Johnston: Let the vision live past today

What is one to think the morning after? The passion that reached its climax the night before, giving way to a hazy afterglow and eventually sleep, is now cold and distant. Think about it long enough and the stirrings of desire return, but not in the same way.

The deed is accomplished; any reenactment resembles aftershocks rather than the initial quake. The consummation only happens once. The prior concern — desire and fulfillment — is replaced by two questions. Has the consummation given rise to new life? If so, will that life be carried to term and brought into the world?

Consider the first question. At issue is whether the consummation was real or imagined. That is, whether the climactic moment occurred in the context of generative possibility, or in a chimera of longing and hope. Much of the rhetoric indicated the latter. “We are the change we’ve been waiting for” is a self-indulgent fantasy. And the substance often matched the rhetoric, foretelling no more than the transcending of an existing malaise. “The promise of change over the power of the status quo.”

The problem with such substance is that it prescribes nothing beyond the triumph. It dramatizes and heightens anticipation for a glorious moment of liberation without painting a vision of the subsequent world. “Change” on its own means nothing after the climax. And if the climax is everything, the context of its realization matters little.

It should not be surprising that film was the most effective medium for this message. Film inspires, arouses. Directors whet the appetite of the viewer, then pull back, rhythmically saturating his mind with desire. The anticipation is heightened by contrast. The status quo is not merely the privation of change, but a cosmic stain, a “storm” that “hasn’t quite passed yet,” as in one video shot in Fredericksburg, Va.

“Sometimes the skies look cloudy, and it’s dark, and you think the rains will never pass.” But “as long as all of us are together, as long as we are all committed, then there’s nothing we can’t do.” Pan across a cheering throng with a rain-beaded lens, light flitting through upstretched arms, increasing intensity in the insistent guitar. The manufactured moment is a type of that to come, a hope pointing beyond itself. “It may look dark tonight, but if I hold on to hope, tomorrow will be brighter.”

But however vapid the message, however infertile its characteristic medium, last night’s consummation occurred in a context of generative possibility. The intimations of the last two years may have been fantastical, but last night was distinctive as the confluence of the forces of flesh and blood. The consummation has given rise to new life — a vision the world after the triumph. The vision is at an early, embryonic stage, and the former object of projected aspirations is now the vessel of that vision. Will the vessel carry the vision to term and bring it into the world? Will the life be aborted or stillborn?

The father of the new life is the sovereign — the people. The proper purpose of a vision is to inspire, but law is concerned with formulas, which only inspire in opposition to other formulas. After the triumph, law has no power to inspire; that is, law is nothing but power. The sovereign is living flesh capable of generating a vision; the law is dead formulae the consummation of which can only lead to something unnatural. The first lesson for the vessel is this: to say that law is the father would be to abort the vision.

Life cannot develop without appropriate nourishment. A vision cannot grow without the witness of history. History is full of progress and regress, of sanctification and degradation. As the intimation of equality impresses events with the character of progress, the testimony of nostalgia tempers triumphalism. The second lesson for the vessel: feed the vision with the fullness of history, else it will arrive stillborn.

Many videos of the last two years concluded with a sun rising over a horizon. One memorable example insisted, coincident with the emerging sun, “your voice can change the world.” The message is only true for the vessel, who may deliver a new vision in seventy-six days. But the language of seventy-six, tied to legal formulae and shallow history, would forestall any such delivery, revealing nothing in its place but murder and deformation.

Peter Johnston is a senior in Saybrook College.


  • Velvet Fog

    You keep shoveling this garbage about how Obama is all about empty slogans. Everybody knows that slogans are generally meaningless (e.g. "Country First"). They are inspirational, but what reason do you have to believe that those who adhere to them are necessarily impotent? Obama supporters have not just spent the last year chanting slogans; they've been doing hard work getting Obama's message out there--and, again, this does not simply involve going door-to-door shouting "Yes, we can" at people. It involves explaining policies. This inspiration has led to action, not in the name of a name, or some empty signifiers, but of a program for change.

    What's ridiculous is your steadfast unwillingness to acknowledge that Obama has policy proposals. He wants to change health care, change environmental policy, pull us out of Iraq, raise taxes on people making over $250,000 per year. His backers, at least those who are most enthusiastic about him, agree with these policies. They want to see them put into effect. The real obstacle is how much opposition the Republican minority will put up. After the Democrats took control in 2006 the Republicans set a record for filibustering a two-year session in just one year. Now it is quite likely they will fight whatever Obama proposes. The Republican motto is "Status Quo." You're very eager to blame Obama for eventually failing to make change happen--but be honest about the causes of why it might not. You don't want it to. The Republicans don't want it to. Obama needs to be effective at persuading them, and his history shows that he will do so through compromise. If even this isn't enough to get things done, it will be disappointing, but it would be way too simple-minded to chalk such a failure up to ideological emptiness.

    You're a Republican--you have a platform (as Sarah Palin told Charles Dobson, it has very solid planks in it). Instead of engaging in overwrought conceits that are far flung from any specifics of the day, why don't you just debate actual issues? I would say I'm surprised to see someone accuse another of empty, uh, "verbage" while writing such an abstract piece of fluff, but then such hypocrisy is just what I've come to expect from Republicans.

  • Well done

    Excellent column Peter.

    The above comment only proves your point.

    The program of Obama is not change- that is the platitude spouted.

    Obama brings no change- only the Democratic party line, which he is towing behind him.

    Just wait until he unearths the usual Democratic retreds for his cabinet.

    Jimmy Carter 2.0

    The Black George W. Bush.

    The Gen X FDR.

    Disaster has struck- let's hope there are enough people to resist

  • Grammar

    Peter, your columns would be better if your writing was snappier. Be kind to us! I have a hard time understanding you a lot of time because you load down your sentences with three phrases instead of kicking away the two bad ones. Be short and quick. Don't describe when you don't have to. An example:

    What is one to think the morning after? The passion that reached its climax the night before, giving way to a hazy afterglow and eventually sleep, is now cold and distant. Think about it long enough and the stirrings of desire return, but not in the same way.

    A change: What is one to think the morning after? The mid-night passion has faded into a hazy afterglow. Think about it long enough and the stirrings of desire return--but not in the same way.

    This is just a suggestion. It's up to you to perfect your own writing, and also to show the reader why such descriptions are important in the first place (I am unsure if the first two paragraphs are, as your column stands). I do have other problems with this column, but this general trend is most important and even helps you answer your own questions. Clear writing is more important than anything. You are never going to change people's minds by sending out fog. Part of what makes Obama so appealing to Americans is that he knows the English language--and how to use it far beyond the hollow slogan of 'change.'

  • Anonymous

    What's with the sexual metaphors? A little heavy-handed and unnecessary.

  • Titanic

    Precisely, the iceberg of disaster has struck, though we could have seen it coming and we could have prepared better — in the form of 28 years of Republican-led neocon and neoliberal orthodoxy. You might have noticed that a majority of the country feels that the government is not doing enough to protect them. Sure, it's willing to fight foreign wars, but at home — forget about it. Let Katrina sink, deregulate everything (except when small businesses want to do something that might threaten corporate businesses, like voluntary testing of all cattle for BSF: then they regulate that away).

    It's excellent! Look how great the country's doing! We have extremely rich people doing extremely well — and we can all live in myth-land, where nonrenewable resources never run out, global warming doesn't pose any threat whatsoever, and charity is more important than wide-spread suffering.

    You lost the election. Deal with it. Might as well follow Bush and Rove in pretending that everyone voted because it was "historic"; that way you can pretend that it wasn't actually a rejection of a corrupt ideology. Or, like conservatives of many stripes before you, you can watch from the stern, so that if the ship goes under, you'll be the last one to remain afloat.

  • Anonymous

    omg sexiest pj column EVER

  • Anonymous

    Dear Mr. Johnston,
    I wouldn't take anyone who goes by the name of "Velvet Fog" too seriously, especially when his or her anonymous comment ends with a snide, stereotyping remark about Republicans being collectively hypocritical (what childish name-calling from one who refuses to give a name). To address this person's remark very briefly, though, I would say:
    (1) beware, my dear Fog! All general statements are false;
    (2) a president is supposed to talk about the issues at hand, while an opinion columnist (for a college daily) can write about whatever he darn well pleases;
    (3) a vote for a candidate is not a mandate for his every policy (surely you've heard of the single-issue voter?); and
    (4) you shouldn't be so quick to wish to stifle dissent just to achieve an unexamined promise of change (or to assume that discussion & compromise would diminish that change's effectiveness or lasting power). I've found that people become more thoughtful and their ideas more compelling when they are challenged on them. While President-Elect Obama has specific policy proposals, no one yet (perhaps not even he) knows what he actually will do as President (especially in as of yet unforeseen circumstances); neither he nor his policies have been put to the test.

    And so Mr. Johnston's article quite aptly puts the question to Obama and his supporters: what will come next? Really, Fog, there's no need to get defensive (and in turn attack Mr. Johnston's article).

    Now, finally, I get to the one point of contention I bear against this article and its author: Mr. Johnston, was the particular conceit you chose REALLY necessary for the sake of your arguments? The strain produced by this choice of metaphor on my sensibility and sense of propriety was such that I was completely distracted from the sentiments therein expressed. I don't know if the extended suggestion was inspired by recent experience (say, Whitman's erotic passages in "Song of Myself" - I think I recognized the "hazy afterglow"?) or what, but I must ask you to refrain from debasing your content with such a container in the future.

    Best wishes,

  • Fog

    Meredith--Yeah, I was challenging his ideas. This isn't stifling dissent. It's arguing. I expressly asked him not to shut up, but rather to make clearer arguments. You say it's a good thing to have one's ideas challenged, then get perturbed that I would challenge Peter's. Most of all, I was challenging how he presents his ideas abstractly rather than just coming out and stating his beliefs. Of course a columnist can write about whatever he wants. A commenter can also tell him when he's doing a bad job of it and how he can do a better job of making an argument, kind of like how you told him you didn't like his conceit.
    Also, it is true that many voters for Obama may have no real connection to his policies (which is why I differentiated between his enthusiastic supporters and just voters), but then Peter appeared to be addressing those enthusiastic supporters.

  • Ha

    Why is there so much sexual imagery in this column? I think you'd be a much happier person if you engaged in some "non-imaginary" consummation yourself.