Shoot me now. Let’s just get it over with. Just when you thought all you had to deal with was a dangerously megalomaniacal narcissistic president, installed by a combination of cynical 1%ers and a mass electorate that shoved Trump’s reality TV promises into that terrified empty space that’s constantly washed by waves of globalization’s precarity-caused anxiety…
Now we have to deal with the possibility of a talk-show-empire host’s presidential run. And all it took was an award show speech. Setting aside the fact that Oprah has no political experience (the attractiveness of which is a continuing sign of the breakdown of democracy), the worst of it is that Americans have never faced what the Oprah brand stands for. Possibly that’s because Oprah doesn’t seem to understand her own politics, her pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-and-blame-those-who-haven’t-had-the-strength-and-gumption-to-succeed-as-she-has politics. Because through the Oprah-lens, the problem with those who are poor isn’t connected to the fact that the .01% owns the globalized flow of capital; the problem is just that they haven’t repeated their affirmations often enough. I haven’t watched too many Oprah shows, but I will never forget one that I did watch, during which she berated a celebrity who was talking about her experience of life-threatening post-partum depression and how treatment for it had helped her. In Oprah’s view, clinical depression was something to overcome on one’s own, without help from therapy or drugs. Yeah, shoot me now, because if you think we’re living through a bizarre political spectacle now…
It seems relevant here to re-quote that theorist, the one who most other theorists seem to love to hate, but who has more insights per book than most do in a lifetime, Slavoj Zizek. I first published this quote in 2013, in a post I wrote about populism. Because, hey, Trumpism wasn’t born yesterday. And without understanding populism fully, we (we highly educated folk, at the very least) will be fated to make the same wildly dangerous mistakes over and over.
Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!” Such impatient outbursts betray a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, and give rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess – which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required. Therein, in this refusal to know, resides the properly fetishistic dimension of populism. That is to say, although at a purely formal level fetishism involves a gesture of transference (onto the object-fetish), it functions as an exact inversion of the standard formula of transference (with the “subject supposed to know”): what fetishism gives body to is precisely my disavowal of knowledge, my refusal to subjectively assume what I know. This is why, to put it in Nietzschean terms which are here highly appropriate, the ultimate difference between a truly radical emancipatory politics and a populist politics is that the former is active, it imposes and enforces its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, the result of a reaction to a disturbing intruder. In other words, populism remains a version of the politics of fear: it mobilizes the crowd by stoking up fear of the corrupt external agent.
Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 2009
First we stand by while an idiocracy is created (i.e. testing, and Obama’s “Race to the Top”) We starve schools of money, undermine the public system, and wonder why kids who are at risk (food-insecure; poverty-induced violence) just don’t learn. Liberals rant about how stupid Trump’s base is. But the refusal to understand what causes our precarity, or to engage with complexity, is not something that liberals should distance themselves from by attributing that sort of behavior only to Trump’s low-income and lower-middle class white base. All the countless liberals and Democrats who have been waxing poetic on social media about Oprah running to save the day need to get a grip on complexity.
Let’s turn to television. With rare exceptions of critique, television has mostly been an expression of cultural symptom. In the category of symptom, a couple of months ago I watched the French TV series, Spin. The French title is Les Hommes de L’Ombre, but since the characters themselves use the term “spin” (i.e. spinning the news), we can’t attribute the pithy English title solely to a dumbing down for Americans and Brits. It’s an apt enough translation for those who just don’t have the patience for homophones in a title.
The online blurb for the show describes it as a French House of Cards: “This multi award-winning, hit political thriller explores the intense rivalry between two spin doctors, the seasoned master and his protégé.” At the start, Spin presents a political battle that pits three parties with distinct – albeit barely described – political views against each other – left, right, and center. But by the time one is a handful of episodes into the show, something rather eerie becomes apparent. After a couple of brief narrative exchanges in the first episode, about outrage of politicians forsaking their party ideologies in order to form coalitions and back-room deals with parties that stand for diametrically opposed politics, that aspect of the storyline is disappeared. Completely. In fact, the right-wing political aide who gripes the longest about their boss forming an unthinkable political coalition with the left- survives only a couple of episodes. All the other characters – those without political leanings that one can discern other than party titles – survive for one to three seasons. And the entirety of the show is then about the jockeying for power by all the characters in the show, and the lengths to which they are willing to go (led by one or the other of the two spin doctors) to remain in power, or move up in power. It’s quite compelling, albeit terrifying in what it represents. One candidate’s slogan –Ensemble– says it all. Even her speeches are composed of nothing. Change you can believe in.
Maybe this is not unique as a cultural symptom, given that the American House of Cards, or the American satire, Veep—both shows ostensibly about American politics — are narratives concerned only with power, and virtually not at all with politics. But that’s because America. Really, the power plays in both of those American shows could take place in any other work setting – the corporate world, Hollywood, even academia (where the kleiner politik can get particularly ugly) . In Spin, the architecture plays a big role in reminding the viewer constantly of the representative power of the state. But it’s disconcerting that 18 episodes of a French show fully focused on politicians should have nothing in its narrative to do with politics. France – one of the origins of modern democracy. I suppose one could say that the cultural symptom is late to the game, given that France had been heading toward Macron for a long time- to wit, its waning adherence to a social democracy when faced with the pressures of globalized capitalism.
Yesterday I clicked on the link to the article mentioned above. In “The Hollow Parties,” political scientists Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld inscribe their argument about the hollowing out of American political parties into what appears to be a long-standing academic debate around the changes in the American party system and its voters. I am not a fan of political science as a discipline, for the very reasons that this text makes apparent, which is that the argument never goes deep enough into the broad structural aspects of political changes, let alone into what motivates human beings to respond one way or another to political shifts. But I think their point about the parties being hollowed out is important, and the following statement is chillingly apt:
… parties motivated by hatred for their opponents lose the capacity to enforce what Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum term “the discipline of regulated rivalry.” They become vehicles for partisans’ own venom and spleen, and their partial democratic visions descend into cabal and conspiracy.
Nothing better describes what we are now experiencing, as witnessed in millions of venomous twitter comments, from both pro-Trumpers and Trump-resisters, who are often at each others throats. Take a look at the comments section of Trump’s twitter feed and try to stay sane.
There’s no question that #Oprahisoursymptom. Because when politics has been hollowed out, the vacuum that is created gets filled with nightmarish possibilities and an unquenchable desire for non-politicians to come to our rescue.