Rush to judgment: intentionalism vs. progressive will to power
As Obama learns poststructuralist iteration and differance, Rush Limbaugh fires back by invoking intentionalism. It is progressivism and its linguistic assumptions — consensus interpretation and manufacted consent, deployed cynically to create new “meanings” in new “contexts” — vs. a coherent linguistic system in which meaning, for purposes of interpretation (rather than, say, the kind “re-imagining” the Obama campaign engages in here), must necessarily appeal to the creator of the signs: the author/utterer:
I understand the rough and tumble of politics. But Barack Obama — the supposedly postpartisan, postracial candidate of hope and change — has gone where few modern candidates have gone before.
Mr. Obama’s campaign is now trafficking in prejudice of its own making. And in doing so, it is playing with political dynamite. What kind of potential president would let his campaign knowingly extract two incomplete, out-of-context lines from two radio parodies and build a framework of hate around them in order to exploit racial tensions? The segregationists of the 1950s and 1960s were famous for such vile fear-mongering.
he malignant aspect of this is that Mr. Obama and his advisers know exactly what they are doing. They had to listen to both monologues or read the transcripts. They then had to pick the particular excerpts they used in order to create a commercial of distortions. Their hoped-for result is to inflame racial tensions. In doing this, Mr. Obama and his advisers have demonstrated a pernicious contempt for American society.
We’ve made much racial progress in this country. Any candidate who employs the tactics of the old segregationists is unworthy of the presidency.
For the specifics of Limbaugh’s charge, which involves a cynical and willful decontextualizing of Limbaugh quotes to smear John McCain, do read the whole thing.
For my purposes though, what is important here is that the Obama campaign has, in very broad and obvious strokes, given away the game: by extracting excerpts from Limbaugh’s monologues and applying them to a new context — without reference to the original context — they have pretended that the purported “arguments” being made by Limbaugh speak in opposition to their own claims of postracialism. But in fact, just the opposite is true, as Limbaugh himself recognizes. Because for Limbaugh’s signs to acquire the meaning the Obama camp wants viewers to take away from their presentation, those signs must be entirely severed from their original intent. And it is only at that point – when the interpretative process is left up to the intentions of a receiver who has naught but the signifiers to go on, thanks to the dishonest and intentional removal of all the indexes to original intent that occur inside the signified context of the utterer (eg., metatextual clues signaling irony or parody; think of lines being lifted from Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and being used by Obama to suggest that Swift “wants to exterminated the poor of Ireland”), that one can argue that Limbaugh’s piece “means” what the Obama camp suggests it means.
Clearly, though, by hiding from interpreters the context that gives clues to original intent — for instance, conventional parodic clues that signal that the author is using satire or irony to address another set of texts — the “authors” of the Obama ad have intended for the out-of-context quotes by Limbaugh to be interpreted a certain way by viewers, even as those viewers believe they are arriving at the interpretation of a Limbaugh text rather than an Obama text.
And that’s because once one understands intentionalism, one realizes that there is nothing else: we either appeal to the intent of the author in order to “interpret,” or we privilege our own intent, which is what happens when we refuse to allow the original signs to act as anything more than signifiers upon which we then graft our own meaning.
In this instance, for the ad to work, the Obama campaign has purposely hidden the original intent of Limbaugh by decontextualizing his remarks. From there, they have cynically built an artifice around those remarks designed to lead those interpreting their ad to decide that Limbaugh’s statements are racist. But what they haven’t done is given you Limbaugh’s signs; instead, they’ve borrowed “Limbaugh’s” signifiers and re-signified them by establishing them in a new context with a new significance — one they intend their viewers to understand.
In short, they have “rewritten” Limbaugh, given that rewrite the name “Limbaugh,” and ensured that those interpreting the spot confuse the rewrite with the original — whose meaning was, as evidenced by its context and intent, quite different than the meaning being ascribed by the Obama campaign.
There is a frightening and fundamental dishonesty here — the suggestion underlying all this being that it is okay to take a person’s signifiers, resignify them to mean their opposite, and then present those re-written signs as belonging to the original utterer.
It is a crass rhetorical trick — but one that, thanks to many premises of the linguistic turn, would seem to “empower” readers and viewers to draw their own conclusions. Strip away the artifice, though, and its clear that the Obama campaign is relying on readers to appeal to “Limbaugh’s” intent — even as they hide the fact that “Limbaugh” is a construct of their own design, and that Limbaugh, who will take the heat for such dishonesty, has nothing whatever to do with the signs the Obama campaign hopes will redound to him.
Welcome to the poststructuralist world. Hope you remembered to bring a slicker. And a helmet.