All the world’s a stage. — William Shakespeare, As You Like It
This is not journalism, it’s performance art. — FOX News contributor Kat Timpf on pre-approved questions at a Biden press conference
In the old days of print journalism, the importance of a story was not measured in retweets, trending, uploads, shares, likes, or views, but rather in “column inches.” This is self-explanatory, but is also indicative of the fact that journalistic coverage in the print era was a zero-sum game. That is, the more column inches are devoted to story A, the fewer there are available for story B. This, along with “burying” stories deep within the publication, was standard operating procedure for the press, a type of covert and typographical censorship which was born with newspapers and which the current media platforms are struggling to replicate.
As first radio and then televisual news gained ground, the same principle of narrative economy, and the necessity of controlling it, applied, mutatis mutandis. Now, after the Big Bang of the Internet, distraction from important stories by the adroit use and overblown coverage of relatively meaningless ones has become the new standard operating procedure — part art form, part psyop. And this is not just some American phenomenon. If you are reading this and are British, do you know anything about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle? Almost certainly you do. Do you know about recent changes to the United Kingdom’s Electoral Commission? Maybe not so much.
So, what is the best model for the media manipulators? What else is a good distraction? Why, it was there all along: an evening at the theater.
Politics has now become almost purely theatrical. Going back to the ancient Greeks, theater was the forerunner of the cinema, which is by comparison a very young artistic medium. The theater was intended to divert and distract via the medium of entertainment, which is a reasonable mission statement for today’s mainstream media.
It is hardly a groundbreaking insight to say that media representation of the political apparatus of any given country or union is largely staged. But what hasn’t been fully thought through is what it means to surrender political discourse to the art of the playwright. This turns a democratic body of voters into an audience. English poet and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously wrote of a reaction to “the drama” (which is what the English used to call theatrical performance) as “the willing suspension of disbelief.” Nothing has changed.
I did a lot of acting at university, and I came to appreciate just how much the actors — although the focus of the performance and in receipt of plaudits (if the play is any good) — are enabled by the backstage team and the crew. These people are the facilitators. Are you going to perform the lead part in a play and also help construct the lighting rig, sync the sound effects, make the onstage calls, arrange the blocking in rehearsals, and design and build the set? Unlikely. Thus, the director assembles a team who know what they are doing, so that the show may go on.
The more I watch American cable media, which is so complex and interconnected as to make British media look as quaint as Morris dancing, the more I understand about the replacement of the journalistic ethic of honest reportage with theater. And, as with the real thing (as it were), the backstage crew are just as important as the actors.
To take the most obvious recent example of political theater, White House Press Secretary Karin Jean-Pierre is an actress to the extent that she actually reads lines from her infamous binder in answer to questions from the press corps. She also made her grand entrance, having passed the audition, as the “first gay, immigrant, person of color” to hold the post — possibly the only statement she has ever made which doesn’t fold under questioning. This entire performance is a waste of time. That is the entire reason for its existence. The journalists get paid — and Peter Doocy increasingly makes a name for himself — and Jean-Pierre opens her mouth and preplanned lines come out, such as the lines in a script. You see, theatrical discourse was always designed to be deceptive. For the duration of the drama, you aren’t supposed to believe that what is taking place in front of you on the stage is not real. And the theater may be enjoyable, but it does tend to take up your entire evening. And that is the point of it. Let’s look at the current male lead on the global stage, and see if he isn’t more comic relief than meaningful soliloquy.
Biden’s mangling of language and senile maladroitness practically have their own show-reel. But all the time the Right are guffawing at the President’s latest piece of absurdist theater, they are not paying attention to other matters. It’s all column inches. Vivek Ramaswamy, a Republican presidential primary candidate who is as sharp as a tack, describes Biden’s mumbling, stumbling, and bumbling as “a feature, not a glitch, for the Democratic party.” Biden’s charm for the media, however, is his unpreparedness. The other side of the coin is, to quote the title of Stanislavsky’s famous method-acting Bible, when an actor prepares.
Louisiana Senator John Kennedy is a bluff old cove I like watching in Congressional hearings. He specializes in what philosophers call “closed questions.” This formulation goes back to Aristotle and is also known as the law of bivalence. As English philosopher W. V. Quine makes clear, the answer to a closed question is that either P or not P is true, not both and not some middle ground or prevarication. It’s either raining or it’s not raining. These questions are at the heart of Congressional hearings, and watching those being questioned trying to get away from the construction of the questions is like watching a fish trying to wriggle free of the hook.
Kennedy was questioning a black woman — I missed her name, but I think she was a Congresswoman — about full-term abortion, and whether she would vote for a bill approving this. Senator Kennedy described his question as a “yes or no question” — the closed question we saw above. Now, an abstention or reluctance to answer either way looks like middle ground, but if asked if you would do x, and you say you don’t know, then you are saying you would not, and the excluded middle still holds.
The woman was typical of blacks in American politics, with honorable exceptions. She was arrogant, not very bright, and somehow laboring under the apprehension that we are interested in what black people have to say and must pay attention because a melanin count says so. We see clearly in these cases the meaning of the term “uppity.” But her answer to Senator Kennedy’s question, closed as it was, illustrates how important it is for an actor to learn her lines: “I refuse to be shackled to that question.”
This is quite brilliant scripting. She refuses to be “shackled” to a yes/no question, and will not be subjugated by mischievous white logic. The word “shackles” has, of course, an obvious provenance. Optics and narrative are the twin pillars of the mainstream media, and a black woman looking noble and proud telling a white man he can’t put her in chains with supremacist logic is great theater, for the right crowd.
If pointing out that politicians are not being entirely honest in their presentation seems trite, that’s not the point. The point is that so many people with the power to vote — not the right to vote; that’s long gone — think they are watching something that is real, honest reportage by experts concerning a world that is as they say it is. Democracy is mentioned on an hourly basis by politicians of all stripes. But democracy is just sitting in straight lines at the theater, watching the performance and getting sucked in until it’s time to return to reality and get a drink at the theater bar and a cab home. The problem is that the play has become reality.
The problem the Left had with Trump is not that he was racist, or sexist, or a Russian collusionist, or any of the other charges made. Those were theatrical props. It’s that he was a non-union actor, off the books and off-script. But are there any politicians in either the United States or the United Kingdom who are not displaced thespians? I find myself watching and listening to politicians I suspect of having integrity — see Andrew Bridgen in the UK — and thinking: When will the mask slip? When will I realize I am just at the theater?
The greatest Shakespeare soliloquy in all the Bard’s work is not real outside of the attraction of its language wedded to its attendant action on stage or screen. It has no referent in the real world. It is designed to please, not to inform. If political discourse has become a Folio edition, then we will never have good governance again, if we ever had it at any time — unless, that is, we can see the play for what it is: drama.
One of the greatest assets Counter-Currents has is the ability of its readership to act as a sort of hive mind, but in a positive way. That term is usually pejorative when used by the Right, but I have been informed, corrected, and educated on a number of occasions in the comments section here. With that in mind, I wonder if anyone can help me out with this one.
I just can’t trace this on the Internet, but either in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception (in which case it would be the shrapnel victim, Schneider) or Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, there is an account of a cranial trauma patient who attended a production of Hamlet. The man was gripped by the play, so much so that when, in the third act, Polonius is eavesdropping from behind a draped arras and is stabbed by Hamlet, who believes him to be the King, the injured man shrieked out to the actor playing the Danish Prince that the man was hidden there. He failed to recognize that the situation was not occurring in the real world. (If anyone can let me know, I would be grateful; otherwise I will think I dreamt it. This is not to be confused, incidentally, with the apocryphal tale of a member of the audience at a particularly dull production of Anne Frank’s diaries who was so bored he is supposed to have shouted at the actors playing Nazis, “She’s in the attic.”)
So, we are aware that we are subject to a media/entertainment complex designed to distract and divert. Unless you have a research team, it is very difficult for an individual to see through the greasepaint and the staged dialogue, to see that the sets and special effects aren’t real. And, all the time, the Wizard of Oz — discovered by little Toto — is telling us to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. The media want you fixated on the drama, the pantomime, a word which means the recreation of the world in entertaining but ultimately false terms. We may or may not be living in a simulation, which is the latest and rather tiresome intellectual fad, but we are living in a stage version of The Truman Show. The play’s the thing for the global deep state, and you must not let your attention stray elsewhere. To reboot the old American gag: Yes, but apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
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