Nato Thompson

Culture, place and power.

Tag: media theory

Spectacular Feelings: The rise of affect in contemporary politics

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.


Can a mass movement stay on message?

We have become accustomed to it. You go to a demonstration that is generally uneventful but with thousands of participants. You go home, look online to see what the news had to say, and you find a picture of some black clad anarchist smashing a window or some violent altercation between a cop and some bright eyed youth transpiring. “When did that happen?” you think to yourself. Why couldn’t the news report on the actual demonstration? Why focus on the exception and not the rule? The numbers of people. The issues. Why does it have to focus on the clearly more photogenic but besides the point actions of a few individuals? Anger turns toward these rabble-rousers. Anger turns toward the news. Is it a conspiracy? Why can’t mass movements actually be depicted as being reasonable claims on inequities of power? A new strategy must be developed. Or so one might think.


If it bleeds it leads is the common newspaper adage. For those involved in mass movements, the logic of this newspaper and television sensibility makes itself more evident. For whatever reasons, every protest needs an image of a bloodied protester, a burning flag, a smashed window, a hooded malcontent, a crazy dressed hippy, or a cop arresting grannies. Whatever the image, it needs to have some hyper sense of the real. It must be spectacular. Apparently, the images of regular folks peacefully protesting simply doesn’t translate well. As much as movements try to be populist, the media insists on focusing on their wacky and/or dangerous attendees. The image of mom and pops with their kids holding a reasonable protest sign in a group of thousands, isn’t exactly what the media is looking for. Are the newspapers and television media determined to turn this movement into a sideshow?


The Occupy Wall Street movement knows this well. It is the reason for the current hemming and hawing regarding the actions of the Black Bloc and various other black clad discontents who apparently steal the spotlight as the news cameras can’t help but follow them in their property damaging hijinks.  There is a very valid concern that the actions of these individuals across the United States is making an easily dismissed circus of this movement as their actions so readily fall prey to a pernicious media determined to use their actions for their own gain. In addition, the actions of the more militant elements of OWS provide a window of opportunity for undercover provocateurs determined to incite violence in order to delegitimize OWS. They provide an alibi for more brutal police repression and lose public sympathy in the process. This is the current mood in OWS as the chill of winter begins to thaw.


Certainly it is a frustrating situation for everyone involved. For those who are more militant, they would easily argue that the Black Bloc is a tactic not a group. It is a strategy of direct action. For as much as the movement will complain that the photographs of anarchists breaking windows is damaging for the movement, they will not complain when the videos of pepper sprayed innocent protesters goes viral on YouTube. The movement gained widespread attention as a result of direct action. They would argue that property damage isn’t physical damage and its cost is absolutely incomparable to the routine cost of capitals disenfranchisement of millions across the globe. And, as much as people complain about them covering their faces, they would say, “If you are going to participate in direct action in this surveillance culture, you better protect your identity somehow.” Direct action has been the modus operandi of the movement and it isn’t possible without a certain level of physical confrontation with power. The entire initial actions of this movement, the taking of Zucotti Park, was a physical taking of a space.


So there is a frustrating sort of impasse being reached and perhaps it is best to take a step back and consider the landscape of power and spectacle that OWS is working across. As OWS gathered momentum across the country it found itself both taking advantage of and being taken advantage of the spectacular nature of the contemporary mediasphere. It is a bizarre world we live in where the affective outcomes of actions are choreagraphed for viral circulation worldwide and everyone conscious of this, are forced to be somewhat manipulative and strategic in its consideration. Conveniently cropped photographs and edited videos are the materials of a media war for all involved. It isn’t just the media promoting an agenda. The movement has to carefully produce mediated images as well. Everyone is making advertisements for the movement. It is a war. It is a war of images.


The movement is a sort of reality television show. It is happening in space, but it is also self-consciously constructing itself for mediation. Since all the world is a stage everyone must learn the skills of theater.


But this war isn’t new. And it might be amazing to note, that it isn’t as against progressives as one might think. OWS could learn a thing or two from the brutal UFC-style assault the Tea Party experienced not that long ago. They were embraced then vilified by these very same mechanisms. It is difficult to comprehend, but bare with this a little. Yes, of course it is hard to imagine that the “enemy” are falling prey to the same mechanisms, but the tables aren’t balanced the way one might think. The rule of power isn’t left and right (as the lame political discourse of this country has devolved into), it is power wins over all. That is an equation that supercedes ideological territories in this contemporary landscape.


Images that affirm our affective reactions to various issues are easily circulated in an economy of affect. It is an economy of emotional response undergirded by capitalism that drives news and social media. We want people to feel something. Left or right that feeling needs to flow. It needs to draw viewership. It needs to feed the paradigm of fear/attraction/alienation Following in the trailblazing steps of the advertising industry, the news agencies have learned that news is just a vehicle for emotional response. Images are the kicker. For the Tea Party, as much as the excitement of the emerging of a conservative people’s movement was an initial novelty, it became kitsch and then pathetic. It was a cycle of emotional response. Tropes played out over time until finally on Facebook one could find slideshows of misspelled redneck protest signs that affirm a progressive position that these people are just a bunch of idiots. For progressives, it didn’t take long to latch onto this notion and circulate it. And the major media helped in turn. Same is true for the right wings perspective of the left. Right wing radio gets its hands on it and its communists, drugs, no god and various other sub-categories of the paradigm of right wing conspiracy theory.


Now the tables are turned and OWS is feeling itself the victim of a similar logic. While its initial appearance gathered media energy and interest, as winter dawned, the gothic tales of horror from the drug fueled unsanitary hovels of Zucotti Park emerged. In a matter of three months, the park went from a symbol of the emergence of the American democratic tradition to the worst nightmare of a drug fueled Lollapalooza let loose in the city equipped with homelessness, violence and sexual abuse. For whatever reason, while the camps occupied civic space across time and space their symbolic position vacillated from the utopian to the catastrophic. Somehow Occupy Wall Street turned into a gripping horror story for National Geographic Channel. The emotion of interest and curiosity gave way to revulsion, paranoia and finally, antipathy. And ultimately, as the protesters in Oakland began an attempt to reclaim Frank Ogawa Plaza, some of their more militant tactics fell prey to an already unsympathetic mass media and provided fuel for a major public relations blows as images of black clad anarchists with shields and helmets circulated widely across the media. If OWS wanted to appeal to everyday Americans as a mass movement, this action had only made the gulf much much wider.


The question that should be posed before asking whether or not to embrace certain tactics of direct action should be, is a mass movement even capable of navigating the complexities of spectacular culture? When I hear people complain that direct action tactics of breaking windows is not effective, I feel this inner pain that this person pretends that somehow this is a movement that can be massaged so easily. As though, the entire multitude involved is going to somehow stay on message.


Whether or not everyone in the movement “behaves” is sort of beside the point. The cameras will continue to focus on the mediated images of buffoonery and irrational violence that confirms the alienated emotions of a broad based mediated public. Even if a movement behaves, undercovers can easily break a window or incite violence. A mass movement is vulnerable to these techniques no matter what it does. And ultimately, the major media is going to tell the story it wants to. It wasn’t breaking windows that had the media reporting on what a slum Zucotti had become. It wasn’t the Black Bloc that had the New York Times ignoring the story just a mile or so from their building.


Direct action is one critical strategy among many in getting media attention on a movement. Playing that game is a necessity but it is a fickle creature that will constantly turn on you. That is its very nature. But the occupying of space is of the utmost importance and continuing to assert basic demands in that pursuit is critical. Much has been said regarding the pros and cons of direct action, but the direct action of the police across the country in removing the movement from the squares is the ultimate set back. It is egregious. The movement was not unified by ideas as much as it was by space. By removing the spatial component of the equation, the powers that be have produced a landscape for in-fighting and second guessing. How to get the movement operating in space is the most critical question and it seems to be one that will be answered via direct action. It will require some media savvy-ness, but it will also require bodies in space. I sympathize with any of the occupations in their attempts to do so. It isn’t easy and it isn’t pretty. But it is a necessity.


As much as the spectacular life is a constant flow of emotions for consumption, it is undergirded by a contradiction of capitalism. Inequity is its modus operandi. By continuing to demand justice and economic equality, the movement will at least be unified in a subject that touches every person watching dismally from behind closed doors. Without forcing the issue in spatial terms, the movement will ever fall victim to the whims of a psychotic mediasphere determined to exaggerate, make fun of, or dismiss the basic demands that should seems so obvious. Catering to them may be a part of this movement as long as we all know that the media will betray us at every turn. They are a desperate for viewership and fueled by paranoiac consumption. The betrayal by major media should not be confused as losing the sympathy of the public. For the betrayal by major media is a foregone conclusion. We must act accordingly.