Politics in an age of fantasy
If progressives want to be a meaningful political force in the 21st century we need to start dreaming, argues Stephen Duncombe
Reality, fantasy and politics
In the autumn of 2004, shortly before the U.S. presidential election and in the middle of a typically bloody month in Iraq, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature article on the casualty of truth in the Bush administration. Like most Times articles, it was well written, well researched, and thoroughly predictable. That George W. Bush is ill informed, doesn’t listen to dissenting opinion, and acts upon whatever nonsense he happens to believe is hardly news. (Even the fact that he once insisted that Sweden did not have an army and none of his cabinet dared contradict him was not all that surprising.) There was, however, one valuable insight. In a soon-to-be-infamous passage, the writer, Ron Suskind, recounted a conversation between himself and an unnamed senior adviser to the president:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality.” I nodded and murmured something about Enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create reality. And while you are studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
It was clear how the Times felt about this peek into the political mind of the presidency. The editors of the Gray Lady pulled out the passage and floated it over the article in oversized, multi-colored type. This was ideological gold: the Bush administration openly and arrogantly admitting that they didn’t care about reality. One could almost feel the palpable excitement generated among the Times’ liberal readership, an enthusiasm mirrored and amplified all down the left side of the political spectrum on computer listservs, call-in radio shows, and print editorials over the next few weeks. This proud assertion of naked disregard for reality and unbounded faith in fantasy was the most damning evidence of Bush insanity yet. He must surely lose the election now.
What worried me then, and still worries me today, is that my reaction was radically different. My politics have long been diametrically opposed to those of the Bush administration, and I’ve had a long career as a left-leaning academic and a progressive political activist. Yet I read the same words that generated so much animosity among liberals and the left and felt something else: excited, inspired … and jealous. Whereas the commonsense view held that Bush’s candid disregard for reality was evidence of the madness of his administration, I perceived it as a much more disturbing sign of its brilliance. I knew then that Bush, in spite of making a mess of nearly everything he had undertaken in his first presidential term, would be reelected.
How could my reaction be so different from that of so many of my colleagues and comrades? Maybe I was becoming a neocon, another addition to the long list of defectors whose progressive God had failed. Would I follow the path of Christopher Hitchens? A truly depressing thought. But what if, just maybe, the problem was not with me but with the main currents of progressive thinking in this country? More precisely, maybe there was something about progressive politics that had become increasingly problematic. The problem, as I see it, comes down to reality. Progressives believe in it, Bush’s people believe in creating it. The left and right have switched roles – the right taking on the mantle of radicalism and progressives waving the flag of conservatism. The political progeny of the protestors who proclaimed, “Take your desires for reality” in May of 1968, were now counseling the reversal: take reality for your desires. Republicans were the ones proclaiming, “I have a dream.”
Progressive dreams, and the spectacles that give them tangible form, will look different than those conjured up by the Bush administration or the commercial directors of what critic Neil Gabler calls Life, the Movie. Different not only in content – this should be obvious – but in form. Given the progressive ideals of egalitarianism and a politics that values the input of everyone, our dreamscapes will not be created by media-savvy experts of the left and then handed down to the rest of us to watch, consume, and believe. Instead, our spectacles will be participatory: dreams the public can mold and shape themselves. They will be active: spectacles that work only if people help create them. They will be open-ended: setting stages to ask questions and leaving silences to formulate answers. And they will be transparent: dreams that one knows are dreams but which still have power to attract and inspire. And, finally, the spectacles we create will not cover over or replace reality and truth but perform and amplify it. Illusion may be a necessary part of political life, but delusion need not be.
Perhaps the most important reason for progressives to make their peace with the politics of dreaming has little to do with the immediate task of winning consent or creating dissent, but has instead to do with long-term vision. Without dreams we will never be able to imagine the new world we want to build. From the 1930s until the 1980s political conservatives in this country were lost: out of power and out of touch. Recalling those days, Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s senior political adviser, says: “We were relegated to the desert.” While many a pragmatic Republican moved to the center, a critical core kept wandering in that desert, hallucinating a political world considered fantastic by postwar standards: a preemptive military, radical tax cuts, eroding the line between church and state, ending welfare, and privatizing Social Security. Look where their dreams are today.
All spectacle counts on popular participation. The fascist rallies in Japan, Italy, and Germany; the military parades through Moscow’s Red Square; the halftime shows at the Super Bowl – all demand an audience to march, stand, or do the wave. Even the more individualistic spectacle of advertising depends upon the distant participation of the spectator, who must become a consumer. But the public in both fascist and commercial spectacles only participates from the outside, as a set piece on a stage imagined and directed by someone else. As Siegfried Kracauer, a German film critic writing in the 1920s about “the mass ornament,” the public spectacles that prefigured Nazi rallies, observed, “Although the masses give rise to the ornament, they are not involved in thinking it through.”
Ethical spectacle demands a different sort of participation. The people who participate in the performance of the spectacle must also contribute to its construction. As opposed to the spectacles of commercialism and fascism, the public in an ethical spectacle is not considered a stage prop, but a co-producer and co-director. This is nothing radical, merely the application of democratic principles to the spectacles that govern our lives. If it is reasonable to demand that we have a say in how our schools are run or who is elected president, why shouldn’t we have the right to participate in the planning and carrying out of spectacle?
A participatory spectacle is not a spontaneous one; an organizer… needs to set the stage for participation to happen. But the mission of the organizer of an ethical spectacle differs from that of other spectacles. She has her eyes on two things. First is the overall look of the spectacle – that is, the desires being expressed, the dreams being displayed, the outcome being hoped for. In this way her job is the same as the fascist propagandist or the Madison Avenue creative director. But then she has another job. She must create a situation in which popular participation not only can happen but must happen for the spectacle to come to fruition.
The theorist/activists of the Situationists made a useful distinction between spectacle and situation. The spectacle they condemned as a site of “nonintervention”; there was simply no space for a spectator to intervene in what he or she was watching because it demanded only passivity and acquiescence. The Situationists saw it as their mission to fight against “the society of the spectacle,” but they also felt a responsibility to set something else in motion to replace it. “We must try and construct situations,” their master theorist Guy Debord wrote in 1957. These “situations” were no less staged events than fascist rallies, but their goal was different. The Situationists encouraged people to dérive – drift through unfamiliar city streets – and they showed mass culture films after “detourning” the dialogue, dubbing the actor’s lines to comment upon (or make nonsense of) the film being shown and the commercial culture from which it came. These situations, it was hoped, would create “collective ambiances,” which encouraged participants to break out of the soporific routine of the society of the spectacle and participate in the situation unfolding around them: to make sense of new streets and sights, look at celluloid images in a new and different way, and thereby alter people’s relationship to their material and media environment. As Debord wrote: “The role played by a passive or merely bit-playing ‘public’ must constantly diminish, while that played by those who cannot be called actors but rather, in a new sense of the term, ‘livers,’ must steadily increase.” Whereas actors play out a tight script written by another, “livers” write their own script through their actions within a given setting. The ideal of the “situation” was to set the stage for “transformative action.”
Spectacle needn’t pass itself off as reality to be effective in engaging the spectator. At least this was the hope of the playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht was disturbed by what he saw of the theater that surrounded him in Germany between the wars. With most theater (and movies and TV) the goal is to construct an illusion so complete that the audience will be drawn away from their world and into the fantasy on stage. This seduction is essential to traditional dramaturgy. First theorized by Aristotle in his Poetics, it stresses audience identification with the drama on stage: when an actor cries, you are supposed to cry; when he triumphs, you triumph as well. This allure is aided by staging that strives toward realism or captivates the audience with lavish displays of full-blown fantasy… Such drama “works” insofar as the audience is well entertained, but there is a political cost. Entranced, the audience suspends critical thought, and all action is sequestered to the stage. A “cowed, credulous, hypnotized mass,” Brecht described these spectators, “these people seem relieved of activity and like men to whom something is being done. It’s a pretty accurate description of the problem with most spectacle.
As a progressive, Brecht was horrified by this response of the theatergoing audience. He wanted to use his plays to motivate people to change the world, not escape from it. He understood that no matter how radical the content of his plays might be, if his audience lost itself in the illusion of his play and allowed the actors to do the action for them, then they would leave their politics up on the stage when the play was over.
Brecht believed that one could change the way drama is done and thus change its impact on the audience. Borrowing from the Chinese stage, he developed a dramaturgical method called epic theater. Central to epic theater was the Verfremdungseffekt, a term he mercifully shortened to the V-effect, which, translated into English, means roughly “alienation effect.” Instead of drawing people into a seamless illusion, Brecht strove to push them away – to alienate them – so that they would never forget that they were watching a play.
To accomplish the V-effect, Brecht and others, notably the Berlin director Erwin Piscator, who staged many of Brecht’s plays, developed a whole battery of innovative techniques: giving away the ending of the play at the beginning, having actors remind the audience that they are actors, humorous songs which interrupt tragic scenes, music which runs counter to mood, cue cards informing the audience that a scene is changing, stagehands appearing on stage to move props, and so on. Brecht even championed the idea of a “smokers’ theater” with the stage shrouded in thick smoke exhaled by a cigar-puffing audience – anything to break the seamless illusion of traditional theater.
While the function of the V-effect was to alienate his audience, it is a misreading of Brecht’s intentions to think that he wanted to create a theater that couldn’t be enjoyed. Nothing could be further from his mind. He heaped ridicule on an avant garde who equated unpopularity with artistic integrity and insisted that the job of the dramaturge is to entertain, demanding that theater be “enjoyable to the senses.” For both political and dramaturgical reasons he rejected the preaching model of persuasion; he wanted his audiences to have fun, not attend a lecture. Deconstructing the mind/body binary, Brecht believed that one could speak to reason and the senses. One could see through the spectacle and enjoy it nonetheless: a transparent spectacle.
Brecht’s V-effect has been adopted, in some cases quite consciously, by some of the more theatrical activist groups. Recall the Billionaires for Bush. Wearing long gowns and tiaras, tuxedos and top hats, the activists playing billionaires don’t hope to pass themselves off as the real thing. Real billionaires wear artfully distressed designer jeans; these Billionaires look like characters out of a game of Monopoly. Because their artifice is obvious, there is no deception of their audience. They are not seen as people who are, but instead as people who are presenting. Because of this the Billionaires’ message of wealth inequality and the corruption of money on politics is not passively absorbed by spectators identifying with character or scene, but consciously understood by an audience watching an obvious performance.
Furthermore, the spectacle the Billionaires present is so patently playacted, so unnatural, that the absurd unnaturality of a caucus of “people of wealth” advocating for their own rights is highlighted. This is, of course, what American democracy has become: a system where money buys power to protect money. This is no secret, but that’s part of the problem. The corruption of democracy is so well known that it is tacitly accepted as the natural course of things. One of the functions of the V-effect is to alienate the familiar: to take what is common sense and ask why it is so common – as Brecht put it: “to free socially conditioned phenomena from that stamp of familiarity which protects them against our grasp today.” By acting out the roles of obviously phony billionaires buying politicians for their own advantage, the Billionaires encourage the viewer of their spectacle to step back and look critically at the taken-for-grantedness of a political system where money has a voice, prodding them to question: “Isn’t it really the current political system that’s absurd?” The transparency of the spectacle allows the spectator to look through what is being presented to the reality of what is there.
Unlike the opaque spectacles of commercialism and fascism, which always make claims to the truth, a progressive spectacle invites the viewer to see through it: to acknowledge its essential “falsity” while being moved by it nonetheless. Most spectacle strives for seamlessness; ethical spectacle reveals its own workings. Most spectacle employs illusion in the pretense of portraying reality; ethical spectacle demonstrates the reality of its own illusions. Ethical spectacle reminds the viewer that the spectacle is never reality, but always a spectacle. In this way, ironically, spectacle becomes real.
For spectacle to be ethical it must not only reveal itself as what it is but also have as its foundation something real. At this point it is worth reiterating my initial argument that to embrace spectacle does not mean a radical rejection of the empirical real and the verifiably true. It is merely acknowledging that the real and the true are not self-evident: they need to be told and sold. The goal of the ethical spectacle is not to replace the real with the spectacle, but to reveal and amplify the real through the spectacle. Think of this as an inversion of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s infamous case to the United Nations for war in Iraq. Armed with reasoned reports and documentary photos of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions, Powell employed the tools of fact to make the case for the full-blown fantasy of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Ethical spectacle employs the opposite strategy: the tools of spectacle as a way to mobilize support for the facts. As such, an ethical spectacle must start with reality.
An ethical spectacle must address the real dreams and desires of people – not the dreams and desires that progressives think they should, could, or “if they knew what was good for them” would have, but the ones people actually do have, no matter how trivial, politically incorrect, or even impossible they seem. How we address these dreams and desires is a political decision, but we must acknowledge and respond to them if we want people to identify with our politics. To engage the real as part of an ethical spectacle is not the same thing as being limited by the current confines of reality. For reality is not the end but a point of beginning – a firm foundation on which to build the possible, or to stand upon while dreaming the impossible.
The poet Eduardo Galeano writes of utopia:
She’s on the horizon… I go two steps, she moves two steps away. I walk ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps ahead. No matter how much I walk, I’ll never reach her. What good is utopia? That’s what: it’s good for walking.
This is the goal of the ethical spectacle as well. The error is to see the spectacle as the new world. This is what both fascist and commercial spectacle does, and in this way the spectacle becomes a replacement for dreaming. Ethical spectacle offers up a different formulation. Instead of a dream’s replacement, the ethical spectacle is a dream put on display. It is a dream that we can watch, think about, act within, try on for size, yet necessarily never realize. The ethical spectacle is a means, like the dreams it performs, to imagine new ends. As such, the ethical spectacle has the possibility of creating an outside – as an illusion. This is not the delusion of believing that you have created an outside, but an illusion that gives direction and motivation that might just get you there.
I would love to give an example of the ideal ethical spectacle, one which incorporates all the properties listed above. I can’t. There isn’t one. The ideal ethical spectacle is like a dream itself: something to work, and walk, toward. Progressives have a lot of walking to do. We need to do this with our feet on the ground, with a clear understanding of the real (and imaginary) terrain of the country. But we also need to dream, for without dreams we won’t know where we are walking to.
Progressive dreams, to have any real political impact, need to become popular dreams. This will only happen if they resonate with the dreams that people already have – like those expressed in commercial culture today, and even those manifested through fascism in the past. But for progressive dreams to stand a chance of becoming popular, they, too, need to be displayed. Our dreams do little good locked inside our heads and sequestered within our small circles; they need to be heard and seen, articulated and performed – yelled from the mountaintop. This is the job of spectacle. Spectacle is already part of our political and economic life; the important question is whose ethics does it embody and whose dreams does it express.
© 2007 Stephen Duncombe
Stephen Duncombe’s new book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy makes the case for a progressive politics that embraces fantasy and spectacle, images and symbols, emotion and desire. In essence, a new political aesthetic: a kind of dreampolitik, created not simply to further existing progressive agendas but to help us imagine new ones. These are extracts from the book, which was published by The New Press in January 2007. For more details about the book, the author and the publishers check out www.dreampolitik.org or www.thenewpress.com