An interesting argument found on the Slate.com summarizing Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy by Stephen Duncombe. The short summary is that progressives fail to understand the power of spectacle in contemporary politics.
Worse, today’s progressives fail to tap into America’s collective unconscious through spectacle, which Duncombe defines as “a way of making an argument … through story and myth, fears and desire, imagination and fantasy.” Republican Party leaders don’t hesitate to derive inspiration from Madison Avenue and Hollywood. George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” photo-op may have backfired, but it demonstrated an impressive commitment to spectacle. In this way, Republicans are actually far more populist than the New Democrats.
Duncombe claims that progressives have lately become more involved with top-down, passive spectator politics. Argument, write your congressman, civil protest, etc. The right, on the other hand, has a firm grip on Hollywood-style spectacle to capture imagination and fantasy — see “Mission Accomplished” staging.
Duncombe’s solution is for progressives to study games like Grand Theft Auto [hey!] to try to understand why stable middle-class voters want to pretend to car jack and kill cops all night. His hunch is that GTA offers a kind of participatory involvement in fantasy production that the current political modes can’t.
So, how might today’s progressives develop an alternative political aesthetic? Duncombe suggests that Democrats co-opt and transform the fantasies against which they have for so long inveighed. He urges progressive activists, for example, to study video games like Grand Theft Auto. Doesn’t the game’s popularity blatantly indicate that many of us fantasize about carjacking and other violent crimes? Yes, it may, admits Duncombe, before drawing a more optimistic conclusion. “If a game offers power, excitement, and the room to explore, people will play evening after evening after evening, almost regardless of the results,” he writes. “Perhaps the problem is not that people don’t want to get involved in politics, but rather that they don’t want to take part in a professionalized politics so interested in efficiency that there is no space for them, or they don’t want to spend time in a political world so cramped that there’s no freedom to explore and discover, to know or master.” Which brings us back to where we started: How can progressives invent a political process that figuratively and literally involves us?
He calls then for an ‘ethical spectacle’:
“Our spectacles will be participatory: dreams the public can mold and shape themselves,” he claims. “And they will be transparent: dreams that one knows are dreams but which still have power to attract and inspire.”
This bears a reconsideration of what a spectacle is. According to Lefebvre, Debord, and the Situationists spectacle is inherently passive, not paticipatory, a distraction from the displeasure of labor. Even so, with the Web 2.0, perhaps the spectacle of the future is one that calls for our involvement. Sticking to Duncombe’s argument, the form of serious critical engagement and stern engagement with facts that materialists [Debord certainly wasn’t one] would desire is what led democrats to their current impotence, isolated from the dreams and desires of regular folks.
I am not sure that makes it truly participatory in liberating fashion, however. If we go to Zizek on this, our fantasies have always been participatory without being liberating. The commodity exchange for example is a prime example of relation mediated by fantasy, however, it is the structuring of our consciousness and not a choice of a social future. Also, as Zizek points out in Marx, capitalism constantly forces a choice which is not one, exemplified in the ‘freedom’ to sell one’s labor on the open market. Global capitalism is thus precisely a kind of participatory fantasy without freedom.
On the whole the article raises an interesting question: Can the spectacular fixation already captivating society be used to foster political engagement and to forward a progressive agenda? And, I agree with its fundamental assumptions, that imagination is not singular, is not apolitical, is intimately invovled with how we conceptualize our world and that there is no true outside the society ofspectacle, only working within it. My problem, however, is the assumption that tapping into imagination is more exploratory or liberatory by default, which is what this article seems to suggest. Yes, it would be great if politics were open to exploration and fantasies and imagination were mobilized for progressive political ends. The question is whether or not this can be done without lapsing into distraction or the replacing of one version of utopia with another.