None of this, given our partisan culture, is unexpected. But what gives these calculated and malicious rhetorical and performative ploys their political force is twofold: first, the willingness (in this case on the part of Democrats and the press, and now, the White House) to consider Bennett’s remarks outside of their argumentative context; and second, the idea that Bennett’s words are still his beyond his intent to use them in a certain way—which simply echoes the old Judith Butler axiom that “actions continue to act after the intentional subject has announced its completion,” which, while true, is nevertheless incidental, and becomes dangerous as an assertion when interpretation is released from the ground of appealing back to the speaker’s intent. That is, what is at stake here is the role the subject plays in the “meaning” of the act vs. the role played by contingency in giving that act its (subsequent) meaning(s)—or, to put it more specifically, what William Bennett meant vs. what his words can be made to look like they might mean by those in whose interests it is to damage him. In short, they are taking ownership of his words, resignifying them, then using that resignification to taint Bennett with the charge of racism.I may be wrong, but doesn't this resignification stem from post-modernism? Or is that an oversimplification? If whatever we say can be turned and reapplied in ways we, the original speaker, never intended, what are the consequences if such a practice becomes widespread? Heck, what if we historians with a political "taint" unconsciously do this all the time. In fact, we may....?
Friday, September 30, 2005
Plenty has been said about Bill Bennett's out-of-context and supposedly "racist" statement, but I find the analysis offered by Jeff Goldstein to be particularly insightful. As he surmises: