Pseudo-politics: Obliterating the Event
By Peter Hulm
This paper documents how pseudo-politics, largely channelled through the media, has learned to smother the Event, Alain Badiou’s widely admired concept of a creative opening to experience. It attempts to sketch out the mechanism by which this obliteration operates, and reports on a number of attempts to escape from under the net of the language-event. Pseudo-politics replaces public debate, including struggle and negotiation over fundamental differences on policy and issues with political correctness, narrowly restricted discourse and ideological conformity -- often by creating a spurious feeling of belonging or fear of isolation from an unforgiving community.
Badiou’s TV non-Event
Not many philosophers, let alone a confessed French Maoist, find themselves on BBC television’s Hard Talk. Even fewer philosophers are likely to be questioned by one of TV’s tough-guy interviewers for their ideas on the way out of the current economic and financial crisis.
Perhaps not surprisingly, in his 23 minutes, the interviewer Stephen Sackur seemed more interested in challenging Alain Badiou’s support for Marxism in view of the 20th-century’s failed communist states (24 March 2009) – apparently the journalist’s background reading did not extend to Badiou’s many condemnations of the “criminal Stalinist state” (2003:137) and “Maoist extremism” (1998/2005:xxxvii).
It is quite in line with the argument of this paper that the interviewer did not ask Badiou about the extent to which the current crisis has led to the discovery of new truths about society, or why so deep a threat to free-market capitalism has not produced an analysis as path-breaking as John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936). In other words, it would have been good to hear some hard talk about the potential for a Badiouan Event – that is, the experience of a “singular truth”, unpredictable and a break with the past (Badiou, 2002, 122).
L’événement and the Event
First in France and, since the turn of the millennium, across the English-speaking world to Australia as much as in unusual corners of Europe, Badiou’s anti-relativist concept of the Event (événement) has been welcomed as opening the way to, among other things, a new, creative and emancipatory ‘politics without party’ (1993/2001:95). He has inspired philosophers with a new programme: “open to the irreducible / singularity of what happens, a philosophy that can be fed and nourished by the surprise of the unexpected” – in other words, “a philosophy of the event.” (1999, reprinted in 2003, 55-6).
As two of the philosopher’s major interpreters and translators neatly put it, Badiou Events “disrupt the order of established situations” (Badiou 2003:8). Badiou describes it as the “type of rupture that opens up the truth” (1988/2006: xii). As Events that open up new life-changing possibilities he has named the French Revolution, the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 (1998/2005:8).
Outside politics, for Badiou is concerned as much with mathematics, science, art and human relations, he has cited the invention of theatrical tragedy by Aeschylus, “the irruption, with Galileo, of mathematical physics” and falling in love (2003:62). As the reference to falling in love indicates, Badiou clearly does not see the Event as necessarily epoch-making or revolutionary. In art he has written admiringly of Samuel Beckett (for example in 1998/2005:99), the archetype of the writer without a school. He has written admiringly of Jean Cavaillès, another mathematician and philosopher, who was shot by the Nazis as a Resistance leader (1998/2005:2) and he has allied himself with a small French group that defends the rights of workers who have no residence or working papers (1998/2001:96)
What has excited political thinkers about his concept is that it rejects deterministic dogmas such as Marx’s theory of revolution or Heidegger’s pessimism (2003:58) and provides a way forward out of Derrida’s unsolvable dilemmas (1993/2002:xxiii) as well as challenging Sartre’s solipsist interpretation of existentialism.
To represent Badiou’s anti-historicist cast of mind and his stimulating challenges to action, his words on underground opposition to the Nazis in France can serve as well as any others for an audience of scholars who may already be well-versed in Badiou’s writings: “No group, no class, no social configuration or mental objective was behind the Resistance. [...] A Resistance figure ‘by logic’ obeys an axiom, or an injunction, which he formulates in his own name, and whose major consequences he lays out, without waiting to win over other people [....] It is a logical rupture with dominant and circulating / opinions” (1998/2005:5-6).
Badiou has been generally well-served by his translators, who frequently offer insightful commentaries on his work – except for the word that lies at the core of his philosophy. In French this is événement, which in contrast to ‘event’, need not imply just one discrete occurrence but covers the philosophical gamut between Heidegger’s Ereignis (irruption, whose application, if not its meaning, Badiou is seeking to challenge) and a ‘happening’ or even ‘epoch’. The Larousse Dictionnaire du français contemporrain (Dictionary of Contemporary French) gives as an example of use ‘events of the day’ and lists one definition as a ‘fact of particular importance’. In the plural it can be used of anything from social unrest to a war. The important Badiouan adjective événementiel is applied to a history that deals only with events not with causes (1971:471).
Badiou’s terminology is thus rather particular. The philosopher himself discusses several times whether “May ’68” was an ‘event’ but makes the event horizon run, for philosophical purposes, from 1966-1976 (1998/2005: xxxiv). Where it is necessary to insist on the long-duration of a Baudiou event it would perhaps be more useful to speak of événement and for his particular use in philosophical discussion capitalize ‘Event’, as here. “I don’t see any major problem as regards the collective extension of an event,” he has said (1993/2002: 124).
Yet despite this promise of a new view of politics, developments that might on his terms appear to qualify as situations calling forth an Event – such as global warming, the U.S. health care disaster, the financial crash and the economic crisis, the fall of the statist Western industrial empire in the face of Chinese competition, the destruction of African states to enable multinationals to exploit natural resources at low cost, and catastrophal technology (from nuclear power to computer networks and viruses) – have for the most part failed to receive the emancipatory recognition that the theory seems to predict.
On the way to truthiness
This failure has a number of causes, not least the growth since 1917 of what (in memory of historian Daniel Boorstin and the wartime propagandist Walter Lippmann) may be termed pseudo-politics, a style of government whose techniques over the past 20 years have reached into every corner of public debate.
The first date (1917) refers to the establishment of the U.S. propaganda organization known as the United States Committee on Public Information during the 1914-1918 World War. As a 1939 history puts it: “The Committee was America's ‘propaganda ministry’ during the World War, charged with encouraging and then consolidating the revolution of opinion which changed the United States from anti-militaristic democracy to an organized war machine” (Mock and Larson 1939:4). Its head, George Creel, is reported as saying: “Our effort was educational and informative throughout, for we had such confidence in our case as to feel that no other argument was needed than the simple, straightforward presentation of facts” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Creel#cite_note-0) but the Wikipedia entry on the Creel Committee states: “Raw propaganda included complete fabrications, such as images and stories of German soldiers killing babies and hoisting them on bayonets” (http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Committee_on_Public_Information) while the 1939 history also reports the Committee’s encouragement to pass on atrocity stories (123). Lippmann, who worked for the Committee, remains silent on the content of the propaganda (1922:30).
The harshest contemporary critic of pseudo-politics is the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1995/1998, 2000), who sees the state of exception and the camp (holding zones outside normal law) as “the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West”, even before Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib (1995/1998:181). After several years of U.S. governmental duplicity (e.g. the Iran-Contra Affair, in Johnson, 1991) and mendaciousness (e.g. over Rwanda, Sudan and Serbia, see Chomsky 1999), pseudo-politics reached a new stage of outright falsehoods with the two Bushes (Jamieson and Waldman 2003:12-20) and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The British philosopher and political theorist John Gray asserts of Blair: “In the past lies were an intermittent feature of government, under his leadership they became integral to its functioning” (2007:180). Blair defended his record on Iraq with the statement: “I only know what I believe” (Guardian 29 September 2004, cited by Gray 2007:172). Caught out in a false assertion by Bush and Blair at Camp David on 7 September 2002 that an International Atomic Agency Report stated Iraq could reconstitute its nuclear arsenal very quickly (no report existed), the White House told NBC's Robert Wyndham: “Well, that was our perception at the time" (Borjesson, 2005). Kristina Borjesson notes: “Then the report disappeared from their website, and that was it. The whole event disappeared.” (2005).
To characterize the actions of such “visionary authoritarianism” (Steinberg & Johnson, 2004, p. 28, on Blair and Thatcher), campaigning journalist Monika Bauerlein (2009) has taken over comedian Stephen Colbert’s coinage of “truthiness”. Merriam-Webster’s 2006 Word of the Year, truthiness it is defined as "truth that comes from the gut, not books" (Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," October 2005) and "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true" (American Dialect Society, January 2006), http://www.merriam-webster.com/info/ 06words.htm[ accessed on September 12, 2009].)
Obama’s bout of pseudo-politics
The peculiar nature of pseudo-politics can be illustrated by a recent example from the U.S. debate over health care reform. After campaigning for universal health insurance citing the economic benefits as well as the human rights argument for ensuring that everyone in the United States could get permanent medical treatment, President Barack Obama told a prime-time joint session of Congress on 9 September: “The reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally” (White House 9 September 2009).
The immediate media coverage was about the Republican Congressman from South Carolina who shouted out “You lie!” at this statement, and the formal rebuke that followed from the House of Representatives in a party-line vote (New York Times, September 15, 2009). The New York Times story on the censure did not repeat Obama’s statement that led to the outburst. It did point out that both the Congressman, Joe Wilson, and his 2010 election opponent have each raised $1 million in campaign contributions in the aftermath. The day after his protest, Wilson was listed in fourth and seventh place among the Google top searches of the day (USA Today, September 10, 2009).
Obama was in fact repeating the terms of the reform proposals in both House and Senate dating back to June (CNSNews.com, June 23, 2009) and his weekly address of two weeks before (White House, August 22 , 2009), though he did suggest in July that children may be exempted from the ban (CBS News July 21, 2009). Hospitals will still be required to treat illegal immigrants who turn up for emergency treatment. By September 11 the Washington Post was reporting “Coverage Question Is Complex, Experts Say”, and noted that Medicaid reimburses hospitals for treatments to undocumented patients, mainly childbirths (Washington Post, September 11, 2009).
However, Obama the anti-racist seemed unable to confront the underlying scandal involving illegal workers in the U.S.: American economic and social dependence on the contribution, particularly of Hispanics, to its standard of living. As far back as 1991, the journalist David Rieff wrote that “exercises in oblivion” are required of citizens to maintain their vision of the California dream (1991/1993:86). He entitled his report Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World, pointing out how much the boosters of California ignored the prosperity dependent on the garment trade and light industries (those small businesses Obama wants to help provide health insurance). These “required, precisely, nonskilled, nonunionized immigrant workers, who, because they were in the country illegally, could rarely quarrel with either their salaries or the conditions in which they worked,” he observes (118). “ [Illegal] maids were not even included in stories about the good life in Southern California, so much was their presence there taken for granted” (85). Meanwhile, truckloads of gardeners from slumlike accommodation miles away preserved the image of a green city in a desert environment (101).
A maid might have to ride three hours on dreadful public transport from Boyle Heights because she could not buy a car without papers, yet domestic employers seemed unwilling or unable to draw any policy conclusions from this situation, he reported. To understand this disconnect, Rieff points back to another philosopher: “Almost ninety years ago, William James remarked that ‘callousness to abstract justice is the sinister feature ... of our U.S. civilization. When the ordinary American hears of cases of injustice he begins to pooh-pooh and minimize them and tone down the thing, and breed excuses from his general fund of optimism and respect for expediency" (85).
Without seeking to prolong the polemical tone, one can note, along with commentator Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, the eerie similarity between the words of Obama as the elected candidate of change and those of George W. Bush in key aspects of policy (Stewart, January 20 and March 3, 2009). By September 2009, Gary Wills in The New York Review of Books, was recording public dismay at “how quickly the Obama people grabbed at the powers, the secrecy, the unaccountability that had led Bush into such opprobrium”(Wills 2009).
The philosophical question I want to pose here is rather: how is it that in a democracy, without the coercion of the death camp or Stalinist oppression, we are prepared to accept fantasy solutions to real problems and reject the challenge of an Event?
Stifling the birth of an Event
As explanations of the power of pseudo-politics, theories of media “agenda-setting” and the capacity of opinion-leaders to “structure issues” (Lazarsfeld et al. 1944) have so far proved inadequate. Denis McQuail writes of media agenda-setting hypothesis: “[the more one moves] towards actual cases, the more uncertain it becomes whether such an effect actually occurs” (McQuail 1994:356). In turn, though discourse theory recognizes an ideological struggle over language (O’Sullivan et al. 1994:92-3) and Michel Foucault underlines the repressive function of discourse (Edgar and Sedwick 1999:116-119) as it produces subjectivity (Macey 2000:100-1), its practitioners have shown minimal concern about how a particular discourse achieves hegemony – no doubt because of the theory’s origins in structuralism, which tends to take such presence for granted.
Badiou, too, as a militant universalist – with his intellectual interests ranging from mathematics, Plato and Maoism to questions of justice and immigrant rights – seems not to find the historically contingent psychology of politics worth investigating. He has confessed a number of times that he cannot decide whether the May 1968 protests in France amounted to a Badiouan Event (1998/2001:126).
An early adherent to the Maoist tendency in the 68-ers he asks: “Why did an entire ‘generation’ of May ’68 militants, who had previously been thrown into an ultra-activist Maoist ideologism, evidently come round to parliamentarism in the form prescribed by Mitterrand [...] the State pure and simple”? (1998/2005:44). His answer is that “stuck in historicism”, these militants separated politics from thought and sought ‘totalization’ through first the movement and then the State (ibid). I find this explanation unconvincing, and offer another in the section on language-events.
Badiou underlines the long struggle involved in responding with “fidelity” to an Event, as Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens observe: “The subject, as born of a decision, is not limited to the recognition of the occurrence of an event, but extends into a prolonged investigation of the consequences of such an event. This investigation is not a passive, scholarly affair; it entails not only the active transformation of the human being. Thus in Badiou’s philosophy there is no such thing as a subject without such a process of subjectivization” (Feltham and J. Clemens 2003:6-7)
The question then becomes: why are people ready to accept a disconnection between thought and action after making a commitment to relate politics to thought, or to put it another way, what allows the Event to be stifled by pseudo-politics?
David Rieff provides one plausible explanation in a media-centred democracy: “The imposed oblivion by the media (apart from the occasional pieces of statistical insignificance or part of the fashion that "gets old" if repeated too often) gives the individual the right, too, to ignore something not labelled by our social gatekeepers as demanding our attention” (Rieff 1991/1993:45). But to trace how media obtained this privileged position requires accepting a historicist account of political and social development over the past 40 years.
The rise and fall of the pseudo-event
The first step towards obliterating the possibility of the Event through pseudo-politics in modern democracies came with the pseudo-event, identified by U.S. historian Daniel Boorstin in 1961. For Boorstin, a pseudo-event – which he found ubiquitous in modern life – “comes about because someone has planned, planted or incited it...primarily...for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced” with an “ambiguous” relation to its underlying situation” (1961: 11).
One problem with this perennially handy concept, itself an acknowledged descendant of Walter Lippmann`s notion of the pseudo-environment (1922: 10), is that Boorstin seemed not to recognize in his theory that most media events are manipulations of a “reality” that has in most respects been constructed, though this was the basis of Lippmann’s study.
One iconic item of public history, which in 2009 celebrated its 40th anniversary, indicates the pitfalls of looking for a distinction between events and their simulacra. It is a matter of record that the Woodstock festival actually took place in Bethel, New York (not Woodstock), in August 1969. The slogan ‘Three Days of Peace and Music” was chosen by the organizers to appeal both to anti-war sentiment thought to be widespread among young students while attempting to placate local officials worried about the possibility of disturbance (Hulm, 2006: 85). In place of the expected 50,000, half a million turned up, for reasons that remain unexplained. Interviewers noted several complaints about poor facilities and chaotic management, lost in the celebratory tone of the commercially inspired film-makers, while the anti-war stance of many performances was later glazed over by the patina of hedonism inculcated by the organizers and the media after the event (ibid, 83). How much of Woodstock, in retrospect, could be classified as pseudo-event and how much became event as a result of later mythologizing is a rich source of speculation even today.
The event strike and the 9/11 lockout
Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher of modern simulacra (which he defines as products that have no original), offers a more sophisticated reading of media events. In The spirit of terrorism and requiem for the Twin Towers (2003), he proclaims that until 9/11 – the Al Qaida attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 – the world had seen no significant events for the past decade: “When it comes to symbolic events on a world scale – that is to say not just events that gain worldwide coverage, but events that represent a setback for globalization itself – we had none. Throughout the stagnation of the 1990s, events were ‘on strike’ (as the Argentinian writer Macedonio Fernandez put it)” (3).
The 1990s were, of course, the decade of the Rwanda genocide, when 800,000 Tutsis and non-partisan Hutus were murdered within three months (M2 Presswire 2004), a faster rate of massacre than even the Nazi death camps had been able to achieve. But Baudrillard’s emphasis is on the psychological and philosophical impact of events, the realities in our heads rather than the reality on the ground. Thus it was that ex-President Clinton has not lost his global credibility for the “greatest failure” of his presidency (Henderich, 2009) or Kofi Annan forced into private life for not having “done more” over Rwanda (as he admitted)(ibid).
These may read as partisan interpretations of a complex situation, but the difficulty with Baudrillard’s notion of the event can be illustrated by another African example. The Slovene cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek notes in his essay Violence (2009): “The cover story of Time magazine on 5 June 2006 [,,,] was ‘the Deadliest War in the World’. This offered detailed documentation on how around 4 million people died in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a result of political violence over the last decade. None of the usual humanitarian uproar followed, just a couple of readers’ letters – as if some kind of filtering mechanism blocked this news from achieving its full impact in our symbolic space” (2).
The technical apparatus and propagandistic system deployed by the military and government spokespersons in the anti-Iraqi coalition during the 1991 Gulf War led Baudrillard to make his most famous provocative declaration: “The Gulf War did not take place” after having earlier proclaimed: “The Gulf War will not take place”. Not many of the outraged seem to have noted his ironic allusion to the Giraudoux play entitled “The Trojan War will not take place/Tiger at the Gates” (1935), a corrosive satire on political hubris leading to indescribable suffering for hapless soldiers.
However, the military and government spin-doctors did not need to engage their apparatus of thought control with regard to 9/11. The mainstream media were fully committed to promoting a “heroic” and/or paranoid version of the situation that prepared the way for action against Iraq and Afghanistan on pretexts that could only be linked in the mind via anti-Islamic prejudice (Jamieson and Waldman 2003:130-164).
In The Desert of the Real (2002), Žižek notes how many people described the scenes of the Twin Towers collapsing as being like hallucinatory scenes from movies(15-16), while Baudrillard suggested they answered the unconscious desires of many ordinary U.S.-Americans in the face of a totalitarian commodification of their lives and hopes. This Hollywood-structured myth has dominated later treatments of the issues around 9/11 – from conspiracy theories, to docudramas and fictionalized movies seeking out acts of heroism, all cast in the movie-story mold. And all scrupulously avoid challenge to the system’s assumptions and mode of operating. Thus, on British satellite television, the range of programmes devoted to 9/11 around the 2009 anniversary (none on popular mainstream channels) included: 9/11 Chasing Planes: Witnesses to 9/11 (ITV4), United by 9/11 (on Sky3) – a collection of personal stories, 9/11 Ground Zero Underworld, 9/11 The Calls from the Towers, 9/11 The Falling Man, The 9/11 Faker, 9/11 The Miracle of Stairway B (all on more4), 9/11 conspiracies, and Inside 9/11 (both on National Geographic) (Digiguide, www.digimedia.com, accessed 14 September 2009).
Such programmes can be contrasted with the accounts of 9/11 as an Event in two publications published earlier in the year and featured by alternative publications and websites. One is former journalist Rebecca Solnit’s sociological study of people caught in disasters. The other is John Farmer’s The Ground Truth, an account by the senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission of the U.S. government’s “decision not to tell the truth about what happened” (Ridgeway 2009).
In an article for Mother Jones published on 10 September 2009, Solnit contests the media’s Hollywoodization of 9/11’s events: “Many were afraid, but few if any panicked, other than the President who was far away from danger [see the end of this section ]. The military failed to respond promptly, even though the Pentagon itself was attacked, and the only direct resistance that day came from inside Flight 93, which went down in a field in Pennsylvania on its way to Washington” (2009). She reports: “Hundreds of thousands of people rescued each other and themselves, evacuating the buildings and the area, helped in the first minutes, then hours, by those around them. Both PS 150, an elementary school, and the High School for Leadership and Public Service were successfully evacuated — without casualties. In many cases, teachers took students home with them. A spontaneously assembled flotilla of boats, ranging from a yacht appropriated by policemen to a historic fireboat, evacuated 300,000 to 500,000 people from lower Manhattan, a nautical feat on the scale of the British evacuation of an army from Dunkirk in the early days of World War II. (...) New York's ferry operators and pleasure-boat captains were steering into that toxic cloud on a day when many thought more violence was to come.”
Solnit notes: “Many New Yorkers that day committed (...) feats of solidarity at great risk. In fact, in all the hundreds of oral histories I read and the many interviews I conducted to research my book (A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. (Viking Adult, 2009)...), I could find no one saying he or she was abandoned or attacked in that great exodus. People were frightened and moving fast, but not in a panic. Careful research has led disaster sociologists to the discovery — one of their many counter-stereotypical conclusions — that panic is a vanishingly rare phenomenon in disasters, part of an elaborate mythology of our weakness” (ibid).
She also condemns media coverage as “crummy”, pointing out that timely information largely reached the concerned public in those first hours via websites that turned themselves into news distributors, often using non-professional postings.
Also in Mother Jones, James Ridgeway reported that the former 9/11 Commission Senior Counsel, now Dean of Rutgers Law School, remembers that “at an early stage in the investigation” (Ridgeway, 12 September 2009) the commission “discovered that what had occurred that morning – that is, what government and military officials had told Congress, the Commission, the media, and the public about who knew what when — was almost entirely, and inexplicably, untrue… At some level of the government, at some point in time … there was a decision not to tell the truth about what happened” (Farmer, 2009).
The philosophical point here is not the deception and duplicity of media and government officials with regard to the events of 9/11 but the way in which the “political-military-journalistic nexus of power” (Fisk 2009, xvii) locks out issues from mainstream discussion and creates the event strike of which Baudrillard wrote in relation to the decade of the 90s.
Media researchers Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman report that journalists “largely buried” the fact that Bush’s adviser Karl Rove and spokesperson Ari Fleischer misled them on September 9 about why Air Force One flew the President from Florida to a military base in Louisiana and then to Nebraska before returned to Washington. Bush aides told reporters there had been a “credible threat” against the presidential aircraft. Rove said the Secret Service had received a telephone threat indicating the terrorists knew of the procedures and President’s whereabouts (Hall Jamieson and Waldman 2004:14). “Administration officials had no record of any such call, and were unable to explain why Air Force One was less vulnerable in one location than another even if there had been such a message,” the researchers point out. “The country needed to believe in a decisive, commanding president in the anxious days after September 11, and the press was not disposed to feature evidence incompatible with that narrative” (ibid).
Make room for the language-event
A similar difficulty to that of applying Boorstin’s concept of the pseudo-event beclouds Alain Badiou’s theory of the événement. For an event to become an Event requires a psychological as well as societal leap – an individual must decide to accept the Copernican revolution, to adopt the conventions of Greek tragedy, to fall in love. On 9 September 2009 a Bolivian preacher hijacked a Mexican plane under the mistaken belief that the date 9/9/9 presaged an apocalyptic tragedy because it was the satanic number 666 turned upside down (Stevenson 2009). In fact, the “Number of the Beast” in Revelations should be 616 (Lloyd and Mitchinson 2009:114), but the date represented an Event to the deluded priest even though it was the product of a miscalculation.
At a more substantive level, the 1994 Rwanda genocide surely matches all the conditions of a Badiouan Event for the international community, even if it was stifled by pseudo-politics – it certainly had no effect on United Nations policy towards Haiti, the Congo or Darfur. There was a context: a war that created a general climate of uncertainty and insecurity. It had a trigger: the assassination of the President (Straus 2006:7). This was the rupture with the past that opened the way to truth.”Multipartyism and a peace accord before the genocide eroded the power of previously dominant elites, which in turn led them to pursue irregular and extreme tactics to keep power,” reports Scott Straus after interviewing some 200 people in Rwanda, including many génocidaires (11). “They chose genocide as an extreme, vengeful and desperate strategy to win a war that they were losing. Events and contingency mattered” (12). He adds: “Most Hutu men were not pre-programmed to kill” (13), and he found “little evidence of deep, preexisting antipathy and prejudice towards Tutsis on the part of Hutu perpetrators” (225), leading him to conclude that early outside intervention would have strengthened the Hutu moderates: “Most Hutu men would have just as easily complied with orders for peace as with orders for violence” (13). As for media propaganda, he writes, “my evidence does not suggest that radio propaganda in and of itself caused most individuals to commit violence,” though an International Tribunal found three journalists guilty of incitement to genocide in 2003. ”Most men chose to participate in the killing after face-to-face mobilization and in a real situation of war and crisis,” Straus says. “The evidence suggests that radio broadcasts had effects on particular perpetrator populations, in particular local elites and the most aggressive killers. But media effects alone did not drive most participation in the genocide.”
As the two incidents indicate – history as farce and history as a tragedy – this essential psychological space for decision leaves room for the mechanisms of pseudo-politics to operate. In Curtis White’s insight, “the frenzy of communication” in advanced societies operates as part of the consciousness industry’s “pre-emptive efforts to saturate the field in which the imagination might do its work.” (2003-4).
How pseudo-politics achieves this is through what can be termed, with deliberate ugliness, a “language-event”, whose affinity with the pseudo-event is that it depends on the deliberate construction of symbolic meanings. Like Badiou’s Event, a language-event, such as that presented by 9/11, erupts on the media scene with challenge that indicates a break with conventional containers of reference and discourse (Hulm 2004:15).
In contrast to discourse, the term language-event focuses attention on the struggle to impose a fixed, socially-shared meaning on an experience. In many respects, though, it is the contrary of a Badiouan Event and tries to foreclose any creative work by the imagination. As the Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky told a colleague: (Art) “has such an impact on the human soul that it changes - and one who’s seen or read a work of art can no longer remain the same as before” (Sokurov 1987:15:00-11). A language-event seeks the opposite effect.
A language-event can also remain inherently unstable, undecidable, and therefore unlikely to turn into a Badiouan Event. Thus the media continually revisit the dichotomy of Princess Diana as wicked princess and rich victim, and Michael Jackson as weird genius or criminal recluse. Slavoj Zizek has observed: “One should always bear in mind that a particular crisis only explodes into media visibility as the result of a complex struggle” (Zizek, 2009, 2).
The same schizophrenic view seems to have taken hold of May ’68, now that its immediate challenge to society has departed. Badiou himself has remarked: “It is clear for a French man or woman that the events of May ’68 continue to comprise an unattested or anonymous promise” (2003:67). The French filmmaker Chris Marker, as active as Badiou in May ’68, has stressed that for many militants such as himself, 1967 was more “pivotal” than 1968 (2008:2), and the events of May have received retrospective glorification.
Jacques Derrida, an extremely acute observer of language constructions, has pointed directly to the media’s role in creating a conviction that 11 September 2001 was an unprecedented event: “This ‘feeling’ is actually less spontaneous than it appears: it is to a large extent conditioned, constituted, if not actually constructed, circulated at any rate through the media by means of a prodigious techno-socio-political machine” (Borradori 2003:86).
In the term language-event I also intend a subsidiary allusion to the U.S. work of Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, who considered media events as “collective rites of communion“. They divide such into three categories: contests, conquests and coronations (Liebes and Curran, 1998:4). But my emphasis here is on the decision-making involved, who makes the decisions, and the results of that choice of discourse. And on matters of public policy, the media often feel obliged to offer one version of the meaning of events, and do so, as the account of President Bush’s movements on 9/11 suggests.
The archetypal example that brings out the power of the prodigious media machine was the funeral of Ronald Reagan on 11 June 2004 (fully described in Hulm 2004). Media described it as “a work of art” (Flamini 2004) and an example of his mastery of timing “even in death” (Kelly 2004). The subject constructed as viewer by TV’s ideological style of interpellation/appelation (Hartley 1994:155) was the respectful celebrator of a universally popular president. The occasion was minutely choreographed as a media event. Its form, detailed in 300 pages of plans (UPI 2004), was designed to recall President Eisenhower’s funeral (ceremony in Washington National Cathedral) and President Lincoln’s (also a Republican), rather than the previous national funeral (of Democratic ex-President Lyndon Johnson) 30 years before. The Reagan funeral also effectively displaced earlier ceremonies as a reference.
Even beyond its form, the funeral provided informed viewers with a reminder that a chosen discourse excludes more than it includes. Media researchers have pointed out that Reagan was “the least popular president in the post-World War II period”, known for his divisiveness (Schudson and King 1995:125). They observed: “The picture that reporters presented of Reagan as a Great Communicator did not arise from Reagan’s ability to communicate to the masses” (ibid, 130-1). “Nevertheless, magazines such as Newsweek reported that Reagan’s election was a “rousing vote of confidence” in the man and his policies rather than, as exit polls indicated, public disenchantment with President Jimmy Carter. At no time in Reagan’s first years was the general public as charmed by Ronald Reagan as the news media” (133).
None of this appeared in the cutaways from the funeral. Newsweek concocted an image of Nancy Reagan crying at the coffin; “Her family gathered around her; in that moment, at least, she no longer seemed so alone” (Newsweek 2004). The family, of course, consisted of their two long-estranged children who have criticized fiercely their parents’ unconcern with them, their father’s politics and the George W. Bush Administration (King 2004). The person who most symbolized the scandals of Reagan’s Presidency, the Marine Colonel Oliver North, was reported as telling the Los Angeles Times he did not attend the service because he realized he would be a “distraction” (UPI 11 June 2004: “North Will Skip Reagan Funeral”). But to remember all this was to place oneself outside the community of viewers who represented society at that moment.
Reagan’s son Ron told Larry King he did not believe the funeral itself had much to do with his father but rather embodied the desire to stage an event at which people could ‘feel good’ (King 2004). The funeral also embodied the nation’s sense of itself through television, A journalist (for the print media, which Schudson and King suggest always overestimate the power of television) described the funeral as “both a reminder of television’s power to unite the nation in ceremony and a test of how strongly the nation still clings to its civic rituals” (Johnson 2004), though this ritual, as it appeared on U.S. television, excluded vital information about Reagan’s life.
Even in much smaller situations, the media works to dampen down the disruptive effect of a language-event so that it fits accepted discourse. When an unemployed man set himself on fire in front of a TV news crew in what he presented as an act of despair in protest against the Reagan administration’s social and economic policies, “this news story, with its highly unconventional form of political action and its equally radical message, was quickly replaced by official pronouncements from local authorities (none of whom were at the scene of the original event) that the man was not in his right mind. The news media then completed the repair operation on the momentary tear in the seamless web of cultural meaning by condemning the decision to report the story in the first place as bad journalism” (Golding and Elliott, 1979: 116). Of course, the ‘closure’ (end of discourse) is provided by the media, rather than by officialdom, the community or those who claim to lead the community. That is, the language-event becomes a means by which the media exercise control.
Tony Blair has been considered a master of evading this control and manipulating the language-event. As he put it when in opposition: “Our news today is instant, hostile to subtlety or qualification. If you can't sum it up in a sentence, or even a phrase, forget it. Combine two ideas or sentiments together and mass communication will not repeat them, it will chose between them. To avoid misinterpretation, strip down a policy or opinion to one key clear line before the media does it for you. Think in headlines” (Whittam Smith 2009). As a result, when in power, according to John Gray, “he constructed a pseudo-reality that aimed to shape the way we think” (2007:181).
Daniel Boorstin was guilty of the same kind of language-event syndrome. A former Communist turned conservative, in 1953 he was a “friendly witness” before the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC), which it has been suggested fulfils all the conditions itself of a pseudo-event. To the Committee he named fellow students and his professor as Party members, an incident that coloured his whole career, for good and bad. But when he published a brilliant 600-page cultural history of the US after the Civil War (The Democratic Experience, 1973), he covered foreign aid, atomic power and Sputnik, but failed to mention McCarthyism, anti-Communism or HUAC” (Wiener, 1987, 289+).
Lippmann’s own “objectivity” exercised its own censorship on his thought. He could only see most citizens as “spectators” of the democratic process (Chomsky 2002:17) who must be made to feel a personal identification, however spurious, with the news reported (224). He saw editors’ dependence on holding an audience in order to drawn in advertising revenues as a source of power for citizens, though limited (206), but he was unable to foresee the broadcasting age that enabled more powerful figures than editors to construct pseudo-realities for their citizens. Nor could he envisage the construction of audiences as mass subjects by appealing to them as supposedly autonomous individuals – “There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses,” Raymond Williams remarked (1958:289). Nick Davies (2009), Robert Fisk (2009) and Steve Poole (2007) have devoted whole books to the imbalance inherent in “objective” standards of journalism.
And the fragmentation and abandonment of objectivity in popular journalism characteristic of the digital environment would have perplexed Lippmann, who wrote in Public Opinion of the distortions published about the Russian Revolution from outside, and was seeking to create a society that takes the credibility of its news seriously.
Badiou – and here lies his continued relevance that justifies his seat on Hard Talk – is quite aware of this world and the way it presents itself to its subjects: “Communication transmits a universe made up of disconnected images, remarks, statements and commentaries whose accepted principle is incoherence. Day after day communication undoes all relations and all principles, in an untenable juxtaposition that dissolves every relation between the elements it sweeps along in its flow. And what is perhaps even more distressing is that mass communication presents the world as a spectacle devoid of memory, a spectacle in which new images and new remarks cover, erase and consign to oblivion the very images and remarks that have just been shown and said” (1999:41).
Not to finish on a pessimistic note, for Badiou is pre-eminently a self-confessed philosopher of hope (Hard Talk, 2009), one can find still events or Events that escape the political and editorial control of the prodigious socio-political machine. Michael Moore has turned the campaigning documentary film into a cinema best-seller (though Fisk notes that Fahrenheit 9/11 did not mention Israel, despite the continued provocation to Arab states of illegal settlements on the West Bank).
Film stars such as George Clooney have used their box office bankability to make successful political films about embarrassing aspects of U.S. history and policy (Goodnight, and Good Luck about the damage done by HUAC, or Syriana about U.S. military power and oil in the Middle East).
Others have aimed for an even broader audience. The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver turned a U.S. cooking programme about New York into an exploration of illegal immigration, aid for the homeless and popular resistance to restaurant regulation (17 September 2009, later winner of a top British television award). Admitting that he represents part of the restaurant establishment and comes from an unconsciously racist family, Oliver told viewers at the end of his show that his trip had taught him something of the hardships immigrants face and he now recognized that they are motivated simply by the desire to create a better life and some security. Badiou Events can occur in the oddest places.
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