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Is Barack Obama a Post-Modernist?

Jonah Goldberg thinks Obama’s Messianic impulse might better be explained as a kind of Postmodern impulse. Since it’s probably a toss-up, I’ll leave it to others to call the matter. But this paragraph from Jonah is priceless and bears repeating:

The Obama campaign has a postmodern feel to it because more than anything else, it seems to be about itself. Its relationship to reality is almost theoretical. Sure, the campaign has policy proposals, but they are props to advance the narrative of a grand movement existing in order to be a movement galvanized around the single idea of movement-ness. Obama’s followers are, to borrow from David Hasselhoff--another American hugely popular in Germany--hooked on a feeling. "We are the ones we have been waiting for!" Well, of course you are.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but it reminds me of the time when, as a teenager, I realized I wasn’t really as heartbroken over an unrequited crush as I imagined. I hadn’t really been in love with the boy, I realized, but in love with the idea of being in love. That, and probably I was suffering from a healthy bit of wounded vanity. What will the voters do when they realize that their crush on Obama is similarly unfounded? Here’s hoping that it is more his vanity and less theirs that suffers the blow.

Discussions - 12 Comments

As I understand it, the word “modern” is derived from the Latin word modernus, which is derived from modo, meaning “just now.” How then can someone be postmodern? Does that mean they exist after this moment? If so, then one cannot ever be postmodern. They will always be moving towards postmodernism but they will never be able to reach it due to the time axiom.

This may say something about Goldberg’s contention that the Obama team is obsessed with “movement-ness.” It is impossible to know for sure.

Jerry makes an interesting and thoughtful point here. This should make us all stop and consider what standards we use in qualifying such terms as "modern" and "post-modern" in philosophy and literature. Perhaps we can still say things such as, "if Lincoln were to have read 'The Catcher in the Rye', he would have been reading a post-modern novel..." since that novel would have occurred in the future in relation to Lincoln's own time period. One thing is certain, he would have loved Holden Caulfield's grit.

Jerry, You are correct to state that Obama's emphasis on what Goldberg calls "movement-ness" can only be modern. His "post-modernity" can never move beyond the beginning recognition of what is "just now." Hence it is inevitably modern. "Movementiness"--to steal from Stephen Colbert--may be a better term. As you you note "movement-ness" seems to be something other than just now. Is it postmodern?

Jean-Francois Lyotard famously defined postmodernism as "incredulity toward meta-narratives"--meta-narratives of science and truth and history that point toward the coincidence of what we say with what we are--words and things, truth and being. Lyotard juxtaposes the discourses of "modern" truth to the "postmodern agonistics" of language games. Truth is a function of power in a dispute involving irreconcilable "truth-claims."

On these terms, a definition of sin as "not being in accord with my values" is both postmodern and incredibly disturbing.

When Obama's postmodern commitment to his own values becomes coupled with his rhetoric regarding Hope, Change, Now is the Time, Yes We Can, and World Without Walls--we have a real problem. Dissenters do not disagree on principle, but disagree from being in of a state of sin.

Julie Ponzi hopes the folks who vote for Obama don't take him seriously, and that his inevitable failure to achieve in reality the promise his rhetoric won't lead to even more radical demands for change. Let's hope--but will their recognition of their own wounded vanity be as sensible as Ms. Ponzi's?

Let's hope that Obama is truly the "symbol" he claims that he is, and that the Obamamaniacs are sophisticated enough to deconstruct this symbol.

Nonetheless, all this takes us way too far from common sense politics--as well as far from well-articulated political principles and sound constitutionalism. Postmodernism is against articulating principles and sound prudence. It is about deconstruction, incredulity, indeterminacy, radical pluralism, multiple identities--and in its practical mode it is globalization as hybridity and syncretism--a world without walls.

Of course, Mr. Lawler has a good book on postmodernism "rightly" understood.

The other aspect of Obama's movement-ness is his training. For Bill Clinton, who had been campaigning all his life, life was a camaign. He ran the presidency the same way. When he could not be in campaign mode, he was often at a loss about what to do.

Obama is a community organizer by training. His life, since he received his degrees, has been about organizing a community or communities. That, too, might suggest something about he would act if he becomes President. To me, the most revealing Obama moment might be in his speech the night of the Texas primary. He was in a large auditorium (an arena?) and he began his speech by emphasizing what each person there needed to do, step by step, to vote in the caucus.

To understand Obama, add that to his neo-Rousseauvian "values."

The Obama Saga could be seen as a critical interpretation of Faulkner's the Sound and the Fury.

Obama is the dream. At least in part he is the dream, and those impossible dreams his supporters desire besides him are still attached to him as to no other in the campaign. Who else will they turn to if he turns away? As president, he will have to at least try to make the impossible dreams reality. Which is what will really hurt us as a nation.

Yes, post-modern is impossible and don't you just wonder what the future will call its modern when the "Modern Age" is part of the past? What vanity we have today. Like all of those ordinary Americans giving Obama their money in hopes that he can turn the world inside out and make a new truth. Some dreams never die.

Here is the article for you, John Lewis.

Re: modern - chalk me up as one who detests the term "modernity". It's temporal parochialism.

Actually, it's not simply temooral parochialism, it is temporal aristocracy. The ignorant yaws of the past (like the people who cling to guns and religion today?) are the commons. We enlightened folk today are the aristocrats. Somewhere in the future is the best man. It's a mixed regime turned on the temporal axis.

Thanks for the Brooks article Kate.

I hadn’t really been in love with the boy, I realized, but in love with the idea of being in love.

I hereby nominate this as *THE* most trenchant sentence by a pundit on the 2008 campaign for the presidency.

But I'm biased, of course. One question: shouldn't we be hoping it is, in fact, their vanity that suffers the blow? Only then will enough citizens awaken from their daze and come to realize their "heartbreak" really isn't that big a deal?

Thanks, Rattlegator. But do note that I did not say that the vanity of the voters shouldn't suffer at all . . . only that I hoped Obama's would suffer more. I think (and hope) the break-up will be more painful for him.

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