Obects of History

Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked On-Line, wrote what is probably the most perceptive essay on the Obama phenomena that I have seen:

So there was a dual historic element to the inauguration: there was the real history of it, but more powerfully still there was the projection of a yearning for history on to it, the semi-official and on-the-ground transformation of the inauguration into a clear, unambiguous, internationally recognisable dividing line between then and now, between the old cynical order and something new, between who we were yesterday and who we are today. Ironically, this intense Historification of the inauguration, driven by people’s desire for a sense of purposeful destiny, ended up exposing the absence of genuine history-making today. In the past, people tended to tell stories about what they did during major historic events (as captured in the age-old question ‘What did you do in the war, daddy?’), while the question of ‘where were you?’ was confined to one-off, freak occurrences that took us by surprise (‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot? When Diana died?’). Today, the rush to ‘participate’ in Obama’s inauguration simply to say ‘I was there’ captures the view of history as something that we observe, something that is done on our behalf by other people, something we can be at but not really part of.

Indeed, watching the inauguration yesterday – both the historic and Historic versions – one could be forgiven for forgetting that it was the American people themselves who made this event happen. Increasingly, Obama is discussed not as someone who was elected by the masses, mandated to govern the United States, but as someone who ‘arrived’, who ‘came’, who ‘emerged when we most needed him’. As Maya Angelou put it, ‘And out of [our] great need, I believe he came. Barack Obama came’. There is a religious twist to this view of Obama ‘coming’, and it also strikingly reveals the absence of, or at least the weakness of, a sense of human agency in the Obama phenomenon. The inauguration confirmed both that millions of people want meaningful change but also that they feel incapable of bringing such change about – so they invest all of their hopes and aspirations on to one man instead; one man who, as a woman in DC said when interviewed by a journalist on what Obama should do next, is expected to ‘do everything’. Fundamentally, and contradictorily, Obama represents both people’s urgent and positive desire for a new way of governing, and also their feeling of atomisation, their sense of being the objects rather than the subjects of history.

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