Bruce Sterling on Fri, 7 Sep 2007 19:04:00 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Dreaming the Left-Wing Spectacle

((("The first science fiction fanzines in the nineteen thirties were
run off from the same mimeograph as the Young Communist Flatbush Yell
Out in Brooklyn.")))
The Indypendent
Dreaming that the Revolution Might Be Fun, An Interview with Stephen
By Sam Alcoff
 From the September 4, 2007 issue

Stephen Duncombe?s academic pedigree may have landed him a
professorship at NYU?s Gallatin school, but his activist credentials
burn deep through several decades of hell-raising across the Lower
East Side. His new book, Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in
an Age of Fantasy, taps both of those worlds to propose some new ways
for today?s activists to win some old battles. Duncombe sat down with
The Indypendent to talk about the make-believe aspects of building
a new world in the shell of the old, the politics of flash and
personality and why he likes Vegas.

SA: The first thing you say in Dream is that politics can be fun.

SD: If you want people to become activists, you have to give them
something. You can give them a sense of purpose. You can give them a
sense of being a better person. And those are important, but I also
think that you can?t neglect fun. Our society is about pleasure; even
if you look at counter culture, it?s about pleasure, and to separate
politics out from that makes no sense. I?ve been an activist since I
was 17 years old, and often what was expected of me was a sacrifice
of my life -- a sacrifice of fun. We?re essentially just creating a
culture of the left that is radically divergent from how most people
want to spend their lives.

SA: In the book, you tie this to the idea of the spectacle.

SD: I think spectacles are about extravagant emotion, dreams on
display or dreams performed, and that really is something we have
to address and embrace, because spectacles are the lingua franca of
our society today. It?s how we do entertainment, how we do religion
and it?s how we do politics. On the left we look at these things as
things to be condemned. But to condemn it or ignore it means deeding
over powerful territory to the other side. What we have to do is take
spectacle seriously, and then rethink it, re-imagine it and refigure
it. The left has done this in different times. Look at the New Deal,
the French Revolution, the civil rights movement: these are folks who
took spectacle seriously, but they attempted to do it differently.

The four areas [of spectacle] that I looked at were architecture of
Las Vegas, celebrity culture, advertising, and video games like Grand
Theft Auto: San Andreas. I picked these for two reasons. One, they are
incredibly popular. Las Vegas, despite the fact that gambling has been
de facto legalized throughout the United States, is more popular than
it has ever been.

I also picked four sites that liberals hate. It?s okay to hate
these things. Grand Theft Auto is apocalyptically violent. It?s
misogynistic. It is, you know, horrifying, yet it is also fun to play.
So what I?m trying to figure out is that we can condemn these things,
but we can also understand them, and ask what in them can be redeemed.

There is an essay that has stuck with me. I remember reading it when
I was 18 and I went to a War Resisters meeting in San Franciso, we
had herb tea and sat on the floor. It was William James? ?A Moral
Equivalent to War.? James?s point was simple. Speaking to a group of
pacifists, he said, ?If we keep addressing pacifism by saying ?war is
bad, peace is good,? we?re not going to get anyplace with any people
except for people who already agree with us. What we have to figure
out it is why people go to war.? And he says ?look, whether we like it
or not, war serves the purposes of honor, sacrifice. Of patriotism,
and so on and these things are good qualities; what we have to do is
figure out a pacifist equivalent that can actually allow people to
feel honor, allow people to feel sacrifice about giving for the all,
allow people to feel patriotism, but not in a way that kills other
people or gets people killed.? And then says ?Once you acknowledge
that, then you can move the point towards your own politics.? And that
stuck with me.

Instead of condemning popular culture, we have to ask what in it can
we speak to? Those elements we can speak to, we need to acknowledge,
and create the progressive political equivalent for what people are
now finding pleasure in in mass culture. The Situationists . . . who
[peaked] in the May 68 protests in Paris, they understood before
pretty much anybody else that social values aren?t just articulated on
the shop floor. Marx was absolutely right in 1848 about the way things
were happening. But in the 1950s/ 1960s, they were being reinforced
and articulated in a world of spectacle. This is the terrain that we
have to be fighting on.

Instead of just condemning spectacles, [the Situationists] created
moments in which people would enter into spectacles, yet shift the
terrain, shift the point of view. One of the classic things they
did was detourn films. They?d show these western films, but put in
different dialogue. And it made you look at the film differently,
and say ?Well, what is expected of me when I go to this film as it?s
supposed to be seen in a movie theater and how do I think about it
now.? We should be creating these moments that get people to question
the world as it is, but give them pleasure here and now. May 1968 was
a critique of the French state, but it was also a lot of fun. I mean
you can?t read those slogans without realizing that there was a lot of
joking going on: ?Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach? and ?All Power
to the Imagination.?

SA: This sounds like what you describe as an ethical spectacle. What
are other examples of people making ethical spectacles today?

SD: Before 9/11, I?d say that one of the greatest examples were the
globalization protests. Think about normal protests. Now this is
a spectacle of impotence. The police have essentially engineered
everything for us; in fact, the protester?s job is to make it a safe
environment worked out in advance with the police. The globalization
protests were chaos. They were carnivals. They were street theater.
They were planned by the participants, not with the police. And
they were also highly effective. The shutting down of Seattle, what
happened in Prague, what happened in London, and other cities around
the world, were highly effective at getting attention drawn towards
the World Trade Organization, GATT, NAFTA, and so on. 9/11 sort of put
the kibosh on that and you saw the return of the repressed march-chant
protest where we literally become spectators toward our own activity.

Now you?re starting to see a breakdown of that in groups on the
margins. More street theater type folks. People like Reverend Billy:
complete farce, but farce you can believe in. In other words, no
one really believes that Reverend Billy is a reverend, so that it?s
not fantasy, yet it?s also creating community that?s fun to be a
part of. Billionaires for Bush: street theater that is both funny,
and entertaining. It?s fun to play to a part, yet it doesn?t fool
anyone. Looking at the Iraq Veterans Against the War, when they did
their street performances on the streets of Washington, New York, and
Chicago as well, interrogating civilians, getting under sniper fire,
carrying one of their comrades out. It entered people into a landscape
which our country has been so effective at blotting out. That is a way
to actually talk to the American people: these are our heroes and look
what we are forcing our heroes to do. I think that that is an ethical
spectacle as well.

SA: You criticize prefigurative politics, but what is the relationship
between ethical spectacle and political campaigns that are about
contesting for power.

SD: First, we should talk about this movement towards the march.
That is a fetishization of spectacle. It was a good spectacle in
1963, 64, but it is a bad spectacle at this point. It?s part of the
narrative of American democracy at this point, not a challenge to
the system. It is the system. When George Bush was confronted with
all the millions of the protesters, he went on TV and was like ?Yes,
of course! Now it?s really a war!? It didn?t shake up the consensus
at all. What shook up the consensus was a lot of soldiers dying, a
continued civil war in Iraq, and Cindy Sheehan. Also, the problem is
that these people are activists, but they?re not organizers. Doug
Henwood, Liza Featherstone, and Christian Parenti wrote this neat
article talking about ?activistism? or something like that, when
you get so jonesed up about the moment that you forget that you?re
supposed to be a part of a campaign. This isn?t in the place of the
campaign. It is part of a campaign. Reclaim the streets, when we were
at our best, in terms of our second or third protest, was when we
ingraining ourselves into pre-existing campaigns and worked with them
to figure out what was needed to get another day in the news cycle as
part of a overall campaign. And that just can?t be stressed. I cannot
stress that enough and nor can my friend, God. This is just been a
part, a tactic of an overall campaign.

I have some problems with [prefigurative politics], mainly because I
had to sit through those goddamn meetings that go on for hours. But
I think they?re on the right track, which is that . . . you have to
experiment with what this new world is going to be like. You?re going
to fail, but it?s through those failures that you?re going to actually
try and figure out what another world might be like.

The last part of my book is about understanding that these dreams
are just dreams and that they?re going to fail. In the prefigurative
politics, we?re not going to create new societies in the old, but
what we are doing is creating a setting whereby we can get glimpses
of what a different world might be like. Because part of the problem
of why we actually produce those boring marches over and over, is
that we can?t see outside of the world we?re in now. Then we?re stuck
with two paths. One is critique, which is what Marx decided. He said,
I can?t understand what socialism is going to be like, so I?m going
to critique capitalism. The other is radical imagination, thinking
irrationally about the future. This is what the Zapatistas do, this is
what Reverend Billy does, also I think it?s probably what the Khmer
Rouge did, so you gotta be a little careful. It?s the idea of moving
to something where we don?t know where exactly we?re going to land.
And that is what fantasy and spectacle do for us all the time. It?s
no accident that many many science fiction writers are political,
mostly left, but then you get Robert Heimlein, who?s libertarian.
Most of them are left: H.G. Wells, Asimov, and all those folks. The
first science fiction fanzines in the nineteen thirties were run off
from the same mimeograph as the Young Communist Flatbush Yell Out
in Brooklyn. We need a lot more ?what ifs.? I don?t think it?s any
accident that religion has created some of the great social movements,
whether they?re right wing social movements, like the Islamic Jihad,
or the social movements like the civil rights movement. Or even
Gandhiism in India. Because those are moments you can say ?what if.?
My thing is that we always have to acknowledge that those are just
dreams, we can?t pretend that it?s reality. Because that leads to
totalitarianism, to delusion. We have to embrace the idea of the
absolute fantasy so we can always stand back and say ?You know, it?s
not real. But it gives us a place to walk to.?

SA: Last weekend, I talked to this business major, his dad is a
mechanic who has been laid off every year for six years, and he was
very sympathetic very quickly to a leftist critique, but then he said
something which I hear all the time: 21 year olds who say ?but it?s
just not possible.? The totality is so complete. His grandparents were
probably alive during Jim Crow and before all the revolutions of the
sixties. And then Nixon famously lost one of the presidential debates
to Kennedy because he didn?t shave and he underestimated the effect
his 5 0?clock shadow would have on TV. Yet today they own Fox News;
the political operatives literally run the news. So I guess I?m asking
for your thoughts on the totality and if the totality has somehow
gotten fiercer?

SD: I think that the problem with the Democrats is that they don?t
listen to the margins. The Republican Party learned to listen to the
margins. You had these people, beginning with Barry Goldwater, who
would now seem like a moderate, but really Ronald Reagan and the
crew around Ronald Reagan, but that who were were staffers of Nixon
and Ford, people like Cheney who were asking what would a world be
like without a welfare state, with a pre-emptive military, all of
these things were off the table for a hundred years. Yes, we had
a pre-emptive military, but it was always done under the cloak of
darkness. Yes, there was tinkering with the welfare state, but it
was a given that it was going to exist. And these guys said ?No,
we?re going to do away with these things.? And of course, look what?s
happened, their dreams have become our reality.

I think the left has to do that same sort of dreaming. I think our job
on the far, far left is that we have to be the Karl Roves. Not too
much in being corpulent and pig-like, but in dreaming unimaginable
dreams and then convincing the center. The Republican Party learned
to listen to the margins, they were so out of power. And their dreams
have become our reality.

The problem with the Democrats is that they have no idea what they
want to dream for. They are caught within a negation. ?We want to
hold on to what little we have.? The problem with the far left is
that we?re either at that place, or we dream in a way that we?ve sort
of permanently marginalized ourselves. When we start talking about
?George Bush is a fascist and the police state is coming,? that?s our
fantasy. It?s a fantasy that keeps us powerless. It?s kind of fun to
think that we?re so important that sooner or later that the men with
the black uniforms are going to come bashing through our door. You
know what, they?re not. They?re going to ignore us. In fact, Bush is
not a fascist, he?s not smart enough to be a fascist. Now Giuliani, if
he becomes president, that could happen, but Bush is not. He?s just a
good old boy from the south with right wing advisers who wants more
political power. We have to free ourselves and to start imagining.
When Reverend Billy says ?stop shopping,? that?s stupid, you can?t
stop shopping, but he gets us thinking. It opens up the door to a
world that?s not predicated around consumption and I think we have to
make more of those ridiculous demands.

SA: The Left that does get heard is just smeared. They went after the
messenger when the messenger was someone like Martin Luther King. With
people like Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan, they go after the person
and not after the politics.

SD: I think we have a personality driven society. You are going
to get smeared as a personality. My question is, ?Does it work??
Cindy Sheehan wasn?t careful about her public image, and that was
problematic. But when they first went after her, it backfired because
they went after the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq. They
couldn?t get around that one truth which is that her son was dead.
And it made her into an unassailable character. As she distanced
herself from that then she got assailed, but I don?t think it hurt her
credibility, except among the punditocracy.

Actually, I think a similar thing is happening with Michael Moore.
My guess is that, yes, The New Yorker just wrote a scathing review,
and basically the New Yorker gave a scathing review of every single
one of, my favorite is this, they hated every single film he?s ever
done. Because why? Because he deals in emotion! Michael Moore puts
himself across as a character who is not one of those high and mighty
celebrities that people love to take down a notch or two. And so while
the pundacracy, particularly the liberal pundacracy, hates him, he?s
gotten creamed heavier by The New Yorker and CNN and the New York
Times than by Fox.

SA: What we have in America between the Republican and Democratic
party is a system that toggles, like most repressive systems, between
repression and co-optation. Even when it?s co-optation you have this
strong core in the DLC that says ?we have to have the Audacity of
Hope out there, we have to let Dean go, Kucinich and Sharpton should
be at the debates, but Hell, no, we?re not going to let them near the
control room.?

SD: I think we need the Democratic party because they?re the machinery
of the Democratic party -- not for any other reason. It?s important
for the left to understand is that co-optation is inevitable -- if
you?re any good. If you?re not any good, they?re not even gonna
bother. One of the things that I think is really interesting about
[Sixties activists] Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman is that they
understood that they were going to be co-opted. SDS did not. If you
read Todd Gitlin?s first book, The Whole World is Watching, he talks
about how when SDS became media stars it destroyed the organization.
It never destroyed the Yippies because they understood from the get-go
that they were going to use this and leverage this to whatever they

The question is once we get co-opted by the Democratic Party, how do
you leverage that into real power? I don?t think that we -- little
bands of left-wing activists with our internet pages and our little
protests -- are ever going to challenge the capitalist state. We
need machinery. We need the machinery of labor unions, we need the
machinery of the Democratic party. I?ve been an activist for more than
25 years, and I?m sick of being in a sub-culture. I?m sick of activism
as a lifestyle. I want to win. I want to change the way the world
operates. I want to make life better for myself, my family, and for
everybody in this country and around the world. And it?s only going to
happen if we acknowledge that we?ve gotta take power.

Let?s talk about what it means to create alliances with labor unions
that have muscle and money. What does it mean to create alliances with
the Democratic party, who I think are spineless idiots who have no
idea of strategy and tactics? Look, if we want to win, we?ve gotta
start having these discussions. If the Democrats want to win, they?ve
gotta start having these discussions with us.

SA: It think that your critique of prefigurative politics [consensus,
non-hierarchical organizing, etc] is right-on. But unions are largely
absent from your book, which I think is interesting because I think
the Left has largely written off unions. When I?ve seen prefigurative
politics work in my own life it?s been watching workers engage in
strikes win and organizing campaigns.

SD. Andrew Boyd of Billionaires for Bush gets calls from unions asking
him to engineer an ethical spectacle. The organizing ranks of those
unions have come through these social movements in the left. With
Reclaim the Streets Lower East Side collective -- people always said
you guys [RTS] are foolish, you guys are idiots, you guys are going
to alienate the working people. And inevitably, when I give a talk on
this, someone will raise their hand and say, ?But will the spectacle
work with people in the middle of the country?? And I?m like, ?The
only place the spectacle doesn?t work is the UWS, as far as I can

When RTS approached this union, we said . . . Are they going to let us
run with our weird carnivalesque stuff? And they were great: ?Let?s
have a big wrestling match!? And it turned out that the main organizer
from the Mexican-American workers? organization, who was also the lead
organizer in Unite 169, was a gymnast, and so he did these backflips
into the ring!

There?s so much space within unions to do this sort of work. Because
their rank and file are regular people. And regular people like
watching wrestling. They like going to Las Vegas. They like watching
TV. Just like we should learn how to do. And they also understand that
just because you watch E! Entertainment network at night doesn?t mean
you can?t also go on strike against a media conglomerate.

Once you start talking about public image -- that is, that going on
strike at a plant in Mississippi doesn?t mean jack shit, but making
an embarrassment for a corporate parent in New York City in front
of their stockholders means a lot, that opens up the terrain for
spectacle for sure.

SA: One of the things that makes me nervous is that the models you
mention, the Situationists, the Yippies, all of these things have
exploded. At the end of the day, what was attained and what have they

SD: We might?ve lost the political war, but we won the cultural war,
and if you see right wing talk shows and list servs, they understand
how much we won. Yes, it was made into profits, boutiques, the newest
sitcoms, but we basically won in terms of personal expression, freedom
of expression, partly because it was no challenge to capitalism. The
second thing is that it exploded as a political movement, I would
argue because they weren?t embedded within political movements. That
what Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin should?ve done, is met with the
folks from SDS and said, ?okay, look, we?ve got the spectacle, you?ve
got the organization. How would we want to work with these things
together?? The Situationists split every five years, purging each
other. They weren?t interested in building a movement.

I think we have to be smarter. The battle is to be fought on the
terrain of the spectacle. There?s no doubt in my mind. But it has to
also have its root in institutional structures, because the problem
with the spectacle is that it disappears. We saw this in things like
the globalization movement. We were very effective in actually pulling
off demonstrations, but when we started saying, ?Another world is
possible,? we had no destination. We also had no machinery to get it
going there. So we have to make peace with the Democratic party, and
we?ve got to make real efforts with unions.

SA: It?s been eight years since Seattle, six years since 9/11, and
we?re sort of coming out of that at some level. Very explicitly, what
do you think people should be doing?

SD: They should be thinking about crafting a politics that appeals to
desire and articulates dreams as much as speaks to the mind. I think
that?s absolutely essential. I don?t think that these run counter
to one another, you don?t have to just have fantasies and do away
with reason and rationality. We really have to build a politics that
speaks to the entirety of people?s experience: their fantasies, their
passions, their desires. It should speak to today, and today is a
society of the spectacle. Until we?re good at doing spectacle and we
figure out how to make spectacle our own, we will continue to lose.


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