Friday, May 04, 2007

Ritual de lo Habitual

Now that both parties have completed their initial ritualized encounters between their various candidates for the Presidency it may be useful to reflect upon the bases of such rituals. The candidates’ debate is generally perceived and covered by the media as a ritualized combat, an agony, in the Greek sense of a contest designed to reveal excellence (and truth) by pushing antagonists to their extremes of ability.

In point of fact, the format of political debate in the U.S. has steadily evolved from an agonistic, life-as-struggle, basis in which the antagonists address and confront each other directly into a group interview in which each participant assumes the role he and his advisors believe will resonate most favourably with their target audiences. Last night we saw McCain assume the persona of the wily, grizzled and indomitable warrior, for instance, while Romney took a turn as a Mormon Martin Sheen playing Josiah Bartlett. What we have here is the triumph of mimesis over agon—a situation in which a man's assumption of a persona and performance in that character is his apotheosis, rather than triumphing over an ordeal which strips away pretence and exposes the reality of the contenders.

At a simpler level, we could see this evolution of political debate, even among Republicans, as another step in the Oprahfication of American society, and the general retreat from agon into a comfortable world of non-competitiveness and Little Leagues which don’t keep score. The candidate sine collegia of this ethos is of course Oprah’s own anointed Barack Obama. Obama’s disingenuous “let us reason together” posture of non-confrontation serves as the mask behind which he runs a campaign for the institutionalization of the cultural revolutions of the last half century.

I would argue that Obama's congruence of non-confrontational style and strategy, rather than simple racial solidarity, represents the key to understanding why Oprah Winfrey was among Obama’s earliest backers, and it is this that makes Obama the most telegenic--mimetic--candidate on the Democratic side, so long as he is not called to actually defend his political positions.

The two great public religious rituals of Classical Greece were the athlon--the athletic games of competition, and the theatron, the drama of the theatre. A primary distinction between the two is that in theatron, the outcome is known in advance, determined by the dramaturge, and is a catharsis or purgation of antisocial disunity, while the athlon is spontaneous and dedicated to the extraction of excellence. In shifting from an athletic to theatrical model of politics, America runs the risk of finding its political outcomes predetermined by those able to assign roles and enforce scripts, as the media is increasingly able to do in the McCain-Feingold era. Senator McCain, for instance, may now find that his pugnacious desire to assume the role of protagonistic maverick will not endure the rescripting his opponents with more powerful media allies, either in the primary or general election, visit upon him.

Aristotle said, "We are what we repeatedly do; excellence is therefore not an act but a habit." Removing the antagonistic element from these debates therefore invites an imposture which the realities of human existence must ultimately strip away. The persona assumed by the candidate in reality will be subjected to the ordeal of agon, if not in the election campaign, then in the ongoing contest of political life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are you sure you want to describe the change as an "evolution".