Afterlife of Exuberance

A session at the MLA has me thinking about the afterlife of exuberance, about how easy it has been (or seemed to be) to attach the person and actions of Obama to feelings and acts occasioned by his election, in part, but in no way reducible to his person or personality. In this prematurely post-Obama age (Marlon Ross reminds me how premature it is, though it also seems belated), it has been easy to mistake that post-ness as a past-ness, and to believe or remain silent in the face of those whose election-year cynicisms seem all too justified.

To speak of hope now seems silly, an after-effect of some drug with a startling and embarrassingly long half-life, as though one has continued to celebrate bingeing long after the food has rotted, the party ended. And those still donning party hats must surely be deemed to be suffering from misplaced faith. Over the past year, it has been easier to listen to and agree with the homeless man from Sri Lanka who, on the eve of inauguration, proclaimed, “Fuck Obama. He has nothing to teach me about hope.”

I am reminded that cynicism is easy. That it is comfortable. That it is wise-making. And that it forges collectives quite like nothing else. I am reminded, too, of the toxic affect of such collectives, how collective despair renders us immobile, and that political and social strategies hatched in and driven by the pollution of negativity, a seemingly necessary byproduct of real-world engagement, leave one angry, headachy. And like the child soldier in African fiction, co-opted into a fight that has no reason, or end.

It might well be that the time for hope is done. That it names the wrong kind of feeling, that it served its purpose. But to say that might simply mean that we need different kinds of languages to name and describe what Lisa Duggan so memorably termed the “ecstasy of collective engagement.”

Yes We Can lives in the acts and words of thousands upon thousands of students across the U.S. and Europe whose words and actions have affirmed the importance of collective action. That these actions precede the age of Obama is important to note—graduate student activism at my own alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, existed successfully well before Obama became a name in Illinois. That these actions have been marked in significant ways by the age of Obama, be it only by a slight shift in timbre, an affective nudge, a semi-tonal emphasis, this also has to be noted.

Put otherwise: forms of collective action pre-exist Obama and will continue to exist long after him. His “moment,” be that November 2008, January 2009, can only be understood as his tangentially. To speak of the politics of hope, of the positive affect of collective engagement, of the necessary belief in change as always mediated by, and thus, somehow, indistinguishable from his person would be to limit, in serious ways, the energies that survive and thrive now.

That we must also underscore that “moment” as an important place-time in which diverse constituencies contributed and thus multiplied their collective energies must also be noted. It strikes me as very important, too important to forget or diminish, that many of us said and believed that politics mattered. That politics was not something done by politicians, elsewhere, for someone else, but a coming together, an us-forming, a we-acting.

“The ecstasy of collective engagement” captures elegantly the us-forming, we-acting energies that remain ours to claim, to act on, the after-lives rich with potential, tapped, but not drained, and, in some cases, still remaining to be tapped.

I write this less to salvage something that has been lost, something some would say has never been there, but to attempt to navigate around corners whose labyrinthine designs make it impossible to detect just when I have rounded a corner. And, I must admit, it has seemed easier, this year, to wait for the Minotaur. To yawn as it approaches and submit to its indifference—to be collateral damage as it searches for virgins. I suspect the metaphor-parable might have some meaning. I lack the energy to parse it.

For me, what remains so powerful about the Obama moment is that us-forming, we-acting energy and potential. It was the coming together of diverse constituencies, the acting in concert, an acting in the belief that history could be made that remains so powerful.

I spent the last few months of 2008 in Kenya, returning to the U.S. in the early part of 2009. Obama’s election was a salve to the Kenyan psyche, allowing us to believe, if only briefly, that somewhere, in some part of the world, elections could function as they should.

To some extent, it is true that our exaggerated claims for Obama’s Kenyan-ness, Luo-ness, African-ness, made it more difficult for us to see, to understand, to appreciate the lessons of the us-forming, we-acting collectives that made his moment possible. In abstracting him from the contingent collectives that made his election possible, we missed, in part, the us-forming, we-acting successes. And, of course, our own tragic experiences in which such collectives fractured along class, regional, and ethnic lines in early 2008, made it easier for us to distrust and dismiss contingent collectivity, to rely, instead, on older vocabularies and practices of alliance.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why abstracting Obama from the us-forming, we-acting collectives made sense, and also to see why it was the wrong, or, at least, the most partial strategy. Abstracting Obama from the us-forming, we-acting collectives, those engaged in the ecstasies of collective engagement, has made it easy to take his post-election actions as affirmations that negative affect, political skepticism wins. And in ongoing, necessary battles over his person and policies, it has been easy to forget what we most need to remember: that the us-forming, we-acting contingent coalitions that made possible his moment precede and survive him.

As the year ends, this is where I want to return. To those us-forming, we-acting contingent coalitions driven by the ecstasy of collective engagement. To those seemingly abstract, unreal and deeply felt moments when we believed that history could not, dared not, be indifferent to our hopes and actions.

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