Music: Sundummy: Might Voids Collide (2004)
Rosechron and the Juicebase were on a week-long hiatus due to some technical issues, where technical means financial confusion. Thanks to everyone who sent notes of concern and support. Everything is back online for at least another year at this location.
It’s unfortunate that during my absence so much in the speech-related world happened: the President gave his state of the union, Speedy Gonzales gave the republican response, then Egyptians got their collective freedom of speech and assembly on, and then most importantly, Charlie Sheen went to the hospital for a hernia after a coke-infused porn star orgy (is that from snorting or pumping’?).
Oh! Where to begin (again)?
With Michele Bachmann, of course.
A relatively recent congressperson from Minnesota’s 6th district, Bachmann has quickly learned about the close relation between celebrity and politics: circulation leads to attention; attention leads to clout; clout leads to influence. It remains to be seen how much publicity does actually give one access to and influence on policy (that is to say, we really do not know how much the Curtain of Oz really does influence the little man behind the curtain in today’s political culture). On the public screen, however Bachmann has already amassed a number of greatest hits: she opposed increasing college Pell grants as a “gimmick”; she introduced the “Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act” to defend the almighty incandescent from ice-cream swirl bulbs; she declared global warming a “hoax”; she adopted Palin’s weaponry metaphors for various policies (getting her into trouble); and was on board with decrying the “death panels” over the passage of health care reform. When there is a paranoid issue to get sermonic about, Bachmann is on it!
Bachmann has learned the art of what I’ve been calling spectacle politics. Yeah, it’s a relatively simplistic label, but I think it captures the sort of thing we started to see in the 1980s and which has become a full-blown tactic: spectacle politics refers to the mindful manipulation of mass media publicity for short-term political gain. We have had political spectacle since the advent of the newspaper, circular, and penny dreadful, of course. What makes contemporary spectacle politics different is that it is understood wholly at the level of the signifier, relatively autonomous from something like “truth” or “empirical reality.” In fact, no amount of empirical data can dislodge the effects of spectacle politics; it is a politics of the gesture, designed to illicit an affective response from a more-or-less already entrenched political subjectivity.
Wow! That sounds like a bunch of jargon, I know. But it’s easy to see “spectacle politics” at work with the floodtide of examples since the 1980s. Perhaps the first instance of spectacle politics occurred in the 1984 presidential debate with Ronald Regan, in which the former president apparently used false statistics. The debate went well for Regan, since in the moment no one has time to “look up the data”—but later he was called on the carpet for misleading. Today we have various “fact check”-style columns and blogs that attend precisely to this kind of thing, however, that few are really concerned with the correct record is my point: “in the moment” is more important than being right.
Spectacle politics, then, is relatively unconcerned with truth; the practice announces, on the surface, that it is concerned with the truth, but the real slight-of-hand here is that it’s about resonance. It does not matter, for example, that the federal government is not going to take your guns away; what matters is that I say so and your body responds, almost automatically, in fear and disgust—and then in solidarity. It does not matter that “death panels” do not exist in any form in the health care legislation that was passed last year; it does not matter that scientist after scientist has conceded that global warming is actually occurring; it does not matter that the founding fathers were slave-holders and fabricated a governmental structure that actually protects the interests of the wealthy and white. Nope. What matters, rather, is that something has been taken from you! And you want it back!. Spectacle politics leaves the details of whatever “it” is, or the agency of theft, for ‘splanin’ tomorrow. What is important about spectacle politics is an appeal to the extreme, the pointed, or the siliceous.
Of course, our president engaged in a little spectacle politics in his State of the Union address last Monday. “Winning the future” and “race to the top” were the topoi that were deployed to be uplifting, however, social Darwinism is always social Darwinism; such themes depart significantly with the central message of the left (“love your neighbor”) in favor of free enterprise, neoliberal abstraction. Commentators were quick to pounce on the details: well, how exactly do we win the future or race to the top? Again, facts and details are inconsequential, since a fantasy vision was all that was put out there, and mobilizing affect was the goal.
The more laughable and inelegant political spectacle, of course, came from Michelle Bachmann, who apparently at the behest of the Tea Party (yeah, right, LOL), asked her also to respond to the president’s speech—in addition to the official Republican response. Of course, the GOP leadership was livid. And with good reason:
The better brand of spectacle politics does not announce itself to be such; it obscures, in other words, it’s in-the-moment politiking in long-term clothing. To put this in terms Francis Bacon would recognize, spectacle politics goes for the immediate passions at the expense of will, however, it appears to be a willed politics toward long-term ends. Most of us are very tired of Sarah Palin, and her response to the shooting in Arizona seem to have destroyed her aspirations for the presidency, however: Palin understands the rhetoric of spectacle politics. She “gets” it, however much she misfires from time-to-time. Bachmann is . . . well, she’s a stupid version of Palin.
Bachmann makes few attempts to adopt the appropriate rhetorical guise; she adopts the Perot-era chart persuasion tactics (which are, I think, effective), but ends with sweeping stupidities. The most glaring, of course, is the reference to the Iwo Jima image:
Just the creation of this nation was a miracle. Who’s to say that we can’t see a miracle again? The perilous battle that was fought in the pacific, at Iwo Jima, was a battle against all odds, and yet the image of the young G.I.s in the incursion against the Japanese immortalizes their victory. These six young men raising the flag came to symbolize all of America coming together to beat back a totalitarian aggressor.
The image shown behind Bachmann has been embroiled in controversy, since many have argued it was staged—perhaps a nascent awareness of the role imagery plays in spectacle politics. I think its fair to say the photograph was not staged—and that’s an important point. What Bachmann fails to mention is that Iwo Jima was a controversial battle, many argue that it was unnecessary and too costly, since the Japanese island was tactically worthless. In other words, Bachmann chose the signifier qua signifier for it’s affective resonance.
So: yeah, spectacle politics, you say. “No shit, Joshlocke!” you say. It may be obvious to readers here, but the scary part concerns the hundreds of thousands if not millions that fist-pumped Bachmann’s “response.” These people include, for example, my own parents. And whenever I try to explain the relationship between empirical truths and spectacle politics to them, they roll their eyes or suggest I am “patronizing.” I’m mildly successful when I explain how Obama is doing it (“yeah!” they say), but when I say, for example, Palin or McConnell is doing the same thing . . . .
The challenge is how to explain this logic in a way that is not patronizing to those for whom it is most effective. And the problem at the core of this challenge, of course, is that we can’t.