The Shifting Experience of Self   /   Spring 2011   /    Thematic: The Shifting Experience of Self

On the Politics of Pastiche and Depthless Intensities

The Case of Barack Obama

Thomas de Zengotita

Barack Hussein Obama (detail) by Shepard Fairey, 2008; © courtesy of Shepard Fairey/

Everything is addressed to us, everything is for us, and nothing is beyond us anymore.

The exposition will take up in turn the following constitutive features of the postmodern: a new depthlessness…both in contemporary “theory” and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum; a consequent weakening of historicity, both in our relationship to public History and in the new forms of our private temporality, whose “schizophrenic” structure (following Lacan) will determine new types of syntax…; a whole new type of emotional ground tone—what I will call “intensities”…

The disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the increasing unavailability of the personal style, engender the well-nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche.

And the stupendous proliferation of social codes today…is also a political phenomenon…advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm.

—Fredric Jameson11xFredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991) 6, 16, 17.


Tiger Woods caused a bit of a furor back in 1997 when he told Oprah Winfrey he didn’t think of himself as black or African American. It seems he had created his own ethnic category; “I’m a ‘Cablinasian,’” he declared—as in Caucasian-black-Indian-Asian, his actual ancestry, as he saw it. Tiger’s point was representative of an entitlement many young people feel nowadays—as any educator with an ear for student discourse can attest. He felt that he could choose not to identify with the categories imposed on him by “society” (a term which in this context stands in for, and evacuates, Jameson’s historicity). “I’m just who I am,” he told Oprah, “just whoever you see in front of you.”

That’s how “free to be what you want to be” young Tiger felt back then (before a reality of another kind caught up with him). But a lot of older black Americans (representative, in their way, of Jameson’s generation) were quick to chide this callow youth for trying to shrug off the iron claims of history. Even Colin Powell weighed in, admonishing Tiger that “in America…when you look like me, you’re black.”22xGary Kamiya “Cablinasian Like Me,” Salon, 30 April 199744xRobert Murphy, who introduced me to anthropology at Columbia, used to sum up a basic difference between modern societies and hunter-gatherer communities this way: “everyone is famous in a tribe.” By which he meant that everyone in a face-to-face society is recognized by everyone else, so that everyone means something in their world, whatever their status. Dynamics of recognition of an analogous sort have divided the mediated world into niches—not a “global village” after all.; tiger970430.html: “Light-skinned Colin Powell, responding to Woods’ comments, ‘In America, which I love from the depths of my heart and soul, when you look like me, you’re black.’”

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