So I’m posting here something that I had written in an email in response to an essay posted by noted philosopher and gender/queer theorist, Judith Butler, on the election of Barack Obama. She expresses worry about the enthusiasm for Obama for several reasons, which include: the risk of personality cult and fascism; optimism and the likelihood of disappointment; the political necessity of antagonism vs. the “we are as one” slogan; the hypocrisy of those who supported Obama but retain their racist / classist / homophobic positions. You should really read her essay rather than my paraphrase, so you can find it here. Also, Lauren Berlant, a scholar who works on English literature and public culture—including political emotions—published a response to Butler’s essay here. Also, Cathy Davidson has posted a thought piece that is a response to the sort of anxieties expressed in Butler's piece (even though it doesn't reference Butler's essay directly). Anyway, here’s my response:
[NOTE: This was posted on an e-mail discussion list, in response to a whole series of responses by other members.]
I'm chiming in late, but here's my $0.02:
My first reaction to Butler's essay was something along the lines of: "Really? Now? You couldn't give everyone a week to feel good?" I already presume that those complex textures of Obama that had been buffed smooth by this campaign's optimism will begin to grow back quickly, so I don't see the urgency in shitting in everyone's (every Obama-supporter's) cornflakes.
Part of Butler's reaction, as others have already pointed out, is due to a presumption that disappointment is the only proper political affect, and that happiness can only be stupefying—a modern-day political "opiate." Political depression, disappointment, cynicism and pessimism can all also make you stupid and uncritically over-critical, when cynicism blunts and undermines positive change, when defeatism suppresses voter turnout and political engagement.
But Butler's position also represents the difficulties of shifting critical gears at full speed. Throughout the entire Bush administration, scholars were playing the Adornian game of "spot the emergent fascism", concerned that his post-9/11 popularity was a sign of a "charismatic" leader (an adjective that has become euphemistic shorthand for "charismatic like Hitler"), and then concerned that his increasingly forceful defense of his position in the face of declining public opinion were the first steps in the suppression of political dissent. None of these fears were entirely unfounded, that is certain, but after expressing apprehension and dismay at the religious right's elevation of Bush Jr. to messianic status, it's hard not to apply the same lens to Obama's current popularity.
As someone who works on popular music, this is a good moment for me to make the case against pathologizing popularity. We still carry with us the intellectual a priori of mass culture critique that what most people like can't be good for them. As a speaker pointed out at last spring's meeting of the Int'l Association for the Study of Popular Music, the term "fan" had its origins in an attempt to make a distinction between the perceived dangers of attachment to popular musics and the more salutary appreciation of art musics. The first few academic studies of popular music in the first half of the XXth century treated popular trends as a problem to be fixed, discussed in the rhetoric of deviance, epidemic, criminality and education/reformation. And so this speaker—speaking in April, well before the emergence of Palin onto the political scene—felt that the common practice of describing Obama supporters as "fans"/"fanatics" smuggled in a whole cluster of anxieties about class, age, violence, race, gender and 'mob mentality'.
If I had been inspired to write a similar essay to Butler's, I think the message wouldn't have been "be suspicious of your happiness" but rather "this level of elation can only be sustained for a while, so enjoy it while it lasts and prepare yourself for more complicated times." Antagonism may be constitutive of politics (an argument that I find less and less compelling), but that can't constitute the limits of politics. And if Obama's win is as terrain-changing as Butler has said, maybe we'll find a way to do politics with positive affect—at least for a while.
p.s. I also forgot to mention that I think Butler vastly oversimplifies the attachments of Obama supporters, and she assumes that the only kind of complicated attachment you can have to Obama is one of disavowal. I think political subjects have more options of attachment than "support", "oppose", or "support while in denial."