistakes this practical correction as a gesture capable of curing the real problem, that is, the error at the level of thought.
Thus, the New Yorker cover is perfect for its moment, but not for the reasons it thinks. The cover blends the old with the new in an attempt (I’m assuming) to suggest that Obama’s presidency marks a definitive break with the intolerable America Bush II made. But in so doing, it reveals that the break is actually a return to the Same, perhaps a kindler, gentler, more responsible Same, but the Same no less.
The image is symptomatic then, precisely because it signifies a repressed desire not to release the delusional ailment that the Euro-American worldview is The Correct Worldview. But, no one seems to notice, let alone care, that this is the sickness. So, by all means, enjoy your symptom!
*In Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Healing, symptoms are seen as indicators of a fundamental imbalance or block in the life force, Chi or Prana, depending on the tradition. Rather than treat or repress symptoms and then declare the patient healed, these healing traditions seek to address the root issue which is the imbalance or block itself.
*See the notes for Firefighting on MLK Day for a more detailed explanation of the idea of Race as a theory of what it means to be human.