Waking up with Obama; or the morning after ...

This text was presented in January at the 2010  Telos  Conference, "From Lifeworld to Biopolitics: Empire in the Age of Obama."


On the 20th of January, 2009 , there was euphoria when Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America . Five days earlier, the Lunar New Year arrived, heralding in the Year of the Ox. Perhaps there is no guiding symbol more apt for the year than a castrated bull; a work-horse, domesticated, obedient, and non-independent. After all, in this current climate of an economy in disarray, this seems to be a prudent call—"herd together, buckle down, and move in the same direction."

At first glance, these two events seem to have nothing to do with each other. It might even seem absurd to put the two in relation with each other. But as Georges Bataille has taught us, in order to think, one must never be afraid of thinking the seemingly unthinkable. And here, one does hear echoes of the Ox throughout Barack Obama's inauguration speech, especially in his call to remain "faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans."[1] A brutal translation of this would be, "this is what you have to do; so just shut up and follow the leader—follow me." Whilst attempting to address the current economic crisis, Obama suggests that distribution of wealth and commonality are the solutions: "the success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart—not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good." A little later on, he situates this call for collective thinking in history when he says, "recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions."

The Obama formula for success is best captured by his maxim, "what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose . . . " Just how this collective imagination is formed though, is an altogether different tale. It is not surprising that there was no elucidation of this point; it would have been terribly inappropriate, not to mention instant political suicide, to invoke any memory of Stalin and totalitarianism at his welcome party. However, the traces of the call for communality—of persons under a common ideal, goal, idea—were undeniable. The fact that Rick Warren and Aretha Franklin were chosen to lead the opening prayer and sing at the inauguration ceremony respectively, further illustrates this logic: "if a homo-phobic preacher and a has-been singer can find a place in my ceremony, this shows that as long as you follow my philosophy you will have a place behind me."

Nonetheless, the reverse of this statement also holds true: "resistance is futile, you will be assimilated." The aim to close all extra-territorial prisons— Guantanamo Bay being one such example—only shows this: no longer are areas of exception needed. If one is optimistic, this would suggest that everyone will be given a free and fair hearing under the Laws of the United States . However, this could also mean that the United States under Obama is precisely this space of exception; or even more obscenely, that Obama himself is the exception. The fact is, after the swearing in, he is now transfigured into the sovereign, he has now filled the space of exception, a space briefly vacated during the interregnum.

The logic of "all under one idea" is terror   , for what is captured is the space of public opinion. As Jean-François Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thébaud never let us forget, terror is "a blow [that is] not struck on the adversary but it is hoped that the blow will be borne by the third party, the witness."[2] The events of September 11 were terroristic, not because two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, but because we are no longer allowed to read that date in any other way. The fact that the year, 2001, no longer has to be mentioned, suggests that every other year has been sucked into it, has already been effaced. What has been taken hostage is the ability to negotiate, the ability for thought. As Lyotard and Thébaud continue, "Whereas in a two-sided battle, my opponent thinks that what I think and do is unjust, and I think that what he does and thinks is unjust. Well, his freedom is complete and so is mine. With a hostage, I am applying . . . not even "pressure." It is much more than that. It is the social bond taken as a fact of nature."[3]

What has been taken away is choice: one no longer can do anything but constitute "September 11" as a "terror attack on the United States "; your only other option, alternative, is to refuse this interpretation. This is hardly a space for negotiation—all you can say is "yes" or "no."

Here, one can hear an echo of the Obama rally cry—"yes we can." Most of the focus has been on the emphasis of the affirmation that "we can." However what has been driven aside—rather forcefully at that—is the notion of the "no"; what seems to have been discounted completely is the choice to not do something, even though one can. This suggests that all potentiality has to be translated into actuality; in other words, potentiality is only a phase before actuality—if this particular translation is not made, there might as well have been none to begin with. But as Giorgio Agamben has taught us, potentiality as such always already brings with it the potentiality not-to-be. Hence, the implication of this call is that only results matter—by extension, you are only as good as your productivity, as what you produce; "you as such do not matter, unless you can." Clearly in the Obama world, there would be no place for Bartleby.

When Barack Obama said, "for we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth," he was met with thunderous applause, for this sounds like a reiteration of the American Dream, where regardless of race, language, or religion, anyone has a chance of success. In many ways, he is the very embodiment of this philosophy of meritocracy: the entire Obama campaign was run on the premise that Americans should vote for him not as a black man, but as the most competent candidate, the one that met all the conditions to be the leader. However, this also reiterates the fact that "as long as you fulfill the set criteria, you will be rewarded."

It is precisely this understanding—the knowledge that power rests in forms—that Barack Obama possesses. This is why anyone and everyone can gain recognition under the new regime: no longer is the banal binary of "you are either with us or against us" at play; instead we are now faced with the far more insidious challenge of the "patchwork." On the surface, it would seem that a patchwork is fluid and welcoming to all differences. However, anyone who has done any sewing would know that patchworks run on strict logics: anything that does not fall within the overall scheme is cut out and thrown away. In this "patchwork" world that Obama is invoking, every American—and since he never lets the rest of the world forget that the US "remain[s] the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth"—by extension everyone in the world, is now a unit for exchange; a calculable entity which has to choose between fitting the master-plan or being cut out. You are no longer even given the choice to be "against us," to resist, for if you are assimilated, you no longer even exist. In this sense, one is no longer allowed to be the enemy; the only option that remains is to either play (unconditionally accepting the rules of the game) or leave.

This is of course nothing more than capitalism at its purest: everything is equal, flattened—channeling the spectre of Jean Baudrillard, everything has been "liberated so that it can enter a state of pure circulation, so that it can go into orbit,"[4] in the precise sense that everyone and everything is completely and utterly exchangeable. However, it is not as if this complete exchangeability comes without a price. If everything is equivalent to everything else, this also means that nothing is inherent any longer; there are no longer any secrets, any unknowns. Everything is completely and utterly knowable, calculable, disseminable. And as Baudrillard has warned us time and time again, when "each individual category is subject to contamination, substitution is possible between any sphere and any other: there is total confusion of types. . . . Each category is generalized to the greatest possible extent, so that it eventually loses all specificity and is reabsorbed by all the other categories."[5]

In other words, it can be found everywhere; and by extension, nowhere at exactly the same time. If everything is political, then politics itself is meaningless; if economics is everything, the economy as such ceases to have any meaning. In terms of humans, if we are all exactly the same as the next person, this means that none of us are singular. Perhaps this was already apparent by the increasing importance of "human resource management" over the last few decades: by this logic, humans are nothing more than resources; constantly depreciating, and more importantly, completely replaceable.

Here we find ourselves in an almost Beckettian situation; one where we can no longer go on (after all what is the point), but have to at the same time. Perhaps at this point we have to attempt to find hope in the perfection of the system itself, in the fact that no system can be perfect, in the fact that the absolute perfection of the system is its own failing point. The only way to face this absurd premise (where perfection and imperfection are exactly the same) is to be completely ironic; not in the traditional sense of keeping a distance from it (the distance of analysis) but the very opposite—the absurd position of utterly plunging into the very absurdity itself.

When faced with an utterly indifferent system—governed by a single Idea without any regard for the followers of that Idea—one has no choice but to be even more indifferent.

For this is the nightmare of any disciplinary mechanism: what power would it have over the subject if the subject did not mind being disciplined in the first place? In this sense, not only is resistance to the disciplining expected, it is absolutely required: one can even go so far as to say that resistance is the very crux of the disciplinary mechanism. Without this assumption, the entire disciplinary system would collapse on itself.

When faced with a system that attempts to objectify (to flatten everyone into variations of each other), instead of resisting—insisting on our subjectivity and uniqueness—we must take the plunge and embrace our status as pure object(s). The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is an apt metaphor for this: it spreads, not by combating the defenses of the host, but by doing the exact opposite; HIV attaches itself to its host precisely by using the host's defenses. In this manner, the more the host body attempts to defend itself, the more it attempts to combat the HIV, the more the virus spreads. In this sense, a position of hyper-conformity may potentially short-circuit the entire logic.

Capitalism—and economics as a whole—is hinged on the fact that its subjects attach personal meaning to their consumption. Thus we must abandon the age old strategy of "finding meaning" in our own lives. By plunging ourselves into infinite circulation, by embracing utter and absolute meaninglessness, we will not face up to capitalism, but instead take it on its own terms.

Forget revolutions: they move around in circles and eventually end up in the same place. In the Year of the Ox, we must embrace the fact that we are castrated beings, all lined up and facing the same direction. Perhaps even embracing the ironic advantage of being a slave—remembering always Georges Bataille's teaching that slaves cannot be sacrificed. After all, why must we read "yes we can" as a strong affirmation—it can also be a question, an empty claim, or even better, a plea; soft, weak, whimpering.[6] And perhaps, in this absolute indifference, not just to the system, but to ourselves, we might be able to seduce the totalizing logic of capitalism itself. Thus, we offer it the challenge of our own emptiness, our own absence, in fact, our own deaths. Perhaps it might respond with its own …



1. The transcript to Obama's inauguration speech is widely available from various sources, including   here. All references to the speech will be from this source.

2. Jean-François Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thébaud,  Just Gaming  (1999), p.70.

3. Ibid. pp. 70-71.

4. Jean Baudrillard,  The Transparency of Evil: Essays in Extreme Phenomena (1999), p. 4.

5. Ibid. pp. 8-9.

6. And here I must acknowledge a debt to my dear teacher, Avital Ronell, who brought my attention to a conversation she had with Jacques Derrida, where they opened new registers, possibilities, in the phrase "God Bless America."


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