Oedipus at Hofstra

(Much of this post was written before the final presidential debate in Boca Raton on October 22. I didn’t publish it because I wanted to see how the story would change in light of the showdown at Lynn University; as it turned out, the penultimate debate had a special kind of eventicity that could not be reprised. I hope you won’t mind my betrayal of blog logic by posting a response to something that nobody is talking about any longer).

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of October 16’s presidential debate was its capacity to surprise. In a strangely moving return of the Popular Front repressed, the assembled crowd of working-class New Yorkers asked a series of excellent questions while reminding the world of the beauty of non-rhotic pronunciation, the low back chain shift, and the short-A split.

The debate coincided with the US Postal Service delivering a copy of Jonathan Lear’s Open Minded, a book I have long had on my list but for some reason hadn’t picked up. This was a fortuitous coincidence: Lear is the diagnostician we need to make sense of the contemporary political moment.

In Chapter 3 of Open Minded, “Knowingness and Abandonment: An Oedipus for Our Time,” written in 1997, Lear proclaims: “If one reads the newspapers, follows the news, one can quickly come to see that there is a crisis of knowingness in the culture.” “Knowingness” names the presumption that a good person already knows everything about everything  and that it is only a bad, a weak, or a spineless person who would admit to not already knowing. “Knowingness” make it impossible to think, wonder, and ask questions.

Writing as both a philosopher and a psychoanalyst, Lear suggests that “knowingness” is the common coin of the neurotic analysand, the “cultural equivalent of what an analysand brings into a session on any given day” (34). The analysand, through the medium of transference, tries to arrange the encounter with the therapist in order to avoid confronting unpleasant truths, often by insisting that the truth is already known, not waiting to be discovered. This hatred of the historical, chronological, time-based, processual nature of what Freud called “working-through” is what is at stake in “knowingness.” That’s interesting.

Lear’s exhibit a is a now long-forgotten campaign finance scandal in which then-President Bill Clinton was embroiled. How did Clinton get away with it? “Basically, the public feels it already knows that campaign finance is corrupt,” Lear answers. “The public attitude so far has been: so what’s new? Here we can see how the stance of  ‘already knowing’ functions as a defense: If you already know, you do not need to find out” (34).

Clinton’s exploitation of “knowingness” calls to mind Žižek’s writings on the psychology of authoritarianism: “Clinton presents himself as a bit of a con man–and this is enormously reassuring. For if he is willing to let us know that he’s conning us, then, in an odd sort of way, he emerges as trustworthy: we can count on him to engage in a bit of sleaze when our backs our turned. And when some bit of sleaze does emerge, the public has a sense of ‘already knowing’…” (35).

But when the “already knowing” collapses–for example, via the introduction of some new wrinkle or piece of evidence–the result is a rapid spike in anxiety and frustration (35). Oddly enough, however, despite its protective function, “knowingness” is not a satisfying condition: “when the order of knowingness is undisturbed–when the culture can rest in its phantasy of “already knowing”–there is a widespread sense of boredom and irritation” (36).

Here, I think that Lear identifies the central dialectic of our time: the volley between boredom and irritation that we already know everything, and the anxiety (which also includes a kind of enjoyment) of being shaken out of the fantasy of “knowingness.” It certainly explains the curious behavior of the mainstream press, and the categorical refusal of pundits and experts to consider heterodox points of view.

What does “knowingness” have to do with the debate? Well, quite a lot, I think. First, the figure at the center of the debate–and at the center of electoral politics–is the “undecided voter.” The “undecided voter” does not know. Most of us in the “knowingness” industries (academics are not immune, of course: in many instances, we may be the worst of the lot)  simply cannot comprehend the mental state of such a person. But the news treats “undecided voters” with a peculiar mixture of pity, indulgence, and compassion, because the “undecided voter”–the non-knower–is in fact the exact inverse of the knower.

That works out well for media professionals: the “undecided voter” is the ideal figure of the contemporary citizen in their wishes and fantasies, the  empty vessel who needs their “knowingness” in order to survive. The experts know everything already, while the citizen–even after months of trying–can’t know anything, can’t come to any conclusions, can’t weigh costs and benefits or calculate rational self-interest. Carried to its logical conclusion, such a distribution of power and knowledge would take the form of a absurdist farce. Which doesn’t seem too far from an accurate description of our present reality.

Second, “knowingness” stood in all of its smug nudity as the animating force in Mitt Romney’s challenge to Obama vis-a-vis the President’s handling of the Benghazi incident of September 11, 2012.  In this case, Democratic partisan hacks were no better than their Republican counterparts, because to insist that Obama said “act of terror” and meant “terrorism” and not “spontaneous reaction to a youtube video” is to agree that, yes, of course, everybody with a brain would have known instantly that it was X and not Z and how dare you imply that I ever said Y… when, let’s recall: NOBODY FUCKING KNOWS ANYTHING.  America’s diplomatic corps is basically a Birthright: Planet Earth program for lobotomized  preppies. But, most importantly, the truth changes as facts accumulate over time (even if some of those facts indicate, as they well might, stupidity or venality on the part of Obama’s appointees). Not knowing the truth the day after an attack is no sin, and knowing a different truth a week later seems unavoidable. The legacy of the USS Maine, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and 9/11 should make Americans wary of “knowingness” as the demand for instantaneous interpretation. Such commonsense objections to the dominant narratives, however, can barely be articulated in a legible form.


Attentive readers may recall that Lear’s essay title introduces an additional theme–“abandonment”–and promises a  discussion of “Oedipus,” a name that could mean a lot of things. To my mind, “abandonment” remains a shadowy complement to “knowingness’ in the essay, more useful for its polysemy–“abandonment” could name the fear that drives us to “knowingness,” could index the exile of the baby Oedipus in the Greek myth, or could call to mind “reckless abandon”–than its capacity to name a social reflex in the manner accomplished by “knowingness.” I’m not sure that “abandonment” will get us too far in making sense of the debate.

Oedipus, on the other hand, was all over the Hofstra debate and its aftermath. Both candidates wrestle with personal histories that would thrill an old-fashioned Freudian psychobiographer. If we take Lacan’s gloss on Oedipus seriously–the Oedipal complex names not so much a unviersal patricidal/incestual urge, but a common developmental dilemma, wherein the infant’s entry into language and subjectivity is conditional on giving up the joy of intimacy with the mother and acceptance of the law that takes the form of the “Name of the Father” (the “wait til your father gets home!”)–then Obama and Romney register as profoundly Oedipal characters.

Obama is marked by a fatherlessness that is overdetermined in a particularly supercharged way: his father is the “source” of his blackness, hence his illegitimacy in the eyes of racists and “birthers” (N.B.: any political campaign that reserves a prominent place for a group called “birthers” is, ipso facto, completely fucking Oedipal); at the same time, Obama’s persona has been shaped to a large degree by the larger context of a post-Moynihan political culture in which African American fatherlessness can be safely blamed for every negative consequence of poverty and discrimination, a discursive situation that Obama has never shied away from playing like a violin.

On the other hand, we have Mitt Romney, the son of George Romney, grieving for his father’s loss of the Republican throne at the hands of lunatic Goldwaterites, plotting his revenge, only to find himself forced to lead a party of those same maniacs, with a cadre of advisors who make the 1960s-era hard Right enemies of George Romney look like a YPSL chapter. And we must not forget that weird passel of Aryan sons, stewing in their juices, unembarrassed to tell reporters about their impulses to throw punches at the President for shaming their dad.

While this traditional lit crit kind of Oedipal reading fits, I think, Lear has other things in mind by tying Oedipus to “knowingness.” He argues that Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus is the fundamental myth of “knowingness,” a reading that only makes sense, however, if we begin by killiing off–“in true Oedipal fashion”– Freud’s Oedipus (39). Oedipus, after all, was not oedipal. He didn’t want to kill his father and sleep with his mother; quite the contrary. He experienced an oedipal fate, but he did not harbor oedipal desires. (Lear does not engage with the question of whether Sophocles, or his audiences, did harbor such desires: isn’t it the work of culture to process those desires and anxieties that cannot be thought about in waking life?)

For Lear, the key point about Oedipus is that he is not the king; he is the tyrant. In the Greek political imagination, legitimacy derived from bloodlines. Oedipus’s claim to the throne can be traced back to his mental agility, his ability to answer the Sphinx’s question. In a situation in which Thebes had no king nor heir, Oedipus was made tyrant–“a leader who did not inherit the throne along traditional bloodlines”– by popular acclamation (41). But Oedipus, as Lear argues, is a victim of “knowingness.” He cannot bear the prospect of not knowing, but does not have the patience, or fortitude, to face the truth. Thus he cannot recognize that the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle is not only “man,” but also “Oedipus” (because he crawled with bound legs as a baby, walked upright as a man, and was fated to end his life dependent on another to lead him around).

What Freud might have made of Oedipus, then–had Freud himself not fallen victim to a certain kind of “knowingness”– was a parable that illustreated how not to approach knowledge, a depiction of a fatally flawed approach to truth that was a perfect inversion of the procedure adopted by Freud’s hysterical patients. There is a reason that Lacan chose the “discourse of the hysteric,” and not the discourses of the master, university, or analyst, as the privilged mode of knowledge production.

Lear’s engagement with Oedipus seems to me utterly germane to the wider politics of this presidential campaign season: especially in the intersection of the themes of “knowingness,”  natality, legitimacy, and tyranny.  In the meantime, perhaps coming to terms with “knowingness” might help us brace ourselves against the continuing carnival of disavowal, bad faith, and confirmation bias run amok that greets us every time we open our computers or turn on the television.

2 Comments on “Oedipus at Hofstra

    • Excellent question. “Knowingness” is probably a species of cynicism. What’s valuable about Lear’s presentation is his emphasis on transference–the way that we coordinate our encounter with the world, stage-manage, arrange. The garden-variety cynic is passive, shielding him or herself from the world; the “knowingness” victim is active, trying to make sure that nothing disrupts the fantasy of already knowing.

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