THE BLOG
01/07/2008 06:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Souls of Ordinary Folk: Obama, Hope, and the Promise of Utopia

"This was the moment that it all began..."

~Barack Obama, Iowa Caucas Victory Speech

Surely Barack Obama's victory speech in Iowa will go down as one of the most inspiring moments in recent political history. I have to admit, he even managed to make a believer out of me.

I think what is truly fascinating here is the degree to which Obama stands poised to "unite" the American public in a way that no politician has since Bobby Kennedy. As has now been commented upon on 1,000 web-blogs and podcasts, Obama's victory in Iowa is truly a monumental event. Though cynics will surely mention that the last three presidents did not win Iowa (Bush II, Clinton I, and Reagan), the fact remains that for an African American man to win in a rural, Midwestern state that is 95 percent white cannot be overestimated.

While Clinton has attempted to appeal to the mind (rationale), Obama appeals to the soul (hope). In many ways this election will come down to a battle of emotions, of how the candidates will play with a rhetoric of hope and political futurity.

Listening to Obama, I'm actually reminded of the writings of many mid-twentieth century Frankfurt school Marxist philosophers, particularly the work of Ernst Bloch and Theodero Adorno. In fact, Obama's entire political ideology is thematic zed in the title of one of Bloch's most profound volumes, The Principle of Hope. Bloch's notion of hope as an indexation of what he called a politics of the "not-yet-here" resonates deeply with much of Obama's rhetoric. We can hear the traces of this earlier Marxist tradition when Obama makes comments such as "hope...is all those men and women who are not content to settle on the world as it is, [but instead] who have the courage to remake the world as it should be."

Jose Esteban Munoz, a "queer studies" scholar known in academic circles for his 1999 book, Disidentifications, is actually finishing up a book of the political utility of queer hope (entitled Cruising Utopia: The Politics and Performance of Queer Futurity, forthcoming from NYU Press). Strangely this all relates to Obama's politics.

As Munoz argues in his Cruising Utopia, invocations of "hope" and "utopia" are often dismissed as simply political naivety, however there is actually long history of revolutionary social movements that turned to "hope" as a means of effecting immediate political change. What I love about Obama is that his message of "hope" is not an attempt to obscure the stark material conditions of inequality which structure our present American life, but rather is a message of how we might embrace the future as something that begins now, not later.

Within this formulation, "utopia" is not, as some might quickly assume, a simple rush toward Xanadu or some rainbow-colored never-never land, but rather a fiercely political and bitter critique of the present. Obama suddenly becomes a modern day CLR James. On a side note, Clinton needs to knock Obama in New Hampshire in order to avoid serious trouble. Following New Hampshire the next major caucus state is South Carolina on January 26, a region with a substantial African American vote. Up until now, the black vote has been split between Clinton and Obama primarily because African American voters have been reluctant to back Obama because there has been concern about his actual electability (i.e. "Is it really possible for a black man to win the U.S. presidency?").

The results of Iowa respond with a screaming, booming "yes."

Let's see what the (near) future holds. I'm "hoping" for the best.