Politics, People and the Spectacle

Democratic politics is essentially the politics of rational dialogue in which language, thought and persuasion play key roles. At least that is what we have over the decades learnt to believe. But recent electoral battles in India appear to have fundamentally shifted the ground on which our democratic beliefs have stood so far.

It is not being argued here that the theatre of politics has moved unprecedentedly and dangerously away from reason and towards emotion. Emotion has always been an indispensable appendage of democratic politics, whether for good or for bad. What is new is something else. It is the rise to predominance of affect vis-à-vis reason and emotion. This has shifted 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 employs or contends with emotion, it has a support or a rival. That is why it not only survives but even flourishes. Affect, on the contrary, preempts reason. 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 our culture of the spectacle, we are everywhere surrounded by images which solicit our attention ceaselessly. Even words get 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. The space of reading, listening and reflection gets usurped by images. You do not say but show. Not that the images are anything new. What is new is that there are too many of them, moving in too quick a succession, and the succession can be rather baffling. In the good old days the image was an extension of speech; now it is becoming 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 media-saturated culture, they wield tremendous power to seduce people with their raw, sensory urgency. This explains the transformation of politics in our times, which has come 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 and Rang De Basanti exemplify. Politics minus memory and context is the best current recipe for instant entertainment. Ideologically drained and historically evacuated, such compromised cinematic narratives perhaps announce the arrival of an ironic postmodern nationalism.

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 when 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 in finding 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 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 suffers 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. 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 a fair exercise of reason. The insidious triumph passes off silently and uncelebrated. And expectedly so.

The current obsession of political parties with images needs to be understood in the wider context of the history of the global present. This obsession seems to have reached pathological proportions in the acts of computer-aided simulation and morphing of which various political parties accuse their opponents from time to time. But it is more than pathological, being 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 Indian newspapers and websites carry when reporting on the daily movement of the electoral juggernaut. It is the photograph of a political rally. The politicians are sitting on a high podium, their heads turned back, their eyes looking into the camera, and the audience looking at the politicians 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 politicians 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 politicians and for the cameras. The people are there just as a prop or nuisance, 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 politicians 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 them to really hear the politicians and to choose the right candidate and party 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, like thousands of debt-ridden farmers in India, drink 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.

This being the situation, we are not heading towards better democracy but towards 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.

Rajesh K. Sharma teaches literature and theory in the Department of English, Punjabi University, Patiala (India). His interests include technology, philosophy and education. Email: sharajesh@gmail.com

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