Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Politics of the Spectacle

Reason Retreats as Images Invade the Political Arena

Democratic politics is essentially the politics of rational discourse in which language, thought and persuasion play key roles. At least that is what we have so far tended to believe. But the ongoing political battle for assembly elections in Punjab appears set to change our notions of democratic politics fundamentally and for ever.

It is not that the theatre of politics has moved unprecedentedly and dangerously away from reason and towards emotion. That would be retelling an old story. Emotion has always been an indispensable appendage of democratic politics, whether for good or for bad. What is new is the rise to predominance of affect vis-à-vis reason and emotion, which can shift politics on to an entirely different ground. What is most disturbing is that on this ground the rules of democratic politics as a rational discourse do not seem to apply.

When reason has to contend with emotion, it has at least a rival. That is why it not only survives but even flourishes. Affect, however, preempts reason because its appeal is sub-rational. In the prevailing culture of the spectacle, it finds a particularly conducive environment to flourish because the images can bypass reason to speak directly to the senses. In a culture of the spectacle, we are everywhere surrounded by images which solicit us nonstop. Words are pared down to mere letters and numbers to reduce communication to a transmission of images and symbols: look at the practice of using SMSs and instant messaging. Images usurp the space of reading, listening and reflection. You do not say but show. Not that the images are anything new. What is new is that there are too many of them, in too quick a succession, and the succession is quite a jumble. In the good old days the image was an extension of speech. Now it is a substitute.

It is the rational foundations of democratic exchange that carry in them the promise of freedom, justice and a better world for everyone. And reason survives on reflection. Images, on the contrary, derive their force from immediacy. In a mediatized culture, they wield tremendous power to seduce people with their raw, sensory urgency. Hence the transformation of politics in our times, when politics comes to resemble cinematic fantasy. Indeed the distinction between politics and entertainment can be no longer sustained on the other side of the line either, as films like Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Rang De Basanti and now Guru exemplify. Politics minus memory and context is the best current recipe for instant entertainment. Ideologically drained and historically empty, such compromised cinematic narratives perhaps announce the arrival of an ironic postmodernist patriotism.

It is not a mere coincidence that both politics and cinema should have discovered the force of the visual impact only at this particular historical juncture: India is staking its claim to the status of an emerging global superpower while seeking, ironically, a frictionless integration into the global order. From the viewpoint of global capital however, real histories and people are the most stubborn impediments in the way of integration. Since democracy forbids overriding them, technology would help capital find ways to make them effectively disappear.

And people and histories do effectively disappear in a culture of the spectacle, even though the superficial impression may be to the contrary. Images as stereotyped representations increasingly replace real people and real histories. The process involves what can only be called a high-tech primitivism: a mix of high technology and primitivist appeal to affects. But it also means the destruction of the whole legacy of rational dialogue on which democracies have historically grown.

It is not often noticed that the recent empowerment of the visual in Indian cinema has come at the cost of the narrative which has suffered a proportional disenfranchisement. This illustrates the direction and motivation of the change that is sweeping through the world. The tendency of the change, clearly, is to marginalize reflection and memory in favour of pre-reflective, affective impact. This is as true of politics as it is of cinema. When the interests of democracy as a rationally engaged community conflict with those of global capital, affective impact can short-circuit democratic reason and carry the day for capital. The short-circuiting is a high-speed operation and relies, appropriately, on powerful media technologies. These technologies include real-time communication, extreme close-up, assembled ‘reality’ and invisible spatio-temporal disjunction. Repetitive and artificially abrupt use of the affective impact delivered through images preempts the use of reason. The insidious triumph passes off silently and uncelebrated. And expectedly so.

The point is we need to understand the current obsession of political parties with images in the wider context of the history of the global present. This obsession seems to have reached pathological proportions in the alleged acts of computer-aided simulation and morphing, but it is more than pathological. It is also the displaced symptom of a grave threat that emerges unsuspected and looms over democracy.

We can try to locate this threat with the help of a typical photograph that most newspapers and websites carry these days when reporting on the electoral juggernaut. It is the photograph of a political rally. The leaders are sitting on a high podium, their heads turned back, their eyes looking into the camera, and the audience looking at the leaders posing for the picture. The audience is all eyes, a strange audience of pure spectators, with hearing and speech suspended. Between the audience (which is far off and below) and the high podium, there are still more cameras. The leaders are thus, essentially, perched between cameras on either side, with the audience providing only the background, whether visible or not. Anyone who looked at the photograph with a sense of wonder (like someone from another world) would only conclude that the whole show is by the leaders and for the cameras. The people are there just as a necessary nuisance or prop, a crowd that has rallied to see a movie being shot. The real scene of action is the taking of the picture. In other words, the real transaction is between the leaders and the media.

The truth, however, lies somewhere between the utter absurdity of the situation described above and our knowledge of the real demographics of political rallies these days. We would be fooling ourselves if we compared these rallies with those organized by people around the world against America’s attack on Iraq, or with those which took place before and after the imposition of Emergency in India. The rallies today are manufactured shows, consisting mostly of party workers and paid crowds. It is doubtful if anyone goes to really listen to the speeches of leaders and to choose the right party and candidate to vote for.

The truth probably is that these rallies are no more than dead relics of a bygone politics in which public exchange of opinions and judgements used to matter. Instead they have become photo-ops for feeding the media, which then will prepare its pre-electoral verdict with the help of media-savvy psephologists (who will inevitably go wrong). It is as if democracy has left the polis and settled down in the studio, to be touched now and then with Photoshop. At its heart there is a hole, indicating the exit of real, flesh-and-blood people, of the kind who consume a pesticide and die. They are the people who have ironically understood their dehumanization, their transformation into pests. But democracy, strangely, does not understand what they have understood.

What we are heading towards is not better democracy but simulated democracy. In this scenario, the only way to protect a politics of the people might be to take politics back to those sites where sustained rational discussion can still take place among people themselves, and not merely among their self-styled media representatives. These would be the micro-sites of mohallas and bazaars, of dhabas and tea-shops, of nukkads and chaupals, of tubewells, and of shops, offices and factories. And this should be done by people themselves.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

(from Archives 2007. Written after the 2007 State Elections in Punjab))


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