Manufacturing Dissent: An Interview with Stephen Duncombe (Part One)

Tonight, at 7 p.m. est, CNN will host a debate among the Democratic candidates for the presidency, aired live from South Carolina. There have already been several previous debates during which American citizens could get an early look at Clinton, Obama, Edwards, and the other contenders for the nomination. What makes this debate interesting is that average citizens were invited to submit their questions for the debate via YouTube. Last week, I appeared on Talk of the Nation with David Bohrman, the guy from CNN who has been given the task to select the questions that actually reach the air, and Joshua Levy, a political blogger ( We learned that there had been, at that point, more than 1500 questions submitted and that the CNN staff was shifting through them to decide which ones should be asked the candidates. You might want to take some time today to sample the kinds of questions submitted in their raw form. They reflect two of the dominant modes of production for YouTube. On the one hand, there are straight to camera confessionals -- often deadly serious, frequently deeply personal, made by people who embody the issues they are discussing. These videos reflect the ways that Americans are taught, via television, to speak to presidential candidates and more often than not, they reflect the same agenda that has shaped previous debates. The CNN spokesperson did say that there were certain topics, Darfur for example, which cropped up much more often among viewers than among professional journalists. But, for the most part, these questions reflect the prevailing tone and style of American political discourse. The second set are parodies and satires -- often bitingly irreverent, borrowing the language of popular culture to challenge the pomposity of the debate format. Sometimes, they spoof the very idea that citizens should be made to embody their questions -- as in this video where a guy dressed like a Viking asks a question about immigration or consider this question from a LA based "celebrity". Sometimes, they make fun of what kinds of questions deserved discussion in this format -- as in this video about alien invasions. Sometimes, they make use of borrowed footage -- as in this JibJab style segment featuring a George W. impersonator.

It is going to be interesting, then, to see what kinds of selections the network makes amongst all of this material: will they naturally go towards those that adopt the discourses of respectful citizens and identity politics? Will they ask more or less the same questions that we've heard in the previous debates, only this time spoken through the mouths of YouTube fans? Or will some of the more wacky segments make their way into the air? And if they do, how will the candidates react and how will the pundits respond? As I wrote last week, we are seeing a consistent insertion of the discourse of participatory culture into the political process this campaign season in an attempt to reach voters who would normally tune out debates and that's what makes this particular set of exchanges so interesting.

To help us get into the spirit of the YouTube debate, I am featuring today an interview with Stephen Duncombe, the author of an important new book about the relationship between participatory culture and participatory democracy which I have mentioned here several times already -- Dream:Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy. I have incorporated this paragraph from Duncombe's book in a number of talks I've given over the last few months and it is suggestive of the provocative nature of his argument:

Progressives should have learned to build a politics that embraces the dreams of people and fashions spectacles which gives these fantasies form - a politics that employs symbols and associations, a politics that tells good stories. In brief, we should have learned to manufacture dissent.... Given the progressive ideals of egalitarianism and a politics that values the input of everyone, our dreamscapes will not be created by media-savvy experts of the left and then handed down to the rest of us to watch, consume, and believe. Instead, our spectacles will be participatory: dreams that the public can mold and shape themselves. They will be active: spectacles that work only if the people help create them. They will be open-ended: setting stages to ask questions and leaving silences to formulate answers. And they will be transparent: dreams that one knows are dreams but which still have power to attract and inspire. And, finally, the spectacles we create will not cover over or replace reality and truth but perform and amplify it.

Duncombe's previous books, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture and The Cultural Resistance Reader, have been important contributions to our understanding of contemporary cultural politics, albeit aimed at academic readers primarily. Duncombe himself has been active in a number of key political movements in New York City, where he teaches, and describes some of those experiences in Dream. With this book, he has produced a text which will be read well beyond the academic realm and could provide us with a handbook for understanding why this current campaign is making such vivid and interesting use of a rhetoric informed by our experiences with participatory culture. Check out his website for more information on the book.

Throughout the book, you embrace a politics based on spectacle. How do you

define spectacle? What do you see as the defining characteristics of

progressive spectacle and how would it differ from more conservative forms of


I guess I'd define spectacle as a dream performed, or perhaps, a fantasy on display. Spectacle animates an abstraction and realizes what reality often times cannot represent. But I also like to use the term in a broader way: to describe a way of making an argument, not through appeals to reason and fact (though these certainly can, and should, be part of spectacle) but through stories and myth, imagination and fantasy. This definition covers what I call ethical spectacles, but also describes spectacles with less scruples: those engineered by the Nazis at Nuremberg, conjured up by creative directors on Madison Avenue or staged by Andrew Lloyd Webber on Broadway. So what separates my "ethical" spectacles from these? It's a complicated question and I spend about a third of my book exploring it, but if I had to sum up the core value of an ethical spectacle in one word it would be this: democracy.

Most spectacles are anti-democratic. They are about one-way communication flows and predictable responses. "They" engineer the look and feel and message of the spectacle and "we" - the spectators - respond in a predetermined fashion. If this type of spectacle is successful we give our consent or support: we march in lines and vote for the Party or buy a certain brand of toothpaste. But it is always someone else's dream. Ethical spectacle follows a different formula. It's a spectacle where the lines between those who create and those who spectate are blurred, one which is dreamt up, executed, and acted upon by its participants. This makes for a sloppy sort of spectacle, one where spectators are also actors, where the mechanics of the staging is obvious to all involved, and where meanings and outcomes are not predetermined, but isn't this also the definition of democracy?

There's also another key difference between the spectacle I'm advocating for and that which we are used to experiencing: reality. Most spectacle is using fantasy as a replacement for reality. Think of President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln. This was an attempt (imagineered by an ex-TV producer named Scott Sforza) to replace reality with fantasy: our president is a warrior prince, not a combat dodger; the war in Iraq is won, not just beginning. The approach I'm advocating for deals with reality differently, using spectacle to dramatize the real, not cover it over.

A great example of this is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr's campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. He went into Birmingham knowing the violent, racist reputation of the chief of police. In fact, he counted on it. And "Bull" Connor acted out his part: jailing school kids, turning fire hoses on picketers, letting dogs loose on peaceful protesters, and so on, creating those iconic images of the civil rights movement, and publicizing to a world media the reality of racism in the United States. I don't think it's a coincidence that the Civil Rights Act passed the next year. It's also no coincidence that the footage of Top Gun W couldn't be used by the Republicans a year after the staged landing; the deadly reality of the continuing war had leaked through the staged fantasy. As the presidential namesake of the aircraft carrier that Bush landed on once said: "You can't fool all of the people all of the time."

Ethical spectacle fools no one. It is at its best when it is obvious what it is: just a spectacle. Like the architecture of Las Vegas or the campy performance of pro wrestling, one can also stage spectacles that don't pretend to be reality but wear their constructed nature on their sleeve. They are spectacles which present themselves as spectacles. As such, these dreams performed become, in their own way, real. Illusion may be a necessary part of politics but delusion need not be.

Your book poses some sharp criticisms of the kinds of political rhetoric which

has emerged from "mainstream" perspectives within the Democratic Party. For

example, you characterize progressive critics, such as Hillary Clinton or Joseph

Leiberman, who embrace a "culture war" rhetoric as playing into conservative

stereotypes of "well-mannered, well-dressed, liberal elites,"

"busybodies" and "condescending experts" who want to use the power of

government to enforce their tastes upon society. Why do you think Democratic

leaders have been so quick to embrace a form of politics which is so strongly

opposed to popular culture and what do you see of the benefits of shifting the

terms of the debate?

One of my friends, the activist David Solnit, once said: "all politics is theatre, just some of it is bad theatre." When it comes to popular culture, the Democrats seem clueless about their public image. Take Senator Hillary Clinton's press conference condemning Grand Theft Auto for example. Here she was, before an international media, playing out the Right's stereotype of the Left: a bunch of superior sounding, out-of-touch, elites telling the rest of us what's good for us, and then using government regulation to make sure we can't decide for ourselves. Karl Rove couldn't have asked for anything better (Nor could Rockstar Games since that press conference likely sold boku copies of GTA/SA as people hurried out for a taste of forbidden fruit).

Why the Dems are so clueless is a bit of a mystery. Part of it has to do with the history of Liberalism in this country which comes out of elite reform movements like Prohibition (a once progressive idea, along with eugenics!) as much as it arises out of labor and social movements (both of which are more interested in equality and justice than morality and culture). But this shying away from pop culture, I think, also has a lot to do with an abiding Enlightenment faith in the superiority of rationality and reason, and a deep suspicion of desire and fantasy - the very things, of course, which drive pop culture. This is a political problem since so much of politics is based in fantasy and desire and Liberals these days are simply not very skilled in operating on this terrain. This split between rationality and fantasy is also a false one, these forces don't inhabit separate spheres, they coexist and intermingle in all of us. It's the old, and tired, mind/body split. It's time to move on.

You describe popular culture as a "ready-made laboratory" for studying the

"dreams" of the American public. Why do you think progressive politics have

been so disdainful of popular culture? How do you respond to critics who might

argue that your arguments place too great a trust in market forces? You write,

for example, "If culture stays, and sells, it means that it somehow resonates

with the popular will. And anyone interested in democratic politics ignores such

enthusiasm at his or her peril."

The biggest problem with ignoring popular culture, politically speaking, is not that you turn off this or that group of fans (the Dems could alienate every single NASCAR fan in the entire country and still sweep the elections), but that you ignore this powerful indicator of people's dreams and desires. As the great political commentator Walter Lippmann once argued, politicians don't need to think much of popular culture, but they do need to think a lot about it.

I have a lot of problems living in a consumer capitalist culture, and my own cultural upbringing was in the decidedly anti-market world of punk rock, but even I recognize the value of appreciating popular culture in a society like ours. Unlike culture patronized by the aristocracy or funded by the state, commercial culture has to appeal to a wide enough audience to make it a profitable business. Yes, this appeal is not pure: marketing and star power can make any movie a hit the first weekend, but for that movie to still be selling the second and third it had better resonate with the popular will. So if you want to figure out what ideas and aspirations are resonating with the public a good place to start is with popular culture.

But, and this is a big but, the hit movie is not what we should be paying attention to -- we need to dig deeper. What we really need to explore are the dreams at the root of the hit movie. That movie is only one manifestation of our desires, and a commercially acceptable one at that, we need to think of others. Take a hit movie like the original Matrix. As a fan I can appreciate it as exciting entertainment, but as a politico I'm interested in what it says about us as a people: our striving for personal power and to be part of a rebellious community, our desire to stick it to the man and reveal the truth, (not to mention our love of cool toys and stylish outfits). Once you understand these forces you can do other things with them. Pop culture is just one expression of our dreams, a progressive political system that empowers people, builds community, fights power and reveals the truth -- might be another.<.blockquote>

So far, we are seeing some signs of a more playful style of activism is having

an impact on the upcoming presidential election. Witness the spoof of the Apple

1984 campaign, "Obama Girl", or for that matter, the video in which Hillary

and Bill spoof the Sopranos. What do you think this YouTube based politics

might suggest about the potentials or limits of a politics which draws its

images and language from popular culture?

I think you explore this far deeper, and far better, than I do Henry, but it seems to me that accessible media production technology, the semiotic tool box we've all built from our life-long immersion in pop culture, and the new distribution apparatus like YouTube, have immense political potential. demonstrated this in their "Bush in 30 Seconds" campaign. They asked their audience to make an anti-Bush advertisement -- and received more than 1,500 of them, many of them better than anything a professional production house could create. This demonstrates the awesome power - and talent - of the "audience." This is, um, "poaching" at its best: political "fans" tapping into popular desire and, using pop culture language, delivering, a different message. At its worst this pop culture poaching leads to the Hillary Clinton Soprano's ad: using all the style of popular culture but ignoring the deep seated reasons that such a series was popular. Clinton's approach is just using pop culture a gimmick.

One of the things that interests me most about the explosion of media production is the multiplicity of messages and meanings that political campaigns have to contend with. This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Negative campaigning has existed since the beginning of American democracy (George Washington was accused of being the corrupter of a washerwoman's daughter), and the swiftboating of John Kerry was just a high-tech version. What is new this election cycle is the direct impact, not of opposing professional campaigns, but of political fans. We've already seen how fans of Barack Obama have used pop culture tropes to make him into a sex symbol and render Hillary Clinton as Big Sister. Political campaigns are just going to have to make peace with the fact that they can not control their message, and that the message is going to be determined, in part, by their fans. This means that "unacceptable" material is going to be part of the political discussion and decision making.

We can either bemoan this fact: the debasement of the political process and so on, or we can look for what might be more positive aspects. It could be argued that one of the things that's wrong with electoral politics today is that what is considered "expectable" is determined by professional pundits, big media and those who make large campaign contributions. Consequently, what is of interest to the majority of us is left out of the discussion. Certainly, Obama Girl isn't opening up a substantive political discussion of anything, but it's very existence, and its popularity, suggests that we, the people, want something else, something more, than the sanitized, pre-packaged, content-free politician packages we've gotten in the past.

There's no doubt that reducing serious politicians like Obama to a stud and Clinton to Big Sister debases politics, playing into old stereotypes about the sexuality of Black men and the controlling nature of professional women. But as the means of mediated spectacle production and distribution continue to be democratized, I have faith that what will develop is a sort of bell curve of meaning. There will be offensive and malicious media spectacles as outliers on either side, but the critical mass of the center will open up substantive issues of political interest to the majority of citizens. Isn't this how democracy is supposed to work? This is merely democracy in the age of the mediated image.