Wednesday, April 28, 2004

John Kerry's Underpants

José Carlos Mariátegui wrote in 1923 that Western political personalities "appear in their day-to-day familiarity, in direct contact with the Western public. . . . Their practiced faces smile at us in the newspapers from behind the masks. We are abundantly informed of their ideas, their schedules, their menus, their words, their friends" ("Lenin" [September 22, 1923], The Heroic and Creative Meaning of Socialism, ed. and trans. Michael Pearlman, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996, pp. 9-10). What was only an emerging trend, noticeable to shrewd cultural observers like Mariátegui, in the early twentieth century has by now become an inescapable part of our lives today, creating a dominant structure of feeling about the Western power elite that even diehard anarchists and socialists would find it difficult to resist. Take, for instance, this New York Times article about John Kerry's "factotum," Marvin Nicholson Jr., in which we learn all we want (and don't want) to learn about Kerry's and Nicholson's campaign lives: "The man who would be president takes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — on whole wheat, strawberry jelly preferred to grape — twice a day on the campaign trail. He wears $15 reading glasses, off the rack at CVS. Before bedtime, he starts but rarely finishes movies like 'Seabiscuit' and 'The Blues Brothers' in his hotel suite. Come morning, he leaves $20 for the maid" (Jodi Wilgoren, "Part Butler and Part Buddy, Aide Keeps Kerry Running," April 28, 2004).

Cultural critics on the left often complain about "the ascendancy of style over substance" in the media coverage of politics (and all things besides), but the complaint misses the point. Style is substance. Why do the media wish to introduce us to John Kerry's breakfast cereal ("Do you have any sort of bran cereal, like Total?") and have us imagine his underwear ("'I've seen him in his underwear,' Mr. Nicholson said, declining to elaborate on size or style")? Because the main purpose of the media coverage of politics is to build an illusion of intimacy with the power elite, to which activists and intellectuals on the left are hardly immune, even if we may call this or that American politician a "war criminal" and denounce the US government as a "rogue state" (and many of us in fact do). We may intellectually understand that consequences of actions and inactions of the US power elite (as well as multinational power elites allied with them) are far more destructive on the world scale than those of dictators and terrorists who become Washington's official enemies (many of whom used to be its former allies). Our feelings give lie to our arguments, however. Washington's official enemies are abstractions -- creatures of myths that leftists may love (Che Guevara) or hate (Saddam Hussein). US politicians whose schedules, menus, and friends populate our imagination are another matter entirely. They -- not even George W. Bush, who has launched millions of liberal books, articles, websites, and organizations devoted solely to attacking him -- inspire neither love nor hate in the way that icons of good and evil do. Rather, they "appear in their day-to-day familiarity, in direct contact with" all of us, revealing their human vulnerability, standing in their underpants, butts of our jokes.

If an effect of familiarity protects politicians, the effect is, ironically, often induced by the techniques of alienation, estrangement, and defamiliarization devised by socialist modernists such as Bertolt Brecht and Victor Shklovsky for critical education of senses and arousal of capacity for action. Drawing upon the traditional Chinese theater, Brecht argued, for instance, that the actor in the epic theater "observes himself" and "expresses his awareness of being watched," rather than allowing the audience to have "the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place" ("Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting," Brecht on Theatre, trans. John Willett, NY: Hill and Wong, 1964, p. 92). What was avant-garde in Brecht's times has since become the norm of the postmodern media. The New York Times claims in the article about Kerry and Nicholson that "[v]oters do not learn these tidbits about Senator John Kerry, the all-but-crowned Democratic nominee for president, from his campaign Web site, his public speeches or his television advertisements" ("Part Butler and Part Buddy, Aide Keeps Kerry Running"). Its claim to be a rare invitation to a behind-the-scenes view, however, is disingenuous. The media daily invite voters to observe the making of a president -- as a product of social labor, no less -- to the exclusion of anything else about politics. By the time D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' documentary The War Room was released in 1992, the audience had become so familiar with such once avant-garde techniques that not only would they look at presidents as actors (literally in the case of Ronald Reagan) -- they would pay to enjoy the experience of a presidential candidate's handlers as actors observing themselves and expressing their awareness of being watched. Defamiliarization has become familiarized, safe for profitable use in the mass media, which, unlike both the epic theater and the dramatic theater, seduce the audience to identify with the knowing self-consciousness (often expressed in the form of self-deprecation) of politicians, their handlers, and journalists who observe the politicians and handlers observing themselves -- all parties maintaining the sense of irony. Such ironic identification, rather than naive faith in politicians and the media, is the strongest chain -- a tale of John Kerry's underpants is one of its links -- with which the culture industry of late capitalism binds us.

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