Spectacular Feelings: The rise of affect in contemporary politics

by natothompson

In book ten of the Republic, Plato writes on the subject of poetry, “Such representations definitely harm the minds of their audiences, unless they’re inoculated against them by knowing their real nature.” For Plato, art such as poetry removed the viewer from the real. Art, in a sense, is misleading. The feelings it evoked got one just a little further from what was actually happening. Perhaps it is no accident then that Plato believed art to be extremely dangerous when it came to the process of politics. For when it comes to a battle between what we feel and what we think, one might want to work the feeling angle. Just ask any advertiser.

What better way to think of contemporary politics as a terrain where Plato’s concerns regarding the synthesis of the arts and politics (and when I say arts I mean the skills of appealing to emotion)  has manifested in all its misleading glory? The entire realm of what constitutes the public electoral discourse is nothing but an assault of poetry enacted across the networks of the information age.  That feeling impressionable part of us that acts without reason is now the governing battleground of political rationality.

As we witness the discussion of electoral politics focus on the fundraising potential of SuperPacs it is useful to consider why a candidate needs all that money. Sometimes it is useful to ask such obvious questions. Why raise all that money if the points they are making are good and resonate with a voting public? Because a fact is so publicly known that we hardly understand its staggering value. Money is raised for the purpose of advertisements. Money is raised because elections are won and lost based on capital expenditures on the manipulations of public affect.

The enlightenment project, that thing that under-girds many of the ideals that uphold that contemporary project we call democracy is based on the idea that we think. But the enlightenment certainly isn’t based on the idea that we feel. Affect, that thing that is the bodily feeling part of us, is the real language at work in a vastly information-age society. Plato sensed the power of feeling. He wanted to deal with the situation by hoping one could simply remove feeling from the equation. Kick the artists out and we can finally have a reasonable conversation was his thought. But we obviously can’t. In order to understand contemporary politics we must understand that a war of affect is being played out across a landscape of spectacle. If the political shenanigans of the republican primaries feel like some tabloid nightmare, it is because the root of contemporary discourse is, in fact, the emotional sensational qualities of tabloids.

Using wedge issues and emotionally charged subject matter is nothing new in politics. Playing on fear and rage are seminal elements in any political campaign whether it is a war on crime, war on foreigners, fear of environmental catastrophe, or fear of communism. They are manipulative. Manipulating emotions has been part and parcel of political discourse since the beginning. What perhaps might have changed are the vehicles for communicating these emotional platforms and additionally, the scale of cash being poured into this approach.

In his famous Southern Strategy presidential candidate Richard Nixon uses racially coded language and appeals to the late ‘60s fear of integration and racial tensions to cull Southern democrats outraged by Lynden Johnson’s position on civil rights to the republican cause.  This platform became the bedrock of the Republican Party bringing the South into the Republican fold. What is interesting is that this platform of waging war on crime polled quite well even though crime statistics were not growing.  It even polled well in the north. Nixon used a lesson that has long appealed to voters in that appealing to anxiety is a great political device.  What is important to also note however is that he did so at the rise of the culture industry. Racism as a logic of contemporary discourse of spectacle was discovered with the Southern Strategy.

But of course, playing to anxiety is not exactly a new idea. What is historically new however is that the current form of emotional appeal transpires with the rise of advertising as the language of culture. We live in a world brand positioning and shaping. Rationality left a long time ago as the discussion on how something makes one feel becomes far more important. At this point, the landscape of manipulating emotion is the field of politics and consumption. They are all the same. Playing to racism, misogyny, fear of the other, terrorism, homophobia, instability, global warming, weapons of mass destruction, are all part of the power that affect has in an age of vast advertising. We intuitively know this.

While it is easy enough to ridicule the state of the Republican primary at this time with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum appealing to the racist bible thumping conservative vote and Mit trying to re-invent himself as a working class average Joe, the entirely same game is playing out with the democrats. Thinking back to President Obama’s election, that amazing night when much of the world erupted in celebrations, one couldn’t help but sympathize with the election slogan, “change we can believe in.” It was sincerely change many people were believing in. After eight years of Bush bellicose war mongering, sanity and hope were returning. He was African American (a victory in and of itself), he was against the war in Iraq, he was eloquent and reasonable. He was change we could believe in. But after four years of his presidency, for many people that voted for him, his candidacy felt like a clever advertisement. Change we can believe in now feels like the Pepsi advertisement it sounds like. A clever jingle with nothing behind it. Everyone wants change and everyone wants to believe in something. Sell them that. Coca-cola does it. Red Bull does it. Starbucks does it. And so does Apple. Presidential candidates are no different.

What exactly is a change we can believe in?

And the wars of affect are not without consequences. The current battle of women’s rights is a war that is being fault stealthily with the assistance of social networking women’s rights groups and activists. Rush Limbaugh playing from the handbook of women hating, found that he can receive some powerful push back. The boycott of advertisers with Limbaugh certainly got attention and the rules on the deployment of affect when it comes to patriarchy, were temporarily being rewritten. With the attack on Komen and their support for Planned Parenthood, the Republicans opened up a front line on a constituency that is over 50% of the population. Not a good idea.

Yet, what needs to be remembered is that affect is the game-board. It is not secondary to it. The war on women is a major part of this new game playing out across a landscape of spectacular affect. It strikes a nerve. It makes one react. It makes an impression. Gender and the anxiety of patriarchy are a rich terrain in the realm of spectacle because it strikes at our physical selves. It is bodily and it is something we contend with on a daily basis.

That said, there are many political issues that are not being waged on the stage of affect or perhaps they are very one-sided. Neither democrat nor republican will wage a war on prisons, because prisons are there to “keep one safe”. (Much has been said of the prison guard union, but we must appreciate the comfort that prisons serve in the public imagination). As we witness a 21st century Jim Crow rise up with more black men in prison, jail or on parole than were enslaved in 1850 before the Civil War, we wonder who speaks out on behalf of those with so little power to react to the weapons of racist affect? How can this happen at a time where we have a black president? Nothing should make this more clear than this simple electoral paradox.

Democrats and Republicans are helpless to the power that the war on crime and terror have. It is a mistake to confuse this as a war by people that believe in it (even if they do). It is a war because it works politically. It is just a powerful fact that fear (racist, gender, homophobia, terrorism) is at this point a weapon too powerful to ignore. An anti-drug-war candidate will have little power on the stage of politics. One cannot be soft on terror. The age of affect has many casualties an in particular those that can have the fear galvanized toward them; the black poor, the Muslim others, the immigrant laborers. The others, who in a realm of politics where how one feels is much more important that what one thinks, have become the victims of a new operating logic that uses their bodies as the vehicle to get elected.

And who pays for this? While battles will rage between democrats and republicans on many issues critical to our lives, neither will confront those paying for the public tabloidesque debate. As Obama caves into accepting the PACS as a necessary new reality, the Koch Brothers and Karl Rove’s Crossroads Super Pac are gearing up for a renewed cultural assault of affect. No matter what positions of affect each candidate takes to get elected, they will never take a position that prevents them from raising that very money. The war of affect comes with a steep price tag.

Perhaps Plato was wrong to think that the realm of feeling could be excluded from the political game, but he was certainly insightful that its power would radically transform much of what we think politics to be.