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September 17, 2008


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Of course, one could vote for a third party candidate in one of the 'safe' states and be able to eat and have their cake too. A person in a swing state could could trade their desired third party vote with someone in a 'safe' state as well.

The last line in Shaviro's piece makes me cringe. There is no perfect moral choice but there may even better choices than the one concluded therein.

I've played all my cards in this election. I donated to the candidacies of Kucinich until he dropped, Edwards until he dropped, Obama next (I was a delegate for him until his FISA vote and decision to forgo public financing) and now I'm with Nader.

Given the passivity of the U.S. electorate, voting for Obama may be the more moral thing to do, but certainly not the 'only' moral thing. There is always room to grow and this election is far from over.

Joe Clement

I liked this too. I think (bouncing off of your comment on the original posting) that the *evil* designation is precarious too. It's not simply that it helps for the "lesser of two evils" trope, but that it also gives into the liberal temptation to treat their vote as a special, quasi-moralistic endorsement. The Kantian allusion is useful, because it is what I have been saying for the last several weeks: what's at stake ideologically in this election is not what we're doing (voting for and struggling to elect Obama) but why we are doing it (struggling for a better society and world, which at least partially means holding all our leaders accountable). You yourself and others have said as much, but it can get bogged down by some of this moralistic rhetoric.

The problem with this moral vision of *our votes* and voting in general is that it tends to obscure what we are doing. Though the stakes are clearly not the same, the French parallel would be the revolution turning practically into an end in-itself, and thereby into the Terror. I'm not making my point how I would like though. I'll just say that this moralistic impulse can either be viewed from within or with at critical distance (both, it should be clear, are fully engaged positions), and that it's our job to maintain, endorse and work from that distance. Only at and by virtue of this distance can we properly extract the Symbolic weight of Obama's campaign and (hoped to be) presidency.

The alternative is something like what I read in a bizarre, downright terrifying article I read in Rolling Stones (re-printed on Alter Net):

"What's confusing about Obama is that he's so successful at projecting an air of genuineness and honesty, even as he navigates the veritable Mount Everest of fakery and onerous bullshit that is our modern electoral system. And the reason it's confusing is that we've grown so used to presidential candidates who fall short of the images they present in public, we don't even know anymore what a man worth the office would look like. Is this him? Or is this just a guy with a gift for concealing the ugliness of the system he represents? As I watch Obama on the campaign trail, I know I'm listening to the Same Old Shit, delivered by a candidate who could cross the Atlantic on a bridge constructed entirely from Wall Street cash culled for him by party hacks and insiders. But I suddenly don't care. It's not just that the alternative is four years of the madman John McCain. It's that, if Obama wins, it will be interesting to find out, at long last, if there really can be something truly different about someone who sounds so much the same."

We may win the presidency, but the tragedy is we may not know or care why, and thereby we give up the best thing this campaign had to offer us.


Not sure that Steven's argument can be right. If Obama will make no real difference and if the reason to vote for him is he speaks and stands for a moral discourse whose efficacy is weak, then the decision to vote for the other side cannot be evil. After all, that decision may merely express a different kind of ethical engagement in the spectacularised world of presidential politics: not with the (false) abstractions of Kantianism and human rights etc but with the affirmation of a certain kind of white American ordinariness. It is not just dangerous but actually wrong to reduce this to good versus evil: in the end neither side is right. And anyway good versus evil is Bush and the evangelical right's territory.


this is depressing. mccain is ahead and the country is truly lost. one party rule during war time. And financials are going bust, as profits are privatized and losses are socialized. The country is pathological in denial largely 'cuz the problems are just too too enormous, too deep, and imbricated to serious address at this juncture. Brian Williams knows shit and Kant at this point is for kids.

Americans are unique 'cuz we have this "pragmatist" streak which clings to the importance of immediacy, to the mantra of empowerment, and to the ebullience of "choices." It also makes it easy for us to overreact within the myopia of what our practical options and trends permit. We push ahead with extreme conviction (most say "rational") but only within the structural constraints dealt beforehand. Its a way of denying our powerlessness.


Kurto--I've held the vote 3rd party in safe states line up til now for the reasons you give; I've changed my mind, though. On moral decisions: no moral decision is ever perfect. On Steve's use of 'only'--I think he means with respect to the election there is only one moral thing to do.

Joe: on distance, Zizek has written about the sense of distance as central to the hold of an ideological formation; an example: the soldier who says "I'm not a killer, I'm a good person," I am just killing because it's my role. Or the heartless management consultant who says, "I don't hate these people; it's my job to cut their jobs." So I'm not convinced that hanging on to something called critical distance is necessarily the best course. What persuades me in Steve's post is the conviction, the attachment to a moral position willing to name evil. Also, I don't think 'we' will win the presidency, even if Obama does.

Simon: the idea is that of attaching oneself to and reinforcing a moral discourse, to keep it alive rather than letting it continue to disintegrate (for example, even if people are discussing torture, I am committed to the view that it is wrong to discuss torture, that it fundamentally changes the character of the society and people who discuss it). On ordinariness: the ordinary can serve and support evil. To express the matter in terms of good and evil is to say that this is a fundamental disagreement, a disagreement too fundamental to allow the Right to control the terms of ethical discourse.

Joe Clement

"What persuades me in Steve's post is the conviction, the attachment to a moral position willing to name evil."

You also probably noticed how one of the commentators on the original post just as easily fixed "evil" on Obama, for his support of free-markets and economic expansionism. Clearly, "making it moral" doesn't resolve the Beautiful Soul's already moral passivity. I am not against assigning moral gravity to this election. What worries me is a misplaced morality.

I also understand the role that a cynical distance plays in contemporary ideology. I like to emphasize that it's cynical because there is a difference. Zizek himself is caught between sometimes advocating and sometimes critiquing what he calls a "critical distance." The critical lapses into the cynical or the perverse when we refuse to acknowledge (on the level of critical activity, of course) how we are nonetheless engaged with ideology. It is the distance we take with the Nazi, not when we say "Oh, maybe you were right; let's neutrally examine your claims about the Jews," but when we exclaim "your claims have nothing to do with the Jews!" In other words, a distance we take in order to be engaged.

The electoral situation I want to avoid is that we moralize our motivation for voting and in the process moralize voting itself. This is in perfect congruity with liberal democratic ideology, that voting is really an engaged form of political activity. I mean, Christ, you posted an article on this just the other day.

Then, per the quotation from Matt Taibbi's article I provided above, when the election is over I see lots of those Obama supporters having no way to get juiced up about political engagement. Lots of people like the "Obama is evil" commenter I initially mentioned show this anxiety in advanced they relieve with inter-passivity in advanced because they make the same mistake of moralizing the vote. What I want to avoid is an Obama electorate, largely the fraction represented by the Left, that can't engage ideological projects except through some kind of disavowal.


In response to Simon, I suppose we could understand "evil" in the terms set for it (according to my rudimentary understanding) by Badiou, who sees evil as the pursuit of actions that betray "fidelity to the event" -- whether that event is the event of love, art, politics, or science (according to Badiou's categories).

So in this instance -- and I think it's safe to say that this falls under "politics" -- we might see voting against Obama as a betrayal of the American fidelity to one of several political events: the ratification of the Geneva Conventions, the Constitutional Convention, the Declaration of Independence. If we see American politics as fundamentally bound to a reaffirmation of post-Enlightenment values -- if in word, if not in deed -- then to adopt the Republican stance is to *overtly* renounce the stated American commitment to these values, and thereby to betray the event of their initial establishment.

I'm speaking, of course, about *stated* commitments in words; the reality behind the words is, of course, quite different.

But Shaviro's post got me thinking of another Zizek discussion, one surrounding the issue of torture. For me, one of the most horrible moments in late 2001 was to see Alan Dershowitz go on CNN and start talking overtly about the need to use torture to interrogate the incarcerated "unlawful combatants." Zizek gets at what makes that kind of statement so horrible when he points out that the introduction of "torture" to legitimate discourse opens a Pandora's box. Even if it is contested and controversial, the real problem is the mere appearence of the notion of torture as a plausible subject of debate.

That is the consideration, I think, that must animate our enthusiasm for a hypocritical Democratic administration over a sincerely, overtly ruthless Republican one: the monstrous Republican language of the last eight years, which has introduced so many frightening ideas into acceptable discourse, must be shoved back into the box -- even if we implicitly recognize that Democrats are not going to rule these ideas out behind the scenes and away from their overt podium rhetoric.


Jodi writes:

"(for example, even if people are discussing torture, I am committed to the view that it is wrong to discuss torture, that it fundamentally changes the character of the society and people who discuss it)."

I'm a little shocked to read this, and not only because you are saying without a change what Zizek said at his APSA talk.

We were reading Foucault's "Discipline and Punish" in class, and one of the students mentioned that she had visited a "torture museum" on a vacation through Europe.

So we spent our two hours of class trying to answer the question: "Why do we do this to ourselves? Why, as a culture, do we build "torture museums" and then, on holiday, go to visit them?" (Similarly, I asked them if that week they had seen people die or cruelly injured in the media (movies, video games, etc.), how many deaths or scenes of cruelty they had witnessed, and then, the big question: why do we do this to ourselves? This concerns the nature of enjoyment, Zizek's big idea. (And the self-reflective question: why is it thematized in a political theory class: is it critical distance? is this mimesis as echo chamber? or subversive mimesis?)

Of course, there are many answers to these sorts of questions.

One kind of answer: People like to moralize while, at the same time, they take a vicarious thrill in identifying with the torturer, and with the tortured, and with the instruments/technologies of cruelty. The torture museum shows how far "we've" come from the Inquisition, and yet, how near we are, not just because the U.S. government (and others) torture, but because we still take fascination at our own pleasure in such scenes.

This is not the only response, but I offer it here as a counter to what Zizek said: that to speak of when it is okay to torture and when not is to degrade our moral sense. Well, in saying so, Zizek is at the same time titillating us (by talking about torture) and claiming the high moral ground (by saying we ought not talk about it). He is practicing a Hegelianism. He is not not talking about it. He is talking about it, and trying to negate it at once--but is there an actual sublation? That, perhaps, is something of the key to his style generally.

I prefer a more (American) pragmatist approach. Zizek's injunction to leave underdeveloped a refined sense of torture, to remain naive about torture, is an armchair moralist's position. It is not enough to negate the question: "When is it okay to torture?" by answering, "Never, and let's stop asking." The definition of torture is a variable, and we can't let that debate happen beyond the bounds of what political theorists might say about it.


I agree with Dale.

Joe--I'm not moralizing voting per se (as all the cites to Reed should make clear). This seems to be your primary refrain. Ok. I get it. Regarding Zizek on critical distance: I don't Zizek is 'caught' here. Rather, not every situation is the same. There isn't an easy formula that we can just seamlessly apply that will tell us what to do.

Moralizing: it might be what we 'like to do.' We sometimes might get off/enjoy moralizing. But that doesn't mean we don't have any moral responsibilities.

Ron-ron--like I said, I agree with Dale; after 9/11 when torture became part of the discussion, putting the Geneva Conventions up for grabs, that changed the character of the US. The discussion wasn't a matter of what is torture, a question addressed in US law for over a hundred years; the question was, when is torture justifiable. It is never ok to torture. Zizek wasn't titillating the audience and talking about torture; no graphic descriptions (unlike what Bush did in his 2003 state of the union address when he graphically described scenes of torture). So, no Hegelian dialectics here.

Joe Clement

"Moralizing: it might be what we 'like to do.' We sometimes might get off/enjoy moralizing. But that doesn't mean we don't have any moral responsibilities."



RE: We shouldn’t argue the election on the grounds that Palin is “unqualified” or that she is “trashy.”

I agree with this. The problem with Palin isn't socio-economic origins, but rather her views. And I also agree with the statement that we should vote for Obama for his stated views--even if there's a little chance of a follow through. For one thing, I think that rhetoric itself creates certain expectations among the public and the expectations that have been voiced are morally good. The public, once mobilized around that message, can remain a potent force if Obama fails to follow through. With McCain, on the other hand, we have someone who cynically calls for a policy that we know enriches and empowers the wealthiest sliver of American society.


I think William Irwin Thompson gives some excellent reasons as to why you would have to be insane to vcte for the "GOP" at this crtical time in HIS-story


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