Thursday, November 6, 2008

Politics and Poetry: The Rhetoric of Hope

The man has a way with words, but what's that have to do with reality?

In the hundreds of conversations I've had on the doorsteps of South Philadelphia, how many times have I heard some variation of this question? The man has a way with words, but what does that have to do with reality? In thinking about my experiences in this campaign, from my first day as a volunteer, a bundle of voter registration forms in hand, standing outside the 69th Street terminal on an unnaturally warm day in early March, through eight months, working three major events, knocking on more than 2400 doors, those four long GOTV days that lasted forever and passed in the blink of an eye, I can't imagine a more important question, a question more worthy of thought. The man has a way with words, but what does that have to do with reality?

The question of trust is a question about language.

This is, of course, a question about trust, directed, I suppose, in the minds of those who posed it, at this man who used words like hope, and change--charging them with a power nearly impossible to define; a meaning richer and more potent than whatever definitions one might try to assign them, more than any particular issue or policy that might follow as their object.

Change--what kind of change? Change for what?

In my early conversations I would pretty much keep to the script; mentioning health care, funding for education, benefits for veterans, pointing out contrasts between Bush's policies and Obama's proposals, but it wasn't long before I recognized a pattern; that it was not so much the man they didn't trust, but the words. No, not the words, but words themselves, and the more particular, the more specific the content, the more evident the nature of that mistrust. At some point I began to listen more carefully to the rhetoric of Obama's speeches, to the way he used the word hope the word change: what I had thought of as very cleverly selected buzz words.

The things we do are the children of our intercourse.

I recognized that when he spoke of change, it was most closely associated with two related ideas: belief (change you can believe in), and in a great variety of contexts and expressions, with the quality of discourse. We must change the way we speak of and to one another, the way we listen to one another, and I realized that this change was primary; and of course--how could it be otherwise; specific policies and actions, whatever their nature, flow naturally from and follow the discourse that engenders them: that the things we do are the children of our intercourse.

By understanding change as change in the nature of our discourse, we can better understand how Obama uses the word hope.

What I found so engaging in Obama's speeches was more than his emotive power to inspire, to t make me feel good or to forge my identity with this or that ideology. There was something about what he was saying that was primary to the issues that he would list in the middle of the speeches; it was always clear that specifics were contingent, possibilities; this is what we can do, if... If we learn again to listen to one another; to address one another as more than objects or obstacles to some end we seek, as more than means. Understanding change in this way, we can better understand the relationship between hope and belief.

Hope is where poetry and politics meet.

Hope has no object. It is not the antecedent of something we desire or expect, nor is it something mystical or supernatural: it is simply (though anything but simple) an openness of heart and willingness to listen: the necessary if not sufficient quality we must bring if we are to engage in any fruitful public discourse. Hope, if it is real, refuses to name its object. To do so would be the death of hope, and in this I see the intersection of poetry and politics.

When I say "poetry," I mean all of literature. All of what is called "literature" is not poetry, but all of what deserves to be called "literature," is most certainly poetry. I think of Bataille's defense of surrealism: that somehow, what is, is made alive by what is not, or not yet, that we can never be satisfied by the "real." Everything we can name as real is past, always already archaic, dead, without that life which is yet-to-be: what in politics, in our expectations for the future, in what Obama means by hope--something without a nameable object. Political life, the evolving life of human communities--and poetry--converge in the not-yet, in the yet-to-be-named.

The unnameable reality of the spirit

A great political leader: a Lincoln, an Obama, or a leader of a people still in the political wilderness--a Moses, a Martin Luther King, bring a people into the political from the wilderness, from slavery, from aimless wandering, from the timeless sojourn, the ever repeated circle of the pilgrimage into the politics of poetry, the poetry of politics, from the slavery and servitude of the named toward the yet unnamed which is the realization of hope seen from the heights, the unnamed brought forth from the depths by poetry, of a future none can foresee or predict... the unnameable reality of the spirit. The change we can believe in.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, really it's completely up to us. However, look how much healthier our spirit is with a downer like Bush finally out of there and a genuinely good soul like Obama FINALLY in there, Babay! Yeah, Babay!

    (P.S. By the way, although I didn't do much I DID MANAGE TO travel down to Erie, PA, from up here in Rochester, NY, with a former city police captain (a really neat guy) and a lawyer/CityCouncilman (another exceptionally neat guy), both progressives, of course, and we canvassed for the weekend. Oh, another 6-7 others, too, in other cars, and we stayed with magnificent log house built by regional Democrat Party director. Also, my wife and I did phone canvassing, with, a couple of times. Not much, truly not much, but a little something...)