Frames /sing


Sarah Silverman’s Subversive Loyalty to the Pledge

I found comedian Sarah Silverman’s “solution” to the church/state inclusion of the phrase “one nation, under God…” in the pledge of allegiance both hilarious and penetrating. (It is located at the 3:45 minute mark in the above clip.) Someone like Zizek finds in this quotational subversion a deeper entrenchment of belief, a disquieted distancing of oneself in the ultimate power of words. He, no slouch in the realm of humor, talks about the distancing, postmodern lover who comically says to his beloved, “As the poet says, ‘I love you'”. Silverman here seems to be doing something more I think. Because her act falls within the very formalized text of an oath, she is using the quotation powers of truth to draw attention to the very act of pledging. Think of the further consequences if the word “nation” were air-quoted, or “stands”. Soon we would have evacuated the entire act of any content. It then becomes mere staging, a circulation, which carries its own substance. (What of air-quoting the entire act?) A distance is opened up between the ennunciation and the form expressed, a distance that can be then further politicized.

I think this is related to the so called “disquotational property” of truth. Famously, “The sentence ‘Snow is white’ is true” is thought to be the equivalent of simply claiming “Snow is white” (Tarski, etc.); with truth, one can simply take the quotes off. Yet when we place a phrase or sentence in quotes, we isolate it, not in terms of truth (which remains indeterminate), but in terms expression. We allow it its social autonomy, while exercizing protest, decentering its enunciation. This an the interesting thing about Sarah Silverman’s subversion. It suspends the expressional qualities of the phrase “under God” while preserving its possibility of truth. Further though, Sarah’s potest occurs in the form a joke told on television, and not simply performed in context. As such, it becomes a kind of prescrition, instead of a proscription. Of interest as well is that this suspension is accomplished bodily, yet with near-linguistic precision (she is not merely making a face while saying the phrase). She selects out the phrase with a bodily performance (now grown common) of a typographic mark. In a sense, she inscribes her body with scriptive importance. She is bodily adjunct to the meaning of here words.

Sarah Silverman and Golda Mier

If we striked the phrase, instead of Sarahized it, would this be as subversive? Or if we merely mouthed it? Does God intrude upon the speaker of the Pledge interpellating her, (as Althusser would have it), no matter what? Has Sarah succeeded in renouncing or even denouncing the Divinity of America’s origins? Or is Sarah really saying something akin to a line attributed to former Prime Minister of Israel Golda Mier, when answering the question of whether she believed in God: “I believe in the Jewish people, and they  believe in God” (paraphrased here).

2 responses to “Sarah Silverman’s Subversive Loyalty to the Pledge

  1. ktismatics October 19, 2008 at 11:56 pm

    At our daughter’s school the pledge is broadcast via the P.A. system into each classroom during homeroom. Individual participation is optional. Most teachers just let the nonparticipants remain silent, but our daughter’s homeroom teacher requires kids who don’t recite to leave the room and stand out in the hallway. I think it would require too much fancy footwork for a kid to leave the room during the “under God” bit, then return for the rest.

  2. kvond October 20, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    If she followed Silverman’s advice, she would only have to air-quote any objectionable phrase. No need to leave the room, in fact remaining in the room, remaining “in” the oath is part of what I think the serious humor trades on. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but it does bring up interesting aspects of the nature of loyalty. An oath demands the paradox of a willing surrender of will.

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