A Narcissistic Politics

Still trying to get my head around the Palin nomination. The range of responses I've read would be wider were it not for the fact that I read the New York Times almost exclusively. Not, to be sure, always the most fair and balanced way of learning about the world, but far better than reading some of the mindless drivel that passes for opinion in other parts of the interweb. Reading one more time that Palin's ability to connect with voters, her real-life background, the fact that she's a mother, qualify her for the second-highest executive position in the land infuriates me. And while it's within the realm of possibility that she stands up and delivers a thoughtful, articulate and compelling speech to the assembled convention tonight, it's also within the realm of possibility that, given long enough, pigs evolve wings. Unfortunately, Governor Palin doesn't believe in evolution as a mechanism of change, and I can't quite believe that she will deliver anything more than a hackneyed, self-congratulatory rhetorical romp.

Clearly, though, her selection has (to use a hackneyed term myself) energized the evangelical base, particularly what NPR described this morning as the voting group of pro-life feminists (to distinguish them, of course, from the anti-life feminists). One woman gushed this morning that Palin's nomination was so significant because many of them see themselves in her.

That's why they're going to vote for a McCain/Palin ticket? They see themselves in her?

Admittedly, my own political leanings fall somewhere (far) to the left of McCain and Palin; and while my enthusiasm for Obama's candidacy is at times qualified, I'll freely admit to a kind of identification with Obama as a representative of a generational shift. All that said, listening to the way in which the presidential debate has turned into a referendum on Palin as a woman, mother and inexperienced governor, and hearing reactions ranging from shock and disbelief to unqualified glee, I started thinking back to some previous work of mine.

Way back in the spring when the Democratic nomination was very much in doubt, I tried to talk through some of my ambivalences about Obama's campaign. Not being all that articulate in Arabic, I stumbled my way through a couple of descriptions before my teacher volunteered the word I wanted. Obama, I said, is a projection of so many people's hopes, both for better and for worse.

Listening to recent reactions to Palin - mostly those in the "I see myself in her" vein - that characterization of Obama as a projection of people takes on added resonance. Palin, I think, plays a similar role. There is a distinction to be made, however, in the way in which people identify with these political projections.

The distinction I would like to play on is Freud's. Writing about Freud's work on narcissism, I wrote:
Freud’s distinction between anaclitic and narcissistic object-choice suggested that anaclitic object choice was a kind of leaning-on or a propping up In that instance, the object functioned in a kind of positive sense, and had a kind of positive presence. In the case of melancholy, however, the “shadow of the object” suggests a kind of a negative presence, an absence, a state in which the object is there but not there. In other words, the shadow of the object presents a point of ambivalence.
Linking Freud's anaclitic object choice to the theory of hysterical identification outlined in his Interpretation of Dreams, I added:
Fundamentally, however, hysterical identification can be both anaclitic and structural, though it need not be both. In other words, hysterical identification produces imitation of symptoms as part of a desire to produce the same structure. Narcissistic identification, in contrast, involves choosing oneself as the model of the loved-object, and attempts to find the object in the form of the subject.
If Obama's rhetoric of change is so resonant within a certain set of Americans, it's not so much because his supporters see Obama as an extension of themselves. After Rilke (You must change your life), it may be that Obama has a kind of positive presence. But thinking on my own reaction to Obama, I don't see myself in him; the change he talks about, the language of responsibility and reason that he talks about, don't come from my own life. Necessarily, he is not of my life.

Neither, in most every respect, is Palin, but Palin's nomination speaks - I think - to a broader narcissistic trend in American politics. The thinking behind her nomination might go this way: Americans, the American public (however it's conceived, interesting thinking about that term here), are profoundly unsettled by the recent changes in the world; ergo, a candidate who represents herself (of himself, thinking of McCain's cultivation of his own image as independent maverick) as the American public wants to see itself (flawed, perhaps, but a pillar of faith in an otherwise unsettled world, and in the end motivated by a Christian good). Of course, the questions of representation and staging are central, and I think it's an open question as to the extent which Palin represents herself or is represented in a particular way, with all the attendant issues of power and gender at work in that representation. But assuming, for the sake of argument, that Palin's nomination does speak to a kind of public narcissism, what are the implications of that narcissism?

If, as Freud suggests, narcissism comes from the awareness of a kind of lack, then Palin's nomination - and the enthusiasm with which she has been received in some parts - suggests a lacuna in the American imagination. If, as Obama has argued, the American Dream is in jeopardy (in itself, a kind of lack, an almost-lack), then Palin's nomination might be understood as an attempt to foreclose that possibility. Furthermore, narcissism is, I think, closely linked to issues of xenophobia and insularity. Thinking about the way in which Cold War rhetoric comes back as easily as it does suggests to me that our American insistence on seeing the world as it was at a particularly satisfying historical moment suggests an unwillingness to engage with the world as it is now.

After all, far easier and far more comforting to see the the world in our image rather than see ourselves in the world's protean shape.


knight owl said…
Very thought provoking analysis. If we assume the psychological reasoning behind narcissism presented here, then it could be said that Americans, through extension of their candidate choice, are attempting to make their mark upon the world. However, I would argue that the American political system is divided into two narcissistic schemes that feed each other.

First, of the politicians, we see a genuine narcissism resulting from belief that he/she is more competent than the hoi polloi, not at all lacking. This could be supported by recognition of more financial security, education, social networking ability, intelligence, or passion to effect change. Second, which you discussed, that the average American believes that his/her perception of the world is superior (as long as we’re on the theme of hackneyed terms/phrases, just remember, “Your thinking creates your reality.”) yet lacks the ultimate political ability to see that worldview created. So, a software designer in Columbus, OH may count on the assumed competency of his/her candidate to effect change in the direction that he/she thinks is best--a broader narcissism resulting from the lack of an average civilian’s ability to effect change. While on the other end of the table the politician, with his or her genuine narcissism, conversely believing that he/she lacks nothing and is capable of bringing about political change, presents him or herself in a way to play on the broader public’s (sometimes narrow-minded) narcissistic leanings.

As a side note, I'd just like to state that I get a vocabulary lesson every time I read one of your blogs. At this point in my life I thought I was somewhat proficient with the English language, then Timur comes along and makes me look like a kindergarten student. Keep it up.

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