t byfield on Thu, 7 Dec 95 07:38 MET

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political media consultants (English)

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        Ted Byfield <tbyfield@panix.com>


[What follows is an expanded version of an essay that
appeared in a pamphlet (distributed freely) at an exhibition
by Lincoln Tobier (with some help from myself, natuerlich),
"Roger Ailes: A Retrospective in Context," mounted at Real
Art Ways (Hartford, Connecticut), the Eye Gallery (San
Francisco), and the Randolph Street Gallery (Chicago) during
the 1992 US presidential election. This expanded version of
the essay subsequently appeared in _Frieze_ magazine #7
(London. Nov-Dec 1992). This distribution (and a German
translation with an appropriately amended header) was
submitted to nettime, "the official [email] channel for the
*ZK proceedings*" <nettime@is.in-berlin.de>, on 7 Dec 1995.
Inquiries, comments, and guests are welcome:
<tbyfield@panix.com> or 526 West 111th St. #6B New York NY
10025 / (212) 665-0120. This essay is dedicated, maybe
retrospectively, to the memory of Gilles Deleuze: as is
inscribed of the grave of his longtime collaborator, Felix
Guattari, "Il n'y a pas de marque dans l'absence. /
L'absence est une presence en moi. / --Le Club de La

Contextualizing Roger Ailes: A Retrospective in Context

by Ted Byfield

The poetry which is no longer within us
and which we no longer succeed in finding in things
suddenly appears on the wrong side.

        The first televised election debates, in 1960 between a
skittish Richard Nixon and a "telegenic" John F. Kennedy,
are widely thought to have heralded TVs supposed degradation
of American politics. Whether the government "represented"
the populace more properly or pristinely before then is
beside the point--for as the syrupy, superconducting medium
that is TV began to course through the veins of the body
politic, which began to drown itself in an informational
emphysema, American political culture became a giant
dysfunctional brain: politicians, formerly faceless in the
print media, became visible impulses, political programs
became pathological tendencies, and political rituals became
compulsive reflexes--and from somewhere in this
socioelectrical swamp emerged a new figure, as defining and
elusive as the Loch Ness monster: the political media
        These consultants, auteurs who formulate divisive "wedge"
issues and engineer rosily vacuous gestalts for their client
candidates, struggle to make recognizably desirable
politicians from the ghoulish robots scurrying around the
morass of American politics. But they've done this not so
much by shaping candidates positively as by shaping the
electorate negatively. The "candidate"--a larval stage in
the politician's life-cycle--isn't putty in their hands,
rather he or she is wax, which is lost when the electoral
kiln is fired up; and his or her "character" (which exists
solely to be maligned) isn't well-rounded in the old-fangled
sense, rather it's faceted, like a counterfeit diamond whose
surfaces crystallize under the forces of the special- or
single-interest pressure groups into which the electorate is
gleefully watching itself stratify.
        But don't attribute too much power to media consultants:
they hardly invented (let alone enforce) the
pseudo-political demographic categories that citizens
ever-more zealously embrace as their essential "identity."
And don't assume, merely because consultants work in a
political milieu, that power is the best rubric under which
to think about their work. That something much like power
has fallen to them is undeniable--but whether that's the
point is debatable.
        As more moments of life are documented and made instantly
retrievable, what once would have been the politicians past
now comes back to him or her like an accursed instant
replay; and not only is his or her present always subject to
assault by this eternal return, but his or her every word
and deed is shaped in the here and now by the excruciating
knowledge that it is being documented, shredded into
decontextualized snippets as possibly meaningful as Lego
blocks. Videotapes, interviews, memos, wiretaps, tax forms,
offhand remarks, even friendships take on a lethal aspect,
for multitudes of idle viewer-voters lie dormantly vigilant,
ever-ready to be roused like paper tigers from their slumber
and infer universal principles from every half-legible scrap
of anothers life that comes their way.
        No wonder, then, that from within such a culture should
arise an inscrutable figure whose purpose it is to
frantically piece together from this infornado a
quasi-plausible scrapbook--one so mushy that the most
regressive electorate can happily consume it whole. If
teaching slogans to infants ("Read my lips") amounts to
power, then one wonders what monstrous name could possibly
do justice to the murderous force that others exercise in
other circumstances. We could arrive at such an
M.C.-Escherian crossroads, though, only in an era when the
best that any popular critique of power can muster is a call
for empowerment, i.e., _more_ power. If the solution is to
distribute the problem more equitably--to collectivize the
hair of the dog, as it were--then, clearly, either the
problem or the solution has been poorly stated.
        Political power has traditionally brought with it a
protocol whose complexity increases as one rises through the
ranks of officialdom--and it was nearly the most rigorous
form of this protocol that Roger Ailes, king of the
kingmakers, shattered in a crowded room when he screamed at
then-Vice President George Bush,"_There you go with that
fucking hand again! You look like a fucking pansy!_"--and
was thanked for it.
        So, without trivializing the media consultant's influence,
one can say that power doesn't adequately describe the
curious process of engineering the outward appearance of
those whom the electorate has charged with representing it
(to the King of England? to itself?), and thereby
orchestrating the ways in which the American electorate
_divides and conquers itself_.
        The possibility that some latter-day, misplaced mutation of
aesthetic distance justified Ailes's breach may astonish,
but it's true. The media consultant's ostensible job is
training his client to realize idealized images of the
politician and painting policies in the hues of a lost
political paradise. In short, his work lies in
aestheticizing politics--a task that Walter Benjamin saw
(long ago) as integral to fascism. However, to equate the
rise of Nazism with the present-day American political scene
would be, among other things, silly: we've come to a point
where the glaring extremity of fascism isn't needed to
mobilize the masses--its easier to encourage them to
immobilize themselves.
        The precondition for aestheticized politics was, for
Benjamin, a citizenry whose "self-alienation has reached
such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as
an aesthetic pleasure of the first order." Sadly or happily,
the American electorate's salvation lies in its alienation
from its own alienation: for only then could it be
convinced, in a tour de force of pretzel logic, that the
cure for the anti-incumbency fever with which its been
diagnosed lies not in electing newcomers but in passing
term-limitation referenda--in other words, compounding the
abstract legalistic framework that blindly destroys corrupt
and conscientious politicians alike. So if it is an
aesthetic distance expressed as "what the people want" that
mediates the consultant-candidate relationship, something
like this distance can be found as well in the people's
alienated, passive-aggressive exercise of its own political
        How different would it have been, say, had Ailes screamed
at Bush for "acting like a fucking pansy" in hesitating to
wage war against Iraq? It was, after all, by doing so that
Bush exorcised the "wimp factor" that had haunted him since
the 1988 election. But how remarkable can it be that Bush's
"self-esteem" might inform his decision to wage war in the
context of a culture for which the Gulf War came, within a
year, to serve as a milestone on the erratic path of Bush's
approval ratings? One can't blame media consultants for
this--but given this, one must admit that a media
consultant's work is curiouser and curiouser than it seems
on its face.
        Is he, for example, a psychoanalyst upon whom a politician,
in times of electoral crisis, transfers his charged and
ambivalent feelings about the voters to whom he owes his
status? Ailes is "very supportive in the beginning--he
bolsters [his clients], reinforces their egos. When he feels
their confidence level is up... [h]e'll say, '_You stink!_'
and they'll listen." A Bush associates remark, that "Bush
doesn't take advice well--but he listens to Roger," is all
the more ominous in this light: Ailes seems to hold
something of a Svengali-like sway over Bush, and this while
the government of which Bush styles himself
commander-in-chief has gained a Svengali-like sway over an
electorate limited to a docility punctuated by an all too
predictable unpredictability.
        Our political vocabulary is an incoherent mishmash of
pseudo-categories that guarantee, first, that all but the
most idiosyncratic political stances end up valorizing and
accelerating the systematic destruction of ethical society,
and second, that above our babel we're deaf to the brass
tacks of flagrant tyranny being hammered home behind the
walls of bureaucratic fortresses. But since were concerning
ourselves with media consultants, were consumed by the
"issues," those answers (not questions) that mysteriously
trickle down into our consciousness. But from where and how?
        Politics and the politician are, as I've implied, the
medium of the consultant's craft. In understanding the
consultant's work, one should turn away from ideas of
arrogated "power" and turn instead to the history of art,
for they're Pygmalions for whom a candidate or cause is a
mass to be modeled into a genre and coached into life,
invested with rhythm and balance, and taught to capture the
hearts and minds of the voting masses. One could easily
argue, for example, that orchestrating a multimedia
campaign--especially one intended to effect a national
renewal by tapping into volkisch myths--is remarkably
similar to Richard Wagner's total-art vision of opera,
though executed on a far grander scale. And, really, this
should come as no surprise whatsoever, for the
democratization of artistic activity so characteristic of
modernism may reveal itself, in the long run, to have been a
minor deviation from the pattern of social circumstances
that has consistently defined creative production for
millennia: patronage by the head of state. However one feels
about such observations, though, there's a lesson to be
learned from the oeuvres of Ailes and his ilk--David Garth,
Larry McCarthy, Robert Squier, and Roger Stone to name but a
        That in this day anyone but a hopeless naif could accuse
another or boast of "politicizing art" or "aestheticizing
politics" is laughable--as though the two spheres had
miraculously remained distinct, cryogenically frozen like
Walt Disney's corpse, through the fifty-six years since
Benjamin wrote the overly quoted essay I quoted above. It is
to these auteurs--and not to the legions of self-styled
artists whose strident oppositional posturings only affirm
the values and institutions they claim to criticize, by
insisting that they are perfectible--that historians will
turn in their search for the exemplary art of the late
twentieth century: for, ultimately, they are the descendants
of the avant-garde whose unorthodox work in diverse media
and methods is condemned by the traditionalist
commodity-producers in every field of art, even as it
decisively articulates the terms that the latter debate and
the sociopolitical context in which they do so.

The government of the city is in your hands,
and that is just, for you are the force. But
you must also be capable of feeling beauty;
for as not one of you today can do without
power, so not one of you has the right to do
without poetry. You can live three days with-
out bread--without poetry, never; and those
of you who can say the contrary are mistaken;
they are out of their minds.
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