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<nettime> Extreme Makeover theory of the U.S. presidency
digital medea on Wed, 10 Nov 2004 09:08:03 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Extreme Makeover theory of the U.S. presidency


Following the carpark theory of the same....

After spending more time than I would care to contemplating the role of the 
Evangelicals, creationists, and nationalists in this election - everyone 
buying into and trumpeting the faith, flag, and family mantra - I began to 
think of the other ways in which Bush reflects (and manipulates) the 
cultural zeitgeist.  It cannot simply be that millions of believers, 
frightening as their proximity may be, have produced this outcome alone.  In 
what sense, then, has Bush - and the Bush team - fashioned him as a figure 
for our time? In what sense does he reflect and embody our cultural logic? 
Why does he seem the right fit, the intuitive choice, for the millions who 
are neither believers, nor war-mongers, but that voted for him regardless? I 
want to know not just, `why Bush,' but `why Bush now'?

The cultural zeitgeist in our coalition of two, as I see it, is reflected 
and shaped by the increasing number of television shows devoted to 
"lifestyle" repair in the U.S. and the U.K.:  Extreme Makeovers, Queer Eye, 
Changing Rooms, Changing Spaces, Trading Spouses, Wife Swap, Fat Nation, How 
To Be a Property Developer, House Doctor, Too Close for Comfort, What Not To 
Wear, Cosmetic Surgery, Britain's Youngest Mums and Dads, Britain's Worst 
Wife, Time To Get Your House In Order!, and, of course, The Swan.

What, then, do we seem to want? Let's track the basic formula at the heart 
of each of these programs:  we begin with a Problem, which is almost always 
physical. We're too fat, too lazy, too ugly, too hairy, poorly dressed, out 
of date and out of fashion, poorly organized, stuck in a rut. We have bad 
habits, bad haircuts, personality disorders, and an unfortunate sense of 
style. We have abusive friends and partners; no one supports us properly; 
our Problem has made us into a social pariah.

What do we need? We desperately need, not just one person, but an entire 
team of people to come in to Diagnose Our Problem.  We then need, with equal 
desperation, to be abused by these `doctors', `lifestyle coaches', and 
television hosts.  So, in the second part of the formula, these 
quality-control experts swoop in, diagnose and then Display, not just for 
the pleasure of the television audience, but for the subjects themselves.  
They - we, by association, since we identify with the subjects - seem to 
want not just to be assessed but to be punished sufficiently for having 
allowed the Problem to emerge in the first place.  Yes, yes, I know, I 
should have proper storage; I should not be wearing jeans from the 1980s, 
unless they're vintage; I should known not to marry that asshole; I should 
not have given birth to two adolescent boys who hate each other; I should 
have known not to eat take away all the time, especially from McDonalds; I 
should have known; I should have known.

In the third stage, Fixing occurs.  Whether it involves surgery or 
construction, it always takes a team of experts and laborers.  On a 
compressed time schedule, all the better to fit programming schedules but 
also to assure us that this is all rather easy and therefore can be 
sufficiently imagined, this team sets to work to Fix the Problem.  Much 
blood, dust, screaming, insults, and furrowed brows follow.  The team will 
hit a stumbling block and then forge on to the finish, the Unveiling of the 
New and Improved.  Here we get the famous utterance: "I 
am...so....so...beau-ti-ful!"

What is new about this formula? How is it different from the standard frog 
--> prince, princess --> ogre transformations? How does it align with the 
self-help books that line the shelves of every major bookstore? What is 
different is the Team.  Essentially, this is outsourced self-help.  We don't 
even know what the problem is: although we may have a vague sense of it - I 
am just not beautiful - we don't know that our eyes are sunken, our chins 
misshaped, our skin sallow.  This is not self-fashioning but expert and 
administered improvement.  We surrender control over Diagnosis and 
Correction.  We may submit our names for consideration - but often, I would 
note, a friend or family submits our names for us (`he doesn't really know 
it but we all think he is a total barbarian').  The intervention is 
presented to us as almost magical - one day a team descends on our doorstep 
and does their work and we awaken utterly transformed.  (In our comic book 
dreams, of course, these transformations are equally magical but science 
fiction and we cathect onto the hero/ine who has been not just improved but 
made extraordinary.)

Where is Bush in all of this? He is the quintessential Recreated Man.  We 
know about his `recovery' from alcohol and drugs, and this fits in well with 
the Christian narrative of redemption, the prodigal son, and so forth.  We 
also know about the many poachings of Reagan's persona - the clearing of the 
brush at the ranch, etc.  But more needs to be said about that ridiculous, 
down-home, good-old-boy, Texas accent.  He is an extraordinarily gifted 
cheerleader - and I am going to write about that at some point - and we need 
to acknowledge that, strange as it may seem, he is also gifted with his 
voice.  It is not at all easy to change entirely one's mode of speaking, to 
shift inflection, vowel sounds, and tonal registers.  Witness Sean Connery 
in Hitchcock's Marnie, which after all turns on a question of pronunciation 
(inn-surance vs. insure-ance):  the layering of posh New England over 
working class Scottish is the vocal equivalent of the fake backdrops in the 
Baltimore scenes.

In sum, Bush - with the assistance of that expert team - appears before us 
as the successful product of an Extreme Makeover. It's not a question, 
either, of exposing this aspect of his history.  Strangely, Kerry was held 
to the obligation and burdens of continuity:  somehow who he was as a young 
man was believed to be equivalent to, and to deeply inform, who he is now.  
The Kerry team insisted on this continuity as well, despite the very slight 
changes to his speech from 1971 to the present.  To combat the Swift Boat 
Veterans ad sufficiently they would have had to abandon his past persona and 
that was something they were not able to do - in order to make him as a 
wartime president, he had to be `appointing for duty' once again.

On the other hand, most Americans know well that Bush has been, not just 
saved and redeemed, but remade and recreated, and, for that reason, he is 
familiar, comfortable, intuitively right.  For this reason, he did not need 
to admit to making mistakes, absurd as it seems, because he had already 
admitted to a fatal flaw of being and submitted to the team of experts for 
his remaking.  We seem to suspect and even dislike people who will undergo 
merely minor alterations.  This is the true scandal of Kerry's Botox 
injections:  they were only cosmetic, a tinkering on the surface rather than 
a wholesale recreation.  We can only trust in a team and its product.  Only 
a major overhaul can achieve the semblance of authenticity. Bush, then, is 
the authentically inauthentic president for our time.

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