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Protest Aesthetics- What the Left Can Learn from Las Vegas

by by Andrew Boyd and Stephen Duncomb Wednesday, Jul. 14, 2004 at 6:44 PM

From Issue 3 of The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest. Street Theater and the left in general needs a new relationship with "the truth".

The Navy jet screams down onto the flight deck of the USS Lincoln. In full flight suit, his crotch bulging subtlety, the President of the United States steps out of the four-seat fighter/bomber to cheering throngs of servicemen returning from the Iraq war. He gives them a thrilling thumbs up sign. The media is enraptured. “Commander-in-chief and a rock star” says one cable news commentator. “Dashing,” says another. “Historic,” says a third. Under a huge red, white and blue banner reading “Mission Accomplished” George W. Bush announces the “end of major combat operations in Iraq.”

We Lefties know this was a lie. We eagerly point out to the few who will listen that Bush avoided declaring a literal victory to avoid legal repercussions under the Geneva Convention. We explain that the enlistees on board the carrier were bound by military discipline to applaud him. We describe how the podium was aligned so the TV crews would have the NS-3B Viking jet in the background of the shot, and that the carrier itself was angled to obscure any view of the nearby coastline. We know, in brief, that the whole affair was a manufactured spectacle.

We shake our heads in disbelief as we see the well-known history of the President’s less than heroic performance in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War dissolve in a carefully stage-crafted series of associations. Watching the facts and complexities, as well as the larger and darker political machinations behind the Iraq war, subsumed by mythic imagery, we can only imagine the spectacle in store for us when the Republican National Convention comes to New York City on the third anniversary of 9/11. Images of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will haunt our imagination.

Why do we have such a virulent reaction to this political stagecraft? Sure, who wouldn’t be upset by the triumphalism of a dangerous political enemy. But there is something more to this, something deeper. We believe in truth. We believe in reason. We believe that if people just knew the facts they would see through all the smoke and mirrors, all the hype and mythology, and come over to our side. We Lefties are creatures of the Enlightenment.

drawing by Shane Hope

And this might just be a problem. As long-time media activists, political and cultural theorists, and organizers with Reclaim the Streets and Billionaires for Bush, the authors of this article are worried that the Left’s faith in and attachment to rationality is baggage we carry from a bygone era, a faith that serves us poorly in a political culture in which spectacle is the lingua franca. Personally, we’re also strangely inspired by the "worst" kind of spectacles in American culture: not just the visual engineering of Top Gun Dubya on the USS Lincoln, but the seductive sleight of hand of corporate advertising and the tongue-in-cheek hubris of Las Vegas. We believe that progressives, in spite of our abiding Enlightenment-era faith in rationality, must learn to use spectacle as a tool of political communication – not grudgingly, but enthusiastically and free of guilt.

What is spectacle? By default most people think of throwing Christians to the lions, parading missiles through Red Square, or the Ice Capades. But spectacle, for us, is something more. It is a way of making an argument. Not through appeals to reason, rationality and self-evident truth, but instead through story, myth, fantasy, desire, and imagination.

Spectacle has a long history in politics, stretching back to the Circus Maximus of Imperial Rome and likely long before. But it takes on new importance in the age of popular democracy. In a democracy leaders not only need to keep the masses from running riot in the street, but more importantly, need their consent to govern. Walter Lippmann, the public intellectual who advised nearly every US President from Teddy Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, understood this feature of contemporary politics better than most. Writing in 1922, he warned that while the opinions of everyday people matter in a democracy, these opinions were based more on emotion and desire than they were on reason. By manipulating symbols, exploiting memories, and weaving compelling stories politicians were able to guide the direction of public opinion. “The practice of democracy has turned a corner,” Lippmann argued in Public Opinion, “A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power.” He called this revolution “the manufacture of consent.”

From Lippmann’s prescient understanding of the ways in which modern democracy and fantasy are intertwined the Left learned a lesson, the manufacture of consent must continuously be uncovered and deconstructed. But the lesson we learned was one sided; we now need to learn how to construct consent ourselves. We’re not just arguing that the Left needs to be more creative and media savvy – a common (and valid) complaint. What we’re saying is that we need to acknowledge that politics – even our politics -- is about persuasion, even manipulation.

Look at Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine. Does he really lay out a rational, reasoned argument explaining the culture of violence in the United States? No. Does seeing Charlton Heston squirm under Moore’s questioning bring us closer to the truth? No. But was that scene an emotionally powerful argument for gun control? Did the film put the issue on the table? Did it provoke millions of Americans to give serious thought to the culture of violence in America? Yes. Yes. And yes. Furthermore, the film’s spectacular (pun intended) commercial and critical success gave Moore a nationally televised opportunity to denounce our “fictitious president” and his “fictitious war.”

Or take Rosa Parks. The popular story of Rosa Parks is of a woman who acts from her own heart, spontaneously, and changes the world. She is the Everywoman who hits that very American “I’m not going to take it anymore” breaking point. It’s a moment of magical transformation, the Camusian moment of rebellion, the refusal, the “No!” that also becomes a “Yes!,” affirming her dignity and humanity—and ours. It is also, as any serious student of the civil rights movement knows, a lie, a fiction, a deliberately perpetuated mythology. Rosa Parks was not acting spontaneously. She was a professional organizer trained at the Highlander Institute, a secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP who was deliberately selected to perform this opening act of the bus boycott. But what’s more important, the history lesson or the myth?

Radical history is rich with spectacle. Martin Luther King's March on Washington and SNCC’s lunch counter sit-ins are classic examples of the genre. Abbie Hoffman—who dropped dollar bills on the stock exchange floor, ran a live pig (“Pigasus”) for president, led 30,000 hippies in an attempt to encircle and levitate the Pentagon—pursued an explicit strategy of mythmaking and media manipulation. Abbie understood these rules of the political game and made no apologies in his advice to fellow activists: “This society communicates through symbols, styles, personalities, issues; it’s non-literate and non-ideological—it’s visual imagery, short bursts one-minute long…”

Sub-Commandante Marcos’ poetic speeches and whimsical, fable-laced communiqués wove a web of fantasy around the Zapatista rebellion in Southern Mexico. He realized soon after (and maybe before) leading the Zapatistas out of the jungle, that his comrades’ black ski masks and automatic weapons, far more than providing actual security or a means of attack, were most effective as elements in a spectacle of resistance. “Yes the Zapatistas went to war,” writes Frank Bardacke in the Epilogue to Shadows of Tender Fury, a collection of Marcos’ writings, “but it was 12 days of war, followed by several months of theater.”

There is a counter tradition on the Left that has long understood that all politics, at some level, is a kind of theater. This practice continues on today, particularly in the global justice movement. "Everything is theatrical,” says David Solnit, who as founder of Art and Revolution had a role in giving the Battle in Seattle and subsequent mass mobilizations their creative flair. But the problem, as Solnit sees it, is that “traditional protest—the march, the rally, the chants—is just bad theater."

The Left once had a near political monopoly on fantasy. Conservatives were the ones that wanted to defend the real and retain the status quo, while radicals wanted to move towards an imaginary future and create the “New Man.” What was communism, anarchism and the beloved community of The Civil Rights Movement if not fantasies after which to strive? “I have a dream….” Plagued, however, by its Enlightenment guilt complex, the Left regularly disowns its own -- often effective -- history of mobilizing fantasy. Spectacle is the tactic that dare not speak its name (it may frighten the horses). Worse, it’s what the other side does; a recent New York Times article listed one of the core qualities of fascism as an “appeal to emotion and myth instead of reason.”

In the past both of us authors have seen our role as good Lefty activists and intellectuals as that of pleading with people to “please pay attention to the man behind the curtain”, debunking the other side’s stories, and pissing on people’s fantasy parades. Revealing the truth. But we have been forced to acknowledge that the truth is not enough.

“The truth doesn't matter anymore," said John Sellers, executive director of the Ruckus Society, as we sat around discussing the Bush team’s propaganda campaign to convince America of the need for the Iraq war. It was kind of like Nietzsche pronouncing "God is dead." Like Nietzsche — who was not making some grand metaphysical claim, but merely observing that God was effectively dead in the hearts of his countrymen — Sellers was not being an overblown post-modern provocateur, but asserted what seemed evident to all of us: that truth is no longer the deciding factor in people’s opinions.

The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, PBS, BBC, and even the CIA, have all clearly and repeatedly stated that there were no links between Iraq and Al Queda prior to the most recent US war in Iraq, yet polls indicate that more than 60% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was directly connected to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. This is not a simple case of people not knowing the truth; this is a will to ignorance.

Certainly US propaganda gave the public’s flight from facts a helping hand, but it was effective because the Pentagon’s propagandists understood something that many on the Left would like to ignore: people prefer a dramatic story to the uncomfortable truth. Weaned on endless advertisements, sitcoms and Hollywood movies, we’ve learned to find comfort in compelling narratives and distrust open-ended stories or messy facts. Far better than the elusive Osama Bin Laden and the ephemeral Al Queda, Saddam and Iraq (at least at the time) seemed made for prime time trouncing. When the Iraqis didn’t welcome us as liberators and Saddam was harder to find than we thought, no matter: there was always Saving Private Lynch.

A climate of fear can fuel fantasy, as the Bush Administration has so effectively demonstrated. When threatened and insecure, people will find a way, to go with the story - no matter how irrational - that makes them feel safer. And it may be that the pull toward the dramatic is basic human modus operendi. Jesus, after all, used parables instead of rational arguments to make his points in The Gospels. But today spectacle is center-stage, driven by mass media and a consumer economy that panders to and profits off of emotional narrative and the hyped. Once there were a few holdouts: News, education and so on. Now there is “fair and balanced” Fox in the living room, and Channel One in the classroom. Spectacle is our way of making sense of the world.

It’s not that the truth doesn’t matter at all. (One can see how the grinding war on the ground in Iraq and Senator Kerry’s service record in Vietnam is eroding the myth value of the vigorous Commander-in-chief with his bulging crotch.) It’s that the truth is not enough. In fact, it’s not nearly enough. Truth can't easily speak for itself. It must be packaged. It must be embedded in an experience that connects with people's fantasies and desires; that resonates with the symbols and myths they find meaningful. We are not arguing here for a left that lies outright, but rather for a propaganda of the truth. We’re making the case for a manufacture of dissent.

But what then separates our spectacle from theirs? Does our recognition and embrace of the non-rational lead inexorably to a relativistic “battle of the myths”? Does the manufacture of dissent necessitate ignorance and blind obedience? We don’t think so. We think there is the possibility for an ethical spectacle, one which honors the democratic and egalitarian ideals that should be at the center of the Left’s political project. Ironically, it’s Las Vegas — Sin City itself — that can help us formulate such an ethics. We believe that amongst the whimsical, over-the-top, crassly commercial simulated realties of Vegas lies a model of spectacle that is more populist and more participatory—yet maybe no less effective—than Bush’s landing on the USS Lincoln. We think the Left has a lot to learn from Las Vegas.

In the early 1970s three East Coast establishment architects visited Las Vegas. Out there in the Nevada desert Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour found an antidote to the European architectural modernism of grey poured concrete towers and sterile glass blocks. With its billboards, neon signs, garish casinos and visible parking lots, Las Vegas was architecture of bold communication and commercial persuasion which scorched the cool theories of respectable design. Whereas modernism whispered the truth of buildings, materials and structures in its stripped down architecture, the style of The Strip screamed out unlikely but alluring promises: Golden Nugget, Stardust, Mirage and then, leading out to the desert, Quick Cash Here and Girls, Girls, Girls.

In 1972 Venturi, Brown and Izenour wrote a manifesto celebrating the vernacular of the roadside called Learning from Las Vegas. What is remembered about Learning from Las Vegas today is the architects’ celebration of historical pastiche and eclectic style: the way that the casinos on the strip mixed Egyptian with Baroque, Classical with Arabesque, an anti-theory of architecture which became, of course, the new reigning theory of architecture. The book is still read as one of the founding texts of post-modernism.

But in 1972, the lessons Venturi, Brown and Izenour seemed most eager to impart had more to do with hubris and humility. It wasn’t so much that the architects loved Las Vegas; they loved the fact that so many people loved Las Vegas. Since their job was to build spaces for people to inhabit, they reasoned that it was important to pay attention to popular style. If people liked garish display, improbable historical juxtaposition and convenient parking, signs and surfaces rather than boldness of pure form and integrity of the material, who were architects to deny this? “As Experts with Ideals,” they wrote, modern architects “build for Man rather than for people.” The authors wanted to reverse this, to pay attention to people’s values, and then design buildings utilizing a popular vernacular. Their argument was not that the customer is always right, but it was a rejection of the notion that the people’s desires were always wrong. The ideal was not to capitulate to, but learn from Las Vegas.

What does a book on architecture have to do with politics? A lot. The Left traditionally plans its politics to appeal to “Man,” but seems woefully ignorant – or worse, contemptuous - of the desires of people we want to reach. In our fetishization of the truth and our seeming unconcern for presentation and popular desire we merely confirm the stereotype the Right has created of the Left: (snobby) Experts with (inhuman) Ideals; supercilious school principals telling the rest of us to do our homework. If the masses like Las Vegas, then the Left has got to figure out what it is about Las Vegas they like.

Las Vegas has transformed itself in the thirty years since Venturi et. al. visited. Casino ownership has moved from mobsters to MGM/Grand, and the sleazy swinger style of the Brat Pack has given way to whole (if not entirely wholesome) family vacation packages. Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in the United States, its hotels and restaurants receive top ratings worldwide, and it is the center of some of the most dynamic union organizing in the nation. But perhaps the most noticeable transformation has been that of the architecture. Cheap billboards, garish neon and blocky casinos have been usurped by the elaborate faux sky line of New York, New York, immediately recognizable, if improbably positioned, landmarks of Paris, Egyptian Pyramids made of glass, and the grand palaces of a virtual Venice. The fantasy and fakery that was always a part of Vegas in places like Caesar’s Palace and Circus, Circus has been taking steroids since ‘72.

But it’s the fantastic and fake nature that is so interesting to us. It’s so obvious. Yes, Las Vegas is fake. This is decried by sober American thinkers (“the evisceration of reality by its simulation”) and celebrated by enthusiastic French intellectuals (“the evisceration of reality by its simulation!!!”) but both seem to miss the point. A fake is only phony if people believe that it references a real. It’s doubtful that anyone mistakes New York, New York for the real thing, or, having visited the Great Pyramid of Luxor feels that they’ve gone to Egypt. The crowds that love Las Vegas know that it is fake, and that’s part of the reason they love it.

This is what we can learn from Las Vegas.

Contemporary Las Vegas symbolizes a different type of spectacle than those manufactured by Albert Speer and Leni Riefenstahl, or the directors of George W. Bush, the movie. The latter hopes to pass itself off as real, the former’s very appeal is in its patent falsity. Like professional wrestling, people enjoy Las Vegas because they know it is just a spectacle. The sights of Paris, across the street from Venice, and down the block from the Brooklyn Bridge. How exciting! The appeal of Las Vegas is not based in trickery (other than the odds at the gambling tables); The Strip is a transparent spectacle, a self-conscious spectacle. What is being sold and what is being enjoyed is not delusion, but illusion.

This is the popular vernacular we should adopt: creating spectacle which is understood as spectacle; one that still has symbolic power but lets the reader in on the production. Such a spectacle is open ended. It doesn't portray itself as "The Truth" but instead allows each spectator to imagine for herself, to build their own truth. It is a spectacle that is semiotically participatory.

What would such a spectacle translated into left politics look like? We’re not quite sure, but we’ve seen – and participated in -- some political events that might give us a hint:

It’s a cold night outside, but inside the St. Marks Church in New York City it’s stifling. An overflow crowd has come to hear Reverend Billy preach. Punctuated by emphatic “amens” from the crowd, the good Reverend energetically exhorts his flock to resist temptation. Not an unusual scene for a church, except for a few things: Reverend Billy is a performance artist named Bill Talen and the sermon is on the evils of shopping. Behind the Reverend is a 10 ft crucifix; a huge over-stuffed Mickey Mouse doll nailed squarely upon it. At first read this is just another arch ironic send-up of organized religion staged in front of a crowd of urban hipsters. And it is. But it’s also something much more: it is an experience of communion and shared faith around a vision of a world not centered on consumption. Everyone knows that Bill is not a real Reverend and they are not real churchgoers, yet it doesn’t seem to matter. It is still deeply moving. Talen has created in his own words, a “god that people who do not believe in god believe in.”

Sunday, 3pm, and more than a hundred young people have gathered at the Cube sculpture marking the entrance to Manhattan’s East Village. Many of them carry boom boxes tuned to the pirate radio station transmitting from an old bread truck nearby. Electronic dance music animates the crowd. “Now” someone yells and the group heads into the street, running west. We reach Broadway where a tall tripod is erected in the middle of the street and a person clambers to the top. A mobile sound system is wheeled out tuned to the pirate station and is turned up to top volume. Broadway erupts into a party with brightly costumed dancers, fire breathers, and one particularly energetic fellow gyrating in a bright blue bunny suit. Leaflets are handed out to the crowd proclaiming this as an action of the local chapter of Reclaim the Streets, thrown to protest Mayor Giuliani’s draconian Quality of Life Campaign. But such assertions are redundant. The protest itself speaks more eloquently about reclaiming the streets for free and public expression than any photocopied piece of paper. The protestors have created and acted out – if only for a few hours - a story of what a radical public space might look like.

“Yes, I’m a Billionaire. And, yes, I’m for Bush.” Says the earnest young man to the Fox reporter. Standing there in the crisp New Hampshire Autumn, at a protest “against” Presidential candidate Howard Dean, the young man—impeccably dressed in a double breasted suit, bowler hat, walking stick and monocle—certainly looked like a billionaire, or at least like someone trying to look like someone trying to look like a billionaire.

Protesting against the Democratic candidates and popping champagne corks at Bush campaign stops, such scenes were commonplace this primary season – and will be throughout the 2004 election. It’s all part of a satirical media campaign called “Billionaires for Bush.” While fact checking carefully and closely collaborating with more serious economic justice efforts, the campaign borrows heavily from the mythmakers of Madison Avenue. But unlike advertisers, the Billionaires don’t really hope to fool anyone. Their campy schtick is an obvious fiction that reveals a greater truth: billionaires are the ones benefiting from the policies of President Bush.

These actions give an indication of what Left spectacle could look like. It will be a different type of spectacle, one which would be sincere without laying claim to The Truth, democratically acknowledge the constructedness of the spectacle without slipping into cynical irony, and speak to the imagination without becoming a completely imaginary politics. This is our design challenge.

Guy Debord, the key theoretician of the French Situationists, argued in his 1967 masterwork that we are living in a Society of the Spectacle, a cultural system in which the genuine experience of the individual in society has been superseded by a representation of experience. While we mostly agree with this analysis (thirty-five years later, in an age of virtual reality and post-modern simulacra, such a notion has become almost a commonplace), and our understanding of spectacle shares some of his flavor, we consider Debord’s call to resist the spectacle by reasserting a genuine unmediated experience, to be romantic and naïve. We instead believe that the only way forward, the only way to change our lived experience, is to re-represent the representation, to engage in the spectacle as best we can.

“We pin our hopes to the sporting public,” Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1926 in an essay directed to his fellow playwrights and directors who were bemoaning the fact that the masses preferred soccer matches to serious theatre. Instead of whining about the general lack of taste, the radical dramaturge believed that artists could learn something useful from sporting events; the primary lesson being that people participate in what they enjoy, and unless theatre was made enjoyable the people wouldn’t come.

Many of Brecht’s radical contemporaries were content to make theatre or derive theory, based upon the assumption that their good intentions and well-reasoned analysis were all that was required, and that the proletariat, once suitably awakened, would find the Left’s truths self-evident. Brecht rejected this. He believed that to be effective as a playwright or a politico, one must embrace what Marx once called the “historical present.” He took the position of a -- strategic -- weather vane, testing the popular wind and fashioning a political theatre that sailed with it. Like the authors of Learning from Las Vegas, Brecht was not suggesting a public opinion poll politics of giving the people whatever they want. He understood that catching the wind did not dictate the direction that one sailed, because, in his words, “once one has a wind one can naturally sail against it; the only impossibility is to sail with no wind at all or with tomorrow’s wind.” Tragically, in Brecht’s Germany, it was the Nazi party who ended up being his best students.

Today it is the Right in the United States that seems to be learning from Las Vegas. The stagecraft of the Bush administration has obfuscated an unprecedented redistribution of wealth and the launching of a new American Empire with stories of Dubya’s folksy Texas ranch and images of toppling statues. Many on the Left shake their heads at these sorry spectacles, consoling their impotence with a sense of moral superiority -- “We would never fall for such a thing” – and hoping that some day the wind will blow back in the direction of a mythic republic of letters and reason of the 18th Century.

We counsel another direction. Today’s wind is one of spectacle. It may not be of our making. Its origins may not be the pure lands of the Enlightenment but instead the commercial barrens of advertising and entertainment. But use it we must, for without the wind, we are becalmed, stuck, going nowhere.

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