December 11, 2008

The Poetics of Plain-Talk: Palin As Scapegoat and Totem

What is the secret that the firm, erect, sticking out thing holds? Unused, it is a frontier, where no man has gone before. What is the secret that lies beneath the power of this image, this object? What most desired and most feared thing is masked behind the desire to be the first, or the biggest? What does (M)other lack? (1)

A few articles in question regarding Palin and language, starting with one from Julian Gough at The American Prospect, and an older one by a long-time blog colleague, Anil Dash.

Long time ago, OCIHACOSP asked, rhetorically, if Sarah Palin wasn't being set up to be a scapegoat for a GOP loss. This was long before the post-election bus-throwing and other tantrums by Newt and other prominent conservatives.

Turns out I was right.

Her use and abuse of the English language was part of the ploy, the game, and the show. And her gross mishandling by the GOP/RNC. A month and a half after the elections, some people are still falling for the act, apparently.

Though Gough may have been writing with tongue in cheek, there is something to what he says in such a funny way.

Here she is, in a work I have taken to calling “The Relevance of Africa.” (Not a single word or comma has been changed, but the line breaks are placed where they naturally fall.) In it, Palin blends the energy of free verse with the austerity of a classic 14-line sonnet.

It reads: “And the relevance to me /With that issue, /As we spoke /About Africa and some /Of the countries /There that were /Kind of the people succumbing /To the dictators /And the corruption /Of some collapsed governments /On the /Continent, /The relevance /Was Alaska’s.”

A great poet needs to leave open the door between the conscious and unconscious; Sarah Palin has removed her door from its hinges. A great poet does not self-censor; Sarah Palin seems authentically innocent of what she is saying. She could be the most natural, visionary poet since William Blake.

Ohh, does OCIHACOSP love this imagery, since in my opinion this was the very door unhinged by the Sarah Palin pick, itself, her often-baffling use of English, included. A brief trip to Wikipedia's entry on Totem and Taboo explains it best.

In this essay, Freud considers the relationship of taboos to totemism. Freud uses his concepts 'projection' and 'ambivalence' he developed during his work with neurotic patients in Vienna to discuss the relationship between taboo and totemism.

Like neurotics, 'primitive' peoples feel ambivalent about most people in their lives, but will not admit this consciously to themselves [OCIHACOSP, in case it's not crystal clear by now, does not support this]. They will not admit that as much as they love their mother, there are things about her they hate. The suppressed part of this ambivalence (the hate parts) are projected onto others. In the case of natives, the hateful parts are projected onto the totem. As in: 'I did not want my mother to die, the totem wanted her to die.'

Freud expands this idea of ambivalence to include the relationship of citizens to their ruler. In ceremonies surrounding kings, which are often quite violent, – such as the king starving himself in the woods for a few weeks – he considers two levels that are functioning to be the "ostensible" (i.e., the king is being honored) and the "actual" (i.e., the king is being tortured).

What about citizens and pols who are potential rulers, especially those whose public image is geared to appeal directly to the libido, resulting in unintended consequences (such as perhaps this very blog) like behind-the-scenes reports of the very machinery masked by the wizard?

Dash's article, a linguist's analysis of Palin's speech patterns does find time for politics, begrudging may it be.


I firmly believe that Sarah Palin is a smart, talented public speaker who makes deliberate choices about her use of language to elicit particular responses from different segments of her audience. She's college-educated and has been a professional broadcaster, understanding the nuances of addressing a large audience. She is certainly experienced enough to understand that signifiers like "hockey mom" and "Joe Six Pack" are explicitly communicating to an audience that is white, overwhelmingly not college educated, and lives in rural or suburban areas.

This particular analysis goes against the grain of Palin-as-dipshit as promoted by television and online comics. But it's in line with OCIHACOSP's insofar as I feel that Mrs. Palin is very deliberately taking the far-right conservatives she and her glorious body were pimped to, on a major ride.

(Along with the conservative women who think she actually gives a damn about them, outside their vote.)

Is Camille Crushgirl Paglia one of them? Let's hope not. Her latest reflection invokes the everpresent under-buzz of Palin Messianism, called, "The Resurrection of Sarah Palin". And what is/was the Christian Messiah but the ultimate scapegoat, the king with the tarnished, underappreciated, woefully misunderstood crown; thrown under the bus by the once-adoring audience? I don't recall Palin having died being nailed to a tree, or really ever going so far away, but she is again used here as a stick to beat back Paglia's own bugbear, The Ivy League Academy/elitists/leftists/same thing.

I am very sorry that [a professor of hers at Yale], and so many other members of the educational elite, cannot take pleasure as I do in the quick, sometimes jagged, but always exuberant way that Palin speaks -- which is closer to street rapping than to the smug bourgeois cadences of the affluent professional class.

English has evolved, and the world has moved on. There is no necessary connection between bourgeois syntax and practical achievement. I have never had the slightest problem with understanding Sarah Palin's meaning at any time. Since when do free Americans subscribe to a stuffy British code of veddy, veddy proper English? We don't live in a stultified class system. In the U.K., in fact, many literary leftists make a big, obnoxious point about retaining their working-class accents. Too many American liberals claim to be defenders of the working class and then run like squealing mice from working-class manners and mores (including moose hunting and wolf control). What smirky, sheltered hypocrites. Get the broom!

Anti-intellectual academics...embrace the ambivalence, indeed.

The jazziness of blogspeak? Just where IS that whitey tape, anyway, hm. Same place as the smoking photos of a flat-stomached Sarah, and BHO's original birth certificate, I'm guessing.

OCIHACOSP is so disappointed that someone on the Blog Parent roll would engage in such a blindingly obvious straw man/person, playing the class card like a potential suicide in Las Vegas.

Again, the race card just begs to be played as well: had Sarah been Black, or if Condi had been the VP pick and spoke East Palo Alto as opposed to Stanford; had she had any kind of "ethnic" accent associated with anything but whiteness, there would have been no way, and/or we'd have NEVER heard the end of it from conservatives, busy busy busy yapping about the unmerits of "affirmative action".

What we're seeing now, as opposed to what Paglia considers "more neutral" coverage by news sites "and even laudatory, signifying that a shift toward reality is already at hand", is the pre-VP nom Sarah Palin, before the played-up accent and dropped-g's, before the winks and nods, before the size-too-small suits and crazy-sexy suede boots. That is the "shift" reflected in news coverage, that, and her own "laudatory", conciliatory, supportive attitude towards the President Elect.

Say it with us, Ms. Paglia, B-L-A-C-K-P-R-E-S-I-D-E-N-T-F-R-O-M-C-O-L-U-M-B-I-A-A-N-D-H-A-R-V-A-R-D.

Ah, Sarah, poor dear. She was, remains, and will go down in history as, the breaker of multiple public taboos, at once. American politicians aren't supposed to act like that. They're not supposed to look like that, dress like that, trot their kids around like that, express themselves like that, or throw their head back and laugh so confidently, unpretentiously, in their sexy wrongness like that. Not while having those kind of political views, or going to those kinds of churches, or giving interviews in front of dying Thanksgiving turkeys like that.

Alas, she did. She certainly signed up to the clothes, the enhanced accent, the GOP/RNC fiddling with her own lyrical rhythms, and the general manipulation of her own image by them of her own you-go-girl empowered volition.

But I seriously doubt she signed up for this other psychodoodle weirdness of the taboo and ambivalence we of the neurotic American electorate -- Paglia and other pundits included -- have collectively projected on to her, transfiguring before the cameras into every strange spectacle we needed her to be for us in that political moment, regardless of what party we ended up voting for.

(1) Jennifer Bloomer, "Big Jugs", in Fetish: The Princeton Architectural Journal, vol. 4, Princeton Architectural Press, 1992, p. 78.