Sunday, October 15, 2006

John Ashcroft On Belief: Why Christianity? It's Easy

In this short but telling interview John Ashcroft basically attributes his embrace of evangelical Christianity to the fact that it provides him an "easy" means of excusing his sins. He explains, "I'm a Christian for a variety of reasons. Maybe because it's easy. What I have to do to please God is to confess that I'm a sinner instead of trying to prove that I am good."

Well, at least Ashcroft knows he's a bad man. But as Sartre would put it, Ashcroft is acting in bad faith by objectifying himself as a being-in-itself, in this case a sinner, whose identity is fixed. By failing to imagine that he could at least work at doing good in the world, Ashcroft denies our capacity for freedom.

Of course, this denial of freedom is completely consistent with his political views and deeds and helps explain his defense of the Patriot Act and, in this interview, a failure to recognize the universal applicability of the Geneva Conventions.

Now, I'm no theologian, but Ashcroft's last sentence is particularly perverse, in the psychoanalytic sense. That is, for Ashcroft Christianity is all about becoming one of the elect who knows how to provide pleasure for the Other. Ashcroft fantasizes that he pleasures God by confessing his sins, which, conveniently, absolves him of having to "prove that I am good."

Note how self-absorbed Ashcroft's framework for conceptualizing religion is. In the individualistic binary he establishes, it's all about him, John Ashcroft. Religion is either about proving that one is good, or, in his version of Christianity, pleasing God. Either way there's no consideration about one's responsibility to act as Christlike as possible in this world, which we share with God's creatures and our brothers and sisters, nor is there any sense of how difficult it is to perform good acts and deeds in a fallen world.

Clearly, Ashcroft needs to ask What Would Zizek Do? and listen to a little of that rock 'n' roll music.

As St. Paul sings, "Absolution is out of the question..."

Friday, October 13, 2006

No Answers from this Bush

Around this time during an election year, we're all sick to death of being bombarded with political ads, the majority of which do little to educate the public about the way a politician has voted in the past and will likely vote in the future on specific issues. Instead of providing useful, accurate information, (which, it should be noted, can be found relatively easily online, if one is willing and knows how to search for it) these ads, whether they are attacking a politician's opponent or heralding the candidate, tend to dumb down everything in a crude effort to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Consequently, political ads usually remind me of the perverse state our union is in at present. The United States has become a virtual plutocracy, thanks in no small part, to the government's giveaway of the public airwaves to corporate broadcasters who have a media monopoly that puts tremendous constraints on the range of political discourse and debate. The situation that requires candidates to waste loads of time and money to publicize themselves and get their "message" across on TV and radio to potential voters.

But this ad by The September Fund is different. It's brilliantly simple. Please watch it.

Walter Benn Michaels Weighs In at The Valve

Walter Benn Michaels responds to bloggers who've been debating the merits of The Trouble With Diversity. In my estimation, he does an excellent job of refuting the major arguments against made him, most of which turn out to miss his major point concerning the way the Left's efforts to combat economic inequality (the US once aspired to wage a War on Poverty, after all, though it ultimately decided to fight a war in Vietnam instead) have been eclipsed in the US, first by modes of identity politics and then by a more banal commitment to "diversity."

(Cue Luna's "Lost in Space.") "I've heard it all before" at various UIC forums, so what I found most intriuging in this exchange was Michaels' response to the University Diarist, a blogger who wonders why the dedication to The Trouble with Diversity made her "skin crawl."

Lately I've been researching about affect and literature, a project that I suspect Michaels would view as a dead end insofar as it would seem to privilege the subject's response to the stimuli produced by textual object over the author's intention. The critics and theorists I'm looking at try to posit a subjectless affect, and at this point, to be honest, I'm undecided about the viability of this model, at least when it comes to writing.

But to return to the topic at hand, the UD's rhetorical question could certainly serve as a example of the need to reason through our initial affective responses. The UD's visceral response to the dedication in TTWD that leads her to fantasize about Michaels and his wife dying while having sexual intercourse. I won't go into details. It's just a bit too gross, not least because Michaels and Jennifer Ashton are colleagues of mine at UIC. (Yes, my response is based partly on my subject position.)

Anyway, here's Michaels' reply, which provides an example of how to respond with dignity to a pretty outrageous remark:

All this is put a lot more provokingly in the chapter itself, and because it’s put provokingly, I am not surprised that people are provoked. UD’s also being provoked by the dedication, however, I can’t explain. Maybe it’s because she literally misread it (she says it’s to “my wife” but it never mentions “my wife”). Maybe it’s because she doesn’t recognize that “so necessary” is an allusion and hence doesn’t see that it involves a certain amount of irony. But as to where her coital death fantasies come from, I’ve got nothing.

Coital death fantasies. Where's Zizek when we need him? I'm sure he'd have plenty to say on this topic, particularly within the context of a - ahem scholarly discussion. More importantly, I'd like to hear Zizek and Michaels debate the claim that the truth of a claim has "nothing to do" with the speaker's subject position. As I've suggested in an ebr essay discussing Zizek's account of Christianity's pervese core both Michaels and Zizek insist upon a universalist notion of the truth against varieties of postmodern pluralism or relativism. They also agree that multiculturalism, particularly academic multiculturalism, is a strategy for eliding class-based inequality. However, what I didn't address properly in my ebr essay was how differently Zizek and Michaels understand the truth.

The difference, in short, has to do with Zizek's commitment to a universally divided subject and his model of ideology, two factors that lead him to insist that a speaker's motives (both conscious and unconscious) matter greatly when it comes to assessing the validity of his or her claims. For instance, it might be true that Sadam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but when VP Cheney was making this claim in the buildup to the Iraq war, what mattered was the deeper truth concerning the motives for repeating this assertion publically from a position of great authority. Michaels would argue that Zizek's position is based on notions of authenticity that he finds irrelevent. I should work all this out rigorously at some point, but there's work to be done...

First, one pressing question: What is the ironic reference to "so necessary" that Michaels suggests the UD misses? My guess: Jay-Z's "Change Clothes, lyrics by Pharrell. If Walter is at today's colloquium, I'll have to ask him.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Commodify your Dissent and Conformity

Here's an informal, but effective analysis of the convoluted ideological messages conveyed in the current "This is Our Country" Chevy Truck. I'd refrain from describing it as a work of deconstruction, but I do want my American Literature and American Culture students, who read a piece by Rosa Parks earlier in the semester and are currently in the process of learning about various conceptions of ideology, to ask themselves "Can Rosa Parks Sell Pickup Trucks?"

Monday, October 09, 2006

Rushdie to Be Writer in Residence at Emory

Salman Rushdie is joining the faculty at Emory University, where I earned my M.A. in English. Insofar as Rushdie will be teaching mini-seminars to Emory grad students, I'll admit to having twinges of regret at deciding to leave there so many years ago. But while UIC might lack some of the cultural capital and certainly a lot of plain ol' capital that Emory possesses (it's known around Hotlanta as Co' Cola Campus), graduate studies here have, by and large, been more to my liking for a variety of reasons, which I'll keep to myself as a matter of professional pragmatics.