The Eminem Strategy and its Limits
"I am whatever you say I am"
-Eminem, "The Way I Am"
The above quote outlines a kind of feint, which I call the Eminem strategy. It goes like this: "You have insulted me, called me a name. You expect me to defend myself, and prove that I'm not that thing. But the joke's on you - I am that thing. And I'm proud of it!"
The Eminem strategy is a bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu. With it, not only can one render your opponent's attacks useless, but one can use the force of their own blow to topple them over.
I think primarily of the old anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Before him, the term "anarchist" was used almost exclusively as an insult. People attacked William Godwin and Percy Shelley, calling them anarchists. Shelley threw the term back in their faces - in his famous poem "The Masque of Anarchy," written in response to the Peterloo Massacre, he said that the government of England were the true anarchists. In the poem, "Anarchy" "wore a kingly crown" and "On his brow this mark I saw - / I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!"
But P-J Proudhon went one better, and when he was accused of being an anarchist, he took the inspired leap of declaring "I am an anarchist." In his seminal work, "What is Property?" he actually stages this as a dialogue (with "some of my younger readers"), and he has his interlocutor reply:
"Oh! I understand you. You speak satirically. This is a hit on the government." [In other words, his "young reader" cannot possibly understand how someone would call themselves an anarchist, pointing the insult in their own direction.]
To which Proudhon responds:
"By no means. I have just given you my serious and well-considered
profession of faith. Although a firm friend of order, I am (in the full
force of the term) an anarchist. Listen to me." And off we go into the beginning of anarchist theory.
Karl Marx, too - undoubtedly influenced by Proudhon - used the Eminem strategy, most famously in the Communist Manifesto, which begins:
"A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.
Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power? Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?
II. It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself.To this end, Communists of various nationalities have assembled in London and sketched the following manifesto..."
(The word that is translated here as "spectre" could just as easily be translated as "spook" or "boogeyman," or, as in my favorite translation, the original English translation, "A frightful hobgoblin is stalking Europe.")
In other words, Marx is saying "I AM whatever you say I am" - a communist, in this instance.
By the way, it should be mentioned that what Marx is saying here is not really technically true, stricto sensu, as a historical set of facts, at the time he was writing. While it is true that politicians mutually accused each other of being anarchists - "You're the anarchist!" "No, you're the anarchist!" - Shelley's debate with the British government, already mentioned, is not the only example - one would be hard pressed to find historical examples of political parties before Marx's time accusing each other of being communists. "Communism" was a fairly rare word at the time, though it did exist. The closest thing we can find to the situation Marx describes, in which one party insults another by calling them communist, and the other "hurls back the branding reproach" at their reactionary adversaries would be the zig-zag rise of Louis Bonaparte, who, four years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, would become Napoleon III, Emperor of France, and his party's complex relationship - now enemies, now friends, now enemies again - with the "Party of Order". In the constantly changing political tides of post-revolutionary France, one could imagine the romantic revolutionaries that supported Louis Bonaparte being accused and in turn accusing others of communism, though there is not much evidence that this actually happened - it's much more likely that they would be called "socialists" or "radicals" or "republicans" or something else. Then again, perhaps Marx's comment at the beginning of the Communist Manifesto should be taken as rhetorical hyperbole, rather than factual history.
And the amazing thing about this famous passage from the Manifesto is that, although it's hard to justify historically in its own time, it has, since then, come true. Nowadays, and for a long time now, every political party in every country, accuses every other party of being communists. Just today, on Twitter, I saw an American Democrat accusing Republican-controlled Texas of being "like a communist country" because the new abortion law allows private citizens to turn each other in, turning everyone into potential informants and surveillance agents.
Nor is this the only time that Marx used the Eminem strategy. The word "proletarian," too, had been an insult. In the Roman Republic, an urban class became known as the "proletariat". To the Romans, this was degrading and dehumanizing with a somewhat sexual connotation, meaning something like "people whose only value is their capacity for breeding." But Marx wanted the proletarians of his time to achieve class consciousness - to recognize themselves as the proletariat. That is, he wanted them to take this insult and to declare, openly, in the face of the whole world, I am what you say I am. I am a breeder!
We can think of many other uses of the Eminem strategy. Take "punk" for instance - this, too, had once been an insult. It's a centuries-old word, and has meant different things over time: shrew, prostitute, submissive homosexual, sucker, dupe, delinquent. Lester Bangs used it as an insult against the MC5 and the word stuck. Soon bands like Suicide were defiantly declaring themselves "punk rock" - and eventually, even Bangs himself was won over to the punk side.
And of course there are many other times that oppressed people, whether racial or ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities, and so on, took what had been insulting terms and reappropriated them, reclaimed them, identified with them, wore them as a badge of pride. Look no further than "queer" culture.
We can go further back in history for other examples. "Yankee doodle" was an insulting term that Brits used for an American that we took on with pride. In England, "Tory" and "Whig" were both insults that the rival parties reclaimed. Here in America, the symbol of the donkey for a Democrat and an elephant for a Republican were originally scornful caricatures in cartoons that the parties eventually adopted as official symbols.
We could go even further back and speak of words like "democrat," "republican," or even "liberty."
But is it always a good idea to allow your enemy to define you, or to define your ideological position?
Let me be clear, here. I am not saying that the Eminem strategy is always bad. There are times when a debater can use it so skillfully and at just the right moment that it is truly brilliant. It can be so formidable that it is breathtaking. But it must be used very precisely, and timing is the key. Simply using all the time as a kind of default is lazy and usually unhelpful.
For one thing, being all-too-willing to accept the label that is thrown at you can signal to your opponent that you have not examined your own position with much critical thought.
For another, it can amount to admitting defeat before you've even entered the arena - essentially, pleading "no contest".
When someone uses the Eminem strategy, what are they implying? They are really, effectively saying this:
"I am powerless to define myself or determine my own life and my own values; I exist at the whim of powers far greater than myself, over which I have no control; any hope I once had for having any creative agency over my own life has been dashed and turned to fatalistic despair. I cannot affirm my own self-creation; indeed, I cannot create myself. I am powerless to choose anything for myself. Therefore, out of spite, I will make the one and only choice I still can make: I choose to affirm the role you have created for me. If it is a stereotype, so be it. If it is unrealistic, so be it. If it is inconsistent, so be it. If it is coherent, so be it. If it is unlivable, so be it. If it is a cartoon, then I'll be a cartoon! If I cannot persuade you that I am what I am, then I'll deceive myself into thinking that I am what you perceive me to be."
Thus, the Eminem strategy is a perfect example of what Nietzsche called ressentiment: the will-to-power inverted and reduced to an expression of powerlessness, with a twist of self-deception. When one uses the Eminem strategy, one says: "I have no thoughts, dreams, desires, no interior world. I am merely this surface, this label that you have imposed upon me." That's all very well, if your intent is to hide, or disguise your interior world, so that your enemies can't see it. But don't let the mask become so permanent that you forget that that interior world exists.
There's something beautiful about the Eminem strategy. It's so dramatic! The gauntlet is thrown down. On one hand, it feels ultimate, and final, with a kind of inevitability: "So it's finally come to this!"; on the other hand, it feels daring, reckless, wild, and unpredictable. In a way, it appears as a form of self-sacrifice, willingly relinquished for a greater cause. Thus, it stirs our feelings of duty, discipline, and a strange kind of honor - it almost has the grandeur of tragedy, except that it's so cheap, and so easily given. At the same time, it's such a slap in the face of the enemy, and such a bewildering one, that there's something comic about it, as well. In short, it is a Romantic gesture, a relic from that period in art history known as Romanticism, and the politics of that era - or perhaps an even earlier era.
And it feels great to do it. It feels like this: "Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaa!!!!!"
Eminem did not invent this gesture - far from it. Perhaps the greatest poetic treatment comes from Milton, when Satan says:
Be then his love accursed, since love or hate,
To me alike, it deals eternal woe.
Nay, cursed be thou; since against his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven.
This knows my Punisher; therefore as far
From granting he, as I from begging, peace;
All hope excluded thus, behold, in stead
Of us out-cast, exil'd, his new delight,
Mankind created, and for him this world.
So farewell, hope; and with hope farewell, fear;
Evil, be thou my good.
"Love" here would mean "Allowing something to be fully what it is". But merely to invert a system of values is not yet to create a new system of values.
Just because a strategy feels good, does not mean that it is particularly effective. On the contrary, a skillful strategist understands that it can be very useful to make his opponent's bad moves feel good. "Now we've got them right where they want us."
As a rhetorical device, the Eminem strategy can occasionally be useful, so long as you remember that all it is is a rhetorical device. It's certainly not anything to base any real positions, principles, identity, or political decisions upon.
One fairly obvious problem with the Eminem strategy is that it's open to everyone - absolutely anyone can use it. So, for instance, Steve Bannon can declare himself a "Leninist" - as indeed he has. Of course, Bannon is not really a Leninist and quite likely doesn't understand what Leninism is. Moreover, he clearly does not care. Reactionary conservatives can opportunistically use any and every scrap of any kind of ideology to further their ambitions, and it costs them nothing, because they operate in bad faith. No one requires of them any logical consistency or integrity, and it would be meaningless to try. But it was just as meaningless when Stalin declared himself a Leninist. And since anyone and everyone can use the Eminem strategy, its power is diluted with each use until it becomes an empty gesture, a pure symbol as arbitrary as a suit in a deck of playing cards, which could just as well be replaced with any other symbol without altering its function. Essentially, this dilution of meaning (which I've also referred to as slackening, or wind going out of sails) which happens when anyone can and does use and reuse a symbol as they see fit, is the essence of postmodernism - which is part of the reason that I've identified Stalin as a postmodernist.
Why is it that anyone can use the Eminem strategy? This points to a more fundamental problem with the Eminem strategy: it costs nothing because, as a mere rhetorical device, it belongs to the order of idealism rather than that of materialism. The strategy makes for pretty poetry, but often very poorly thought-out political strategy. It is utopian rather than scientific - utopian in the literal sense of being "nowhere," because it points towards a position that does not exist. It is the mere semblance of a position, a simulacrum without substance. Those who use it without remembering that it is nothing but rhetoric attempt to emulate a representation, rendering it into an ideal, rather than using an essentially arbitrary symbol to designate a real movement. The rigidity of the identity is necessary to cover up its vacuity.
The Eminem strategy may feel fun for childish people, but we need to be tougher and stronger, refuse to allow our enemies to define us, become more disciplined, and do the necessary hard work of analysis and political action to determine our own course.