Yesterday morning I bought a copy of Hilary Clinton’s new book What Happened and was surprised to find myself gripped by it. I’d expected a turgid and unlikeable text which I’d skim through in order to supplement my understanding of the last Presidential election with the authorised account of the losing candidate. To my surprise, I’m enjoying the book and finding Clinton far more likeable than I expected. In fact, I’d almost go as far as to say I’m fascinated by it, for reasons which have nothing to do with the election.

It’s a disarmingly honest book which is doing multiple things, including protecting her reputation after last year’s debacle. However, I find it hard not to believe her claim that writing the book was cathartic. It charts the end of two defining features of her life over decades: buffering and triaging. The former is Jon Stewart’s term for what you “could see happening in the milliseconds between when Clinton was asked a question and when she answered; the moments when she played out the angles, envisioned the ways her words could be twisted, and came up with a response devoid of danger but suffused with caution”. As she points out on loc 1630-1651, criticism of her for this is manifestly gendered:

People say I’m guarded, and they have a point. I think before I speak. I don’t just blurt out whatever comes to mind. It’s a combination of my natural inclination, plus my training as a lawyer, plus decades in the public eye where every word I say is scrutinized. But why is this a bad thing? Don’t we want our Senators and Secretaries of State—and especially our Presidents—to speak thoughtfully, to respect the impact of our words? President Obama is just as controlled as I am, maybe even more so. He speaks with a great deal of care; takes his time, weighs his words. This is generally and correctly taken as evidence of his intellectual heft and rigor. He’s a serious person talking about serious things. So am I. And yet, for me, it’s often experienced as a negative.

What for her is seen as disingenuity or inauthenticity is in Obama coded as, at worst, aloofness. To spend one’s life “keeping a tight hold on what I say and how I react to things” sounds exhausting and the “relief” she writes of having always found with “friends with whom I can be vulnerable and unedited” might now become a more general feature of a life which is in the process of slowing down and opening up. She writes on loc 398 of the sudden experience of freedom which the electoral defeat had granted her:

So when a friend said she was sending a box full of her favorite books . . . and another said he was coming up for the weekend even if it was just to take a walk together . . . and another said she was taking me to see a play whether I wanted to go or not . . . I didn’t protest or argue. For the first time in years, I didn’t have to consult a complicated schedule. I could just say “Yes!” without a second thought.

I read this as the end of triaging. This was most intense during a campaign in which an endless sequence of events was coupled with back-to-back radio interviews while travelling. But it was a feature of her life more broadly, in which the constant support of an extensive staff extended her capacity to fill her life with commitments, appointments and obligations. I found it fascinating to read these, admittedly still carefully polished, descriptions of her experience of the time (and of time) after the election. It’s only much later in the book that you start to realise that even then she wasn’t alone, being surrounded by all manner of staff even during what she experiences as an unprecedented withdrawal from the world.

If we read her book in this way, against the backdrop of her transformed life, it shines as a biographically framed account of a political creed. This book represents a form of life, in a manner we rarely see with senior politicians. It presents the worldview of a ‘moderniser’, one of the architects of a ‘centre-left’ now slipping into history, grounded in her own orientation to the world and understanding of her own life. This centrism was always ideological, albeit a strange ideology of moderation and empiricism (revealed as an ideology by its chronic failure to adapt to a world that has demonstrably changed on an empirical level). This book illustrates how centrism, as with all ideologies, organises everyday experience in a way that connects considered positions with situated affectivity. As can be seen in Clinton’s account of centrism as the emotional labour of politics. From loc 1831-1849:

Dramatic spiritual conversions aside, emotional labor isn’t particularly thrilling as far as the political media or some of the electorate is concerned. I’ve been dinged for being too interested in the details of policy (boring!), too practical (not inspiring!), too willing to compromise (sellout!), too focused on smaller, achievable steps rather than sweeping changes that have little to no chance of ever coming true (establishment candidate!). But just as a household falls apart without emotional labor, so does politics grind to a halt if no one is actually listening to one another or reading the briefings or making plans that have a chance of working. I guess that might be considered boring. I don’t find it boring, but you might. But here’s the thing: someone has to do it. In my experience, a lot of the time, it’s women. A lot of the time, it’s dismissed as not that important. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

This might all be mistaken. The book might be a careful part of a rebranding exercise, seeking to rectify the Clinton brand in order that the dynasty might continue when Chelsea runs for office. But if we accept that politicians are people, we confront micro-social questions about their lives and biographies which I’ve always found fascinating (not least of all because the nature of politics leaves politicians disinclined to help us answer them). I’m finding this book oddly fascinating and I now feel much more affection for Hilary Clinton than I did a few days ago.

Edited to add: I wrote this when half way through the book. The second half of the book is much less likeable and leaves me much less sympathetic to Clinton. It’s still a surprisingly interesting read though. 

From Riots and Political Protest, by Simon Winlow, Steve Hall, Daniel Briggs and James Treadwell, pg 42:

Utopianism did not disappear, but it came to address the libidinal dreams of the individual rather than the political dreams of the collective. Utopia was an individual space in which we were free from the encroachments of authority, free to enjoy as much as possible the short time each individual has on Earth. Life ain’t a rehearsal. It’s a short burst of total self-determination in which we can indulge in pleasurable pursuits and choose only those social obligations that suit us. And the beauty of all this was that one didn’t need to overcome capitalism to get there.

I like this idea a lot, ever since I first encountered it in a fascinating ethnography of weight-lifting which talks about ‘utopic body projects’. 

What interests me at the moment is how this utopic horizon can recede without vanishing. Subjects can overload themselves with demands, orientated towards a utopic horizon, but doing so in a way which leaves them spending large tracts of their lived life triaging, attending to immediate demands as temporal horizons contract. What happens to utopia under these circumstances?

In Grayson Perry’s All Man, the artist interviews an MMA fighter in the north-east of England who describes the joy he takes in fighting:

The second I walk through them doors to the second I walk out, it’s heaven in here. It’s heaven. All your problems go away. The second you walk out the door, they’re back. Your problems are back.

This is an experience that fascinates me: immersion in a task, the contraction of temporal horizons, opens up the possibilities of profound pleasures (those intrinsic to the activity at hand) and distance from sources of worry and anxiety (the deliberations sparked by the broader context of your life).

This is what I describe generically as triaging: something that can be deliberately embraced, inculcated as a pragmatic response to a context or as some combination of the two. The overarching aim of my current book is to develop a moral psychology of triaging, grounded in an analysis of the socio-cultural conditions of digital capitalism.

At various points in the last year, I’ve made the argument that acceleration can serve to “reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs”. My point is that this is pleasurable: it’s something that people embrace because of the satisfactions they find in it, the thrill of moving from one event to the next without time for reflection. If the good life is understood as the full life then living fast feels like living fully.

But as a lived ethos, it obviously wouldn’t be articulated in these terms, if indeed it’s articulated at all. It might just be an orientation to the world that people slip into fleetingly, for certain tracts of time until circumstances or personal consequences lead them to slow down. It might also be a modus operandi, elaborated over the course of a life time through someone’s struggle to find a satisfying and sustainable mode of being in the world.

To get a sense of what I mean by this, consider what Henry Rollins says in this interview:

I’m 55. I just want to go and do stuff. I want to work very vigorously. Travel hard. Have a crazy itinerary that demands that I get up at 8:40 and do this and don’t be late. And prep for this thing that I’m really not that good at doing but I signed up for anyway. Keeps the blood thin. That’s the life I lead. It’s eventful. But there’s things I go without.