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Politics, simulacra, narrative and the election

As people, we seem drawn to narrative. We like to find order, to find a flow of events, and don’t particularly like chaos. While Evcricket muses on the beauty of chaos, mostly it makes us feel uncomfortable and we search for patterns. If we don’t find them, we weave them in to narratives of our own making, just as we turn the chaotic disorder of our dreams into linear narratives.

We don’t make up the narrative patterns and structures into which we shape the random happenings around us. There are character archetypes, there are forms and patterns of story telling which are ancient, but which are updated and changed and evolve, but retain their basic structures. These permeate our culture, from the stories we learnt as children to the movies we see now. And increasingly they seem to be constructing even political reportage. What is seen in the way that this election is being covered is the shaping of events into a coherent narrative, a narrative which things like policy facts just get in the way.

Character archetypes frame the manner in which politicians are discussed. Is Kevin Rudd the hero betrayed, or the martyr or the failed and defeated? Is Julia Gillard a bold heroine or a scheming betrayer? Is Tony Abbott the comic relief, the bold challenger or the threatening presence? The manner in which the key players are constructed depends not really on the events, but on the particular narrative that is being created, by the story that is being told.

While Grogs and others since him have been totally right to point to the lack of policy questioning or consideration that has occurred in this campaign, I think that what it really points to is the fact that political journalism has given any pretence of being about policy per se, and is now about the soap opera of politics. As Annabel Crabb pointed out, journalists covering the election live in a “bubble” and that serious analysis tends to be done by specialists. This unreality adds to the view that everything can be constructed in terms which would fit the melodramatic imagination, narratives forms which are comfortable and familiar. Policy doesn’t usually help to tell this story. It is hardly surprising that as soon as something was said about “the Real Julia” the minds of journalists and others immediately went to The West Wing. Our politics is about as real as a television drama; just as constructed, but slightly less pleasing.

Coincidentally, I am currently reading Interface by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George. About a Presidential campaign in the US, and even written in 1994, it capture this idea about campaigning to some extent. Political media director Cy Ogle says:

In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much characters as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam….

So what’s it about now?

Scrutiny. We are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media…Like the medieval trial by ordealm the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are decptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond. It is a mystical procedure that skirts rationality, which is seen as the work of the Devil, instead drawing down a higher, ineffable power. Like a Roman haruspex who foretold the outcome of a battle, not by analyzing the strengths of the opposing forces but by groping through the steamng guts of a slaughtered ram, we seek to establish a candidate’s fitness for office by pinning him under the lights of a television studio and counting the number of times he blinks his eyes in a minute….

All I would add here, is that now the media uses the tropes we know to construct its own story which tells the tale of what this scrutiny reveals; a tale which should be familiar to us as the characters are those we are know from any soap opera. Unfortunately, this soap opera is meant to be what decides our government.


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5 responses to “Politics, simulacra, narrative and the election

  1. Vancian Notions ⋅

    It’s very true. Our story telling techinques have got so good we now barely understand things which do not fit within them; we feel like we can work out what is going on by force of will alone, in the way you often can in murder-mysteries, because we expect the world to be completely rational and follow our ‘rules’.

  2. SM

    Interesting view, although with simulacra in the title I was hoping for an appearance of Baudrillard of a spot of Derrida. I think the trial by ordeal complete with the spanish inquisition inference is a good point. I wonder if this means that the mainstream media sees itself as the highest arbiter of truth.

    Mind you the rise of creationism and climate changes denialists tells us the meme of “logic and rationality are the tools of the devil” hasn’t exactly gone away.

    Wonder what is next – trial by special effects.

    • godardsletterboxes ⋅

      The Baudrillard is, I guess, implied. The moulding of the election campaign into conventional narrative forms, the using West Wing as a reference point – here the referent disappears and we are replaced by a series of reflections without any origin point. It was the thought that I had when this government was elected – with so many young advisors and so long in opposition, it seemed that some of them had no reference point for what being in government meant, except for West Wing. Which we noticed with the whole referring to the Minister as the “DPM” and so forth. Is “taking out the trash day” a reality reflected on a television show, or a television show creating a reality? The election campaign is not “real” as it is merely a series of representations, and the referrant is no longer policy, it is caricatures and characterisations. And here I am using fiction to describe what we are currently seeing as “fact”. It is hard to keep track.

      • SM

        It is a bit inane how the fictional narrative has become the meme by which the reality is played out. You are right though both the staffers and journo’s are using it as their touchstone. I suppose we should be happy they didn’t choose Rome or Deadwood as their narrative.

  3. Matt

    Good old Cy Ogle, that was a fun book. I’ve also seen the occasional reference to Shakespeare in the election coverage.

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