Obama, Prissy Prince Charming; Or, why it is possible to be an Obamabot and have a sense of humour

I’m not much convinced that The New Yorker cover works as satire (more on that below), but I think the guys over at JibJab have another hit with this take on the political campaign.


More later on why I think this works and the New Yorker cover fails, but first I have to say I’m so glad that the world is abuzz with cultural theory! Ok, not so much. But the New Yorker’s ill-fated attempt at satire has the chattering classes hard at work trying to parse questions of genre, reader response, aesthetic taste and various other kinds of folderol. If it was satire, would people get it? If people didn’t get it, could it really be considered satire. Does the message of the image depend upon it’s intended audience as David Remnick

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding?  You Decide

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding? You Decide

seems to suggest it does when he asserts that it’s intended, after all for “Readers-of-the-New-Yorker,” that snooty bunch. But is the meaning of the visual text here determined by the intention of the artists and the reading capabilities of an intended-and-oh-so-sophisticated-audience? In this day an age? When ANY text has no chance of being targeted exclusively at an intended audience because it will immediately be spewed endlessly into the blogosphere. What is an intended audience in such a world?

I’m impressed by the degree to which the discourse has revolved around criticisms of readings and possible readings. Maureen Dowd–I liked her much more when she was being smug and condescending about Hillary Clinton–smirks that obama is prissy and humourless and should just realize that COME ON, everyone in New York knows its just a joke. This seems just like the kind of answer a New Yorker would give, believing as they do, and apparently Maureen does, that the world is their oyster.

Philip Kennicott has a more interesting take on this same general idea over at the Washington Post. Agreeing with Dowd that Obama may be a bit too prissy in his response to the cover, he goes further and links it to the particular aura of printed material in comparison to our video-oriented imagination. Satire lives, but only in the bawdy possibilities of the moving image.

On “Saturday Night Live,” a sketch in which Michelle Obama tossed the flag in the fireplace and Barack Obama took off the pinstripes to reveal a flowing white robe would be seen as outrageous — and funny. Print cartoonists, unfortunately, find themselves working in an oxygen-free environment that is increasingly akin to the atmosphere of academia, or PBS. Cable television makes print seem like something ancient and sacred, a rule-bound sanctum fraught with the ever-present risk of sacrilege. Print is becoming a strange land where the solitary reader might easily go astray.

“People say, well, I get it, but I’m afraid that so-and-so is not going to get it,” said a mildly exasperated Remnick.

Which is to say that even as we pride ourselves on our media sophistication, as debunkers and decoders of the visual, we fret about the power of the printed image to circulate beyond the comforting control of television’s continuous interpretation and contextualization. In the age of YouTube — where for the most part we can still laugh at each other and ourselves — we are increasingly becoming print-humor iconoclasts, terrified that someone might be worshiping images in the wrong way.

I can really only go part way with him on this. Do we really think print is sacred. Just the other day in my reflections on Hard Times I was suggesting that we are so super saturated with “print”–broadly considered–that print has lost it’s aura. I think the same applies to the image.

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

[Side note: I can see the point that everyone can be a little condescending to readers in fly-over country, still, I think this take from Tom Toles on the controversy is a lot smarter than the original and a lot better satire too. Score one for the post, and tom Toles.]

It may, of course, be that a good number of lefties have been holding Obama sacred, and The New Yorker cover doesn’t work for the same reason that jokes about Jesus mother don’t play in the Vatican.

But really, I don’t think the real issue is that all the Obamabots are humorless. I thought the JibJab video was hysterical–and not just because it’s skewers are equal opportunity. It’s because the satire reveals and revels in something that is kind of really true about Obama, who is the subject of the piece. By contrast, the real subject of the satire on the New Yorker cover is nowhere to be seen–and, to be honest, nowhere in consciousness. We could, of course, satirize the reader of the The New Yorker because the reader is at the scene of reading and so, in viewing the image, would view something grotesquely true about themselves. Instead, the New Yorker cover tries to laugh at someone else without referencing that someone else anywhere in the image. Thus the image seems to be “about” Obama even when we pause and have to say “No, it really can’t be.”

This is not a lack of irony on the part of readers, as Remnick and others have lamented. Rather, the image is not ironic at all, playing off a doubleness contained within the image or within the readers’ experience of themselves viewing the image. Instead, it is a kind of postmodern archness which is anything but ironic. Indeed, I think it’s kind of smug.

On the other hand, the JibJab video really does reveal something that’s kind of true about Obama, as much as I love him. If stretched and distorted and made into a grotesque–which is what satire does, witness Swift–then you really feel the truth of the criticism that Obama is just a little too good to be true, and that too good to be trueness depends heavily on a lack of specificity that lets us project our fairy tales on to him. He will inevitable disappoint (witness Dowd’s grouchiness). In this sense, the video becomes not only about something that seems vaguely real about the Obama candidacy, it becomes about us as the viewers of the video (and more specifically as viewers of Obama). We see the truth about ourselves and our fantasies in ways that make us uncomfortable but also make us want to laugh.

None of this necessarily makes me happy, about the New Yorker, I mean. I used to think that The New Yorker was the repository of all that was smart and superior and intelligent in the world. But the guys over at JibJab are way smarter. Score another one for video. Where the smart people are.

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Barack Obama Secretly Married to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Who knew?

This just in from the New York Times as of 6:07 p.m. on Saturday afternoon:

But out on the campaign trail, Mr. Obama, of Illinois, was warmer and cozier, sometimes adopting the Bill Clintonesque I-feel-your-pain message used to such great effect by his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, in swing states.

Now I really hate to do this because everyone and their grandmother thinks that all an English professor does is check grammar. Still, I MUST point out that in this case “his wife” refers all the way back to the proper noun “Mr. Obama” since in fact “Bill Clintonesque” is an adjective modifying the noun “message.” And for you grammar hounds out there, a possessive pronoun cannot refer back to an adjective. No doubt the error was overlooked by an Ivy League undergraduate who is interning as a copy editing assistant and who never had to learn grammar since it is skipped in honors classes. Of course, writers mostly don’t bother with grammar anyway. Too far beneath them. Especially if they write for the New York Times.

However, one is intrigued by the possibility that this is NOT in error. Maybe Barack and Hillary did secretly tie the knot in Utah somewhere, or at least somewhere wherein the fact that you may already be married doesn’t matter very much. This gives a whole new angle on the tensions between Barack and Hillary on the campaign trail. What we all merely took for underhanded politics was really romantic and sexual tension gone awry. Hillary’s anger at Barack’s sexism was no doubt given an extra edge by the fact that he skipped doing the dishes and left the seat up the last time they were together. And what about this intriguing photo of the two love-birds together. Party unity, indeed! As for that evening of reconciliation at the home of Diane Feinstein where she said knowingly that she would “leave the two of them alone together”? No doubt with a wink and a nod. Inquiring minds want to know.

Political Enemies or Love-birds? You Decide
Combatants or Love-Birds? You Decide!

John McCain–Happy Hemingway or Hillary Redux

This in from the NYTimes evaluating last night’s victories by John McCain and Barack Obama:

On the Republican side, Senator John McCain of Arizona won a commanding victory over Mike Huckabee in the Wisconsin contest and led by a wide margin in Washington State. All but assured of his party’s nomination, Mr. McCain immediately went after Mr. Obama during a rally in Ohio, deriding “eloquent but empty” calls for change.

Umm…I’m wondering. Why does McCain think he can make this line work any better than Hillary has made it work for the past three months? Still, McCain comes at it from a slightly different angle. If, as I suggested a couple of weeks ago, Hillary is trying to protect the legions of naive American innocents from from the seductive Black Lothario, it seems to me that McCain is invoking more directly the masculine resistance to beautiful words that has dominated white male experience in the United States for the past 150 years or so.

No accident that McCain’s favorite novel is Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. This from Vanity Fair:

The enduring question about John McCain is what, finally, he is willing to do to win. His favorite novel is For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s story of an idealistic American, Robert Jordan, who goes to fight for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. Jordan is willing to risk his life but never his honor, and his dying meditation, that “the world is a fine place and worth the fighting for,” gave McCain’s second memoir its title.

Indeed, McCain has more than his share of doomed to dutyFor Whom the Bell Tolls poster integrity that characterized Hemingway’s public persona. The title of Hemingway’s book, of course, refers to an ultimate destiny in death and the unflinching effort of the real man to face that inevitable destiny with something like grace. A characteristic effort of Heminway’s heroes, even when they mostly fail the chance. There’s a way, of course, in which McCain clearly does live out the Hemingway mythology. The prisoner of war refusing to bend the knee to his enemies, the maverick political independent, the loyalty to Bush on principle regarding the war, even when in his heart of hearts I think McCain finds Bush despicable. Even McCain’s political story this primary seasons unfolds like that of a Hemingway hero, the man willing to do what he believes in without resources. The belief that a man should stand up and do the right thing even in the face of overwhelming odds and the inevitable odds of death. As the Times suggested a couple of days ago, he doesn’t even pander well, which is precisely what makes him attractive to so many. Even I like McCain, and I disagree with him about almost everything. Proof again that policy statements and knowing the ropes may be important things for a Senator, but it’s not so clear that this kind of political minutiae is what will get people to follow you.

[Ironic side bar: The title of Hemingway’s novel is drawn from John Donne’s MeditationFor Whom the Bell Tolls First Edition number XVII, republished as the following poem:

‘No Man is an Island’ MEDITATION XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I say “ironic” because Donne’s meditation is primarily about the unity of mankind, “No man is an island.” We are all part and parcel of one another, involved in all mankind. Sounds positively Obamian. We are the hope we’ve been waiting for. We are the world. We are the children.

In Hemingway’s hands the solitary confrontation with death is a chance for the man to test one’s mettle against the worst that nature offers, like the bullfighter in the ring. Finally we do this alone. I can’t quite see McCain with Donne. Maybe if he stood up and said, “any man’s death diminishes me…except that of Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and various and other choice enemies who would be better gotten rid of.”]

Nevertheless, even if McCain runs on this Hemingwayesque idealism, he’ll give Obama a better run for his money that Clinton is right now. On the other hand, if he tries to tell the American people that they are naive for hoping that the world can be different than thepolitical world the baby boomers created …well…politicians don’t get so far telling people they are stupid. The irony of McCain is that he was, in some respects, the Obama of the last political season. If he goes against the instincts that made him a winner in the past, he’ll just be another old guy that Obama will blow out of the water.

Side bar number two: Obama might well be saying, it’s morning in America. Hillary could learn more than one lesson from Ronald Reagan.

Side bar number three: I’m not so sure Obama isn’t more ruthless and politically savvy than Clinton gives him credit for. He appeared on television in the middle of Clinton’s speech last night, and every station in the country dropped Hillary to hear what he had to say. Why does Clinton think Obama is so unable to handle tough as nails and ruthless Republicans? He’s shown every ability to handle tough as nails and ruthless Democrats like, umm, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Barack Obama is a Woman! Who knew???

Scandal mongerers alert! Barack Obama’s heretofore unacknowledged sex-change operation threatens to derail his quest for the White House.

(Side Note: I have discovered that including many words like “sex-change,” “porn,” and “diarrhea” really pumps up your blog stats. Count on them from here on out).

Anyway, this in from Scripps-Howard

“If Clinton loses the nomination, do women lose? Rights? Power? Visibility? Clout? Are they not taken as seriously by the political establishment? A month ago I would have told you yes. Now I believe the answer is no. Why? Because metrosexual, pro-choice, pro-health care, anti-poverty Obama is, in every political sense at least, more of a woman than Clinton.

====

“Clinton’s female supporters who are watching Obama’s movement coalesce, solidify and take over should console themselves there will be a woman Democrat in the White House either way if the Democrats win the general election. The nominee will either be a woman with double-X chromosomes, or one with XY chromosomes who votes more like a woman than most with XX.”

Perhaps Bonnie Erbe has come up with the true and deeply troubled reason that Barack Obama draws tens of thousands of screaming female fans at whistle stop campaigns throughout the country.

He’s a gender-bender.

And just what does this say about the tens of thousands of screaming young and middle aged men who rush the stage. Deeply repressed problems with gender identity no doubt. Something we have always suspected of limp-wristed liberals and moderates anyway, yes?

Seriously, though, the gender weirdness of this campaign continues to demonstrate that Americans have a keenly developed, if not completely sick, sense of the politics of sexuality and gender. Obama is suspicious because he is too much of a woman, and Clinton is unappealing because she is too much of a man.

It is interesting to me, though, that Obama combines and focuses a great deal of discursive energy when it comes to the politics of not only race but gender. Several years ago in a class I was discussing the tradition of Black Christs within African American religion. My students, mostly young female Christians, largely agreed when one said that as she tried to imagine Christ as an AFrican American, she imagined he was more definitively male than the white Christ she had grown up with.

Well, this is the classic stereotype that we’ve lived with since the 20s. (I realize I’ve already posted on this, but I just can’t get over it) Black men are somehow supposed to be outrageously and uncontrollably masculine–all brawny testosterone, no brains, no tenderness. White men are somehow soft and feminine–at least if they are religious or educated. Jesus holding Mary’s little lamb. Obama’s “metrosexuality”–his softness, his charm (think, what kind of men do we describe as charming?)–humanizes the threatening masculinity his blackness might otherwise entail for white audiences. Clinton’s ill-fated effort to paint Obama as a seducer, as well as the effort to link Obama’s appeal to Jesse Jackson was not only dismissive, it was also an effort to link him to an older form and stereotype of threatening black male sexuality.

But now that we know he’s actually a woman. We don’t have to worry about any of that, do we?

Is it any wonder that the rest of the world wonders when we will grow up?

Garrison Keillor and Toni Morrison Tag Team Angelou and Grisham

Garrison Keillor, a personal favorite, has broken for Obama. As I suspected a while back, Obama seems to be doing well with the literary crowd—gathering in Michael Chabon, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and now Garrison Keillor. There may be others, but I can’t find them in the five minutes I can afford looking around on the web. Still, it’s not a total lock. Maya Angelou and John Grisham have put in for Clinton, with Angelou putting forth with about as much sagacious pomposity as Morrison mustered for Obama. According to Angelou, embedded below, we should be attracted to Clinton because “she gives herself authority to be in her own skin… to be who she is.” We further discover that Hillary has the honesty to stand up and say “Yes, I am a woman.” And further that she is her mother and grandmother and an great grandmother and great greats. And all women. And she is even Maya Angelou.

Going to be a crowded Lincoln bedroom. And here we thought we were only going to get a two-fer with Hillary and Bill.

Seriously though, I have some trouble with the notion that women ought to vote for Hillary because she’s a woman, any more than a man ought to vote for Obama because he’s a man or because he’s black, or McCain because he’s a man or because he’s white. This being said, I know it happens, consciously and unconsciously. So I don’t have an absolute problem with Angelou being straightforward about it. What strikes me, however, is that Clinton supporters have been quite frank and straightforward in arguing that people ought to vote for Clinton because she’s a woman. I don’t see quite the same straightforward statement by any prominent black supporters of Obama. And of course it would be absolutely politically impossible for someone to get up and say they were voting for Obama or McCain or Huckabee because they were men. So the rhetorical strategies are still interesting. What’s allowed and what’s not allowed. My general sense, still, is that Obama is the wiser in playing down a unique appeal to a “natural” constituency. Can Clinton speak for and to everyone. She doesn’t really try to make that case, and I imagine it will cost her in a general election.

Back to Keillor. Much more understated as befits a Minnesotan. Though, it must be said that Keillor’s understatement is no less strategic or conventional the Angelou’s and Morrison’s self-inflation.

“I’m happy to support your candidacy, which is so full of promise for our country,” the best-selling author and humorist wrote in a letter declaring his support. “Seven years of a failed presidency is a depressing thing, and the country is pressing for a change and looking for someone with clear vision who is determined to break through the rhetorical logjam and find sensible ways to move our country forward. That’s you, friend.”

“And of course it will be exciting to have a president who can speak with grace and power to the American people,” Keillor wrote.

A war that’s left 10s of thousand dead or maimed, and has saddled our grandchildren with crippling debts has left Keillor depressed. Well, perhaps this is self-inflation of a very understated sort. From what I gather though, many things leave the good Lutheran depressed, and for the melancholy another thirty or forty thousand dead is par for the course in the scheme of things.

Keillor’s compliments to Obama’s rhetoric stand out. Obama couldn’t muster a great deal of grace and power in his response, however.

“I’ve been entertained and inspired by Garrison Keillor’s work through the years,” Obama said in a statement. “As president, I will wake up every day thinking about how I can help make life better in places like Lake Wobegon all across the country.”

Umm. Ok. This is EXACTLY why I thought Obama was running. To help all those good folks with white picket fences in the land that time forgot. It’s an interesting contrast, of course, since Keillor, despite his liberalism, has made his literary career on the examination of a white ethnic community as “typically American” in an era when it’s typicality has faded by the hour. Indeed, there is no measure of how atypical Lake Woebegon really is than the candidacy of Barack Obama.

Have they even seen black people in Lake Woebegon. I have my doubts. As much as I love the show. I can’t remember a single one.

Michael Chabon and Ghost of Wallace Stevens in Political Slug Fest!

Ok. Again. Not. However, I remain fascinated by the rhetorical irresponsibility that blogging makes possible.

In keeping with the literary politics of the season, the New York Times reports this morning that there’s a new book out with women writers reflecting on Hillary Clinton. The title, Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary Clinton, recalls Wallace Stevens “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bird.” The choice apparently reflects the content of the book since Stevens’s poem is all about how perspective makes and in some sense is the object of our reflection.

I

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

II

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

III

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

Ok, I hope you have a better time making sense of this than I do with my students. After saying “This poem is about perspective” conversation mostly comes to an end and we twiddle our thumbs for fifty minutes. Nevertheless, the blackbird, and apparently Hillary, are nothing apart from how we construct them in our imaginations.

Kakutani isn’t terribly impressed, but I have to say that I find Kakutani too often follows the unacknowledged dictum of many contemporary book and movie reviewers: Slander everything unless you find it absolutely impossible not to. Finding fault too often substitutes for seriousness.

The following is from the introduction by Susan Morrison:

“On a shelf in my kitchen is a campaign button that I picked up during the 1992 presidential race. Over a photo of Hillary (bangs and headband phase—which was basically my look then, too) are the words ‘Elect Hillary’s Husband.’ Back then, the slogan produced a kind of giddy frisson: not only was the candidate just like someone I could have gone to college with—a baby boomer—but his wife was, too. And she had a job! I had only known first ladies as creaky battleaxes who sat under hairdryers and wore brooches. The thrill associated with that button feels far away now, and it’s hard to know exactly why. There’s no doubt that the rinky-dink scandals of the Clinton administration and the dismal parade of special prosecutors took the gleam off the fresh start that the Clintons brought with them to Washington. But that doesn’t quite explain how now, fifteen years later, there is not more simple exuberance at the idea that we may be about to elect our first woman president.
….
“No other politician inspires such a wide range of passionate responses, and this is particularly true among women. As I talked with women about their reactions to Hillary, some themes came up again and again. Many women were divided within themselves as to how they feel about her, and I noticed a familiar circle of guilt: these women believe they should support Hillary as a matter of solidarity. But, because they expect her to be different from (that is, better than) the average male politician, she invariably disappoints them; then they feel guilty about their ambivalence. Some feel competitive with her. Having wearily resigned themselves to the idea that ‘having it all’ is too much to hope for, they view Hillary as a rebuke: how did she manage to pull it off—or, at least, to appear to pull it off? Other women say they want to like her but are disturbed by the anti-feminist message inherent in the idea of the first woman president getting to the White House on her husband’s coattails. Then there are women, like the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who are queasy over the way Clinton’s popularity spiked only after she was perceived as a victim. When it became clear that Hillary was going to stand by her man after the Lewinsky fracas, Wasserstein wrote a disheartened Op-ed piece in the New York Times. ‘The name Hillary Rodham Clinton no longer stands for self-determination, but for the loyal, betrayed wife,’ she wrote. ‘Pity and admiration have become synonymous.’

Side note: Morrison’s text is one of many that echo Stevens’s poem. Gates’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel. A quick Google search shows 44,600 references to the phrase “Thirteen Ways of Looking.” There are, I guess 17 extra ways of looking at the prismatic Hillary Clinton. I find Wallace Stevens resilient popularity and influence on our culture a bit boggling. Maybe it’s because most of us are leading the dull lives of insurance salesman and long to release our inner poets.

Thus the popularity of blogging? Anyone can be a poet now. Everyone is.

So much for craft.

Passion, Politics, and English Studies; Or, What Hillary’s Tears Can Teach English Departments.

The New York Times today gives a serious turn to all the random speculation that Hillary’s tears—or more precisely, near tears—may have played a role in her victory in New Hampshire.

“Short, emotionally charged narratives — story fragments, of a certain kind — can travel through a population faster than any virus and alter behavior on a dime, they say. Under certain conditions, this behavior is especially infectious, research suggests, and anyone eager to play Monday morning quarterback on the New Hampshire vote should take them into account.

“’Any story that is short and powerful and throws into relief exactly the sort of issues people are thinking about at the moment they’re making a decision can have enormous impact,’ said Francesca Polletta, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine who analyzed the effect of personal stories on the civil rights movement in her book It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics.

“Mrs. Clinton’s emotional reaction to a question about how she was holding up under the pressure was not only genuine, many voters apparently decided, but it formed a powerful response to an incident during the most recent debate, when her rival John Edwards sided with Mr. Obama in a pointed exchange to one of her questions. A mininarrative was born.”

The story goes on to show statistically that more undecided women voters lurched toward Hillary in the immediate aftermath of the debate. I hate to say “I told you so,” but in the aftermath I said that I thought the tears would give an immediate 5% bump to Hillary’s poll numbers, this despite seeing all the discussion among women and having a couple of personal conversations with others who were appalled and felt that Hillary had shown an unacceptable weakness that “put women back.”

You don’t need to have a degree in social pscyhology to understand this. You just need to have an elementary grasp of gender narratives in Western culture, and perhaps to pay attention to your immediate emotional instincts before worrying about what people might think if they knew you were feeling. I felt the pull of those tears. (And I’m not even a woman. Imagine.) Leaning toward Obama, and still leaning I must say, I felt that moment pull me back, and to some degree still pulling me back at least to the degree that I’m still willing to listen to what Hillary has to say.

I still think there’s a double standard in play here, and not the one typically assigned to political divisions between men and women. The sympathy vote for Hillary goes to her because, apparently, people thought Edwards and Obama were ganging up on her. I want to say, “Oh, Boo Hoo.” Edwards’s decision to gang up on Clinton was a political calculation that she had all the money, she had a lot of the establishment power, and if he were to have a chance she would have to go. In other words he treated her like he would treat any other man in the race. But many, mostly women, read it as two men ganging up unfairly on a woman. No doubt this could have been in play. But Republicans were ganging up on Romney because he had all the money, a lot of the establishment power, and he seemed vulnerable and open to attack because of the Mormon factor (a calculation for Huckabee at least) and the flip-flop factor (a calculation for everyone). Now if, as he sat down for coffee with potential voters, Mitt had let his voice quaver the next day about how difficult it all was, do we imagine he would be getting a sympathy vote. Somehow I doubt it, but not from women, and certainly not from men. Perhaps from Mormons and those with money. Or those given to changing their minds.

The reaction provoked by Hillary’s tears spoke to very deep gender stereotypes. I just got done performing the role of Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata. At one point late in the opera Alfredo publicly berates and shames the diva Violetta—basically calling her a wanton whore (important difference from the cultured courtesan she actually is). In our staging, during this moment Violetta breaks down in tears. All the men and all the women rush or lean in the direction of Violetta even as they shout Alfredo down.

[Hey, isn’t this a fabulous rendition of me singing one of the most difficult pieces in the repetoire (heh, heh).]

Anyway, it seems to me that something similar happened with at least some significant percentage of the undecided vote in New Hampshire. The combination of Obama and Edwards tag teaming and Hillary’s next day tears provoked a rush of female sisterhood and, probably to some degree, male instinct to protect the endangered female. I don’t know if it was planned or not, but the masterstroke of the Clinton campaign was to turn a feminine stereotype in to a political strength.

Still, all that aside, I am actually really interested in the important role of emotion in this election, and in our lives generally. I actually think it was fine that Clinton teared up, and that Obama gets the citizenry’s adrenaline flowing, if not their hormones. In dismissing Barack as a kid who is purveying fairy tales Bill Clinton misses—and bizarrely so, given his history as a politician—that human beings don’t live by reason alone, or by bread.  (Besides outraging the black community–read the blogs, Hillary, the black community doesn’t need Barack to fan anything in to flames)

It’s not just the economy stupid. It’s not just the most rational man or woman for the job. [If this were so, surely Gore would have won in a runaway, the rationalist in me says]. Human beings need to be inspired, they need to be moved, they need to transcend the instrumentalism that dominates their lives day to day and see that such day-to-dayness can be connected to something bigger than themselves. Obama does this seemingly by breathing. Hillary’s tears connected undecided women to some sense of transcendent sisterhood—and, of course, it helped tremendously that the Clinton folks had superior organization in the end.

[Insert huge unjustified conceptual leap of associational logic here]

Ok, well, what does this have to do with English studies? Probably absolutely nothing, I guess. But I’ve been reading a lot lately about the crisis in the discipline, the decline of English majors, the lost sense of purpose, etcetera ad nauseum. There are various things going on here, multiple forms of causation and so forth. Still, I sense a very big disconnect between the normative passions of the profession and the passions and desires of the electorate…er, rather, student body and prospective student body.

Indeed, the idea of talking about the passions of the profession seems to be almost an oxymoron. Isn’t passion the opposite of professionalism? I remember a meeting early in my graduate career at Duke where Stanley Fish said something on the order of “If you think you are pursuing a graduate degree in English because you love literature, you are in the wrong profession.” Well, there is a certain sense in which, as with so many things, Fish is precisely right in this formulation—but perhaps disastrously so.

The professionalism of the discipline functions at odds with the very things that brought people to the discipline in the first place. The profession, seeking the dignity of professionalism and the seriousness accorded academic subjects, necessarily negates the passions associated with literature. Think, for instance, of how readily we talk about having a passion for teaching, and how rare it would be to hear someone at the MLA conference talk about their passion for literature. Good reason for this. We in the academy generally think teaching is for amateurs, and thus something that you can love and be passionate about. Besides the fact that it wins you points with search committees–at least at some schools–whereas being passionate about literature gains you nothing. (“You’re Passionate about literature??? That’s sooo 1950s.”)

Students, however, and prospective students especially in this context, consider our majors not because it will make them better lawyers or middle-level managers, or because they want to be sophisticated cultural critics. In 7 years of running sessions for prospective students I regularly ask them why they are there, why they are even bothering to think about studying literature. In 7 years I have never had a student say even once that they are going to study literature because they want to be a literary critic or literary theorist, I have never once had a student say they are going to study literature because they want to have a dispassionate and philosophical grasp of the semiotic status of nose hair in Jane Austen, and I have never once had a student say they are going to study literature because they hope to study the conflicts in interpretation represented by contemporary cultural theory. Never once. Imagine.

They all say they want to study literature because they love it. Asked why they love it they say because it changed some part of their lives, because it helped them understand others, because it helped them understand themselves, and on and on. All the reasons that we, in our dispassionate dismissing of youthful idealism, have learned to sneer at secretly in our faculty lounges. By some miraculous and unimaginable twist of fate, such 17 and 18 years old had learned to read and get something out of literature and to somehow think it would make a difference to the world if they read more of it. Young people want to be inspired and to be moved, and at our peril I think we’ve dismissed that desire as beneath importance in our quest for professional status.

A couple of examples. As an undergraduate I was a history major and bored to tears by my history profs. Then I had Joe McClatchey, an unknown to almost anyone who didn’t have him as a student or who didn’t work with him at Wheaton College, but the person to whom I dedicated my first book.

Out of Western World Lit I, I remember almost nothing about the books we read (more at some later date on Pierre Bayard’s take on whether books we’ve forgotten can actually be counted as having been read). What I do remember is the day Joe McClatchey showed slides of various satyrs and other vaguely evil beings from Roman mythology. He suddenly shuddered visibly, turned away from the screen, and whispered “Unnatural!” He wasn’t acting. Now, all this is laughable to sophisticates in the current academy. But I was profoundly moved that there was something important to care about in books.

Another day McClatchey was reading Milton describing the fall of Adam in Paradise Lost. In the middle of the passage, Joe McClatchey teared up like Hillary Clinton and said, “I can’t go on.” He closed his book and leaving papers and books behind, fled the room. Again, incredulous laughter from the contemporary sophisticate, but we were all in awe. What it said to me as an undergraduate was, “Wow, there’s something more important going on here than getting a grade, and something more important than taking a class so I can get in to law school.”

Assess that, o ye provosts of the world.

At this stage of the game, of course, we’ve become so sophisticated that we’ve about decided that there is no such thing as “literature” and we have lost an object of critical investigation. May be. But I think we would do better, even in these late days of the English crisis, to recover our first love. To figure out why these things that we can only call “literature” with quotation marks to sanitize our embarrassment, somehow nevertheless move us and change us and teach us, all without and well beyond the teaching that comes from the latest theoretical or critical fad. We need more teachers with a passion for literature, a passion for reading that will match their passion for teaching.

It will, of course, take a great deal more than tears and shuddering to repair the condition of the humanities in the world. But by rediscovering that first love we might discover that our passion leads to conviction, which leads to action and changes in ourselves and in others. We might even discover that students can think that literature rather than our theories about it is relevant to the world.