Edelman, Derrida, the Trace, and the Graft

In Chapter Six of Constructing the Political Spectacle, “Political Language and Political Reality, “ Murray Edelman draws on insights from the literary and philosophical perspective, Deconstruction,  and alludes to arguably the most famous—infamous, in some circles—purveyor of Deconstruction, Jacques Derrida:

“Underlying all the form of deconstruction that political language exhibits is play upon the various associations of terms, thereby reassuring speakers of their own integrity and attracting support from people who would not otherwise be concerned with the issue. This device, which is sometimes deliberate but more often employed unconsciously, relies upon the characteristic of language that Derrida calls the ‘trace’ and the ‘graft.’ . . . Like much of Derrida’s work, this perspective challenges conventional logic and the conventional centering of thought in the subject (rather than the text), yet it recognizes what we know to be the case and encourages us to analyze language incisively.

“The traces of political terms make it easy to link issues in dubious and challengeable ways, and such grafting is endemic in political discourse. A racist or sexist practice can be linked to the issue of states’ rights. Protection of the health of workers bears the aura of bureaucratic intervention in a private matter. . . . Because the conventional analysis of such debates turns on claims about the validity of the problematic linkages, we conventionally fail to notice that the characteristics of language as aspects of specific social situations constitute the issues and the arguments and make it likely that they will not be resolved.” (page 117)

I can already hear opponents of Derrida’s howling about such terms as “trace” and “graft.” Why not simply stick with “connotation”?  Well, in Derrida’s and Edelman’s defense, we might observe that “connotation” probably denotes a meaning more transparent and less subtle than the “trace” or the “graft.”   The mercurial quality of associations about which Derrida and Edelman are concerns is much greater than it is in mere connotation, which tend to emerge slowly and attract more widespread currency. The transformation of the word “gay” may be an apt example of such connotation, which has evolved fully into denotation, and even those who disagree about something like “gay marriage” agree on how to deploy the word, “gay.”

I can also imagine even persons who consider themselves politically alert asking, after reading Edelman’s paragraphs, “So what? What are we supposed to do with this ‘deconstructive’ analysis? Just trying to follow the policy-debates is hard enough!”

Edelman may be suggesting that instead of, or in addition to, being drawn into apparent debates, we should pay attention to the language-play in which politicians and pundits engage, deliberately or otherwise.  I think, for example, of Newt Gingrich’s and others’ old standby from the 1990s: “tax-spend-liberals.”  This phrase seemed to carry with it a powerful trace or spore for certain audiences who were ready to demonize politicians from the Democratic party. Of course, if we pause for just a moment and realize that, essentially, all legislators and, by extension, executors of laws, have “taxed” citizens and then “spent” the money, we will  see what Gingrich and others are up to—not debate, but political sleight-of-hand. How amusing it might be to compose a list of the bills Gingrich voted for that authorized taxes and expenditures.

Democrats and all other politicians play the same game, of course. Democrats seeking the approval of “Independent” voters (as opposed to “Dependent” ones) and “moderate” (as opposed to “immoderate”) Republicans might try to portray themselves as “fiscal conservatives” (as opposed to drunken fiscal sailors).

In the health-care-reform “debate”—if only it were as deliberate as a debate!—Obama and Company early on settled on the term “public option,” partly, one might argue, in hopes that “option” would carry the spore of “choice” and “not required” and hence, “Fear not, Americans, we won’t do anything as [apparently successful] as single-payer, government-overseen healthcare that’s been working well in such capitalist societies as the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, and Canada.”  Meanwhile, Frank Luntz and the gang began playing with such terms as “government takeover” and “death panels.”

Note that the deployment of such language, language saturated with traces, grafts, and spores, retards and even stops debate, deliberation, and discernment. It tends to drive people toward artificially Balkanized positions, it gets people arguing about begged questions “”Why does the government want to euthanize grandma?”), it fuels rage, despair, disgust, and fear, and  it keeps the flow of money coming into coffers. Do you want the public option? The send us money. Do you want to protect guns and grandma from government? Then send us money. “What about health-care?” you ask. “We’re working hard on it—on your behalf, wearing flag-pins on our lapels, makeup on our faces when we appear on talk-shows, and lots of hairspray on the coiffures.

“The failure to resolve or solve political problems is a paramount characteristic of government .  . .,” adds Edelman, on page 117.  Indeed, sir.

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