A Checkup on that Palinoscopy

September 11, 2008

“That’s not change, that’s just calling some of the same something different. But you know, you can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig.”

– Democratic Presidential Nominee, Barack Obama

These comments by the Illinois Senator set liberals a’clappin and the McCain Campaign a’cryin “Sexism”, “Sarah Palin ain’t no piggie!”. Of course, the bourgeois media quickly took up this vapid discourse, even though Barack was talking about the McCain campaign, and the Republican nominee himself said the same thing about Hillary Clinton’s health care proposals. But is that quote actually calling Sarah Palin a pig, in light of her RNC speech?

As I wrote in my last post, the humor of Sarah Palin’s “lipstick” joke revolves around implying sameness through a superficial non-difference. In the case of the joke, the non-difference and the punchline was “lipstick”. Considering the structure of Sarah Palin’s joke, the signifiers of “Sarah Palin” were the words “Hockey Mom” and “Pitbull”. The “lipstick” was merely the non-differentiating agent, and Palin’s joke in no way implies that lipstick is unique and essential to either Hockey Moms or Pitbulls. Therefore, the notion that Sarah Palin was called a pig is utterly false. If that notion were true, that would also imply that anything wearing lipstick is Sarah Palin: Vultures, Rabbits, Shirt Collars, Tetris, Tugboats, etc.

If anything, Obama’s quip reinforces the idea of sameness that Palin was coyly pushing. In that case, any equivalence between the two jokes lies in their rhetorical usage rather than their signifiers. Obama’s quote is a scathing critique of Sarah Palin’s rhetoric, jabbing at the pretention of differentation. Even if you are convinced that the Obama quote referred to the Sarah Palin identity (although the context implicates the McCain Campaign’s borrowing of the “change” motif), Obama wasn’t saying “Sarah Palin is a pig”, but rather “Sarah Palin is full of shit”.

– s


A Painless Palinoscopy

September 5, 2008

“You know what they say is the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”

– Republican Vice-Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin

This unscripted quip by the Alaska Gov’ner and VP Nom drew cheers at the RNC and punning headlines all throughout the media. Not that I’m one to take anything a politician says seriously, but this impromptu joke is worth some critical assessment, not because I’m trying to prove anything about Sarah Palin, but because I think the joke isn’t funny.

Let’s begin with the speaker. I imagine that Sarah Palin was looking to bolster her own aggressiveness within the context of maternal responsibility, more vulgarly, she was going for the “I’m a hot bitch and a small town mom at the same time” impression. What better way to do this, than witha a punchline? Within the context of the speech, the joke came as she was transitioning from the nowhere USA working class credentials, to the political resume. She wanted to spice it up with the notion that the fight (rather than the flight) is essential to her.

The humor of the joke lies in paradox between the superficiality and uniqueness of the stated difference. Because the joke is all about “differences”, the sameness that it actually conveys becomes masked. Sarah Palin was just a shade of grey away from saying “Mothers are bitches”. The phrasing of the joke seeks to shift the responsibility of the content away from the speaker with a downright sophism, hence the “they say”. Sarah Palin doesn’t actually say “mothers are bitches” (although she does), they do. The anonymity of the source is as much a projection of self as it is an affirmation of content.

Then there are the terms chosen:

“Hockey Mom” – a media-fabricated label for white bourgeois women. According to Slate, the median income for Hockey Moms is around twice the national average. On the “Mom” scale, being a soccer mom is a step below, since youth soccer leagues tend to be cheaper and filled with minorities of all shapes and smells.

“Pit bull” – a domesticated dog that’s a breed of a bulldog and a terrier. Since they are tough, sturdy dogs, they have been used for ranching, hunting, rescuing, as well as cocaine sniffing. Pit bull’s have recently gotten bad press, they are used in illegal dog-fights and have been known to kill babies. Wikipedia states that “with guidance from its handlers, [Pit bulls] are obedient and show a high desire to please. However, when left without direction they can become stubborn and may become aggressive”.

“Lipstick” – although it’s been around since ancient Mesopotamia, most people associate lipstick with its modern form, that is, as a commodity that enhances superficial appearances.

Given Palin’s motivation, these qualifiers are rather odd. First, there is the choice of “Hockey Mom” rather than “Mom” (a term that’s profoundly universal). A Black mother of two in Alabama and a Orthodox Jewish mother of eight in Williamstown don’t fit the qualifier, unless their kids play hockey. They are excluded from this representation of toughness, determination, etc. Then there is the “Pit bull”… Sure, people think pit bulls are “badass” or whatever, but they are domesticated animals designed to be subservient to their masters. That Sarah Palin chose a small domesticated animal over a wild one (Bear! Tiger! Penguin!) is telling. It’s also interesting that Pitbulls aren’t even a pure breed, they are a cross. They bear the indignity of design (essence preceding existence). Finally, there’s the “lipstick” punchline. Considering the mechanism of the joke, “lipstick” carries the weight of “the difference” between white woman and domesticated animal. It’s interesting that she chose “lipstick”, a symbol for female superficiality, a commodity fetish. For the punchline, Sarah Palin could have pointed to her breasts and said “these” (although she was at the RNC), or she could have said “chap stick” (a more poetic choice), or “birth control” (but she’s evangelical), or any number of things… So what does this all add up to?

“You know what they say is the difference between a bourgeois white mother and a domesticated animal? Lipstick.”

Probably the reason why I didn’t care for the joke isn’t that Sarah Palin says she’s a bitch, but that she’s someone’s bitch. She manages to convey both bourgeois entitlement and a dehumanized submission. All with reductive and dehumanizing qualifiers. The way the media is treating Sarah Palin, and it’s own sexist treatments is an issue unto itself. What bothers me about Sarah Palin isn’t that she’s a religious conservative, or that she’s inexperienced or slightly fascist, or that I would rather die than have her as my mother… She’s bound to the paradox of a woman with a pregnant teenage daughter who flies around with a special-needs baby about to be born and returns to work three days after its birth, that’s to say, a woman who forsakes being a human mother to being a political mother… Surely, she’s entitled to seek political office while raising five kids (more power to her!). She also happens to think that she’s entitled to everyone’s reproductive rights and to ban books, but that’s another matter… What bother’s me about Sarah Palin is that she seems to be nothing more than strategic advertisement for the McCain campaign, down to the Juno-esque pregnancy and the snowmobile racing husband. She chose to become an image, a commercial. You can argue the same for Barack Obama, although I find him a much more compelling image because of its historical implications.

If Sarah Palin had been a reincarnation of Descartes, she would have probably said:

“You know what they say is the difference between a bourgeois white mother and a domesticated animal? Reason.”

Whether she wanted to or not, Sarah Palin touched on an essential question. What separates us from animals? This summer, I read “The Lives of Animals” by J.M. Coetzee. In it, a fictional character named Elizabeth Costello gives a rather radical lecture about animal rights at a university. What interested me most about her arguments was the refutation of the Cartesian argument that reason separates us from animals. This notion of reason is unprovable. Testing the “intelligence” of animals with mazes and puzzles, only forces them to think the basic thoughts we want them to, such as “how the fuck do i get to my food?”. A more essential thought would be “why am I here?”, “why has this scientist taken me from my home?” or “how do I make him return me to my home?”, which is harder to prove, if at all possible (Kafka wrote a great short story about this). It’s just an absurd methodology as if we threw people in a jungle and see how well they “reasoned” things out. That we are different from animals is so obvious to us, yet so hard to pinpoint. A classical Marxist would say that Sarah Palin’s joke has truth to it, if it’s spun properly. That is, if “lipstick” were taken to mean a totality of social processes rather than a fetish. Marx believed that the difference between us and animals was in the fact that animals at most collect while men produce. While, I think this thought goes in a good direction, it’s not an entirely satisfying answer… What about language? Or society? How would this be tested given the complex and variable relationship between self and environment…

I digress… all this for a joke? you may ask. It’s only a fucking joke!

Yeah… i guess.

– s


The Tyrant Poet and the Aesthetics of Genocide

July 23, 2008

Blazing the headlines this week: Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade for committing war crimes during the Bosnian War in the 90s. These crimes include killing at least 7,500 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica during an ethnic cleansing campaign in 1995, shelling Sarajevo during a 43 month siege, and using 284 U.N. peace keepers as human shields -an impressive criminal resume. Karadzic will be facing the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague. Rather than focusing on the Bosnian conflict and all the craziness in Yugoslavia (Slavoj Zizek gave a fantastically rambling lecture on the overall nature of the Yugoslavian conflict and NATO’s intervention that’s worth reading), I want to digress on the absurd circumstances of his capture and his characteristic intellectualism.

Unlike Saddam Hussein, who was sucked out of a hole in the ground, Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade, living as Dragan Dabic, a bearded alternative medicine practitioner. Rather than be a fugitive, Karadzic simply assumed a new identity, playing the character of Dragan Dabic to its logical limits. Dragan Dabic successfully ran a private alternative medicine practice, living and moving about comfortably, without security, in Belgrade.

Dr. Dabic was a proponent of “Human Quantum Energy”. In fact, he emerged as a local leader in alternative medicine, giving lectures at alternative health symposiums, making appearances on TV Shows, publishing articles in magazines… He even maintained his own personal website, which offers special trinkets, including a necklace described thusly: “This necklace is for personal protection. It is worn on the chest at the height of the fourth chakra and thymus gland, the gland of youth and immune system. It harmonizes the energies of the aura and the physical body, protects from harmful rays … If you hold it in the palm of your hand for a few minutes it causes a turbulence of energy of the chakra, heats up, and vibrates even though it is not battery powered.”… The way in which a dictator that started a campaign to “terrorize and demoralize the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat population” that left over 200,000 dead and millions displaced managed to disappear completely into the image of a friendly, well-adjusted, holistic healer that “gave lectures comparing meditation and silent techniques practiced by Orthodox monks” reaches the limit of dark comedy. It is so disturbingly absurd that the only way I can respond is by laughing.

It’s no surprise that Karadzic pulled off this kooky doctor cover; before being a murderous tyrant, Karadzic graduated from medical school and eventually became a psychiatrist. But the holistic healer guise is particularly absurd because it’s an embodiment of Karadzic’s aesthetic antithesis… Aesthetics? What Aesthetics!? Well… turns out that Karadzic is also a published poet.

Suffice to say that Karadzic wasn’t the Rimbaud type. His poems are generally very disturbing, suffused with ego-maniacal messianism, self-adoration, and destructive imagery. Take his poem titled “Sarajevo”:

I hear the misfortune threads
Turned into a beetle as if an old singer
Is crushed by the silence and turned into a voice.

The town burns like a piece of incense
In the smoke rumbles our consciousness.
Empty suits slide down the town.
Red is the stone that dies, built into a house. The Plague!

Calm. The army of armed poplar tree
Marches up the hill, within itself.
The aggressor air storms our souls
and once you are human and then you are an air creature.

I know that all of these are the preparations of the scream:
What does the black metal in the garage have for us?
Look how fear turned into a spider
Looking for the answer at his computer.

In reference to this poem and the shelling of Sarajevo, Karadzic remarks: (the translation seems to be off?)

There is a poem of mine about Sarajevo. The title was “Sarajevo,” and first line was “I can hear disaster walking. City is burning out like a tamyan in a church.” In this smoke, there is our conscious of that. And a squad of armed topola—armed trees. Everything I saw armed, everything I saw in terms of a fight, in terms of war, in terms of—in army terms. That was 20, 23 years ago, that I have written this poem, and many other poems have something of prediction, which frightens me sometimes [laughter].

Here it’s evident that Karadzic’s messianism begins as a fulfillment of prophecy, in other words, a vain sublimation of sociopathic fantasies. The God complex is even more glaring in this untitled poem:

This fateful hour stiffened and reached the sky
Like a tree it now binds all existence in its branches
I am the cause of universal distress
A certain knight called Moses secretly fears me
From this fateful hour hours pass by upward like my head
And you are bound by some chilly
By some frosty terror
It’s only the snake-like world that changed-its dirty skin
For the moment
It is only I who sprouted from the Universe like the morning star
And the Universe blushed with envy and changed colors
It is only cowards eating their cowardice
And their non-existent strength
It is I speaking and burning
I won’t be silent after all
And let the crowd go to the devil past redemption
I’ll handle you in no time
And without much ado
And right at this moment
A tomcat shall peep at the neighborhood kitty through a chink
And two lovers
Shall stand by the first casket on hand
And kiss each other as I command

If you are interested, the links to the poems feature several other poems. I’ve used my “favorite” of these in this entry… But what do these poems say about Karadzic’s aesthetic ideas?

Walter Benjamin, in his influential essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” argues that “all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.” Being that this essay was published in 1936, during the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, Benjamin links the aesthetization of politics directly with nationalistic fascism. Perhaps the earliest voice for such a war aesthetic (and fascist art) is Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti. In a manifesto about the Ethiopian Colonial war, Marinetti wrote:

War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others…Poets and artists of Futurism! …remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art … may be illumined by them.

Through the aesthetization of war, the Futurists sought to figuratively destroy the fetters of the past, the hands of history, the forms of memory. In that sense, Karadzic is the Fascist Futurist ideal: the tyrant-warrior poet that sought to destroy history and memory in the most palpable way possible, through genocide. Following this logic, Karadzic may have hoped the Bosnian War to be his Symphonie Phantastique. That such gruesome and cruel reality be equated with the transcendence of art may be a symptom of our hyper-capitalist modernity, where self-alienation (as Benjamin wrote) “has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”

– s