spectacles, objects, and baby daddies

[youtube urZKX4kk6zI]
(If you read the whole thing, this will all tie back into Maury Povich. I promise…)

I last posted about how I’m in the middle of reading Stephen Duncombe’s Dream: Re-imagining progressive politics in an age of fantasy.

Duncombe (like Lakoff) is concerned about progressives’ inability to frame empirical reality within a compelling narrative. He criticizes the way progressives naïvely cling to empirical research and sober deliberation. Instead he advocates a new kind of ethical spectacle.

I find his argument compelling, but I’m thrown by how he seems to want to discard the rituals of deliberation, fact-checking, and empirical research. (Or, put differently, he wants to keep the facts but change the packaging.) Could this be a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water? While progressives (like John Kerry) are sometimes famous for failing to resonate emotionally with their audience. Duncombe’s argument is that these politicians put too much faith in logos and ignore mythos. While I find this point fairly compelling, my quibble is that progressive politicians also need to get more emotional about logos.

When Joe Wilson screamed “You Lie” to Obama he wasn’t just painting an alternative narrative model; he was also expressing his apoplectic frustration over the mismatch between his model of reality and Obama’s. Honestly, that’s the kind of passion I want out of politician. I wanted Obama to yell back! And even if I completely disagreed with Wilson’s stance, I can at least appreciate his passion. It’s the kind of raw emotion that a coach has when he yells at a ref on the sidelines of a sports match. It emerges out of a friction between questions of discursive reality (whose narrative frame will dominate?) and empirical reality (did the player foot really go out of bounds?). And this is why watching an instant replay in football can be incredibly dramatic.

So, besides sports, what are the modern-day rituals that accentuate this friction between objects and human discourse? One of my favorites examples from pop culture is the Maury Povich series called Who’s Your Daddy.
While the show itself is quintessential trash TV — exploiting dysfunctional family relationships as a carnivalesque (and often misogynistic) freak-show — what fascinates me so much about the series is the inevitable moment where Maury takes out the proverbial manila envelope with DNA evidence inside, and a hush falls over the participants. This is the moment when all those back-and-forth accusations of sexual infidelity and competing claims about the baby’s features suddenly evaporate. Maury even uses the language of the court when he somberly states “in the case of…” and then reads out the definitive statement “You ARE the baby’s daddy” or “You are NOT the baby’s daddy.” On hearing these words, one party starts to celebrate and the other one crumples to the ground or runs away in shock (or sometimes, if the father is indeed the daddy, he’ll try to embrace the mother as a sign of reconciliation).


This kind of punctuated resolution of conflicting models for reality (by calling upon objects to “speak” for themselves — albeit with Maury as a conduit) is an extremely powerful sort of ritual.

Why can’t our political rituals encourage this friction and make it the focus of spectacle in its own right? We need rituals that play out like the Hobbes vs. Boyle air pump debates where the objects (in this case Boyle’s vacuum chambers) have their own sort of radical transparency. (Latour’s writing in particular, has explored the cultural significance of this clash between an exclusively discursive style of argumentation vs. one that steps aside to let objects “speak” for themselves.)

What I wouldn’t give to see the banter of Sunday morning pundits subject to the same sorts of accountability rituals. Or to see presidential debates punctuated by manila envelope moments. In my fantasy, a team of moderators stops the debate at some critical juncture — a disagreement over a verifiable fact for example — and does some quick-and-dirty research by a team of fact-checkers while a commentator narrates the thinking behind the research process. The tension during these breaks would be palpable — like watching the instant replay review in football, only for politics. One party would be declared the winner and one party the loser. There would be real drama here. And when the verdict comes down, one party would celebrate ecstatically while the other crumples (and takes a blow to their reputation). Too many embarrassing misstatements and a pundit or politician would start to lose their credibility.

Of course, in my fantasy, certain disagreements would not be resolvable, either because they were rooted in exclusively ideological (as opposed to factual) disagreement or because the necessary research could not be completed quickly enough. The latter would be deemed temporarily unresolvable until further research could be conducted. But the mere fact that these questions were treated as investigatable would make viewers more likely to have a stake in following up on their resolution. And perhaps we’d start to see irreconcilable ideological disagreements as problems to be solved — or, at the very least, critically examined — rather than as a giant epistemological muck to feel cynical about.

Ultimately, if the assumptions behind arguments (by the likes of Lakoff, Westen, and Duncombe) are correct — that progressives naïvely cling to empirical reality without understanding how to package this reality within a compelling narrative frame — then there’s another implicit assumption here that shouldn’t be taken lightly: that empirical reality favors progressive models. In Stephen Colbert’s famous quip: “We all know reality has a liberal bias.” While this explanation may be a bit crude, I think it’s fair to assume that the political version of a baby daddy test would favor progressive positions.

The problem for my fantasy, though, is that politics is not only about describing the empirical world but about imagining and persuasively arguing for the plausibility of new transformative realities to come into existence. This is where Duncombe’s argument is most compelling for me.

At the same time, though, I can’t help but thinking that rituals like the Maury Povich manila envelope moments are somehow the carnival version of something that’s very necessary to a functioning democracy. The manila envelop moment mirrors election night as a ritual of accountability where discursive frames (promises of victory, assertions about the will of the electorate) suddenly cower before the verdict of objects (in this case, the quantitative measure of votes cast one way or the other). These rituals are not about the dichotomy between rationality and irrationality that Duncombe is interested in, but rather, about the friction point between discourse and objects. I think that friction point is an important place to build rituals around — and not just the somber sort of rituals in the court room but rituals that take on the subjects of dreams and mythology that Duncombe so evocatively points us toward.