Enter the Dragon; or, Yes We Can
|July 12, 2012|
by Jeremy Fernando
A little more than four years ago, the phrase heard throughout the world was the catchy “Yes we can.” A rallying cry of the best sort—devoid of any referentiality—“Yes we can” could refer to both anything and nothing at the same time. Not as if catachrestic metaphors ever got in the way of political campaigns. In fact, one might argue that coupled with the fact that it was uttered by a charming, charismatic, person, this was rhetoric at its best.
One might even argue that it was aligned with the stars.
Five days before Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America, the Lunar New Year arrived, heralding in the Year of the Ox. Perhaps there was no guiding symbol more apt for 2009 than a castrated bull; hardworking, domesticated, obedient and non-independent. After all, in the climate of an economy in disarray, this seemed prudent—herd together, buckle down and move in the same direction.
At first glance, these two things seem coincidental at best, or even to have nothing to do with each other. But as Georges Bataille has taught us, in order to think, one must never be afraid of thinking the seemingly unthinkable. Moreover, echoes of the Ox can be heard in Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, especially in his call to remain “faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.”  A brutal translation of this would be: this is what you have to do; so just shut up and follow the leader—follow me.
Whilst attempting to address the economic crisis, Obama suggests that distribution of wealth and commonality are the solutions: “the success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart—not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.”
A little later on, he situates this call for collective thinking in history when he says, “recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.” The Obama formula for success is best captured by his maxim, “what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose…”
Just how this collective imagination is formed though, is an altogether different tale. It was not surprising that there was no elucidation of this point; it would have been terribly inappropriate, not to mention instant political suicide, to have invoked any memory of Stalin and totalitarianism at his welcome party. However, the traces of the call for communality—of persons under a common ideal, goal, idea—were undeniable. The fact that Rick Warren and Aretha Franklin were chosen to lead the opening prayer and sing at the inauguration ceremony, respectively, further illustrates this logic: if a homophobic preacher and a has-been singer can find a place in my ceremony, this shows that as long as you follow my philosophy you will have a place behind me.
In this sense, it is perhaps a little ironic that what haunts Obama’s re-election is precisely this notion of community. For both Mitt Romney (not to mention the Tea Party) and the Occupy Movement platforms rest on the notion of the commons: they are variations, manifestation, of identity politics and the question of what is a common good respectively. Another way of phrasing their demand: the state or corporations must stay away from my rights.
The trouble is that the notion of follow the leader does not leave space for this. For, the emphasis in “Yes we can” is on the affirmation—the “we can.” And what has been driven aside—rather forcefully at that—is the notion of the ‘no’; what is discounted is the choice to not do something, even though one can. This suggests that all potentiality has to be translated into actuality; in other words, potentiality is only a phase before actuality—if this particular translation is not made, there might as well have been none to begin with. But as Giorgio Agamben has taught us, potentiality as such always already brings with it the potentiality not-to-be. The implication of Obama’s call is that only results matter—by extension, you are only as good as your productivity, as what you produce; you as such do not matter, unless you can. Clearly in this world, there would be no place for Bartleby.
It is no longer the banal you are either with us or against us at play; instead we are now faced with the far more insidious challenge of the “patchwork.” On the surface, it would seem that a patchwork is open and welcoming to all differences. However, anyone who has done any sewing would know that patchworks run on strict logics: anything that does not fall within the overall scheme is cut out and thrown away. The “patchwork” trope opens the register that every American and—since he never lets the rest of the world forget that the US “remain[s] the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth”—by extension everyone in the world, is now a unit for exchange; a calculable entity which has to choose between fitting the master-plan or being cut out. You are no longer even given the choice to be against us, to resist: you either are with us or you no longer even exist. In this sense, one is no longer allowed to be the enemy; the only option that remains is to either play (unconditionally accepting the rules of the game) or leave.
And resistance is futile, you will be assimilated. A lesson that Osama bin Laden discovered on May 2, 2011.
Perhaps the irony of that situation is: it is not that bin Laden was not playing along, but that he was doing so too well. After all, it was not like he was holed up in a cave but rather was living in a resort-like fortress. If we were shown an aerial view of his compound, and did not know that it was in the middle of Abbottabad, Pakistan, we would have probably assumed that it was a holiday villa of a rich—and slightly paranoid—businessman. What really shocked us was the fact that it revealed a little too clearly what September 11th was: capitalism at its purest. It was a testament to decentralization, well-organised planning, with maximum media impact. The fact that images of planes crashing into the Twin Towers were on continual re-run bears witness to the success of this event. Overnight, Al-Qaeda became a household name; and in that instant established brand monopoly over terrorism. Moreover, bin Laden’s killing only demonstrated how much Al-Qaeda was the epitome of a multi-national corporation. His succession was almost instantaneous: on June 16, Al-Qaeda issued a press release officially declaring Ayman al-Zawahiri its new leader. 
There was an echo of this in August 2011, when Steve Jobs resigned as head of Apple Inc. In fact, a paragraph from the Wall Street Journal—“Mr Jobs has developed a cult-like following among both employees and customers who hang on his every word at press conferences and vigorously defend the executive from those who might question his products”—could well have been a eulogy for bin Laden.  The crucial fact is that in terms of operations, May 3, 2011, was like any other day: and this is the true test of a corporation—the ability to continue without its founder.
This is an instance of corporations echoing corpus at its finest: the King is dead, long live the King. It does not matter who is the head: they are all manifestations of the same thing.
One can read the ascension of Barack Obama to the Presidency in a similar fashion. For, it is only the reactions of the Republicans on September 12th, and the resulting fall-out (a crashing economy, a country in massive debt, the alienation of the rest of the world) that could have set the stage for what would otherwise be unthinkable. In this sense, it is only the events of September 11th that led to the first black person becoming sovereign.
One could also read the US and Al-Qaeda as competing corporations. Each time one side triumphs, the other has to respond accordingly. In this way, FOX News’ error on May 2, 2011, when they declared, “Obama bin Laden is dead”, turns out to be a perfect reading of the situation. In this game, everyone is perfectly exchangeable. This is perhaps why the enduring image of September 11th is that of the smoldering Twin Towers. Both Al-Qaeda and the US are mirror images of each other. It has just taken us a decade to realise that.
And perhaps this is the real challenge that Barack Obama faces—by 6 November, 2012, he has to have convinced Americans that it would actually make a difference if they cast their votes from him instead of Mitt Romney. That Romney is not—to reverse a phrase, practically an accusation, oft-used on Obama—a black man with a white face.
Perhaps, it might be apt to turn to the stars again—we have, after all, moved into the Year of the Dragon. And here, it is not too difficult to hear echoes of the most famous dragon in the United States, Bruce Lee. One of Lee’s best-known sayings is: “if you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.” In other words, be “formless,” be “shapeless.”  A simple translation of this would be: fit into any situation.
This is a lesson adopted in Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan: “Forward.” And in doing so, deploying a relative direction—without even involving a collective noun this time—Barack Obama has given himself the best possible chance to defend his title. Precisely by being anything that you want him to be.
Perfectly exchangeable. Pure capital.
One should not forget that this lies at the very heart of the democratic process. Obama and Romney notwithstanding, the election of any President is to place—replace—a symbol on a regular, cyclical, basis. Thus, the substitution principle is a built-in characteristic of the process itself: just as one replaces one iPhone with another, more promising, more appealing, one—essentially for the same purpose: to make phone calls. All else is peripheral.
One might well note that oftentimes non-democratic elements have entered through democratic processes; most obviously in Germany in the 1930s when the National Socialist Party came to power through elections. And even as one may question the fairness of elections in many authoritarian regimes, their authority still stems from the ritual of the voting booth. After all, the democratic process is not teleological, and thus, it does not know its own ends. Hence, it cannot exclude anything as long as it participates according to the rules of the process. In this sense, the democratic process is an empty form. And regardless of the number of names one can select from at the booth they would all be merely options, variations, manifestations—all that one would be validating is the process itself. In this sense, the democratic process is ironically deterministic: the end point is itself. 
You spin me right round
baby right round
Like a record baby
right round round round.
— Dead or Alive 
Elections: a symbolic exchange: where what is being exchanged is less important than the fact that there is an exchange. Thus, it is not so much that the exchange-value is peripheral—that it is the ornamentation, mediation, for the use-value of the objects—but the very opposite. Exchange is the key: the use-value is a fiction that is written after-the-fact to facilitate the exchange itself. In other words, the purpose of the iPhone (and its accompanying features) is not the point: it is the fact that one has exchanged it for a new one that matters. After the exchange, one can then cite, call upon, the notion of new features to justify, rationalise, bring back under reason, the exchange that was made.
Which means that Obama is facing a dual challenge. Even as he has to maintain a certain consistency, he must also reinvent himself. Obama 2.0. For, even as he is attempting to convince Americans to re-elect him, he has to demonstrate that it is a new-old Obama. In other words, he has to be—to invoke a colloquial saying in Thailand—same same but different.
Here, one should bear in mind that the phrase is most commonly used by shopkeepers as a response to accusations by customers of charging more than another place would for the same item. One possibility is that what is different cannot be perceived by the customer. However, this is highly unlikely considering the items in question are everyday ones, recognised by just about everyone. A more interesting possibility is that the difference lies in the fact that it is this particular shopkeeper that is selling it rather than another. After all, one should not fail to notice that even whilst the emphasis is on difference, the fact that the object is the same is repeated, foregrounded even. Hence, it is different even though it is exactly the same; it is precisely because it is the same item that the difference is apparent. It is only because it is same same that it is different.
Perhaps then, we must read “forward” as same same as “Yes we can” but yet just slightly different.
Where the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the one who authorises the assassinations of those regarded as threats to the state are not incompatible—merely variations of the same.
Mitt Romney will make the mistake of attempting to define himself: by claiming to stand for something, by claiming to be someone.
DJ Obama will make no such mistake.
He will move forward—precisely by allowing you to choose whatever direction that is.
 The transcript to Obama’s inauguration speech is widely available from various sources, including http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/20/us/politics/20text-obama.html All references to the speech are from this source.
 ‘Ayman al-Zawahiri appointed as al-Qaeda leader’ in BBC News (16 June, 2011): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13788594
 Yukari Iwatani Kane. ‘ Jobs quits as Apple CEO’ in The Wall St Journal (25 August, 2011): http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904875404576528981250892702.html
 Amongst other places, Lee’s teachings can be found here: http://www.fightingmaster.com/masters/brucelee/quotes.htm#On%20form,%20no%E2%80%93form
 This paragraph and the one preceding it owes a great debt of thanks to Lim Lee Ching—colleague, reader, dear friend. In particular: for opening my registers to the exchangeability that haunts the very process that purports to be about singularity.
 Dead or Alive. ‘You Spin Me Right Round (Like a Record)’ in Youthquake, 1985: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJv5qLsLYoo
About the Author:
Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School. He works in the intersections of literature, philosophy, and the media; and is the author of Reflections on (T)error, The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death, Reading Blindly and Writing Death. Exploring other media has led him to film, music, and art; and his work has been exhibited in Seoul, Vienna, Hong Kong and Singapore. He is the general editor of both Delere Press, and the thematic magazine One Imperative; and a Fellow of Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore.
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