So many books to read, so little time.

Hyperreality and Democracy

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Adam Elkus

I have been planning to re-read Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulations (a key part of my Quantum Library), so I perked up when Struggles With Philosophy analyzed the debates as a form of hyperreality:

Can the Presidential Debates be called debates? The key to understanding a hyperreal society, in the Baudrillard sense, is to trace how that what we called the ‘real’ is being replaced with simulations. To call the 7th October debate a ‘town hall’ debate is an attempt to hide its reality as a Television event. It is not a ‘town hall’ debate, in the traditional sense; it is the replacement of ‘debating’ with the simulation of debate. Someone maybe should have told this to John McCain. His performance was more suited to a ‘real’ debate than a television debate.

John McCain’s pacing and movements indicated that he believed he was performing in an actual town hall, rather than a televised, staged event designed to recreate the imagined intimacy of small-town America. This gets to the heart of the obsession with forms of what is viewed as “authentic” (e.g. white, blue collar, and rural) America that the candidates and the media express with their constant fulminations over “Joe Sixpack” and the now-infamous “Joe the Plumber.”

Through this light we can also see Sarah Palin’s Annie Oakley act as a kind of elaborate postmodern performance as well. It is a hyperreal construction that ignores the reality that the binary categories of “urban”–“rural,” “coastal–flyover,” “blue collar–elite,” “religious–secular,” “liberal–conservative,” and most famously “black–white” are becoming more and more unstable and practically meaningless. Nevertheless, they will still be employed because it plays well politically to set up binary categories that can used to rouse up populist anger.

The crux of the matter is the distinction between “urban” and “rural,” which brings all of these categories together. The urban is seen as the home of elites, multiculturalism, industry, skilled professionals, cosmopolitanism, secularism, and liberalism, whereas the rural is the center of the conservative, religious, mono-ethnic, genuine agrarian America. The urban is a soulless place where temptation awaits and the individual is alienated, whereas the rural is the place of family and virtue. Or at least that is the way it is constructed in public discourse.

Ironically, this is a narrative that both leftists and paleoconservatives can agree on. Both are, in their own ways, critics of modernity. Both Russell Kirk and the Frankfurt School idealize the agrarian and vilify the urban metropolis–for strikingly different reasons. As someone who has lived in a city for most his life, I would like to comment that this construction is insulting and harmful. City dwellers are not less American than those who live in the country. While cities can be soulless and inauthentic, idealization of the small-town and country ignores its very real faults and is highly paternalistic in itself.

As I said earlier, the rural-urban divide is growing less valid. We are no longer the agarian state of Jefferson’s day. Today, most people live in urban environments or the suburbs connected to them, the link to the vast global economy. The rural and the urban are merging together, collapsing the unstable rural-urban binary.  Matt Yglesias made a point that even Wasilla, Alaska, the small town home of Sarah Palin, is a satellite of a larger Alaskan city. As a whole, the world is moving towards megacities, as chronicled in Saskia Sassen’s The Global City and Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums. The rural, however, will continue to exist as an oppositional symbol, a kind of free-floating sign. And it will, like the “town hall” TV event in the second debate, continue be to built up as a kind of Potemkin village on the global stage.

Ironically, though, in a peak energy and oil world, we may yet see a renaissance of the rural as a form of resilient community. But that’s another topic for another time.


Written by Adam Elkus

October 16, 2008 at 10:52 pm

One Response

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  1. One party ,just two different names. Simulacra indeed. Pretense of “democratic” choice? As some bloggers would put it.


    November 10, 2008 at 8:02 am

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