Rush Limbaugh calls a law student, Sandra Fluke, a slut and a prostitute (and assumes they are the same thing) because she speaks at an unofficial congressional hearing on contraception. When asked to apologise by Democrats, the conservative commentator came out with all guns blazing in a defensive-offensive (assuming the broad natures of both words) attack on women who want access to birth control under health care plans: "So Miss Fluke, and the rest of you Feminazis, here's the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex. We want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch." The seemingly contradictory arch-conservative view on pregnancy, being both anti-contraception and anti-abortion, is turned sensical by adding in a parenthesised Madonna-whore complex. This branch of liberalism, which can not possibly be seen as "favouring maximum individual liberty", equates sex with sluts, and sluts with prostitution and pornography. Oh, you wouldn't mind us watching, because the act of having sex without intent to conceive is selling yourself anyway (the soul/body divide becomes more interesting here; the sullied soul can divest the body of all rights).
How did I hear about this so late? Probably because I am still unsure about how to toe the consumption line between 'good' left-wing media and its 'bad' right-wing counterpart (although they're not really counterparts, are they? The right wing is much more enjoyable, a real fleshy, rotting apple, but more on that later). As well-informed modern internet users, we are, I feel, expected to be consuming just as much trash as, if not treasure, semi-precious news material. We are expected to know what the other side are reading, hearing, and saying about the issues that we consider of vital importance for the coming election, year, decade, etc. Yet sometimes it feels as though this is just a game for laughs, the comedy rounds for the better-informed. Can you believe they said that?! Insanity! A plethora of crackpot facts, bad faith, maddening distortions, and riling conclusions that shock you and then,
NELL: One mustn’t laugh at those things, Nagg. Why must you always laugh at them?
NAGG: Not so loud!
NELL (without lowering her voice): Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. But–
NAGG (shocked): Oh!
NELL: Yes, yes, it’s the most comic thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it’s always the same thing. Yes, it’s like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don’t laugh any more.
–Endgame, Samuel Beckett
Life is perhaps absurd. The only thing to do is laugh. Or is it? Equally potent aphorisms come to the aid of action. Pinter, one of Beckett's biggest champions, comes to mind. And it seems true that Nell's truism works for genuine political discontent. We care, and we read, and we pen, and perhaps it all seems to come to nothing, the world spews up the same stuff and we become disillusioned. But I tend to think that action, being on the side of production, is more lasting than laughter, which ambiguously sits on the consumer-producer fence. More like a cough, but funnier. We can have both but if we only take one, it ought not be just laughter. So, back to the news. Why this constant trawling if it comes to nought but 'lol's (the irony of Nell's statement becomes obvious here; the replacement of laughter-the-act for laughter-the-symbol)? Do we have a serious counter for that which we think absurd and dangerous? As the political and cultural right become more brash and toxic, the left seems to become more quietly devastated. Animated conversation, communion in the living room - don't we all realise we feel the same? - cumulation and defeated culmination. The pause at the end of the sentence. What sets in? That somewhat indescribable blanket that vaguely touches various defeats; smallness, insignificance, powerlessness. The small changes we could effect seem ultimately ineffectual, the big changes seem out of reach or too hard. It would mean giving up a lot. But the need still arises and we still read, laugh, talk. The pause at the end of the conversation.
We have to face the fact that the quietism of lefty politics cannot counter the radicalism of the right. There is something otherwordly, sci-fi, about the politics of the right. It is an outrage, a shock to the senses and the imagination. Bogus logic, idio(t)syncracies whose amalgams can't hold. The left holds no competition for the appealing nature of crazy politics, content matches visual and aural style; serious vs. delirious, sombre-and-rational counters lively-with-(out)rage. The left generally refuses to go to bat for big thematics, the sticky threads that hold the whole thing together, however badly they do so. We are Lyotard's children still attending the funeral of metanarratives, which, though pronounced dead over three decades ago, continue as spectres needing constant ritual appeasement to prevent a return haunting; communism, bauhaus-inspired mass-housing utopianism, social engineering in the extreme (where the word 'social' hardly fits anymore, requiring as it does a degree of freedom in the association of its members). Every time the left tries to speak about a vision for the future, it has to preface with a positive renouncing of the past - yes, I want more communality of resources, but, no, I do not want a return to totalitarian communism. Is is necessary to each time outline what we don't want simply because it is (often remotely) connected linguistically or historically? Is this kind of defence demanded of the right? Even if it is demanded, the right have managed to wipe away any negative connection to the past and can often treat it as if it is absurd logic to even mention it. How?
The right work more with abstract ideology based on feeling, the kind of politics that takes after religion in form (and content, often). Hegel wrote that religion (he was specifically talking about the rise in Western christianity) took over as the ideal form of Geist (lit. Spirit, but not necessarily in religious terms) in expressing world history, as the plastic arts had done in the time of the Ancient Greeks. Religion worked on inner feeling, meaning it was an embodied experience (thus sensual) of communion with something higher. The sensuality of ethereality, the weight of light and lightness. It is feeling that attracts people to higher causes when they turn from organised religion and an Eternal Super-Thou (to use Peter Sloterdjik's phrase), and feeling that allows affinity with ideologies, shaved as they are of their concrete particulars. Particulars are fiddly and complex, they do not whisk one away; rather, they demand grounding, and a trudging through it. They are, perhaps, a little boring.†
But, back to the right, who use feeling as their primary means of appeal and thus do away with the need for particulars and even concurring tenets. As Zizek points out, many pro-capitalists will blame the problems with the financial crises peppering the world right now on too much government intervention and not enough real capitalism. The same thing occurred on the radical left under communism. Things weren't working because the communism was not pure enough - the utopia could not be brought down to earth. That's the funny thing about utopias - they are abstract visions of perfection. Or perhaps it is easier to say that perfection is always an abstract vision. The feeling Descartes described when he explored proofs for God - the experience of the infinite applied to man's faculties, the infinitely good, wise, powerful, etc - is perhaps similar to the Kantian sublime, an overwhelming excess that creates euphoria (though the Kantian formula comes pre-laden with Kant's own religio-rational agenda). Kant describes the ability for us to encompass as an idea a whole which is essentially unable to be encompassed, i.e. 'infinity' is the concept that bounds infinity, which we cannot properly get at. So, the right is still working with feeling, with irrational or a-rational appeal to abstract ideology and they are getting more radical, in both their contradictions and their tenets. And it is feeling that fuses the gap that is left gaping in their logic. Faith. This attack against women is one of the latest examples amongst many harebrained others.
It is interesting that in his apology Limbaugh stated, "For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week." Was he giving example or was he serving as one? Illustration is an appropriate word for this kind of political swamping. The more colourful, the more effective. But they'll borrow what they call the left's relativism and apply it to the truth. Rush simply "chose the wrong words in [his] analogy", in what was merely an "attempt to be humorous". And what better words could he have used in his analogy? Perhaps we should hear them because there was little other likeness he could have been explicating than the sex=slut / Madonna-whore dichotomy. Perhaps he could use strumpet, or cocotte, or fille de joie, or simply allude without making explicit - a great media coverall tactic. Here's Harold Pinter: “The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, and anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its true place. When true silence falls we are left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.”
Rush and other conservative commentators regularly do away with avoidances only to put them back in place in an even more insidious game. I say it, then I say, "jokes". I put it in print or on the airwaves and then I retract in small print on the back page. Well, it can't be unseen or unheard, and apologies don't pay the equivalent of what was exacted. We'll end with Rush, who, in his apology, asked the questions that I'm asking, that both sides are asking and would like answered: "What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow?"
†It is actually this that speaks for the embodied nature of artworks - cinema, installation, and music et. al. - to express feeling and to touch at human truths without delving into the textbook particulars. But as we have seen from recent history, it is not feeling that can successfully govern a society that we might want to live in.
Image: Berthold Furtmeyr; The Tree of Death and Life