Say what you like about the second presidential debate, it seems to have struck an extraordinarily delicate nerve with some of the hacks. I say this because, reviewing the gluttonous expanse of instapunditry in respected outlets, there is something that no one appears to want to talk about.
This is the feminist writer Jessica Valenti, in The Guardian
"That’s why [Trump] trotted out a pre-debate panel of women who have accused Bill Clinton of various offenses".
What offences, feminist Jessica Valenti? To what could you be referring, so obliquely? And why do none of the other reviewers talk about this?
, former Bill Clinton advisor David Gergen is similarly coy:
"The first was [Trump's] surprise pre-debate appearance with four female accusers of Bill Clinton. While a case can be made for re-hearing their claims of long ago...".
What are those "claims of long ago," former Clinton adviser, David Gergen? What could you be treading so lightly around? Why, again, do other pundits seem to consider it unworthy of comment?
finally clears things up for us:
"He essentially accused former President Bill Clinton of rape."
WHAT? Rape? Why is everyone so... mealy-mouthed and sleekit about this? What is with the euphemisms and the attempt to relativise them as claims of "long ago"? Is the former president a rapist, or is he not? What are
these allegations? The BBC doesn't say, but only goes on to add a solemn, head-shaking Aunty Beeb note of disapprobation:
"It was easily the most tawdry exchange in 56 years of televised presidential debates - one that will likely cast a shadow over US politics for years to come. Mrs Clinton may have emerged the beneficiary, but the nation was the worse for it."
That word 'tawdry' comes up, quite a bit in the reporting. It is a peculiar word to use in a way, since the airily dismissed "panel of women" includes one woman who alleged sexual harassment, and two who allege sexual assault. The implication seems to be that it is tawdry even to discuss
such allegations against a former President - a claim that was not made about the discussion of Trump's bragging about sexual assault. Much of the reporting even seems to regard it as a bit silly - a "bizarre last minute ploy," as The Mirror
Certainly, Trump has been plausibly accused of sexual assault, including the rape of a child
. Certainly, his behaviour is that of a sociopath. Certainly, he is raising all this in a manipulative way. But doesn't the leaking of the Trump tapes have a clear instrumental logic? And yet it is something we should discuss. Likewise, the allegations of rape against Clinton, are something we should discuss.
Put it like this. Juanita Broaddrick
plausibly alleges that she was raped by Bill Clinton. The White House - highly active in smearing or paying off everyone else in the period that these allegations came out - was remarkably reticent about Broaddrick. Clinton himself refused to say anything beyond referring to a lawyer's carefully worded statement. Do we believe survivors? Hillary Clinton, an active participant in her husband's administration, says that we should. But she also says that she doesn't, in this case. Broaddrick, for what it's worth, has also consistently alleged that Hillary Clinton threatened her in the weeks following the rape. Now, is that worth discussing?
If you take liberal principles seriously, if you consider yourself a feminist, the answer has to be 'yes'. Otherwise, how can you expect anyone to take your fully justified attacks on Trump seriously? If you have no respect for the principles underpinning your attack, why should anyone else? And if your loyalty to Clinton undermines your principled opposition to Trump, what comes first: your principles, or your loyalty?
If we assume that the Trump tape release was orchestrated by the Clinton campaign, as seems likely, then it is the first really skilful move they have made throughout the entire campaign - and with leading Republicans backing away from him, the RNC withdrawing funds, and the GOP leadership looking for ways to legally replace him as the candidate, it may be fatal.
The IMF, which calls Trump 'Voldemort' on account of the threat he seemingly poses to their idea of global economic order, will breathe a sigh of relief if the RNC are successful. Wall Street, which must already be looking with horror at Brexit and May's decidedly Trumpian turn, will too. So will, of course, any of the major constituencies whom he would cheerfully have victimised - women, immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, leftists, protesters, etc.
It is as though Bret Easton Ellis had decided to rewrite the mafia boss genre as a tale of ruling class soul-dead depravity. I can thoroughly well imagine Bill Clinton talking exactly like this, and suspect that this kind of braggodocious (dixit Trump) side of rape culture is common at the top of US politics. Certainly, Bush jr seems to have been entirely at home in the conversation.
But at some point, we should inquire into the other modalities of rape culture. It is obvious that the stuff about Trump being 'newly married' is a species of it. Would sexual assault be okay if his marriage was getting on a little, and he was bored? What about the 'wives and daughters' stuff? Isn't this clearly implicated in the dichotomy between good and bad women that sustains rape culture - as if, those who aren't anyone's wives and daughters, who are socially dislocated, are fit to treat as 'whores'.
More broadly, we might want to inquire into the libidinal underside of the reactions. I'm not interested in moralising about this, but it seems obvious that in the cool light of retrospect, analysis of the lulzy coverage will disclose a rich seam of excitement and fascination, barely disguised in all the jokes. The hubbub of "omg, can't believe he said that" is invested in glee at the transgressive nature of such "lewd" discussion of sexual assault, much like the fascination with his openly Oedipalised sexual objectification and denigration of his daughter. Isn't there an obvious enjoyment even in repeating his words in the fashion of this headline? We certainly get a kick out of imitating his highly imitable swagger and speech patterns. We enjoy Trump (although it goes without saying that we don't all enjoy Trump in the same way, if for no other reason than that patriarchy, 'whiteness', class resentments, geographical and social stagnation, and so on, do not affect everyone in the same way).
I am not at all
claiming that people should stop making these jokes, and any attempt to make that happen by fiat would be doomed anyway. One of the functions of jokes is to give a certain regulated access to transgressive enjoyment, wherein we can advance an idea without 'meaning' it. So it is always a question of context, of how the joke works, at whose expense. I am just saying that we should analyse it, if we want to understand where the appeal of Trumpism comes from. Even if his campaign now collapses, as it seems to be doing, the psychopolitical sources of Trumpism won't dissipate on that account.
When I write – when I really
write – I write in a dream. I was struck, recently, by the experience of writing
a number of long-form pieces of work which, for the duration of their
composition, became an obsession. It was a pleasure to work on them on long train journeys, or in unfamiliar bedrooms until the
early hours of the morning because they had
to be written. And I was almost sad, in each case, to finish.
This tends to happen when I’m writing something in a new way.
When I am guided along not by points of an argument that I have already roughly
worked out, but by questions that I keep circling around, working through,
abandoning, then returning to. That is to say, the enigma I am trying to work
through and the obscure connections, word-plays, and surprise revelations that
thinking through the logic of the problem suddenly provides.
At times like that, I have to have my laptop with me
everywhere, just because a new turn of phrase might suggest a whole new line of
writing – which, naturally, cannot wait until later. A notebook isn’t good
enough. I have to have the document open in front of me, I have to be able to
go back and forth tweaking sentences, changing the order of exposition,
reversing my conclusions, surprising myself with new formulations.
I was recently reading a few volumes on writing and
psychoanalysis. They have a lot to do with one another, not least because most
of what we know as psychoanalysis is its textual legacy. Freud’s major work, The Interpretation of Dreams
, was often
referred to by its author as the “dream book”. Composed “as if in a dream”. He
had to “write the dream in order to come out of it”. The spell was such that at
the beginning of each paragraph, he “did not know where it would end up”. This
implies, of course, that the dream was in control, that he had ceded executive
control to it. Freud was, he wrote, “entirely the dream.”
It also implies a level of excitement. Most writers will
recognise this to an extent: often the least exhilarating form of writing is
that produced purely for an income, in which you already know where each
paragraph up to the last will take you. It is difficult, of course, to pitch a
piece based on a few oracular thoughts and the promise that “I have no idea
where this will take me”. Not knowing is, however, often a better place to
start. The nature of this excitement, Freud would insist, is sexual in origin;
the origin of all curiosity, sexual curiosity; the beginning of our detective
work on this planet, the struggle to find out exactly what it means to say, in
Adam Phillips’ phrase, that we are “fucked into being”.
More to the point, in The
Interpretation of Dreams
, the excitement was Oedipal. Not only because this
was Freud’s first exposition of the Oedipal theory for a mass audience, but
also because several figures that appear in the work point to the working
through of a relationship to the maternal body. Above all, it is where “the
navel of the dream” connects to the “unknown”, that one can detect a certain
amount of awe and reverence with regard to the maternal body (which, of course,
must remain “unknown” if the castration threat holds).
That would appear to lend itself to a stringent form of
reductionism, wherein writing is a substitute for incest - as if all theory was, in a fashion, Oedipal theory; all writing, pornography. But to believe that, one would have to 'forget' that Oedipality is 'complex' - as I just did in describing it as Oedipal theory. One would have to believe that the prohibition in the
Oedipal complex reducible to incest, much as one might think that Eros is reducible to
procreation. This would be forgetting a lot. What writing substitutes for, what it sublimates
is not just one, but every gratification that one isn’t allowed. Even that would not be exhaustive, since there is a lot that is unforbidden, but insofar as we write
in a dream, working through riddles, metaphors, displacements, then we are
taking an adventure through the land of the forbidden.
In that case, might one say that speaking for an audience is
a form of live, performed dreaming? Might we speak as if there is a hidden
realm of meaning and enjoyment, a ‘latent content’ that is adverted to but
never directly approached? We tend to think of speaking as the pre-text of
text, the truth of writing, what writing always was in its primary state. But there
is something about words that seems to require an embodiment, a script. And if,
as Darian Leader argues, one of the things writing does is give us something to
do with our hands, if writing is indeed a gesture of embodiment in which our
hands give form to something of our existence, then the same can be said of our
physical gestures when speaking – they are a kind of script.
If we try to speak from a script, as if we are not in fact
writing, it will tend to come across as at best a recital or an incantation
(which has its pleasures), at worst dry and dull. There is a kind of phallic
writing that can be the cause of a great deal of unnecessary anxiety for the
writer, and boredom for the audience. You rise to speak, or write, thinking
that you are expected to pretend to omniscience and omnipotence, supposing that
if you aren’t ‘magnetic’ enough, if you slip up, mis-speak, murder a syllable,
then the audience will never forgive you. You expect, in a word, castration. So
either you produce an overly performed oratory or avoid the risk by sticking
closely to a pre-drafted script. That, of course, is exactly what one does in
most paid writing.
Speaking on a strictly imaginary register, of course, one’s
task as a speaker is seemingly to ‘get over’. One sells oneself before one
sells the message, as if in a sense the medium was the message. But that is
difficult to achieve by over-acting or staring at a page of notes. What one
needs to articulate, before anything else, is one’s passion for the subject. If
you expect an audience to care, you have to at least show that you care.
If you start with the idea that the phallus is not something
that one has, that what is at stake is various forms and distributions of
not-having, then it becomes possible to make a virtue of limits. A reference to
one’s limits, a joke about nervousness, a cheerful admission of shortcoming,
might go down well as self-deprecating, and get people rooting for you. A slip
can be the high point in a speech, rather than an embarrassment. A Tory MP was
making quite a drab speech to conference in which he meant to promise that the
Tories would do Brexit properly – but said ‘breakfast’ instead. He offered a quick
smile, and corrected himself. The audience, recognising that he had just let
slip what really mattered to him, laughed with him. If the rest of the speech
wasn’t much to write home about, his unconscious found a way to make a tedious
talk slightly memorable to a hall full of hungry pensioners.
This is another reason why it makes no sense to worry about
slips. Audiences don’t care, or at least they don’t object. They’re likely to
be more interested in how you make them feel. They will forgive a lot, even an
accidental lapse into an American accent, if you don’t bore them. And what is
more boring than anything, in any form of writing, is to fake omniscience. Omniscient
beings don’t have questions, and so they don’t open up questions for anyone
else. They don’t desire, in other words, so they don’t engage desire.
In the seminars titled Four
Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis
, Lacan famously considered the
relationship between speaking and fucking: “for the moment, I am not fucking, I
am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were
fucking. That’s what it [sublimation] means. Indeed, it raises the question of
whether in fact I am not fucking at this moment.”
That would imply that rhetoric is erotica (or, if you
prefer, that fucking is a form of writing), and that your role as a speaker is
not just to dream, but to impart the
(jouissance) wrapped up in the dream. This is, after all, one of the things
that we dream for: it gives us regulated access to a quantum of forbidden
enjoyment. We know from watching good orators that virtuosity consists in good
writing: the mere fact of saying certain words with this particular vocal
inflection, this particular music, in this particular order, and with this
gestural embodiment is part of the persuasive value of the performance. It is ‘getting
at’, ‘touching on’ something, even if we don’t know what it is.
All of this suggests that there is an angle from which being
‘understood’ is a decoy. Not that the so-called ‘manifest content’ of your
dreaming is irrelevant, and not that you won’t impart some sort of understanding.
But you can be fully understood and leave someone completely unchanged, unmoved
as it were. You can mobilise the fruits of your education, and not leave a dent
in the economy of their desire. You can articulate a case, citing figures, and
well-known authorities, and bits and pieces of common sense, and assume that
your position is unassailable – technocratic omniscience – until someone else
with a better sense of the dreamwork involved in writing comes and does a Pied
Piper job on your audience.
And if you want to know what that looks like, think of the
unhappy fate of Nick Clegg, and the late, lamented ‘Cleggasm’.