April 02, 2008

Is Obama's Lama Peddling False Unconsciousness?

Professor Bérubé schools us on false consciousness, in response to a claim about people voting against their best interests in the comments to his typically witty post at TPM Cafe:

I tend not to speak of people voting against their best interests, actually. As British cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall once put it, "though there are people willing enough to deploy the false consciousness explanation to account for the illusory behavior of others, there are very few who are ever willing to own up that they are themselves living in false consciousness! It seems to be (like corruption by pornography) a state always reserved for others."

The contentious notion of false consciousness may be a concept like phlogiston that just doesn't map well to reality, however much it gets stretched into use in all the elaborate rhetoric that depends on it. The questions false consciousness tries to resolve are there, they exist, just as the questions that phlogiston tried to resolve exist. Sure, the rhetoric that depended on phlogiston incited what we might consider a false consciousness in those who trafficked in it for awhile, until that sort of talk was muted by a much more acutely concieved rhetoric based on fundamentally different principles. But false consciousness itself may be as ill-concieved as phlogiston. There may be some better basis for answering the questions false consciousness is trying to resolve, a superior rhetoric, for all I know. Still, it does get bandied about.

When Stuart Hall says "illusory behavior" in the quote above, he obviously doesn't mean that people's behavior is illusory, of course. He means that their concrete behavior is being commanded by some illusory conception of just exactly what it is that's going on and what's to be done about it, causing people to behave in ways that are, given circumstances, entirely inapt, all things considered. He accurately notes the mote in the eyes of those who see false consciousness in others, but this doesn't deny false consciousness, merely makes of it a generally unrecognized condition shared by all.

I wouldn't be surprised if Obama's lama had a whole afternoon's worth of things to say about the interplay of act and illusion, drawing on all the business about Maya and whatnot that's been piling up Asian rhetoric over the millennia. I can't say that promiscuously using Maya instead of false consciousness is any improvement on the situation, however.

Ultimately, what any thoughtful voter must consider under the circumstances is Obama's lama's stand on The Void. Is he an absolutist, or is there wiggle room in his Nothing? Does he peddle a true or a false unconsciousness?

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