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Beyond Bias: Conservative Media, Documentary Form, and the Politics of Hysteria
 2020040184, 2020040185, 9780197551219, 9780197551226, 9780197551240

Table of contents :
Cover
Half-Title
Title
Copyright
Dedication
Contents
Acknowledgments
Half-Title
PART I: DEMOCRACY, MEDIA, PSYCHOANALYSIS
Introduction: Political Hysteria and the Traumatic Insights of Conservative Media
1. Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations
PART II: POLITICS, DOCUMENTARY FORM, AND HYSTERICAL DISCOURSE
2. Biased Beliefs: Common Sense, Creativity, and Creationism
3. Policing with Noise: Lacan, Rancière, and Documentary Participation
4. Economies of Inattention: Privacy, Publicity, and the Interests of Observation
5. Paradigmatic Politics: Stock Footage and the Hysterical Archive
Conclusion: Post-.Truth and Other Biases
Notes
Bibliography
Index

Citation preview

Beyond Bias

Beyond Bias Conservative Media, Documentary Form, and the Politics of Hysteria S C O T T   K R Z YC H

1

3 Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and certain other countries. Published in the United States of America by Oxford University Press 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, United States of America. © Oxford University Press 2021 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, by license, or under terms agreed with the appropriate reproduction rights organization. Inquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above. You must not circulate this work in any other form and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Krzych, Scott, author. Title: Beyond bias : conservative media, documentary form, and the politics of hysteria / Scott Krzych. Description: New York : Oxford University Press, [2021] | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2020040184 (print) | LCCN 2020040185 (ebook) | ISBN 9780197551219 (hardback) | ISBN 9780197551226 (paperback) | ISBN 9780197551240 (epub) Subjects: LCSH: Motion pictures—Political aspects—United States. | Conservatism in motion pictures—United States. | Documentary films—United States—History and criticism. | Communication in politics—United States. Classification: LCC PN1995.9.P6 K79 2021 (print) | LCC PN1995.9.P6 (ebook) | DDC 302.23/0973—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020040184 LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020040185 DOI: 10.1093/​oso/​9780197551219.001.0001 1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2 Paperback printed by Marquis, Canada Hardback printed by Bridgeport National Bindery, Inc., United States of America

For Kala

Contents Acknowledgments

ix

PA RT I   D E M O C R AC Y, M E D IA , P SYC HOA NA LYSI S Introduction: Political Hysteria and the Traumatic Insights of Conservative Media 1. Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations

3 29

PA RT I I   P O L I T IC S , D O C UM E N TA RY F O R M , A N D H YST E R IC A L D I S C O U R SE 2. Biased Beliefs: Common Sense, Creativity, and Creationism

57

3. Policing with Noise: Lacan, Rancière, and Documentary Participation

93

4. Economies of Inattention: Privacy, Publicity, and the Interests of Observation

141

5. Paradigmatic Politics: Stock Footage and the Hysterical Archive 188 Conclusion: Post-​Truth and Other Biases Notes Bibliography Index

221 227 245 251

Acknowledgments Writing an acknowledgments section is not a genre that comes easily to me. The difficulty offering these acknowledgments is not due to a lack of emotional or intellectual support; on the contrary, I am deeply grateful to the names that follow for their many contributions to my personal and professional life over the past decade or so in which I worked on this book. It may be the case, though, that some of the people I mention may be surprised to see themselves identified here, perhaps not immediately recognizing how or when they contributed to the writing of this book, but contribute they did, in ways small and large. I presented an early draft of my chapter on anti-​Obama documentaries at the University of Toronto, at the joint invitation of the Cinema Studies Institute and the Department of Visual Studies. I am deeply grateful to Brian Price and Meghan Sutherland for arranging this visit, as well as to the graduate students there for their insightful comments and questions. I first began to write about and present on hysterical discourse and conservative political media at the World Picture conference (then at Oklahoma State University). In many ways, the rigorous and rewarding milieu of the annual World Picture conference has been my intellectual home. Many thanks to Brian Price, John David Rhodes, and Meghan Sutherland for maintaining the conference and its associated journal over the years. Thanks also to many of the World Picture “regulars” whose work and collegiality has proven to be inspirational for me—​at the conference, in the journal, and beyond—​including Scott Durham, Eugenie Brinkema, Kal Heck, Adam Cottrel, Alessandra Raengo, Scott Richmond, and James Cahill. And though this book has no direct connection to my dissertation, many of my initial questions about conservative media emerged first on my horizon while I completed my doctorate at Oklahoma State University, where, in addition to my dissertation committee, I benefited deeply from relevant seminars and conversations with Robert Mayer, Edward Jones, and Carol Mason. Recently, and more specific to my interests in psychoanalytic theory, I have found another intellectual home at the LACK conference. Many thanks to the “central committee” of Jennifer Friedlander, Henry Krips, Hilary Neroni, and

x Acknowledgments Todd McGowan for welcoming me into the fold, especially their willingness to share with me the responsibility for co-​organizing the first two iterations of the conference in Colorado Springs. Among many others at LACK whose work has informed my own, directly or indirectly, special thanks to Hugh Manon, Jason Landrum, Anna Kornbluh, Brian Wall, Matthew Flisfeder, Tad Delay, Russell Sbriglia, Joseph Scalia, and Derek Hook. The entirety of this book was written at my home institution of Colorado College. Undoubtedly, I have found it challenging, at times, to persist in research and writing while also balancing the teaching and advising load associated with a residential liberal arts college, not to mention our unusually intense teaching style on the “block plan.” Nevertheless, I am grateful to so many colleagues at the College, across many different departments and disciplines. Susan Ashley, Barry Sarchett, Kathy Guiffre, and the faculty members of the Psychoanalytic Minor and psychoanalytic salon (Marcia Dobson, John Riker, Jonathan Lee) have been welcome mentors. Conversations over coffee (or the occasional whiskey) with Bill Davis, Ryan Bañagale, Jared Richman, Corina McKendry, Ryan Platt, Heidi R.  Lewis, Naomi Wood, Jessie Dubreuil, Corinne Scheiner, Christian Sorace, and Steve Hayward have been enlivening. And heartfelt thanks to the faculty and staff of the Film and Media Studies Program—​Dylan Nelson, Baran Germen, Ji Soo Yim, Robert Mahaffie, Sophie Capp, and Kai Cintorino—​who make it a pleasure to walk into the Cornerstone Arts Center on any given day. Though his name has already appeared above, I simply would not be where I am today without the sustained support, friendship, and inspiration that comes from knowing Brian Price. My parents, John and Debbie, perhaps contributed to this book in more ways than any of us would care to admit (though I believe I just did admit it). Rex and Vicki likewise provide a perfect counter-​narrative to the negative stereotypes about in-​laws (and Rex is perhaps even more enthusiastic to see this book in print than I am). Thanks also to Trent Lewis and Eric Stolp, who each have listened to more comments of mine about psychoanalytic theory and conservative media than they ever intended or asked to hear. Cooper, Ireland, Channing, and Madi keep me in hysterics, in the best possible sense of the term. I would be lost without Kala, who knows better than anyone else how much beauty, love, and care can be generated from the messiest of circumstances. This book is humbly dedicated to her. Here’s to many more interrupted mornings, afternoons, and evenings; we never seem able to complete a single

Acknowledgments  xi conversation, but perhaps that only provides further reason to carry on indefinitely. Chapter 5 first appeared in an earlier form as “Beyond Bias: Stock Imagery and Paradigmatic Politics in Citizens United Documentaries,” Jump Cut 57 (Fall 2016), and my warm appreciation to the late Chuck Kleinhans (as well as the other Jump Cut editors) for his enthusiastic support of this project in general. Thanks also to Zahi Zalloua for including my first attempt to consider the hysterical reactions to Michael Moore (see Chapter 3) in a special issue of The Compartist on psychoanalysis and enjoyment:  “The Price of Knowledge:  Hysterical Dicourse in Anti-​Michael Moore Documentaries,” The Comparatist 39 (2015): 80-​100. Finally, and though it tackles different theoretical concerns, my first consideration of fundamentalism and creationist documentaries (Chapter  2) appeared in World Picture:  “Kino Ex Nihilo,” World Picture 2 (Autumn 2008).

Beyond Bias

PART I

DE MO C R AC Y, M E DIA , P SYC HOA NA LYSI S

Introduction Political Hysteria and the Traumatic Insights of Conservative Media

Conservative media is confusing. Especially for those individuals who do not share the ideological assumptions or ideals common to contemporary political conservativism, it may appear immediately bewildering, beyond our capacity for comprehension, to imagine that anyone could believe or take seriously the specious claims that regularly circulate and go unchallenged in conservative media. But when I say that conservative media is confusing, I actually have a different claim in mind. Even when taken on its own terms, the presentational style of conservative media appears at odds with comprehension. Indeed, I will claim that not only does much of contemporary political conservatism and conservative rhetoric in the United States demonstrate a resistance to the careful or coherent elaboration of its own privileged terms and concepts; more perversely, the guiding political imaginary of conservative media, and the rhetoric it so often employs, requires incomprehension in order to maintain and perpetuate itself. Hysterical political discourse, as I will term it, invites its intended audience into a perpetual state of confusion, deploying the incomprehensible scenes it regularly stages to perpetuate fear, anxiety, and a general sense of discomfort about democracy as such. Consider, for instance, how it felt for many viewers to watch Donald Trump share a debate stage with Hilary Clinton in 2016. Here was a relatively unsuccessful businessman, whose riches were mostly the product of inheritance, who had repeatedly declared bankruptcy over the past decades and thus struggled to acquire investment loans from domestic banks, and who was nevertheless rebranded as an unmatched business expert and real estate tycoon on The Apprentice, thereby becoming a household name for many Americans under the notoriously false pretenses of reality TV, while also gaining favor among politically conservative audiences when he promoted racist birther conspiracies about Barack Obama on Fox News and other outlets. Despite all of this, nevertheless, here he was, sharing a stage Beyond Bias. Scott Krzych, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/​oso/​9780197551219.003.0001

4  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis with a former US senator and secretary of state. Even if we did not necessarily share Clinton’s politics, and even if some would have preferred to see Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee, the juxtaposition of Clinton and Trump—​intelligence and experience, on the one hand, versus bluster and bravado, on the other—​was a tableau difficult to comprehend. For many viewers, not to mention journalists and historians who would attempt to make sense of Trump’s eventual electoral victory after the fact, the scene did not square with existing frameworks of political common sense. It wasn’t just confusing; it was incomprehensible. Keeping in mind this peculiar mise en scène, as well as the epistemological rupture it produced for many viewers, this is precisely the kind of affective turmoil that I have in mind when I point to the confusion incited by conservative political media. On a day-​to-​day basis, through numerous outlets and platforms, conservative political media seeks to produce a similar sense of disbelief and anxiety-​laden incomprehension among its viewers. But in contrast to the relatively unprecedented case of Trump and the epistemic breakdown that his election engendered for many on the Left, conservative media manages to produce its brand of political bewilderment in response to the existence of virtually every political opponent, every progressive policy proposal, and almost any piece of information or “alternative fact” that might begin to challenge or contradict its prized ideological assumptions. As I  will explain through my examination of conservative media—​ specifically through close readings and case studies of feature-​length conservative documentaries—​there exists a common set of rhetorical conceits, spectacular gestures, modes and movements of displacement, and other tropes on which conservative speakers, spin doctors, and filmmakers regularly rely in order to serve their ideological ends and reproduce the kind of perpetual confusion I have begun to identify. Indeed, a common set of aesthetic gestures appear consistently across the wide range of media objects I consider. This includes a reliance on moralistic provocations, which offer pop-​psychological speculations about the hidden motivations behind the agendas of their political opponents, thereby reducing complex political issues into seemingly simple decisions between good or evil, at least if their claims are to be believed; presentational aesthetics, or what I also refer to as presentation without representation, in which conservative speakers offer so many opinionated voices, excuses, justifications, tangents, “alternative facts,” and, most importantly, the formal mimicry of their opponents’ expressive styles, thereby performing what appear to be timely engagements

Introduction  5 in the political topics of the day, but in a manner that, through such excessive presentations, subtracts from the exchange almost all relevant, substantive, political content; and, finally, an economy of inattention in which, like an aesthetic correlative of neoliberalism, the entire political performance presumes a frictionless world of exchange in which conservative political talking points circulate in the “marketplace” of ideas and achieve their truth effects, not based on any demonstrable relation between the talking points and the historical world, but rather on their capacity to maintain brand loyalty among their intended political consumers. For instance, the feature-​length film Generation Zero (2010), directed by former Trump advisor and executive chairman for Breitbart.com, Steven Bannon, offers a novel explanation for the 2008 financial collapse. Along the way, the documentary manages to exemplify each of the rhetorical categories I have introduced. The documentary makes almost no mention of the historical causes of the crisis (i.e., subprime mortgages, complex derivatives, credit default swaps, deregulation of the financial markets, etc.). Rather, Bannon’s film makes a more abstract and moralistic suggestion: that bankers on Wall Street were the inheritors of the 1960s and the decade’s “debased” values, including an unfettered reliance on “big government” or the “nanny State,” which prompted bankers eventually to take excessive risks in the early twenty-​first century because they believed that that they would be bailed out for any of their substantive mistakes. The film’s suggestions, as I term them, are not exactly arguments. Indeed, if its central claims sound unlikely—​if not impossible to prove—​then this is exactly the formal gesture of hysterical discourse that I find to be predominant across a wide range of related documentaries and other conservative media examined in Beyond Bias. In this particular case, by revamping the Right’s long-​standing contempt for the sociopolitical ruptures marked by the 1960s, Generation Zero draws upon an existing set of grievances. These grievances provide the necessary justification for the documentary to reproduce archival footage that depicts a predictable assortment of antagonists (including hippies, the Black Panthers, and feminists marching in the streets) collected and repackaged for a new situation. Faced with an economic crisis in 2008 that might otherwise invalidate, or at least raise doubts about, the Right’s wholesale commitment to neoliberalism and “free market” capitalism, Generation Zero responds by displacing the economic and political issues at hand. Even on its own terms, the supposed links suggested between 1968 and 2008 are difficult to comprehend precisely because the suggestions offered by the film never amount to an actual argument—​something went

6  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis wrong in the 1960s and produced the crisis in 2008, and the documentary leaves it mostly to the viewer’s imagination to fill in the rather sizeable gap in the historical timeline, a gap whose inexplicability provides the very means by which Generation Zero presumes to suggest a nefarious, but always amorphous and ambiguous, explanation for the global financial collapse. More important than the confusing historical timeline on which it relies, however, is the recourse the documentary makes to the 1960s, a “historicizing” gesture which provides an aesthetic alibi for the archival images it culls from the decade, providing Generation Zero with the “look” or the “feel” of a conventional compilation documentary, despite the vacuous quality of its claims and the irrelevance, ultimately, of the archival footage it collects. Thus, the 2008 recession and the complex succession of events leading to the crisis are portrayed as matters reducible to moral abstraction, pop-​psychological speculation, and a dichotomy of “us versus them” (the moralist provocation); the absence of detailed historiography in favor of talking points already familiar to conservative audiences leaves those audiences grossly misinformed about the subject matter while simultaneously recycling a laundry list of preferred villains for further mockery (economy of inattention); and the culminating media object traverses seamlessly through scenes of talking-​head interviews and archival footage, thereby providing Generation Wealth with the semblance of sober documentary form (presentational aesthetics). From an outsider’s perspective, many of these rhetorical maneuvers will appear to be highly manipulative and mendacious, often relying on “evidence” and so-​called expertise that is, in fact, fabricated out of thin air, indicative of what we could rightly deem as propaganda in its purest form. However, it is perhaps worth noting, immediately, that I prefer to avoid the label of propaganda throughout the majority of this book. On the contrary, as I will claim, conservative hysterical discourse, at its most effective, presents to its audiences—​puts its audience in touch with—​the traumatic underbelly of democratic antagonism, and in this manner hysterical discourse uses the bare facts and (often) accurate realities of political difference for manipulative ends. Simply put, there is almost always a significant and substantive element of truth locatable within even the most outlandish claims offered throughout the conservative films and videos I  survey. Oftentimes, such traumatic insights manifest in the documentaries, in some manner or another, as an emphasis on the stark reality of political difference—​namely, that there are political antagonists whose values are at odds with conservative ideals, that such groups or individuals are vying for democratic power, and

Introduction  7 that these opponents could very well succeed in their pursuits. Accordingly, many of the most basic claims and assumptions on which conservative media rely share much in common—​difficult as it may be to admit—​with the political ontologies of some of the academic Left’s most prominent contemporary thinkers. Beyond Bias takes seriously the aesthetic gestures of conservative media, rather than dismissing such media out of hand or labeling it as mere propaganda. Indeed, through close and serious attention to the aesthetic-​ political forms of conservative media, we may recognize more clearly the affective dimension of democratic antagonism such media works to engage, foment, and weaponize for its particular ideological ends. In the following section, I consider briefly some of the affinities between conservative political discourse and certain key concepts in political theory.

Democratic Paradoxes Consider, for instance, Chantal Mouffe’s explanation of what she terms the democratic paradox. Liberal democracies coordinate an inevitable intersection of two irreconcilable paradigms:  liberalism and democratic rule. As Mouffe writes, “On one side we have the liberal tradition constituted by the rule of law, the defense of human rights and the respect of individual liberty; on the other the democratic tradition whose main ideas are those of equality, identity between governing and governed and popular sovereignty.”1 At its antagonistic core, then, liberal democracy manifests a conception of politics and society that privileges the rights, not to mention the preferences, of the individual, while it also submits to the intermittent political decisions of the majority, which may very well infringe upon an individual’s particular desires or proclivities. In many instances, this conflict may not necessarily take the explicit form of a paradox or of an event in which the conflict between my desire and the desires of others reaches an impasse of traumatic, anxiety-​inducing proportions. Sometimes my preferred political candidate loses an election; sometimes our elected officials pass legislation based upon sociopolitical ideals at odds with my own; and sometimes, oftentimes, I can accept these momentary losses as a regrettable, but not unassimilable, feature of my participation in a democratic society. On other occasions, however, the conflict between individual ideals and democratic rule produces a more distressing outcome, and the democratic paradox, as Mouffe conceives it, becomes more immediately palpable. Consider, for instance, the topic of

8  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis abortion. Many conservatives honestly and strenuously believe that, from the moment of conception, a fetus should be treated no differently than a fully grown human being and its rights, accordingly, should therefore take precedence and priority over a woman’s own agency. For anti-​abortionists, the United States has engaged in what they describe as a sustained genocide of the unborn since Roe vs. Wade; such individuals find themselves identified as citizens of a State whose majority democratic opinion and governing laws are therefore radically at odds with their deeply held beliefs. Indeed, the ideological conflict over abortion, for many on the Right, rises to an existential crisis of such dire proportions as to justify, at times, violence by “pro-​lifers” against abortion providers, and, more recently, the passage of draconian laws in conservative legislatures that render abortion effectively inaccessible in many states, even while the Supreme Court (at least as of the writing of this book) decision in support of abortion rights remains settled law.2 And just as anti-​abortionists cannot abide the contradiction of their shared citizenship with those who support a woman’s right to choose, many on the Left cannot fathom the ideological priorities of “pro-​lifers” who nevertheless support capital punishment, endless international wars, the caging of migrant children, and so on. To Mouffe’s point, such particular examples of political impasse merely demonstrate, in the heightened fervor of the intransigent moral positions staked out by both sides, a more basic and fundamental feature of liberal democracy; namely, that such conflicts are an inevitable outcome of political difference. Indeed, in Mouffe’s strong argument, such “difference is a precondition for the existence of any identity.”3 The task of democratic debate, for Mouffe, “is not to eliminate passions or to relegate them to the private sphere in order to establish a rational consensus in the public sphere. Rather, it is to ‘sublimate’ those passions by mobilizing them toward democratic designs, by creating collective forms of identification around democratic objectives.”4 And it is precisely on this ground, I claim, that conservative media stakes its positions, in a manner directly at odds with Mouffe’s own counsel that we translate the inevitable passions of political difference into productive forms of democratic disagreement. Conservative hysterical discourse inhibits political sublimation at all costs, as we will see. Indeed, the particular cases of conservative political media addressed in Beyond Bias concern examples where reactionary rhetoric is deployed in a fashion to invite and sustain cases of political impasse similar to the intransigent debate over abortion and to use such ideological deadlocks as a means to forestall substantive debate or political change.

Introduction  9 Put otherwise, political impasse, rather than an occasional or inevitable byproduct of democratic antagonism, functions as a privileged barricade erected by conservative political discourse as a means to forestall change or progress, to reduce political disagreement to endless and fruitless arguments (for argument’s sake), and ultimately to transform the political realm into a sphere composed of an endless array of talking heads and opinionated voices who speak not in service of a concrete or coherent agenda but rather to drown out all other voices. In this light, we may notice how the moral provocations deployed by conservative media amplify the inevitable antagonisms at the core of liberal democracy, not in order to win a debate or to identify enemies that must be vanquished, but rather to depoliticize contingent political issues, transforming virtually any democratic exchange into a sign of irreconcilable moral differences. Thus, when conservative filmmakers denigrate the films of Michael Moore as the product of Moore’s hubris and his desire for fame and fortune (Chapter 3), or when conservative filmmakers similarly claim that Barack Obama’s “anti-​American” policies demonstrate his unconscious allegiance to his father’s anti-​colonialist attitudes (Chapter 4), such speculations rely on a hermeneutics of suspicion that simplifies the specific agendas of particular political opponents, transforming their opponents’ arguments into signifiers of generic, but nevertheless threatening, difference or otherness. In the process, conservative hysteria avoids taking a decisive position on any of the particular ideas or policies pursued by their opponents. Instead, the particularity of the others’ political position is reduced to further “proof ” of irreconcilable difference—​Hollywood elites out of touch with the values of “real America,” radical socialists intent to undo the “free market,” and so on. In other words, even in areas where we might anticipate the possibility of agreement or compromise—​as in the collective responses necessary to deal with global warming or global pandemics—​conservative hysterical discourse remains intent to “expose” the signs of a democratic paradox lying underneath, even where we may least expect to find it. The morally provocative speculations and taunts typical of contemporary right-​wing media not only reduce virtually all contingent cases of democratic disagreement into matters of binary difference. The spectacular aesthetics on which such media regularly rely tends to privilege quantity (of its opinionated voices) over quality (of their particular claims). Thus, the rhetorical appeals and formal aesthetics of conservative hysterical discourse likewise share affinities with what Jodi Dean has described more generally

10  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis as communicative capitalism—​the denigration of symbolic authority and the proliferation of opinionated voices in the era of neoliberalism and digital media. For Dean, the proliferation of opinions expressed on a seemingly endless number of online and cable outlets inhibits our capacity for democratic debate: Contestations today rarely employ common terms, points of reference, or demarcated frontiers. In our highly mediated communications environments we confront instead a multiplication of resistances and assertions so extensive as to hinder the formation of strong counterhegemonies. The proliferation, distribution, acceleration, and intensification of communicative access and opportunity result in a deadlocked democracy incapable of serving as a form for political change.5

Given the structural form of “our highly mediated communications environments” and its allowance for an almost exponential increase in the array of opinions and voices who participate in acts of political expression, we risk becoming collectively lost in the morass—​so much political entertainment, easy enough to consume in the convenience of our homes, but at the cost of substantive political engagement. For Dean, neoliberalism refashions politics and political representation in the guises of consumer advertising and brand loyalty, perpetuating the logics of marketing and public relations that divide political constituencies into so many niche groups who share no common points of reference and who likewise express their democratic “opinions,” so called, through private acts of commodity consumption. Moreover, by flooding the political “marketplace” with so many divergent and competing voices, it becomes all the more difficult for populist countermovements to organize or emerge as a result.6 But it is here that Beyond Bias carves out an area of concern distinct from the one addressed by Dean. For instance, Dean is at pains to demonstrate that we have by no means entered a postpolitical era. As she notes, the organized Right in the United States proactively pursues a wide range of political strategies, including the pursuit of numerous fronts in the “culture war” in which “every issue is made to stand for something beyond itself, an indication of weakness or resolve, a sign of support for us or them,” as in the case of the annual “War on Christmas” fought vigorously by Fox News pundits from the comfort of their soundstages, which I discuss more later.7 By contrast, this book concerns an alternative mode of conservative political discourse,

Introduction  11 one that is profoundly depoliticizing in the manner by which it provides a deflective screen—​or deflecting shield—​against any and all calls for progressive political change. Thus, Beyond Bias addresses another side of the conservative “echo chamber” different from the one identified by Dean. While the more proactive side of the contemporary Republican Party and right-​wing networks work vigorously to purse their agenda (i.e., destroying the social safety net, increasing military budgets, limiting access to abortion, undoing environmental regulations, etc.), another side of conservative media deploys a depoliticizing mode of hysterical discourse, which defends against progressive ideals and claims through its contagious spread of noise and confusion, producing in combination a highly efficient political resonance machine resistant to change or compromise. Thus, even when well-​meaning journalists, historians, or cultural critics attempt to debunk the false claims that circulate in the conservative “echo chamber,” or when media watchdogs archive the seemingly endless arrays of lies and mischaracterizations offered on conservative platforms on a daily basis, such critical reactions risk falling into a fundamental trap: they apply standards of judgment or common sense that are simply irrelevant to the political ends that such spectacular political speech is intended to achieve. One of the most pervasive strategies demonstrated by conservative political media, then, is the effective use it makes of incoherence, along with a seemingly endless cacophony of contradictory opinions, which arise to drown out the voices of political opponents, or what I will describe as policing the political with noise. Here, of course, I have in mind Jacques Rancière’s account of political aesthetics. For Rancière, the “police” describes not the particular, uniformed officers employed by the State to maintain law and order—​though there is certainly a family resemblance, a structural affinity, between such individuals and the act of aesthetic policing Rancière has in mind. Rather, the act of aesthetic policing works in such a way as to maintain the sociopolitical status quo; the police respond in a depoliticizing manner to claims that allege a political wrong or which argue on behalf of change; the response of the police, then, is to assert that such claims have no viable place, no need to be heard, and are nothing more than the incoherent noise of those who do not deserve to speak (“the part who have no part”). Examples of aesthetic-​ political policing, as Rancière originally intends the term, are easy enough to identify on both sides of the political spectrum.8 Rancière conceives of noise, then, as what remains or becomes of political expression when it is effectively prevented from gaining a foothold in “proper” precincts of democratic

12  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis exchange, as when protestors are derided by the establishment for lacking a coherent plan, or, even more specifically, when a progressive agenda like the Green New Deal is derided as utopian nonsense. By contrast, conservative hysterical media often relies on noise as its preferred starting (and ending) point. Especially when political success may hinge on resistance to the emergence of broad political consensus—​say, the collective action required to address climate change—​the proliferation of nonsense or noise provides a cynically effective aesthetic device in service of the status quo. Though often dismissed simply as propaganda, niche political entertainment, or even partisan nonsense, conservative media actually addresses many issues at the core of political theory, even if the intentions of conservative political discourse are more pragmatic or cynical than theoretical. By using the spectacle of debate to delay substantive disagreement, by constantly drawing viewers’ attention in so many directions as to muddy the political waters, and by mimicking the forms of conventional political representation for the purpose of sociopolitical stasis, if not regression, the economy of inattention and presentational aesthetics of conservative media likely appears confusing or bewildering for those who encounter it from the outside:  common sense cannot explain the phenomena of much contemporary conservative discourse precisely because conservative media often finds political refuge through the dismantling or short-​circuiting of existing regimes of common sense. Hysterical conservative media neither seeks to reclaim some ideal, political state from the past, nor does it propose to institute an agenda that would lead to its vision of a better future. Rather, hysterical media invites, perpetuates, and reproduces political impasse and endless antagonism, in which the trauma of political difference predominates and thereby ensures the repetition of spectacular debate as a substitute for substantive disagreement. Finally, at least as it concerns the broader dimensions of political theory relevant to this book’s arguments, we might notice how conservative discourse routinely positions itself and its political allies in the role of the victim. Any indication of the existence of alternative political perspectives appears to justify, for conservative media and its prominent speakers, an all-​out call to arms. Yet, strangely, such calls to action rarely amount to sustained political activism other than symbolic protests or, cynically, the further consumption of resonant conservative media. In Chapter 1, I engage in a more thorough consideration of the archive of psychoanalytic theory to explain why I identify these features of conservative rhetoric specifically as hysterical. For now,

Introduction  13 however, I simply intend to emphasize the affective turmoil that conservative media invites, and how such mediations perpetuate an incoherent epistemological chasm in which its intended audience may fall into a void somewhere between conventional democracy and a more radical populism. Indeed, when conservative political discourse makes recourse to hysterical spectacle, as it often does, the outcome is one that invites a traumatic impasse caught between conventional democratic representation and populist emergence. By taking seriously the strategies, appeals, and aesthetic gestures of conservative political discourse, then, we may notice some of the concrete ways in which conservative media appears to understand and employ—​even if only implicitly or unconsciously—​its own illuminating, though certainly troubling, political ontology. For the purposes of clarity, we might linger a bit longer with the example of the 2008 financial crisis and the manner by which any reckoning with the event as a crisis was avoided in the conservative documentary Generation Zero, indicative of the way conservative hysterical discourse will deny a crisis when it emerges and, conversely, manufacture crises where they arguably do not exist. In Bannon’s reactionary response to the Great Recession, as I have claimed, the contingent features of the historical event are transformed into a generic morality tale:  radicals from the 1960s infected Wall Street with their misguided reliance on the federal government to bail out their excessive financial speculations, the documentary claims. Notice how this interpretation of 2008 forecloses on any democratic response to the crisis; that is, no consideration is given for how existing regimes of governmental oversight or regulation might be pursued as a reaction to the crisis or as means to avoid further devastation to domestic and international economies. In other words, the problem diagnosed by Generation Zero is not one that allows for any viable solution; any democratic response to the event is barred in advance due to the manner by which the crisis is represented as a moral, rather than a political, problem. To argue, as I do, that hysterical political discourse inhabits and perpetuates a rift between democratic and populist responses to the political, of course, requires some further elaboration concerning the relation between democracy and populism more generally. Here, I  have in mind Ernesto Laclau’s important theoretical intervention in this regard, particularly the manner by which he takes seriously populist movements as profound illustrations, rather than departures from, the antagonist core of liberal democracy. For Laclau, as he contends in On Populist Reason, populism demonstrates

14  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis pointedly the hegemonic field of relations that constitute democratic governance; namely, the contingent associations of political actors whose demands (for change) offered against the establishment serve to produce new modes of collective belonging; the embrace of the affective, rather than simply a logical or bureaucratic, dimension of political rhetoric; and the creative construction of new modes of representation necessary to propose substantive change. Thus, while Laclau’s theory of populism concerns an analysis of the “nature and logics of the formation of collective identities,” we will find, perhaps unsurprisingly, that hysterical discourse works at cross-​purpose, to oppose at all costs the emergence of collective identities and to draw political cover from the impossibility of collective action, democratic engagement, or populist uprising that it works effectively to avoid through its emphasis on confusion and incomprehension.9 For the purposes of this introduction, I  will simply attend to the distinctions Laclau draws between democratic and populist demands. According to Laclau, a democratic demand is one that pursues a particular, limited change while grounding the legitimacy of its request within the normative structures of an established political order. Such a democratic demand “can be accommodated within an expanding hegemonic formation” and requires no fundamental change to the political structure as it exists.10 Or, in the case of 2008, the Dodd-​Frank Act eventually passed by Congress, we might say, amounted to a conventional democratic response to the crisis. Indeed, the fact that the legislation was deemed by many conservatives to be an example of federal overreach, while progressives decried the Act as too limited in its meager regulations of the banking industry, seems to exemplify how this particular issue was framed or rendered legible according to existing regimes of democratic sensibility. As Laclau makes clear, for any conflict that remains ensconced within the terms of democratic common sense, the outcome may be undetermined, but the vocabulary necessary in order for the debate to proceed is given in advance. Democratic debates, we might say, occur in the context of a political and rhetorical landscape in which common sense remains a relatively stable and consistent point of reference regardless of any participants’ particular political affiliation. However, in the case of Generation Zero, there is no proper democratic response available to address the diagnosis the documentary makes of the moral etiology behind the economic crisis. In other words, the problem the documentary presumes to address is without a viable cure. And the economy of inattention on which the film relies likewise encourages viewers to remain

Introduction  15 in the dark about the complex financial structures that led to the housing bubble and its eventual rupture. If the film does not coordinate a democratic demand, then does it encourage a populist uprising? My answer to this question is an unqualified no, but first we should consider further, if only briefly, Laclau’s account of populism. In political situations leading to a populist demand, in contrast to democratic conventionality, the common ground between political opponents encounters a more fundamental rupture, such that “a lack, a gap  .  .  .  has emerged in the harmonious continuity of the social.”11 Laclau continues: “There is a fullness of the community which is missing. This is decisive: the construction of the ‘people’ will be the attempt to give a name to that absent fullness.”12 In Laclau’s conception of a populist demand, then, a certain series of political complaints emerge in such a manner that the demands cannot be met according to a redistribution of existing resources. Rather, the demands, by their very nature, require a fundamental reorganization of the political landscape itself: The meaning of such demands is determined largely by their differential positions within the symbolic framework of society, and it is only their frustration that presents them in a new light. But if there is a very extensive series of social demands which are not met, it is that very symbolic framework which starts to disintegrate. In that case, however, the popular demands are less and less sustained by a pre-​existing differential framework: they have, to a large extent, to construct a new one.13

In this light, we might say that Dodd-​Frank offered a democratic compromise in reaction to 2008, in which the established structures of the US economy remained almost completely unchanged. A  populist demand in response to 2008, by contrast, would function more radically; whatever its particular manner of expression, it would likely involve a more comprehensive reorientation of the relationship between the federal government and financial institutions—​such as demands on the Left to “break up” the big banks. According to political common sense, of course, such an act to dissolve the largest and most powerful financial institutions was unthinkable. What would remain of our economy in the aftermath? What would it look like? The inability to answer such questions with anything more than hypothetical speculation is indicative of kind of radical reorientation provoked by a properly populist demand. In other words, even when a populist demand

16  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis addresses a contingent and singular political issue, the terms of the demand are of such ontological significance or scope that only a radical revision to the existing political apparatus could possibly meet the demand’s implicit requirements. Again, in the case of Generation Zero, the documentary concludes with an endorsement of the conservative Tea Party movement as a supposed act of populist uprising. However, given the moral provocations on which the documentary rests its claims, there is no proper antagonist to whom the film or its allies may level their demands. Or the nature of the complaints is such that they merely substitute one particular opponent for another, generic one. Simply put, Generation Zero coordinates its stereotypical ­denigration of 1960s “radicals” to claim that any policies pursued by Obama in the early years of his administration, while the economy was in collapse, evidenced an underhanded attempt by the president to undo capitalism in favor of socialism and thereby bring to fruition the “­anti-​ American” ideals of the civil rights era. In other words, the documentary claims the existence of a problem it cannot prove, because the nature of its diagnosis is strictly speculative, and then proposes no substantive change to the existing state of political affairs because it imagines its present ­antagonist (Obama) to be simply the reincarnation of an already ­long-​ existing one (1960s radicalism). For my immediate purposes, I want to emphasize the affective discomfort or trauma that tends to emerge upon the onset of a populist demand, or how populism in Laclau’s account demonstrates a widespread coalescence of political interests in response to a rupture in more traditional forms of democratic representation. In cases of political antagonism in which the nature of the specific conflict offers no obvious path for hegemonic negotiation according to existing terms of exchange, Laclau describes such experiences, variously, as a “chasm,” a “conceptual hiatus,” a “breakdown,” a “deficit in being,” and a “radical anomie.” Such representational failures occur, for Laclau, when social or political antagonisms become so intransigent as to challenge established modes of political representation. Objectivity or common sense, normatively conceived, fail to describe the populist situation, and thus a popular demand responds to this rupture by attempting to “add to the sequence a link that the objective explanation is unable to provide.”14 Seen from the outside, a popular demand may appear incoherent if not contradictory, especially because it is the very nature of a populist demand to challenge political common sense as such.

Introduction  17 In the chasm between democratic common sense and populist contingency, then, is precisely where I  claim we may locate hysterical political discourse. Hysterical discourse courts and reproduces the impasse or the rupture or the chasm that occurs between democratic common sense and populist emergence. In other words, Laclau locates an experience of affective turmoil at the very core of political becoming, a “conceptual hiatus” in which democratic disagreements find themselves caught in an endless loop that cannot be resolved absent a fundamental reorientation of the political landscape at large—​and it is precisely this moment of epistemological, ideological, and affective breakdown that conservative hysterical discourse weaponizes as a means for anti-​democratic impasse without end. Like so-​called climate change skeptics who do not deny entirely the reality of a warming planet, but who also do not accept any proposals for substantive political action, and who call for further research or more discussion or more time to consider the potential “unintended consequences” of a decisive and collective response to the crisis, the very perpetuation of the crisis and the inability to bring the debate to an end, either through democratic compromise or populist change, serves the ultimately cynical ends of the hysterical (non)position. By populating the democratic landscape with an endless array of voices, options, opinions, and countervailing claims, hysterical discourse thereby manifests the formal appearance of political debate but does so in bad faith, refusing to offer a discrete or definable argument, and likewise refusing to take one singular, defendable position among a range of others. Thus, by performing the form of debate, absent its actual political content, the conservative spectacle remains above the political fray, seemingly untouched by the contingencies and sometimes harsh realities of democratic antagonism, and at an almost complete remove from interaction with the opponents it deems morally unworthy of its respect or consideration in the first place.

Hysterical Contagion My approach to conservative political discourse, as I have begun to explain, complicates our response to political media that may appear at first glance to demonstrate textbook examples of propaganda, fearmongering, rhetorical manipulation, or bias. Instead, I am interested in the ways in which conservative media invites and reproduces a “conceptual hiatus” that leaves

18  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis its intended audience caught in an affective impasse that falls between the cracks of democratic negotiation and populist change. Moreover, as I explain in Chapter 1, and throughout this book, the aesthetics forms by which conservative media accomplishes its depoliticizing gestures are drawn directly from the contemporary landscape of journalistic reportage and more conventional documentary forms; the formal parodies garner for conservative discourse an aesthetic semblance of sobriety and seriousness at odds with its demonstrable cases of epistemic ignorance, moral belligerence, and anti-​democratic fervor. Indeed, it is precisely the lack of care by which conservative media justifies or evidences its claims, combined with the dire seriousness by which it breathlessly identifies crises of nearly existential proportions, that leads me to label such discourse hysterical. I will have much more to say in the following chapter about the structure of hysterical discourse. For the moment, I will simply note how hysteria marks both an epistemological and affective trauma that results, most basically and simply, from a subject’s experience of a lived contradiction. Hysterical discourse responds to a breakdown in common sense, when language or other conventional modes of representation fail the individual or group in question, even while the situation compels those involved to speak on nevertheless, often leading to the kind of excessive displays or spectacles long associated with hysterical performance. Hysterical discourse, in other words, speaks in absence of a language adequate to the situation it nevertheless seeks to name or describe—​similar to Rancière account of noise. And as I have already begun to suggest via the brief consideration of Laclau’s political ontology, the affective chasm that may emerge between democratic and populist demands identifies a representational void similar in kind, I claim, to the psychic experience of the hysterical variety. One lesson we may derive from this discussion, then, concerns the trans-​subjective possibility of hysterical rupture or breakdown. Simply put, and as I will argue throughout this book, hysteria may be understood as a common and politically unaffiliated reaction to democratic antagonism. Though Beyond Bias concerns the particular manners and forms by which contemporary conservative documentaries and other conservative political media weaponize hysterical discourse for their own ideological ends, I do not claim that hysteria is a phenomenon peculiar to conservativism. On the contrary, as I have noted already with my comments about the Left’s reaction to the election of Trump, and as the following discussion of hysterical reactions by progressives to Fox News and its annual reporting on the “War on Christmas,”

Introduction  19 hysteria and hysterical discourse may, on occasion, spread comprehensively across the political landscape. Consider the annual “War on Christmas” covered breathlessly by hosts on Fox News. According to the conservative commentators and pundits who regularly appear on the notoriously reactionary cable-​news network, the Christian tradition in the United States is under threat of erasure by secular multiculturalists who are intent to subtract from the winter solstice anything but the most generic signifiers of holiday cheer. Recognizable conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, among many others, have lamented the practice of retail employees who wish their customers “Happy Holidays,” which for the commentators evidences an unforgivable substitute for “Merry Christmas.” In other words, the subtraction of “Christ-​” from “Christmas” serves as evidence of multiculturalism and political correctness working to erase Christian values and religious prominence in the public sphere. Hosts of the early-​morning program Fox and Friends likewise criticized Starbucks, not for refusing to recognize the Christmas holiday as such, but for failing to represent the signifiers of the season explicitly enough to allay the hosts’ projected fears of rampant political correctness, as when, in 2015, the corporate coffee behemoth unveiled minimally decorated cups, colored “only” in (the traditional Christmas colors of) red and green, but lacked any other conventional Christmas symbols. For liberally minded media watchdogs, the “War on Christmas” is a manufactured crisis employed by conservative media to perpetuate a false sense of victimhood, at the least, if not a cynical ploy to keep viewers attentively and profitably glued to their screens. Consider the equally breathless critique of the critique: a critical response to the “War on Christmas” offered by a commentator on Media Matters for America (mediamatters.org), a site that offers daily monitoring of conservative media’s worst offenders: For 15 years, cable news Don Quixotes have battled these windmills, rejoicing in their victories and basking in their acts of bravery while warning their audiences to remain vigilant. Imaginary culture war issues like the War on Christmas make for good politics, as the people arguing that these are real issues can at any time simply dust off their hands, declare victory, and pat themselves on the back for a job well done . . . Deep down, they must know that there’s no actual “war” on Christmas, but it makes for good politics. Rather than having to address issues actually facing Americans—​such as health care, the economy, and climate change—​the fake battles in the fake

20  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis War on Christmas give right-​wing media a convenient way to manufacture divisions between the left and the right. The bombardment of misinformation playing up imaginary (or wildly overblown) examples of political correctness run amok are intended to scare and create a seeming sense of partisanship even on issues that are agreed upon nearly universally.15

The response captured here is typical of mainstream journalistic responses to conservative political media. Yet notice how the response itself falls into its own manner of contradiction. The author admits that the “War on Christmas” is “good politics,” no matter how specious the claims on which it rests, at least for those who deploy the spectacle in service of their own ideological agenda; at the same time, the author likewise demonstrates an essentialist attachment to common sense as a supposedly stable ground upon which we may judge this overt act of politicization as “imaginary” or “fake.” Simply put, the author cannot seem to decide whether the problem encountered here is one of epistemology or morality. If “deep down,” the conservative speakers behind such jeremiads “must know” that what they are doing is wrong, or fabricated, or manipulative, then their version of politics remains at odds with common sense (“issues that are agreed upon nearly universally”); according to this perspective, such political opponents are therefore morally suspect and unworthy of further engagement. At the same time, the author recognizes that the entire spectacle, even if fake or imaginary, may be politically effective; thus, the commentary seems to recognize the profound hegemonic stakes in this front of the “culture war” even as it dismisses the spectacular quality of Fox’s political aesthetics. Simply put, it seems that the liberal critique of conservative media stumbles into a conceptual hiatus in which the speaker is both entirely confident in their ideological position and, simultaneously, unable to express their claims in a coherent form. Despite the fact that the “War on Christmas” is often dismissed as an example of right-​wing “hysteria”—​a conventional use of the term directly at odds with how I conceive of hysterical discourse throughout this book—​this particular example illustrates a different problem. In this case and many others like it, Fox News and other conservative outlets are engaged in a persistent deployment of political rhetoric to galvanize their audiences around a divisive cultural issue. The “War on Christmas,” in other words, is actively politicizing and bears no relation to hysterical discourse—​though it certainly seems capable of eliciting a hysterical reaction. Where conservative media makes use of a divisive issue, or constructs one of their own making,

Introduction  21 the liberal response reveals a fundamental breakdown, a self-​division, or an experience of bias (as in an oblique cut) at its very core: unable to make sense of this seemingly pure act of politicization and searching for universal terms grounded in common sense that would explain (away) this moment of political difference as mere noise, the response cannot comprehend what it sees and thus it denies the brute reality of antagonism it encounters even as it encounters it. The conservative rhetoric, in its astute appeals to the hegemonic order, attempts to remake common sense to suit its ideological agenda. The liberal response devolves into an incomprehensible complaint or protest, attempting to maintain, or reclaim, the moral and epistemological high ground at the very moment that the political landscape has demonstrated itself to lack any firm foundation whatsoever. The self-​contradictory and incoherent response to the “War on Christmas” is indicative of what I describe throughout Beyond Bias as a hysterical complaint, similar to the affective chasm Laclau locates between democratic demands and populist protests. When faced with the undeniable existence of a political opponent with whom I share no common ground, whose worldview is diametrically opposed to my own, whose ideology and discourse seem immune to any attempt I might make to bring it to reason, and whose networks of political affiliation are vast and influential enough that they could very well exert their political will over my own, then my capacity for coherent self-​expression may begin to degenerate. Words fail me, yet the crisis is of such significance, so pressing, that I speak on nevertheless, even if incoherently. Though this book concerns the manner and forms by which conservative media marshals such hysterical moments of incoherence for political effect, I mean to make clear, from the start, that hysteria has no particular political affiliations. The epistemological impasses and affective ruptures that arise in reaction to one’s encounter with the democratic paradox is an underlying potentiality of contemporary political life, regardless of how one votes and regardless of one’s particular political identifications. Yet, if the “War on Christmas,” or “pro-​life” hypocrisies, or the election of Trump to the presidency stand as a few examples in which some on the Left have felt the onset of hysterical breakdown, the landscape of conservative political media that concerns me in Beyond Bias demonstrates a more radical aesthetic form. The hysterical complaint, as I have noted, emerges in reaction to an act of political reactivation that likely catches us off guard, and it is reasonable to expect the emergence of such occasional disruptions as an inevitable byproduct of liberal democracy and its inherent antagonisms. In

22  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis contrast to the relatively singular and passing experience of complaint that registers a conceptual hiatus or affective experience of contradiction, conservative media consistently engages in what I describe, after Jacques Lacan, as hysterical discourse. In hysterical discourse, a momentary affective breakdown or a singular act of incoherent protest transforms into a perpetual reproduction of a crisis in (political) representation. Hysterical political discourse sustains and reproduces noise as a defensive maneuver or mechanism that drowns out other voices, resists change or compromise, and substitutes a parody of democratic engagement for the real thing. Unlike the contingent complaint, which struggles to articulate the incomprehensible scene of political difference it encounters and perhaps devolves into an expression of inarticulate noise, hysterical discourse marshals noise as its preferred methodology to police the aesthetic dimension of political representation.

Forms of Bias To this point, I have geared my comments primarily toward the relations and resonances this book draws between hysterical discourse and prominent political ontologies on the academic Left. As much as Beyond Bias seeks to offer a new reading of political media, which links together relevant strains of psychoanalytic and political theory, this book is equally invested in the field of documentary studies. In Chapters 2 through 5, I offer close readings of a wide variety of conservative documentary films and videos, and these chapters likewise put the examples of conservative media in direct conversation with their more conventional documentary counterparts. Since I argue that hysterical political discourse activates its depoliticizing gestures through the parody and mimicry of its political opponents, a comprehensive study of conservative documentary requires attention to the more conventional documentary forms that the films and videos regularly cite, parody, and magnify to more extreme or radical lengths. More than simply a means of contextualization, however, the case studies and comparisons I offer demonstrate, in many instances, how conservative media manages to recognize and exacerbate problems of political representation contained, but that are often unexpressed or underthematized, in their more conventional documentary counterparts. Thus, much like Laclau’s treatment of populism, not as an excessive departure from democracy normalcy, but rather as a spectacular mode of political engagement that helps to reveal the affective and

Introduction  23 contingent features of democracy more generally, conservative political documentaries often provide helpful insight into the ethical dilemmas, epistemological roadblocks, and representational quandaries that often arise for more traditional documentary filmmakers, especially for filmmakers interested in nonfictional representations of the political sphere. Before turning to the narrower case studies, however, Chapter  1, “Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations,” offers a general overview of the short history of conservative political documentary, and likewise offers a more thorough explanation of the relation, developed throughout the remainder of the book, between political media and the psychoanalytic conception of hysteria and hysterical discourse. In addition to surveying key texts in the psychoanalytic canon concerning the etiology and reproduction of hysterical discourse, I distinguish between two particular forms of hysterical trauma. The first, which I refer to as the hysterial complaint, marks the moment in which an individual or group experiences an irreconcilable contradiction in their lived experience. Such complaints, when they emerge, attempt to speak through the trauma even as such speech lacks a mode of representation adequate to the social breakdown as it has occurred; the hysterical complaint can be a productive mode of protests, as many feminist thinkers in the late twentieth century argued, and hysterical complaints may also mark the start of a fruitful path toward psychic change, as a diverse group of analysts—​including Juliet Mitchel, Jacques Lacan, Christopher Bollas, and many others—​have claimed from their particular, disciplinary vantage points. As I further argue, hysterical discourse, in contrast to the more contingent and singular chasm of the hysterical complaint, magnifies the affective trauma of the complaint for more cynical ends, as a means to forestall change and to keep the hysterical subject at a significant remove from its perceived competitors even as the hysteric’s discourse appears to engage in sustained dialogue. After the more theoretically inclined Introduction and Chapter 1, the remaining chapters further develop my account of hysterical political aesthetics and documentary form. In Chapter  2, “Biased Beliefs:  Common Sense, Creativity, and Creationism” I consider documentaries that have attempted to expose the lives and social institutions of religious fundamentalists in the United States. In such films as Blood in the Face (James Ridgeway, Kevin Rafferty, Anne Bohlen, 1991), Hell House (George Ratliff, 2001), and Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing, Jannat Gargi, 2006), among others, filmmakers have struggled to represent their subject matter objectively without also losing the

24  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis critical framework necessary to avoid the mere dissemination of the biased religious views they record and eventually project on-​screen. How does one document fundamentalism objectively without also becoming a means for the very spread of the fundamentalist’s message? If documentary filmmakers rely too heavily on their own biases to frame the subject matter, then they risk trading one ideology for another, as they well know; yet to simply reproduce on-​screen the viewpoints of religious fanatics, without commentary or criticism, may result in documentary films that serve the interests of the same subjects they originally intended to expose; documentaries about evangelical Christianity may become just one additional means for evangelizing the “unsaved,” for instance. Religious fundamentalism, as we typically understand it, presumes no difference between belief and experience; the bias of fundamentalism, so called, privileges intuition over evidence. Fundamentalism presumes the existence of an internal, metaphysical conscience by which God guides us to the truth, and thus the rhetorical appeal of fundamentalism, offered to outsiders, compels their listeners to accept the “truth” expressed by a presumed inner conscience—​You should know better. By contrast, the secular response, especially as it is offered as a retort to religious bias, tends to operate in a mode of ideological exposure—​You know not what you are doing. However, as I demonstrate, many documentary filmmakers have struggled to document fanaticism without succumbing to knee-​jerk moralizations of their own. In other words, the gesture of ideological exposure (You know not what you are doing) encounters an internal split in the regime of “common sense” on which they claim to rely. When proponents of secular common sense presume to judge fanatics for their epistemological failures, such judgments too often include a moral condemnation despite themselves (You should know better) and thereby succumb to their own version of secular fundamentalism. By expanding the reach of the term fundamentalism to include even those authors, critics, and filmmakers who vociferously attack modern-​day belief and religious fanaticism, we may better understand the constitutive features of common sense, fantasy, and creativity as they intersect in the political domain, as well as the hysterical complaints into which they fall when common sense fails them. In the case of explicitly conservative documentaries—​ specifically, films and videos that seek to spread an evangelical belief in Christianity in general and creationism in particular—​we encounter the hystericiziation of common sense, I claim. That is, if the critique of religious fundamentalism risks a fall into a fundamentalism of another, secular kind, then conservative media, as

Introduction  25 I show, further hystericizes and magnifies this constitutive bias or split at the core of any claim to common sense. Magnifying this hysterical impasse, creationist films deploy the forms of common sense—​scientific methodology, in particular—​without investing fully or identifying completely with the terms of secular discourse they mimic, thereby using the forms of common sense to produce a hysterical taunt devoid of content—​I know you are, but what am I? As we will find, the questions posed by hysterical conservative media are not intended to initiate serious discussion, disagreement, or debate. Instead, the challenges posed by creationists to the established science behind Darwinian evolution promote a false image of compromise that papers over the rift between religious fundamentalism and secular common sense. By falsifying debate and dressing themselves in the garb of reasonable interlocutors—​if not actual scientists—​compromise is offered as a spectacle that erodes the terms of disagreement and deftly inserts fanatical belief into the public domain as if it was no different, in kind, from scientific empiricism. Religious fundamentalism, in its hysterical mode, thereby seeks to evolve common sense in terms amenable to its ideological ends, even as and especially when it seeks to deny the existence of (biological) evolution. Chapter  3, “Policing with Noise:  Lacan, Rancière, and Documentary Participation,” looks to the discourse theory of Jacques Lacan and the political theory of Jacques Rancière to further interrogate the conservative simulacrum of political debate. Michael Moore’s early documentaries produced waves of criticism from across the political spectrum, as critics expressed concern, and sometimes shock, in response to Moore’s flamboyant flouting of documentary conventions. Although some of the criticism levelled against Moore was reasonable, my readings of Roger & Me (1989) and Bowling for Columbine (2002) take a different tack. In their most productive moments, I argue, Moore’s ironic performances lure his interlocutors into a defense of untenable political ideas and positions; the corresponding nonsense of the latter’s political speech demonstrates the bias or noise (in Rancière sense of the term) constitutive of the very status quo that Moore seeks to upend. In other words, Moore deploys his obvious ideological biases, not for the production of objective knowledge, but to hystericize his political opponents, demonstrating their incapacity to render their claims in objective or reasonable terms. In response, numerous conservative documentaries emerged, offering what appear to be painstaking rebuttals of Moore’s precedent films. But whereas Moore relies on irony to provoke contradictions in the speech of his opponents, the conservative films pathologize Moore as an individual,

26  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis speculating about his “real” intentions and motivations. By mimicking Moore’s form as the very means to dismiss his political arguments, the conservative films appropriate the hysterical complaints that drive Moore’s documentaries, but do so in the manner of hysterical discourse, which thereby divests the debate of its political content. Through the strictly formal debates in which they engage, conservative documentaries produce aesthetic noise as a spectacular means to drown out Moore’s own political agenda. The avoidance of spectacle was a key point of emphasis for filmmakers working in the observational mode of direct cinema. Chapter 4, “Economies of Inattention: Privacy, Publicity, and the Interests of Observation,” considers such conventional documentaries as Primary (Robert Drew, 1960), Crisis:  Behind a Presidential Commitment (Robert Drew, 1963), The War Room (Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, 1993), and Feed (Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway, 1992), films that take viewers behind the scenes of presidencies and presidential political campaigns. The observational films eschew voice-​over narration, interviews, and other conventional modes of argumentation typical of precedent documentary forms. The filmmakers’ absent editorial voice thereby leaves room for viewers to decide for themselves how they will interpret the recorded images. Thus, at first glance, direct cinema seems to share little in common with the unhinged, racist, conspiracy theories found throughout the cycle of anti-​Obama documentaries central to the chapter. However, as I argue, both cycles of films—​direct cinema and the hysterical anti-​Obama documentaries—​rely on related economies of attention, both of which invite viewers to heed the bare distinction between privacy and publicity. In direct cinema, observational cameras move, effortlessly, through the backrooms of power, deconstructing the distinctions between the private and the public. Direct cinema thereby illustrates effectively Sianne Ngai’s aesthetic category of the interesting: the encounter with a difference or a distinction for which we lack an explanatory concept. In observational cinema, the interesting at once invites our attention to difference and avoids predetermined categories that might render those differences explicable in advance. The anti-​Obama films, relatedly, hystericize the “interesting” features of Obama’s “nefarious” past, his relationships with so-​called radicals, and the racial markers that, for the films, demonstrate his threatening figuration as Other. The conservative films thereby find endless reasons to be suspicious of Obama, even while the films withhold any context, evidence, or argumentation that might bring their “investigations” to a comprehensive conclusion. Rather, the films construct irresolvable problems; by leaving

Introduction  27 any solutions in doubt, and projecting this undecidability onto Obama’s very body and being, the documentaries combine hysterical discourse with racist tropologies. Chapter  5, “Paradigmatic Politics:  Stock Footage and the Hysterical Archive,” offers close examination of several films distributed by the Citizens United production company. Most infamously, in 2008, Citizens United released Hillary:  The Movie (Alan Peterson), a political “attack advertisement” that masqueraded as a documentary film. The film prompted the court case by which “Citizens United” would eventually enter the cultural and political lexicon: a conservative majority on the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the production company and, in the process, ushered in a new era of corporate spending on political campaigns. With this landmark decision in mind, I consider “corporate speech” and other examples of neoliberal aesthetics as they are deployed across the Citizens United library of films, especially the films’ excess reliance on stock footage, which the documentaries use as a substitute for archival images. The stock footage, I claim, functions as an aesthetic correlative for neoliberalism in the era of communicative capitalism. The generic, paradigmatic images are paired with talking points offered by political speakers, as if the former validates the latter, despite the fact that both modes of presentation bear no direct relationship to the referents they invoke. By contrast, the compilation documentary Atomic Café (Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader, and Pierce Rafferty, 1982) appropriates US propaganda films from the Cold War and promotes a pedagogical capacity for audiences to recognize the difference between past and present, between what the image shows and what the argument behind the image intends through the act of showing. Citizens United relies, instead, on a neoliberal logic in which political argumentation, rather than a claim on historical reality, functions according to the model of commodity advertising. Like other hysterical forms encountered throughout Beyond Bias, stock footage performs the appearance of archival referentiality but is devoid of content. It thereby populates the pseudodocumentaries with suggestive imagery that provides the films with the appearance of referentiality. The simulacrum of more conventional documentary forms and strategies provides the hysterical films with the flexible tools by which to dismiss or erase from view any and all political alternatives, avoiding a substantive debate through the very performance of debate. Common modes of hysterical attack and performance persist across each cycle of films I examine throughout the chapters of Beyond Bias. These

28  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis strategies include the creative mimicry of common sense and other, more mainstream modes of argumentation (Chapter 2); the dissemination of so many excess “facts” and “alternatives” as to drown out with noise a political opponent, even at the risk of rendering their own political arguments incoherent as a result (Chapter 3); the excess attention and energy drawn to unverifiable speculations that emphasize “interesting” surface appearances at the cost of in-​depth analysis (Chapter 4); and the affective reiteration of talking points that only appear to link with the empirical world because the documentaries themselves never supply anything but generic, stock arguments in service of their political agenda (Chapter  5). Finally, in the Conclusion, I offer some friendly critiques of authors and critics who have deemed our era to be “post-​truth,” offering my account of hysterical political discourse as a more useful theoretical framework by which to interrogate our contemporary landscape of political mediation.

1 Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations The history of conservative political documentary is neither long nor distinguished. The conservative documentary “tradition,” such as it is, emerged on the media landscape most vociferously in reaction to the early cinematic successes of Michael Moore (Roger & Me, 1989; Bowling for Columbine, 2002) and has grown in number and distribution ever since. A brief survey of conservative political films reveals a rapid-​response media machine intent to erase from the public’s view any progressive political perspectives that may threaten the idealized vision of America that conservatism so regularly and adamantly works to uphold. Typically, a popular or politically incisive documentary will spur a timely conservative reaction. After Fahrenheit 9/​11 (Michael Moore, 2004) criticized George W. Bush and his administration’s “war on terror,” FarhenHype 9/​11 (Alan Peterson, 2004), rather than defending Bush outright, focused its energy to attack Moore personally, raising doubts about the director’s motives and cinematic techniques. After An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006) popularized the science of climate change, An Inconsistent Truth (Shayne Edwards, 2012) emerged in response, depicting global warming as a hoax perpetrated to serve Al Gore’s own economic interests in renewable energy. In response to Gasland’s (Josh Fox, 2010) exposé about the natural gas industry and its development of hydraulic fracturing, Fracknation (Phelim McAleer, Magdalena Segeid, and Ann McElhinney, 2013)  endorsed “fracking” as both economically beneficial and environmentally friendly. Like many of the feature-​length conservative documentaries examined in this book, FarhenHype 9/​11, An Inconsistent Truth, and Fracknation reduce complex political issues to ad hominem attacks leveled against their opponents. Conservative documentaries regularly hedge their bets in this manner, reducing any and all political issues to a baseline of moral authority; if the source of a political idea can be discredited, then no further consideration or discussion is required, the films suggest. Boiled down to their most basic rhetorical appeals, the conservative Beyond Bias. Scott Krzych, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/​oso/​9780197551219.003.0002

30  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis documentaries examined in Beyond Bias promote a full-​throated endorsement of the status quo and likewise attempt to return viewers to a semblance of “business as usual,” having dispensed with any and all offending naysayers (like Moore and Gore, among other rival celebrities of the political Left) who, according to the films, have unnecessarily troubled the calm political waters with their misguided, or ill-​intentioned, or otherwise untrustworthy declarations that something in society is broken and needs fixing. Like the eponymous charlatan in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) who, even when his ruse has been discovered, tells his skeptical audience to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the reactionary documentaries considered here similarly work to obscure, confuse, or otherwise efface the political demands proposed by their progressive documentary counterparts and other opponents, as if to say: Everything is fine. There is nothing to see here. Yet we may already notice a complication inherent to this rhetorical strategy. Even as conservative documentaries attempt to dismiss political messages by attacking their messengers, such repudiation does not extend to the formal devices and techniques of their progressive opponents, from whom they regularly borrow, if not plagiarize. That is to say, if the conservative films seek the erasure of their opponents’ political ideas, then their formal modes of address bely a more ambivalent gesture through their attempts to craft political messages in styles reminiscent of their enemies. Most immediately, the displays of titular mimicry—​FarenHype for Fahrenheit, Inconsistent for Inconvenient, and so on—​extract from their political antagonists the semblance of relevancy and contemporaneity otherwise lacking in the ideological orthodoxies the films espouse. Or the conservative response offered to the progressive call simulates a responsiveness, even an attentiveness to detail, missing from the films’ otherwise callous refusal to consider carefully or take seriously any of the political claims they so immediately and comprehensively dismiss as unworthy of the time or attention they nevertheless devote to them. The reactionary rhetoric thereby absorbs “the ideas and tactics of the very revolution or reform it opposes,” as Corey Robin has noticed in his own account of right-​wing discourse more generally.1 For my purposes, I find the acts of parody to provide the conservative films with an aura of timeliness at odds with their jeremiads in the name of “traditional values.” The aesthetic devices, moreover, lend to conservative media the appearance of earnestness or good faith, as if they are engaging in substantial democratic debate, in contrast to their knee-​jerk dismissals of opposing viewpoints, reliance on opinion and innuendo in the place of expertise or facts, and what

Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations  31 often appears to be a general distaste for democracy as such. Just as Fox News mimics the trappings of a news organization while eschewing the norms of journalistic practice, conservative documentaries often provide to viewers what looks, sounds, and feels like traditional documentary films. Beneath this aesthetic surface lies little in the way of substantive content, however. Or this content amounts to little more than a spontaneous and complete rejection of anything but the most strident reiterations of conservative fantasy—​ American exceptionalism, Christian faith, white supremacy, economic neoliberalism, and so on. Indeed, the relative simplicity of conservative documentaries and their repetitive recourse to a narrow assortment of ideals at odds with a broader, multicultural, secular society may begin to explain what often appears, at first glance, as the films’ conceptual incoherence. As I have already begun to suggest, beneath the aesthetic surface of parody, mimicry, denigration, and outright hostility, there is little in the way of actual content—​that is, content that could stand on its own, separate from the antagonistic dynamic to which conservative media so strenuously appeals but from which it rarely departs in order to develop concrete or realizable agendas of its own. Absent the ad hominem attacks on and ironic dismissals of their ideological opponents, the films have very little to say in defense of their own ideals; they rarely offer discrete proposals of their own. Rarely do conservative films comment on or identify social, economic, or political problems, let alone offer practical policy solutions. Instead, the only problem the films tend to admit is one posed by the very existence of those who would see the world differently. “Everything is going fine,” in other words, so long as conservative media can convince its viewers to resist the call by political opponents who say otherwise. Conservative media rarely rallies its troops for the purpose of decisive action; more often, it organizes a network of speakers, images, and talking points that, in concert, condescendingly dismiss any political viewpoints that may pursue or entail the identification of significant, pressing, social problems. Thus, the prolific examples of mimicry and parody enacted by conservative media—​which evince, at first glance, a juvenile form of mockery—​reveal a fundamental, if unacknowledged, commitment to form at the expense of (political) content. In the films’ overwhelming support for the economic, social, and political status quo, conservative documentaries emphasize the aesthetic dimension of political debate as a means to displace the very historical and material conflicts in dispute. As I will argue, the spectacle of democratic debate to which conservative films so righteously appeal,

32  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis and the fantasy of progressive opponents easily and expediently rebutted by their conservative peers, demonstrates a profoundly anti-​democratic underbelly. Indeed, a common refrain in contemporary conservative media, even when it seems to stage a debate, is to claim that no debate is necessary, or that the very existence of disagreement is itself a symptom of a democracy’s failure rather than its constitutive core. The simulation of debate in service of avoiding a substantive exchange; appeals to compromise as a means to blur the distinctions between opposing sides; the recourse to any and all opinions or “alternative facts” conducive to conservatism’s ideological priorities, no matter how divorced from reality:  these are qualities central to contemporary conservative political media, which I term hysterical political discourse. In a moment of hysteria, Michel de Certeau writes, the subject assumes “a body for another,” or embodies or gives shape or takes a form that intends to meet the other’s expectations of how a body should appear.2 And yet such a performance merely establishes the semblance of good faith, a facade intended to assure all parties involved in the exchange that they share a common discourse. Similarly, hysterical political media embodies the formal features of democratic debate while working, at the very same time and through the very simulation of democratic disagreement, to obscure and confuse the political differences at stake in the problems it only appears to address. Such hystericization of political exchange magnifies, even invites, opportunities for misunderstanding among its intended audiences and finds refuge in the proliferation of widespread confusion as an effective means to inhibit political change. Accordingly, if there is an opportunity to find fault or failure in an antagonist, even if such accusations leave untouched the political ideals or policies for which that antagonist speaks, or even if the “faults” exist only in the mind of the accuser, the hysterical speaker will use such an opportunity for an all-​out attack. Like an intoxicated individual enraged by a perceived offense, who lobs accusations and obscenities in any or all directions in a display of drunken incoherence, so too does conservative political media, in its histrionic mode, rely on an aggressive strategy of “shock and awe.” Appeals to truth, in these scenarios, do not derive from evidence, deliberation, or collective agreement; rather, in conservative media, truth claims are produced by the quantity of accusations compiled, the volume and pitch at which those accusations are expressed, and the unflappable convictions of its speakers who defend at all costs the boundaries of their political preconceptions. If, as Mady Schutzman puts it, “hysteria is the incapacity to differentiate between

Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations  33 reality and illusion,” then conservative media transforms hysteria into a particularly effective political discourse, harvesting from the confusion it sows a profoundly flexible aesthetic simulation of democratic debate that is at once highly entertaining (for its intended audience) and equally elusive as a target of critique (for its opponents).3 I recognize, of course, the likelihood that many readers have not encountered the conservative media objects or feature-​ length documentaries I examine throughout this book. With this in mind, I want to pause for a moment and consider more carefully a specific example of hysterical political discourse in a conservative documentary film. FahrenHype 9/​11, to which I have already alluded, offers a particularly insightful case study. The earlier film, directed by Moore, as I have noted, engages in a scathing critique of the Bush administration and its response to the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001. According to Moore’s argument, Bush lacked the intellectual wherewithal to discharge effectively the duties of his office. As we may recall, an early and extended sequence in Fahrenheit 9/​11 evidences this claim by pointing to Bush’s understated reaction to news of the attacks on New York City and Washington, DC. Moore compiles archival television footage from the day, which locates Bush sitting in an elementary classroom in Florida for a preplanned photo opportunity. As Moore narrates the scene, he draws viewers’ attention to the president as he sits motionless, seemingly incapable of decisive action, absorbing in silence the tragic news whispered in his ear by an adviser. Bush’s inaction for more than seven agonizing minutes, in Moore’s telling, demonstrates a failure of leadership; more pointedly, Moore suggests Bush was too dimwitted to provide the country with thoughtful leadership in this moment of national crisis. This sign of indecisiveness in the classroom, as Moore develops the argument throughout Fahrenheit 9/​11, foreshadows Bush’s later manipulation at the hands of the more seasoned neo-​conservatives in his administration who would press the docile and intellectually malleable president into an unnecessary invasion of Iraq. In response to Moore’s arguable interpretation of events, the conservative reaction offered by FahrenHype 9/​11 provides its viewers many—​too many—​alternatives and rebuttals. In a sequence that addresses the scene summarized earlier, the film collects a number of prominent conservative speakers, elected officials, and pundits to serve as talking heads; each one offers a different explanation for Bush’s apparent inaction as the 9/​11 attacks unfolded. As we hear from the incendiary pundit Ann Coulter,

34  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis Bush’s physical position in the classroom, far from Washington, DC, limited his ability to respond in time. “I would like liberals to explain to me what they think George Bush should have done?,” Coulter asks rhetorically. She thereby implies, There was nothing he could do. For conservative journalist Bill Sammon, who would later serve as managing editor at Fox News, a more immediate reaction on Bush’s part might have exacerbated the sense of panic already spreading across the country. “He could have deepened the national panic by jumping up in front of a room of second-​ graders and bolting from the room,” Sammons says, “or he could sit there and collect his thoughts.” Therefore, for Sammon, Doing nothing was the right thing to do. Finally, and rounding out the talking-​head interviews that compose the scene, Representative Peter King claims Bush promptly convened his national security advisors, was “immediately on the phone with the vice president and cabinet officials” as he exited the classroom, and thus, according to this interpretation, the president Did exactly what he should have done. Taken individually, these remarks offer rational, though certainly debatable, arguments on Bush’s behalf as they attempt to contradict Moore’s disparaging interpretation of the president’s performance during the crisis. However, collected and grouped together, the various expressions of opinion are mutually conflicting and contradictory. Indeed, we could read the sequence as an update to Freud’s joke about a man who returns a broken kettle to his neighbor, claiming that he returned the kettle undamaged and that it was already damaged when he borrowed it and that he never borrowed the kettle in the first place.4 Or, in the case of the conflicting and mutually contradicting defenses deployed by the various speakers in FahrenHype 9/​11, the line of argument descends into an incoherent juxtaposition of conflicting viewpoints, or what I elsewhere term a hysterical mode of presentation: Bush remained inactive because there was nothing he could do and doing nothing was the right thing to do and he immediately did everything he possibly could do. The so-​called rebuttal thereby devolves into a hysterical performance, privileging the scope and intensity of potential claims—​or what I will call stock arguments—​expressed at lightning speed. The film itself never commits to a singular or coherent position of its own. As a result, the debate in which the conservative film appears to engage, in fact, never properly begins. The film does not develop a coherent argument; it merely offers speculative and hypothetical proposals, so many reasons as to why no debate is necessary in the first place—​the hysterical substitution of form for content.

Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations  35 This study takes seriously, then, what otherwise appears to be a moment of political and epistemological incoherence, treating such failure as the positive core of conservative hysterical discourse. Accordingly, I intend to glean from such case studies a critical vocabulary capable to describe what otherwise appears to be ideological nonsense. In other words, I read such appearances of nonsense as an opportunity to understand more precisely how conservative media, at times, draws political and ideological cover from the confusion it sows of its own accord. To treat conservative media as an instance of hysterical discourse, from a precisely psychoanalytic perspective, precludes in advance simplistic moral judgments or dismissals of whomever (or whatever) bears the label hysteric. The existential trauma experienced by the hysterical women treated by Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud, we should recall, made available for the analysts the clinical content necessary for the discovery of the unconscious and invention of the discipline of psychoanalysis itself. Against the ordinary use of the term hysterical as a derisive or condescending label for someone who expresses uncontrolled emotional outbursts, psychoanalytic theory locates in hysteria a fundamental feature of human existence: our capacity to succumb to the affective trauma of senselessness. In this light, I intend to take seriously what often appears to be a lack of seriousness in contemporary conservative media so as to understand better a broad range of related political discourse operative in the United States today.

Democracy and Hysteria More immediately relevant to the political concerns this book addresses, we may recall Joan Copjec’s brief, but insightful, commentary on what she terms the hysterical structure of democracy. In Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists, Copjec considers the function of hysteria in the political domain, declaring, in the strongest of terms, “Democracy hystericizes the subject.”5 Writing in the context of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, but in a commentary that evokes uncanny similarities with the Trump era, Copjec notes the failure of the American press to respond effectively to an incompetent president: “Every idiotic blunder, every bold-​faced lie that was caught by the cameras was played and replayed on the nightly news, juxtaposed with an image that directly contradicted, and thus exposed the falsity of, the president’s words.”6 Despite such incontrovertible evidences of

36  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis the president’s lies, failures, and woeful inadequacy for the office he held, Reagan “emerged virtually unscathed [by the revelations of his] incompetence.”7 In Copjec’s handling, the complaints leveled against Reagan were demonstrative of a hysterical cycle. Like the conversion symptoms experienced by Freud’s patients, which baffled the medical community who lacked the capacity to read the symptoms for their psychic, rather than physiological, content, Copjec reads the spectacle of righteous complaint offered against presidential authority, not as a means to an end, but rather as means seeking to avoid an end. As Copjec puts it, “Americans love their masters not simply in spite of their frailties but because of them.”8 In other words, so long as an authoritative Other demonstrates his or her obvious lack, we may then comfortably believe in a better future to come and we may continue to overlook the more basic, structural, systematic, constitutive failures in which we are collectively implicated. Political desire may continue in its endless pursuit of its ideal object so long as we may blame the ideal’s elusive absence on an empirical (Reagan, in this case), rather than an ontological, impediment.9 However, Copjec’s claim goes even further than this. Reagan did not hystericize the public; democracy hystericizes the subject. Copjec points to a fundamental and structural feature of representative government as evidence in support of her claim. The very act of electoral participation, she argues, involves a contradiction of hysterical proportions: [E]‌very citizen is given the opportunity to express his or her individual will, every citizen is given a vote that counts. The paradox is that it only counts as one, as an abstract statistic. The individual’s particularity is thus annulled by the very act of its expression. If one’s difference is, by definition, that which escapes recognition, then any recognition of it will always seem to miss the mark, to leave something unremarked. The subject of democracy is thus constantly hystericized, divided between the signifiers that seek to name it and the enigma that refuses to be named.10

What Copjec describes as the paradox of representative democracy, then, stages at a collective level what Jacques Lacan finds to be the constitutive alienation experienced by all speaking beings. In Copjec’s formulation, democracy is homologous to the castrating effects of language. Whether by entering the structure of symbolic language or the voting booth, the very means by which we are individuated is also the means of our interpellation. Through the very act of asserting our individuality—​contributing our voices to the

Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations  37 democratic process—​we also become anonymous and invisible, absorbed into the group as just one member among many others. Perhaps the most convincing feature of Copjec’s account is her description of hysteria as the affective byproduct of a psychic impasse. As I will explain further, I conceive hysteria to be an affective reaction to a state of ambivalence, a disquieting experience in which we are forced to hold simultaneously at least two incompatible ideas or to inhabit at least two irreconcilable disciplinary frameworks. For Copjec, the act of democratic participation reproduces ambivalence. In the act of voting, it seems as if we are contributing to the political process—​say, by marking a ballot—​and yet this very action likewise erases our particularity; at the ballot box, at the very moment of democratic engagement, our expression of choice transforms into a mere number, a single vote in whose abstraction, counted alongside millions of other similarly rendered choices, we lose the semblance of our singularity. Or, in the case of more recent political developments, we may fall into a hysterical cycle of complaint when, reaching for our smartphones first thing each morning and reading the tweets by Trump that greet us there, we understandably lament, internally or aloud, “How can this be possible? How can this be our reality?” In the case of Trump, a president even more immune (thus far) to criticism than Reagan, we cannot make sense of the contradiction before us. This cannot be, and yet it is; it must be a joke, and yet it isn’t. In a hysterical moment, we risk not only the loss of those symbolic supports that affirm our sense of identity and stable place in the world; we likewise lose the basic capacity to imagine a way forward. We may reasonably complain or protest when circumstances beyond our control seem to evacuate any prior sense of individual, social, or political agency. The hysterical reaction to our capture in ambivalence—​the feeling of a subjective split or self-​division, say, that occurs when we cannot reconcile what we want with our incapacity to bring such wishes to fruition—​is an experience typical of human existence. To succumb to hysterical distress is not always pathological, nor is it peculiar to conservatism. However, there is a profound distinction to be made, I will claim, between hysterical complaints, which respond to contingent social circumstances of ambivalence, on the one hand, and a persistent discourse that marshals an aesthetics of ambivalence to hystericize the political landscape and thereby defend against any potential for substantial democratic exchange or social progress, on the other. Before surveying some key lessons from the psychoanalytic clinic and its historical responses to hysteria, however, we might first consider briefly other scholarly

38  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis accounts of right-​wing rhetoric in American politics in order to distinguish contemporary conservative hysteria from its paranoid and reactionary roots.

Conservative Contexts According to psychoanalytic theory, cycles of hysteria respond defensively to the threat of anxiety, but do so in a way that perpetuates, rather than alleviates, the psychic trauma it concerns. Indeed, it is precisely the manner by which conservative media so regularly magnifies the social and psychic anxieties it addresses that leads me to interpret such cases of right-​wing rhetoric as hysterical, in contrast to, though certainly not in disagreement with, other prominent accounts of conservatism in American politics. Most influentially, Richard Hofstadter identifies a paranoid style deployed prominently, though not exclusively, by conservative or reactionary political movements throughout the twentieth century. The rhetoric of political paranoia tends to posit “the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character.”11 Most tellingly, the paranoid style appears intent to offer wild and unrestrained conspiracy theories in response to what might otherwise be understood as quotidian cases of political disagreement. The paranoid reactionary, for example, may treat any call for the regulation of firearms as a wholesale assault on the Second Amendment, or any proposal to increase access to health care as an underhanded ploy to transform the United States into a socialist country, and so on. As I find in my examination of conservative documentaries about Barack Obama (Chapter 4), this paranoid style effectively incorporates anti-​black racism into its conspiratorial claims, as when several of the films portray Obama as an un-​American outsider whose alleged connections with nefarious leftist radicals portend the destruction of all that (white) conservatism holds dear. The paranoid style likewise pairs, almost naturally, with another prominent feature of conservative political rhetoric: its nostalgia for an idealized past. For Corey Robin, the “reactionary mind” seeks to retrieve a world lost to social and political changes wrought by its moral and mortal enemies. Conservativism, in Robin’s account, is “a meditation on—​and theoretical rendition of—​the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.”12 Moreover, the claims made on behalf of the past—​no matter how fantastical or historically inaccurate such claims may

Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations  39 be—​provide conservative discourse with the appearance of material veracity, Mark Lilla notes. Reactionary nostalgia promotes a collective return to the past so that those who feel resentment in the present may reclaim whatever objects or privilege they believe was previously afforded to them. In contrast to the revolutionary agent, whose political projects are often focused on the future and on bringing into existence new political formations that have never yet existed, reactionary rhetoric takes refuge in the notion that what it wants now also existed sometime before. Thus, according to Lilla, “The revolutionary sees the radiant future invisible to others and it electrifies him. The reactionary, immune to modern lies, sees the past in all its splendor and he too is electrified. He feels himself in a stronger position than his adversary because he believes he is the guardian of what actually happened, not the prophet of what might be.”13 Here, I would add, we might note how paranoia and reactionary nostalgia may work together to create an effective rhetorical feedback loop for those political speakers who deploy their affective registers. The regular recourse to nostalgia in conservative political discourse encourages paranoia as a means to explain what it feels it has lost. That is, while conservatives fantasize about paradise lost to the past, even if this past never existed, the supplement of paranoia locates in the present a similarly fantasmatic explanation for what has gone missing—​or a positive affect (nostalgia) is buttressed by a negative one (paranoia), with minimal attempt made by such reactionary speakers to connect either affective disposition to historical reality or material evidence.14 For example, after Obama’s electoral victory in 2008, conservative pundits on talk radio and cable news speculated, without evidence, that the election was fraudulent, the product of illegal voting; this reaction disavowed the onset of a new political reality—​ the Right did not lose the election; it was stolen from them. Importantly, the pairing of paranoia with nostalgia magnifies the affective trauma of political failure. What might otherwise be a simple experience of loss—​John McCain’s failed presidential bid in 2008—​is transformed by the conspiracy theories into a broader narrative of electoral theft, which then justifies or appears to validate the ensuing feeling of resentment by those on the political Right. The experience of loss becomes affectively magnified and an engine for continued dissatisfaction and discord for those who continue to believe they constitute a “silent majority” in the face of (what should be) evidence to the contrary. In contemporary conservative media, however, the recourse to paranoia or nostalgia, I claim, functions as merely two particular tools, among many others, within the conservative rhetorical playbook. Paranoia and nostalgia

40  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis are not conservatism’s driving force, in other words. Instead, I  identify in conservative media and the many documentaries analyzed in Beyond Bias a more fundamental case of hysterical ambivalence, evidenced most directly by the displacement of political disagreement and difference at nearly every turn. Conservative hysterical discourse may, on occasion, perform paranoia or nostalgia to suit its purposes, but these are merely rhetorical devices that skirt the surface. That is to say, if nostalgia pines for the missing past, and paranoia provides a complex narrative to identify the shady agents responsible for this loss, then these political gestures, no matter how specious, remain attendant to empirical reality in a way that hysterical discourse does not. Conservative hysterical discourse, I claim, detects an existential threat in the very existence of political difference and thereby addresses itself to the ontology of the political in a more fundamental manner. The simulation of debate, or the aesthetic formalism without content, or the reliance on “alternative facts” divorced from reality, or the proliferation of opinions with no coherent thread to bind them, like paranoia and nostalgia, are so many symptoms of conservatism’s more fundamental and hysterical refusal to address the political antagonisms it only pretends to engage but whose difficult reality it endlessly defers and displaces from view. Thus, I identify in conservative media a “splitting of consciousness” like the one Freud identified in his earliest accounts of hysteria, particularly the repression of any idea or event incompatible with an individual’s sense of self, an act of denial that renders the subject incapable of further psychic change or development as a consequence.15 Importantly, as I  will maintain, like numerous feminist psychoanalytic thinkers before me, recourse to hysteria is limited neither to a particular gender identity nor to a single political ideology. Any and all subjects may succumb to hysteria at one time or another. Indeed, hysteria may emerge whenever an individual or a group feels a loss or absence of agency; hysterical protests, likewise, may serve as a viable mode of political speech, staged from a social position in which those who protest feel or believe there is no other obvious outlet for change and no clear language or precedent by which to represent their felt oppression. The spectacular incoherence of a hysterical display, as Elaine Showalter notes, is a proto-​language, an overwhelming affect still in search of a means for signification that might ground the performative protest, and the subject’s sense of identity with it, in a space of reciprocal exchange and symbolic legibility.16 From this view, hysteria manifests on the subject’s body the psyche’s affective frustration, the subject’s inability

Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations  41 to make sense of the senseless; thus, a hysterical reaction may very well identify accurately a real, but hitherto unrecognized, rupture in the social fabric. There is no reason to assume in advance that what hystericizes the hysteric is merely a fantasy or a figment of the hysteric’s imagination. Thus, we may describe, after Copjec, the hysterical reactions produced on the Left by the likes of Reagan and Trump as affective crises instantiated by the struggle to make sense of a political reality that contradicts one’s prior assumptions about the very nature of that reality, say, that someone “like this” could be elected to the presidency. What I refer to as a hysterical complaint is an expression of anxiety that responds effusively to a traumatic breakdown in the field of intersubjective political antagonism and the provocative differences such antagonisms may manifest and foment. Such complaints, to be clear, may be productive and politically useful, spurning through the traumatic opening it identifies opportunities by which change may occur as a consequence. The hysteric’s complaint responds to a failure or breakdown in representational conventions, often at the intersection of two competing ideological discourses, or, more narrowly, within a space where social constraints and individual desires clash. The hysterical complaint gives voice—​but not yet a name or a concept—​to an experience of irreconcilable difference. From this perspective, the hysteric registers affectively a particular impasse in the sociopolitical realm, a protest that we might very well take seriously as a nascent attempt to demand what does not yet exist—​a call for a new way of being, whether pitched at the individual level, in one’s immediate surroundings or area of influence, or more broadly, toward oppressive political institutions. Indeed, for Lacan, clinical practice purposefully leads all patients to the point of a hysterical breakdown, a moment in which the normative parameters descriptive of what it means to be a subject no longer seem to apply; such a crisis may be experienced as debilitating in one moment, enlivening in another, because it marks the subject’s growing rejection of prior familial, biographical, or cultural constraints, even before a new path for their desire or sense of an emergent identity has materialized in any obvious way. The moment of affective trauma and the incoherent complaint it elicits, in other words, entails the potential for creative freedom. The new, after all, does not always follow easily, linearly, progressively, from the old; sometimes the new, before it can even become an object of pursuit, first requires a more general act of “clearing the slate,” as Mari Ruti puts it.17 Such clearing, we should make clear, often comes at a profound cost for those who demand it. Generally speaking, then, the hysterical complaint

42  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis marks the experience of an impasse and the affective precariousness of the inarticulable, a psychic breakdown that provokes the possibility, but certainly does not ensure, the onset of change. As I  discuss more in the following section, the hysterical complaint protests in favor of the new from a tenuous affective position before the new has yet arrived, before even the semblance of a path forward has appeared. As Elisabeth Bronfen writes, hysteria catches a subject in an experience of overwhelming ambivalence for which there is no recourse, nor even an appropriate vocabulary to describe the debilitating affect; hysteria marks an experience of trauma that the subject “can neither fully repress nor directly articulate.”18 By contrast, the hysterical discourse of conservative media marshals the same psychic and affective anxieties, but does so in order to produce a self-​sustaining and self-​perpetuating aesthetic whose formal conditions are cynically deployed to counter any and all ideological alternatives and to thereby resist any proposals for political change. Though psychoanalytic theorists have considered both the emancipatory potential and regressive pitfalls of hysteria, the relation between these two features of the hysterical—​the singular complaint and the more reactionary discourse—​have not been adequately clarified in extant scholarship to date, so far as I can tell. As I will argue, a psychoanalytic account of hysteria allows us to understand the distinction between a sincere complaint made in response to the appearance of psychic, social, or political antagonism whose constitutive features cannot yet be named or conceptualized, on the one hand, and a more sustained and cynical discourse, emblematic of conservative media, which repeats, normalizes, and economizes the form of a radical complaint as a means to resist change and bolster a reactionary agenda, on the other.

Moral Uncertainty and the Biased Subject There is no axiom more central to psychoanalysis than this: the subject knows not (entirely) what he or she desires. The unconscious identifies, paradoxically, a part of subjectivity constituted by both lack and excess.19 The unconscious is lacking to consciousness, which is why the repressions it harbors so often return, leading us to repeat those aspects of our past we would otherwise prefer to leave behind forever. The unconscious also marks a point of excess in subjectivity, the memorialization of the past retained elsewhere in the

Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations  43 subject than in what appears accessibly, easily, immediately to the conscious mind. In my personal experience, I recognize something like an unconscious motivation behind my fascination with right-​wing media, having been was raised in a staunchly conservative, religiously fundamentalist household. By “recognize,” of course, I do not mean to imply a complete understanding of the relation between my biographical past and my professional academic present; rather, I  merely identify a loose correlation between the ideological context in which I was raised, whose ideas I eventually rejected, and a certain persistence marked by my continued concern for the subject matter addressed in this book. In the terms I have introduced here, this persistence designates an excess of interest and attention whose ultimate cause remains unclear to me; I thereby lack a complete explanation for why this particular feature of my upbringing, perhaps more so than other biographical factors, continues to demonstrate itself so forcefully in my day-​to-​day life, many years after the fact. As both Freud and Lacan would emphasize in different ways, the ultimate incomprehensibility of desire does not prevent us from identifying the manifest signs of its existence and influence. We may lack the capacity to explain fully the cause and consequences of desire, but we may nevertheless notice its relatively consistent contours. Hysteria, however, is a form of desire that seeks to keep desire hidden by emphasizing, often spectacularly, the desires of others. As a psychic discourse that employs spectacle to promote distraction and avoid change, the persistent deployment of hysterical discourse in conservative media motivates my continued interest in the concept of hysteria as such, despite the troubled history of the term’s use, especially its application within disciplinary regimes that regulated, punished, or otherwise exerted violence on female bodies presumed to bear signs of the hysterical. A diagnosis of hysteria can remain useful and operative in the twenty-​first century, I claim, only so long as we detach it from its gendered associations and emphasize its trans-​subjective applicability. Simply put, the manifestation of hysteria, as I understand it, embodies and thereby makes public the very split or bias in subjectivity identified by psychoanalysis as a constitutive impasse experienced by speaking beings. Thus, rather than a sign of an individual’s so-​ called fragile susceptibility to, say, excessive emotional outbursts, the critical label of hysteria should instead draw our attention to the contingent, socially grounded, historically informed modalities by which an individual, or group, responds to a psychic or social impasse. When Patricia Gherovici writes of hysterical symptoms, for instance, that they “come and go with the

44  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis fashions,” we should emphasize the sociohistorical register implied by her claim. As she continues, “Like other aspects of human culture, hysteria is constantly changing. The fact that hysteria is so susceptible to the collective explains why certain modalities of hysteria will be produced only in particular cultures and in specific time periods.”20 While other psychoanalytic concepts such as drive, gaze, and lack have fostered useful and productive conversations between psychoanalytic theory, film studies, political theory, and philosophy in recent decades, any discussion of hysteria, I contend, must by necessity remain thoroughly grounded in the social, cultural, and political formations to which hysterical discourse responds as it enacts its spectacularly defensive and reactive maneuvers. There can be no ontology of hysteria, in other words, because the hysterical is itself a psychic reaction to the immediacy and singularity of lived experience; specifically, a reaction that protests against the inability of a subject to sustain a coherent self-​identity in the light of contingent and traumatic social circumstances. With this in mind, we may note the emphasis placed on examples of social and intersubjective ambivalence in the cases documented by Freud and Joseph Breuer in Studies on Hysteria (1895). The young women treated by Freud and Breuer found themselves embedded in difficult familial circumstances, in several cases nursing ailing family members for extended periods of time while also struggling to manage their broader affective lives. The case of Elizabeth Von R, included in the Studies, helpfully illustrates the point. The patient comes to Freud with a case of partial paralysis in her lower limbs. Probing her recent memories, Freud locates a psychic cause for the localized pain in her legs: Elizabeth was secretly in love with her sister’s husband, and when that sister dies, Elizabeth cannot reconcile the overwhelming combination of emotions the tragedy elicits—​ the grief over her sister’s death and the hopeful expectation to act upon her unrequited love given her brother-​in-​law’s newfound status as a widower. This experience of pleasure and pain, or pleasure-​in-​pain, was an understandably difficult emotional landscape for the woman to navigate because it demanded of her a minimal admission of enjoyment in reaction to her sister’s demise. Unable to hold these two ideas at once—​that is, unable to conceive of herself as both in mourning for her sister and simultaneously eager to pursue the object of desire made possible by her sister’s death—​the ambivalent experience prompts a hysterical embodiment of self-​division, manifested acutely in the psychosomatic paralysis. As Freud summarizes the case, “This girl felt towards her brother-​in-​law a tenderness whose

Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations  45 acceptance into consciousness was resisted by her whole moral being. She succeeded in sparing herself the painful conviction that she loved her sister’s husband, by inducing physical pains in herself instead . . . At the time when I started her treatment the group of ideas had already been separated from her knowledge.”21 The diagnosis of hysteria is thereby based upon careful consideration of the individual patient and the specificity of her biographical experiences—​a particular person, responding to an immediate social environment, reacting to and repressing an event of trauma or personal crisis. As Freud would note in another case study, such acts of repression were reasonable enough when viewed in context; sometimes repression was “the most expedient thing to do” given the circumstances.22 Sometimes an event is too troubling, too emotionally wrought, for an individual to process in its entirety as the experience unfolds. Yet what we might describe as a reasonable or rational act of disassociation—​the denial or repression of what overwhelms us—​may also lay the groundwork for the recurrence of irrationality, or what appears to be irrational, when the repression eventually returns in a new, different, and likely bewildering form. In this light, the problem posed by the conversion symptom, for the subject who succumbs to it, lies in the confusion it promotes at the intersection of mind and body. The symptom is a fleshly distraction; its painful and often debilitating effects detach the subject from a complete accounting of his or her own biography, inhibiting opportunities to conceptualize the relation between past and present. “The entrenched hysteric repeats and creates shocks for himself,” Juliet Mitchell writes, and “these shocks entail the blasting of memory. The broken object, rather than the feeling that caused the breakage, becomes the focus of attention.”23 Or, in Elizabeth’s case, her paralysis draws excess energy and attention, debilitating her own day-​to-​day life and likewise baffling the doctors who attempted to treat her prior to Freud’s intervention. The symptom both emerges from a past trauma and manifests in a form that obscures, hides, or otherwise conceals its own etiology. Despite my emphasis thus far on the singular, contextual, and contingent basis for hysteria’s emergence, a psychoanalytic account of the hysterical, to be clear, does not preclude propositional claims of a broader, paradigmatic, or theoretical kind. It does, however, confine psychoanalytic theory within a certain limited frame of reference, or, at the very least, to an ethical posture committed to test constantly its conceptual categories against the specific features of the objects or case studies to which it refers. Again, Freud’s own

46  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis evolution as a clinical practitioner, reacting in real time to the transferential challenges posed by his hysterical patients, provides insight. It is worth remembering how the hysterical disturbances displayed by these young women likewise disturbed Freud, who admits to failure on several occasions in his contributions to the Studies. Unable initially to produce results through hypnotic suggestion—​the conventional technique deployed to treat hysteria at the time—​Freud charts a new path when he instead compels the patients to speak as freely and openly as possible about their personal biographies. “As he worked with ‘hysterical’ patients whose symptoms seemed to betray some mysterious, unspeakable underlying motive, Freud arrived at a crucial insight,” Jill Gentile notes. “When, by virtue of suppression or repression, it seems impossible to speak, speech still will out. However, the ‘speech,’ struggling towards its expression against powerful psychical forces, is usually unconscious and often physical.”24 Indeed, the hysteric’s spectacular display of self-​division—​via a symptom that represents a repressed idea and thereby quite literally biases the subject as a result—​would spark Freud’s nascent theory of the unconscious. As Freud would posit, hysterical subjects were resistant to change, unconsciously at odds with the cure they otherwise seemed desperate to attain from the medical professionals with whom they consulted. The conversion symptom inhibits rehabilitation by drawing excess attention toward the region of the body experiencing the psychosomatic affliction and away from the traumatic memory to which the symptom obliquely refers. In sum, and keeping in mind the question of political mediation to which we will shortly return, the crisis of hysteria and the basis for its repetition, even in Freud’s early treatment of it, stem from a failure of representation. That is, the individual subject, faced with a traumatizing experience, may fall into hysteria when he or she fails to maintain a coherent self-​image in light of a contingent event, displaying thereby an incapacity to represent in adequate form the experience whose very senselessness contributes to the event’s affective charge. Whatever prompts a hysterical reaction, in other words, may be something new or unexplainable or indiscernible according to the conventions, assumptions, beliefs, or social position of the person (or group) involved. The trauma begs for new forms, representations, or other intersubjective outlets that might begin to translate the traumatic encounter into a minimally recognizable shape or organizing principle. The hysterical reaction, then, responds by repeating this impasse, thereby resisting the difficult path toward change. Or, as we may locate it in the case of Elizabeth Von

Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations  47 R’s case study, she cannot admit the difficult image of herself as both bereaved by her sister’s death and attracted to her brother-​in-​law. As Jonathan Lear puts it in his commentary on the case, “Her challenge, then, is not simply to incorporate a hitherto forbidden thought into conscious awareness; it is to undergo a transformation of self-​understanding such that this incorporation becomes possible.”25 From this view, “the aim of analytic therapy” seeks to bring the repressed idea to consciousness and to lead the patient to a point of psychic agency willing and able to accept as a part of themselves the very offending idea they originally sought to avoid. The desire to change oneself or one’s life responds to a state of affairs deemed to be both alterable and, for some reason or another, in need of alteration. Hysteria, then, in its most basic sense, is resistant to change because it fails on both counts. The etiology of hysteria begins with forgetfulness, a failure to remember completely or accurately a troubling event, or series of events; the transformation of this absent memory into a symptom produces a debilitating effect on the body, which prevents as a consequence an accurate historicization of the cause behind the psychosomatic irritant. The hysterical, as I intend the term, identifies a particular reaction to a troubling intersection of the subjective and the social, especially when social exigencies beyond the subject’s control delimit in advance that subject’s agency or capacity for the free expression of his or her desire. Copjec, as we have already seen, highlights the trans-​subjective and structural limitations imposed on democratic citizens by the ruling political institutions; this provides the basis for her claim that democracy hystericizes the subject. However, Copjec’s reference to the hystericizing features of the Reagan presidency suggests, to my mind, another key feature of hysterical discourse in the political realm. If democracy, like any other limited form of government, delimits in advance a citizen’s capacity to participate in political deliberation, then this underlying, structural impediment may not always take a recognizable form. As the Reagan and Trump presidencies demonstrate, certain political circumstances, and even certain controversial public figures, may bring to the surface the inherent structural failures of a democratic system, magnifying thereby the anxieties that may have operated beneath the collective surface but only crystallize in the exceptional circumstances that such controversial figures foment. Thus, I would revise Copjec to say that democracy in certain antagonistic circumstances hystericizes the subject, especially when those circumstances reveal no obvious path for escape or compromise.

48  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis The types of complaint that underlie the onset of hysteria—​this cannot be, yet it is; or, I want something else, but I don’t know what; or, words fail to describe adequately the stark reality before me—​demonstrate a psychic impasse difficult to navigate for anyone who finds himself or herself in such trying and seemingly irresolvable circumstances. The transformation of a hysterical complaint into hysterical discourse, as I will argue, mines the affective urgency of a protest made at the limits of language and, as a consequence, produces a self-​sustaining, perpetually elusive, cynically effective refusal of whatever threatens its own particular vision of the status quo. The hysterical complaint offers a spectacular protest against what is and does so before any means has yet arisen to imagine what might be otherwise. Such complaints, as I have noted, may invite substantive dialogue between parties, may encourage the collective efforts of sociopolitical allies to address the root causes behind the complaint, and may likewise project into the democratic landscape the jarring noise necessary to spur disagreement and debate. Yet, as I have begun to argue, a significant difference holds between a complaint, offered within the contingencies of a particularly difficult moment, on the one hand, and a politically motivated discourse that perpetuates the force of the complaint in order to drown out any and all alternatives, on the other. As psychoanalysts have identified it, hysterical discourse, when it is marshalled by patients within a clinical setting, often functions as a screen through which the patient attempts to find refuge from the analyst’s diagnostic gaze. In the clinical setting, this mode of hysterical display is typically understood as a lure offered to the analyst by the patient, an attempt by the analysand to embody the analyst’s desire and thereby send the analyst down a mistaken path of interpretation. As Bruce Fink puts it, “hysteria is not an illness but rather a structure,” specifically a structure that seeks to resist categorization by the Other even as it seems to invite diagnosis by embodying a riddle in need of an answer.26 If the hysterical patient can provide for the doctor what the doctor already expects to diagnose, then the hysteric will remain safe from a more penetrating gaze. Hysterical symptoms function as guerrilla tactics of sorts, performed to invite established analytic techniques of interpretation for which the symptoms are crafted in advance. Simply put, the hysteric gives to the analyst what the analyst expects to find. The presentation of a symptomatic form may forestall further investigation into the patient’s psychic structures when the analyst mistakes the symptomatic performance for the thing itself. Antagonistically, the elusiveness of

Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations  49 the hysterical presentation—​of so many recognizable symptoms placed on display for ease of view and diagnosis—​demonstrate an attempt to ensure that any diagnostic interpretation, any act of re-​presentation, will miss its mark and thereby reveal the analyst’s fallible authority. “There will always be a hysteric ready to prove the impossibility of . . . totalization,” Gherovici writes. “The hysteric will not let anyone feel too full of himself to think that he or she has achieved the summit of knowledge” so that, as a consequence, the hysteric may escape any attempt by outsiders to achieve a comprehensive diagnosis.27 Thus, the spectacle of hysterical performance invests in the circulation of established forms or regimes of signification, seeming to participate in dialogue or social exchange. Yet hysterical discourse is also a disinvestment: its mimetic gestures parody the expectations of the genres it invokes. The hysterical patient performs pathological symptoms for the gaze of the analyst; the conservative hysteric, likewise, and in the particular case of Fox News, performs the normative conventions of journalism. Such simulations provide for hysterical discourse a formal alibi that obscures its otherwise monotonous drive to pursue a single-​minded agenda. As we will see, this particular divestment of form from content affords the speaker an unparalleled capacity to employ whatever strategies or devices suit the hysteric’s purposes. As political theorists such as Jodi Dean, Mark Andrejevic, and William Connolly have noticed, contemporary conservative media addresses itself primarily to an affective register, showing almost no concern for the veracity of its claims.28 Winning an argument, in this context, seems to trump any interest in providing a reasonable or verifiable basis for an argument. As Dean has noted, the political Right, especially in the post-​truth era of politicking perfected by such infamous operators as Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, has incorporated the lessons of postmodernism more completely—​certainly more strategically—​than the academic Left. As Dean puts it, the Right “take[s]‌social construction—​packaging, marketing, and representation—​absolutely seriously. They put it to work.”29 Beyond Bias addresses how such acts of political and rhetorical mimesis function in the sphere of conservative documentary, in which films and videos perform the “look” or “feel” of conventional nonfiction even as they reinforce conservative ideological agendas. Before discussing further the central role of documentary and documentary studies in this book, however, we might pause to consider some examples of hysterical conservative discourse in contemporary political debates.

50  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis

Mediated Displacements In recent controversies concerning police brutality enacted, often with mortal consequences, against unarmed African Americans, conservative speakers have responded routinely to the political protest of Black Lives Matter with the deflating retort, All lives matter. As numerous thinkers have noted, Judith Butler prominently among them, the retort appears to neglect the original content contained in the protest on behalf of black lives. That is to say, the Black Lives Matter platform entails a fundamental claim: black lives are not treated, in practice, as valuable as others, are not included as viable and equal members of a unified social “all,” and are instead regarded by the State and its officers as disposable, unworthy of respect, more threatening and hence more susceptible to swift and lethal violence at the hands of the police. Yet if the claim that “all lives matter” seems to miss the point concerning the debate over police violence and the white supremacy such violence works to uphold, this missed connection is exactly the point, I contend, precisely the outcome after which the conservative reaction seeks, whether speakers on behalf of all lives know what they are doing or not. The retort stalls, impedes, or otherwise annuls political debate; it demonstrates no investment or commitment to the debate. Like many other examples I draw from in this book, the claim in favor of all lives entails no concrete political agenda but rather expends its primary affective force in service of depoliticization, promoting the continuation of the status quo through the absorption, rebranding, and ultimate deflection of an argument made by a political opponent. Like the hysterical patients described by Fink and Gherovici, who know in advance what an analyst expects to find and thereby provides it on a silver platter, conservative hysterical discourse parodies the form of a political disagreement divested of its content. In the case of Black Lives Matter, the mimetic reaction redirects the negative affective force it channels, not against the perpetrators of excessive violence against unarmed citizens but rather against those who would dare to privilege some lives at the expense of all lives, or so the perverted logic goes. In other words, what begins as a protest on behalf of marginalized persons of color becomes, after it is appropriated by conservative reactionaries and translated into a hysterical form, just one further attack on those same marginalized groups for daring to disparage the idealized vision of an America to which we need not make any fundamental change. Such conservative mimetic reactions, as I read them, bolster the political status quo. To be clear, the hysterical mode of address, as I emphasize it here,

Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations  51 is not the only rhetorical mode operative in conservative political discourse. Undoubtedly, there are prominent figures and organizations on the contemporary political Right who work tirelessly, strategically, and often with significant financial backing to put forward a political agenda in line with their values. Likewise, in the media, conservative political speakers regularly seek to enhance a right-​wing agenda by stoking fear, paranoia, and nationalistic resentment in their audiences so as to garner support for decisive action, such as calls for the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants or the construction of a wall between the United States and Mexico. Conservatively aligned voices in the media amplify such aggressions, often to a fevered pitch. Fox News, despite its claim to be “fair and balanced,” regularly skews its news reporting and editorializing in favor of such conservative priorities as lowering taxes, reducing the social safety net, aggressively fighting terrorism abroad, ending legalized abortion, and so on. During Barack Obama’s first term in office, for example, Fox News worked explicitly to galvanize support for Tea Party protests and, since then, continues to provide a platform for many Republican candidates in their bids for elected office, Donald Trump included. As I will argue, such cases of political propaganda in promotion of conservative ideals, along with resonant cases of pro-​Republican electioneering, are amplified and bolstered by the kind of hysterical detachment developed elsewhere in conservative media, particularly by the conservative documentaries I analyze throughout Beyond Bias. That is to say, the hysterical attempts to erase from view such political speech that might draw citizens’ attention to, say, the perils of climate change, refugee crises, police violence against people of color, and so on promotes epistemic ignorance conducive to and resonant with the more proactive political agendas of the contemporary Right.30 The rhetorical attempt to stall, rather than win, a debate constitutes one of the most consistent features of the conservative documentaries I examine throughout Beyond Bias. Rather than an epistemological defect or deficit attributable to an individual or group, the bias that concerns me here is one that perverts the democratic social bond it engages. Bias, as I deploy the term, describes a split, break, or division in discourse and subjectivity. The constitutive bias on which hysterical discourse relies is not one that can be solved, or even allayed, by recourse to an increase in education, facticity, dialogue, or debate. When we mistakenly attribute an epistemological bias to conservative media—​as the popular press routinely does—​we overlook how hysterical conservatism gains sustenance from consuming and then spreading,

52  Democracy, Media, Psychoanalysis like a virus, such narrow and misguided allegations of cognitive failure. To accuse another person or institution of bias, after all, is itself a claim likely to produce a debased social bond, one unlikely to promote substantive communication. If a political opponent is unwittingly prejudiced by commitments that do not rise to the level of a conscious idea for them, then what hope is there for rational debate or deliberation between the biased individual and the one who alleges its distorting presence? Simply put, the allegation of bias constitutes the central mode of address of the hysteric who seeks to dismantle existing regimes of authorities and normative political institutions, such as when Donald Trump describes any and all negative stories in the press as “fake news.” Such blanket statements by Trump are never accompanied by substantiating facts or evidence precisely because the scope and scale of the claim exceed any possible verification; instead, the dismissal of “fake news” denies to the profession of journalism any epistemic credibility whatsoever even while it maintains in Trump’s view, and that of his supporters, the press’s antagonistic prominence (by addressing rather than ignoring it). Like the hysteric who attempts to give the analyst what he or she is looking for, this amounts to an interaction without an exchange, a discursive barrier produced not by competing ideologies but rather by a more fundamental and ethical schism. As it seems quite clear during the Trump presidency, Trump and the press share no common ground by which to judge proper presidential or journalistic behavior. And much like the rhetorical mimicry of Black Lives Matter demonstrated by the response of all lives matter, Trump’s appropriation of the label fake news divests the term of its critical import or its reference to the historical proliferation of actual fake news in recent elections, including the propaganda disseminated by Russian agencies in support of Trump’s own presidential campaign in 2016. To allege that Trump is biased misses the point; more precisely, to cite Dean again, Trump succeeds by putting bias to work. Such a muddying of the discursive waters confuses our political language to the extent that we struggle, perhaps inexorably, to describe a problem and, as a consequence, severely limits any opportunity to address or solve that problem. This is an effective strategy, whether intentional or not, for those who seek to conserve the status quo against any calls for progressive change. Hysterical discourse, as I conceive it here, thereby polices the aesthetic register of political representation. The police, in Jacques Rancière’s handling of the term, describes not those actual individuals who enforce the law; rather, what Rancière has in mind is the cultivation of sensibilities—​the partition

Hysterical Bias and Democratic Representations  53 of the sensible, as he puts it—​which determine, in practice, the viability of political speech and, by consequence, the determination of what topics or concerns may rise to the level of debate or disagreement in the first place. What Rancière describes as the police, then, “is not a social function,” not a collection of individual officers tasked by the State, say, with dispersing an angry mob of protesters. Rather, to police the political involves “a symbolic constitution of the social,” a specifically aesthetic orientation that affirms the status quo and renders as noise, or incoherence, any political claims that might threaten existing social relations, norms, or conventions. With this in mind, the conservative rhetoric that interests me here engages in an analogous mode of aesthetic policing. Unlike proactive modes of address found elsewhere in conservative media, the brand of aesthetic policing marked by hysterical political discourse seeks inaction over action, is productive of epistemic ignorance as an alibi for political inertia, and works to convince its audience, above all, and despite evidence to the contrary, there is nothing to see here. Everything may continue on as before and no political wrong need be addressed other than any claims that a wrong exists. Moreover, the epistemic and representational breakdowns that result as a consequence, I will argue, extend bias beyond the ideological individual, partisan group, or political party, to broader spheres of mainstream political discourse, hystericizing the very means of communication by which political participants may engage each other. In contrast to the hysterical complaint, which draws attention to a subject’s encounter with a lived paradox, and which may provide an opportunity for change in response, the mode of address deployed by conservative media relies on hysterical discourse to magnify ambivalence, stoke political antagonism, and spread representational incoherence so as to debilitate or stall meaningful democratic exchange. The deployment of hysterical discourse, as I develop the concept here, presents itself in the form of political dialogue, but like climate change skepticism (as I discuss later), the hysterical performance seeks to maintain the status quo by muddying the discursive waters, mimicking its rivals, engaging in excessive spectacles, and ultimately biasing any interlocutor who responds to the performance in good faith, thereby rendering inoperable the very democratic exchange it appears to invite.31

PART II

POLIT IC S, D O C UM E NTA RY F OR M, A N D HYST E R ICA L DISC OU R SE

2 Biased Beliefs Common Sense, Creativity, and Creationism

An allegation of bias, like the charge of hypocrisy, presumes to discover a difference “between being and appearance.”1 What appears on the surface—​ how other individuals behave or present themselves—​does not correspond to the core structure that lies beneath. The charge of hypocrisy, however, usually includes an additional, moral judgment in its wake. The hypocrite knows better but actively, intentionally, cynically masks his or her true intentions. By contrast, when we label another person biased, this negative judgment need not carry the same moralistic tenor as the charge of hypocrisy. Bias may describe an instance of partiality, a tendency toward favoritism, or a perpetual leaning in one direction rather than another. The accusation of bias may simply claim to detect an epistemological error rather than a moral failure. The hypocrite knows better and does it anyway. The biased individual may very well know not what he or she is doing. The term bias circulates frequently in the fields of politics and political media, especially in an era when, as we so frequently hear, individuals increasingly consume news and information from media sources likely to affirm those individuals’ ideological assumptions and prejudices. For virtually any viewpoint, no matter how outlandish or divorced from reality, there seems to be a newspaper, newsletter, website, podcast, or radio host ready and able to affirm the preconceived beliefs or assumptions of its respective audience. Yet if bias describes an unwitting error in knowledge, then what hope is there for the judgment of bias, when it is so rendered, to make an impact on the one who remains trapped in ignorance? As I claim in this chapter, allegations of bias tend to become contagious, often infecting the very persons or groups who originally voiced, with confidence and a sense of superiority, their capacity to see or know better. Indeed, a judgment that presumes to diagnose the existence of bias in another, especially when levelled against a political adversary, is an allegation likely to reproduce, if not increase, the antagonistic dynamic from which it begins. If the individual or group to whom Beyond Bias. Scott Krzych, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/​oso/​9780197551219.003.0003

58  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse I am opposed lacks the capacity to recognize their own epistemological blind spots, then what hope is there that my judgment of their bias, offered as an outsider, will produce any curative effects upon them? What the biased other seems to be missing, after all, is at least twofold: they lack both a certain cognitive capacity or empathic awareness necessary to perceive accurately the actual state of things, and they also lack the ability to recognize this failure as a failure. A troubling feature of Donald Trump’s approach to the presidency, for example, is not only his ignorance concerning precedent, decorum, history, or the complexities of international relations (among a growing list of even more significant grievances we might compile) but also his refusal to admit any deficiency in these or other areas. His performative and ultimately vacuous confidence, perceived as such by the president’s critics, is a manifest overcompensation for his obvious deficiencies, biased as he is, no doubt, by a lifetime of privilege, which has excused him from learning from his mistakes or facing consequences for his actions. However, the utter obviousness of the president’s incapacities may also become a maddening occasion for those same critics who know better, because they face a political opponent in Trump (and his cadre of supporters) seemingly impervious to this very criticism. In this scenario, what begins as an allegation of bias—​the claim that the other succumbs to a gap in their knowledge, desire, or being—​may transition into an affective breakdown for the one who made the allegation in the first place. The diagnosis of bias, along with the presumed authoritative and critical distance from which it is offered, runs smack into a brick wall. The ideological symptom, a sure sign of the other’s capture within bias, meets with the simultaneous inability of the diagnosis to influence or change what it identifies, thereby biasing, dividing, or otherwise splitting asunder the political landscape more broadly, along with anyone who participates in it. With this in mind, this chapter examines a number of documentaries that engage a similar problematic: By what means may we change the minds of individuals who appear fully entrenched in their ideological commitments? I begin with a discussion of documentaries focused on, and critical of, evangelical Christian religious practice in the contemporary United States before turning my attention to films made by evangelicals themselves. Both sets of films express confidence in their view that the other’s bias—​the fundamentalists’ attachment to irrational faith, or the secularists’ denial of God’s existence and moral decrees—​poses an existential threat to the sociopolitical future of the country. For both sides, the role of faith in politics

Biased Beliefs  59 bears directly on our collective political future, for better or worse. The close comparison and contrast of these separate documentary cycles produce what may seem to be a counterintuitive insight. The explicitly evangelical films, I argue, offer a more complex understanding of ideological bias and its possible remedies when compared to their secular counterparts. The symbolic effectiveness of conservative evangelical documentaries arises, in significant part, from their capacity to embrace, embody, and ultimately marshal the ambivalent nature of the political differences they address. As I will argue, evangelical documentaries playfully, creatively, and hysterically translate the traumatic energy of democratic antagonism into a key feature of their rhetorical posture and visual style. By contrast, secular documentaries made about religious fundamentalism struggle to escape from their traumatic encounters with staunch belief. Such films as Blood in the Face (Anne Bohlen, James Ridgeway, and Kevin Rafferty, 1991), Religulous (Larry Charles, 2008), and Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2006), among others, attempt to expose religious hypocrisy but face a paradoxical choice in the process. For those filmmakers who attempt to represent religious practices from an objective point of view, the act of documentary exposure risks the unintentional amplification of the very ideas they intend to uncover. In the absence of critical commentary or contextualization, the films may become one additional means by which religious zealots spread their messages—​why else would they invite outsiders and their cameras into their inner precincts in the first place, we might ask? Alternatively, those filmmakers who take a more pointed angle of attack, or who explicitly denounce the fanatical devotion they encounter, likewise risk their own fall into fundamentalism of a secular kind. In several prominent examples, as I show, documentary projects that begin with the stated intention to demonstrate the epistemological biases of fundamentalist belief—​They know not what they are doing—​ transform into additional allegations of moral judgment—​They should know better. The secular critique of religion thereby devolves, too often, into an uncritical reliance on common sense as a general and generic framework presumed to ensure the superior knowledge of the irreligious but whose unexamined structure bears surprising similarities to the very religious fantasies it is supposed to deconstruct. The appeals to common sense as a secular diagnostic presumed to detect the epistemological failures of fundamentalist bias, then, reflects back and repeats, in the mode a hysterical complaint, the very fantasmatic structure of belief it attempts to debunk.

60  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse What the secularist filmmakers and their documentaries overlook, then, is the manner by which fundamentalists marshal the ambivalent intersection of bias and belief as a key component of their discourse—​how, in other words, evangelicals put this self-​division to work. Unlike the secularist’s dismissal of fundamentalism in favor of their own unquestioned ascription to, or faith in, common sense, the fundamentalist filmmakers strategically attempt to remake or revise common sense according to their own ideological priorities. At least for the films I consider here, the so-​called fanatics commit themselves to discursive evolution: the transformation of the commons to suit their purposes. As we will see in other cases of conservative documentary, fundamentalist media may cloak its seemingly excessive beliefs in the guise of compromise, as when creationists propose that their theories of “intelligent design” should be considered as just one scientific theory among others. It may be little surprise to find, as I do upon closer examination, that no substantive compromises are actually on offer. However, what provides the conservative films with their affective force, nevertheless, is how compromised they are by the existential ambivalence of political antagonism they engage and how they translate this experience into fantasies of a utopian, Christian society to come.

Fundamental Differences Religious fundamentalism appears to create a world unto itself. From an outsider’s perspective, the “true believer” lives in a cocoon of positive reinforcement, his beliefs and practices working in concert to maintain an impenetrable barrier against countervailing forces. The fundamentalist holds unwaveringly to ideals at odds with secular, humanistic pluralism, such that both the content of faith and its formal reproductions—​rituals, practices, acts of lived experience, and so on—​may be baffling, if not horrifying, when encountered by the uninitiated. As documentary filmmakers have often helped to demonstrate, however, fanaticism is not, in fact, identical with itself. The “true believer” is a complex, often conflicted individual, living a life of contradictions and compromises more complicated than the stereotypical notion of belief can contain or describe. For instance, in Yoel, Israel, and the Pashkavils (2006), Lina Chaplin’s film follows Yoel Krause, a member of an ultra-​orthodox, anti-​Zionist religious group of Haredi Jews living in Jerusalem. Despite his orthodox commitment, however, Krause appears to

Biased Beliefs  61 have more in common with his liberal counterparts than first meets the eye. As we encounter throughout the film a variety of scenes from Yoel’s day-​to-​ day life, the film reveals how his stark opposition to what he deems an overly secularized, Zionist state nevertheless provides him with a steady income: he sells milk and chickens to other ultraorthodox members of the neighborhood who refuse to purchase groceries from the more prevalent, secular grocers. The religious and political commitment is so personally advantageous for Yoel that, by the film’s conclusion, and following Chaplin’s consistent prodding, the film may lead us to wonder which comes first, principle or profit motive?2 The duration of the documentary recording—​following the same subject day in and day out—​thereby provokes an encounter with difference, perhaps inspiring the audience’s interest to interrogate further the causes that bring such differences to appearance.3 Even the most ardent believer may fall prey to the inconsistencies of lived experience, or, in the case of Yoel, the compromises that arise when putting one’s faith into practice. Yet we should not too quickly extol the documentary medium for its capacity to capture human complexity—​representation, after all, is not a good in itself. Indeed, even as the documentary medium may be useful for the insights it offers into the lives of individuals or groups operating on the fringes of society, it is also susceptible to appropriation for extremist ends, sometimes even in the same instance. I have in mind, specifically, an intersection of contradictory aims as they arise near the conclusion of Blood in the Face, when it becomes unclear if the documentary will expose a neo-​Nazi organization for wider scrutiny or, instead, provide the means to further the white supremacists’ cause. Prior to this contradictory conclusion, Blood in the Face includes observational accounts of the white supremacists’ official gatherings and “family-​friendly” picnics in rural Michigan, as well as a series of interviews with the self-​ identified neo-​Nazis. A few scenes capture some of the group’s members clad in the stereotypical, swastika-​laden, uniforms of Nazi storm troopers (Figure 2.1). One of the men explains the resentment behind their militancy: “We’re just common people, working class people, everyday all-​American people. And we’ve had to experience the government enforced programs of race-​mixing and white genocide.” In response, he continues, they will fight violently to prevent the destruction of “white culture.” Such emblematic scenes of white hysteria are horrific, but perhaps even more troubling are those scenes of white,

62  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse

Figure 2.1  Blood in the Face (1991). Neo-​Nazis unapologetically describe their hope for a race war.

middle-​class families raising their children in the midst of such hatred and prejudice. Later in the film, two middle-​aged women, sitting on a couch in a ranch-​style home, nonchalantly endorse their membership in the organization, describing the positive feelings “that you get when you’re totally among your own kind.” At picnic tables, in living rooms and meeting halls, the group seeks to raise a new generation of racists. With a few notable exceptions, Blood in the Face remains committed to a noninterventionist aesthetic typical of direct cinema (see Chapter  4). No voice-​over narration contextualizes, let alone condemns, what we see. The relatively transparent recording and reproduction of the neo-​Nazi’s grievances has led some critics to worry that the documentary may become a means to disseminate the very bigotry it seeks to expose.4 Indeed, one of the concluding interviews in Blood in the Face addresses this very dilemma. The leader of the Nazi faction admits on camera his self-​aggrandizing interest in what he deems the film’s potential for free advertising; regardless of how negatively the completed film may portray him and his followers, he reasons,

Biased Beliefs  63 the mere act of their representation in any form confirms their existence and by implication the presence of fellow travelers throughout the country. Any press is good press, he implies. It is likely with this in mind that Blood in the Face concludes with its one and only moment of direct confrontation, when a young Michael Moore (a member of the production crew) disputes the eschatological predictions of another strident, Bible-​wielding member of the neo-​Nazi organization who pats a leather-​bound Bible sitting on his lap for added emphasis as he speaks. With God on their side, he assures Moore, “We can’t lose.” Moore cannot sit idly by in this moment and he responds in kind. Their “holy” mission to recreate a white supremacist nation, Moore counters, is sure to fail: “You will never see this day that you want to see in this country.” Though we may certainly sympathize with Moore’s argument against the fundamentalist’s confidence, his statement paradoxically mimics the very assurance he seeks to dispel. Moore presumes the fanatic maintains a worldview too radical to gain widespread support—​thus, the day they “wish to see” will never come; there is no future for their political ideals. Moore thereby invokes common sense as a barrier and bulwark against religiously inflected white nationalism. It is a defense, however, that immediately begs the question, How did such ardent believers manage to develop and maintain a following in the first place if their views are so at odds with common sense? The appeal to common sense, either as a basis for critiques made against fanaticism or as the presumption of a social bond with the strength, consistency, and resolve to keep fanatics at bay, encounters here an immediate contradiction: the very appearance of the uncommon has already compromised—​and has thereby begun to hystericize—​the assumption of a universal norm that will save (the rest of) us from the most extreme of political antagonists. In other words, the appeal to common sense, crystallized by Moore’s otherwise reasonable reaction to the hatred and bigotry on display before him, emerges at the very moment of its failure. If common sense were common, then Moore simply would not need to invoke it. Blood in the Face stages a fraught moment of ideological ambivalence precisely where we may not expect to find it: in a film about religious and racial fanaticism. In this case, the neo-​Nazis welcome the cinematic exposure as a form of free advertising, and Moore’s hysterical complaint, offered in response, demonstrates the fragile epistemological and rhetorical status of the

64  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse documentary film. Nothing inherent in the apparatus ensures in advance the ethical valence of its subsequent representations, let alone the uses to which audiences may put the images once they circulate publicly. Simply put, the film may be used for purposes that contradict directly the filmmakers’ stated aims and intentions. Even more instructive, for my purposes, is the manner by which Blood in the Face stages its development of conflict, progressing as it does from the presentation of staunch and immediately recognizable ideological differences, at the film’s start, to an unexpected case of intersubjective mimesis by the conclusion. When we encounter the swastika-​clad cadre in the film’s early scenes, the spectacle of unabashed fascism is abominable but is also perhaps a simpler, more digestible image to consume. The uniformed white supremacists are recognizably other than the filmmakers and their intended audience. By the film’s conclusion, however, the line separating the filmmakers from their subjects becomes uncomfortably difficult to discern. Perhaps the neo-​Nazis, even more so than the films’ credited directors, are controlling the action and curating the path by which their vile messages will become disseminated. The ideological antagonism Blood in the Face presents is analogous, I claim, to Jacques Rancière’s account of political disagreement. As Rancière defines it, disagreement in the political realm does not concern a contentious intersection of clearly distinguishable or opposed viewpoints. Rather, disagreement, at a more fundamental level, concerns the very contestation over the terms by which a debate is staged: We should take disagreement to mean a determined kind of speech situation: one in which one of the interlocutors at once understands and does not understand what the other is saying. Disagreement is not the conflict between one who says white and another who says black. It is the conflict between one who says white and another who also says white but does not understand the same thing by it or does not understand that the other is saying the same thing in the name of whiteness.5

In the guiding example of Blood in the Face, we might say that documentary itself functions as the central term over which the parties disagree. Moore and his colleagues presumably see the film’s project as one of critical exposure, raising awareness about the underbelly of racial animus that continues to operate across America; the neo-​Nazis see the very same film as a positive means to spread their message.

Biased Beliefs  65 My purpose in this chapter, then, is to highlight the hystericizing potential of such disagreements. When the white supremacists attempt to appropriate the documentary camera as a tool in service of their agenda, an impasse emerges for which there is no obvious or immediate solution; Moore’s response gives inarticulate voice to this affective impasse. Moreover, in terms of their respective discourses, Moore and the neo-​Nazis appear formally indistinguishable from each other in their mimetic interaction, precisely because there is no point of external reference to distinguish absolutely their competing political projects. When conflict emerges between competing individuals or groups, and when this conflict likewise begins to dissolve the very boundaries presumed to separate them, the affective tension and category breakdown may elicit a hysterical response. The psychic trauma of hysteria, according to Michel Oughourlian, is decidedly intersubjective in its etiology, materializing at the bare boundary between our reliance on, or incorporation among, others, paired with our simultaneous desire to gain freedom from such intimate associations. At its most rhetorically violent, “Hysterical desire strives to annihilate the desire of the other, to deny it, and thereby to affirm its own anteriority and precedence over the other’s.”6 The hysteric forcefully claims his or her freedom at the very moment such agency has fallen into doubt—​What you want will never happen, or, What I want is sure to happen. Or, to read the confrontational scene according to Rancière’s terms, in Blood in the Face, both the fundamentalist and the secularist “say white” and yet understand white to mean radically different things. Put differently, the exchange stages a disagreement over what will constitute common sense in the here and now of their debate and in the future to come of the film’s reception. In this light, the disagreement leads Moore to complain hysterically; he protests too much, relying on an imagined and imaginary structure of common sense that cannot save him. The complaint thereby expresses the troubling affective register of political and ideological ambivalence. I will have more to say about similar cases of secular complaints as they circulate in such films as Religulous, Jesus Camp, and Friends of God. I will likewise consider how fundamentalist filmmakers employ an aesthetics of ambivalence to hystericize further the disagreements they engage, particularly in the case of creationism and its mimetic simulations of science.7 For the moment, however, we might consider further the equivocal qualities of the documentary medium more generally, especially in the domain of political representation.

66  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse

Not-​Without Fiction The debate over documentary’s capacity for representation in Blood in the Face stages at the political level a question more basic to the medium as such. Whereas Bill Nichols categorizes documentary as a “discourse of sobriety” on par with such other sober pursuits as science, economics, politics, and education, others have defined the medium in less temperate terms. Psychoanalytic scholars of documentary, for instance, have noted the inherently subjective nature of nonfictional representation.8 For Michael Renov, documentary entails a spectrum of effects in excess of such pragmatic purposes as to educate or inform. “The documentary gaze,” Renov writes in The Subject of Documentary, is “constitutively multiform, embroiled with conscious motives and unconscious desires, driven by curiosity no more than by terror and fascination.”9 Elizabeth Cowie goes even further than Renov to identify in documentary a particularly ambivalent mode of address. In effect, documentary films speak two languages at the same time:  the nonfiction image “enables reality to ‘speak’ at the same time as it ‘speaks about’ reality.”10 Any nonfictional mode inevitably frames reality according to discursive biases, which color the pro-​filmic event and thereby influence how any event may be eventually perceived. At the same time, Cowie notes, the indexical scenes captured by the documentary camera inevitably exceed the filmmakers’ control, producing a point of contact between the representation of historical events and the viewing audience irreducible to any intentional construction of that reality by the filmmaker. Some features or aspects of reality will find their way to viewers, no matter how biased the filtering effects of the filmmaker’s ideological intentions. Documentary therefore “figures both in the discourse of science, as a means of obtaining the knowable in the world, and in the discourse of desire, as a wish to know the truth of the world, represented by the question invariably posed to the actuality film, is it true?” The documentary image, in Cowie’s handling of it, is marked inexorably by ambivalence. This constitutive bias—​an irrevocable split between form and content, representation and reality—​elicits audiences’ viewing desire because nonfiction films, like the very subjects who watch them, operate on uncertain epistemological terrain.11 If documentary film is ephemeral, displaying what Cowie describes as “a now-​here, now-​gone quality of the image,” then one of the key interests

Biased Beliefs  67 in this chapter concerns those moments when the image’s elusiveness becomes the site of hegemonic contestation.12 Though we may retain doubts concerning the empirical status of any nonfiction image—​whether it represents reality as such—​some films tackle this problem more directly than others. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988), for instance, stands as a canonical example of a reflexive documentary that draws viewers’ attention to the enunciative and expressive qualities of documentary representation and of human fallibility more generally. When Morris recreates and restages for the camera the various, contradictory witness accounts of the murder of a Texas police officer, the film sows doubts about the likelihood that what the witnesses saw, or claimed to see, accurately describes what occurred. As a result, Linda Williams writes, we encounter how “the individuals whose lives are caught up in events are not so much self-​coherent and consistent identities are they are actors in competing narratives.”13 Indeed, by highlighting the performative and thereby incomplete quality of the witness accounts, Morris hystericizes the viewer to a productive end, leading us to doubt the guilty verdict levelled against Randall Adams. It is important to note, then, how The Thin Blue Line marshals the ambivalent images it constructs to a decidedly ethical end. Rather than leaving the viewer in doubt about what occurred on the Texas highway, Morris employs doubt for a productive purpose, eventually substituting the faulty narrative for a superior one. Specifically, the film identifies David Harris as the likely culprit in place of the wrongly accused and convicted Adams. The documentary’s reproduction and assessment of eyewitness and institutional bias becomes a galvanizing event in service of a new belief, a conversion experience that turns us around, sending us down an alternative path, debunking the official historical judgment to thereby make room for a new interpretation. In Blood in the Face, by contrast, Moore himself seems hystericized, in doubt about the epistemological status of the documentary project in which he participates. The documentary’s exposure of the neo-​Nazi organization faces an impasse when the white supremacists make clear their complete disinterest in hiding what the film has been intent to expose. With no immediate means to deny, avoid, or otherwise displace the abject hatred that confronts him, Moore fails to distinguish his moral vision in a manner substantially different from the one he attacks, despite his best intentions, and he therefore returns to the fanatic what he receives—​an overly confident belief. Moore’s

68  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse denial (“You will never see this day . . .”) of the weaponized evangelical eschatology displayed before him repeats the fundamentalist’s prophetic vision in a negative form. What the reactionary believes must happen, his progressive interlocutor is sure will never happen. (After the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, Moore’s confident assumption that white supremacists, such as these, would never achieve a broad political victory was shown, unfortunately, to be wishful thinking.)14 Thus far, I have placed significant weight on a single comment made by Moore during a particularly fraught moment of documentary recording. Yet several other related documentary films, which likewise train their lenses on fundamentalist faith and practice in the United States, appear to encounter similar epistemological impasses or moments of self-​doubt. During the presidency of George W.  Bush, a variety of nonfiction films tackled the subject of contemporary evangelical Christianity, in large part because American evangelicals constituted one of the most vociferous and active voting blocs on Bush’s behalf.15 Films such as Hell House (George Ratliff, 2001), Friends of God, and Jesus Camp, among several others, investigate the day-​to-​day operations of evangelical churches, large and small. The films also place special emphasis on the various strategies employed by evangelicals to spread their religious messages to the outside world. As the films make clear, evangelical Christians express little concern about the separation between Church and State. For instance, as Jesus Camp effectively documents in particular, Christian summer camps may become breeding grounds for anti-​abortion sentiment, where, specifically, prepubescent children are directed from the pulpit to pray that the Supreme Court will one day overturn Roe v. Wade. To be clear, the analysis I offer of these secular documentaries should not indicate an alliance on my part with evangelicals or religious fundamentalists, by any means. Hell House and Jesus Camp, in particular, offer timely and enlightening documents of evangelical practices at a time when the religious Right had ascended to a significant place of power in the Republican Party and exercised extraordinary influence on American politics. Nevertheless, the films provide telling examples of the limits of common sense, especially when confronted by ardent belief. The ambivalent responses that these interactions spur, moreover, provide a useful starting point by which to understand the complex rhetorical conceits by which fundamentalists have, themselves, attempted to craft their own “nonfictional” films for wider audiences.

Biased Beliefs  69

You Know Not What You Are Doing Like Blood in the Face, George Ratliff ’s Hell House offers a relatively “hands-​ off ” approach to its subject matter. The film follows volunteers at a Pentecostal church in Texas as they prepare for an annual production of a Halloween horror house. The eponymous “house of horrors” includes a variety of troubling, dramatic scenes staged before live audiences, but the scenes are quite unlike those we would expect to find from more conventional, Halloween spectacles. The staged performances, with actors drawn from the church congregation, include a school shooting, a rape and subsequent suicide, and an abortion procedure gone so wrong as to result in the death of the pregnant woman. The traumatic scenes are intended to provoke in viewers a conversion experience in which they accept Jesus as their savior, a supernatural solution to the worldly evils, violence, and death depicted before them. Throughout the film’s duration we encounter a variety of the Church’s members who commit themselves fully to the process, spending hours of their free time in preparation for the autumnal event. At the film’s climax, when the Hell House finally opens to the public, Ratliff ’s film captures the dismay of many paying customers who are horrified by what they see, but not in the manner intended by the church and its leaders. Several individuals express on camera their frustration upon learning that the Hell House is not a generic, Halloween-​season spectacle but rather a back-​door means for proselytization. Apart from these moments of tension and disagreement, however, Hell House provides no explicit moral perspective on the fundamentalist practices it records. In reaction, several critics voiced concern about the absence of any editorial commentary in the film.16 In Bill Nichols’s estimation, Hell House effectively depicts the religious practice it takes for its subject matter but “does so detached from any urge to arrive at a conclusion, judgment, or solution.”17 The lack of overt judgment or criticism, Heather Hendershot surmises, produces an ambiguous cinematic object: while secular audiences may be surprised, amused, or appalled by the persistence of such ardent belief in the contemporary era, evangelical viewers of Hell House are just as likely to approve of the film and even affirm the documentary as evangelism by other means.18 By leaving out any commentary on the broader intersections between faith and politics, Hendershot worries, “Ratliff has managed to produce a film that can be enjoyed equally by both fundamentalists and their detractors.”19 Much like Blood in the Face, the

70  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse effects Hell House may have on its eventual audiences, for these critics, is left uncomfortably in doubt. The ambiguous status of documentary film, as Cowie argues, is a constitutive feature of its form. Just as we cannot be certain of the historical veracity of any particular image or “nonfictional” recording, we likewise cannot predict with any confidence how audiences may respond to any given film. The observational method employed by Hell House, however, seems to raise the stakes of the image’s unpredictable qualities. Ironically, critics appear uncomfortable at the prospect that the film may remain open to interpretation, a fear that seems to beg for some manner of intervention, divine or directorial, to delimit in advance the spectrum of its potential aftermath or effects. Ironically, and as Julia Kristeva has noted, such a desire for certainty is precisely what constitutes the basic function of belief, so long as we recognize belief as a discursive structure that is by no means exclusive to religion: “Belief, not in the sense of a supposition, but in the strong sense of an unshakable certainty, sensory plenitude, and ultimate truth the subject experiences as an exorbitant kind of more-​than-​life, indistinctly sensory and mental, strictly speaking ek-​static.”20 Indeed, belief, understood as both certainty and exorbitant ecstasy, describes in more precise terms the very problem of enjoyment cited by Hendershot’s review of Hell House. Evangelical viewers will take pleasure in the fact that their fundamentalist belief in a Christian God has received wider exposure; secular viewers, horrified by the horror house, will likewise enjoy or take satisfaction in the fundamentalist’s certain ignorance. Or, just as Rancière’s disagreeable political opponents both “say white” but mean completely different things, both secular and religious viewers may look at the same film and take pleasure in what the film depicts for reasons diametrically opposed to each other. Other documentaries about religion in general, and evangelicalism in particular, have relied on more confrontational approaches to their subjects. Religulous, Friends of God, and Jesus Camp, in different ways, attempt to demonstrate examples of religious hypocrisy—​the inherent compromises and contradictions that result when believers attempt to hold fast to fundamentalist faith in an otherwise secular society. The outcomes of the more aggressive stances taken in these films, however, still fall into a trap of moral and epistemological equivocation. In Religulous, the least serious film of the bunch, Bill Maher serves as host, interviewer, and narrator, deploying his sardonic persona to maximum effect and portraying the religious subjects of the film as unreasonable, irrational,

Biased Beliefs  71 and, most importantly, hypocritical. In one telling interaction, Maher meets with a pastor who wears $2,000 designer suits (Figure 2.2). The preacher’s lavish lifestyle, for Maher, is a clear contradiction of Christian charity. In other words, the pleasure that this fundamentalist derives from his belief is a sure sign that the belief itself is suspect, or so Maher implies with so many winks and nods to the camera. Yet the manner by which Maher attempts to expose preacherly excess and religious hypocrisy, strangely, relies on citations from the very scriptures that Maher elsewhere describes as nonsense. Attempting to expose the pastor’s self-​aggrandizing use of the pulpit for his personal and pricey wardrobe, Maher cites Christ as someone who “championed the poor” and “walked around in simple garb.” Although Maher intends to catch his interlocutor in a case of contradiction and hypocrisy, his reliance on the image of Christ is an odd choice. Maher’s argument does not contradict Christianity so much as it identifies this pastor’s failure to put faith into appropriate practice. Taken literally, Maher’s attempt at ironic critique could just as easily be heard, especially by a fundamentalist audience, as a call for the pastor to return, or reconvert, to the charitable ideals espoused by Christ in the very religious texts Maher has set out to debunk. Against his better judgment, then, Maher demands, in effect, that the pastor be a better Christian.

Figure 2.2  Religulous (2008). Bill Maher questions a pastor about his expensive suits.

72  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse A similar fall into contradiction occurs in Friends of God (2007), Alexandra Pelosi’s cross-​country tour of conservative-​religious America. Pelosi visits a variety of megachurches, interviews influential pastors, and even makes a visit to a Christian theme park in Florida. At The Holy Land Experience (Figure 2.3), the faithful can purchase entrance to a Disneyland-​style simulacrum of ancient Jerusalem, watch as actors perform Christ’s crucifixion, and then purchase overpriced memorabilia in the gift shop on their way out. Like Maher, Pelosi draws our attention to religious hypocrisy, particularly the attempt by religious entrepreneurs to capitalize on faith. In snippets of interviews with park goers, Pelosi highlights the amusement park’s mixture of religion with profit motive; yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, the religious tourists see no conflict between the two. When Pelosi asks a father if the park is intended to educate or entertain his children, he responds, immediately, that it does “a little bit of both.” Like Maher, Pelosi appears intent to establish a clear and absolute line of demarcation between faith and practice, between the tenets of theology and the manner or form by which belief makes its variable appearances. However, if belief describes the ecstatic affect that attends

Figure 2.3  Friends of God (2007). Alexandra Pelosi visits a Christian theme park.

Biased Beliefs  73 certainty, as Kristeva claims, then Pelosi appears to be the most strident believer in the film. The evangelical fundamentalists, like the father on vacation with his family at the Christian amusement park, appear more open to ambiguity and more comfortable with ambivalence than the secular filmmaker. To be sure, Religulous and Friends of God appear most interested in garnering cheap laughs at the believers’ expense. Yet even a more serious exploration of evangelical practices, as we find in Jesus Camp, also relies on its own manner of secular belief to counter the so-​called irrational excess it locates in fundamentalist practice, especially in the ideological indoctrination of young children. The mostly observational documentary follows a Pentecostal preacher, Becky Fischer, as she runs an annual summer camp where children are inculcated into a potently politicized form of evangelical fundamentalism. The children are not only invited to devote their lives to Christ; they are also encouraged to become partisans for God in the American culture war. For instance, in one of the film’s more striking scenes, we watch children engaged in a cult-​like gathering, as they call out to God to install “righteous judges” in the judiciary who will bring an end to legalized abortion. Jesus Camp follows some of these same children on their pilgrimage to Washington, DC, where they protest against abortion on the steps of the Supreme Court (Figure 2.4). In contrast to these excessive displays of religious affect, Jesus Camp routinely escapes to the cool, quiet, and controlled environment of an Air America radio studio. Here, a progressive talk-​show host, Mike Papantonio, laments what he describes as the perversion of the Christian message for political ends.21 Since the film’s directors do not appear in the film or offer commentary of their own, Papantonio provides Jesus Camp with its only voice of critical commentary. However, he does not criticize Christianity or religion as such. Rather, he expresses concern about what he calls the “entanglement of religion and politics” and particularly how this inappropriate mixture is presented to young and impressionable minds. Religion may operate in society so long as it remains in its proper place, separate from politics, culture, or any other secular institution, he maintains. In each of these documentaries, then, the filmmakers avoid an outright attack on religion, faith, or spirituality. The films train their attention on what they deem to be a marked division between belief and its formal manifestations. The filmmakers have no qualms about faith when it takes the formal appearance, say, of rituals internal to the structure of the Church. However, when evangelicals attempt to refashion themselves as

74  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse

Figure 2.4  Jesus Camp (2006). Rachel protests abortion on the steps of the Supreme Court.

political leaders, entrepreneurs, or cultural influencers, the documentarians cry foul. Yet the filmmakers likewise struggle to justify their critiques without making recourse to their own intuitive beliefs, as I have shown, resulting in arguments more incoherent than those expressed by the so-​called irrational converts. For my purposes, most importantly, the secular belief in common sense espoused by the filmmakers not only mimics that of religious faith; the faithful appear more willing, able, and strategically mindful to use such ambiguities to further their cause. Consider, for instance, Rachel, one of the children in Jesus Camp who travels to protest against abortion outside the Supreme Court. In contrast to the consistent critique of evangelicals for their biased appropriation of secular forms and institutions, Rachel conceives of the intersection of religion and politics as the very means by which she takes pleasure in ambivalence: “I feel like we’re being trained to be warriors, only in a much funner [sic] way. I don’t feel a sense of [fear], like being afraid to die in battle, like you would when you’re actually going off to war in the physical [sense].” Despite her youth, Rachel realizes the metaphorical slipperiness of the militant rhetoric

Biased Beliefs  75 presented to her by her pastors, counselors, and parents. She is a “warrior” for Christ, but the stakes of the cultural battle, at least for her, are more personal than political. Or, at the very least, she sees no reason to distinguish absolutely one from the other. Rachel sees no need to put her life on the line for her faith; instead, the manifestation of her faith in symbolic practices provides her with a “feeling of peace,” as she puts it later. In striking contrast to the secular-​documentary critiques, which attempt to demonstrate a hypocritical rift between religious affiliation and its manifest forms (summer camps, theme parks, political activism), Rachel affirms the pleasure associated with such ambivalent performance, with the ephemeral line that connects her formal practices to the faith whose content those practices are presumed to manifest: attending church, evangelizing the unsaved, going to summer camp, and even protesting abortion on the steps of the Supreme Court. The documentary critiques of religion presume to expose fundamentalism as something other than what it claims to be. That is, beneath the professions to do God’s work, the films intend to expose individuals driven by idiosyncratic desires cloaked in religious inflection—​They know not what they are doing. Yet one of the key lessons concerning the aesthetic dimension of fantasy and desire, as I discuss later, is that any subject is susceptible to symbolic and fantasmatic pretense. Indeed, for Jacques Lacan, subjectivity is itself a pretense—​the representation of a coherent self to screen over the irrevocable differences and ambivalences of mortal being. Belief occurs not in the absence of knowledge, or as the result of epistemological error; rather, belief attests to a constitutive gap in knowledge itself. A believer is one whose fantasies sustain hope even in the face of life’s indeterminacy; something that any of us do whenever we imagine a future. The “need to believe,” Kristeva writes, “is part and parcel of the speaking subject ‘before’ any strictly religious construction and of course within secularization itself.”22 Indeed, perhaps because films like Religulous, Friends of God, and Jesus Camp overlook the necessity of belief, they thereby become susceptible to hysterical contradiction, resorting to moral judgments despite themselves. They should know better, the secularists imply, and thereby reflect back to the believers their own brand of fundamentalism, a hysterical complaint that fails to reconcile its claims of moral superiority with its concomitant gestures of ironic cynicism and adherence to “common sense.” In order to assert this equivalence between the filmmakers and their subjects, of course, I posit a formal parallel between the fundamentalist’s faith and the secularist’s reliance on common sense. Like religious fundamentalism,

76  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse “[c]‌ommon sense knows itself as sufficient to its own tasks, capable of accounting for anything it confronts,” as Donald Moss puts it.23 Such epistemological confidence (or arrogance), however, risks a fall into the depths of cognitive dissonance even deeper than the so-​called fundamentalist’s. Sense “becomes ‘common’ when idea becomes ideology . . . that is, an ‘idea’ that is on hand, at the ready—​and seems to possess the capacity of housing whatever cluster of particulars might define the current situation. Such an ‘idea’ transforms an unwelcomed moment of conceptual/​emotional disarray into a welcomed moment in which things click into place.”24 By contrast, as I go on to claim, the pairing of faith with politics may provide for its religious adherents a relatively robust, if not self-​conscious, platform by which to engage in ideological disagreement—​to remake, or attempt to revise, common sense as a consequence. Precisely because fundamentalists believe in God and only employ the forms of secular reason for rhetorical purposes, their performances may be as susceptible to contradiction as their secular counterparts, but this contradiction is built into the very fabric of their outward posture. Especially in the case of American evangelicals who attempt to marry religion with politics, their creative appropriation of conventional and secular discourses—​including documentary film—​locates in fantasy an effective support system to make sense of the world’s more troubling, ambiguous, or inexplicable phenomena. In contrast to the failed attempt by secular filmmakers to expose religious fantasy, evangelical media puts fantasy to work. For Lacan, of course, fantasy describes an imaginary semblance of totality. Fantasy presumes to fill in the gaps in social and psychic experience. In this light, both religion and common sense may function as fantasmatic infrastructures with the capacity to comfort those who embed themselves within such affectively appealing networks of cohesion, coherence, and self-​perpetuation. However, on the border between fantasy and the real lies the potential for either hysterical breakdown or the creative production of the new.

Ambi-​Valent The well-​worn Lacanian account of the “mirror stage” describes what we might call an infantile conversion experience, an early onset of belief in nondenominational form. A crucial misrecognition occurs when an infant

Biased Beliefs  77 encounters her specular image: she takes the image to be herself, or, more specifically, a better version of herself. The mirror image and the fantasy it will later constitute provide to the child a form of herself that appears complete and whole, untouched by the convolutions of embodied life, especially those experiences marked by early infancy.25 As Jacqueline Rose puts it, the “image is a fiction because it conceals, or freezes, the infant’s lack of motor co-​ordination and the fragmentation of its drives.”26 Film theory would later appropriate Lacan’s account of the mirror stage, deploying the concept as a means to critique the idealized images presented to cinematic audiences, especially those of classical Hollywood, as so many fantasy objects mistaken by viewers for reality.27 Lacan’s more precise intention with the mirror stage, however, concerns his attempt to theorize the playfulness associated with spectral misrecognition and the constitutive pleasure this misrecognition provides for later, more complex formations of subjectivity. Thus, the mirror stage is not intended to diagnose an epistemological failure in need of correction. The formation of identity Lacan locates in the mise en scène of the mirror stage functions as a grand analogy for the unavoidable fantasy structure on which subjectivity is based. Moreover, the formal fantasy—​the notion of an ideal self not yet in one’s possession but seemingly within reach—​instantiates the temporality of desire and its orientation toward an indeterminate future. In Barbara Johnson’s reading, “The subject, according to Lacan, identifies here with a form—​not with being—​a form that interests the subject precisely because it anticipates stages of his development where he will be superior to what he is now . . . Henceforth the real self for the subject is the one in the mirror: the total form of a body standing erect and transcending all support. An idealization. A fiction. An object.”28 Even more than the idealized image itself, the play between ideal and experience, the person-​I-​am-​now and the ideal I-​aim-​to-​become-​later, contributes significantly to fantasy’s affective allure. The fantasy garners from the ambivalent mise en scène (me and not-​me) the affective energy central to any subsequent narratives upon which the subject relies in order to imagine how this division may eventually be overcome. To reiterate, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory maintains that such idealized projections of the self into the future is a fundamental bias for which we have no recourse. Accordingly, an allegation of bias offered against anyone we presume to be captured by his or her ideological fantasies may do little more than restate the obvious; it is a diagnosis that amounts to little more than psychoanalytic common sense. We are beings who lack, for better or worse,

78  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse and fantasy mitigates the experience of lack. This understanding of fantasy thereby limits the scope of ideological criticism, or should, when we apply Lacan’s theories to the realm of media and politics. Since Lacan posits a fundamental ambivalence constitutive of the ego—​radicalized even further by the subject’s eventual capture in language—​then an allegation of bias offered against an ideological opponent is redundant, at best, and may promote a false sense of superiority in the one who makes the claim at worst. The political valence of psychoanalytic critique, then, lies elsewhere, in its capacity to identify the manner by which fantasy promotes the pleasurable reliance on imaginary, ideological structures—​when and where bias intersects with belief, in other words. It is worth remembering how, throughout his career, Lacan revised his account of the mirror stage and imaginary identification. Lacan would later emphasize the social and symbolic contexts that inform any act of imaginary identification. The child not only encounters an image of herself that formalizes and thereby reflects back the semblance of an achievable, almost graspable, identity. This encounter with the mirror occurs under the watchful eye and supporting grasp of a parent or guardian whose presence coordinates the scene and contributes to its positive affective quality. A vacillation occurs in the child’s look, from mirror to parent and back to mirror again. Through “this nutating movement of the head, which turns toward the adult as if to call upon his assent, and then back to the image, he seems to be asking the one supporting him, and who here represents the big Other, to ratify the value of this image.”29 The aesthetic experience of identification in difference, the “jubilant” encounter between the self and its specular other, attains its positive quality to the extent an outside authority ratifies “the value of this image” and thereby renders the scene a positive one for the child. In this early encounter between imaginary and symbolic, between the projective identification of a self and the ratifying force of an external authority, we can locate an insightful account of subjective morality in nascent form. In a moralizing gesture, the authority figure proximate to the child affirms the act of playful self-​reflection as good or worthwhile. This early, formal dynamic may thereby lay the groundwork for an indeterminate number of other, alternative, authoritative frameworks that provide for the subject the same sense of affirmation originally offered by the caretaker on the margins of the mirror. For example, as Todd McGowan argues in Capitalism and Desire:  The Psychic Cost of Free Markets, the

Biased Beliefs  79 structure of capitalism provides a particularly effective external justification for the subject’s internal division. “Capitalism has the effect of sustaining subjects in a constant state of desire. As subjects of capitalism, we are constantly on the edge of having our desire realized,” say, through the accumulation of commodities or wealth, “but [we] never reach the point of realization.”30 Whereas Christianity offers a similar explanation for subjective dissatisfaction (our sinful nature), but projects eventual and total fulfilment into the afterlife, capitalism shortens the apparent distance between desire and its idealized object. The satisfaction you crave may be just one purchase away. By this view, capitalism does not produce desire so much as it effectively reproduces the fantasy of a lack soon to be overcome, thereby grafting its reified values onto subjects already primed by the mirror stage to receive it. Although this account of capitalism and desire may seem to suggest a political or economic critique, McGowan pointedly draws our attention to the ethical dimension of capitalism’s self-​substantiating narrative. “Though subjects within the capitalist universe experience themselves as free,” McGowan writes, “the system spares them the weight of the decision. We make numerous decisions everyday concerning what to do, where to go, and what to buy, but none of these decisions occur outside the confines of the narrow limits of our given possibilities . . . None of our everyday choices involves the risk of a radical transformation, but all offer the security of a well-​known terrain instead.”31 Of course, the desire to maintain “well-​known terrain” can promote fear as much as it may sustain hope. The narratives of racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and bigotry all tell stories where the listener’s experience of lack or dissatisfaction or anxiety becomes attributable to what seems like an empirically identifiable antagonist. Inverting the structure of the capitalist utopian narrative, where the commodity object is presumed to offer future satisfaction, the notion of the racialized other is pictured, in dystopian rather than utopian terms, as an explanation for what impedes progress toward a better life. As William Connolly has argued, such a negative image of the other serves to bolster self-​identity through a negative projection of bad feelings elsewhere. “Identity requires difference in order to be,” Connolly writes, “and it converts difference into otherness in order to secure its own self-​certainty.”32 In psychoanalytic terms, the racist subject experiences dissatisfaction, as all subjects do, but translates this dissatisfaction into a narrative of loss in which other people or ethnic groups are

80  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse blamed for the subject’s experience of loss and lack. The constitutive lack that biases subjectivity is thereby transformed into a fantasy projected onto others, often onto those already living on the societal margins. In the case of radicalized hatred, as expressed by the neo-​Nazis documented in Blood in the Face, the utopian and the dystopian narratives resonate in a profoundly disturbing way: the fundamentalists’ complete belief in the prophecy of a victory to come pairs with a racist, anti-​semitic, anti-​queer account of their supposed victimization at the hands of those claimed to stand in the way of this victory’s prophesied emergence. More often, however, fundamentalists who have taken to producing their own documentary films have moderated their spiritual beliefs in order to reach wider audiences. As we will see, fundamentalist filmmakers have demonstrated profound discursive flexibility, modifying their claims to suit their contexts and rhetorical circumstances. As I argue, after McGowan, religion and religious practice, in certain circumstances, seems to conceive of desire and fantasy in a manner analogous to psychoanalytic theory: “[R]‌eligious belief is belief in the lack in the order of meaning—​in the incompleteness of the field of signification that one confronts as a subject.”33 Though the fundamentalist will ultimately posit God as the answer to “the lack in the order of meaning,” the admission of a fundamental bias constitutive of subjective experience, which the evangelical believer upholds as a central feature of the human condition, or what they term our “sinful nature,” lends to fundamentalist discourse a decidedly aesthetic and potently playful dimension.34 Like the child’s nutating look before the mirror, evangelical conservative media demonstrates a surprising willingness to evolve its image to align with or meet the times, even when this image is intended to deny—​of all things—​the existence of evolution. Thus, when I say that evangelical media puts fantasy to work, I mean this in the precise sense that Lacan defines fantasy as a particular coordination of a subject’s pleasure within the temporal intermittency of ambivalence. Particularly in the case of creationist films, which posit the existence of a Christian God to explain the existence of life on earth, the constitutive and fantasmatic arrangement of the films lies not (or not only) in the recourse the filmmakers make to religious assumptions. Rather, the pleasurable play of fantasy into which the films invite their prospective viewers lies more precisely in the creative dynamic by which the films play with the differences between science and faith, secular form and religious content, bias and belief.

Biased Beliefs  81

You Should Know Better From 1945 to 1962, the Moody Institute of Science, a division of the undergraduate Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, produced approximately thirty educational films. On their face, the films employ science and scientific techniques to prove God’s hand in the creation of the world—​indeed, the host and director of the films, Irwin Moon, described his demonstrations as “sermons from science.”35 Throughout the short films, Moon deploys basic scientific techniques and apparatuses to produce spectacles for viewers intended to posit God as the answer to the limits of scientific knowledge. Rather than providing thorough explanations for the marvels he presents—​ close-​ups from within the interior chambers of a beating human heart in Red River of Life (1957), time-​lapse photography of budding flowers in Dust or Destiny (1949), optical illusions in Windows of the Soul (1962), and so on—​ Moon’s purpose “was to inculcate an overwhelming impression of human finitude and insignificance in the face of a truly awesome cosmos.”36 In The Prior Claim (1956), for instance, Moon disparages the entire history of human technological invention; for every technical achievement of civilization, he claims, nature can already boast a superior precedent.37 Since nature is treated in the films as the obvious product of God’s intention, any complex natural phenomena may thereby function as “evidence” in support of creationism. In Moon’s telling, a mouse trap or a bear trap is a crude device when compared to a Venus flytrap, for instance. As Moon leads viewers through a close examination of the carnivorous plant, the viewer gains a basic introduction to plant biology in the process; yet the entire demonstration transitions abruptly from a pedagogical to an evangelical register: the flytrap’s very existence, Moon declares, proves God’s existence and creative inventiveness. As critics of creationism have often pointed out, creationists rely on a perverted form of science to achieve their aims. Rather than pursuing a rigorous research agenda that might develop further our collective understanding of the natural world, creationism prefers to locate gaps in knowledge and to posit God as the answer to anything science cannot currently explain. Or, more simply, and just as often, creationists offer conclusions unsupported by evidence.38 To be sure, Moon undoubtedly demonstrates such biases in each and every film he hosts; he assumes without question that scientific investigation provides a direct path to Christian faith, and his high-​school biology lessons do little more than dress his fundamentalism in the garb of secular, scientific discourse.

82  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse Perhaps the most telling example of this paradoxical combination—​faith with science—​is on display in the short film Dust or Destiny, when Moon concludes the film with an evangelical appeal to conversion.39 Up until this point, the film reviews a variety of case studies intended to suggest a natural world so complex as to necessitate belief in the guiding hand of a supernatural creator. Moon’s narration throughout the film mimics the very voice of God, whose existence he hopes to prove as he tells us, in one moment, about the inner workings of the human eye, an “invention” superior in its functioning to the most advanced photographic cameras, which no amount of time or natural selection could produce on its own. Moon continues to narrate off-​screen, in another sequence, as we watch time-​lapse photography of bats in flight: the complexity of radar employed by the animals to fly and capture prey is “inexplicable” without recourse to a creator God, we are told. After reviewing the various analogies for creationism the film has portrayed, Moon finally appears on camera and concludes the film with a direct address to the audience. Sitting on the edge of a desk in his study, where a Bible lays conspicuously by his side, Moon offers, “It isn’t hard to believe in God. It’s the simplest and the most logical thing in the world.” The only impediment to faith, Moon continues, is a moral refusal of responsibility, a desire by sinful individuals to live according to their own wishes rather than accept the laws decreed by the Christian deity. Or, as he puts it, “believing in God involves a responsibility” to follow God’s rules; some people “don’t want that responsibility.” To be sure, Moon’s religious bias is stunning here: anyone who refuses to believe what he believes does so, not because of reasonable differences or disagreements, but because they lack the moral backbone necessary to accept the so-​called obvious truth.40 More than that, the proposition presumes a kind of supernatural (un)conscience: You should know better, the voice inside each of us is presumed to say. Thus, Moon not only appropriates science in order to foster preconceived (religious) conclusions; he also flips on its head the more customary binary relation between science and faith. Science, in his handling of it, operates in the domain of the unexplainable, the ineffable, even the mystical. Belief in God, by contrast, is presented by Moon to be the most reasonable and rational of suppositions—​ mere common sense. The fundamentalist rhetorical gesture—​You should know better—​not only crystallizes the powerful fantasy on which the evangelical speaker relies. It also contradicts, or seems to invalidate, the performance of scientific rationality by which creationism has been offered to viewers in the first place. If

Biased Beliefs  83 we always already know better, then why proselytize in a lab coat? Why dress creationism in the guise of science if viewers can simply listen to God’s voice within them? Though Moon and his collaborators certainly fall victim to contradiction in this case, my recourse to Lacan’s account of fantasy renders these contradictions moot; or Lacan’s conception of fantasy should direct our attention elsewhere—​specifically, toward the pleasure reproduced by the contradiction itself. As I have begun to argue, the psychoanalytic account of subjectivity presumes that all subjects succumb to uncritical fantasies whose imaginary rearrangements of the material world provide psychic refuge from the deadlocks of human existence. The question that remains, then, concerns how this bias is put to work—​specifically, how the play between bias and belief enacted by the creationists grounds their ideological campaigns in an economy of creative play and psychic pleasure. On this count, Robert Pfaller offers a particularly insightful discussion of ambivalence and enjoyment in On the Pleasure Principle in Culture. In the book, Pfaller recalls Johann Huizinga’s theory of play in the latter’s seminal text, Homo Ludens, where Huizinga attempts to answer the question, “Why does play generate such intense involvement?”41 Why, in other words, do human beings often engross themselves so fully in playful activities? The answer, for both Pfaller and Huizinga, concerns a particular deployment of knowledge. The allure of play does not derive from ignorance or the failure of knowledge; even when a game player treats the act of play seriously, such intense attachment includes and maintains an act of self-​ conscious awareness—​the game is just a game. Pleasure in play does not derive from a failure on the part of the player to distinguish reality from fiction. In acts of play, players must recognize the arbitrary nature of the game and its underlying rules. Playfulness begins with a rationalized demarcation of the line dividing play place from surrounding space, as well as the application within those boundaries of the governing structures that dictate the game’s actions.42 In Pfaller’s psychoanalytic supplement to Huizinga, then, he emphasizes the particularly ambivalent state of engrossment produced by play, or what he terms play’s “sacred seriousness.” We know very well that a game is a game; nevertheless, play organizes a psychic investment that can be just as compelling, if not more so, as our daily activities in the “real” world. Play thereby demonstrates, for Pfaller, a secular form of ritual, or what he terms an illusion without an owner. No one actually mistakes the game’s illusory features for real life, and no one believes that the game is anything other than a game; no one believes fully in the illusion. Yet both participants and

84  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse observers of the playful performance may act, in practice, as if the game is as consequential as “real” life.43 With this in mind, Pfaller explains the pleasure derived from playful ambivalence, precisely, as the pleasure of ambivalence: If play fascinates and delights through presentation, then this fascination and delight are due not to what is presented, but to the act of presenting. There is a desire to feign things. There must be an advantage to the fact that it is only fiction. If the player is taken into the spell through a lapse of memory or a mistake, then this advantage is lost. But the desire for fiction and the knowledge that fiction is at play hence belong together. The affective and the intellectual moments do not exclude one another. On the contrary, the one requires the other: there can be no desire without knowing better, no naivety without losing the enjoyment of fiction.44

Pfaller’s consideration of the ambivalence constitutive of play and its concomitant pleasure offers a stunning application for our consideration of religious bias thus far. In Pfaller’s theory of play, the rational knowledge that distinguishes illusion from reality is a constitutive feature of play’s affective appeal. To expose the illusory or arbitrary nature of play—​to point out to the player his biased capture in ambivalence—​can have no bearing on the appeal of playfulness for those who engage in it. For instance, to explain to screaming fans in the stands of a soccer match that what they are viewing is “nothing more than a game” would in no way dissuade the fans from their reveries because this knowledge is already included as a necessary component for the fans’ pleasure in play. Indeed, as Pfaller convincingly argues, the knowledge of play’s fictional staging constitutes the experience of enjoyment in the first place. In the case of Irwin Moon and the “sermons from science,” Pfaller’s consideration of the pleasure derived from ambivalence—​the enactments of the illusion of others—​is even more discretely on display. By masquerading as scientists, the evangelist acknowledges directly his reliance on an external, structural support. That is to say, like any religious parishioner caught up in ritualistic ceremonies established ages beforehand (i.e., Catholic mass), or like a gamer following to the letter of the law the particular rules of a given game, Moon plays the role of a scientist without identifying fully or completely as a scientist. To “identify fully” would mean to engage in the activity without the minimal ambivalence required to take pleasure in the activity’s

Biased Beliefs  85 symbolic, constructed, and hence playful status. Just as a theatergoer who identifies too fully with the dramatized events might ruin the performance by rushing onto the stage to prevent Caesar’s assassination, for instance, ambivalence is a necessary feature of symbolic performance and its pleasurable byproducts. Accordingly, to say that Moon’s scientific experiments are nothing more than spectacle—​a reasonable critique—​merely identifies the playful ambivalence at the films’ core. The films enact religious ceremonies dressed up in lab coats, microscopes, and grade-​school biology lessons. While the films undoubtedly misconstrue and misapply the scientific method, we should acknowledge that any such criticism, offered from a secularist vantage point, overlooks how the playful appropriation of the scientific apparatus mirrors, in its structure, the basic formal conceits of religious ritual more generally. The “sermons from science” reproduce religion by other means precisely in the same way that any ritual reproduces the spiritual content at which it aims, and just as any game, when played, reproduces the rules to which it subscribes without being reducible to the rules as such.45 To judge religion illusory simply for its imaginary performances leaves untouched or unremarked the pleasure associated with putting an illusion into practice. By this view, games, sports, religion, documentary, politics, and so on are so many illusions constituted by arbitrarily constructed rules intended to manage the behavior of groups and afford the opportunity for endless repetition and variation. What Moon’s creationism demonstrates so forcefully, then, is the willingness by the evangelist to play by the others’ rules, to perform scientific common sense for alternative ends. Indeed, rather than purporting an absolute division between faith and science, Moon’s lectures substitute a lab coat for a priest’s robes. To describe this perversion of science as a playful performance, as I do here, does not require that we endorse, agree with, or otherwise minimize the real historical and social impacts of religious fundamentalism on civil society or on political discourse. However, it seems worthwhile to emphasize how this enactment of religious performance takes into account the democratic context it seeks to address, thereby aiming to increase the range and appeal of its proselytizing gestures. The creationist films, in other words, are willing to suspend, at least momentarily, the more extreme or absolutist features of their faith in order to market that faith to new audiences. Like the “conceptual hiatus” that erupts between democratic and popular demands in Laclau’s political ontology, as I discuss in the introduction, this

86  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse cinematic presentation of creationism places more emphasis, not on proving once and for all the existence of a creator God, but, more limitedly and strategically, on raising doubts about secular scientism or in establishing itself as an epistemic equal to evolutionary science. Accordingly, the confusion of the terms “science/​religion” or “bias/​belief ” is pertinent to an understanding of these documentaries and their affective appeals, much more so than their explicit claims to establish the certain existence of their deity. Of course, since the modern era, organized religion has lost its former dominance over public and private spheres. The efforts by evangelists to proselytize, as documented in Hell House and Moon’s scientific sermons, demonstrate examples of religious adherents who have attempted to translate their belief into forms they believe will be palatable to new, secular audiences. Of course, this does not mean the secular era is lacking in its own forms of belief separate from the religious variety encountered here, as Charles Taylor has argued. “We all see our lives, and/​or the space wherein we live our lives, as having a certain moral/​spiritual shape,” Taylor notes. “Somewhere, in some activity, or condition, lies a fullness, a richness, that is, in that place (activity or condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable, more what it should be.”46 However, in the secular era, our moral attachments operate on a terrain of ideological competition and hegemonic negotiation; we have the opportunity to choose our beliefs rather than be coerced into them by an oppressive religious apparatus. Accordingly, fundamentalist believers in the secular era, at least for those intent to reach beyond their church walls, must divide their spiritual attachments, remaking the content of faith in forms amenable to the times and to thereby evangelize those who do not already share the same ideals. Again, for Taylor, like Kristeva, such appeals to belief are not limited to strictly religious domains: We all learn to navigate between two standpoints: an ‘engaged’ one in which we live as best we can the reality our standpoint opens us to; and a ‘disengaged’ one in which we are able to see ourselves as occupying one standpoint among a range of possible ones, with which we have in various ways to coexist.47

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of religious conservativism in the contemporary United States has been the widespread investments in institutions beyond the traditional church, including the development of religious television stations, popular music, private universities, and, of course, film production.48

Biased Beliefs  87 The commitment to engage and perpetuate their own religious institutions, separate from society, while also attempting to make inroads into politics and other aspects of civil life, demonstrates a widespread and often successful political strategy by the religious Right since the 1960s, at least. Despite the religious bias that lies at the core of these projects, their rhetorical posture self-​consciously balances the divide between personal belief and social practice. In other words, evangelicals attempt to construct a new theocratic imaginary, one that self-​consciously admits the basic ambivalence constitutive of fantasy. Too often, the secularist response relies on the fantasmatic blinders of common sense. Prominent atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, among others, have regularly cited religious fundamentalism as the cause of many, if not all, of society’s ills.49 According to these secularist imaginations, we must remove finally the religious “virus” that continues to plague modern democracies, and to thereby produce in the aftermath a viable, living, political organism in which antagonistic social differences are mediated through education, rational debate, the marketplace of ideas, and so on. This hope in a future without religion, however, overlooks the key psychoanalytic insight addressed in this chapter: we cannot do without fantasy, whatever form the fantasy may take. Or the path toward more playful or creative deployments of fantasy—​say, for the purposes of political emancipation rather than religious hierarchy—​requires a willingness to accept the constitutive function of fantasy in human experience. As Paul Eisenstein and Todd McGowan argue, “the key to fighting against the nefarious effects of belief involves promulgating the recognition that it is impossible not to believe, that the political moment as such depends necessarily on an act of belief that can in many respects be described as religious.”50 To do otherwise cedes too much rhetorical and affective ground to the fundamentalist, especially those, like Irwin Moon, who embrace an ambivalent mise en scène as a constitutive feature of their rhetorical performance, appropriating the fantasmatic illusions of others—​say, scientific technique or documentary form—​as a means to remake common sense in a Christian image. To this point, I  have focused primarily on the affective playfulness by which one particular mode of religious fundamentalism—​evangelical creationism in cinematic form—​addresses itself to viewers by mimicking a discourse other than religion. The combination of faith with science, rather than producing an inevitable contradiction by which we may dismiss the entire endeavor as ludicrous, demonstrates instead a more complicated case of creative, ideological performance; or we may notice and learn from

88  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse this counterintuitive combination of terms so long as we remain analytically attuned to the register of pleasure around which the performance circulates. In other words, we must hear in the assertion, You should know better, something in excess of the moralizing command it more immediately and obviously deploys. The call to know better presumes an unquestioned faith in God’s existence, to be sure; yet this belief, as it is presented, is also self-​conscious enough to appropriate the form of its most natural enemy—​ modern science—​as a tool for ideological dissemination, not unlike the neo-​ Nazis who appropriate, for their particular ends, Blood and the Face and its explicit aim of documentary exposure. My central area of focus in Beyond Bias, though, concerns a more complicated mode of rhetorical and ideological mimicry. In conservative hysterical discourse, especially in the case of conservative documentary films that manifest hysterical modes of address, the results are usually much more confusing and incoherent than the conclusions reached by Moon’s appeal to creationism. There is nothing hysterical, inherently, about fundamentalist belief. Though creationism may rest on contradictory arguments, inconclusive evidence, misapplied or misunderstood scientific theories, the goal of such creationist presentations is entirely clear, never in doubt. No matter the problem, the Christian deity always emerges as the solution. Indeed, the apparent absence of doubt and the assuredness by which creationists reach their conclusions may be its most maddening or offensive feature for those outsiders who, wittingly or unwittingly, encounter such potent cases of fundamentalist belief. As I  will claim, creationism functions hysterically, not when it posits its answers as the only answer to life’s questions, but rather when it couches its arguments in the false trappings of compromise.

I Know You Are, but What Am I? The contemporary creationist film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (Nathan Frankowski, 2008)  offers a particularly striking example of hysterical discourse. According to the film’s B-​list celebrity host and narrator, Ben Stein, there is a crisis of freedom in the domains of science and higher education. In the film’s opening sequence, Stein addresses a room of college students as he stresses the centrality of freedom for the American way of life: “Freedom is the essence of America. We’re talking about freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from fear, freedom of religion.” As Stein and the film

Biased Beliefs  89 continue, we learn about an assortment of “persecuted” scientists across the country who have been prevented from pursuing freely their own research agendas. These are scientists, moreover, who seek to offer explanations for life on Earth counter to the theory of Darwinian evolution. The alternative they propose is the theory of “intelligent design,” the idea that the natural world demonstrates signs of “irreducible complexity.” According to this theory, most basically, the planet exhibits countless cases of biological life forms and other natural processes too complex to be explained by the slow process of evolution. As Professor of Science and Religion at Biola University, Paul Nelson, defines it for Stein, “Intelligent design is the study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the result of intelligence . . . or intelligent causation.” Stein’s role in Expelled, then, mirrors that of Maher and Pelosi in Religulous and Friends of God, respectively. He serves as the documentary’s mediator of common sense, that is, common sense with a generally monotheistic, Judeo-​ Christian sentiment, but with no sectarian affiliation. Expelled presumes to expose ideological irrationality and “fundamentalist fanaticism” strictly on the side of those scientists who express (what the film portrays as) an uncritical devotion to Darwin. In other words, evolutionists are described as totalitarian fanatics, and creationists as the revolutionaries fighting for freedom. The film’s seemingly modest proposals in favor of an increase in scientific debate obscures its complete disinterest in the discussions it otherwise appears to invite. The freedom Expelled imagines is precisely a freedom from difference, a freedom to express its ideological viewpoints without the threat of resistance or substantive disagreement. The film arranges for a climactic showdown when Stein interviews evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins. Early in the exchange, Stein asks Dawkins to calculate the odds of God’s existence, a strange request given the latter’s professed atheism, leaving the scientist baffled: Dawkins: I’m not comfortable putting a figure on [the possibility of God’s existence]. I just think it’s very unlikely. Stein: You couldn’t put a number on it? Dawkins: No. Stein: It wouldn’t be 49%? Dawkins: No. It’s unlikely. And it’s quite far from 50%. Stein: How do you know? Dawkins: I don’t know.

90  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse Stein uses the methodological limits of scientific discourse against itself for maximum rhetorical effect. That is, as a scientist, Dawkins cannot reasonably claim God’s inexistence because he can provide no material evidence for such a conclusion; such a judgement would exceed the proper boundaries of his disciplinary discourse. Stein’s line of questioning takes this limitation into account and presents Dawkins’s refusal, manipulatively, as a sign of the atheist’s own unconscious doubt. Even more importantly, Stein will eventually claim, despite the apparent and radical differences between them, he and Dawkins actually share a similar view on the question of life’s origin, even if Dawkins does not realize this himself. Near the interview’s conclusion, Dawkins speculates in response to Stein’s prodding; he allows that an advanced alien civilization of highly intelligent beings could have seeded life on earth and this would explain why, to the outsider observer, nature bears signs suggestive of intelligent causation. In voice-​over narration, Stein marks his surprise at what he deems to be an unexpected victory, “Wait a second. Richard Dawkins thought intelligent design might be a legitimate pursuit?” For Stein, in other words, Dawkins’s speculation about the seeding of life on earth by an alien civilization proves they are actually in agreement, contrary to Dawkins’s own explicit claims to the contrary. If Dawkins cannot admit the fact of their agreement, this is only a sign of his moral failure (as Stein’s voice-​over will further suggest). The debate, as it is structured here, does not clarify the differences between the atheist and the believer. Rather, in a hysterical embrace of incompatibility, Stein claims to have located in Dawkins’s statement the proof that no debate is necessary in the first place. Unlike Moon’s playful appropriation of the scientific apparatus for religious ends, Stein locates in his opponent’s ambivalent remarks an opportunity to obscure the differences between them. Expelled, therefore, provides us with a peculiar documentary form: a mix of expositional commentary and participatory engagement that does not fully identify with its own argument. The call for scientific transparency and democratic debate becomes the means to obscure or deny the scientific evidence of evolution. The intrusion of Stein’s voice-​over, as he narrates the debate, likewise transforms the exchange into a performative monologue where only one side gets the final say. The explicit calls for debate provide a convenient rhetorical screen upon which the film can project its claim that the debate has been settled, specifically, that Dawkins, one of the world’s most prominent atheists, actually believes in the notion of intelligent design, even if Dawkins himself fails to recognize his admission for what it is.

Biased Beliefs  91 The experience of contradiction is a regular feature of subjective life. According to Juliet Mitchell, one of the most universal contradictions of subjective life is our ambivalent associations and interactions with siblings or peers, other individuals who are both like and unlike us. When we fear that our peers may threaten our stable existence, or when they become competitors for the objects we desire, we run the risk of a hysterical reaction. A  hysterical complaint gives voice to this psychic struggle, the difficult if not impossible attempt to distinguish easily or absolutely what I want from what the other wants, and the similarly challenging prospect that the other’s competitive presence poses an absolute limitation on my personal, social, or political agency. For this reason, to recall Joan Copjec’s formulation (Chapter 1), democracy itself is a hystericizing political formation because it promises freedom through representation. However, representation always and inevitably misses a part of what it claims to represent. Democracy, in other words, sustains and perpetuates political failure, even as (and because) it regularly promises a better future to come. The hysterical complaint, as we find it in the particular protests levelled by secular filmmakers against their fundamentalist opponents, marks the nascent realization of this failure. The secular complaints make a fleeting protestation, demonstrating through their reliance on contradicting claims—​You know not what you are doing and You should know better—​a breakdown in the common sense to which they nevertheless hold fast. In the case of Expelled, the same complaint is transformed into a self-​sustaining rhetorical gesture. This is hysteria as a mode of political speech, or what Lacan simply terms the “hysteric’s discourse” (as I discuss more in the next chapter). Hysterical discourse attaches itself to contradiction and magnifies the affective turmoil of ambivalence for the purpose of intersubjective distraction. As Bruce Fink reminds us, “hysteria is not an illness but rather a structure.”51 Or hysteria is a particular way of responding to the anxieties of social and psychic life. Hysterical speech rightly identifies the failure of other individuals, whether peers or authorities, to express themselves without contradiction. With this in mind, we may accept some, though certainly not all, of the ideas developed in Expelled. To be sure, Dawkins is as much an ideologue as any other human being; he is surely driven by impassioned desires as much as he is a scientist with expert knowledge about his field. When Expelled presents Dawkins as someone who succumbs to ambivalence—​in this case, a willingness to speculate about facts not in evidence—​the film thereby marshals a basic psychoanalytic insight in order to bolster its political position. According to the film’s hysterical

92  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse deduction, creationists may continue to believe, without evidence, that their theories are reconcilable with established scientific methods. By demonstrating the other’s lack, over and over again—​I know you are, but what am I?—​the hysteric avoids the leap of faith by which any subject translates bias into belief and thereby becomes one distinct, if always compromised, subject among others. Or, for Ben Stein, his capacity to demonstrate Dawkins’s fallibility masks the fundamental disagreements between evolution and creationism, science and religion, and thereby perpetuates a debate that never properly begins and thereby cannot reach an effective conclusion.

3 Policing with Noise Lacan, Rancière, and Documentary Participation

Hysterical conservative discourse magnifies, perpetuates, and draws political cover by incorporating the trauma of imaginary mimesis into the structure of its ideological performances. In Lacan’s allegory, the child placed before the mirror experiences a hysterical breakdown: the subject’s image is both like and unlike the phenomenal body captured in its reflection. In response to this early onset of hysterical ambivalence—​or hysteria as ambivalence—​ fantasy will serve as a welcome defense for the subject, a bandage covering over but never healing the original split that heralds subjectivity’s troubled constitution. Through the subject’s reliance on any number of external fantasy supports—​the authority of the caretaker or parents, commitment to religion, ascription to some ideology or another—​the subject’s infantile experience of self-​division may locate a variety of stop-​gap measures. By imitating that which precedes or lies before it, the subject may fashion itself after an external form that appears given in advance, relatively stable, eminently more predictable than the embodied experience of subjectivity itself. The form appears to provide a substantive answer to the question, How do I become what I believe I was meant to be? In contrast, hysterical discourse elevates and perpetuates the interrogative. The questions posed toward the authority figure or the ideological apparatus, for the hysteric, are a means without an end. The questions are not asked in good faith, most obviously, because they are typically addressed to the very antagonist whose authority the hysteric denies, as when Ben Stein questions Richard Dawkins with no intention to take seriously anything Dawkins says in response (Chapter 2). Or, put differently, any answers made in response to the hysteric’s questions become the very noise by which the intersubjective exchange fails to reach a meaningful conclusion; the answers will inevitably miss their target. The hystericization of form, crystallized in a battery of questions that resist any answer, poisons the social dynamic it addresses and ensures that all parties involved in the spectacle become progressively uninformed, we might say. Beyond Bias. Scott Krzych, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/​oso/​9780197551219.003.0004

94  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse In the case of conservative films made to attack Michael Moore—​the subject of this chapter—​the documentaries invariably avoid the political problems invoked by their central antagonist. In its place, the films concern themselves almost strictly with Moore’s personality, biography, and cinematic aesthetics. The filmmakers pose various questions concerning Moore’s desire, which produce as a consequence a litany of contradictory speculations in response; when collected, these “answers” amass in a cacophony of incoherence and contradiction that effectively drowns out the political protests contained in Moore’s own films. Moreover, as I will argue, the mimetic gesture of the conservative films—​their reproduction of Moore’s documentary strategies—​further hystericizes the intersubjective and political bond they stage. That is, the mimetic reproduction of Moore’s form provides the semblance of a response, of a political proposition equivalent in kind to the one that precedes it. The performance of the “debate” in these films amount to little more than a spectacular parody: by inverting Moore’s arguments while plagiarizing his style, the conservative films effectively subtract from the exchange its original and underlying political content, leaving untouched the underlying claims offered by their opponent even as the conservative films announce the debate settled, the argument decided, the ideological victory won. Like the other conservative films discussed in this chapter, Manufacturing Dissent (Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk, 2007) attempts to restore a sense of order to the political field in which Moore has produced a disruption. More cautious in its claims and less explicitly antagonistic than, for instance, a film like Michael Moore Hates America (Michael Wilson, 2004), which announces quite explicitly its agenda in advance, Manufacturing Dissent offers what seems, at first glance, to be a reasoned exploration of the media phenomenon of Moore as a documentary filmmaker who has managed to escape from the niche domain of nonfiction film to become an international celebrity and political firebrand. The film’s codirector, Debbie Melnyk, appears on camera as she follows Moore in his travels across the United States, making appearances on college campuses in his aspiration to increase voter turnout for the 2004 presidential election. Melnyk repeatedly tries and fails to gain an audience with Moore, an explicit citation of Moore’s own techniques, most famously his Sisyphean attempts to interview General Motors chairman, Roger Moore, in Roger & Me (Michael Moore, 1989). Between Melnyk’s efforts to catch Moore on his speaking tour, and several scenes of Melnyk making phone calls to Moore’s staff in the vain hope of gaining an interview, Manufacturing

Policing with Noise  95 Dissent is composed primarily of conventional interviews with journalists, film critics, political pundits, and Moore’s former employers and employees, as well as several on-​the-​street interactions with students and protestors at Moore’s public events. Linking these discussions together, the occasional comments made by Melnyk in voice-​over narration clearly privilege the views of those participants in the film who are most critical of Moore; there is no doubt the filmmaker sides with Moore’s detractors. Nevertheless, the film remains relatively balanced in the amount of screen time it affords Moore’s critics and apologists. Yet it is precisely Manufacturing Dissent’s explicit commitment to a balanced representation of opinions, I  claim, which demonstrates the film’s profound ideological bias. The presence of equal and opposite forces—​ Moore’s detractors and defenders—​produces a hermetically sealed media object whose rhetorical cohesiveness works against the very kind of political disruption and dissensus intended by the films of Moore’s provocative early career. In other words, by allowing each side to have its say, Manufacturing Dissent produces the impression that everything has been said. For instance, in the film, Albert Maysles, a pioneer of direct cinema, laments Moore’s manipulative use of surprise interviews. “I think he abuses people,” Maysles notes. “I would expect that many people who have been in his films would prefer they had not been.” In contrast, Kevin Rafferty—​in whose codirected film, Blood in the Face, Moore appeared (Chapter 2)—​excuses Moore’s cinematic eccentricities. Rafferty explains how Moore disregarded the senior filmmaker’s advice by embracing narration and by appearing on camera in his own films; as a consequence, Rafferty blithely admits, Moore’s success has eclipsed his own and “[Moore has] become a much needed voice on the Left.” One filmmaker abhors Moore’s techniques; another lauds them; the former thereby balances out, or negates, the latter. Similar examples of discord appear pervasively throughout the film: film critic Harlan Jacobsen labels Moore a polemicist whose word cannot be trusted, while critic John Pierson affirms Moore’s brand of documentary entertainment for ushering in a new era of cultural relevance for nonfiction film; some residents of Moore’s hometown in Davison, Michigan, despise and disown him, but others take pride in his success; one college student labels his speech slanderous and insulting, but another, at the very same college, upholds Moore’s speech as “eloquent, articulate, and empowering for the student body.” This balancing of opinions, performed by Manufacturing Dissent, provides a vehicle for its participants to have their say. It is a picture of democracy, if we

96  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse read the film generously, in which the many interested parties contribute their voice to the issue at hand. Here we might pause, for a moment, to consider the film’s guiding questions, which prompt these voices to speak in the first place—​specifically, the inquiry the film makes into its particular subject matter. The question “itself needs to be questioned,” as Parveen Adams helpfully notes, if we are to understand the range and possibility of answers that a particular inquiry may encourage or delimit. “What kind of answer is demanded by what type of question? What does the question want with us? Who does the question want us to be? How does the question want us to answer? What relation to truth does the question demand of us?”1 In the case of Manufacturing Dissent, the guiding questions amplify a prescribed area of concern: Michael Moore, his biographical background, his personal foibles and idiosyncrasies, the private motivations behind his political agenda, and so on. By posing the question, “What does Michael Moore want?,” the film produces a long series of opinionated answers whose varied and variable reactions avoid, at every turn, the actual political content evoked by Moore’s films. Rather than addressing such problems as globalization and income inequality (Roger & Me), gun violence and racism (Bowling for Columbine), or the “war on terror” (Fahrenheit 9/​11), Manufacturing Dissent, and the other films I discuss in this chapter, displace the content of Moore’s political speech onto formal and pop-​psychological registers. Unsurprisingly, the films’ guiding question leads its speakers to pose inevitable and endless speculations in response. After all, since the question concerning Moore’s desire seeks to unearth the unconscious motivations for Moore’s political speech, the nature of the question can only produce speculation. Thus, the gesture of balance made by Manufacturing Dissent, as the participants speak in favor or against Moore’s predilections, in support or in dissension of his films’ broader cultural impact, results in a cinematic object whose internal equilibrium becomes the very means by which it obscures, polices, and renders inarticulate the political speech entailed by Moore’s cinematic polemics. Here, balance is decidedly biased, privileging a return to the personal at the cost of the political, convincing its viewers, through an excessively cautious consideration of Moore the individual, that, as it concerns political content, there is nothing (else) to see here. In the following chapter, I  draw on the political philosophy of Jacques Rancière, in combination with Jacques Lacan’s account of hysterical discourse, to examine the gesture of balance as it operates in conservative political media as a mode of aesthetic policing. For Rancière, of course, to police

Policing with Noise  97 the political is to avoid at all costs the very emergence of the political in its antagonistic dimension. If politics occurs at the sensible site at which “the part who have no part” nevertheless claim an active voice in the political realm, the police function to deny the significance of such an emergence and to subtract from such protests the very antagonism they seek to foment. Where the political agent or movement cites a problem in need of correction, the police respond in affirmation of the status quo. The police distribution of the sensible, as Rancière describes it, “is thus first an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying, and sees that those bodies are assigned by name to a particular place and task; it is an order of the visible and the sayable.”2 Everything already has a place, everyone already has a role, or so goes the logic of the police. In response to a call for political action—​the claim that a wrong need be addressed, that something new must be said to undo, complicate, or otherwise trouble the established state of affairs—​the police might be heard as responding with the depoliticizing claim: all that need be said has already been said before. Thus, policing the political, Nico Baumbach writes, “means simply the framing of a common world deprived of its polemical dimension.”3 Or, in the case of Manufacturing Dissent, the subject (or subjectivity) in question remains, solely, the idiosyncratic desires of a particular filmmaker, who, like any other subject, cannot account fully for his own unconscious biases. Moore knows not what he is doing, we are told again and again. Pop psychology thereby becomes the means for opinionated discussions and debates about Moore that never arise to the level of a substantial political disagreement. If we remain solely and singularly focused on the identity of the filmmaker, as the conservative cinematic rebuttals encourage us to do, then the content of the original political speech and the wrongs it sought to address may pass by the wayside. Or this is the aesthetic work the act of policing performs. Rancière’s prolific contribution to political philosophy compels us to take seriously, then, the profound implication of aesthetics with politics, “because any system of representation is a carrier of a normative set of assumptions about political inclusivity and exclusivity expressed in terms of who or what counts as worthy of perceptibility and sensibility.”4 In light of conservative rebuttals offered against Moore, the emphasis the films place on Moore’s personality, biography, appearance, and documentary style accomplishes at least two things at once. First, it attacks and discredits a prominent, though certainly flawed, speaker on the American political Left. Second, it affirms, by virtue of the very emphasis placed on Moore’s individuality, that such a

98  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse topic qualifies as a significant matter of (depoliticized) concern in the first place. The argument the films present about Moore, in other words, through its staging, presentation, and performance, implies that this argument is one deserving of our time and attention. Lacan’s account of discourse, I claim, expands Rancière’s aesthetic politics in important ways. Throughout his work, Rancière tends to make recourse to a binary account of political contestation: the State or the elite who police the sensible realm in order to maintain the status quo, on the one hand, and, one the other, the political agents who attempt to instigate a change to the status quo precisely through their demand to be heard, seen, or felt by those in power. How then will this political disturbance be articulated? If the police are successful, the disturbance remains nothing but noise; its clamor may be unsettling or irritating, like that of an animal’s painful wails, but does not arise to an articulate expression made by a democratic equal. Thus, if “properly” policed, Moore’s critiques of George W. Bush will not be heard as critiques but rather as the bare, libidinal inarticulations of a brute beast. Yet Rancière typically describes noise as what becomes, or remains, of an unsuccessful attempt by the uncounted to allege a sociopolitical wrong. Noise persists when the police have done their job. By contrast, the conservative attacks on Moore, I claim, effectively patrol the political domain they defend precisely by using hysterical and unanswerable questions to produce the noise necessary to drown out Moore’s own political voice and those of his political allies. Lacan’s account of the structure of hysterical discourse thereby provides an important addendum to Rancière’s political aesthetics. Performed at a hysterical octave, as we will see, noise itself can be an effective means for policing the political.

Representative Arguments Moore’s eschewal of documentary conventions—​his explicit interest to inform and entertain—​excited audiences as much as it troubled critics, regardless of the latter’s political affiliations. In response to his first feature-​length documentaries, even some critics who were otherwise aligned with Moore’s politics expressed reservations about his methods. To be sure, Moore regularly takes liberties with documentary form; across his body of work, he often blurs the boundaries between opinion and fact, expert knowledge and amateur performance, and his historical “timelines” sometimes privilege affective

Policing with Noise  99 impact over accuracy. Frequent and serious criticism levelled against Moore, as I survey later, has even claimed that his manipulations go so far as to disqualify his films as nonfiction. Accordingly, before I turn to the more inflammatory responses and rebuttals offered against Moore by his explicitly conservative antagonists, I  want to consider the more sober critiques of Moore and the sometimes tenuous line of demarcation presumed to separate documentary from its fictional counterparts. Separate from the provocative nature of Moore’s own films, documentary scholars have faced a difficult task, more generally, in their attempt to establish definitive categories to distinguish fiction from nonfiction. Several prominent scholars have defined documentary as a specifically argumentative genre. Documentary films present arguments about the historical world, in contrast to fiction films, the latter which deploy imaginative scenarios whose references to the real world are only metaphorical. According to Bill Nichols, documentaries present arguments about the world as it was, is, or could be. In contrast to fiction films, which achieve “a ‘reality effect’ by sprinkling doses of authentic historical references across the realm of its creation . . . the same references within documentary serve as tangible evidence from the historical world in support of an argument.”5 Carl Plantinga also appeals to documentary’s argumentative status against “postmodern skeptics” who would claim that nonfiction film entails inherent discursive biases that render them untrustworthy as historical documents.6 “Nonfiction film makes no claim to reproduce the real,” Plantinga writes, “but rather makes claims about the ‘real,’ just as any nonfiction communication does.”7 Drawing from Plantinga, Paul Ward also describes documentary’s appeal to historical truth as limited in scope by the intersubjective contexts of any speech act: “The only unchanging thing about documentary is that it is a form that makes assertions or truth claims about the real world or real people in that world.”8 Documentary’s recourse to argumentation is the fundamental characteristic of its categorical definition, the argument goes. This definition seems immediately tenuous, however. Where precisely are we to locate any given documentary’s argument and thereby confirm its status as documentary? In the film? In extrinsic comments made by the filmmakers? At the site of reception? With exactly these questions in mind, Plantinga admits the social circumstances upon which any definition of documentary will rest. “We may find nothing intrinsic in a film or book that clearly marks it as fiction or nonfiction,” Plantinga recognizes. “The distinction between fiction and nonfiction is not based solely on intrinsic textual properties, but also on the

100  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse extrinsic context of production, distribution, and reception.”9 Among these extrinsic contexts, Plantinga privileges, most of all, how a particular film is “indexed”; that is, how the film is described or identified by those who make and distribute it. Thus, for Plantinga, when a film seems to document real-​ world events, and when it likewise indexes itself as nonfiction—​say, when a producer submits a film to a festival in the category of documentary, or when it appears under the banner of documentary on a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu—​then an audience can reasonably presume that the film is a documentary. If this definition by Plantinga sounds subjective, if not tautological, especially for someone affiliated with such other authors as David Bordwell and Noël Caroll, whose polemics against Grand Theory decried poststructuralists for their unscientific claims about film and culture, it is, indeed, a rather puzzling claim.10 Yet, for Plantinga, there is little cause for concern because the social reaction to indexes and the underlying assertions on which such indexes are based remain relatively stable over time; they are not open to inexorable interpretation and are limited by reasonable and predictable boundaries. Plantinga thereby makes recourse to several representative examples to bolster his case. Specifically, Plantinga notes, if David Lynch indexed Eraserhead (1977) as nonfiction, then no one would be so foolish as to take him at his word.11 Plantinga feels assured by the proclivity for most films to achieve immediate consensus concerning their indexical status as either fiction or nonfiction, and to represent adequately and without controversy the paradigm they are presumed to exemplify. Though we may occasionally encounter borderline cases, these examples need not trouble us, Plantinga holds, so long as the definition of documentary remains open to correction or modification. Defending this loose categorization, Plantinga writes, “A distinction with fuzzy boundaries is no less a distinction; central examples of the separate genres still exhibit the differences on which the distinction is based.”12 Put differently, so long as the majority of representative cases affirm the category’s central terms and guiding definitions, then we may simply deal with those occasional outliers on a case-​by-​case basis. If we weren’t already suspicious about Plantinga’s argument, his discussion encounters further complications when he turns to a specifically unrepresentative example of documentary film. Tellingly, Plantinga refers to JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991) as one particular case where a film resists easy categorization as fiction because it exhibits features of both fiction and nonfiction. As we will recall, the controversial film asserts the existence of a widespread conspiracy within the US government to assassinate President Kennedy

Policing with Noise  101 and pin the murder on an innocent Lee Harvey Oswald. The film’s fusion of fiction and nonfiction, including archival footage juxtaposed with staged scenes performed by professional actors, leads its audiences into confusion, Plantinga claims. Spectators cannot be “sure what to take as hypothetical speculations and what to take as truth claims.”13 Glossing quickly over the film’s political implications, Plantinga offers a decidedly balanced precis of the film’s critical reception: some critics worried that audiences would witlessly accept everything presented in JFK as fact, even its most speculative claims of governmental conspiracy; others lauded the film’s pedagogical capacities, leading viewers to scrutinize more carefully the manipulative potential of any representation, including the official government narrative the film disputes. “The point is that in this postmodern age,” Plantinga concludes, “such intermixtures [of fiction and nonfiction, speculation and fact] have become increasingly common.”14 To be sure, Plantinga’s reference to JFK is intended merely as a brief illustration of his schema’s categorical flexibility. After establishing the relatively precise, though somewhat flexible, boundaries that define documentary from fiction film, Plantinga points to JFK as an example of a film that resists easy categorization. If I seem to take too seriously what amounts to a brief digression in Plantinga’s text, I do so to demonstrate the inherently political gesture entailed in this act of aesthetic classification. By treating a politically controversial film as aesthetically marginal, unclassifiable according to the terms he has put forth, Plantinga reduces the political volume of Stone’s polemic, relegating the film to the outskirts of his categorical system—​ transforming it into something like white noise, to invoke Rancière. Thus, in Plantinga’s text about documentary form, which explicitly concerns aesthetic categorization rather than political contestation, the political import of aesthetic sensibility is on display nevertheless. JFK is relegated neither to the domain of pure fiction, nor is it welcomed into the sober province of nonfiction or documentary; instead, the film is left to linger somewhere in between. The film thereby loses, in this accounting, the benefits attributed to either generic mode: the assertive claims upon historical reality (if deemed nonfiction) or allegorical charge and metaphorical insight (if qualified as fiction). Whether he intends to do so or not, Plantinga’s aesthetic categorization entails an act of political policing, I claim, precisely for how its seemingly balanced recourse to the unrepresentative example of JFK subtracts from the film its polemical dimension. Faced with an object that threatens to create an imbalance in a classificatory system, the film is denied a capacity to appear

102  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse in a substantive manner; in Plantinga’s handling, the film is an outlier that proves the rule (and only the rule) and in so doing remains in limbo, silenced in its very marginal status. The emphasis on the film’s aesthetics in contrast to its politics thereby obscures, or polices, the intersection of politics with aesthetics invoked by the film, which, if read differently, JFK exemplifies quite potently.15 As I argued in Chapter 2, common sense does merely describe a form of judgment; it also produces the very judgment it describes. Common sense may be understood as both a noun and a verb. When we invoke the common, we typically do so in order to reassert balance in the face of disruption, like an insurance policy mollifying the risk of a hysterical breakdown. Faced with the reality of political antagonism—​the existence of the other who is both like and unlike me—​common sense is the motive force of fantasy; it re-​establishes an order of appearance in which an antagonist is discarded as merely an anomaly or an outlier whose marginal existence does not require any alteration to the conventional terms, definitions, or categories of appearance as they already exist. Or so goes the police aesthetic that common sense works to uphold. In the seemingly narrow example of documentary and its definition, the rhetoric of common sense attaches itself forcefully to the representative example. The representative example is typical, paradigmatic, and exemplary, presumed to prove the rule it illustrates by virtue of its very existence. However, if the example embodies the definition it is said to uphold, it does not typically speak, on its own, for itself, in any significant manner, at least when marshalled for the purpose of categorical illustration. What the representative represents, in other words, is presumed to be immediate and undeniable, saving the one who names it as such the task of argumentation. If the example is “good enough,” then nothing else need be said further. Definition established, argument settled. For Plantinga, Harlan County (Barbara Kopple, 1976) is as representative a case of nonfiction as Eraserhead is of fiction. For a film like JFK, however, the film’s inability to represent clearly one side or the other of a binary definition precludes, in advance, its capacity for effective political speech, at least according to the terms prescribed. In its status as unrepresentative of an established category, it can claim no right of political representation, or so the tautology goes. For Rancière, of course, political demands for equality and emancipation cannot help but speak, act, protest, or otherwise appear in manners and forms at odds with common sense. Political speech attempts to represent what has hitherto been unrepresentable according to the dictates of the ruling police order. By its very nature, politics demands the “construction

Policing with Noise  103 of new capacities” by which the so-​called anomalous becomes treated as a part of the common rather than a deviation from it.16 Here is Rancière: “This is what a process of political subjectivation consists in: in the action of uncounted capacities that crack open the unity of the given and the obviousness of the visible, in order to sketch a new topography of the possible.”17 The strong correlation between politics and the new, as Rancière conceives it, clarifies the regressive and reactionary role of the police who resist its emergence. The conventions and strictures by which the new is avoided, the status quo maintained, occurs not through any direct encounter between the establishment and those who speak on behalf of emancipation, but precisely through the subtraction of the political from those who speak in favor of politics, the treatment of these “others” and their speech as unrepresentative of the common. The activity of the police, Peter Hallward notes, is inherently counterpolitical and “is first and foremost anti-​spectacular.”18 Political agents claim a wrong deserving of redress and in so doing disrupt the normal order of social arrangement. The police respond against such a spectacle by denying its spectacular status: what we hear, the police claim, is either the nonsensical noise of someone or something, who does not deserve to speak; or it is a disruption inappropriate to the time and place in which it occurs. Or, in the case of Plantinga’s definition of documentary, any film that does fit smoothly or easily into accepted categories of fiction or nonfiction is left by the wayside as unclassifiable. Importantly, the anti-​spectacular gesture of the police may very well accept the explicit argument or arguments made by a political speaker. Put differently, accepting the terms of protest may be just one effective strategy, among others, to relegate the protest to the margins. For example, one typical response in conservative media to the election of Barack Obama was to claim that the ascendency of the first African American to the presidency was nothing to get excited about; it was just further proof that the United States was already a postracial society. This anti-​spectacular gesture doubled as a dismissal of the historical event entailed by Obama’s election and as a means to dampen more serious attention to the histories of slavery, institutionalized racism, and white supremacy. In other words, conservative speakers, who were just as likely to describe the United States as postracist prior to Obama, only admitted the credence of the country’s racist past at the very moment they declared this history surpassed or transcended. The aesthetic mode of policing need not construct a false consciousness in the minds of those it interpellates; it need not necessarily propose a wholly imaginary or alternate reality in contrast to the real one before our eyes. It may simply seek to

104  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse subtract the political valence of the object or scene on display. Where political antagonism calls for the new or the never before seen, the policing of the political responds, We’ve seen this all before. There is nothing (new) to see here. Critical reaction to the early cinematic provocations of Michael Moore operates in a similar fashion. Moore’s unconventional stylistic and structural choices provide evidence for mainstream critics to disqualify his films as documentary or nonfiction. My intention here, to be clear, is not to endorse all of Moore’s political positions or cinematic conceits. Instead, I intend to highlight precisely the challenge Moore poses to conventional wisdom or common sense—​whether such friction appears within the films as he interacts with his unsuspecting targets, or without, when critics struggle to decide how best to index, categorize, or otherwise define his films. One of the most significant, if overlooked, products of Moore’s early career, I claim, is the precise manner by which Moore elicits nonsense or noise from the very individuals presumed to speak on behalf of common sense. By provoking an encounter with the unrepresentable within the political speech of those presumed to speak with authority, Moore hystericizes both his political opponents and the critics who struggle to categorize the films after the fact.

Michael Moore’s Biases Staunch conservatives were not alone in their condemnation of Moore’s penchant for political theater. Many mainstream film critics also raised serious concerns about Moore’s embrace of spectacle at the cost, they claimed, of historical facts and observational neutrality. Most infamously, Harlan Jacobson lambasted Moore’s false chronology of events in his breakout film, Roger & Me.19 The documentary, Moore’s directorial debut, charts the economic decline of Flint, Michigan, in the aftermath of the decision by General Motors to relocate many of its automotive production facilities from Flint (and other US cities) to Mexico. Memorably, Moore personalizes the documentary exposé by caricaturing Roger Smith, the chairman of GM at the time, as the film’s central villain. Moore repeatedly tries and fails to gain an audience with Smith, and his inability to converse with Smith becomes emblematic of Roger & Me’s guiding metaphor: the impassable gulf between management and labor or, more specifically, the gap between the corporate elite whose decisions deeply impact the lives of actual workers. The film’s concluding images effectively represent the extreme disparity between corporate

Policing with Noise  105 privilege and working-​class precarity: while Smith celebrates with other GM executives at an extravagant company Christmas party, Moore intercuts scenes of former GM workers, now unemployed, as they are evicted from their homes and left vulnerable to the winter cold. Critics also objected to Moore’s treatment of “everyday” people through his regular reliance on impromptu interviews, which often catch his subjects by surprise, ill-​prepared for the battery of questions Moore lobs their way. Pauline Kael takes offense when Moore catches individuals unaware, poses difficult questions to them, and keeps the camera rolling as they flounder. As Kael laments, Moore “deadpans his way through interviews with an assortment of unlikely people, who are used as stooges, as filler.”20 Memorably, in Roger & Me, Moore corners Miss Michigan, Kaye Rafko, after her appearance at a parade in downtown Flint. Her inability to provide thoughtful answers to Moore’s questions about the city’s economic woes, Kael argues, reveals neither her naiveté nor her lack of empathy, despite Moore’s attempt to color Miss Michigan as narcissistically out of touch. In Kael’s estimation, the exchange merely provides Moore the opportunity to project an image of himself as the film’s lone champion of the working class. Matthew Bernstein likewise judges Moore’s impromptu interviews to be a simulacrum of dialogue; the false semblance of improvisation masks the director’s dictatorial and didactic control over the film’s exposition. “Every encounter,” Bernstein finds, “serves to illustrate Moore’s preconceived thesis about the people on the camera and their milieu. There is no possibility of contradicting his position or creating nuances around it.”21 According to these critiques, the traps Moore lays for his interlocutors allow no room for substantive disagreement or debate. Miss Michigan in Roger & Me, or an aging Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine, is not adequately prepared to serve as a representative of the viewpoints Moore so quickly dismantles and dismisses. His rhetorical success relies on a mirage of dialogue that is entirely one-​sided, an inequitable transaction in which Moore maintains total control over the camera, microphone, and the scene’s eventual editing. We may notice in these critiques, however, a tendency to describe political speech in severely restrictive terms. The proper stage for debate, Moore’s critics suggest, requires adequate time, preparation, and, most importantly, a chance for the parties involved to put forward representatives well-​suited to argue on behalf of their respective cause; or they should at least be afforded the opportunity to decline participation. Moore’s critics, in other words, call for a return to dialogic balance that might mollify the filmmaker’s alleged

106  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse biases and the disruptions his biases tend to produce. My suggestion, to the contrary, is that the instigation of unpredictability and imbalance is precisely the most useful feature of Moore’s political interventions. Particularly in Roger & Me, the film effectively provokes the inarticulate nonsense that often underlies the rhetoric of neutrality, objectivity, or balance. In other words, the very ideals of common sense on which Moore’s critics rely are precisely what his films so effectively dismantle. Consider, for instance, the so-​called representative example of Moore’s bias and manipulation (for Pauline Kael, at least): when he catches Rafko, the future Miss America, by surprise. In the sequence in which Rafko will eventually appear, Moore first establishes the historical context. As we watch a parade bisect Flint’s downtown space, he notes in voice-​over narration the perversity of the display. As local and regional celebrities amble past the onlookers, Michigan’s governor among them, the procession is bracketed physically on both sides by shuttered businesses; Moore thereby seeks to reorient the viewer’s attention toward the perverse juxtaposition of civic spectacle and economic devastation. He likewise catches the governor and local union president on camera; both the State’s highest elected official and the spokesperson for local workers agree that a union strike is not a viable option in response to the factory closings, even as the parade in which they participate explicitly celebrates a successful automotive strike from 1936. The consistent and pervasive message, on all sides—​or at least for the sides prominent enough to have representatives speak on their behalf—​denies any fundamental imbalance in the city’s economic situation. Though times may be hard, nothing can be done to change this unfortunate fact. Enjoy the parade, they seem to say, because there is nothing else worth talking about here. In Roger & Me’s rendering of the public pageantry, then, noise seems inextricably tied to the police apparatus itself: the establishment, its spokespersons, and the broader aesthetic logic they work to perpetuate. Moore’s camera thereby compels us to see what the establishment asks us to dismiss: how policing with noise bypasses, in a parade of cognitive and aesthetic dissonance, the material reality of income inequality, globalization, and the denial of workers’ rights. Look at and enjoy the parade. There is nothing (else) to see here, no problems to solve, no broader sociopolitical issues to address. With this in mind, Moore’s interaction with Rafko captures a different kind of noise, one whose volume and pitch do not rise to the level of the parade’s spectacular display, but which are depoliticizing all the same (Figure 3.1). In response to Moore’s line of questioning, Rafko has nothing substantial to

Policing with Noise  107

Figure 3.1  Roger & Me (1989). Michael Moore catches Kay Rafko offguard after her appearance in the Flint parade.

say about the economic crisis faced by the city’s workers and seems more comfortable talking about her upcoming competition in the Miss America pageant. Moore: How does it feel, driving through Flint, Michigan, today [with] so many people being laid off, so many plants being shut down? Rafko: How does it feel? I feel like a big supporter. Moore: But you go past so many stores that are boarded up and people who are laid off. How does that make you feel, just on a personal level? Rafko: A little sad, of course. I’m for employment and working in Michigan. And hopefully [the unemployment problem is] just temporary. I just keep my fingers crossed that they’ll be back working soon. I’m trying to stay neutral here:  I’m going to Miss America in two weeks. Undoubtedly, Moore’s questions in this setting are unfair, misleading, and likewise intended to produce the kind of nonsensical response Rafko readily

108  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse provides. The empty clichés—​she’s for employment, she’s keeping her fingers crossed for the unemployed—​say nothing of substance about the precarious lives of those people for whom the parade, in which she just participated moments ago, is intended to provide a momentary distraction. We may admit, certainly, that Moore’s strategies are manipulative. But might we also admit Moore’s manipulation, forgive Rafko for her clumsy answers to questions she did not anticipate, and then, nevertheless, take insight from the nonsensical speech the scene foregrounds. Rafko’s speech responds to questions of political concern with a battery of non sequiturs, clichés, and an eventual turn to the idiosyncratic and the personal—​this individual’s self-​ interests, which cannot be aligned smoothly, meaningfully, in balance with the privileged position she occupies, at least not in the presence of Moore’s satirical questions and recording camera. In other words, Moore’s obvious biases produce more biases in return: the fissure in language when a subject attempts to discuss matters about which she has little insight or knowledge but, because of her privileged position, she nevertheless feels compelled to provide a response when questioned. We may therefore accept the criticisms lodged against Moore: he knows what he is doing and his project is informed by a preconceived political agenda. Yet his manipulations nevertheless produce insightful moments of contingency, the unpredictable exchanges that occur when a subject speaks nonsense in favor of the status quo and in service to his or her particular self-​ interest. Rafko knows not what she is saying as she says it, but she continues to speak anyway. This speech, in its inarticulate and incoherent noise, bolsters and reinscribes the sensible logic of the police more spectacularly displayed in the downtown parade. The governor, the union spokesperson, and the future Miss America manage to say nothing of consequence in response to Moore’s prodding. But the inconsequential rhetoric nevertheless carries real, material consequences, especially if the empty speech manages to drown out alternative or competing voices. Roger & Me thereby suggests an important addendum to Rancière: noise, in its political significance, may manifest in a variety of different magnitudes, modulations, frequencies, or tones. As I have already noted, Rancière describes noise as that which becomes, or remains, of political speech when the police successfully maintain the aesthetic status quo. For Rancière, moreover, noise tends to describe the utterance of a subject who lacks recognition as a fully realized citizen of the State, more animal and creaturely flesh than an agent capable of expressing his or her will, let alone one who may lodge a democratic complaint or instantiate

Policing with Noise  109 disagreement. Indeed, noise often appears in Rancière’s texts as the sonorous expression of bare life, something “expressing pleasure or pain,” but most often as an index of aggravation or discontent. Such a guttural sound, however, does not rise to the level of articulate speech and cannot lay claim to the category of effective or viable political representation.22 With this analysis of Roger & Me in mind, we might consider other modes of policing and how they produce varieties of noise as a consequence, particularly in the examples that drive my discussion in this chapter thus far. When Plantinga establishes the boundaries defining nonfiction, excluding from the domain of documentary such genre-​bending films as JFK, for instance, the film and its political intentions become relegated to the margins as an aesthetic anomaly. The anti-​political gesture of the documentary scholar, we might say, reduces the volume and pitch intended by Stone’s provocative cinematic gestures. Noise, in this case, may describe the relative amplification of a political performance; critics of JFK may not completely erase it from existence, but they may manage to dampen its resonance and limit its reverberations. In other contexts less obviously political than those addressed by Rancière in his discussion of the police, noise might usefully describe speech that bears all the hallmarks of viable language but lacks the depth and consideration of critical thought. In academia, we may be reminded of the noisiness of students who are intent, above all else, to achieve passing grades; their performative utterances, often mimicking those of their instructor, seek to achieve successful academic marks but may likewise be at odds with intellectual depth, consideration, or rigor. In this case, noise might identify the form of mindless babble or murmur that occurs when students ventriloquize what they believe they are supposed to say in order to receive passing grade—​ indeed, as I argue later, Rancière’s consideration in The Ignorant Schoolmaster of exactly this kind of educational problem bears further relevance to the hysterically conservative attacks on Moore. Or, in the case of Roger & Me, Rafko’s stated intention to “remain neutral” in advance of the Miss America pageant functions more like white noise; she wants to avoid saying anything that could be construed as substantial and thus liable to produce a (political) reaction—​indeed, she succeeds by saying nothing (of substance). With these examples in mind, I propose to expand Rancière’s discussion of noise beyond his usual own application of the term. At times, noise effectively describes the clamor of an inarticulate disturbance, unable to achieve coherence when faced with an oppressive apparatus of aesthetic policing. Elsewhere, noise may better be understood as speech too articulate for its

110  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse own good, so self-​contained as to inhibit the opportunity for the contingencies of thoughtful experimentation or creativity, like a political talking point that reduces a complex social problem into a pithy cliché or stock image (Chapter  5). Or noise may simply function as a mode of political performance so loud as to drown out all other voices in its vicinity, even to the extent of making its own content impossible to discern. In a psychoanalytic setting, of course, we might understand noise as exactly what the analyst prompts the analysand to produce. In analysis, noise is constitutive of treatment; the patient’s empty speech provides the very material upon which analytic interpretation relies in order, eventually, to bring the patient into a more direct and immediate relationship to his or her desire. Psychoanalysis thus invites the patient to engage directly with his or her nonsense; specifically, the noisy incoherence of free association. As Todd McGowan estimates, “A gap exists between what the subject knows and what it says. In the act of speaking, the subject says more than it consciously knows, and this excess is the unconscious—​a knowledge that the subject has without knowing it.”23 In the context of the clinic and what Lacan terms the analyst’s discourse, such free and open expression is welcomed, if not demanded. As I have been intent to show, the particular resonance and impact of noisy speech depend significantly on the context in which that speech occurs. In some circumstances, noise may be disruptive or function as a barrier to substantive exchange; in other circumstances, noise may provide the very basis for meaningful dialogue, as it certainly does in the analytic clinic. Indeed, Lacan’s theory of discourse directly concerns the social dynamics by which speech, noise, and desire resonate in different ways and with different potential effects, depending in large part on who does the speaking and to what end the speech is intended to serve.

Noise and Lacan’s Theory of Discourse Lacan’s account of social discourse, developed most comprehensively in Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, provides a broad means to interrogate the link between certain social structures and their capacity to control, displace, or generate noise. In the Seminar, Lacan focuses on four modes of discourse that are intimately interrelated, teasing out the various ways in which these particular social bonds encourage certain intersubjective effects over others. As Elizabeth Cowie notes, “Each discourse is a communication

Policing with Noise  111 whereby an agent addresses an other to a certain effect, a product, in the addressee—​an understanding, which might produce a responding action.”24 Lacan names each discourse according to the agent—​master, university, hysteric, or analyst—​whose dominating presence propels the discourse forward, delimiting in advance the kinds of reactions available to the intended audience. The word noise appears nowhere in Lacan’s text, of course. Yet the term, borrowed and expanded upon from Rancière’s original definition, provides a helpful blueprint by which to elucidate Lacan’s four discourses. We might understand the master’s discourse, for instance, as a discursive structure intended to repress noise and deny absolutely its existence. In the master’s discourse, as Lacan conceives it, an otherwise fallible human being enjoys an unassailable position of authority granted to him or her by a hegemonic institution. In this social arrangement, what a master says is less important than the position (of authority) from which the master speaks. To be sure, nothing ensures that such speech, offered in the guise of mastery, will produce its intended results; the master, so called, cannot guarantee a response untroubled by ambiguity or contradiction. However, what the master assumes and likewise performs for an audience, in order to ascend to the discourse of mastery, is precisely the absence of ambiguity, contradiction, or noise at the origin of his or her speech. The discourse of mastery presumes an uncomplicated relationship to truth. I am that I am is a claim of mastery, par excellence. Lacan formalizes this discursive arrangement as follows: S1   →   S2 S⁄        a

In order to understand the operative terms in Lacan’s formulation, we could apply the schema to one of its most obvious settings: a religious one. A priest who wears clerical garb and speaks from the pulpit draws his authority from the master signifier (S1) of the religion for whom he serves as a representative. Beneath the surface, repressed, the priest remains a divided subject (S⁄ ), a being propelled by desire just like any of the congregants who sit in the mass. (In each schema of Lacan’s four discourses, whatever appears below the bar, on the left, is the site of truth, the repressed reality whose repression makes possible the discourse’s entire operation.) The string of signifiers (S2) that emerge from a priest’s performance before an audience, then, is secondary in importance to the authoritative site from which the speech originates; to the extent that a priest’s speech enacts the master’s discourse, his performance

112  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse reiterates a truth never placed in doubt, always already validated by the master signifier, at least if it is to claim the mantle of mastery. The string of signifiers (S2), or what Lacan also terms knowledge, provides the necessary content for the master’s speech but entails no independent truth-​value of its own. As Lacan put it, “A real master doesn’t desire to know anything at all—​he desires that things work.”25 In a conventional religious setting, what matters, in other words, is that the congregation listens to the sermon, abides by the religious decrees, and, most importantly, continues to affirm the master’s position as master. Even if the individual congregants experience varying degrees of affective response to the religious discourse, the existence of such disparate reactions does not necessarily challenge the master’s status. Indeed, a range of reactions may further affirm the discourse of mastery: a devotee who affirms everything the master says is no more caught in the logic of the discourse as the one who grumbles, expresses discontent, but nevertheless makes no attempt to depose the authoritative figure. This byproduct of the master’s discourse is identified by Lacan in the scheme as an experience of surplus enjoyment (a). The objet petit a identifies the surplus effects of the master’s speech: whether positive, negative, or indifferent, the congregants’ emotional reactions derive from their position relative to the social situation. For readers uninitiated into Lacan’s theory of discourse, his schema may appear at first glance to be overly abstract. How could this algebraic arrangement of variable terms have anything to say about the contingencies of human interaction? What is this formulation if not an exemplary case of psychoanalytic theory developed in an intellectual or academic vacuum, divorced from everyday experience, reducing the real life of complex individuals into ahistorical formulas or categories? To these and other potential complaints, I offer the following apology. First, Lacan’s theory of discourse, rather than translating social interaction into an abstract formula, seeks instead to establish an analytic framework by which to clarify and delineate the ambiguities, antagonisms, misinterpretations, and other noise operative within social acts of communication. Each of the four discourses, the master’s included, presumes that any and all symbolic discourse entails the inherent potential for failure because “they never say things directly.”26 While Lacan, in his early career, tended to describe such communicative failure as a product of the subject’s capture in language—​the subject of the signifier, to be exact—​Seminar XVII expands on this founding structuralist concept. The subject of the signifier is also subject to certain social structures in which the dominant voice within that structure

Policing with Noise  113 deploys its acts of signification in different ways, producing different hegemonic arrangements and likewise delimiting the sphere of action as a result. “What Lacan calls ‘discourse,’ ” Slavoj Žižek explains, “is not simply a specific form of speech but the underlying structure of the social link that situates the speaker and the addressee.”27 Rather than a rigid or deterministic account of social discourse, Lacan’s schemata stress the unpredictability of social bonds while also recognizing that certain social arrangements produce different, discernible effects. As Paul Verhaeghe explains, failures of communication often result from the formal context in which speech emerges and aims at an elusive target: “Every discourse is an open-​ended structure, in which the open-​endedness functions as a causal factor.”28 In the master’s discourse, the intention behind the performance does not seek to convince its audience of anything; rather, if the discourse of mastery is convincing or effective, its authoritative demeanor never stoops to the level of persuasion; it is convincing, when it is convincing, precisely because it expends no effort to be convincing; the disinterest in persuasion may be the master’s most persuasive technique. By contrast, as we will see, the rhetoric of university discourse relies more obviously on persuasion because it operates according to the logic of expertise rather than on unqualified or unquestionable sovereignty. The discourse of the university attempts explicitly—​in full view—​to construct a position of authority taken for granted in the master’s discourse. Thus, we might say, conventional religion, in its appeals to mastery, tends to quell and repress the very kind of noise that the university strives to produce. Another benefit entailed by Lacan’s theory of discourse derives from his establishment of the key terms whose relative position in the four schema allows for comparative analysis and insight. Inevitable comparisons and contrasts emerge when we examine any single discourse in relation to the others Lacan identifies. Each of the four discourses includes the same four terms—​master signifier (S1), knowledge (S2), the subject (S⁄ ), and surplus enjoyment (a)—​arranged in different relationships depending on the position occupied by the discourse’s primary speaker or agent. In the case of the master’s discourse, and maintaining our religious example, the priest assumes authority under the master signifier despite his existence as a divided or barred subject (S⁄ ), no different from his congregants. The discourse of mastery, however, obscures this reality, such that the priest need not even believe his own words in order for his performance to be effective: “The concrete subject-​master is instituted by the signifier, and draws its power not from any of his or her inner abilities, but solely from the signifier itself.”29 The

114  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse symbolic title guarantees the priest’s authoritative speech; thus, the master’s discourse offers a formal reiteration of Lacan’s notion that “a signifier is what represents the subject to another signifier.”30 In university discourse, in contrast to the master, knowledge (S2) inhabits the privileged position from which speech originates, and this structural change produces corresponding effects on any social setting that deploys this discourse. Most immediately, university discourse (which we may treat as synonymous with science and capitalism) engages directly with ambiguity, posing questions in order to better understand the world (S2 → a). In contrast to the explicit denial of ambiguity by the master, Lacan’s conception of university discourse theorizes a hierarchical system that takes the form of free and open inquiry. Ambiguity or noise is not a problem for the educational apparatus; rather, it takes such excesses as its proper object of study, organized around an implicit desire to identify or understand what has hitherto remained obscured or unarticulated. Like the algorithms that underpin contemporary search engines, in which virtually any human activity may become fodder for its information processing and the data crunching that, most often, seeks to link consumers with corporate advertisers, university discourse seeks ever-​new objects of study without necessarily admitting the guiding ideal that drives it. Moore’s body of work, as we have seen from the critical reactions to his films, takes an unusual tack in its peculiar approach to the investigation, representation, and reproduction of knowledge. Indeed, we might notice how this peculiarity might be understood to exemplify the structure of university discourse—​but in a self-​reflexive fashion that draws our attention to each key feature of the discourse as Lacan describes it. Moore is not without ideological biases, nor is he shy about making truth claims, but his conclusions are grounded in evidence, reason, and satirical performance. Rather than a master who demands submission of his listeners—​Believe because I say so—​ Moore quite obviously seeks to persuade. Moore personifies an investigator in search for answers that would explain an unsolved problem: economic decline (Roger and Me), gun violence (Bowling for Columbine), the “war on terror” (Fahrenheit 9/​11), failures of the health care industry (Sicko, 2007), and the limits of capitalism (Capitalism: A Love Story, 2009). Whatever biases inform Moore’s agenda, his manner of presentation does not arise to claims of mastery. In university discourse, the master signifier operates implicitly, without acknowledgment, repressed beneath the bar. This is Lacan’s way to indicate, most basically, that truth remains a central term within this discursive

Policing with Noise  115 structure, but it lacks in university discourse the explicit function it occupies in the discourse of mastery, where the master is presumed to speak from a position demonstrative of absolute truth. In university discourse, by contrast, the master signifier remains repressed, beneath the bar, and thereby functions as a driving force of the educational apparatus precisely because it remains implicit and unacknowledged. No research project or “search for knowledge” operates objectively, separate from the conventions, contexts, economics, or power relationships that determine what counts as a worthwhile agenda and thereby defines the proper boundaries of knowledge and its reproduction. In other words, in the university setting, the operative but unacknowledged master signifier is what deems the very institution of education worthwhile in the first place. To be clear, Lacan maintains a pessimistic appraisal of university discourse because of its claim to seek objectively after knowledge. As we should recall, Seminar XVII followed closely after the political turmoil of 1968, and Lacan saw his contemporary setting as one marked by a shift to “new forms of domination in which scientific [or university] discourse serves to legitimize the relations of domination.”31 In university discourse, Lacan describes students as the byproducts (S⁄ ), rather than the benefactors, of this new system of domination: “In the articulation that I describe as the university discourse the a is in the place of what? In the place, let’s say, of the exploited in the university discourse, who are easy to recognize—​they are the students.”32 S2  →  a S1     S⁄ 

The educational apparatus, in its liberal accumulation of knowledge, aims at an impossible object: the unexplained, undiscovered, or heretofore ambiguous cause of desire (a). University discourse thereby assumes no direct access to truth; or the function of truth (S1) remains operative but repressed beneath the more explicit pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. This subtle but significant shift from the master’s discourse depersonalizes the position of power from which the discourse of the university “speaks.” To the extent that societies have likewise transitioned away from traditional forms of authority (i.e., religion, monarchy, feudalism) and have embraced a more democratic organization of social relations and politics, truth becomes the provenance of experts within bureaucratic institutions of learning. Unlike a priest, who serves as a divine representative, a human figuration by which

116  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse God speaks to his followers, in the system of university education, there is no singular voice that demands suppliants. The university is not without authority, of course, but its authority is more diffuse than prior historical forms of hierarchical institutionalization. Therefore, the discourse of the university diffuses the power dynamics on which it rests and is therefore a more difficult institution to rebel against.33 How might the pairing of Lacan’s account of discourse with Rancière’s definition of noise allow us to reappraise Moore and the critical milieu that emerged in response to his early documentaries? As we have already seen, established film critics expressed concern that Moore’s spectacular performances produced noise strictly on the side of his opponents; his biased employment of satire ensures, they claim, that only his ideas will receive an adequate hearing. Yet, if we turn our attention to Moore’s defenders, an odd parallel emerges. That is to say, Moore’s advocates have tended not to deny such claims of noise, incoherence, or ambiguity; rather, they simply affirm such noise as a useful, if not necessary, sign of his success in such films as Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine. In contrast to critics who lamented Moore’s biased intentions and the didactic conclusions such intentions supposedly produced, apologists for Moore discerned a different mode of knowledge production; specifically, they found the films to be propitiously inconclusive. Moore’s defenders frequently praise his films precisely for their embrace of ambiguity. Countering audiences’ expectation for “straight truth,” Moore offers a more complicated “satirical truth,” Miles Orvell writes.34 In Roger & Me, Moore’s unsuccessful quest to locate Smith, not to mention his on-​screen persona as a beleaguered interrogator, for Orvell, places Moore in the position of a “powerless subject.”35 For Douglas Kellner, Moore avoids clear answers in favor of depicting the complex intersection of social, cultural, economic, and ideological factors that both constitute and complicate his subject matter. In Bowling for Columbine, Moore offers no definitive solution to resolve gun violence in the United States; rather, the film considers a series of loose connections between “U.S. history and military actions, guns, the media, and violence” and avoids any definitive conclusions.36 As in Roger & Me, many of the ideas raised by Moore in Bowling for Columbine derive from interviews with an assortment of characters, none of whom can provide Moore with concrete answers to his questions. While the different perspectives on Moore’s documentary practices might suggest an interpretive impasse, we should note that the two positions are not necessarily opposed. Critics inevitably focus on the (biased) causes behind

Policing with Noise  117 the conflicted scenes that appear on-​screen; apologists focus on the ambiguous, irrational, or nonsensical outcomes. Accordingly, I suggest that Moore’s films are best understood by combining the two perspectives into a single, comprehensive reading:  Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine display Moore’s biased political perspective but only to the extent that he provokes the appearance of nonsense in prevailing social and cultural systems, thereby resulting in the films’ ambiguous conclusions. Moore’s bias takes the form of a satirical attack on the establishment that does not presume to locate concrete solutions; he neither promotes socialism over capitalism in Roger & Me, nor does he prescribe a comprehensive ban on firearms in Bowling for Columbine. The primary product of Moore’s documentary discourse, therefore, is his documentation of individual subjects who lack the capacity to understand or explain their own social situations. Thus, what the two critical camps describe, but only separately and in part, are the two separate operations of university discourse. In a discursive situation that seeks knowledge for the sake of knowledge (S2), unstated truth claims (S1) inevitably guide the process (read: Moore’s biases). Since university discourse disavows the notion of absolute truth and seeks after partial objects (a), the educational (by)products of this process will remain incoherent (S⁄ ), unable to offer totalizing explanations of what they have learned (a student, in Lacan’s account, or Miss Michigan in Moore’s). S2   →   a S1       S⁄

The product of university discourse, epitomized by Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine, is the speech of divided subjects, that is, subjects whose incoherence proves symptomatic of the broader systems of signification in which they are implicated but which they fail to understand or explain. Moore aims his documentary lens at aspects of society and cultural life that have otherwise gone unexamined, while his disheveled on-​screen persona serves to avoid the authoritative appearance of expertise. Functioning as an “avatar of enjoyment” in his attacks on the establishment, Todd McGowan writes, “Moore succeeds as an activist filmmaker [when] he mobilizes the enjoyment of the spectator and works to align this enjoyment with increased freedom and equality” against corporate and other special interests.37 In this manner, Moore does not escape the limits of university discourse, but his satire at least draws attention to that discourse’s methodological functions and limitations.

118  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse

Noisy Nonsense Indeed, an encounter with the limits or failures of university discourse paves the way for an epistemological rupture and the onset of hysterical discourse—​ the topic to which I now turn. In Lacan’s account, as well as Rancière’s, academic discourse produces subjects who speak without a clear sense of understanding. The educational apparatus, by privileging the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake, may turn its attention in virtually any direction, casting its gaze at whatever features of the material world have hitherto gone unexamined. There is always another object to study, another case to revisit, a new experiment to pursue, another article to publish. University discourse thereby makes manifest the intimate relation between knowledge and surplus—​one begets the other and thereby produces an endless cycle of reiteration. This describes both the strength of the university and its implicit weakness: in order to justify such an expansive field of vision, the institution that galvanizes such knowledgeable pursuits assumes, without explicit commentary or explanation, the truth-​value of the educational endeavor in which it is engaged. In the narrow academic domain of documentary studies, as we have seen, Plantinga delimits the definitions and categories by which documentary films may be experienced and then classified. What goes unacknowledged—​or repressed—​in this scholarly project, however, is the political dimension (S1) of nonfictional media and the categorical breakdowns that occur when a film’s politics challenge the scholar’s attempt to police the realm of documentary representation. In other words, the propositional logic that begins with “proper” categories and then attempts to align its case studies within these categories will inevitably encounter cinematic objects that exceed the categorical boundaries. In their excesses, a docudrama like JFK or a satirical documentary like Roger & Me highlight, in the hysterical complaints they elicit, the political assumptions upon which their critics ground, but likewise repress, their acts of aesthetic policing. What may have seemed to the scholar as an objective, sober, scientific pursuit is thereby revealed as a selective (and hence politically inflected) project to delimit in advance what counts as a proper documentary object. As I have argued, such hysterical complaints protest in the face of a symbolic breakdown, and such breakdowns are an almost inevitable feature of subjectivity. This failure stems, as we have seen, when a subject is forced by his or her circumstances to hold at least two contradictory ideas at once—​ the child before the reflective surface in Lacan’s mirror stage, who is both a

Policing with Noise  119 phenomenal body and an idealized image (Chapter 2); the democratic participant in the voting booth who, in the act of making a political decision, becomes a mere number indistinguishable from every other counted vote (Chapter 1); the secular critic of religion who nevertheless succumbs to belief in order to deny any shared likeness with the fundamentalist (Chapter 2); and, now, the documentary scholar who encounters a film indexed as nonfiction even as the same film exceeds the “proper” threshold of documentary as it is normatively defined. The conservative films made in reaction to Moore, however, transform this form of hysterical complaint into a self-​sustaining discourse. This is demonstrated most obviously in the excess significance attributed to Moore—​his personality, biography, associates, and so on—​even as the conservative films attempt to render his political position and manner of speech insignificant, underserving of the very prominence they nevertheless ascribe to him. Moore, they claim, does not deserve the respect or acclaim he has received; yet the conservative films nevertheless engage in thorough, often painstakingly detailed, debates with the very political antagonist they claim is undeserving of their time or attention. The films simultaneously seek to debase Moore as a viable political speaker even as they elevate him to the position of an authoritative figure by imitating—​the highest form of flattery—​his modes of documentary address. Lacan’s account of hysterical discourse in Seminar XVII describes an analogous mode of simulated dialogue, where the hysteric’s feigned performance of skepticism, offered toward an authority figure, upholds the position of authority even as it seeks to undermine it. Lacan understands the hysteric’s speech as a spectacular performance in service of a dialogic impasse: [The hysteric] wants the other to be a master, and to know a lot of things, but at the same time she doesn’t want him to know so much that he does not believe she is the supreme price of all his knowledge. In other words, she wants a master she can reign over. She reigns, and he does not govern.38

The hysteric’s speech may be understood as an intersubjective address performed for an authoritative Other in a manner that serves to resist, even as the performance affirms, the position of authority it attacks. S⁄   →   S1 a           S2

120  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse Lacan’s formalization clarifies the consequences of hysterical antagonism: knowledge (S2) emerges as a remainder, the refuse leftover from an attack on authority, rather than something valued in its own right. Moore’s discourse takes explicit enjoyment in the production of knowledge and engagement with ambiguity in the material world. The hysterical “rebuttals” offered by the conservative films, by contrast, position Moore himself as the primary subject matter. By raising doubts about Moore’s intentions and qualifications as a filmmaker, the conservative responses thereby avoid any direct encounter with the broader problems addressed in his films.

Political Imbalance Central to each of the anti-​Moore films is an overriding skepticism concerning Moore’s trustworthiness. The cycle of conservative films relies heavily on ad hominem attacks by which they critique Moore’s character or claim to expose evidence of his hypocrisy. We are told that Moore was a failure in his time as editor of the magazine Mother Jones (Manufacturing Dissent); he unconsciously blames himself for Al Gore’s loss in 2000 and has lashed out at the Bush administration to compensate (FahrenHype 9/​11); he is driven by a desire for money and success, and his claim to speak for the working class is a ruse that obscures his elitism (Manufacturing Dissent, Michael Moore Hates America); and we cannot trust his arguments because he is ultimately anti-​American (Michael & Me, Larry Elder, 2004). To be sure, such attempts to personalize the political have their roots in Moore’s own documentary strategies. Moore clearly constructs villains out of Roger Smith in Roger & Me and Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine to suit his ideological intentions. However, as we have seen, Moore’s reliance on the conventional tropes of classical narration—​hero and villain, conflict and resolution, and so on—​provides the formal path by which his on-​screen persona confronts a broader sociocultural problem. Moore’s films produce an encounter with nonsense and thereby invite an opportunity for critical reflection, perhaps inviting viewers to imagine revisions or alternatives to existing political norms as a consequence. In the conservative films, by contrast, the character attacks on Moore serve to depoliticize the films’ respective content and thereby deploy the spectacle of intersubjective debate as so much noise to drown out the original topic of political conversation. Thus, if the films are effective, their simulation of political debate will not result in

Policing with Noise  121 new political formations but rather return its viewers to the past, or at least the semblance of the past, an image of America untouched and untroubled by the claims made on behalf of their liberal-​progressive opponents. In this cycle of conservative films, the rhetoric of rebuttal is harnessed most prominently by Michael Moore Hates America (hereafter MMHA). Like Manufacturing Dissent, MMHA relies on the metaphor of a political and documentary odyssey. In this narrative, the film’s director, Michael Wilson, travels the country in a vain attempt to gain an audience with Moore, explicitly citing Moore’s precedent failure to gain an audience with the GM chairman in Roger & Me. The documentary likewise parrots Moore’s reliance on autobiography as a framing device to establish its central conflict. But whereas Moore’s references to his childhood upbringing in Flint, Michigan, provide contextual background in Roger & Me to chart the city’s movement from economic prosperity to eventual decline, Wilson’s biographical commentary in MMHA’s opening scenes is decidedly more antagonistic than it is context building. Wilson describes his early childhood belief in the American Dream and laments the loss of this belief, not by any direct encounter with material deprivation but rather with the emergence onto the political scene of Moore’s own contravening ideological vision. In voice-​over narration, Wilson explains the key lesson of his childhood, “In America, if you work hard and never quit, you can make it.” Yet when he becomes a father himself, Wilson is horrified to discover that his daughter’s future has been placed in doubt by Moore’s films. Moore has “painted a picture of my country as a place where no one can succeed,” Wilson says, aggrievedly, and has taught our children that they are “enslaved by corporate interests and greedy politicians.” The hyperbolic claim falsely attributed to Moore—​that no one can succeed in American—​sets the stage for the first argumentative claim offered in the film: Moore’s own financial success as a filmmaker is a sign of hypocrisy that both disproves his negative assessments of late capitalism and disqualifies him as a trustworthy interlocutor. In other words, Moore cannot be trusted as a viable authority figure on the socioeconomic situation in the country, Wilson offers, because he criticizes the American economic system even while he “flies around in corporate jets, lives in palatial apartments, and makes millions and millions of dollars by simply voicing his opinion.” In order to contradict more comprehensively Moore’s so-​called hypocritical opinions and his self-​aggrandizing attempt to cash in on the apocalyptic imagery of America in decline, MMHA offers an alternative image of

122  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse American prosperity precisely where Moore had found it wanting. Wilson retraces Moore’s steps, returning to the town of Flint where he is pleasantly surprised to find numerous signs of a persistent American Dream. The film compiles interviews with several young entrepreneurs in Flint: the editor of an independent newspaper, a coffee roaster, and the owner of a sandwich shop. We might otherwise describe these scenes as meager, if not irrelevant, examples of positive economic activity; the small sample of case studies merely demonstrates how some individuals manage to eke out a living in otherwise difficult circumstances. For Wilson’s purposes, however, the case studies provide a collective story of hope at odds with Moore’s misguided pessimism. Importantly, for my purposes, the case studies documented in MMHA are treated on their face as representative examples of a good and prosperous reality that contradicts Moore’s biased and self-​serving fatalism. Moore is treated in such grandiosely negative terms, his arguments lacking any nuance or qualification in Wilson’s treatment of them, so as to provide extraordinary significance to any contravening evidence or arguments. In other words, according to the terms established by MMHA’s hysterical political discourse, any example or case study in service of its argument is enough to poke a hole large enough to deflate entirely its antagonist’s position (but only because Moore’s actual arguments never receive fair or accurate discussion in the first place). We should recognize in MMHA’s unfair treatment of its opponent a hysterical taunt in excess of its more obvious ideological bias or manipulation. To be sure, Wilson’s film stacks the deck in favor of its own ideological position, presuming to locate easy and immediate answers to any of the social contradictions or ambiguities that Moore’s films have seemingly unearthed. This extends to the pop-​psychological diagnosis of Moore himself. In an early interview in MMHA with David Hardy, a conservative author who appears in several of the anti-​Moore films discussed in this chapter, Hardy opines that Moore displays symptoms of a narcissistic personality disorder. The speculative claim is followed immediately by clips from a television interview, taken out of context, in which Moore appears to confirm the diagnosis with his own words: Moore cites his status as a best-​selling author, director of “the most-​watched documentary of all time,” with “twenty million hits a day on [his] website,” thereby proving, the sequence implies, a case of pathological narcissism. However, to recall the hysterical taunt identified at the conclusion of Chapter 2—​I know you are, but what am I?—​the

Policing with Noise  123 guiding gesture of hysterical discourse does not seek only to unmask the pretensions by which its antagonist maintains his underserved position of authority; the deconstruction of the authoritative edifice provides the means by which the hysterical speaker justifies his or her support of the status quo and likewise avoids a more sustained engagement with the substantive content that brought the political adversaries together in the first place. In the case of an anti-​evolutionist like Ben Stein, as I argued, any sign of compromise or limitation expressed by Richard Dawkins amounts, in Stein’s accounting, to a complete capitulation of Darwinian evolution as a scientific theory; evolution becomes merely just one belief system among others, a belief, moreover, no more respectable or valid in its truth claims than creationism. In MMHA, then, what appears on the surface as a biased manipulation—​the too quick and easy dismantling of Moore’s arguments, or the treatment of pop-​psychological speculation about Moore’s narcissism as an easily confirmable fact—​reveals a more fundamental division at the core of the film’s account of political representation. Moore is the failed authority figure who, treated as representative of the political Left more generally, saves the conservative speaker from the difficulty of acceding to one position among others. Or, because Moore is unequal to the task of political representation, conservative respondents may thereby avoid the difficult prospect of engaging with democratic opponents as equals. Just as the hysteric, Žižek writes, “is horrified at [the prospect of] being reduced to an object,” the participants in these hysterical documentaries appear incapable of taking a position, of expressing a political perspective that exists among a continuum of other possible viewpoints.39 The refusal to take a political position—​what we might call the fundamental act of the police—​is even more clearly displayed when Wilson visits a suburban neighborhood cookout in a gated community. There, he notes several people of color in attendance. This anecdote is presented as a rejoinder to the claims made by Moore in Bowling for Columbine that much of America’s violent history can be understood through the lens of racially driven fear, aggression, and segregation. The white woman hosting the event presciently describes her dismay at the nuisance of Moore’s political speech, and in a manner that sums up the dominant discourse of MMHA more generally: “I know that Michael Moore lives in a completely different world than I live in,” she says. Gesturing to her surroundings, she continues, “In my world, everyone gets along, they’re happy, they love one another. In his world, it’s not that way.” The term world in the woman’s account, to be clear, does not

124  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse describe an empirical reality over which she and Moore hold oppositional accounts or differing perspectives; instead, world describes competing ideological fantasies. Thus, she has no problem if Moore remains within the world of his own imagination. What troubles her, she concludes, is when “he insists that we see our world like he sees his world. That’s what bothers me.” Hearkening back to Rancière’s account of political aesthetics, what is bothersome about Moore, as this woman conceives the problem, is precisely his insistence on an alternative regime of political representation, one that would require her and others in her community to reevaluate their immediate environs, to see, perhaps, how their very way of life intersects with or reproduces political systems of inequality where, at the very least, not everyone gets along. By its conclusion, Wilson never manages to secure an interview with Moore. When Wilson, however, describes this failure as the feature central to his film’s success, we should take him at his word. The absence of a substantive exchange between Wilson and Moore provides the very means by which the film may limit itself to interactions with like-​minded individuals who all express the same conservative values. Where Moore had produced a fissure in the ideological edifice of Wilson’s childhood belief in American exceptionalism, the film returns to plug the holes in such ideological gaps by turning its attention elsewhere, specifically, where conservative common sense reigns supreme and may promote its self-​coherence in the face of the political difference it both highlights and denies. As Wilson puts it, “I realized I didn’t need [Moore] to find the answers to my questions. I just needed to know that things weren’t as bad as he made them out to be. All the people I met proved that he doesn’t have all the answers.” In the manifest content of MMHA, if Moore is lacking, or if he is hypocritical, or if we may find any positive signs to contradict his negative assessments, then sympathetic viewers may return to the idealized and untroubled world of Wilson’s youth when the American Dream persisted unchallenged. In MMHA and other films offered as rebuttals to Michael Moore, then, the aesthetic dimension of hysterical discourse functions on a model of forgetfulness. In the face of a political opposition that threatens the aesthetic sensibility on which the conservative imaginary rests, the reaction upholds their examples, evidence, or case studies to indemnify against the threat of political difference, to affirm that their antagonist “doesn’t have all the answers.”

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Excess Noise The anti-​Moore films attack their opponent’s cultural position of authority, not the political positions for which he stands or attempts to give voice. Central to these documentaries, as we have seen, is a guiding question concerning Moore’s desire. By first raising doubts about the “real” intentions behind Moore’s cinematic projects, the conservative films open a space in which any opposition, critique, or alternative explanation to those offered by Moore’s films is treated, on its face, as the undeniable evidence of Moore’s failure. The films, in other words, do not attempt to win a debate; they rather produce an excess of speculations, alternatives, and critiques so as to overwhelm the viewer and likewise lead the viewer to perhaps forget what all this was about in the first place. Accordingly, we should understand whatever “evidence” appears in the films not as the material basis by which the conservative speakers reach their conclusions but rather as the refuse or remainders left in the wake of the guiding skepticism about Moore’s desire. In other words, the fundamental attack on Moore’s personality produces innumerable evidences or examples to support the reactionary’s cause; however, such evidences only emerge as the byproduct of this fundamental, antagonistic posture. In Lacan’s formulation of hysterical discourse, he places knowledge (S2) in the position of the hysteric’s discursive product. Unlike university discourse, which privileges the production of knowledge for its own sake and thus relies on the search for knowledge to ground its primary mode of address, Lacan identifies knowledge in the hysteric’s discourse as a remainder or leftover.40 Or knowledge in the hysteric’s discourse is akin to those pieces of furniture that remain after its assembly, leading us to wonder where we may have missed a step in following the assembly instructions. In the case of furniture assembly, we may hope for the best and discard those persistent remainders rather than dismantle the object and begin again from scratch. In Lacan’s account of the hysteric’s knowledgeable byproducts, however, every piece constitutive of the assembly project is an excessive remainder, like a puzzle with a thousand pieces, none of which fit together into a complete whole. Or the only bond that holds together the pieces of the hysterical project is strictly its antagonist posture. The impossibility of fitting its signifying pieces together provides the sure means by which its fundamental antagonism may be repeated ad infinitum, without hope for a solution, let alone compromise.

126  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse Thus far I have emphasized the particular attitudes of anti-​Moore media. As we have seen, Manufacturing Dissent presents itself in the guise of ideological and rhetorical balance, thereby masking its overwhelming and unproductive emphasis on Moore’s personality; MMHA takes a more confrontational approach, seeking to poke holes, wherever it may, in Moore’s documentary precedents. For the remainder of this chapter, I turn more directly to the explicitly formal strategies deployed by the anti-​Moore films. Intent as they are to offer viewers any reason to dismiss Moore’s political claims, the films consistently collect abundant details, evidences, and arguments in favor of their political ideology. These collections, I claim, amount to an excessive and disproportionate emphasis on data over argumentation, an attempt to drown out Moore’s progressive politics with so much contradictory noise. Like the hysteric’s discourse as identified by Lacan, such exorbitant displays of contrary opinion make the films difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend. In their hystericization of spectacular form, the films thereby promote political amnesia by overwhelming their viewers with so many alternative voices, pieces of data, or bits of disconnected “facts” so as to confirm, on the grounds of the excess quantity alone, Moore’s supposed lack of political relevance. FahrenHype 9/​11 relies heavily on such a hysterical accumulation and presentation of data.41 For instance, the film takes as one of its centerpieces a claim made by Moore concerning the “war on terror.” In an early sequence, FaahrenHype 9/​11 displays archival television footage of Moore at a press conference; there, Moore states, confidently, “There is no terrorist threat.” In context, Moore means to deny the existence of widespread, global terrorist networks that would necessitate the excessive actions of the Bush war machine. The speakers in FahrenHype 9/​11, however, are shocked and dismayed by what they describe as Moore’s complete ignorance of the global threat facing the nation. Dick Morris, the former Clinton advisor turned conservative mouthpiece, lists numerous domestic terrorist cells “known” to exist throughout the United States. In a complementary animated presentation, FahrenHype 9/​11 compiles an assortment of red dots on a map of the United States where “terrorist cells” were alleged to have been exposed, in “New York City, Chicago, Tampa, Oxford, Detroit, San Diego, Los Angeles, Denver, Tulsa.” Without offering further details about these terrorist cells—​who they were, what they intended to do, or how they were exposed—​Morris simply makes a rhetorical leap from the individual threats to a collective and existential crisis supposedly faced by the nation as a whole: “The IMF and the World Bank in

Policing with Noise  127 Washington, [DC] were [also] targeted. They’re targeting every one of us!” Tellingly, the film does not employ any cinematic resources to substantiate its assertion of the vast network of domestic terrorist cells compiled on its animated map. Moreover, the entire emphasis of the sequence is less concerned with the threat itself, it seems, than in exposing Moore’s presumed ignorance; the excess number of examples is not intended to make viewers aware of a real threat and to govern themselves accordingly but rather to “prove” Moore’s error. After all, the sequences that purport to demonstrate the existence of diabolical threats to the safety of US citizens, tellingly, include no accompanying call to bolster American military defenses, for instance. Rather, the so-​called threats are identified and catalogued merely as evidence to suggest that Moore’s own ideas are unfounded. Thus, the fact that the film only takes the “threats” seriously in order to contradict Moore demonstrates the hysterical character of their spectacular coordination on-​screen. Ironically, in this case, a preponderance of evidence—​about diabolical terrorist threats hidden throughout the nation, no less—​is intended to promote inaction. Once we are assured of a vast and threatening existence of interconnected terrorist networks, both across the globe and throughout America, the only response implied by the apocalyptic scenario is to sit back, relax, and affirm without question or further consideration the Bush administration’s existing “war on terror.” Hysterically, the excess details spoken in narration and presented on-​ screen promote viewer passivity. There is nothing (else) to see here. The very same animated image appears again later in FahrenHype 9/​ 11. The image is deployed to contradict another claim offered by Moore. In Fahrenheit 9/​11, Moore alleges that Bush spent more time on vacation than any previous president. While the United States was engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Moore explains in his film, Bush devoted excess time to personal vacations, amounting to a dereliction of duty and lack of investment on Bush’s part while serving as commander-​in-​chief, or so Moore contends. In response, FahrenHype 9/​11 offers what we may admit is a reasonable response to Moore’s original argument (so long as we attend strictly to the content of its claims, separate from its hysterical and formal dimension). Through a series of interviews with several lawmakers and administration officials, FahrenHype 9/​11 documents how, during his trips away from the capitol, Bush conducted numerous official meetings and phone conferences, including regular discussions with national security advisors. Bush was not derelict in his duties, the argument goes, because he continued to work from Air Force One and at his private ranch in Texas. His vacations

128  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse were work trips and thus Moore’s claims are inaccurate. However, despite this entirely reasonable defense made against Moore’s original allegation, the accompanying animated sequence problematizes the argument’s mode of dissemination. Focusing on a single summer vacation, dozens of itinerary details appear on-​screen describing meetings, phone calls, or other official activities that occurred during the trip (Figures 3.2 and 3.3). The text appears and then disappears so rapidly, in fact, that the sentences cannot be read in full when played at its original speed. The excess quality of the display forecloses easy comprehension—​paradoxically, information works at odds with the production of knowledge, according to its hysterical formalization. In an attempt to demonstrate the vast number of Bush’s official activities over a few days, the formal representation of information in FahrenHype 9/​11 works against explanation rather than for it. The excess displays of animated data in FahrenHype 9/​11, like the recourse to contravening examples and case studies in Michael Moore Hates America, police with noise the aesthetic sensibilities of the political arena at stake. A vast quantity of information, rendered in excessive form and displayed at

Figure 3.2  FahrenHype 9/​11 (2004). A rapid-​fire sequence lists George W. Bush’s official activities while he was on “vacation.”

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Figure 3.3  FahrenHype 9/​11 (2004). The sequence moves at such a rapid pace that a viewer cannot read the information.

lightning speed, provides the means by which Moore’s qualitative political claims are drowned out, obscured, or otherwise lost in the cacophony of minute and disconnected details. With Lacan’s account of discourse in mind, however, we might notice how the conservative films indeed give back to Moore, with minimal change or revision, the very kind of noise he seemed intent to produce in his own documentaries. Like Rafko’s incapacity to justify the Flint parade in which she participates as it bisects the economically devastated downtown in Roger & Me, or Charlton Heston’s incoherent defense of the NRA in Bowling for Columbine, the conservative films deploy similarly incomprehensible modes of representation. However, a significant distinction holds between these two modes of incoherence. In Moore’s films, his satirical jabs at Rafko and Heston, among others, elicits from them the noise on which their vacuous political positions rest; in Moore’s handling of it, the noise of his antagonists demonstrates a mode of political speech internally split, self-​divided, and at odds with the explicit political purposes at which they aim. By contrast, the conservative rebuttals rely on such noise as their central rhetorical mode. Incoherence functions in the conservative films

130  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse as the dominant aesthetic means by which their reactions depoliticize the so-​called debate in which they engage.42 Like the hysteric in the clinic who “develops one symptom after another whenever the cure for any given ailment is offered [and in] so doing . . . insists that no solution is ever complete,” the anti-​Moore films do not provide coherent arguments by which they may win the debate, let alone reach a prospective conclusion.43 The excesses of the reactionary discourse prevent meaningful exchange at the very same time and place where the exchange nevertheless appears to occur, resulting in paradoxical scenes where knowledge, so called, becomes the very means for political amnesia.

Hysterical Epistemologies In his critique of conventional western education in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Rancière identifies a related problem of pedagogical forgetfulness. As he sees it, there are two basic modalities of educational phenomenology:  attention or distraction. Attention, for Rancière, requires of the individual the difficult work of careful observation and comparison, placing whatever we seek to learn in the context of what we have learned before. In the intersection between past and present, we encounter an opportunity to test our established “truth” in the face of new experience; attending to the differences that emerge as a result of such testing constitutes the pedagogical process by which anyone may learn and educate oneself. For example, I may learn to be a better parent for my children, for instance, only by testing my prior and pre-​existing conceptions of parenthood against the lived reality of raising children. By contrast, distraction describes the lazy recourse to conventional wisdom or common sense, a kind of policing of educational knowledge bolstered by an apparent—​but only apparent—​preponderance of evidence in support of its basic assumptions. “Intelligence does not follow the laws of matter,” Rancière avers. However, if reason presumes that it need not test its assumptions against the material world it engages, then several problems will emerge. Reason, so called, becomes perverted in service of the status quo, and the material world becomes nothing but a set dressing to affirm in advance the hegemonic state of affairs. The anti-​educational gesture of the educational apparatus, in other words, is indexical to its core; it always finds more evidences or examples to bolster its assumptions, yet such acts of signaling reveal a vacuous mind underneath, unable to say what the index

Policing with Noise  131 demonstrates apart from its very existence. For example, Donald Trump has frequently responded to criticism of all kinds by citing the sizable crowds that attend his rallies, as if recourse to his popularity among his most ardent supporters is enough to prove the validity of any action he takes as president. Materiality validates reason, then, only so long as reason does not explore or test the difference between what it “knows” and what it encounters in excess of this prior knowledge. “We can thus assign a unique passion as the cause of the distraction by which intelligence consents to matter’s destiny,” Rancière continues; or, put differently, the motivation behind distraction and the excess materiality by which it bolsters itself in inattentiveness “has no other cause than [the fear of] equality.” To remain within the metaphor of our cosmology, we will say that it is the passion of preponderance that has subjected free will to the material system of weightiness, that has caused the mind to plummet into the blind world of gravitation.44

In other words, those in positions of power will never lack for evidence to support their claims in favor of an unequal state of affairs, particularly a status quo from which they benefit. For those in power, the world seems to reflect back to them nearly endless examples, evidences, or other means to confirm their privilege as right or good. Such recourse to “materiality” overlooks, in its inattentiveness, the self-​fulfilling prophecy on which it relies. The “evidence” on display is merely the sedimented remainders, the architectural or infrastructural edifices constructed by those in positions of authority, who then point to such material structures as proof of their superiority. In such circumstances, no learning takes place and education becomes stultified. As Rancière claims, in our mistaken ignorance, we “believe that something has been explained to us when it has only been named.”45 Of course, Rancière’s primary purpose in The Ignorant Schoolmaster is to propose an ideal of “universal teaching” modeled on the techniques deployed by Joseph Jacotot, in which, rather than privileging the teacher as the arbiter or explicator of knowledge, students are treated as equals in a classroom that would now extend beyond all previous barriers or confinements. “To explain something to someone,” Rancière offers, “is first of all to show him he cannot understand it by himself.”46 When students delegate authority to the teacher in his or her presumed position of mastery, the hierarchical mise-​en-​scène

132  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse produces a false sense of educational progression. As students seem to travel the path toward knowledge prescribed for them in advance, “[f]‌ragments add up, detached pieces of an explicator’s knowledge that put the student on the trail, following a master with whom he will never catch up.”47 With Lacan’s account of discourse in mind, we might notice how Rancière hystericizes the educational apparatus: the signifying chain of knowledge on which educational institutions are presumed to rely, read hysterically, functions instead as the refuse or remainder of the system’s hierarchical power structure. The ever-​increasing collection of educational fragments—​say, the papers marked and graded by the authoritative teacher—​appears to demonstrate that the students have, in fact, learned something, but this is a bare façade with nothing of substance behind it. As Rancière argues, the educational apparatus promotes forgetfulness even as it masks the ignorance it reproduces in the very guise of its so-​called accomplishments, in the material excess of what has been (inattentively) produced within an institutionalized educational setting: The system’s genius is to transform loss into profit. The child advances. He has been taught, therefore he has learned, therefore he can forget. Behind him the abyss of ignorance is being dug again. But here’s the amazing part: from now on the ignorance is someone else’s. What he has forgotten, he has surpassed . . . The more he forgets, the more evident it is to him that he understands.48

Here, we might pause to consider other instances of simulated knowledge, where forgetfulness relies upon a false semblance of knowledgeable instruction in order to perpetuate itself. Consider the following case, by way of example. The LEGO toy manufacturer sells sets of building blocks, in which a single set may include pieces that number in the thousands. Included with the sets are step-​by-​step instructions by which the manuals “teach” consumers how to assemble the elaborate toys. By following the instructions, one can produce intricately complex structures; yet the finished product demonstrates only the participants’ capacity to adhere to the rules, replicate procedure, or otherwise function more like a programmable machine than a burgeoning architect. Indeed, in my personal experience, the predominately passive procedure involved in following the instructions leaves me entirely incapable of recreating the “skill” on my own, absent the manual’s step-​by-​ step guidance. The moment when I complete the assembly and observe my

Policing with Noise  133 accomplishment—​the finished toy—​is likewise the moment at which I have already forgotten how the assemblage was built. Rancière’s account of educational forgetfulness provokes a suggestive analogy between his discussion of conventional education and the hysterical “classroom” of conservative media. In the traditional classroom, the students’ ignorance may go unnoticed so long as the authoritative educational apparatus remains in place, and so long as someone superior to the students remains responsible for knowledge and its dissemination. In other words, if the teacher remains committed to the status quo, then the students’ share of ignorance may go unnoticed and may demonstrate no immediate cause for concern. Or so long as no one demands of me that I build a LEGO set without instructions, I may remain content in my false belief that I possess the capacities of a master builder. Much like Lacan’s account of university discourse, the student occupies the position of one who utters noise, or nonsense, by parroting the knowledge he or she has never learned. However, if we experience antagonism where we thought ourselves safe and untouchable, or if our inattentiveness is challenged by a demand to demonstrate our knowledge absent the coddling environment in which we have previously delegated our understanding to superiors or other tertiary supports (like a manual), the call for equality may appear threatening if not hystericizing. Is this not exactly how Moore functions for the conservative filmmakers and their allies? Moore is the figure who demands they submit their “knowledge” to the test of counterfactual assertion and, hence, political confrontation. As the woman at the suburban cookout in Michael Moore Hates America describes it so appropriately, Moore demands that she see her world differently, anew, from an alternative perspective, and this kind of noise—​the call of the political—​is a nuisance she cannot abide. The film in which she appears, and others like it, responds in kind, amplifying its contemptuous complaint at a pitch and volume so excessive as to mask Moore’s original offense and render it inconsequential, or at least incomprehensible, so that conservative viewers may likewise return to their established modes of epistemological forgetfulness.

Disproportionate Responses Freud coined his own term for the kind of excessive display I have described in this chapter as hysterical noise. For Freud, reactive reinforcement describes

134  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse those instances when a subject demonstrates an overinvestment in stories or details that distract its intended audience from a more fundamental and difficult problem. In his incomplete and unsuccessful treatment of Dora (Ida Bauer), recounted in “A Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,” Freud notices the young woman’s tendency to overinvest in stories about her father’s affair with Frau K. In the analysis, Dora would describe to Freud a series of complicated events that took place over several years in which her father and Frau K. “conveniently” visited the same locations at the same time, presumably to continue their affair. For instance, Dora’s father once moved their family abruptly and with little explanation to Vienna; shortly thereafter, Dora discovered the K family had moved to Vienna as well. Dora interpreted the two families’ repeated meetings and intersections as evidence that Frau K.  and her father remained in surreptitious communication. In each instance, Freud agrees with Dora’s interpretation of events. However, he likewise becomes suspicious of the energetic means by which Dora repeatedly recounts and returns to these stories. Dora’s narratives are offered to Freud as an attempt to provide him with facts so thoroughly evidenced so as to foreclose further discussion, to fill the analytic session with the noise of her consciously crafted speech so as to leave no additional time to explore her own unconscious desires, which she quite reasonably preferred to protect from Freud’s intrusive gaze. As Freud explains, “It soon becomes evident that the patient is using thoughts of this kind, which the analysis cannot attack, for the purpose of cloaking others which are anxious to escape from criticism and from consciousness.”49 Hysterical noise, in other words, need not suggest outright fabrication or intentional dissimulation. The hysterical performance may even tell the truth (much like the case of FahrenHype 9/​11’s accurate recounting of Bush’s official duties while on “vacation”). But hysterical discourse organizes its evidence in a manner and form that displaces from view, or renders inaudible, the more challenging content that might actually demand of the hysteric a more substantial exchange. As Véronique Voruz further clarifies, the hysteric “refuses to become one through the signifier,” that is, refuses to allow the discourse that speaks through him or her to define, once and for all, the nature of the hysteric’s desire.50 From a psychoanalytic point of view, of course, such a commitment to endless performativity—​a mode of speech that never presumes to arrive at a final destination—​has much to recommend it. The gaps in the hysteric’s knowledge, after all, are constitutive features of subjective experience according to Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and thereby provide an

Policing with Noise  135 opportunity, when encountered in the clinic, to expose the false narratives upon which the subject has relied to remain forgetful of the ruptures that such gaps in knowledge indicate. The hysteric’s discourse, however, finds endless faults with its significant Other, innumerable reasons why the hysterical subject may dismiss the very Other to whom the discourse lobs its perpetual questions, demands, or complaints. Recall the rhetorical question, which doubles as a childish taunt: I know you are, but what am I? The incessant and reactive reinforcement of the taunt saves the hysteric from the difficult task of becoming “one through the signifier,” of deciding or acting upon desire separate from perpetuating evidence of the Other’s castration. So long as we know the Other is fallible, then the hysteric need not ascend to a clear or coherent symbolic identity. Or, in the case of anti-​Moore films, the endless examples of Moore’s presumed failures provide the representative example by which the films then dismiss entirely the political claims for which he speaks. In Michael & Me, finally, we see in spectacular terms how the noise produced by an endless cycle of questions—​questions that do not seek a decisive answer—​saves the reactionary from doing anything other than react. The anti-​Moore film, though it cites Roger & Me with its mimetic title, focuses primarily on what it deems the “anti-​gun” message of Bowling for Columbine. Larry Elder, a conservative talk-​radio personality who likewise hosts documentary, explains in stark terms the purpose of the film in the opening sequence, as he stands in front of the camera in an inner-​city neighborhood of Los Angeles, “I’m doing a documentary to address another documentary that was not only anti-​gun [and] anti-​self-​defense . . . but also anti-​personal responsibility and ultimately anti-​American.” After this dramatic opening, the film proceeds to demonstrate the necessity of gun ownership for the purpose of self-​defense. Criminals will think twice about robbing innocent citizens, we are repeatedly told, so long as the Second Amendment remains in place and unchallenged. According to the counterintuitive common sense expressed by the film, the more guns in circulation the less violence will ensue. Through Elder’s commentary and interviews with legal “experts,” the film also suggests that guns are used for defensive purposes in the United States somewhere between 100,000 and 2  million times per year. Apart from such specious claims, the explicit intervention claimed from the start of Michael & Me begins on shaky argumentative grounds:  Moore’s own film, Bowling for Columbine, which Elder explicitly seeks to address, never suggests the eradication of the Second Amendment.51

136  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse In an early scene in Michael & Me, Elder succeeds in catching Moore by surprise, on camera, on a street corner. The brief conversation is heated and unproductive. Elder demands that Moore apologize to anyone who has ever defended themselves with firearms, since, according to Elder’s mischaracterization, Moore’s prescriptions against gun ownership would leave vast numbers of innocent people defenseless against criminals, home invaders, and other threats. Since the impromptu interview ends almost as soon as it begins, Michael & Me later offers a speculative (and animated) depiction of a debate between Elder and Moore, the latter caricatured to emphasize his sloppy appearance and sizeable girth (Figure 3.4). Elder’s animated avatar poses several questions to his interlocutor; in response, Moore’s avatar stutters and stammers, unable to answer the barrage of questions: How many Americans are alive today as a result of using guns for defensive purposes? How do you explain the increase in violent crime in England after it outlawed handguns? Do you know the purpose of the Second Amendment? How do you explain the combination of lax gun laws and low murder rates in the State of Vermont?

Figure 3.4  Michael & Me (2004). An animated Larry Elder interviews Michael Moore about gun control.

Policing with Noise  137 You seem to think there is less violence in Canada, but isn’t their suicide rate higher than ours? The rhetorical questions occur at a rapid-​fire pace, emphasizing Moore’s complete inability to answer any questions. Still, Elder’s approach also obscures his own argument—​the film’s viewers may struggle to follow the train of thought. The battery of questions offered in Michael & Me demonstrates an inverse approach to dialogue compared to Roger & Me. Whereas Moore’s biased interviews produce incoherent speech on the part of his respondents, Elder’s approach attempts to foreclose on the possibility of any response whatsoever. The sequence figures this problem by placing special emphasis on Moore’s physical body. Unable to offer thoughtful responses, his agitation increases as his body correspondingly shrinks in size until engulfed in his plus-​sized clothes (Figure 3.5). An enraged Moore finally brandishes and fires a pistol at Elder before he is removed by security; the hypothetical debate ends as unproductively as the on-​camera encounter earlier in the film.

Figure 3.5  Michael & Me (2004). A physically and emotionally deflated Michael Moore fails to defend himself against Larry Elder’s arguments against gun control.

138  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse The animated sequence imagines a debate whose successful conclusion involves the opposition’s disappearance from view. As Moore’s animated caricature deflates before our eyes, the sequence depicts Moore as a blustering, hypocritical, and ultimately unworthy adversary. Despite its staging of (what appears to be) a confrontational debate between opposing sides, the actual content of the exchange is such that viewers unfamiliar with Moore will remain entirely ignorant of the position he holds. Perhaps even more significantly, Elder’s reliance on a spectacle of reason—​like the materialist educators critiqued by Rancière—​provides a false semblance of education, one whose rapid-​fire pace overwhelms any capacity for learning.

Endless Rebellion The evidences, examples, case studies, and other means by which the anti-​ Moore films “support” their political arguments lack cohesion or coherence. Simply put, the films are confusing to watch. As I have noted earlier, viewers often encounter so many disconnected bits of information, so many contradictory viewpoints, making it difficult to assess what any of the films intend to argue separate from their deprecation of Moore himself. Yet this confusion is also rhetorically productive: the incoherence provides the very means by which Moore’s authoritative status is dismantled, and his privileged status as a representative of political difference secures the alibi by which any real encounter with political antagonism is avoided. The apparent ruptures in Moore’s mystique, as the films enact them, provide the films with their central excuse for the promotion of political normativity. In other words, Moore’s presumed failures provide the “proof ” that viewers may ignore any of the political causes for which Moore has given voice. The films’ hysterical discourse thereby manifests a paradoxical relationship to authority. In Rancière’s account of education, the groundbreaking pedagogies of Joseph Jacotot bestowed onto his students the charge to pursue their knowledge absent his authoritative gaze. By divesting his own authority, he dispensed with his privileged role as an explicator of knowledge and thereby transferred to the students the freedom and authority necessary to pursue their own self-​education. The teacher in the educational scenario Rancière promotes thereby becomes “a representative of the people,” one who simply calls his or her students to embrace their shared status as equals.52 The ignorant master, in Rancière’s view, “will not verify what the student has

Policing with Noise  139 found; he will verify that the student has searched. He will judge whether or not [the student] has paid attention.”53 In their hysterical inattentiveness, by contrast, conservatives privilege Moore’s position of authority even as they attack it. He thereby becomes the representative whose failings excuse the conservative interlocutors from the pain and difficulty that attends, sometimes, the elaboration of one’s political ideas and differences. The intertextual interventions marked by the conservative films, clearly, do not offer viable political alternatives to Moore’s but rather privilege Moore’s failures as their singular subject matter and pretext for the continued disavowal of political difference, a discursive move that “both makes and also breaks the master.”54 By elevating Moore’s sociopolitical significance and then proceeding to demonstrate his abject ignorance, the hysterical scenario provides the basis for the films’ reactionary promotion of inequality in the guise of equality, policing the sensible with a noisy preponderance of unassimilable material, evidence, and arguments. Lacan’s theory of discourse thereby provides a useful supplement to Rancière’s binary account of education and authority. Whereas Rancière conceives of the educational apparatus as either restrictive or supportive of educational equality, Lacan’s theory of hysterical discourse identifies a more complicated scenario in which authority becomes the very spectacle by which the status quo is reproduced. In the hysterical films, the perpetual debasement of their privileged object (Moore) provides endless fodder for formal excursions that never manage to touch on the political content that underlies them. This dialogic failure, though, indicates a rhetorical and ideological success, a perpetuation of political ambivalence whose implicit bias far exceeds the various ways in which Moore’s films are misrepresented. Among the discursive situations considered by Lacan, to be clear, hysterical discourse is the only social bond he considers in which authority appears as an explicit object of consideration within the discourse’s operation. The hysteric’s dominant mode of address is precisely one that attacks, critiques, or otherwise seeks to expose the limits of whatever authority to whom the hysteric feels subjected. The hysteric’s discourse thereby marks a significant difference when compared to either the master or the university. For the master’s discourse, quite clearly, the entire structure from which the speaker offers his decrees serves to reinforce the authoritative status of the master, but it does so invisibly; if we begin to question the master’s authoritative status, we have already begun to move onto a different discursive register. In university discourse, authority operates underground; since the university privileges the pursuit of knowledge

140  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse for its own sake, it displaces the figure of authority away from its traditional and more obvious position within the master’s discourse.55 In either discursive scenario, authority is either reproduced explicitly through hierarchical structures grounded in the domination and the vertical expression of power (master’s discourse), or implicitly via the more dispersed disciplines of knowledge organized along horizontal paths that nevertheless continue to privilege certain pursuits over others (university discourse). In hysterical discourse, then, authority becomes the primary subject matter of the address. The representative of authority is placed on the stage, becomes the target of critique, and in so doing the (hysterical) subject who perpetuates this discourse may avoid coming to terms with his or her own particular position within the broader field of social relations. Since hysterical discourse rebels against authority without any interest in producing a new structural relation as a consequence—​a rebellion without revolution, or a rebellion performed so as to avoid revolution—​the knowledge it produces tends to take the form of refuse or remainder. “Hysterical characters can seldom render a full story,” Elisabeth Young-​Bruehl notes, “they tell an aspect, a part, whatever suits their needs of the moment, engaging in what might be called unintentional lying. They make contradictory statements without being aware.”56 The reason for such incomprehension, to be clear, stems from an overinvestment in aggression that masks an active disinvestment in dialogue. In the hysterical attack on authority, any means or materials at one’s disposal may be put to use. The aim of the hysterical social bond seeks to denigrate that bond to its barest relation without severing it completely. Accordingly, the knowledge (S2) produced by such hysterical attacks litters the battlefield as with so many disconnected remainders left in the wake of its spectacular bombardments.

4 Economies of Inattention Privacy, Publicity, and the Interests of Observation

Lacan’s politicization of psychoanalytic theory in Seminar XVII emphasizes the social and intersubjective bonds at the basis of the four discourses (master, university, hysteric, analyst) he describes. Certain social situations, for Lacan, structure the relations between people in ways, if not entirely predetermined, then at least tending in certain directions rather than others. The subject is not merely spoken by the signifier; the signifier also circulates in social settings whose qualities become sedimented over time. The theory of the four discourses, then, graphs sociocultural situations in which our intersubjective relations, and the desires that such relations foment, are formalized along relatively conventional or predictable pathways. The master’s discourse, as we have seen in Chapter 3, is a social arrangement reliant upon hierarchy: what is said matters less than who speaks and where they speak from. As I have argued, hysterical discourse, by contrast, describes an appeal whose implicit aim is the denigration of the very social bond it engages. Hysterical political discourse attacks its antagonist in a manner that avoids substantive engagement or exchange, and it performs this attack—​its spectacle of debate—​as a means to delay or deny any change to the social relation as it exists. Despite its often aggressive tone and sometimes apocalyptic tenor, hysterical discourse does not attempt to destroy or silence its opponent so much as it seeks to inoculate itself from the Other, treating antagonism as a spectacle—​a form divested of relevant historical or contextual content—​ resistant to counterargument, compromise, or the possibility of change. From this perspective, conservative discourse of the hysterical variety demonstrates a resistance to change not only because it holds fast to antiquated ideas. Conservatism resists its own evolution, as well as that of the society in which it operates, upon whose regimes of common sense it functions as a parasite. The spectacle of impassioned debate, on which

Beyond Bias. Scott Krzych, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/​oso/​9780197551219.003.0005

142  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse conservative media so often relies, is built upon the transmission of opinions masquerading as democratic debate, which consequently screens out ideas, facts, or evidence that may challenge its own guiding assumptions. Conservative hysteria thereby translates the political into a rather dramatic and entertaining media commodity for its intended viewers. And a politics of entertainment is, unsurprisingly, ill-​suited for durable democratic interaction or disagreement. The “debates” enacted in conservative media, as we have seen, are monologues rather than dialogues, or, more specifically, monologues in the guise of dialogues. Especially in the films critical of Michael Moore (Chapter  3), the reactionary filmmakers avoid dialogue even as they perform dialogic exchange by simplifying their opponent’s discourse, responding to Moore’s political arguments as if his claims amount to little more than unconscious expressions of personal pathology. Each of the anti-​Moore documentaries diagnoses Moore’s films as indicative of his unstated and unacknowledged desires; by offering pop-​psychological interpretations of Moore’s unconscious motivations, the conservative films deftly subtract all broader political content from the debate as they stage it. Whatever insights or ideas Moore’s films invoke or address, we are told, are nothing more than the director’s personal attempt to gain fame and fortune; whatever the apparent topic of discussion (globalization, gun culture, health care, the war on terror, etc.), the conservative rebuttals assure its viewers that Moore’s films manifest his personal idiosyncrasies and hence require little if any serious consideration. This dismissive posture is complicated, of course, by the films’ overwhelming care and attention to their mimetic reproduction of Moore’s formal techniques. It is precisely this division of attention—​an inattentiveness to content and a hyperattentiveness to form—​that I consider more thoroughly in this chapter. In what follows, I  discuss conservative attacks on President Barack Obama in a cycle of feature-​length documentary films and videos similar to those found in the previous chapter. Whereas the anti-​Moore films train their attacks on Moore’s personal desires as a means to dismiss his political arguments, the anti-​Obama films, however, take a more complicated route. The films emphasize, overwhelmingly, Obama’s capacity to mediate or transmit ideas other than his own; indeed, this mediating character trait, more than any others, signifies the catastrophe of his election and his presidency as the films portray it. Conservative speakers in the films appear most fearful of Obama, I claim, because he is a product of circumstance. As they repeatedly and consistently claim, he is an ambivalent object, a medium

Economies of Inattention  143 for ideas other than his own. In other words, even more than an agent of change—​the empty signifier deployed so effectively by his first campaign for the presidency—​Obama is pictured in the conservative films, menacingly, as subject to change. The conservative films considered here—​ Agenda:  Grinding America Down (Curtis Bowers, 2010), I Want Your Money (Ray Griggs, 2020), 2016: Obama’s America (Dinesh D’souza and John Sullivan, 2012), Dreams from My Real Father (Joel Gilbert, 2012), The Obama Deception (Alex Jones, 2009), Hype: The Obama Effect (Alan Peterson, 2008), The Hope and the Change (Stephen K. Bannon, 2012), There’s No Place Like Utopia (Joel Gilbert, 2014)—​share a common rhetorical strategy. Each film seeks to identify in Obama a false and performative mask in desperate need of exposure. The “real” Obama that lays underneath, which the films inevitably claim to expose, is presented as multiple, a complex of adverse associations; thus, his mannered persona provides a bare façade that contains within it a hidden network of nefarious individuals alleged to have masterminded the first African American president’s meteoric rise onto the national stage, landing eventually in the White House. Intent to demonstrate that Obama is “other” than he appears, the hysterical discourse perpetuated by this series of films projects onto Obama the fundamental ambivalence typical of hysterical subjectivity as described in this book thus far. The spectacle of hysterical self-​division, presumably located in the very appearance of the first African American president—​and the ill-​intentions this appearance presumes to hide—​thereby links hysterical conservative discourse with a persistent racist imaginary.

Crisis Management Dinesh D’Souza documentary, 2016:  Obama’s America, was distributed widely in theaters across the United States in the midst of the 2012 presidential campaign. The film’s title intends to look forward, speculatively, to the end of Obama’s second term in office should he win the campaign against the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film paints a dire picture of another four-​year term should the incumbent prevail. By 2016, D’Souza predicts in the film’s concluding sequences, the national debt will explode as a result of Obama’s “socialist” policies, destroying the US economy as a result; a new and threatening Islamic caliphate will

144  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse likewise emerge across the Middle East in response to Obama’s weak foreign policy and deference to Muslim leaders. How do we know such a dire future is on the horizon? Obama has already laid the groundwork for such catastrophic change, so long as we know where to identify the tell-​tale signs of the apocalypse in the making. “Since taking office in 2009, change has come to America,” D’Souza ominously announces. “But the changes Obama has enacted transcend the traditional differences between Democrats and Republicans and reflect something different, something completely separated from [traditional] American thought altogether . . . Only through the dreams of Obama’s father can we understand the actions of the son.”1 Specifically, Obama’s America offers a detailed account of what it terms the “anti-​colonial” sentiments of the president’s Kenyan father, Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. According to the pop-​psychological methodology on which D’Souza’s film relies, the senior Obama’s opposition to the British colonization of Kenya becomes his son’s birthright, though it will take a different, more masochistic, form. Obama Sr.’s particular anti-​colonialism, pitched against British imperialism, will manifest later in a general anti-​colonialist sentiment passed down to his son, the future president. In the stunning line of reasoning perpetrated by D’Souza, which he offers throughout the film as if it were the most rational deployment of common sense, President Obama’s anti-​colonialist inheritance places him at odds with the very country he was elected to lead; since the United States remains a persistent colonial power in the world, Obama is necessarily anti-​American, the film explains. Controversially, the grim future Obama’s America predicts as the assured outcome of an extended Obama presidency will not be the result, say, of the unintended consequences of misguided policies. Instead, D’Souza claims, Obama will wreck the country as the result of the unconscious reproduction of a radicalism that precedes him and for which he cannot even take credit. In the film’s imaginary, Obama poses an existential threat to America’s “greatness,” but he lacks the self-​ awareness necessary to recognize the paternal influence that animates him. Obama knows not what he is doing even as the film judges him to be morally depraved for his actions—​he should know better. In order to set the stage for this dubious hypothesis, Obama’s America must first produce a problem to solve, a puzzle to piece together, a knot to unravel. It accomplishes this by blinding itself to the historical contexts that might explain, rather easily, decisions made by Obama in his first term. The subtraction of history thereby carves out an epistemological gap, a failure to understand Obama’s actions and intentions; in light of this manufactured

Economies of Inattention  145

Figure 4.1  2016: Obama’s America (2012). Dinesh D’Souza raises doubts in voice-​over concerning Barack Obama’s ideological past.

absence, D’Souza will then offer his speculative supplements (Figure 4.1). As D’Souza notes in voice-​over narration in an early sequence, Obama, unlike previous presidents, seemed to “come out of nowhere” and “no one really knew him.” Indeed, D’Souza finds cause for suspicion in what we might otherwise deem uncontroversial presidential behavior, at least when viewed within the historical context the film subtracts. For example, as Obama’s America recounts, Obama issued a temporary ban on offshore drilling in 2010. The film makes no mention of the event that precipitated the executive order: an explosion of an underwater oil drill operated by British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico, and the environmental disaster it produced as millions of gallons of oil dispersed across the gulf and along the coastline. Given the scope and severity of the disaster, Obama’s temporary ban on offshore drilling was entirely measured. Absent the historical context, however, as Obama’s America renders it, the decision is inexplicable; or it begs for an explanation that D’Souza is well-​prepared to provide. The “answer,” of course, trades historical evidence for speculation about Obama’s personal psychology, leading D’Souza to conclude that Obama pursued the drilling ban to inhibit economic development, slow the country’s gross domestic product, and thereby take one step, among many others, to degrade America’s global prominence and thereby fulfill his father’s anti-​colonial “dream.” Despite the minimal

146  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse relationship shared between Obama and his father, the latter who was mostly absent from his son’s life, D’Souza’s hermeneutics of suspicion identifies in Obama’s behavior, decisions, and policies an impetus for psychological speculation to explain his so-​called odd behavior as president. Where we might expect to find predictable ideological disagreements between a conservative pundit (D’Souza) and a liberal president (Obama)—​say, contravening views about domestic energy policy—​the documentary instead transforms conventional political antagonisms into a moral investigation that presumes to expose previously unidentified familial influences in Obama’s past to explain the present and likewise imply an ominous future. The ideological bias on which Obama’s America relies projects onto Obama a tale of psychic pathology and melodramatic villainy. Instead of a thorough engagement or embrace of political difference and its attendant complexities, the documentary narrates a morality tale easily transmissible and conveniently resistant to counterfactual evidence. That is, we should notice the close relationship between the threat posed by Obama’s presidency and the ease by which this threat is constructed via D’Souza’s inattention to historical detail. As I will argue throughout this chapter, the menacing figure of Obama, perhaps counterintuitively, also entails a positive affective byproduct for the conservative hysterical imaginary. The ease by which D’Souza answers his own questions provides for his viewers a comforting assurance of sociohistorical consistency, as if to say, We’ve seen this all before. This political antagonist is no different from any others who have preceded him, and his election poses no broader significance other than its reiteration of a binary, moral intersection between good and evil. There is nothing (else) to see here. The future may be scary, but the capacity to see and perceive—​and to identify the interrelationships between past, present, and future—​bears no signs of ambiguity, complexity, or self-​doubt, at least not for the conservative pop-​ psychologist equipped with the “proper” tools for analysis at a distance. By grounding its claims and broader predictions for the future upon speculation about Obama’s psychological makeup, D’Souza performs an analytic technique that seems nearly effortless in its procedural progression, from question to investigation to conclusion. To be sure, the film is as ideologically motivated as any others I examine in Beyond Bias. But we should notice especially the economy of attention upon which these claims are built. Ideology, as it operates here, economizes on the energy required of thought in order to dispense with thought, reproducing a “conceptual formation that seems to arise automatically . . . and seems to

Economies of Inattention  147 possess the capacity of housing whatever cluster of particulars might define the current situation [and likewise] transforms an unwelcomed moment of conceptual/​emotional disarray into a welcomed moment in which things click into place.”2 Or the film’s inattentiveness to history and historical context provides the basis for its hyperattentiveness to fear and form. The threat of Obama-​as-​Other, in other words, emerges in direct proportion to the film’s capacity to ignore anything that might explain his behavior in nonthreatening terms. Thus, the film manufactures a crisis to come: the dire prospect of another Obama term and the emergence, as D’Souza will suggest, of an even more radical agenda once the president is freed from the limitations of facing another election. At the same time, the imagined threat carries a curative side effect: it assures conservative viewers that they remain safely ensconced in their ideological assumptions, particularly their feelings of political discord. While the rest of the US population and much of the world celebrates the historic election of the first African American president, conservative viewers may remain assured that they know better and may likewise justify their experience of affective discontent and racial animus. The fearful imagery by which Obama’s America concludes, and the excessive affective register it amplifies, arrives at its destination due to the ease and simplicity by which the film manufactures its signature crisis. The likelihood of civilizational calamity, in which Obama is both an unwitting pawn and also somehow morally responsible for his actions, relies on an organizing principle akin to what José Medina terms “epistemological laziness.” As Medina puts it, “Those who grow used to carrying with them the presumption of knowing, of speaking authoritatively, of not being cognitively suspect, have but rare opportunities to find out their own limitations.”3 Then, when faced nevertheless with an undeniable limitation or shortcoming—​say, the electoral loss by Republicans in 2008—​the concomitant act of this reality’s denial may lead to “unavoidable, mundane accumulation of oversights, errors, biased stereotypes, and distortion” or other forms of ideological compensation.4 To this point, I have emphasized the more obvious and egregious cases of ideological bias performed by Obama’s America. As the earlier examples demonstrate, D’Souza quite clearly divides the political world he describes into discrete moral camps, leaving no doubt about where D’Souza resides, on the side of the good, in contrast to Obama and his “anti-​colonial” progenitors. The film likewise divides or separates Obama’s executive actions from their immediate historical context; like an act of selective memory, Obama’s decisions become inexplicable and therefore beg for psychological

148  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse speculation to fill the epistemological gap the film’s split attention has produced. However, as I  argue throughout this book, conservative hysterical discourse magnifies such splits or divisions and, in so doing, radicalizes the more conventional biases of such ideological selectivity. Hysterical discourse performs and reproduces subjectivity’s capture in ambivalence, in circumstances beyond the subject’s control, and through this spectacular display defends against any opportunity to change the circumstances as such. With this in mind, we may note how Obama’s America moves a step further, beyond the more conventional ideological biases as we have may come to expect from conservative media. Several interviews conducted by D’Souza in the film occur over telephone. In one instance, D’Souza converses with Dr.  Paul Klengor, who reveals what is intended to be a shocking discovery: a childhood mentor of Obama’s, “Frank,” who is referenced numerous times in the president’s autobiography, was actually Frank Marshall Davis, a poet, journalist, and a “pro-​Soviet  .  .  .  card carrying member of the Communist Party.” D’Souza makes clear his shock upon hearing this news; the “mainstream media” has overlooked this skeleton in Obama’s closet (despite the fact that Obama had already identified Davis by name, of his own accord, in his own autobiography). For the film’s purposes, the revelation seems to affirm both Obama’s radical past and the failure of the press to scrutinize fully the president’s network of influences prior to his election. Of course, the film does not go any further than to suggest Obama’s guilt by association; no evidence is offered to confirm that Davis had a lasting influence on the future president’s political philosophies. Instead, during the sequence, an excess of details appears on the screen—​including Davis’s Communist Party Card number and images from his FBI file—​paired with D’Souza’s look of consternation while he listens on the phone. The suggestion of impropriety, “substantiated” by a preponderance of circumstantial “evidence,” serves as the sole means of incrimination. More important, for my purposes, is the aesthetic split by which the interview appears on-​screen: Kengor, the “expert witness” concerning Davis’s so-​called radicalism, dispenses wild and unsubstantiated claims from the comfort of (what appears to be) his home (Figure 4.2); meanwhile, D’Souza stands in another location with his cell phone to his ear, outside, in public, offering his commentary on the significance of these new and troubling “insights” (Figure 4.3). One figure (Kengor) offers damning “evidence” culled from seemingly mundane bits of information and loose associations; the other (D’Souza) offers interpretive judgments. Later, D’Souza will again play the

Economies of Inattention  149

Figure 4.2  2016: Obama’s America (2012). Paul Kengor speculates about Obama’s influences from the privacy of his home.

Figure 4.3  2016: Obama’s America (2012). Dinesh D’Souza expresses shock in response to the information “uncovered” by his interviewees.   

role of analyst to other free associations, again transmitted over the phone, again dividing on the screen public judgments from private speculations. This time the speculative associations are offered by conservative commentator Shelby Steele from a hotel room. While D’Souza listens intently from

150  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse

Figure 4.4  2016: Obama’s America (2012). Shelby Steele denigrates the history-​ making event of Obama’s election while finishing his breakfast.

the interior of a moving taxi cab, another camera locates Steele as he props his feet on a bed, which also holds a room-​service platter and a coffee carafe, as if the camera and phone call caught him just as he had finished breakfast. From the privacy of his hotel room, Steele explains how Obama strategically exploited America’s guilt about its racist past to gain power for himself. Or, as Steele puts it, “What’s interesting: the reason he’s in the White House is because of his race, his blackness.” The interviews’ presentation in Obama’s America positions the speculative opinions where we might normally expect to find them—​in private. Like “armchair quarterbacks” who confidently criticize the efforts of professional athletes from the safety and privacy of their living rooms while watching a Sunday football game, Kengor and Steele make offensive and unsubstantiated allegations about Obama’s psychological makeup from the comfort of their “homes,” and the confidence of their allegations is inversely proportional to the meagerness of their evidence. But D’Souza’s mediating presence appears to validate the specious speculations, as if they were mere common sense, and the hypotheses are validated immediately by D’Souza’s capacity to fit them into his preconceived narrative of Obama-​as-​Other. The specious allegations offered in Obama’s America about Obama and his so-​called hidden influences and unstated intentions, as we will see, are similar in kind to others made throughout the cycle of anti-​Obama conservative

Economies of Inattention  151 documentaries released over the course of his presidency. Dreams from My Real Father spends ample time to allege ideological (and biological) connections between Obama and Frank Marshall Davis; Hype: The Obama Effect, The Hope and the Change, and Agenda: Grinding America Down all place blame on the mainstream media for its failure to expose Obama’s radical intentions; and most of the films engage in consistent acts of selective memory and historical decontextualization to render Obama’s actions inexplicable or to blame him for events beyond his control, including, prominently, the global financial collapse that began during George W.  Bush’s administration. Perhaps more subtly, but no less pervasively, the anti-​Obama films likewise share a common aesthetic conceit. By splitting attention between Obama’s appearance and a diabolical past believed to lie underneath, something hidden and accessible only to an ideologically enhanced hermeneutics of suspicion, the films never lack for investigative problems to solve. And these problems are almost always motivated by a perverted form of (psycho)analytic interpretation. The scenes in Obama’s America considered earlier, where D’Souza engages in interviews at a distance, divides on the screen the space of private speculation from that of public interpretation. The divisions in space correspond to a related split in attention—​the play between private and public, particular and general, details loosely associated and then concretized into broad judgments or interpretations. As I have already begun to suggest, the split attention by which this analytic method proceeds bears a pertinent similarity to the psychoanalytic clinic, but it is warped for maximum rhetorical effect. In more traditional analytic treatment, the patient is encouraged to “abandon [themselves] to the apparently loose enterprise of speaking whatever crosses [their] mind.”5 The invitation to speak freely in analysis likewise encourages the patient to traverse the limits of common sense, particularly the conventional expectations about what counts as significant or relevant features of the biographical past. The exploration of any and all psychic experience thereby opens a path by which the subject may begin to free herself from the constricting frames of repetition in which she has become pathologically trapped. As Rancière relates in The Aesthetic Unconscious, Freud’s analytic methodology treats equally all features of a subject’s life, experience, and modes or means for pursuing pleasure. Accordingly, as psychoanalytic theory holds, “there is meaning in what seems not to have any meaning, something enigmatic in what seems self-​evident, a spark of thought in what appears to be an anodyne detail.”6 As I  will claim, the anti-​Obama films

152  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse pervert the intimate dynamics of psychoanalytic technique, treating Obama as a subject available for psychic dissection at a distance. As D’Souza’s film stages its vivifying treatment, the performative acts of free association, offered by its so-​called experts, project this division onto Obama himself. He is both a psychic being who evidences an almost endless array of networked influences and a bare container for this complicated past. The films thereby hystericize its audiences by drawing attention, repeatedly, to the surface of Obama’s figure and the nexus of radical relations his appearance is claimed to cover.7 Hysterical discourse thereby meets with a racialized “practice of visibility.”8

Hysterical Presentations Before considering further the racialized, and often racist, discourse of the anti-​Obama films, I want to return briefly to Juliet Mitchell’s account of hysteria, which I mention in the book’s opening chapter. For Mitchell, we will recall, hysterical discourse attempts to mediate social antagonism, but it does so in a way that perpetuates, rather than relieves, the tension or trauma it engages. As a result, the hystericized body begins to “speak,” transmitting through its spectacular symptoms the subject’s negative affects. The symptom is not merely a sign of repression, however; it also functions as the very means of repression. In the case of Elizabeth Von R, her partial paralysis is the most dramatic of several signifying clues that, under Freud’s analytic gaze, refer to the persistent, because repressed, anxiety relating to her sister and brother-​in-​law. The negative experience thereby translates into an affect lodged in the patient’s body. Like any case of physical suffering, the ailment draws excess energy and attention to its embodied persistence, further obscuring the psychic etiology from which it emerged. Of course, as Mitchell reminds us, the hysterical symptom does not exist in isolation; it is intended for an audience. The symptom, which keeps the ailing subject in ignorance concerning the “reminiscence” from which he or she continues to suffer, may likewise disorient the spectators who encounter it. The performative division of idea from affect, past from present, form from content, leads Mitchell to describe hysterical discourse as a presentational aesthetic: The hysteric is not always telling lies; nevertheless, his language is such that it is no different if he is not. This language is neither symbolic nor truly

Economies of Inattention  153 representational. Like the body, this language is a presentation, not a representation: the performative curse does something, it does not stand in for something.9

From our posthumanist vantage point, it may be difficult to fathom the idea that any discourse could engage in presentation without also performing an act representation. From the most conventional Lacanian perspective, for instance, desire is itself a re-​presentation of the subject’s capture in the field of the Other, and, even more fundamentally, the subject’s re-​presentation of his or her capture in language as such. “Desire is the desire for desire,” as Lacan puts it, because the subject’s constitution within language forecloses in advance the possibility of a direct or unmediated connection between subject and object, individual and other, signifier and signified. Yet Mitchell’s distinction between presentation and representation remains useful for our analysis of political media. Addressing its antagonist in the narrowest of terms, hysterical discourse formalizes the intersubjective relationship to debase the relationship as such—​hysteria functions, paradoxically, as “the desire to not have one’s desire satisfied.”10 The hysterical taunt “I know you are but what am I?” (Chapter 2) presents to its intended antagonist a nearly impenetrable rhetorical conceit; one struggles to respond seriously to the taunt because the taunt itself makes a mockery of the exchange; the very utterance resists the answer begged by its rhetorical question. Consider, for example, Donald Trump’s response to Hilary Clinton during the third presidential debate when the discussion turned to Russia and Vladmir Putin: Trump: Putin, from everything I’ve seen, has no respect for [Clinton]. Clinton: Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as the president of the United States. Trump: No puppet, no puppet. You’re the puppet. Here, so far as I can tell, Trump does not intend to flip the accusation Clinton makes against him in any serious way. During the debate, Clinton references several events that occurred during the campaign that seemed to indicate Trump’s unusual affinity for the Russian president. In response, quite automatically, Trump simply reflects the negative term—​puppet—​back to Clinton without further explanation. He thereby selects a key term circulating within the debate and deploys it for formal effect without taking heed of the word’s contextual signification. Trump does not actually mean to claim

154  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse Clinton is Putin’s puppet; rather, he reflects the term back to her in a manner structurally equivalent to simple name calling or a hysterical taunt, I know you are but what am I? The performative presentation thereby “does something, it does not stand in for something.” As I  have argued in previous chapters, conservative political discourse embodies a hysterical mode of ambivalence, splitting form from content in a manner that allows its speakers to remain, seemingly, above the political fray in which they engage. By reflecting or mimicking the conventional aesthetics of political debate and documentary style, conservative films manage to dismiss and denigrate calls for democratic equality even as they appear to participate genuinely in debate. All political antagonists are quickly and easily dismissed as morally infirm or psychologically suspect, while the formal conceits on which the films and speakers rely provide them with an appearance of timely seriousness. Thus, the evangelicals who present creationism in the guise of science do so without investing their arguments in actual scientific methodology (Chapter 2), and conservative critics of Michael Moore lob any and all unsubstantiated claims they can in his direction, presenting so many reasons why viewers should dismiss his precedent films, though the conservative films never offer a coherent argument or alternative of their own separate from their dismissive attacks (Chapter 3). The interviews in Obama’s America likewise demonstrate this hysterical split:  D’Souza mediates the wild and speculative claims offered from the comfort of his interviewees’ homes or hotel rooms. The presentation creates an aura of suspicion surrounding Obama’s past and rise to power, but it does not go so far as to offer a representable, coherent, or comprehensive link between Obama’s behavior and the context in which his actions or decisions occur. Thus, the film perpetuates rather than relieves the anxieties it excavates from its hermeneutical “investigations,” always providing more reasons to doubt Obama’s intentions, never providing the conclusive claims that might relieve viewers from their state of suspense. As I have already begun to suggest, anti-​Obama films also project on to the president’s figure the very ambivalence I have located in conservative political discourse more broadly. Obama is presented as a subject who knows not what he is doing as he acts as a medium for a network of troubling individuals, groups, and ideologies that precede him. Quite clearly, the conservative films project onto Obama the very contradictions we have encountered as the driving force of much of contemporary conservative media. Mitchell is once again apposite:

Economies of Inattention  155 The hysteric . . . starts as a displaced person . . . displaced from the position they once held or which held them. In these circumstances, the previous “self ” feels threatened and unbearable emotions flood in, which, when they cannot be thought about, are handed on [and the] unbearable feelings [are transmitted] on to someone else.11

Displacement is a common theme throughout the films, indeed. In contrast to anti-​Moore films, which attempt to counteract Moore’s political agenda and thereby prevent his preferred policies from coming to fruition, the anti-​ Obama films pointedly respond to a palpable sense of loss after 2008. Where Republicans may have felt supplanted or out of place in the post-​Obama political landscape, the documentaries work tirelessly to image Obama himself as out of place, inhabiting a position he does not deserve and leading a country in which he does not belong.

Racial Projections Projection is itself a gesture likely to perpetuate whatever original trauma or feeling of displacement it attempts to cover over. As Teressa Brennan writes, “Projecting is the opposite of discernment because projection directs outward without consciously (as a rule) acknowledging that it is doing so.”12 Like a self-​fulfilling prophecy, the other onto whom I project my unacknowledged and negative affects increasingly appears to deserve such denigration. Brennan again: “The act of directing negative affects to the other severs my kin tie with her by objectifying her. I make her into an object by directing these affects toward her, because that act marks her with affects that I reject in myself . . . I assume that she does not feel as I do.”13 As I consider later in this chapter, Brennan’s theory of affect, particularly her account of the excess energy necessary to attend to the “transmission of affect” by which an individual becomes enmeshed in his or her social environment, provides a useful lens to consider both conventional and reactionary documentaries about the American presidency. The hystericized projections by which the anti-​ Obama films raise questions about Obama’s present and past, surface and depth, individual ideas and social contexts, demonstrates a consistent racial tenor throughout the films. In claiming that Obama is animated by forces beyond his conscious awareness or control, the conservative documentaries exhibit a common

156  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse racist trope by drawing attention to the so-​called immediate visibility of the Black body’s surface and the threatening otherness this surface is supposed to deceptively mask. In the otherwise prosaic conservative film I Want Your Money, Obama is again lambasted by a collection of conservative “experts” who allege the president’s proclivity for socialism is sure to destroy the American economy. In several animated sequences, caricatured figures of Obama and Ronald Reagan debate the merits of capitalism versus socialism, with Reagan’s superior reasoning outdoing Obama at every turn. Their first conversation in the film locates Obama working in the Oval Office until interrupted by Reagan, who enters the room with an ironic quip (drawn from Reagan’s own memorable talking points): “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” The office is decorated by iconic paintings and photographs: Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and Andy Warhol’s four-​screen print of Marilyn Monroe, among others (Figure 4.5). In each instance, however, Obama’s face is superimposed over the original figures. We may suppose that the gaudy decorations are intended by the filmmaker to draw attention to Obama’s outsized personality and narcissism, as if the newly elected president has personally defaced the artworks with his own visage, signifying his excessive self-​regard. I  suggest that we also read the décor like a Freudian rebus. The images of superimposition seem to beg for a

Figure 4.5  I Want Your Money (2010). An animated caricature of Ronald Reagan debates Barack Obama in the Oval Office.

Economies of Inattention  157 literal translation of “thing presentation” into “word presentation”—​namely, Obama appears where he does not belong. Thus, while the animated figures of Reagan and Obama debate contrary modes of production—​capitalism or socialism—​the mise en scéne encourages a symptomatic assessment of Obama’s racialized difference precisely because the Oval Office so manifestly and excessively displays his surface appearances. His image is both pervasively present and obstinately out of place. Obama’s animated figure is thereby captured “within a perverse circularity that keeps the black body trapped within the visual field, both proof and product of the visuality of race.”14 Moreover, while Reagan’s computer-​ generated character merely inhabits the space in which he speaks, Obama’s caricature is excessively present, speaking within the environment and also, somehow, a constructive feature of the environment. Thus, when Obama’s character speaks, this speech is always already qualified as requiring examination in excess of his words’ immediate intentional content. There is both a clear connection and a bare difference between the character who inhabits the space and the space that bears significant signs of the character’s excessive presence. The bare difference between subject and environment—​and the interest this apparent difference provokes for its intended audience—​provides the aperture that opens upon the hysterically discursive lens by which the president is imaged across the cycle of anti-​Obama films and videos. Importantly, the problematics pursued by the films function differently, I claim, than other recognizable cases of racialized fantasy in modern political rhetoric. Simply put, the fantasy of racial difference is projected onto Obama’s very figure. Consider, by way of contrast, Ronald Reagan’s infamous invocations of the “welfare queen,” which “propagate[ed] the stereotypical image of a lazy, larcenous black woman ripping off society’s generosity without remorse.”15 The racist fantasy’s reproduction of stereotypes not only affirmed “white workers” as responsible taxpayers disenfranchised by minorities who “partied with [whites’] hard-​earned tax dollars”; the fantasy likewise functioned as a more generic rejoinder against any proposal in favor of tax increases, government expenditure on social safety nets, and so on.16 That is to say, the imaginary story relies on a (nonexistent) villain to influence, in advance, debates about complicated social policies; by linking, rhetorically, welfare programs with the odious figure of the so-​called welfare queen, the social program itself is rendered suspicious as a consequence. The more contemporary portrayal of Obama, by contrast, projects onto Obama—​an actual,

158  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse historical, living individual—​the very suspicion by which his own words become the “proof ” of his bad intentions. At its most effective, the affective chaos projected onto the president renders his speech into the very sign of his being out of place, even when accurately transmitted by the actual, historical individual. Indeed, at its most effective, hysterical discourse transforms the capacity by which viewers encounter Obama’s actual words and behavior into signs that can only be heard or seen as cause for suspicion, at the least, and as an existential threat at worst. Thus, if the discourse succeeds, it may simply present its opponent’s words in context, without misrepresentation, and its hystericized audience will nevertheless hear something “other” beneath Obama’s manifest speech. Admittedly, these examples may appear so egregious and disturbing as to resist the kinds of comparisons and contrasts I have drawn in previous chapters between conservative media and conventional documentary films. My examples and comparisons between conventional and conservative documentary have usually relied on explicit cases of mimicry, in which conservative filmmakers attempt to cloak their reactionary ideas in more conventional forms. As we have seen, religious filmmakers have regularly smuggled fundamentalist ideas into secular domains, claiming that creationism is merely one viable scientific theory among others (Chapter 2); and conservative filmmakers critical of Michael Moore have likewise masked their anti-​democratic sentiments in the guise of Moore’s own aesthetic techniques, thereby mobilizing Moore’s style as so much noise to drown out his films’ more pressing and pertinent political content (Chapter 3). In both cases, conservative hysterical discourse arrests the political conversations it only seems to engage by splitting form from content, transforming broad social problems into cases of idiosyncratic personality differences, or overwhelming viewers with so much detail, data, or contradictory opinions as to promote a politically expedient brand of incoherence and amnesia. In the confusion, it may be best to leave things alone and as they already are—​or so the hysterical spectacle and its underlying political logic goes. Nevertheless, these conservative films at least resemble the canonical films, filmmakers, and discourses they cite; the formal mimicry is a critical feature by which the films portray their ideological excesses in the guise of common sense. At first glance, the anti-​Obama films and videos considered here bear no aesthetic similarities to conventional documentaries about the American presidency. Many of the most recognizable films about presidents and presidential candidates, moreover, have committed themselves to observational

Economies of Inattention  159 methods. Stand-​out examples of direct cinema from the twentieth century lead audiences behind the curtains of power, developing thereby an aesthetic of nonfictional contingency in contrast to the speculative claims of experts, historians, and voice-​of-​God narrators who comment on events from a distance. Thus, the observational methods of direct cinema seem directly at odds with the hermeneutics of suspicion enacted and then hystericized by conservative filmmakers. In such films as Primary (Robert Drew, 1960), Crisis:  Behind a Presidential Commitment (Robert Drew, 1963), The War Room (D. A.  Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, 1993), and Journeys with George (Alexandra Pelosi and Aaron Lubarsky, 2002), among others, the methods of direct cinema seek to capture its subjects in moments of immediacy and contingency. What could be more different from the CGI caricature of Obama in I Want Your Money—​a sound-​image composed entirely by digital code, paired with a pedestrian vocal impersonation of Obama’s voice—​than direct cinema’s commitment to “record real people in undirected situations with live sound”?17 I contend, however, that direct cinema’s attention to the bare differences and porous boundaries between private and public domains, between what occurs on-​stage and off-​stage, seeks to engage directly the very dialectical movements that conservative films work to hystericize at Obama’s expense. Direct cinema demonstrates a tendency to present scenes of potential political importance without going so far as to categorize or conceptualize the significance of the events themselves. Like Mitchell’s account of hysterical aesthetics, direct cinema emphasizes presentation over re-​presentation, we might say. Unlike conservative hysterical discourse, however, cinema verité and direct cinema derive their interest from such encounters with the bare differences they present. By attending to such presentational aesthetics in the conventional cycle of presidential films, we may better conceive the manner by which hysterical discourse magnifies and manipulates the ambivalent features of presidential persona and celebrity.

Chronicles of Complexity In Chronicle of a Summer (1961), codirectors Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin follow an assortment of Parisians during the course of a single summer. The filmmakers’ stated intention was to capture “ordinary” individuals in quotidian settings and activities:  going to work, eating meals, and debating

160  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse with friends (and sometimes strangers) the political topics of the day. Both Rouch and Morin appear on camera several times, interacting reflexively with the participants and discussing the merits of the cinematic project as it progresses. In Chronicle’s concluding scene, the “cast” is invited to gather in a theater to view the film and to share their immediate, disparate, and opinionated reactions—​one final reflexive gesture by which the film generates and presents its own internal self-​commentary. Morin would eventually pen his own commentary about the project. The retroactive assessment—​a filmmaker’s commentary on a film in which he already appears and in which the participants likewise voice their own aesthetic judgments—​thereby perpetuates further the iterative process of presentation and re-​presentation. In “Chronicle of a Film,” Morin explains his original intention to “capture the truth of human relations in real life.”18 The “truth,” as defined by Morin, is accessible when filmmakers avoid the more typical subjects of journalism or nonfictional reportage at the time; specifically, celebrities and politicians who carefully craft their personas for public consumption. “Newscasts present us with life in its Sunday best,” Morin complains, “official, ritualized, men of State shaking hands, discussions . . . As a rule, the camera is too heavy, it is not mobile enough, the sound equipment can’t follow the action, and what is live escapes or closes up,” or this was the case prior to the development of lightweight cameras and sound-​ recording equipment on which cinéma vérité would rely in order to “penetrate the depth of daily life as it is really lived.”19 However, when Morin offers his assessment of Chronicle, he arrives as a starkly different conclusion, no longer confident in his belief that documentary film can represent authentic human experience, no matter how compact the camera or how invasive the cinematic gaze. After he and Rouch gained access to the lives of previously anonymous individuals, these relatively private and personal settings still demonstrated features of performative mediation similar to those public figures whose manicured celebrity personas Morin had purposefully eschewed. No matter the setting—​whether private or public—​Morin finds, individual subjects construct identifies whose external facades resist absolutely any attempt at exposure: We wanted to get away from comedy, from spectacles, to enter into direct contact with life. But life itself is also a comedy, a spectacle. Better (or worse) yet: each person can only express himself through a mask, and the mask, as in Greek tragedy, both disguises and reveals, becomes the speaker.20

Economies of Inattention  161 Thus, in Morin’s account of it, cinéma vérité cannot unmask finally the masquerade of social relations, no matter how personal or private its subject matter. There is no “truth” hidden beneath the surface, “because our social personalities are made up of roles that we have incorporated within ourselves” to such an extent that the so-​called mask bears no fundamental distinction from the individual presumed to wear it.21 At most, cinéma vérité can bring into a higher relief the nature of subjectivity as masquerade. In other words, through the film’s reflexive acts of self-​consciousness, the pursuit of truth becomes problematized and thematized, recognized as an irresolvable problem. Indeed, for Morin, truth must be redefined as that which emerges as an affective byproduct of the inevitable contradictions, failures, and fissures that persist within the tenuous bonds that hold between private and public, individual and society, consciousness and unconscious.22 In this light, Morin’s definition of cinéma vérité translates the terms literally: movement truth or the truth of movement. That is to say, Morin’s documentary method seeks to provide an inscription of the manner by which the truth of human social relations, or at least the semblance of truth, moves in and through complex iterative systems and formations without arriving at a final destination. What he would eventually identify in “Chronicle” as “psychoanalytic truth,” then, may be understood as what a film may elicit from an audience when viewers are similarly moved to appreciate or better recognize the instability of subjectivity, constituted as it is by its own ceaseless movements. In the absence of voice-​over commentary or any explicit linear development of narrative to guide the audience’s reception, the affective experience itself becomes an object for reflexive contemplation, or so the line of thinking goes. To be sure, Morin (with Rouch) retains a privileged position of authority by which to dispense this experience and its intended knowledge effects.23 My interests, however, lie elsewhere, back with the politicians who are excluded in advance from Morin’s purview. If, as Morin concludes, ordinary individuals are just as performative in their social interactions as politicians are before cameras, journalists, and other constituencies, then the latter public figures need not be excluded from examination. The leveling of differences between public and private, which Morin highlights, should cut both ways. Or if “there is a profound kinship between social life and the theater,” then there is no reason to exclude the more public theatrics of prominent individuals from documentation or analysis. Indeed, perhaps by turning our attention toward such public figures, the spectacular scenarios they orchestrate may provide insight into the singular, individuated,

162  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse and idiosyncratic nature by which any particular subject moves idiomatically through complex social systems and “performance” spaces of all kinds.

Mediating Political Interest Other scholars of documentary film besides Morin seem to encounter a related impasse, or at least an imprecision in their critical lexicon, when they attempt to define the fundamental features of direct cinema. Especially as it concerns observational films about public figures and politicians, it seems unclear how best to categorize a film’s recording of events when those events fall somewhere between the public and the private. Though direct cinema may provide insight into the private proclivities and idiosyncratic personalities of its on-​screen subjects, the events recorded still retain a broader significance, even potentially an historical importance, when the selected subjects are “history-​making” individuals. William Rothman, for instance, equivocates when he attempts to describe those documentaries that gain access to the daily activities of elected officials: “Like television dramas, soap operas, and situation comedies, and like classical movies before them, [direct cinema is] concerned with the realm of the private”; yet because the so-​called private moments often involve behind-​the-​scenes access to the deliberations of officials whose decisions have broad social impacts, those same scenes could also be labeled “public affairs programs [or] news.”24 Rothman has in mind, here, Robert Drew’s film, Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, which includes scenes of backroom deliberations and negotiations by John and Robert Kennedy in the moments leading up to the integration of the University of Alabama by African American students. In this example, the so-​called private moments between the president and the attorney general have a direct bearing on the historical and public events in which they participate. Neither term—​public or private—​is entirely fitting, yet no other term seems immediately available. Indeed, Crisis and other films like it provoke audience interest, I will claim, by virtue of the movement of its camera and operators between scenes of public significance and private contingency for which we lack an adequate concept, term, or other means of explanation. Yet even when direct cinema films and filmmakers have trained their lenses on events that lack the obvious “crisis structure” preferred by Drew—​ where private moments culminate in a public event of historical import—​ critics have nevertheless noticed a close connection between the relatively

Economies of Inattention  163 private moments captured in direct cinema, on the one hand, and the broader historical contexts that provide the private events with a sense of relevance or legibility, on the other. For Bill Nichols, the attempts by documentary filmmakers to gain access to events as they unfold has encouraged the selection of certain subjects rather than others. “The absence of commentary and the reluctance to use images to illustrate generalizations,” Nichols writes, “encourages [in direct cinema] an emphasis on the activity of individuals within specific social formations such as the family, the local community, or a single institution or aspect of one.”25 Echoing this idea in even more forceful terms, Paul Arthur claims that “direct cinema virtually required pre-​ established identities or role expectations behind which filmmakers could mask their intervention and against which they could define a heightened authenticity and insight into character.”26 Thus, Nichols and Arthur privilege the paradigmatic contexts in which observational films tend to locate their subject matter; certain established schemas, storylines, or recognizable settings precede a documentary’s production and thereby contextualize in advance the images and scenes we encounter there. That is, direct cinema may embrace looser narratives, or dispense with an explicit narrative structure altogether, and may minimize or exclude voice-​over narration, because the recorded events occur within settings already familiar to viewers. Such familiarity likewise requires fewer acts of explicit editorializing to make sense of what we are seeing or why.27 With these generic accounts of direct cinema in mind, we may notice the tendency by observational filmmakers to train their lenses on the process of electoral campaigns, as in the cases of Primary, The War Room, Journeys with George, By The People: The Election of Barack Obama (Amy Rice and Alicia Sams, 2009), and Mitt (Greg Whiteley, 2014). Each film begins on sure footing. As Nichols and Arthur affirm, the recognizable benchmarks of a national political campaign provides the established context by which the films may then dig deeper, move behind the curtain, or otherwise expose those facets of a political campaign usually withheld from public view. The relatively private scenes that they capture gain a sense of significance in excess of the more purposefully curated and mediated public events by which citizens normally encounter candidates for public office. Here, we might add, the public context not only makes the private scenes legible. The recognizable public contexts in which the narratives occur provide a set of assumptions or expectations about the barrier separating the public from the private; thus, when this barrier is crossed by the filmmakers, such movement becomes

164  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse a matter of interest. Since we normally do not see behind the curtain, the events that occur behind it gain an added sense of allure. What really goes on behind the scenes in a presidential campaign? The answer, it turns out, is not always terribly interesting. Or, as I  will claim, more precisely, the campaign films raise implicit questions concerning how we conceive of interest in the first place.

Bare Differences The War Room, codirected by D.  A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, provides access into Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992. The film follows Clinton’s charismatic campaign advisors, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, as they guide the campaign’s media messaging. The observational camera in The War Room persistently moves through the various public and private spaces in which the campaign staff work and operate. The film includes no comprehensive assessment of the campaign’s overall strategy; the snippets of behind-​the-​scenes access are too brief and disconnected to provide a totalized understanding of the campaign.28 Instead, The War Room travels effortlessly, it seems, between spaces, emphasizing at times the aspects of the campaign that circulate for public consumption (in newspapers, televised news conferences, etc.), on the one hand, and the reactions that occur behind closed doors, on the other, thereby establishing a dynamic sense of movement and exchange between the two domains. In one scene, for instance, we watch Carville as he watches George H. W. Bush deliver a speech accepting the nomination as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate at the National Convention (Figure 4.6). Bush offers a quip about Clinton’s record of flip-​flopping—​“He’s been spotted more places than Elvis Presley” (Figure 4.7) The film cuts to Carville as he smirks in response, seemingly out of respect for the well-​landed rhetorical jab; then he brainstorms with other staffers how best to craft a response. The many explicit references in The War Room to modes of mediation, particularly print and TV reportage, demonstrate the centrality of public messaging for any modern presidential campaign. At the same time, there is no point at which we appear to leave behind the hypermediacy of the presidency or the presidential campaign. The War Room thereby attends to the political process as a process, documenting how a campaign staff responds to external developments. Demystifying the electoral campaign, but without

Figure 4.6  The War Room (1993). James Carville watches George H.W. Bush’s deliver his speech to the Republican National Convention.

Figure 4.7  The War Room (1993). George H.W. Bush labels Bill Clinton a “flip flopper”.  

166  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse attempting to offer anything like a comprehensive explanation of the campaign in broader historical terms, The War Room moves us through myriad spaces, some more public or private than others. Whatever insight, if any, we gain from this attentiveness to movement and mediation, the final product does not cohere in a form that could be easily construed by an expository voice, of which there is none anyway.29 The War Room offers a collage of interrelated, mediated scenes:  we see events on the campaign trail, archival footage of TV punditry and newspaper headlines (which conveniently provides for the audience the commentary and the contextualizing narrative frameworks otherwise withheld by the filmmakers themselves), behind-​the-​scenes access to campaign staff as they confer and strategize, and so on. What the cycle of mediation signifies, if anything, is left to the viewer to decide. The absence of interpretation within the film thereby begs for interpretation from without. Indeed, one likely response to a viewing of The War Room might very well dub it interesting without an immediate sense of how else to categorize its significance. The aesthetic category of the interesting, as Sianne Ngai examines it, draws subjects into an affective experience of ambivalence. “Always connected to the relatively small surprise of information or variation from an existing norm,” Ngai writes, “the interesting marks a tension between the unknown and the already known.”30 An object that garners our interest—​ when it does, if it does—​invites additional consideration as to why the object is both interesting enough to stand out in our field of vision even as it lacks the extraordinary qualities that might spur a reaction beyond “a calm, if not necessarily weak, affective intensity,” as the merely interesting tends to do.31 For instance, Carville’s reaction to Bush is interesting in the precise sense that the scene’s content differs from my normative experience of either public figure as they have appeared previously in the public sphere; the access afforded by the direct cinema film crew puts me, as a viewer, in touch with a version of Carville’s persona other than how I have experienced his appearances, say, on television talk shows or cable news. To label this new perspective interesting perhaps does little more than mark this atypicality as such (which is precisely Ngai’s point, more generally). Similarly, in Crisis, when Governor Wallace blocks the doorway to the University of Alabama, the tense and dramatic moment may nevertheless strike me as interesting rather than dramatic, if, as a student of American history, when I watch the documentary for the first time and encounter the camera’s “first-​person” perspective of a moment that I had previously only read about in history

Economies of Inattention  167 books. The historical outcome is given in advance of my viewing of the film—​Wallace will back down and the African American students will enter the campus—​but the particular perspective provided by the documentary may be unknown to me (as a first-​time viewer), and the difference between these two perspectives (the historical and the cinematic) provides the motive force of the interesting in this particular case. As Ngai emphasizes, the allure of the interesting, when it lures us, occurs on the border between existing regimes of knowledge—​in the case of Crisis, the difference that marks the border between an event of which I am already aware and its representation according to a particular perspective I have not encountered before viewing the film. Thus, if we categorize what we see as interesting, such a statement emphasizes the bare boundary between affect and cognition, between what I feel and what I know (or do not know). As Ngai puts it, “The most characteristic thing about the interesting is thus its lack of distinguishing characteristics.” In other words, something draws my interest, but my very response—​“Hmmm, that’s interesting”—​seems to mark a caesura between feeling and understanding: The judgment “interesting” is thus at once conceptual and nonconceptual: conceptual in that some standard is clearly required for the perception of difference in the first place (different from what?); nonconceptual in the sense that the concept for that perceived difference is affectively registered as missing. Provoked by the absence of a name for the difference that one is nonetheless registering, the experience of the interesting is essentially a feeling of not-​yet-​knowing . . . For the interesting gets at the imbrication of the affective and conceptual that underlies all judgment, as a feeling of not-​yet-​knowing (an affective relation to cognition) accompanied by a lack of conceptual knowledge about what exactly we are feeling (a cognitive relation to affect).32

With Ngai’s account of the interesting in mind, then, we might notice how the definitions of direct cinema surveyed earlier describe, with a different vocabulary, the interest on which the observational method relies. The observational encounters with historical figures—​whether JFK in Crisis, Carville in The War Room, or even Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back (D. A. Pennebaker, 1967)—​not only fall somewhere between the public and the private, as Rothman notes; the indistinction between the very terms (publicity and

168  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse privacy) provides the often uneventful films with their most basic appeal or interest. Moreover, this understanding of the interest that underpins the interesting begins to clarify, and perhaps provides additional conceptual weight, to the generic accounts of direct cinema offered by the likes of Nichols and Arthur. At first glance, the definitions seemed weakly descriptive: in their accounts, direct cinema is defined as a cinema of particularities contextualized in advance by an audience’s familiarity with the institutions or settings where the cinematic action occurs. The definition is excessively broad. Yet if we understand observational films as a cinema of the interesting—​much in the way Ngai identifies conceptual art as an art of the interesting—​then what appeared at first glance to be a definitional limitation on the part of Rothman, Nichols, and Arthur opens up to other possibilities. The definitions of direct cinema, that is, begin to read more like one further symptom of the genre they attempt to describe; specifically, the observational pursuit of a minimal intersection between aesthetics and cognition. The imprecision of the definition of direct cinema is built into direct cinema’s own methodological structure, especially when its techniques attend to political figures. The kind of attention the interesting invites—​and on which direct cinema regularly relies—​is precisely an attention to a difference that cannot yet be named and at the very moment it is recognized as something that stands apart. The part that differs from the whole is also the part that invites comparison with the whole. The invitation to consider the bare difference between part and whole, foreground and background, individual and institution, and so on, thereby leads us to “an encounter with difference without a concept” or a distinction whose quality is recognizable enough to notice it but simultaneously lacks the conceptual means to explain it.33 The scene from The War Room captures effectively a key point of difference between the aesthetic category of the interesting, on the one hand, and political rhetoric, on the other. After all, conventionally, political rhetoric seeks to lead its audiences toward a predetermined conclusion, to manipulate its listeners to see the world according to the conceptual categories preferred by the candidate in whose service the rhetoric is deployed. In contrast to the absence of preconceptualization found in the merely interesting, political talking points attempt to provide the concept that the interesting appears to be missing. Simply put, when Bush attempts to label Clinton a flip-​flopper (“He’s been spotted more places than Elvis”), the rhetorical jab, we might say, functions as a relatively conventional talking point. The talking point,

Economies of Inattention  169 in this case, paints Clinton as a politician driven more by electability than by principles. A flip-​flopper is one who changes ideological positions in order to fit with the times, appeal strategically to certain constituencies, or cover up beliefs or actions in the past no longer tenable, electorally, in the present. Most basically, the allegation of flip-​flopping presumes its target to be untrustworthy. Carville’s smirk in response to the talking point, read as such, affirms the rhetorical flourish by which convention (an allegation of flip-​ flopping) takes an interesting turn—​the ironic reference to Elvis sightings after the singer’s death. However, the rhetorical jab merely skirts the surface of the interesting, I claim; it offers a new form for old content; indeed, it says nothing of substance about Clinton or his particularity, but rather attempts to fit Clinton into a claim that might be repackaged and reapplied to virtually any other political opponent deemed to be a flip-​flopper. Like most talking points, the statement is entirely conventional, paradigmatic, and generic, even when it appears to say something specifically negative about the individual it denigrates. It is a false simulation of the interesting, we might say. By contrast, the subsequent scenes in The War Room continuously play out the bare differences between particularity and generality, of this particular campaign staff engaged in this particular election and the various ways by which these particularities depart from our conventional understandings of a presidential election and likewise how these participants and assemblages contribute to the culminating electoral conclusion and Clinton’s ascension to the presidency. In virtually any example of cinema vérité, direct cinema, reality TV, or other observational genres, we may remain rightly suspicious about the veracity of what these media observe: at the very least, the subjects on-​screen are aware of the camera’s presence and may govern themselves accordingly. The observational encounter with politicians “in private” may be just as orchestrated as television appearances, public debates, or speeches offered on the campaign trail for throngs of supporters. Yet with Morin’s comments in mind, we might lay this concern aside. Social performance is an inherent feature of all intersubjective experience and exchange. The presence of a camera and crew may heighten a subject’s awareness of his or her visibility, perhaps prompting a more self-​conscious posture in response, but even this posture and the energy, affect, or movement necessary to produce it may be instructive, or at least interesting, for prospective viewers. The particular insight of The War Room, or its invitation to explore the interest it manifests, stems from its capacity and willingness to hold at least

170  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse two images in tension with one another: an image, an image watched, an image discussed, an image responded to, and so on. Campaign staffers react to the latest headlines, Clinton responds to reporters’ questions concerning allegations of sexual assault by Jennifer Flowers, Carville “spins” the news in favor of his candidate with reporters on the floor of the Democratic National Convention, and TV screens dot the spaces where the campaign work is carried out. Especially in the case of Carville, the observational camera allows us to track the bare differences in his tone, personality, and persona depending on the time, context, and intersubjective relations he engages. The collection of mediated multiplicities The War Room presents, unlike the anti-​ Obama films, makes no claim to unearth the real identities hidden beneath the subjects’ performative surface. Rather, the film develops or invites interest through its effective catalogue of the minute differences that emerge between performance here and performance there. The voice in which Carville speaks to colleagues is different from the voice he speaks to Bill Clinton and is different from when he engages reporters on the Convention floor. In its attentiveness to these subjective formations, capturing and then replaying for audiences these multiple and multiplied voices, The War Room effectively examines the contours of performativity, charting the social performance of identity as something variable, heterogeneous, and subject to duration.34 Here, we may return to Bush’s line about Clinton as a flip-​flopper, as someone who changes his political positions to fit the circumstances—​“He’s been spotted more places than Elvis Presley.” The allegation paints an opponent as inauthentic, willing to modify or reverse or flip ideological positions based on political expediency rather than strongly held convictions. What is an allegation of flip-​flopping, then, if not a negative moral judgment superimposed onto an otherwise reasonable presumption about the nature of subjective performativity? Absent the moral denigration of the “flip-​ flopper,” the very same evidence could be cited as a sign of subjective change, evolution, or development. In other words, such an account of movement, in Bush’s handling of it (like many other politicians and political operatives seeking to denigrate their opposition), is a sign of the other’s insincerity. By contrast, the film presents Carville’s movements and performances without providing a concept or judgment that would define his identity once and for all; Carville’s presence in the film is therefore interesting in Ngai’s precise understanding of the term. Bush’s rhetorical stance addresses the same phenomenon in Clinton’s political record but does provide a concept to name the interest it identifies. While direct cinema looks behind the curtain, beneath

Economies of Inattention  171 the surface, because appearances can be deceiving, Bush assures his listeners that the differences between Clinton’s past and his present demonstrate his manipulative and intentional deception. The concept on offer—​flip-​flopping—​is a meager judgment at best, if a judgment at all; the speed of its proposition, more joke than evidenced allegation, invites listeners to discount a candidate for office for the simple fact that the individual may have changed, evolved, or expressed contrary opinions over the course of his public life. The talking point’s sleight of hand is as rhetorically effective as it is epistemologically lazy; it identifies a feature of human subjectivity sure to provide ample proof for the allegation because the allegation merely names a constitutive feature of subjectivity: the subject’s subjection to duration, experience, and circumstance. Bush’s rhetorical ploy, played on the TV-​within-​the-​film in The War Room, offers a negative categorization of what I have otherwise described as the documentary’s effective account of performativity and its corresponding capacity to generate interest. According to the rhetoric of flip-​flopping, in other words, movement signifies not the perpetual change by which any subject molds himself or herself to a particular setting, scene, or environment. Rather, movement is the sign of a morally suspicious immobility—​say, an unwavering pursuit of power that will morph into whatever shape or form is deemed necessary by the politician in question to achieve a particular goal. In this close reading of The War Room, offered through Ngai’s aesthetics, I have intended to draw out the stark contrast between conventional political rhetoric and the interesting. Simply put, the interesting identifies a difference without a concept; the talking point, by contrast, provides a negative concept to explain in advance the differences it alleges to identify. Hysterical conservative discourse, we might say, splits the difference between these two modalities. Particularly in anti-​Obama conservative media, the questions pitched at Obama’s biographical background install a minimal difference between the president’s self-​presentation and his personal influences—​ Obama is other than he appears. However, the supposed difference between Obama-​past and Obama-​present is offered to viewers without a concept to explain it. None of the reactionary films rises to the level of conspiracy theories, after all; none go so far as to claim that Obama is a puppet of, say, Bill Ayers, Saul Alinksy, Frank Marshall Davis, or his biological father. Indeed, by withholding a concept or argument that would go so far as to establish a causal chain between past and present, the anti-​Obama films draw affective weight from the list of nefarious influences it surveys without taking the

172  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse difficult leap required to concretize or corroborate its loose and often offhand speculations. That is, by demonstrating endless differences contained within Obama’s figure, barely under the surface, while also withholding a concept to explain them, the films project onto Obama an incessant image of movement whose inexplicability coordinates the affective angst those differences, in their assemblage, are intended to incite.

Hysterical Inattention Agenda:  Grinding America Down appears, on the surface, to offer a conspiracy theory that would explain Obama’s radical past and the unstated agenda he intends to perpetrate as president. According to this conservative documentary, the political Left in the United States is bent on the willful destruction of the country; out of the ashes, Agenda claims, progressives intend to remake the United States in the image of the former U.S.S.R. Behind any and all arguments for progressive policies, Agenda claims to unearth, instead, a hidden communist agenda committed to economic redistribution, a meager military, and unbridled atheism. The closeted communists of the political Left, the film claims, have perverted America’s Judeo-​Christian family values by weakening the military industrial complex, indoctrinating children through public education, and increasing the welfare rolls. As Agenda goes on to claim, Barack Obama is just the latest in a long line of political radicals whose values are fundamentally opposed to the so-​called real America claimed by the conservative speakers interviewed throughout the film. To demonstrate Obama’s radical affiliations, Agenda constructs a complex chart of connections, linking Obama to numerous unsavory political agents and organizations (Figure 4.8). On the surface, this complex image functions as an objective correlative for the aura of investigative authority and seriousness Agenda attempts to claim for itself. However, with few exceptions, the film does not provide any discussion of the key figures and organizations compiled in the chart. The display functions, I claim, like a stock image of investigation (Chapter 5); it manifests a “comprehensive” document, which seems to evidence the agenda it claims to index, even though the names and organizations it identifies are merely an assortment of more-​or-​less recognizable figures on the political Left who, in reality, may or may not share any actual affiliations. Thus, the chart presents an image of an argument it does not otherwise attempt to prove apart from

Economies of Inattention  173

Figure 4.8  Agenda: Grinding America Down (2010). The chart traces complex lines of affiliation, leading from Karl Marx to Barack Obama.

the suggestive quality expressed by the image itself. The purpose behind the allegations made by Agenda is clear enough: the film operates in the mode of a moral detective, unearthing previously unknown connections and linkages on the American political Left, demonstrating an intricate web of relations that presume to explain the hidden cause behind any current social ills and to forewarn of the possibility that matters could deteriorate further. Most importantly, the image locates Obama himself as a reservoir for the bad feelings the graphic image works to foment. As an empty signifier, Obama’s name quilts together a multitude of menacing figures whose implicit threat is all the more amplified by his ascendency to the White House. While Agenda presumes to draw historical lines of cause and effect, this image of complexity actually belies a rhetoric of profound moral simplicity. Agenda is inattentive to the names it cites; the excessive number of names it displays on-​screen, along with the criss-​crossing lines of affiliations it draws between them, remains unexplained throughout the film’s duration. As viewers, what we see here is unclear in its relevance to the conclusions it is supposed to vouchsafe, even as Agenda assures us that what we see is evidence (of some kind) of a hostile and previously unacknowledged, underground, nationwide cabal. The excessive detail by which the chart renders Obama’s list of nefarious affiliations, matched with the complete absence of corroboration for these

174  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse claims, is typical of the divided attention by which conservative films present this particular president to audiences. Obama appears to function as a product of his environment: his present-​day rise to power and occupation of the White House brings to fruition a historical chain of linkages hearkening back to Marx and Stalin. At the same time, his position atop the morphological diagram also attributes to Obama the semblance of threatening power and authority. Yet it becomes difficult to say with confidence, even if we accept the film’s own arguments on its face, whether Obama is a subject or an object, the author of his own destiny or the product of circumstance. And it is precisely this ambiguity—​a subject captured within an environment whose complex relations render that subject opaque—​that begins to explain the hysterical discourse of the anti-​Obama films more generally. Where cinema vérité tracks the movement of subjects through circumstances in which their performative identity remains irreducible to their contexts, and where direct cinema similarly tracks public officials through mediated spaces that highlight the interesting differences between individual and institution, anti-​ Obama media develops its indictment of the president on affective grounds, on the incapacity to separate Obama the person from the social environment in which he is located and from which he has presumably emerged. As we will recall, I Want Your Money relies on a similar structure: Obama’s CGI character inhabits an Oval Office adorned with caricatures that not only render him out of place—​his image appears excessively where it does not belong—​the mise en scène likewise promotes a hysterical hermeneutic of suspicion. As viewers, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the individual person and the environment in which that individual is imbricated. In Agenda, similarly, Obama the person is barely distinguishable from the environment that (allegedly) produced him. Putting aside the obvious ideological bias on which the film relies in order to reach, without evidence, its foregone conclusions, the hyperattention to form—​the morphological diagram itself—​should draw our attention to the affective register on which Agenda and its counterparts rely. The vague and ominous threat of a complex network in which Obama is implicated remains cognitively indiscernible, never quite perceivable as a whole. What at first glance appears to be lacking—​that is, anything to corroborate what the diagram presents as brute fact—​provides the film with the nebulous problem it cannot, and need not, solve. The question—​Who is Obama really and what does he want?—​ never receives an answer except for the vague suggestions that he is something other than how he appears. And like the hysterical questions posed

Economies of Inattention  175 to Michael Moore (Chapter 3), which have no interest in finding an answer, the absence of any answer provides the films with endless opportunities to pursue its “investigations.” In what is perhaps the most troubling example in the cycle of films and videos, Dreams From My Real Father relies on the presumption of Obama’s questionable past as an excuse to draw excess attention to his body. Going further than Obama’s America, in which D’Souza and Kengor assert that Obama was influenced as a child by Chicago “radical” Frank Marshall Davis, Dreams from My Real Father claims that Davis is Obama’s biological father. The conspiracy theory goes as follows: Davis had an affair with Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, and when Dunham became pregnant, Obama’s grandfather, intent to cover up the link between his daughter and a prominent Communist organizer, approached Barack Obama, Sr. with a plan to help the elder Obama Sr. remain in the United States if he would claim responsibility and paternity for Dunham’s child. The primary means of evidence in support of this specious claim lies in the apparent physical similarities shared by Davis and Obama. The film goes to great lengths to collect and display images of the two men in visual juxtapositions, highlighting thereby their supposed similarities (Figures 4.9, 4.10 and 4.11). In racist displays that turn the stomach, Dreams dissects

Figure 4.9  Dreams from My Real Father (2012). The documentary’s racist economy of attention emphasizes the physical “similarities” shared by Barack Obama and Frank Marshall Davis.

Figure 4.10  Dreams from My Real Father (2012). Frank Marshall Davis and Barack Obama both used a telephone: further “evidence” of their biological relation, according to the film.

Figure 4.11  Dreams from My Real Father (2012). Frank Marshall Davis and Barack Obama both smiled: further “evidence” of their biological relation, according to the film.  

Economies of Inattention  177 the men’s appearance into their smallest constituent parts, reducing both to bare bodies as a consequence. Throughout its duration, Dreams is inattentive to the specious quality of the evidence it collects; if a speculation serves its purposes, it will posit the claim with complete confidence. The carelessness by which it reaches its conclusions, however, contrasts with its profoundly careful attention to form. The archival images of Davis and Obama have been methodically curated, privileging images in which the two men exhibit similar posture, face in corresponding directions, or inhabit similar positions within the frame. The excessive importance attributed to the formal project that links Obama’s and Davis’s bodies provides the film ample opportunity to cloak its racist gestures in the guise of an investigation into biological and ideological paternity. The film suggests that Obama may have “lightened his skin” and obtained a rhinoplasty to narrow his nose so as to obscure his biological connection to Davis. The very claim that Obama is heir to a Marxist ideologue also entails racist connotations, of course. As Joseph Lowndes has noted, right-​wing commentators have consistently implied that Obama’s “radical” economic agenda was intended to steal tax dollars from working-​class whites for the purpose of reparations for African Americans.35 Not only is Obama labeled a communist by virtue of a vacuously evidenced conspiracy concerning his paternal lineage that precedes his birth and for which he could not be responsible (even if it was true), Obama cannot take credit, following the film’s logic, for his own alleged radicalism. Obama merely embodies in a new instance—​not even a new form—​Davis’s own, prior political extremism. Again, we must not overlook the racist overtones. Attentive only to his so-​called radical past, and with no consideration for the positive historical significance of his election, Obama is deposed of his individualized voice—​a point magnified by the actor who impersonates Obama as a “narrator” throughout the entirety of Dreams. More than a biased representation of a popular Democratic figure, the depiction of Obama in Agenda and Dreams splits their common antagonist in two, hysterically magnifying both his strengths and weaknesses with no apparent interest in reconciling the contradictions that such a split produces. Obama is at once an existential threat to the nation’s core principles and also, at the same time, a feckless pawn in a long-​standing moral conflict to which he contributes nothing of his own. This conspiratorial mode of interpretation, which presumes to locate hidden agendas, secret insignias, or underground societies where we least

178  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse expect them, has a long history on the fringes of American politics. My concern here, however, is not so much the content of the specious claims themselves but rather the epistemological short circuits that ground them and the affective disorientations that emerge as a result. The false appearance of investigation in the films collects “evidence” of so many differences without a concept, so many interesting ways we might remain at a distance from the more positive collective reaction, across the United States and the world, to Obama’s historic election. Like the other conservative media encountered throughout this book, these documentaries offer conclusions that arise not from a precise recitation of relevant facts but rather from the affective suggestibility expressed by the overwhelming multitude and multiplicity of unexplained details, promoting thereby a hysterical mode of (in)attentiveness. Unlike the subjects of direct cinema, whose appearance before the camera provides a relatively stable ground for the networks of interconnections and interrelations that those figures coordinate, activate, and respond to in time, the claims to delve into Obama’s private sphere of influence locate not a biographical reality by which we would better understand the complexity of this particular human being. Instead, the private register is haunted by networks of relations that erase from view any specific details about Obama as an historical individual besides the indistinct threat he is supposed to embody.

Racial Affects This hysterical mode of inattention, and the generic threat it constructs, is similar in kind to other racist stereotypes more generally. As Sara Ahmed has argued, the hatred expressed by racism does not typically attribute the cause of its negative feelings to a discrete object. Though hatred expressed between individuals—​say, between quarreling neighbors who live in close proximity to one another—​may certainly arise from specific events and a concrete experience of antagonism, racial hatred tends to direct its negative feelings toward an amorphous and indefinable object-​Other. For Ahmed, hatred is an affect that circulates and becomes magnified through its attribution of a diffuse threat; say, the xenophobic fears often attributed to foreigners or immigrants. Rarely, however, does racial animus propose a distinct or definable origin for its negative feelings. Such indistinction provides hatred with its affective force. As Ahmed notes, “hate cannot be found in one

Economies of Inattention  179 figure, but works to create the outline of different figures or objects of hate, a creation that crucially aligns the figures together, and constitutes them as a ‘common threat.’ Importantly, then, hate does not reside in a given subject or object. Hate is economic; it circulates between signifiers in relationships of difference and displacement.”36 Similarly, the claims against Obama never concern Obama as an actual historical figure and seem to avoid, as if strategically, a direct encounter with his actual policies or expressed ideological commitments. Rather, like the placement of his name atop the chart of affiliates in Agenda, Obama’s name and caricatured image function like empty signifiers, as that which collects a vague threat whose amorphous and indistinct nature provides the affective core of the films’ ideological gestures. The subtraction of Obama’s individuality from the conspiratorial network to which he becomes visually attached provides the very means by which the films organize their racial bias and hysterical detachment from historical reality. I propose to overlook the easily dismissible and biased claims made by the films. Instead, we should attend to the peculiar routes by which the anti-​ Obama documentaries direct, organize, or otherwise focalize their attention in certain directions rather than others. As Teresa Brennan has argued, hysteria occurs when subjects orient their psychic energy and attention toward the maintenance of intersubjective boundaries and to maintain an individuated sense of self. More important than any particular symptom—​a cough, a partial paralysis, an imagined pregnancy, and so on—​is how the psychic symptom draws the subject and its intended spectators toward one feature of the hysteric’s body and away from any knowledge or memory of the traumatic event from which the symptom emerged. Brennan’s early and complex theory of affect, derived in significant part from close readings of Freud and Lacan, provides one further means by which we may take seriously the seemingly unserious accounts of Obama in conservative media. The fantasy of a conservative worldview untouched by time, immediately self-​evident, confidently self-​present—​like Reagan’s CGI character in I Want Your Money who deftly manages the space he inhabits—​is itself a fantasy maintained by an inattention to the fundamental divisions of contemporary democracy and democratic politics. Obama’s chiasmatic characterizations thereby provide for the conservative films an alibi for the hysterical mode of presentation they reproduce. In their handling of it, the good is that which is self-​same, unencumbered by history or social relations, and the bad is precisely that which bears signs of history, change, movement, or evolution.

180  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse For Brennan, affect names the visceral, phenomenological intersection of an individual with her surroundings, whether these surroundings are understood to be intersubjective, ecological, social, or cultural. Simply put, “There is no secure distinction between the ‘individual’ and the ‘environment.’ ”37 A key feature of Brennan’s project, we might say, is to minimize, to the barest degree possible, the distinction between individual and environment while still retaining the subject as a fundamental category. The subject is a remainder in excess of the spatiotemporal world in which he or she is embedded. By emphasizing the affective dimensions of subjectivity, Brennan seeks to expand our area of concern beyond an individual’s interpellation or capture within, say, the ideological norms of a given sociocultural context, and to thereby consider how the “social actually gets into the flesh,” as she puts it.38 Brennan’s revisionary psychoanalytic theory likewise expands the Freudian vocabulary she appropriates to include a greater emphasis on the economics of affect and psychic energy. “For Freud,” Brennan writes, “energetics was the key to health. Put at its simplest: the more neurotic you are, the more repressed you are; the more repressed you are, the less energy you have.”39 Moreover, Brennan is concerned most of all with the repressive energies magnified by the historical epoch of both heteropatriarchy and capitalism. This epoch, Brennan finds, idealizes the (masculine) individual as one who gains superiority over others and maintains the semblance of individuality untouched by the relations with others by denying the very affective dimension upon which subjectivity is constituted. If the subject, for Brennan, is a product of affective ties and embodied connections, the foundational fantasy, as it has operated in the West, expends significant energy to deny these constitutive features of existence and worship the false idol of the self-​contained individual in its stead. As it is for Lacan, this imaginary fantasy considered and critiqued by Brennan is a constitutive misrecognition at the core of subjective experience. But Brennan attends more explicitly both to the affective dimension of the imaginary realm and the material byproducts of fantasy’s economic dispersal of psychic and social resources. Thus, we might modify the conventional account of Lacan’s “mirror stage” as follows: the child in the mirror stage is awash with indistinct affects, reliant on a complex of familial relations and dependencies she cannot comprehend, and the ascension to the imago provided by the mirror’s reflection economizes on an otherwise difficult, because expansive, situation. Simply put, the image saves energy, or seems to at

Economies of Inattention  181 first glance, for the person who ascribes to it. The fantasmatic image anchors the subject in the midst of what might otherwise be an overwhelming flow of intersubjective and ecological contingencies. Lacan would treat this imaginary fantasy as that which lays the groundwork for the subject’s ascription to symbolic ideologies later in life—​evangelical fundamentalism being just one particular sociosymbolic coordinate for excessive affective energies (Chapter 2). Brennan, however, emphasizes the social byproducts that occur when a subject (or a society) too energetically affirms the boundaries between self and other: Hallucination splits the subject because it divorces an imagined world from the world of sensory connection and sensory experience. But the split is cemented by the repression of the hallucination, which binds energy . . . in such a way that underexplored sensory connections between the subject and the others and the living environment overall are blocked out.40

Through fantasy we may imagine ourselves in possession of that which we desire, or safely and securely protected from that which seems to offend or threaten us. In either case, fantasy appears to transcend the real limitations and obstacles we encounter in everyday life. Yet such wish fulfillments carry a heavy psychic toll, and Brennan treats the problem of fantasy as an embodied one. The immediate “solution” offered by fantasy is not only a false or distorting screen; the fantasy may also magnify the dissatisfactions it only appears to resolve. By presuming to bring a desired object close, or to keep an undesirable object at a safe distance, fantasy circumscribes the subject within a narrow epistemology and then demands excess energy in order to police the fantasy’s tenuous boundaries. Fantasy is a project of diminishing returns, in other words. For example, we might use Brennan’s energetic vocabulary to reread Laura Mulvey’s canonical feminist-​ psychoanalytic account of Hollywood cinema and the male gaze. When female characters are fetishized for their appearance—​their to-​be-​looked-​ at-​ness—​the excess energy marshalled by the male gaze leaves little time or space to attend to other features of women’s existence. For Mulvey, originally, this means that classical cinema operates according to a strict binary in which male characters direct the plot’s action while female characters inhibit it. Read otherwise, via Brennan’s account of affect and energy, we may notice, further, how the time and attention given to the female body leaves little remainder to consider anything else about those same characters. And more to

182  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse Brennan’s point, the energy necessary to maintain the binary distinction between masculinity and femininity is a double-​edged sword. The characters or viewers accustomed to such a division of attentive labor may be all the more troubled or horrified when alternative aspects of feminine subjectivity nevertheless make an appearance, breaking through if not shattering the bare boundary established by the patriarchal fantasy in the first place. Indeed, as Brennan sees it, fantasy not only threatens to capture the subject in an imaginary world, thereby cushioning the subject in a state of blissful ignorance. Fantasy’s psychic economy may also increase a subject’s experience of emotional tension. When we fantasize about our possession of an object of desire, which we do not gain access to in reality, the fantasmatic solution carries with it an affective remainder. The semblance of the object’s proximity, almost within reach (in the imaginary) and yet perpetually beyond our grasp (in reality), leaves the subject in a state of perpetual, desirous, frustrating limbo. “The act of hallucination,” Brennan writes, “provides instant gratification, but the satisfaction it affords is only short term” because, by its very nature, fantasy imagines an answer in the imaginary realm to which we do not have material access. Thus the expected satisfaction presented by the hallucinated fantasy “gears the body up, but the energy amassed through this excitement cannot be relieved, any more than the original need itself.”41 As a fantasy gains hold of a subject, or a society, the false image of narcissistic agency the fantasy promotes magnifies the sense of loss whenever the subjects captured by this image fail to transform their fantasy into a reality. The constitutive structure of fantasy, which imagines a world immediately controlled by the whims of the subject in question, directs the subject’s energy and attention toward the external world in such a manner that affirms, sometimes violently, only those phenomena that support the fantasy’s founding assumptions. The foundational fantasy operates most detrimentally, in terms of its global implications, in the logic of capitalism, Brennan argues. Not only does capitalism steal the surplus profit from the workers whose labor produces it; the capitalist system likewise exploits a limited supply of natural resources. Material resources are finite, yet propagandists for the market economy regularly tell tales of capitalism’s infinite capacity to produce profit. The foundational fantasy of the capitalist variety, then, not only denies the reality in which it is engaged. It likewise promotes the onset of future trauma when resources are depleted, not only because of the dire material state that the fantasy enacts, but also because the subject-​society will be all the more ill-​ prepared to respond in kind when such changes inevitably break through the

Economies of Inattention  183 fantasy’s walls. Or, as Brennan puts it, “The foundational fantasy constructs ‘inertia’ in the psyche, and this inertia makes us slower, and, over time, old and tired.”42 That is, rather than admitting the speed by which the world constantly changes or evolves, the foundational fantasy directs its attention only toward those conventions, or stock images (Chapter 5), that affirm its cognitive dissonance, doing severe damage to anything or anyone whose existence cannot be included within the terms of the fantasy’s narrow image of the world.43 The foundational fantasy may become hysterical, then, in those moments when the social structures that previously supported and affirmed the fantasy’s tenets begin to crumble. Obama’s election might qualify as exactly this kind of traumatic rupture. Given the failure by conservative political discourse to admit a democratic landscape populated by a diverse population of individuals and ideological opinions, the electoral loss marks an event difficult to square with the conservative fantasy of political dominion. An electoral loss—​a typical occurrence in democracy for virtually any political party—​manifests as a more radical deprivation for Republicans, however, in the post-​Obama era. Conservative media and reactionary rhetoric so frequently relies on the fantasy of its dominant common sense in which conservatives are claimed to constitute a “silent majority” or to inhabit “real” America, to cite two prominent rhetorical examples. The lack of time or attention devoted to substantial debate, and the refusal to admit the real and significant existence of democratic opponents, sustains the fantasy only by avoiding what José Medina terms “epistemological friction”; namely, the challenge posed by testing one’s views against others. Obama’s election breaks this fantasy, and, in response, the anti-​Obama films look incessantly for alternative reasons to explain away, deny, or displace the reality before them. With this in mind, we can better understand how hysteria responds aggressively, even violently, toward what it deems the impending trauma of irrevocable change or irreconcilable differences. Hysterical discourse, as we have seen, manifests a counterintuitive relation to trauma. Specifically, hysteria avoids a direct encounter with whatever it deems traumatizing by displacing the offending event elsewhere. This reorientation, most obviously in the case of the conversion symptom, ensures that anxiety remains lodged within the subject permanently, or at least until that moment when the subject finally reckons with what ails it. Hysteria thereby perpetuates trauma even when it appears to allay it, because the hysterical reaction translates the original traumatic occurrence into an obscure form. In this context, Christopher Bollas

184  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse describes hysteria as a “violent form of innocence.”44 Hysteria acts out violently by forcefully denying, by any means necessary, whatever phenomena might compel the hysterical subject to acknowledge a traumatic event as a feature of his or her biography, an admission that would likewise require the subject to see the world, and thus itself, differently than before the event occurred.45

Suffering from Reminiscences According to The Hope and the Change, Republicans did not lose the 2008 election, at least not in the sense of a loss that requires a substantial reckoning that would either absorb fully the shock of the defeat itself or contemplate seriously the sociohistorical realities that produced it. More precisely, Obama’s election, according to the documentary, demonstrates no historical significance, no monumental event in the nation’s history apart, that is, from the threat of Obama himself now that he occupies the White House. According to the film, Obama’s election was not an intentional product of millions of votes in his favor but rather the byproduct of ideological manipulation on the part of Obama’s campaign and his “allies” in the mainstream press. The electoral loss, for the Right, then, is presented as a failure of representation rather than as a political defeat as such. Though The Hope and the Change relies on other lies and manipulations to lay blame on Obama for virtually any and all contemporary social, economic, political, and moral problems facing the country, its emphasis on the so-​called regret, or “buyer’s remorse,” of former Obama supporters translates the election loss into a redeemable problem rather than, say, a clear sign that many voters across the country simply view the world differently and expressed this difference with their votes. The Hope and the Change develops this argument by collecting and interviewing a swath of voters who self-​identity as Democrats or Independents. In the interviews, we learn the various reasons why they “mistakenly” voted for candidate Obama. The interviews, which take the appearance of confessionals, describe how the speakers realize, retrospectively, the terrible mistake of their past political decision, for which they now express collective regret and shame. Importantly, however, the interviews with these “real” voters uniformly describe their mistake in affective terms, as a product of emotional manipulation. Phyllis, a Democratic voter from Florida, explains how she was enthralled by Obama as a “charismatic individual who

Economies of Inattention  185 I saw as a knight in shining armor, someone who came out of nowhere and took my vote.” Another Democrat from Ohio, Margaret, retrospectively describes her vote for Obama in personalized and psychological terms: “I needed some kind of hope.” In these and dozens of other similar statements, the interview subjects present themselves as victims, dupes of Obama’s charismatic oratory and his false promises. The interviews quite obviously emphasize the voters’ emotional, almost childlike, susceptibility to Obama’s aura, and the documentary will reveal their mistake to be a collective travesty, if not a political nightmare. After the section that introduces us to the regretful Obama voters, the following sequence in the film attempts to link the interviews with the semblance of historical context. A montage of voices quickens in its pace, transitioning rapidly from shot to shot, sound bite to sound bite, as the interviewees describe their past feelings of joy and hopefulness prior to the inauguration. An ominous score builds on the soundtrack, creating an uncomfortable and foreboding dissonance. Stock and archival footage display shuttered business and foreclosed homes in cities across the country, indicating the harsh economic situation surrounding the financial collapse in 2008 and then the beginning of Obama’s term. The sequence becomes more manipulative and historically inaccurate, then, as it blends together events otherwise separate in the historical timeline. Footage from Obama’s inauguration appears before a montage of news footage recounting the collapse of Wall Street, including the bankruptcy of the investment bank, Lehman Brothers, events that took place prior to Obama’s term. Through its temporal collapse of historical events, the sequence presents the federal bailout of the Wall Street banks (enacted under President George W. Bush) as simultaneous with the Obama administration’s bailout of the American auto industry. Like the caricature in I Want Your Money, Obama is excessively present where he does not belong. The manipulation of the historical record thereby provides the “evidence” of Obama’s intention to federalize the entirety of the US economy and bring about further, undefined, anxiety-​producing change. This emphasis on bad feelings produced by a tidal wave of opinions and images manifests most dynamically when The Hope and the Change reaches its ominous conclusion. As the shots and sound bites from the interviews shorten in their duration and quicken in pace, indicating the documentary’s arrival at its climax, we encounter an almost overwhelming assortment of brief phrases and incomplete sentences offered by speakers expressing their dread at the prospect of another Obama term. Each cascading comment

186  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse comes from a different voice and speaker—​“smoke and mirrors,” “further and further into debt,” “businesses closing,” “government handouts,” “we’re divided,” “I fear for my children.” Eventually, as the sequence concludes, the comments are intermixed on the soundtrack, producing an indiscernible babble of voices. A computer-​generated map of the United States appears on the screen and collects shots of the individuals from whom these voices emerge, as if to suggest the appearance of political consensus throughout the land, even in the midst of the sequence’s overwhelming aural diversity. The fears, concerns, and complaints are varied, but they share a common culprit. The Hope and the Change thereby concludes with a presentation of democratic noise (see Chapter 3). The graphical display of the United States is populated by what appears to be a heterogeneous ensemble whose individual voices and opinions cannot be easily comprehended when collected en masse. Read generously, this display might otherwise function as a viable allegory for the noisiness of democratic politics more generally. As political theorist Davide Panagia reminds us, democracy is often a messy, unpredictable, and noisy affair, and we do a disservice to the complex intersubjective experience of political communication when we attempt to subtract from such performances any phenomena not easily categorizable or immediately recognizable as reasonable, rational, or common sensical. Too often, Panagia notes, our normative accounts of political expression “reduce our appreciation of political utterances to the shape of the moral claim, making it the most reasonable mode for the exchange of political value,” and thereby leaving unaccounted those noisier features of political expression.46 Panagia likewise compels his readers to become more attuned to those aspects of political demonstration that operate “on registers other than the ones available for sense making.”47 Of course, what makes The Hope and the Change such a simultaneously difficult and troubling media object is how it deploys noise—​its simulacrum of democracy—​for partisan rhetorical effect. Whereas Panagia rightly identifies in noisiness those aspects of communicative utterances or political protests irreducible to easy categorization or judgment, The Hope and the Change garners from its coordination of senseless noise a hysterical invitation for anxiety originating from, it suggests, a single antagonist, to whose actual ideas, actions, and proposals the film remains profoundly and obstinately inattentive. The sense of unease and disquiet the film quite clearly promotes may be difficult for a viewer to explain in the aftermath of a viewing, precisely because the documentary relies so heavily on suggestions,

Economies of Inattention  187 inferences, and associations that are not easily reconstituted after the fact. No one in the film explicitly claims that Obama was responsible for the Wall Street bailout that occurred prior to his time in office, but the confusing montage of archival clips blur the historical boundary between Bush’s bailout of the financial sector and Obama’s infusion of funding into the automotive industry, thereby attributing the negative feeling of federal overreach to Obama alone; the attribution of partisan conservative talking points to Democratic and Independent voters may create a general sense for viewers that anyone and everyone paying attention to recent events share the same negative judgments about Obama’s time in office. The Hope and the Change thereby encourages a mode of paradigmatic judgment or stock argumentation (see Chapter 5) ill-​prepared for the political reality outside its narrow bounds, a world in which many Obama voters remained as hopeful as ever about the president’s term in office, where the administration often pivoted its policies in the direction of compromise and at the cost of progressive priorities, and so on. In other words, the film can conceive of no good reason why anyone would ever remain supportive of the recently elected president. In so doing, The Hope and the Change promotes epistemic ignorance and hysterical trauma, not only through its manipulative claims about the recent past, but through an inattentiveness to context that forcefully denies any facts contrary to the political fantasy it continues to uphold.

5 Paradigmatic Politics Stock Footage and the Hysterical Archive

Hysterical conservative discourse transforms any and all cases of political antagonism into crises of traumatic psychic proportion. The biases that such hysterical reactions produce transcend the more typical ideological prejudices we may have come to expect from partisan political media. Unlike more conventional cases of partisan bias, in which a political speaker may refuse to consider evidence or arguments that do not align in advance with his or her preferred political outcomes, hysterical bias enacts a more radical breakdown in its epistemological and affective scope. As I have attempted to demonstrate through analysis of the pseudoscience of creationism, the insincere parodies of Michael Moore, and the mock investigations into Barack Obama’s lineage, hysterical conservative discourse mimics both the rhetoric of its opponents and the common conventions of political discourse, including the formal conventions of documentary film. Hysterical conservative media thereby perpetuates, spreads, and magnifies the ruptures, divisions, or ambivalences typical of political disagreement. Whereas the allegation of bias tends to presume an epistemological failure available to correction, hysterical discourse is impervious to change or correction because it does not make its arguments in good faith. The inattentive economy of conservative media circulates indistinct and negative affects, either embodying these affects to spectacular ends or projecting them on their opponents as a sign of their uncanny “othernesses,” leading to formal excesses of all kinds that mask a simple, reactionary commitment to the hegemonic status quo. The discursive political product is both highly contagious for its intended consumers and highly resistant to counterfactual argument for its opponents. In this final chapter, I  consider more carefully the consumer-​driven model of conservative media demonstrated by the prolific production company Citizens United, headed by long-​time Republican operative David Bossie. The many feature-​ length documentary videos in the Citizens United library—​several of them directed by former Trump advisor Stephen Beyond Bias. Scott Krzych, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/​oso/​9780197551219.003.0006

Paradigmatic Politics  189 Bannon—​rely heavily on stock footage where we would normally expect to encounter archival imagery. Stock footage thereby serves as one final discursive form, among the others reviewed earlier, whereby conservative media perverts common sense and conventional expectations concerning political representation. The films thereby embed their reactionary politics within documentaries that otherwise look, sound, and feel like the more conventional nonfiction films and videos that circulate today. Citizens United filmmakers thus substitute stock footage for more traditional audiovisual archives, and this reliance on stock footage thereby provides the documentaries with a paradigmatic database of “visible evidence” as flexible in its capacity for representation as the spoken word. Consequently, the stock logic upon which the films and videos make their political arguments functions analogously to the prevailing practices of consumer marketing and advertising. What I have called the hysterical economy of inattention, as we will see, is deployed to maximum effect by the cognitive shortcuts, ideological stereotypes, and friction-​less talking points on which Citizens United documentaries rely. Of course, Citizens United is most recognizable in the public sphere not for its sizeable library of conservative films but for its successful litigation of a Supreme Court case (Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission) in which the Court’s majority, ruling in Citizens United’s favor, declared corporately funded speech to be equivalent to the speech of individuals and therefore protected by the First Amendment. The decision opened the floodgates for increased contributions to political campaigns by corporations, special interest groups, and political action committees (or “super PACs”). In Wendy Brown’s close reading of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion, she locates in the jurist’s discourse a striking example of what she terms neoliberal rationality. In Kennedy’s perverse definition of speech, his “neoliberal reason recasts political rights, citizenship, and the field of democracy itself in an economic register; in doing so, it disintegrates the very idea of the demos.”1 As Brown argues, the decision in Citizens United assumes no distinction between the economic sphere and any other aspect of life, including, most pressingly, the political. In Kennedy’s handling of the matter, restrictions on corporate spending in political campaigns violate the First Amendment; by making such a proposition, Kennedy implicitly levels the political playing field between corporate and individual speakers even as he ignores the profoundly unequal resources between corporations and the masses. Kennedy, by treating political speech as a commodity, can thereby

190  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse claim that the government has no proper authority to restrict speech’s circulation. As Brown puts it in her annotation of the opinion, Kennedy is focused on the wrong of government “command[ing] where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, [thereby using] censorship to control thought.” If speech generates goods consumed according to individual choice, government distorts this market by “banning the political speech of millions of associations of citizens” (that is, corporations) and by paternalistically limiting what consumers may know or consider. Again, if speech is the capital of the political marketplace, then we are politically free when it circulates freely. And it circulates freely only when corporations are not restricted in what speech they may fund or promulgate.2

By privileging the circulation of commodities above all else, neoliberal rationality negates any and all other master signifiers normally associated with liberal democracy, “replaci[ng] the distinctively political valences of rights, equality, liberty, access, autonomy, fairness, the state, and the public with economic valences of these terms.”3 The neoliberal reason identified by Brown in Kennedy’s opinion is operative throughout the Citizens United documentaries themselves, I claim. In the films’ excessive reliance on stock footage to ground, develop, or illustrate their political arguments, political speech functions in strictly economic terms. This radicalization of the archive is then combined with more traditional modes of documentary representation, a formal strategy that provides a generic alibi for the films’ otherwise polemical discourse; specifically, the films’ expression of a uniformly conservative, neoliberal ideology. We may recall, of course, that the Citizens United case originated with the production and distribution of a single, controversial documentary video. During the 2008 primary season, Citizens United, which specializes in direct-​to-​DVD political documentaries, distributed Hillary: The Movie (Alan Peterson, 2008), a scathing critique of Hillary Clinton. The timing of the film’s release led to the initial court challenge by the FEC, which alleged a violation of federal election laws that prohibit corporately sponsored campaign advertising within thirty days of a primary election.4 The understandable controversy surrounding the Citizens United decision and its impact on campaign finance in subsequent elections has perhaps diverted journalistic and scholarly attention away from the film on which the case originally centered,

Paradigmatic Politics  191 not to mention the growing library of documentaries distributed by Citizens United in the subsequent decade. In the following chapter, then, I consider a wide range of documentary videos produced and distributed by Citizens United, including Hillary. The ideas expressed in the Citizens United catalogue may not seem particularly unusual or controversial when viewed in the context of the other conservative media considered in this book. Ad hominem attacks on “liberal” opponents are pervasive, conservative speakers are allowed to offer unsubstantiated speculations without any pushback or contradiction, and the wildest historical conjectures and conspiracy theories are presented as common sense, no matter how lacking in evidence. The heavy reliance on stock footage as the sole material and visual basis by which the political documentaries make their claims, however, adds further significance to the analysis I have pursued in Beyond Bias concerning hysterical conservative discourse. Just as neoliberal rationality, in Brown’s account, transforms any and all features of social life and politics into calculations reducible to economic motives, the stock logic expressed by Citizens United maximizes the efficiency of ideological presentation, short-​circuiting the distances—​and cognitive effort—​required for robust democratic argumentation, debate, or disagreement.

Free Speech Regardless of their respective subjective matter—​ immigration, energy, abortion, health care, cultural history, and so on—​the oeuvre of Citizens United films expresses a consistent set of conservative political ideas and talking points. A brief survey of the titles contained in the Citizens United library provides an illuminating introduction. Included in the catalogue are such self-​explanatory and affirmative titles as Rediscovering God in America (Kevin Mitchell, 2008) and Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny (Ken Knoblock, 2009). More often, though, the films announce more antagonistic postures against progressive institutions and politicians, including such films as Broken Promises: The United Nations at 60 (Kevin Knoblock, 2005), ACLU: At War with America (David N. Bossie, 2006), and Hype: The Obama Effect (Alan Peterson, 2008), among dozens of others. As a collection, the films reiterate what Jeffrey P. Jones identifies as the “standard ideological tenets of contemporary conservatism” regularly expressed on such other media outlets as conservative talk radio and Fox News. This includes the

192  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse valorization of “militaristic patriotism, patriarchal gender norms, conservative cultural ‘values,’ Christian religiosity, Second Amendment rights, and free market capitalism, while also castigating and villainizing government, immigrants, liberals, labor unions, and non-​Christian religions.”5 The ideological content of the Citizens United films reproduces without significant qualification these conservative tenets. What makes the films particularly worthy of attention, then, arises from the formally generic manifestation of these ideas on-​screen. To call the films “documentaries,” after all, may be too generous an application of the term; the films resemble something like television attack ads stretched to feature length. This extended duration, matched with the simplistic, almost automatic repetition of conservative tenets, I claim, produces an aesthetic dilemma: How to fill time and (visual) space in pseudodocumentaries that include little historical research and which rely primarily on didactic interviews with conservative pundits and Republican officials? Citizens United films appear to solve this problem by relying on stock footage—​video clips professionally produced for licensing purposes—​ as visual illustrations of and even ostensible confirmations for their political arguments. Even when the documentaries appropriate newsreels, newspaper clippings, or other archival materials to illustrate historical narratives and political talking points, Citizens United films demonstrate an overriding stock logic: the transformation of visual evidence into generic, paradigmatic images conducive to political talking points established in advance. In Citizens United films, stock images are paired with political talking points to produce a self-​enclosed feedback loop in which form and content become nearly indistinguishable. Rather than offering concrete explanations for historical events, Citizens United films more often avoid any account of the historical world that might be susceptible to rebuttal or even debate. The generic images, paired as they are with political speech, provide the films with the semblance of concrete argumentation, but one that never descends from the general into the particular. The ideological performances avoid the outright appearance of propaganda, however, by couching their reactionary arguments in the more widely recognizable conventions of documentary form. This appeal to the generic, as well as to the formal expectations associated with nonfiction media, is similar to the manner by which Fox News relies on the banner of journalism and the “traditional legitimating aspects of the genre” to validate the otherwise propagandistic speech that occurs on its network.6 What distinguishes Citizens United films from other conservative media outlets and modes of expression, though, arises from the near

Paradigmatic Politics  193 complete dissolution of any distinction between words and images, speech and evidence, stock footage and the historical archive.

Stereotypes and Cognitive Shortcuts The history of Citizens United includes an early example of inflammatory political imagery. Founded by political operative Floyd Brown during the 1988 presidential campaign, Citizens United’s original claim to fame was its production of the infamous “Willie Horton” television spots.7 The ads, we may recall, portray the Democratic nominee, Governor Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime. In voice-​over, the narrator explains how Dukakis “allowed first-​degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison.” One of these passes included William Horton, an African American man serving a life sentence for murder. As Horton’s mug shot appears on-​screen, the narrator describes how, during one of the weekend passes, Horton kidnapped a young couple, “stabb[ed] the man and repeatedly rap[ed] his girlfriend.” The ad has since served as the epitome of political mudslinging in the television era. The Horton ad not only misconstrued the facts (the prisoner furlough program was established prior to Dukakis’s tenure as governor); the series of Horton ads also “were widely criticized for fueling white stereotypes of violent and criminal tendencies among young black men.”8 In other words, the ad only appears to criticize the policy of prisoner furlough programs; in effect, the topic of furlough programs merely provides an opportunity to associate the Democratic presidential nominee with a stereotypical image of a violent Black man. Behind the apparent critique of Dukakis’s policies as a governor, the ad makes a despicable appeal to racial stereotypes, including the depiction of African American men as a sexualized threat to white women, thereby galvanizing, as a consequence, racist white voters against the Democratic candidate. In subsequent accounts of the election, a general consensus among media critics and historians eventually labeled the Horton ads as racist; however, the news media in 1988 generally overlooked the ads’ racial undertones. Only in the aftermath of the election, Tali Mendelberg notes, were the campaign ads and their “implicit racial appeals” identified as such.9 The fact that the news media could overlook at the time a campaign ad that would later become a hallmark of racial stereotyping in political advertising speaks to the broader issue of stereotypes and stereotypical representation in political media. One of the most troubling features of stereotypes,

194  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse generally speaking, is the unconscious manner by which they invoke and reproduce prejudiced assumptions. Particularly in cases of racially driven stereotypes, implicit assumptions about entire ethnic groups simultaneously mask and effectuate a stereotype’s meaning. Stereotypes “are not special or exceptional figures,” W. J. T. Mitchell writes, “but invisible (or semivisible) and ordinary, insinuating themselves into everyday life and constituting the social screens that make encounters with other people possible—​and, in a very real sense, impossible.”10 Stereotypes, Mitchell continues, “circulate across sensory registers from the visible to the audible, and they typically conceal themselves as transparent, hyperlegible, inaudible, and invisible cognitive templates of prejudice.”11 The biases behind stereotypes resist correction precisely to the extent that they delimit and filter experience according to predetermined assumptions and binary categories (i.e., white/​ black, makers/​takers, soldiers/​terrorists). As a form of rhetorical shorthand, Jörg Schweinitz writes, “stereotypes, just like schemata, do not consist of complete passages of text or images, and they hardly consist of fully formed ideas.”12 The more recent films distributed by Citizens United may lack the explicit racism of the Horton ads from 1988, but the films nevertheless employ a variety of stereotypical references. Central to my interests, here, are the cognitive shortcuts offered by stereotypes and the other paradigmatic references as they function in the pseudodocumentaries, particularly how the stock images disseminate political talking points in a manner that avoids the more rigorous expectations of political argument or debate. The generic or paradigmatic presentations thereby offer an economical form of political expression, in both senses of the word.

Stock Shortcuts Most Citizens United films are composed primarily of staged interviews. Recognizable conservative politicians and pundits speak directly into the camera, offering an array of talking points appropriate to the subject matter of the films in which they appear. The interviews occasionally appear in tandem with historical newsreels or other archival imagery, but the most typical visual accompaniments are stock video clips licensed from a small selection of production companies.13 Compared to more typical uses of stereotypes in political media, which tend to repeat biases already present in public discourse, the examples that follow demonstrate a more flexible,

Paradigmatic Politics  195 creative, and performative capacity by the films and filmmakers to construct imaginary worlds conducive to virtually any political topic. In the following examples—​I survey three brief cases to begin—​political speech and stock footage produce together a tight, rhetorical, feedback loop. Fire From the Heartland:  The Awakening of the Conservative Woman (Stephen K. Bannon, 2010) presents itself as a critical alternative to what the film’s participants describe as the destructive legacy of feminism. In an assortment of interviews with an all-​female cast—​including such conservative figures as Michelle Bachmann, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, and Phyllis Schlafly—​Fire From the Heartland blames the demise of patriarchy for such contemporary social ills as unemployment, the failure of public education, urban crime, and more. In one of the few sequences to take aim at a specific contemporary topic, Bachmann sets her sights on the Affordable Care Act, derisively termed “Obamacare.” As she sees it, the expansive health care provisions place too much authority in the hands of the federal government. Universal health care coverage, Bachmann predicts, will produce a wide variety of negative social effects because the law’s provisions allow children to remain on their parents’ health care plans until age twenty-​six. Obamacare, she continues, will arrest normal psychological development and likewise produce a self-​entitled, immature generation of people. The accompanying stock video reiterates Bachmann’s statement by picturing several young men engaged in presumably adolescent behavior, including a man celebrating New Year’s Eve alone in his apartment (Figure 5.1) and a white-​collar worker tossing a paper airplane over the side of his cubicle. The generic images give visual form to Bachmann’s prophetic claims. That is to say, Bachmann offers a hyperbolic generalization about the future psychological effects of a single law on millions of individuals, a claim, in its generalization, impossible to substantiate. The generic stock images, then, provide an economical means of illustration for categorical statements offered in the absence of verifiable evidence. An even more cynical appropriation of stock video occurs in We Have the Power: Making America Energy Independent (Terry Moloney, 2008). The documentary explicitly endorses any and all avenues to expand domestic energy resources and to decrease US dependence on international markets; or so the video presents itself to viewers on the surface. In practice, the film emphasizes fossil fuel and nuclear power as ideal energy sources, with only passing consideration given to renewable energy like wind or solar power. In one particularly striking sequence, Newt Gingrich, the film’s primary host

196  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse

Figure 5.1  Fire from the Heartland (2010). Stock footage of a young man celebrating alone on New Year’s Eve, a paradigmatic example of “immaturity.”

and narrator, argues that the United States should maximize access to its domestic resources by drilling offshore: “With today’s advances in technology and environmental regulations, exploration can be conducted along the outer continental shelf in ways that keep the drilling out of sight and protects the environment.” Gingrich uses the term exploration as a presumably less offensive synonym for drilling. The visual accompaniment to Gingrich’s commentary—​stock video of scuba divers casually swimming near a reef (Figure 5.2)—​seems to confirm the benign, even recreational aspects of “exploration” along the continental shelf. Trading accuracy for affect, the terminological substitution obscures the costs and dangers involved in extracting oil from the sea floor.14 The stock video takes the talking points’ rhetorical aim a step further by picturing literally, if inaccurately, what Gingrich’s language only suggests or implies. Finally, at least for this present overview of examples, Battle for America (Stephen K.  Bannon, 2010)  blames President Obama for the recessed economy following his election. Commentators in the documentary acknowledge that the United States was already in a deep recession when Obama was elected to office; however, Battle for America overlooks entirely the Bush administration policies relevant to, if not responsible for, the financial collapse in 2008. Political strategist Dick Morris declares, without evidence or explanation, “[Obama] took a disaster and turned it into a catastrophe, and he ran the country into the ground.” Appearing on-​screen at the

Paradigmatic Politics  197

Figure 5.2  We Have the Power (2008). Stock footage of scuba divers intended to illustrate how offshore “exploration” (read: drilling) is environmentally friendly.

same time is a stock video clip, which depicts a graph chart with an animated red arrow that plunges so low as to crash through the floor. The animated chart bears no referential relation to economic data but simply reiterates Morris’s claim in graphic form. In each of these examples, the films offer their viewers the formal appearance of political argument but without any corresponding evidence that would ground the arguments in empirical reality. The stock images, instead, provide visual markers reminiscent of visible evidence as we have come to expect from documentary films; unlike the archival footage typical of compilation films, however, the stock footage lacks a historical referent. Consider, by way of contrast, the progressive political diagnosis of income inequality offered by Robert Reich, former secretary of labor, in the documentary Inequality for All (Jacob Kornbluth, 2013). In the film, Reich refers repeatedly to a graph chart that tracks income distribution in the United States between the respective Wall Street collapses in 1928 and 2008. The chart indicates a rapid rise in income inequality as a precursor to both the Great Depression and Great Recession and thereby refers to historical data as evidence for Reich’s corresponding arguments in favor of higher taxes on the wealthy (among other prescriptions). This is not to say the graph substantiates beyond a reasonable doubt Reich’s diagnoses of contemporary economic ills, of course. A  viewer could still disagree with the policy pronouncements

198  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse offered in the film. The important point to draw from this comparison, then, concerns the manner by which Reich’s visual evidence begs for further elaboration by its very appearance in the documentary; that is to say, the chart of income inequality, once marshalled by the film, necessities a transition from the general representation of the century of economic history it displays and condenses, on the one hand, and the more particular interpretations offered by Reich and other interviewees as to what the data means, how it might be interpreted, and how it may inform public policy in the future, on the other. In other words, the chart functions as factual evidence in service of a political argument that makes a singular claim about the relevance of those facts in relation to the particularity of the political topic at hand—​income inequality, in this case. By contrast, the graph video chart licensed by Battle for America, which appears to offer a visual, graphical demonstration of a flailing economy under Obama, makes no similar distinctions between facts, evidence, or argumentation. The generic image—​which bears no referential signification whatsoever—​is nevertheless offered as a visual sign presumed to corroborate Morris’s interpretation of recent economic history. In this light, the stock image’s signification remains entirely rhetorical; it repeats, visually, Morris’s original talking point, but its placement in the sequence only simulates a conventional gesture of documentary representation in which a political claim is backed by a visual corollary or archival evidence. To be sure, the manipulative rhetorical conceits illustrated by this selection of films are not unusual in the current media landscape. The use of suggestive words and imagery to frame a political issue is nothing new to political discourse, let alone to contemporary conservative media. In the case of Fox News, Jones finds, rhetorical framing and talking points skew political discussions toward biased ends. Performative speech acts offered by network hosts may introduce entirely new ideas into political discourse. Memorably, the hosts of Fox & Friends (1996–​present) labeled a proposed Islamic community center in Manhattan the “Ground Zero Mosque,” despite the fact that the center would be constructed several blocks away from the original site of the World Trade Center towers; the performative utterance thereby worked to spur ongoing islamophobia after 9/​11. Or, when Sarah Palin, like many other conservative speakers, referred to “Obamacare” as including “death panels” that would decide on who would receive critical health care coverage, such “speech acts or utterances,” Jones notes, “don’t just report or describe something, but actually bring that thing into being through the act of speaking.”15 Similarly, in the case of Citizens United, the (re)description

Paradigmatic Politics  199 of offshore drilling as “exploration” and the allegation that Obama is responsible for a recession that began prior to his administration, are performative utterances, which introduce contestable ideas into speech as if they were uncontroversial and widely accepted facts.16 However, as my consideration of stock footage has begun to indicate, what Jones rightly identifies as performative speech on Fox News takes an even more radical form in Citizens United films due to the expressive similarity between words and images, talking points and generic footage. The stock videos exist in a paradigmatic state similar to the paradigm of signifiers available to any speaker of a given language; indeed, considering their ready accessibility in online databases, the stock video clips share more in common with linguistic modes of expression than with archival or found footage as typically deployed in compilation documentaries (an issue I discuss more later). For example, in Battle for America, in addition to the stock animated chart used to illustrate Obama’s alleged destruction of the economy, a variety of other stock video clips appear throughout the film to correlate with the speakers’ negative assessment of the White House and Congressional Democrats in the first two years of the Obama administration. Stock video clips reiterate generic claims concerning the Democratic Party’s ineptitude, including video of a heavyset, shirtless man who fails in his attempt to dunk a basketball, a clip of a white collar worker (the same actor and set pictured in Fire from the Heartland) who knocks down a house of cards just as he attempts to place the final card on top; and, most spectacularly, a computer-​ generated animated sequence depicting the Earth from space as it explodes. Each of these video clips, selected from a larger database of available images, offers a similar affective experience; each setting or scenario pictured in the stock image is immediately recognizable as something negative, displeasing, or undesirable. These examples of stock footage may lack the explicit bigotry of prejudicial stereotypes as we normally encounter them, but through their formal generality and reliance on cognitive shortcuts, they function like stereotypes nevertheless. The images, paired as they are with political speech, demonstrate a similar mode of paradigmatic generalization, a “cognitive template of prejudice” applied to the process of political reasoning. As Roland Barthes discusses in Elements of Semiology, speech normally operates according to a syntagmatic ordering of words selected from a broader set of available signifiers. The individual placement of any particular signifier within a sentence functions paradigmatically, such that one signifier

200  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse could be replaced by many other alternatives. For example, the incomplete sentence “My favorite thing to eat for dessert is _​_​_​_​” could be completed by the insertion of such signifiers as chocolate cake, vanilla ice cream, or cherry pie; each of these items, and many others like them, are “members” of the paradigm dessert. Certain statements or combinations of words, however, may be repeated so often in a given historical moment that entire strings of signifiers come to exist paradigmatically—​in such cases, a phrase becomes available for selection in a manner usually reserved for individual words. Citing Ferdinand de Saussure, Barthes writes, “there is . . . a whole series of sentences which belong to language, and which the individual no longer has to combine himself.”17 Consider, for example, the stereotypical phrase as American as cherry pie. To utter the phrase as American as cherry pie does not require the speaker who employs it to contemplate the actual complexity of “American experience” or even to understand the historical significance of, say, cherry pie in regional American cooking. Instead, the referential value of the paradigmatic phrase derives from its repetition; a speaker learns that as American as cherry pie may be used to describe a phenomenon deemed to be uniquely American and may then apply the paradigmatic statement without any necessary consideration of what the statement actually means. Barthes terms this manner of paradigmatic expression a stereotype. From this semiotic perspective, a stereotype includes a range of expressions other than biased or bigoted assumptions about marginalized groups or people; it can also function as a debased form of speech that privileges efficiency over careful thought, the generic over the contextual. A  stereotype outsources critical thought and relieves a speaker from the work of speech; it replaces the active selection of words with a passive reiteration and repetition of the self-​similar. A stereotype, once it exists, henceforth “belongs to language” in general rather than to specific, contextual, contingent expressions of speech. To return to just one of the examples of stock video in Battle for America, we could say that the clip showing a shirtless man who fails to dunk a basketball “belongs to language” because there are countless ways in which the clip could be used or applied. In another context, the same clip might be used to reiterate the racial stereotype that “white men can’t jump,” for instance. In the context of Battle for America, the video clip is meant to illustrate ineptitude, specifically Obama’s incapacity to respond effectively to the economic crisis post 2008. At this point, it may be tempting simply to dismiss the paradigmatic stereotypes found throughout Citizens United as an illustration of niche

Paradigmatic Politics  201 political messaging. The films, rather than providing careful reasoning for its arguments, merely “preach to the choir” and accordingly take no care to couch their claims in evidence, logic, or historical context. However, it is precisely the care by which the films simulate documentary form that should give us pause. In the examples drawn from Citizens United, stock footage provides evocative images for any conceivable topic or talking point. Moreover, the accompanying images provide visual variety to films otherwise composed entirely of talking heads. Stock video thereby provides the primary visual content by which the films mimic the appearance of documentary form. With all of the typical features of compilation documentary present in the films—​interviews, montages of “archival” footage, occasional narration—​Citizens United marshals the formal structure of nonfiction film without any of the attendant ethical imperatives normally associated with the genre. Again, in the case of Fox News, Jones finds comparable examples of generic mimicry: “Fox’s performances of ideology cannot be separated from their occurrence as news . . . It is the genre of news that offers important and necessary ‘cover’ for the network, helping to thwart charges of propaganda or partisanship.”18 Similarly, the visual strategies employed by Citizens United might be less troubling if they did not take the explicit form of documentary. In other words, Citizens United films simulate the appearance of documentary form just as stereotypes mimic the form of thoughtful speech.

An Archive Structured Like a Language There is nothing especially suspicious or even unusual about the appropriation of archival, found, or stock footage in documentary film. As Jay Leyda recounts in Films Beget Films: A Study of the Compilation Film, early filmmakers frequently employed compilation strategies for the purposes of both fiction and nonfiction films alike. Among numerous examples, Leyda reminds us how Edwin Porter’s The Life of an American Fireman (1903) appropriated stock footage of fire brigades from the nascent Edison archive, to which Porter added a fictional depiction of a mother and child in danger from a domestic fire, thereby producing a coherent narrative structure.19 As newsreel archives ballooned in size following the First World War, filmmakers gained greater access to stock footage that could be refashioned to illustrate contemporary events, and it was typical for editors to appropriate images without clarifying their historical origins for audiences. For

202  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse Leyda, such compilations were made possible by the dual nature of newsreel footage. Newsreels are composed both of indexical representations of historical events and formal visual elements whose independent qualities may afford alternative uses. “Beyond its [historical] information,” Leyda writes, “each piece of newsreel has a formal content, unremarked though visible.” These formal elements include areas of black, white, and greys that make up the shapes of people and places, the distribution of these areas into compositions (accidental or otherwise), the movement of the people and objects shown, the direction of this movement, and the rhythm of movement, an element possibly quite distinct from the graphic rhythm of the composition.20

A particular newsreel may contain historical content—​reference to specific times, places, and events—​entirely different from the purposes of the newsreel’s later use or appropriation. Indeed, the formal elements of color and shade, scale and size, movement and composition, make the same found footage eminently useful for alternative purposes.21 Apart from the relatively uncontroversial cases of archival substitution considered by Leyda, filmmakers may also appropriate archival footage for more politically didactic ends. In such cases, the reappearance of archival materials in different contexts may provide an effective means for an audience’s historical enlightenment. “The recontextualization of the found document,” Jamie Baron writes in The Archive Effect, “creates the opportunity for multiple readings of that document.”22 The possibility for multiple readings may arise directly from a director’s purposeful intervention, Baron notes, as in the case of Michael Moore’s appropriation of found footage for satirical effect, particularly in his early films Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine (see Chapter 3). Baron also cites the temporal disparities between a film’s original context and its later appropriations as a key feature of the archive’s revelatory power more generally. In The Atomic Café (Pierce Rafferty, Jayne Loader, and Kevin Rafferty, 1982), for instance, Cold War propaganda films provoke an epistemological self-​consciousness on the part of contemporary audiences when the films are viewed in a context markedly different from the time of their original distribution. For example, the “famous ‘duck and cover’ educational films that taught children how to duck down and cover their heads in the event of an atomic blast will appear to contemporary audiences, “with our own extratextual knowledge

Paradigmatic Politics  203 of radiation, blatantly absurd.”23 Catherine Russell makes a similar point in her own discussion of The Atomic Café: the “historical gap” between the government propaganda films at the moment of their production, in contrast to the presumably more enlightened present, creates a temporal rift by which audiences may discover a “fantasy America” during the Cold War in which propaganda “produced a simulated version of [America] to offset the fear of death.”24 Whether in the poorly acted propaganda films appropriated and reconstituted by The Atomic Café, or in the megalomaniacal ramblings of Senator Joseph McCarthy displayed in the Emile de Antonio compilation film Point of Order (1964), found footage may function as an antidote to ideological bias, highlighting previously normative prejudices that now, from our historical vantage point, appear to be contingent, constructive, or performative. The accounts of found footage cited by documentary scholars thus far attribute a certain independence to the archival image: the particular shapes or colors, events or ideas, originally captured in the archival materials do not circumscribe the potential future uses that a given image may eventually serve. For Baron, to be clear, any historical material appropriated by documentary filmmakers only achieves its archive effect when its inclusion in a new context is formally identifiable as such. “[F]‌or the archive effect to occur,” Baron notes, “there must be a gap between the ‘then’ of the document’s production and the ‘now’ of the appropriation film’s production made evident within the film.”25 As we will see, the variety of archival and stock images compiled by Citizens United are presented in such a way that it may be difficult for viewers to locate in the images any historical or evidentiary significance other than their formal illustration of the broader conservative arguments expressed by the films. The archive, in Citizens United’s handling, functions paradigmatically, as images that substitute endlessly for other images. Not only do the “archival” images lack an obvious distinction between their original setting and the present use to which they have been put, their deployment in the documentaries effectively blurs any boundaries between past and present, signifier and signified, political interpretation and historical reality. As it concerns the paradigmatic effects to which the archive may be put to use, perhaps the most pertinent documentary precedent, for our purposes, can be found in the work of Ken Burns and his prolific output of television documentaries. Burns’s films often appropriate archival images in a manner that draws generic connotations from the archival

204  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse material, but not necessarily in a manner that directs a viewer’s attention to the differences between past and present; rather, the paradigmatic treatment of the archive, in his films, tends to emphasize a generic affect of sentimentality. To take just one example typical of Burns’s aesthetic, the final scene from the first episode of The Civil War (1991) cites a letter written by a soldier to his wife prior to his death in battle. The letter is narrated in voice-​over by an actor, while archival images of other soldiers and their wives appear on-​screen, followed finally by present-​day shots of antique Civil War canons. The archival images of soldiers and their wives offer generic illustration for the more specific events referenced in the narrated letter, thereby suggesting a link between one relationship (one soldier writing to his wife) and a broader category of experience (the impact of war on families). There is no presumption in the scene that any of the people we see in the photographs are the soldier whose words are spoken in the voice-​over. Since the sequence draws no explicit distinctions between the specific historical references and the more general, or generic, illustrations, Burns thereby maximizes the affective intersection of the general with the particular. As Dirk Eitzen notes, the sequence does not presume a direct connection between the letter’s text (from husband to wife) and the various married couples pictured by the archival photographs: “One might say that instead of stressing the syntagmatic connections between elements—​the horizontal links: sequence, logic, cause and effect, and so forth—​this scene emphasizes the paradigmatic dimension, piling meaning upon meaning to create a kind of emotional depth.26 For Eitzen, the sequence in The Civil War offers no explicit argument, at least not as documentary scholars usually define the term (see Chapter 3). The intersection of interrelated texts, sounds, and images suggests the depiction of something “truthful”—​say, the impact of war on familial relationships—​but the sequence is melodramatically evocative rather than argumentative.27

Economical Ideas As we have seen, paradigmatic images simplify relations between past and present, offering a stereotype in the place of thinking. In certain contexts, such cognitive efficiency may be an effective or reasonable means of expression; depending on the circumstances, the reliance on generic types need not

Paradigmatic Politics  205 carry any cause for ethical concern. For instance, fiction films set in New York City often begin with paradigmatic shots of the city’s recognizable skyline in order to establish the narrative setting; that the proceeding scenes may have been shot on a soundstage in Los Angeles need not necessarily raise concerns about the film’s historical veracity precisely because, as a fiction film, the narrative does not categorize itself a historical record or document. However, in the case of Citizens United, this same model of paradigmatic efficiency occurs in the place of explicit argumentation about the historical past and the political present, such that stock images, much more troublingly, substitute for evidence and reason. After all, a simple but significant distinction holds between the stock video that appears in Citizens United and more traditional uses of found footage in such compilation documentaries as The Atomic Café or the sentimental films of Ken Burns. The stock footage deployed by Citizens United originates from contemporary production companies who intend, explicitly, for the images to be used for a variety of different purposes. A stock image economizes on the inherent polysemy of signification and interpretation, and stock photographers, producers, and distributors take this polysemy into account to inform the production process. As Paul Frosh notes in his book-​length study of the stock photo industry, The Image Factory, a stock image or video sequence must be general enough in its connotations that it may express ideas or emotions applicable to multiple contexts. At the same time, the image must not appear so generic as to lose its affective force.28 A stock photo, Frosh writes, “offers up an ensemble of possible references to pre-​formed systems of cultural meaning, yet since . . . it is produced with no final purpose or addressee in mind . . . it proposes no definite destination but only multiple trajectories.”29 Any archival image remains susceptible to appropriation, of course, but stock footage embraces appropriation in advance of its production, aspiring to acquire a paradigmatic status for as many prospective users as are willing to pay a licensing fee. The economic imperative welcomes reduplication as the necessary ground for its profit motive. In this light, and in contrast to the propaganda films recontextualized by The Atomic Café, stock footage can never be taken out of context precisely because it is produced to fit flexibly into whatever context its images variously and unpredictably appear. In the fields of advertising or publishing, the licensing of a stock photo or video may be entirely innocuous, of course. If the situation is such that a generic image will suffice, then economics may dictate that the cost of

206  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse licensing a prefabricated image is preferable to producing one from scratch. The same economic imperative holds for the production of the stock photos themselves, such as when the same model or actor appears in a variety of different costumes to exemplify a selection of paradigmatic vocations. Citizens United, in its neoliberal rationality, however, short-​circuits the difference between consumer marketing and political speech. In advertising, emotional appeals are made to individual, idiosyncratic preferences and desires, and audiences are unlikely to judge a marketing campaign according to how accurately it reflects the world. We usually do not assess television commercials as if their truth claims must be verified by facts; we tend to assume that commercials intend to manipulate us to purchase their respective products. Politics, by contrast, Jodi Dean writes, concerns the “terrain upon which claims to universality are raised and defended” and should stretch citizens “to think beyond themselves as specific individuals with preferences and interests and consider what is best for anyone.”30 The advertising logic employed by Citizens United, then, displays a perverse irony:  stock images produced to suggest “an ensemble of possible references” with “no final purpose . . . but only multiple trajectories” nevertheless serve as visual accompaniments to moralistic pronouncements, political truth claims, and assertions of historical fact. The flexibility of stock thereby provides generic illustrations for the inflexible mantra of hysterical conservative discourse. The paradigmatic, stock images that appear in the examples cited earlier from Citizens United provide its speakers with a capacity to make the most specious of arguments, even while the presentations take the appearance, not of partisan argumentation, but of simple and denotative statements of brute fact or common sense. In contrast to the melodramatic purposes of a filmmaker like Burns, the quasi-​arguments of Citizens United serve a more cynical purpose. Political speakers like Bachmann, Gingrinch, and Morris offer debatable claims concerning health care legislation, energy policy, and economic history, but their performative utterances assume what they might otherwise be compelled to demonstrate through evidence, explanation, or argument. The stock images, rather than offering confirmation for their statements, function as visual synonyms for the performative talking points. If the sequences attempt to offer convincing accounts of their subject matter, then their effectiveness derives from the seamlessness by which the visual world appears to accord with the political one, expressed by the manipulative talking points in paradigmatic visual form.

Paradigmatic Politics  207

Stupid Reason(ing)s The reliance on stock footage in Citizens United documentaries has already invited comparisons with the advertising industry, particularly the latter’s reliance on generalizable images and appeals intended to market commodity goods to a wide array of audiences. We might consider further the economies of attention that underlie such appeals. To give attention to an image, or to any other phenomenon for that matter, involves both an economic investment of embodied energy and the orientation of one’s awareness in certain directions rather than others. That is to say, regardless of how or toward what I give my attention, whether actively or passively, the quality of my consideration and the quantity of affective energy I invest in the act of attention may have little to do with the content of the object under consideration. Simply put, attention need not imply an intentional or discrete object. As Jonathan Crary has argued, for instance, late capitalism cultivates generic modes of attention irreducible to any specific objects or commodities that circulate in the attention economy. As Crary puts it, “spectacular culture is not founded on the necessity of making a subject see, but rather on strategies in which individuals are isolated, separated, and inhabit time as disempowered.”31 Since attention concerns our phenomenological orientation—​sometimes passive, sometimes active, sometimes focused externally, sometimes turned more toward our internal state of being—​the quality of our attentiveness informs and impacts the consideration we may give to a particular object. From this phenomenological perspective, then, our consideration of conservative media must attend both to the manner by which the films represent their intentional objects and the attentional economy within which these objects circulate. For instance, as I argue in Chapter 4, the biased representations of Obama in conservative documentaries undoubtedly misrepresent the president’s time in office by, for instance, decontextualizing his executive decisions and then, in the absence of such context, speculating about his “real” intentions. The speculative “answers” the films supply in response to their biased questions—​Obama is a closeted socialist, an anti-​colonialist, or a Muslim, and so on—​is a disturbing feature of the documentaries’ content. Formally, affectively, and attentionally, the films also offer a disturbing pedagogy for political reasoning, historiography, and cinematic spectatorship. The attentive interest in the elaboration of formal and social differences on which the films rely in order to create problems to solve and questions to answer may be just as damaging, if not

208  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse more so, as any of the specious conclusions at which they speculatively arrive. Hysterical conservative discourse promotes an attention-​deficit disorder. Indeed, in historical hindsight, Obama pursued relatively meager and middle-​of-​the-​road liberal policies during his presidency. However, the split attention of the hysterical economy encourages its viewers to see something else, something mysterious, something concerning, questionable, or interesting in the president’s behavior while withholding the conceptual apparatus that could actually solve the affective problems the films are more than happy to perpetuate for partisan gain. Attentional deficits allow little time, space, or energy to consider the actual political questions at issue. As Crary notes, “attention is the means by which an individual observer can transcend those subjective limitations and make perception its own,” such as when I attend to a sense of estrangement within my social sphere, thereby drawing from this phenomenological tension an opportunity to think or act differently. Conversely, “attention is at the same time a means by which a perceiver becomes open to control and annexation by external agencies,” especially in those cases when our attentional agency becomes outsourced, reliant on hegemonic values whose interests may differ from our own.32 For instance, the algorithms that structure much of our access to media and social networking tend to emphasize repetition over difference, bringing to our attention now the same kind of content we chose once before, thereby promoting the semblance of a seamless relation between past and present, or, as we have seen most recently in political media, promoting an “echo chamber” effect in which we only encounter ideas or viewpoints resonant with our own. Such coordination of our attention involves networks of relations, incentives, embodied interests, and disciplinary mechanisms irreducible to what appears explicitly or obviously in our respective visual fields. That is to say, apart from the specific content of a mediated message, the extent to which such messages direct or manage our attention may matter as much to our viewing experience as the content of the mediated objects themselves. As Bernard Stiegler has noted, moreover, the outsourcing of attention to external technical supports tends to promote the repetition of categorical stereotypes, or what he terms, more simply, stupidity (bêtise). When a streaming website or online platform suggests new programming for our viewing consumption based on our prior selections, this is an economical automation of choice—​ You likely want to see again what you have already seen before, or so the logic underlying the algorithm presumes. Though Stiegler critiques such forms of

Paradigmatic Politics  209 automation for their tendency to magnify repetition at the cost of new or more enlivening or more thought-​provoking worldly engagement, he also locates in such scenarios a phenomenological insight. As thinking beings, our attentiveness to thinking requires physical and psychical resources that are in limited supply. Some recourse to automation, or convention, or stereotype, is an inevitable feature of our psychical attention economy, no matter the circumstances. Thought takes effort, in other words, and we do not possess endless supplies of energy to sustain the work of thinking. “One who thinks can think noetically only intermittently,” Stiegler offers, “and this means that the one who thinks, this one who thinks, always ends up falling back again, that all thinking can become stupid, eventually becomes stupid (again), and that any knowledge can end up justifying and rationalizing the worst stupidity.”33 What makes us stupid, when we become stupid, may be the inevitable recourse to the typical or the conventional, our inability to think actively or creatively at all times or in all places. The field of commodity advertising provides a key illustration of the attentional link between form and content. Advertising seems to present us with the perpetually new. No matter the particular qualities of a given commodity, however, the logic of capitalism that underlies its production and distribution remains persistent (or stupid). There is an inherent split between the object and the logic it perpetuates; the new or the never before seen is offered to consumers so that the same old system of economic relations and modes of production may remain persistently in place and unchanged. Or, in the case of seasonal consumer offerings, the “McRib” at McDonald’s or the “Pumpkin Spice Latte” at Starbucks, which disappear from menus for a time precisely so they may reappear later and thereby invite consumers back to their intended point of purchase. In this light, advertising “thinks” the new solely in terms of the given and pre-​established structures of capitalism. More simply, so long as commodity capitalism provides consumers with new objects, it thereby offers nothing new of substance. If the commodity was actually something radically new or different, it would require a new thought to think it. This is the perverse power of advertising and the commodities whose qualities it proclaims: it seems to promise something new, and yet its fundamental purpose—​the reproduction of capital—​is radically conservative. The process is even more perverse for how its masks old and sedimented assumptions about economic production in the guise of something presumed to be original, if not transcendent. As Todd McGowan notes, “The failure of commodities to live up to the promise of their advertisements in no way lessens the

210  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse power of the advertisements over us. In fact, it augments their power.” When a commodity fails to deliver the promised transcendence, we search ever more diligently for another product—​perhaps a new and improved version of the same one—​that will come through for us.”34 The discourse of advertising therefore shares with hysterical discourse a common bias, a split that divides signifier from signified, presentation from representation. The appeals of advertising campaigns are intended to be taken seriously but not literally.35 Contemporary advertising invites our cynical distance—​we know very well that we cannot believe or take seriously the claims expressed in marketing campaigns, but we may nevertheless be effected by them, perhaps even all the more because we believe ourselves to be untouched by their machinations. For Mady Schutzmann, this suggests a hysterical structure inherent to late capitalism and commodity advertising. If one of the central features of “hysteria is the incapacity to differentiate between reality and illusion,” then, “[i]‌n late-​capitalist consumer culture, this same incapacity is propagated by mass media.”36 In other words, like the hysterical discourse that presents so many alternatives to its political opponents as to drown out that opponent, but which leaves no coherent argument or path forward in its place, the stock logic of advertising draws from any image whatever appeals may fit the reproduction of its economic status quo. In terms similar to those of Juliet Mitchell (Chapter 4), Schutzman describes hysterical performance as a presentation without representation. That is to say, hysterical discourse, whether it appears in the psychoanalytic clinic or as the basis for a marketing campaign, never invests itself fully or completely in the spectacle that it constructs. The spectacle need not demonstrate coherent reasoning; it need not bear any relation to the truth. This process of presentification also renders history nonoperative by appropriating past and future into a perpetual present, bearing no signs of context, genealogy, or means of production. Detached from these forces, the hysteric who presentifies shows and shows but does not communicate; she indicates and marks the hegemonic memory but only as a token, an arrested memento of what society does not want to remember.37

Hysterical discourse skirts the surface of intersubjective relations, like a teacher who masks his or her ignorance on a given subject by moving so quickly through a lecture that students only believe they have learned something when in fact they are left in confusion, with this confusion magnified or

Paradigmatic Politics  211 hystericized by the very fact of their belief in the substance of the educational exchange that has seemingly taken place (see my discussion of pedagogy and Rancière in Chapter 3). Or, like the stock footage that appears throughout Citizens United documentaries, in which films and videos offer generalized stock images to meet with equally generalized talking points, consumer advertisement makes outsized claims about their privileged objects. Neither the advertiser nor the audience needs to believe in the claims, so long as the underlying economic structure remains unconsciously affirmed. Or, in the case of ideological attention, what matters is the effectiveness by which the image draws our attention, how it sticks out in our field of vision and thereby elicits our energetic orientation in its direction rather than in others. The effectiveness of conservative political rhetoric is often attributed to what Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N.  Cappella term the “echo chamber.”38 Conservative websites, talk radio, and cable news work together to create a cross-​media system where even the most specious ideas gain traction, not by virtue of their logic, evidence, or historical accuracy, but simply because the same ideas repeat across seemingly independent outlets. In the echo chamber, circulation and repetition provide the affective means by which political talking points appear to accumulate a semblance of reliability or veracity. Moreover, the echo chamber proves profitable for corporations who derive advertising revenue from the niche marketing targeted at self-​ selecting political audiences. In the case of Citizens United, we encounter something different: a more immediate, self-​enclosed feedback loop, a case of circulation and repetition that occurs at the level of style. Stock images combine with political talking points, creating an audiovisual union specifically tailored to a given topic but still generic enough to avoid the possibility of counterfactual rebuttal. Additionally, the political ideology of neoliberalism, enamored as it is with the free market, finds its aesthetic correlative in the films’ reliance on databases of stock footage to generate the majority of its visual content. The stock images are visual commodities produced to maximize their potential exchange value by blurring the boundary between the general and the particular. The films’ talking points likewise blur the boundary between partisan arguments about reality and common sense descriptions of reality. The examples drawn from Fire from the Heartland, We Have the Power, and Battle for America undoubtedly represent some of the more egregious examples of stock footage deployed in the Citizens United library of films. The case of Hillary: The Movie stands out from others in this in the Citizens

212  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse United catalogue as a documentary that seems to offer explicit arguments reliant upon historical newsreels or archival footage. However, even in this case, the archival material functions more like stock footage, given how the conservative documentary subtracts from the indexical image any signifying features other than those that align with the film’s partisan priorities and political talking points.

Stock Archives and the Reproduction of Documentary Form In the examples drawn from Citizens United films thus far, political speech, in both word and image, goes to almost any lengths to validate neoliberal economics and neoconservative values. I  say almost because each of the examples mimics the appearance of documentary form and thereby remains minimally restricted to the conventional expectations associated with the genre. In the most egregious pairings of talking points with stock video footage, the reliance on stereotypical language and paradigmatic images work together to produce an economical expression, the simulation of political argumentation where the images, which seem to illustrate or evidence the claims made by the talking heads, are in fact no different in kind from the paradigmatic stereotypes on which the speakers rely. Though the stock images do not provide evidence for their accompanying talking points, the correlation of words and images, at the very least, constructs complete audiovisual sequences reminiscent of documentary form. Economically rendered stereotypes substitute for argumentative statements. Paradigmatic images masquerade as historiography. Hillary: The Movie stands as the most complex and troubling documentary in the Citizens United library, then, by offering what appears to be concrete arguments about Clinton’s troubled past, while appearing to back up these claims with reference to historical events culled from the journalistic archive. However, even when Hillary presumably makes recourse to the archive—​print journalism in particular—​it nevertheless deploys an overriding stock logic to do so. That is to say, Hillary demonstrates a significant effort to compile evidence in support of its critique of Clinton, especially to validate the various conspiracy theories voiced by its participants concerning Clinton’s time as First Lady in the 1990s. Nevertheless, evidence, as it appears in Hillary, derives not from material investigations but rather from

Paradigmatic Politics  213 the coordination of archival materials and personal observations rendered in paradigmatic form. Or, put otherwise, the manner and form by which archival evidence appears in Hillary divest the archive of any features besides those elements which may be appropriated for stock purposes. Hillary begins with a sequence of close-​up shots of numerous newspaper headlines, each one recounting a controversial moment from Clinton’s past. The newspaper clippings echo similarly negative remarks made by an assorted cast of long-​time Clinton critics who appear intermittently on-​screen, initiating an unrelenting attack on Clinton’s character that continues throughout the entire film. A formal alignment emerges between ad hominem attacks voiced in interviews and a compliment of newspaper clippings that shuttle and flicker across the screen. Interviewees are prompted to describe Clinton in a few words. Author and pundit Ann Coulter calls Clinton “mendacious, venal, sneaky”; former Clinton advisor Dick Morris terms the candidate “ideological” and “intolerant”; Mark Levin, a talk-​radio host, says, “She scares the hell out of me”; and Coulter appears again, sarcastically this time: “She looks good in a pant suit.” Appearing in tandem with these comments are an assortment of negative newspaper headlines about Clinton, fluttering on-​screen in rapid succession to produce a catalogue of negative terms and phrases that mirror those offered by Coulter, Morris, and Levin (Figure 5.3). Already brief headlines are framed so as to reveal only a word or two at a time, effectively echoing the negative series of adjectives voiced in the interviews. Extreme close-​ups reveal yellowed paper, faded type, and an assortment of suggestive portions of headlines and bylines: “obstruction,” “lies,”

Figure 5.3  Hillary: The Movie (2008). One example among many of how the film crops suggestive newspaper headlines in its efforts to smear Hillary Clinton.

214  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse “veracity,” and “perjury,” among many others. Like Shutzman’s description of hysterical presentification, the sequence signifies much but communicates little. The extreme close-​ups of the headlines obscure their original context, avoid any thorough consideration of the actual reportage that each headline announces, and thereby discount the journalistic objectivity that an audience might otherwise attribute to them. Much like the stock images deployed in the other films discussed earlier, the clippings align too perfectly with the partisan rhetoric expressed in the interviews and thereby forfeit their value as historical referents. Following the opening sequence of headline clippings, and developing a broader overview of controversies during Clinton’s time as First Lady, Hillary emphasizes the scope and range of allegations against her. These controversies include Clinton’s alleged involvement in the firing of long-​ time White House travel office employees to make room for allies from the prior presidential campaign (“Travelgate”); her “radical” (though failed) attempt to reform health care; suggestions by several witnesses that Clinton threatened a woman to prevent her going public with claims that she had been sexually assaulted by President Clinton; and claims that she convinced her husband to pardon a group of convicted terrorists for the purpose of gaining electoral support in her campaign for the US Senate seat from New York. In the various sequences that cover these controversies and claims, no substantiating evidence is offered in support of the allegations. Instead, Hillary relies primarily on the confident assertions of its witnesses and interviewees, paired with near-​constant montages of negative ­newspaper headlines. The film thus operates according to a logic of guilt by accumulation. The headline images reiterate the comments made in interviews much like the stock-​video clips reiterate political talking points in Fire From the Heartland, We Have the Power, and Battle for America. Here, however, the images carry the added weight of the journalistic archive. On closer examination, though, the seemingly endless collection of recycled newspaper clippings that flash over the screen in Hillary are not quite as extensive as it may appear at first glance. Many of the same headlines reappear throughout the film, though the speed by which they flash across the screen obscures the nature of their repetition. The headlines thereby function like a formal transition, similar to templates for optical transitions (i.e., wipes, dissolves) typically preloaded into nonlinear video-​editing platforms like Adobe Premiere or Final Cut. Yet, in this case, the content behind the form derives from the journalistic archive rather than a digital algorithm. What would in another

Paradigmatic Politics  215 scenario function as a quotidian transitional device often overused by amateur editors constitutes, here, a breakdown of form and content, paradigm and syntagm.39 The connective tissue that binds the documentary together is not historical research but the image of historical research. That is to say, the headlines suggest a reservoir of data or information available to further support the allegations made by its interviewees. The fact that the film never explores the details of the journalistic record it cites does not prevent the appearance of such archival markers from serving their purpose as paradigmatic images indicative of the film’s eponymous villain and her controversial past. We might pause, nevertheless, and read the documentary and its allegations as generously as possible: What remains if we accept the claims of the documentary on its own terms, without question? Imagine that any, if not all, of the allegations offered against Clinton in Hillary are true. Clinton could have orchestrated the travel office firing in order to reward political allies with jobs in the White House; she could have hired a thug to threaten Katherine Wiley, as the film suggests, preventing Wiley from testifying against President Clinton for alleged sexual harassment; and so on. Nevertheless, even as Hillary goes to great lengths to catalogue a list of individuals victimized in Clinton’s quest for power, it makes no similar effort to confirm the allegations. In other words, Hillary demonstrates a driving interest in the affective byproduct of an overwhelming quantity of allegations and in organizing the allegations into a formally coherent spectacle that maintains the appearance of documentary form. The actual truth value of any specific claim, then, is almost completely irrelevant when compared to the formal arrangement of these claims. In other words, even if the allegations were factually provable, the quality of attention the film elicits would nevertheless promote a debased or stunted epistemology because it invites viewers to embed themselves within a multifaceted presentation in which every claim is presented as demonstrably self-​ evident, thereby demanding only the viewer’s faith in the existence of a world that coheres immediately and comprehensively with the manner in which it has been ideologically described by Clinton’s enemies. Mark Andrejevic locates a similar logic operative in the contemporary peddling of conspiracy theories online. In Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know, Andrejevic identifies the defining features of conspiracy theories: “non-​debunkability (non-​falsifiability); the displacement of accounts of system or structural forms of conflict with tales of deliberate machinations . . .; and, finally, a populist tendency to ‘other’ the alleged conspirators.”40 Andrejevic admits that a conspiracy theory should

216  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse not be dismissed simply because it presumes to uncover hidden networks of power—​many conspiracy theories, so called, have turned out to be true. Instead, Andrejevic is concerned with a particular case of pathological paranoia, one that is immune to any possible rebuttal. Recall, for instance, the “birthers” in the conservative media—​not to mention Republicans elected to office in local, state, and national positions, Trump among them—​who continued to express doubts about Barack Obama’s birthplace even after Obama released his long-​form birth certificate, confirming his legal status as a US citizen; for many birthers, who had demanded to see the birth certificate, the document, once released, likewise “evidenced” signs of falsification; thus, once the demands were met, new demands emerged in their place; the birth certificate, once presented, became one more object by which to foment their collective “suspicion.”41 In such circumstances, the conspiracy theorist demonstrates an affective investment in the consistency that the conspiracy theory provides for his or her ideological commitments irrespective of the so-​called evidences in support of the theory. “A conspiracy theory can turn out to be true without absolving it of what might be described as the pathology of conspiracy,” Andrejevic writes. The fact that conspiracy theorists might have arrived, somehow, at the truth does not undo the ways in which their forms of theorizing reject—​in spirit, if not in form—​the evidence-​based deliberation and standards of argumentation that might, in some cases, end up legitimating their claims.42

Or, as the saying goes, a broken clock may be accurate twice a day, but such occasional correspondences do not solve the underlying breakdown in the object’s or individual’s capacity to represent the world accurately. In the case of Hillary, the documentary is not completely without “evidence-​based deliberation and standards of argumentation.” However, the arguments and accompanying evidences fail to offer a convincing indictment of Clinton because they never descend from their paradigmatic suggestiveness; if any of the allegations turned out, even by accident, to be true, this would not excuse the film for its refusal to prove what it generally takes for granted. Like the pathology of conspiracy described by Andrejevic, Hillary invests more affective weight in the display of argumentative form(s) than in the collection of empirically relevant content. One final example from Hillary is worth consideration for its excessive emphasis on what amounts to a stock image of evidence, despite the fact that

Paradigmatic Politics  217 the image in question seems indexical in the strictest sense of the term. Peter F. Paul appears in interviews in Hillary and alleges that Clinton knowingly and purposefully misrepresented campaign budgets during her run for the US Senate. In the final months of Bill Clinton’s presidency, we learn, Paul organized a star-​studded fundraising event in Hollywood in the president’s honor; the money generated by the gala would go to support Hillary’s campaign for Senate. The event led to a relatively minor controversy, reported by newspapers at the time, in which the FEC fined Clinton’s campaign $35,000 for underreporting the costs of the event. Against Clinton’s claims of ignorance concerning the accounting error, Paul asserts that Clinton knowingly and purposefully broke the law. Paul functions as a problematic witness for Hillary, however. Given his own checkered past, including criminal convictions for drug use and securities violations, Paul’s association with the Clintons paints a picture of the power couple as willing to work with any unsavory character in their quests for electoral victories. But Paul’s troubled biography also marks him as a potentially unreliable witness for the film’s purposes. In a seeming attempt by the filmmakers to bolster the allegations against Clinton and affirm its star witness, Paul appears on-​screen strapped to a polygraph machine (Figure 5.4). What follows are a series of questions and responses that

Figure 5.4  Hillary: The Movie (2008). Peter F. Paul sits for a lie detector test, but he only answers generic questions about Hillary Clinton and alleged campaign finance violations.

218  Politics, Documentary Form, Hysterical Discourse confirm only the professional relationship between Paul and Clinton—​a fact never in dispute and entirely separate from Paul’s allegations about Clinton’s campaign finance misdeeds. The examiner asks, “Did you discuss with Hillary Clinton supporting her campaign in exchange for President Clinton helping you in your business concerns?” and “Did Hillary Clinton pledge President Clinton’s support for your business interests?” Paul’s affirmative responses to the questions remain entirely irrelevant to his allegations that Clinton committed crimes. Close-​up shots of the digital polygraph (Figure 5.5), like the headline clippings which open the film and proliferate throughout, suggest an aura of historical verifiability, but this semblance of facticity is only an image of truthfulness, effectively a stock image indicative of a truthful answer but which remains irrelevant as evidence for the purported claims against Clinton. The data-​image functions not as a verification of truth but rather as an ostensible picture of truth, a stock image meant to signify the filmmaker’s assurance that what Paul tells us has been scientifically adjudicated. The polygraph image functions as stock, moreover, because the nature of the questions, as well as the answers offered in response, render the corresponding images irrelevant to the film’s arguments except, that is, to the extent that it offers a

Figure 5.5  Hillary: The Movie (2008). The indexical image of the lie detector functions, in this context, conveys no more relevant information than a conventional stock image.

Paradigmatic Politics  219 virtual image of verifiability. Or, because the questions posed to Paul have no bearing on the substantive allegations he makes elsewhere in his interviews, there is no reason for the polygraph’s addition to the scene. Indeed, demonstrating the paradigmatic stereotype of “truthfulness” on which the sequence relies, we should note that a licensed stock image of a polygraph display—​ selected from a pre-​established database—​would accomplish the same affective end as the instance where Paul is strapped to a machine and then asked questions with no material relevance to the sequence’s implicit and explicit allegations. Indeed, we could say that the polygraph picture reiterates in a pointed and precise manner Hillary’s overarching rhetorical strategy:  the collection of materials and images seemingly drawn from a verifiable historical record but that instead signify a series of paradigmatic abstractions about Clinton (liar, cheater, criminal, etc.). The images themselves are neither illustrations nor confirmations of personal testimony. Instead, they are generic pictures, emblems of a speaker’s trustworthiness (Paul) or signposts suggesting a uniformly partisan perspective of the past (newspaper headlines). What makes Hillary biased, then, is not that it misrepresents the facts. The film’s bias, evidenced repeatedly in its stylistic representations of historical imagery, results from its outright refusal to engage with history as anything other than a spectacular collection of paradigmatic evidence in service of its simulation of documentary form.

Conclusion Post-​Truth and Other Biases

Conservative hysterical discourse, for those who find its aesthetic gestures and rhetorical conceits appealing, provides a deflective shield against facts, evidence, or arguments at odds with their preferred ideological assumptions. As I have argued, the reproduction of conservative common sense works energetically to deny the voices and claims of their political antagonists. And as my analyses of conservative documentaries demonstrate, the deflection of alternative political paradigms is often accomplished, not through the elaboration of concrete policy agendas or visions for the future that align with conservative ideological priorities, but rather through the hysterical parody of political opponents. Through the elevation of form over content, the reduction of complex socioeconomic issues to matters of binary moral difference, and through an economy of inattention that polices with noise, conservative hysterical discourse appears to engage in democratic disagreement even while it consistently depoliticizes the antagonist terrain it engages. Hysterical conservative discourse magnifies the inherent bias, split, or divide described by psychoanalytic theorists as a constitutive feature of subjectivity and marshals this bias as an engine for the creative, or creatively cynical, simulacrum of political engagement. As I  have emphasized throughout Beyond Bias, hysterical discourse provides an effective but mostly defensive weapon against progressive political agendas, upholding the sociopolitical status quo at all costs. Hysterical discourse manages to “tread water,” to remain in the same place or encourage stasis for those who come under its influence, even as it performs the conventional signs indicative of a democratic willingness to listen, engage, change, or perhaps even to compromise. Thus, as I discussed in Chapter 2, creationists may construct scenarios in which success is not determined by winning a debate but, more simply, by staging a debate in which their position appears equivalent with that of their evolutionary opponents; accordingly, if the theory of “intelligent design” can be made to seem as a viable competitor with Beyond Bias. Scott Krzych, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/​oso/​9780197551219.003.0007

222 Conclusion Darwinian evolution, this manner of self-​presentation alone may serve as a sign of rhetorical success for the fundamentalists’ purposes. Though the religious claims may not be effective or appealing to those outside the Christian fold, the entire performance of a debate between (so-​called) equals at least assures the adherents of creationism that the spokespeople for their cause are trustworthy experts, equal in stature to the likes of Richard Dawkins, and they may therefore disregard any features of contemporary science or evolutionary theory at odds with the biblical account of the universe’s origin. Relatedly, the questions posed about Barack Obama’s biological and ideological heritage (Chapter 4) may not amount to conspiracy theories in the conventional definition of the term, but the manner by which Obama is rendered interesting—​how his public appearance is made to seem unassimilable with his personal life, producing a series of unanswerable question about him as a consequence—​reproduces an economy of inattention that justifies viewers’ affective detachment, if not racialized animus, in response to the historic event of Obama’s election and presidency. Yet apart from these and other defensive maneuvers engaged by conservative hysterical discourse, we may wonder about the concrete byproducts of such reactionary aesthetic politics. After all, the perpetual outrage fomented on right-​wing media platforms does more than defend against challenges to the status quo. Oftentimes, hysterical discourse resonates effectively with other, broader electoral and political strategies, as we have seen in recent years, first with the advent of the Tea Party movement, which contributed directly to the election of a new cohort of reactionaries to the US Congress and state legislatures around the country, and second, the election of a reality-​TV star to the presidency. What relations might we draw, then, between hysterical discourse and the era of post-​truth of which the Trump election is often offered as a hallmark?

Post-​Truth Politics While many of the chapters in Beyond Bias have concerned ideological debates on the Left and the Right in the United States concerning whose account of common sense will hold sway over public opinion, the era described as post-​truth seems to diagnose a more fundamental breakdown in the commons, a dystopian scenario in which there is virtually no set of shared assumptions held by a majority of citizens. We thereby encounter the

Conclusion  223 absence of a stable ground necessary for a viable or functioning democracy. According to Johan Farkas and Jannick Schou, the post-​truth era appears to sound the death knell of common sense, in which “scientific evidence is no longer trusted, with climate change being consistently labeled a hoax; medical evidence is sidestepped, as patients search for their own truth online; and ‘proper’ journalism is under attack from fake news farms, troll factories and social bots.”1 Perhaps unsurprisingly, for many accounts of the post-​truth era, Trump’s election is offered as an exemplary case. According to journalist Ruth Marcus, Trump’s ascendancy demonstrates how belief has taken the place of truth, such that partisan opinions seem to demand no recourse to factual evidence or logical reasoning in order for the partisans to engage in public debate. “In Trumpspeak,” Marcus notes, “belief is a signal of truth. If his supporters believe him, then what Trump is saying must be true. Conversely, if his detractors disbelieve him, this too is evidence that what he is saying must be true.”2 In this perverse feedback loop, there is simply no opportunity for counterfactual correction or rebuttal. Thus, for example, when Trump denied that Russia worked on his behalf to sway the 2016 election in his favor, any evidence to the contrary was identified by Trump and his supporters as further “proof ” in favor of their beliefs. Accordingly, when the US intelligence community contradicted Trump’s denials, these contradictions were then cited by Trump as evidence of a “Deep State” conspiracy to falsify the evidence to his detriment, and any reporting about Russian interference in the election—​or any negative reporting about the Trump administration whatsoever—​was similarly labeled and dismissed as “fake news.” Moreover, Trump’s unwillingness to provide supporting evidence for his most specious or outlandish claims demonstrates what Marcus describes as the transactional quality of his rhetoric and post-​truth claims: “Trumpspeak is transactional. It places no independent value on truth. The value of speech is to be measured exclusively in terms of its effects. If a statement gets me closer to my goal, then it is valuable; if it does not, it is worthless.”3 Again, with this account of Trump’s transactional rhetoric in mind, Trump need not offer evidence of a “Deep State” or evidence that would contradict any so-​called fake news stories; simply the label of “Deep State” or “fake news,” performed and repeated ad nauseam, seems to be all that is required to maintain support among his ardent followers—​simply saying the words is enough to make it so in the post-​truth era. What are the causes of post-​truth and how might we respond to its contagious spread? Critics have offered a variety of reasons to explain the onset

224 Conclusion of the post-​truth era in general and Trump’s particular brand of demagoguery in particular. For Lee McIntyre, Trump’s success could be said to demonstrate the pervasiveness of “magical thinking” and “willful ignorance” in which a significant portion of the American population are willing to ignore reality when it does not conform to their wishes, a mode of cognitive dissonance magnified by unfounded ideas that proliferate online and on social media.4 Douglas Kellner likewise laments Trump’s successful reliance on authoritarian tactics as evidence of a failed educational system.5 In Post-​ Truth, Skepticism and Power, Stuart Sim argues in favor of an increase in fact-​ checking organizations and the establishment of at least minimal standards for the posting of material online, including self-​policing by social media sites to monitor and then exclude material deemed to be fake, pernicious, or otherwise at odds with established standards of truth. I am sympathetic to the horror often expressed in reaction to examples of post-​truth, the rise of neofascist leaders and rhetoric in Western democracies, the Trump presidency, and so on. However, the responses also seem to risk the perpetuation of what I have described as the hysterical complaint, a heightened emotional reaction that is capable of naming a problem but struggles to provide a solution precisely because it holds fast to certain ideals of common sense—​or “truth” in this case—​even in the face of that ideal’s disruption or disappearance. Faced with a breakdown in common sense, well-​meaning authors, journalists, and scholars nevertheless appear committed to arguing on behalf of a system that is in disrepair if not entirely defunct. Consider how Sim describes the unwillingness of Trump supporters to consider alternative perspectives: “Post-​truth enthusiasts . . . simply are not interested in listening to viewpoints other than their own, or investigating whether they may actually be true or not.”6 Again, I find claims such as this one to be relatively accurate and uncontroversial. It seems fair to say that Trump-​supporting ideologues lack a capacity to question the basic tenets of their beliefs, let alone to recognize that their beliefs are not always perfect or objective mirrors of reality. But are the defenders of truth, reality, and reason any more willing to listen to their opponents than those whom they label inheritors of post-​truth irrationality? I fear that the label of post-​truth too often announces what amounts to a self-​fulfilling explication of the pre-​ established ideological divide, which fails to recognize the aesthetic, affective, and psychic dimensions of political antagonism. In other words, the discourse about post-​truth ends up cataloguing all of the manners and forms by which the post-​truth mobs (typically of right-​wing affiliation) fail to

Conclusion  225 meet the standards of common sense upheld by more their liberally minded critics. The dystopian scenario thereby displaces the hegemonic problem even as it assures its listeners that they retain the moral and epistemological high ground. The lesson of the post-​truth era seems eerily similar to the lessons of the Margaret Thatcher administration in the United Kingdom as described by the likes of Stuart Hall and Chantal Mouffe—​by which I mean to suggest that we have perhaps not yet learned these lessons adequately. According to Hall’s diagnosis, the Left too often failed in its response to Thatcher’s cynical political maneuvers and populist rhetoric because the Left was convinced that its ideas were right (or truthful), even while the Thatcher administration worked more strategically to bring its ideas to fruition by any means necessary. Hall refers to this failure as a “misguided habit of mind” equivalent, I claim, to the habitual commitment to “truth” in an era where the term has lost its collective purchase: We go on thinking a unilinear and irreversible political logic, driven by some abstract entity we call “the economic” or “capital,” unfolding to its preordained end. Whereas, as Thatcherism clearly shows, politics actually works more like the logic of language: you can always put it another way if you try hard enough.7

More recently, Mouffe has similarly emphasized the rhetorical dimension of politics and the need for the activist Left to recognize that many of the ideological correlatives associated with the post-​truth era stem from the socioeconomic ravages of neoliberalism and the destruction of the welfare state. In this context, reactionary and neofascist movements offer political solutions, “often expressed in xenophobic language,” but the same problems of inequality and precarity “could be formulated in a different vocabulary and directed towards another adversary.”8 According to Mouffe’s pragmatic approach, it may be necessary for the activist Left to argue on behalf of a more basic or traditional form of democratic agonism before pushing for more progressive policy agendas—​to argue in favor of the social benefit of common sense, we might say, rather than judging those who fail to meet its idealized standards. Or, as Mouffe puts it, “Nowadays, before being able to radicalize democracy, it is first necessary to recover it.”9 Applied to the issue of post-​truth: rather than deriding Trump supporters and their like for the failure of their arguments to align with reason, rationality, scientific evidence,

226 Conclusion historiography—​which they most certainly fail to do—​the more immediate and necessary step for the academic and activist Left may be to argue on behalf of a collective respect, interest, and investment in reason, rationality, scientific evidence, historiography, and so on. Or, to draw an analogy from the Lacanian psychoanalytic clinic, before an analyst encourages a patient to embrace the singularity of his or her own death drive, the analyst should first lead the analysand to recognize his or her subjection to a symptom of some form or another. Indeed, carrying forward the analogy of the psychoanalytic clinic—​ especially given my emphasis on hysteria throughout this work—​we might further emphasize and embrace the affective turmoil that attends the cases of political antagonism described in this book. As Lacan noted concerning his own practice, before analysis proper may begin, the analyst must intervene with an interpretation intended to invest the patient in the act of analysis itself—​or what Freud first termed the moment of rectification. To dismiss right-​wing rhetoric, conservative media and documentary, Trump and his supporters, and so on as so much noise or nonsense or indicators of post-​ truth risks an act of spectatorial displacement, diagnosing the problem from a distance and enfolding oneself within the protective shield of “common sense.” In my attempt to take seriously the aesthetic politics of conservative media, I  have identified consistent and effective strategies by which reactionary voices attempt to remake the political landscape in terms conducive to their peculiar political imaginaries, even when these strategies seek to accomplish nothing more than the denigration of their opponents, the spectacular distraction from matters of pressing social concern, or simply the further ideological entrenchment of their allies against countervailing evidence or forces.

Notes Introduction 1. Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (London: Verso, 2000), 2–​3. 2. For further examination of the paradoxical nature of the endorsement of violence on behalf of the “pro-​life” movement, see Carol Mason, Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-​Life Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002). 3. Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (London: Verso, 2013), 5. 4. Ibid., 9. 5. Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 22. 6. Consider, for example, the tendency of activists on both the contemporary Left and the Right to organize boycotts against corporations who, for some reason or another, become villainized for their ideological commitments, as in the Left’s boycott of the fast-​food chain Chick-​Fil-​A for the CEO’s charitable contributions to groups with known stances against LGBTQ rights. In response, many on the Right responded defensively with the political “act” of eating at Chick-​Fil-​A and posting pictures of their meals online as their own form of political protest—​or a protest-​against-​protest. 7. Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, 16. 8. In response to the Occupy Wall Street movement, right-​wing commentators reacted in horror to the living conditions of the tent cities erected in lower Manhattan; in the process, the aesthetic representation of the event subtracted its political dimension and reduced to inarticulate noise the otherwise substantive political platform of Occupy. Conversely, when “correspondents” for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah attend Trump rallies, where they engage in on-​the-​street interviews with Trump supporters, who are often clad in MAGA paraphernalia, and the videos appear intent to catch the interviewees, for comedic effect, when they make contradictory or incoherent or demonstrably false statements; such scenes seek to render as noise their acts of political expression. The incitement to laughter is likewise depoliticizing, as are all acts of policing. The reaction of the police to claims it refuses to accept as deserving of a substantive response inevitably perpetuates the status quo. As Slavoj Žižek puts it in one of his glosses on Rancière’s account of anti-​democracy: “The basic aim of antidemocratic politics always—​and by definition—​is and was depoliticization, i.e., the unconditional demand that ‘things should return to normal’, with each individual doing his or her particular job.” Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, translated by Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Continuum, 2004), 70. 9. Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005, ix. 10. Ibid.,  82.

228 Notes 11. Ibid.,  85. 12. Ibid. 13. Ibid.,  86. 14. Ibid.,  84. 15. Parker Molloy, “A War on Christmas Story: How Fox News Built the Dumbest Part of America’s Culture War,” emphasis added (https://​www.mediamatters.org/​war-​ christmas/ ​ w ar-​ christmas-​ story-​ how-​ fox-​ news- ​ built- ​ dumbest- ​ p art- ​ americas-​ culture-​war).

Chapter 1 1. Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind:  Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 43. 2. Michel de Certeau, “Lacan:  An Ethics of Speech,” trans. Marie-​ Rose Logan, Representations 3 (Summer 1983): 24. 3. Mady Schutzman, The Real Thing: Performance, Hysteria, & Advertising (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999), 9. 4. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Standard Edition, Vol. 4, 119–​20. See also Slavoj Žižek’s discussion of the Bush administration’s use of the same logic to defend its decision to invade Iraq. Slavoj Žižek, Iraq: The Broken Kettle (London: Verso, 2004). 5. Joan Copjec, Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994), 150. 6. Ibid., 141. 7. Ibid. 8. Ibid., 149. 9. Todd McGowan’s impressive oeuvre of cultural criticism makes this psychoanalytic point in myriad, illuminating ways. See especially Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013) and Capitalism and Desire:  The Psychic Cost of Free Markets (New  York:  Columbia University Press, 2016). 10. Copjec, Read My Desire, 150. 11. Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (New  York:  Vintage Books, 1952/​2008), 14. 12. Robin, The Reactionary Mind, 43. 13. Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind:  On Political Reaction (New  York:  New  York Review of Books, 2016), xiii. 14. In their study of the Tea Party movement in recent American political history, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson note a similar reliance on nostalgia as a defense mechanism by Tea Party activists offered against the reality of political difference and electoral loss. Indeed, references to the past, or that the country must return to the “original” intentions behind the Constitution, may have little to do with the past as such. The “Tea Partiers are fighting about the here and now—​using references to the ‘true meaning’ of the Constitution in their struggle to shape the nation’s future—​rather

Notes  229 than actually trying to return to any given moment in America’s past.” Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 50. 15. Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud, “Studies on Hysteria,” Standard Edition 2: 122–​23. 16. Elaine Showalter, Hystories:  Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 7. 17. Mari Ruti, Distillations: Theory, Ethics, Affect (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 207. 18. Elisabeth Bronfen, The Knotted Subject:  Hysteria and Its Discontents (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 11. 19. See Todd McGowan’s book on comedy for a related psychoanalytic account of the affective link between lack and excess. Todd McGowan, Only a Joke Can Save Us: A Theory of Comedy (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2017). 20. Patricia Gherovici, Please Select Your Gender: From the Invention of Hysteria to the Democratizing of Transgenderism (New York: Routledge, 2010), 56. 21. Freud, “Studies on Hysteria,” 157. 22. Ibid.,  123. 23. Juliet Mitchell, Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 141–​42. 24. Jill Gentile, Feminine Law: Freud, Free Speech, and the Voice of Desire, with Michael Macrone (London: Karnac, 2016), 14. 25. Jonathan Lear, Freud (New York: Routledge, 2005), 68. 26. Bruce Fink, A Clinical Introduction to Freud:  Techniques for Everyday Practice (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017), 255 27. Patricia Gherovici, “Where Have the Hysterics Gone?:  Lacan’s Reinvention of Hysteria,” ESC: English Studies in Canada 40, no. 1 (2014): 65. 28. See Mark Andrejevic, Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know (New  York:  Routledge, 2013); William Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); and Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009). 29. Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, 7. 30. The Tea Party political movement likewise fits the bill for hysterical discourse, particularly the movement’s effective use of irrational arguments in favor of highly rationalized electioneering. The hyperconservative Tea Party, which emerged in reaction to the election of Barack Obama, seemed in the eyes of many outsiders to be a wholly irrational reaction to Obama’s electoral victory. As Jill Lepore notes, the Tea Party’s “complaint about taxation without representation” seemed a rather odd gesture “follow[ing] the inauguration of a president who won the electoral vote 365 to 173 and earned 53 percent of the popular vote.” Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 7. As other sociological studies of the Tea Party movement have been at pains to demonstrate, the Tea Party’s seemingly populist rhetoric belied a professionally organized and funded operation of conservative elites long associated with the established Republican Party. See Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson,

230 Notes The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2012). 31. The tendency of conservative media to mimic its political opponents in order to complicate or confuse debate, working in favor of the status quo as a consequence, is a long-​standing feature of reactionary politics. As Albert O. Hirschman notes in his expansive coverage of conservative political speech, The Rhetoric of Reaction, conservatives often rely on diversionary tactics in order to bolster traditional ideas otherwise out of step with the times. The rhetoric of perversity is one mode of rhetorical ploy that avoids making an explicit case for the status quo by focusing instead on the flaws, specifically the unseen consequences or slippery slopes, in calls for change. Indeed, the perversity thesis is easily applied as a defensive critique of any call for political progress or change:  “Attempts to reach for liberty will make society sink into slavery, the quest for democracy will produce oligarchy and tyranny, and social welfare programs will create more, rather than less, poverty. Everything backfires.” The image of a dystopian future produced by political policies or programs the reactionary finds detestable works in service of keeping things as they are without the argument necessarily identifying with the status quo it otherwise works to uphold. “What better argument,” Hirschman continues, “against a policy one abhors, but whose announced aim one does not care to attack head-​on?” Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991), 12.

Chapter 2 1. Jacques Rancière, Film Fables, translated by Emiliano Battista (New  York:  Berg, 2006), 33. 2. Raya Morag offers an insightful overview and analysis of conservative “Jewish fundamentalism” as represented in several contemporary Israeli documentaries. See Raya Morag, “The New Religious Wave in Israeli Documentary Cinema,” in A Companion to Contemporary Documentary Film, edited by Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow (West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 366–​83. 3. See my discussion of direct cinema and the aesthetics of the interesting in Chapter 4. 4. Paula Rabinowitz, They Must Be Represented:  The Politics of Documentary (London: Verso, 1994), 21. 5. Jacques Rancière, Dis-​agreement:  Politics and Philosophy, translated by Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), x. 6. Jean-​Michel Oughourlian, The Puppet of Desire: The Psychology of Hysteria, Possession, and Hypnosis, translated by Eugene Webb (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 179. 7. Especially in this chapter and the next one, I critique conservative media for its parody of conventional documentary form and political disagreement. This critique rests on my attempt to draw out suggestive relations between hysterical discourse, creativity, aesthetic politics, Lacan, and Rancière (and Rancière receives more thorough

Notes  231 consideration in Chapter 3). I also use the terms “parody,” “mimicry,” and “simulation” in their more colloquial senses. For an insightful exploration of key distinctions of parody, mimicry, and simulation, as well as a Lacanian approach to aesthetic politics, see Jennifer Friedlander, Real Deceptions:  The Contemporary Reinvention of Realism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). 8. Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 3. 9. Michael Renov, The Subject of Documentary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004). See also Michael Renov, “Documentary and Psychoanalysis: Putting the Love Back in Epistephilia,” in Embodied Encounters: New Approaches to Psychoanalysis and Cinema, edited by Agnieszka Piotrowska (London: Routledge, 2015), 147–​55. 10. Elizabeth Cowie. Recording Reality, Desiring the Real (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 1. 11. Diane Waldman and Janet Walker similarly locate a homology between the documentary address and the analyst’s relation to patients within the clinical setting. Both documentary film and psychoanalysis, they write, attempt “to retrieve a past that is both eminently tangible and ultimately ephemeral, and to laminate that past to an equally mediated present and imagined future.” Diane Waldman and Janet Walker, editors, Feminism and Documentary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 26. 12. Elisabeth Cowie, Recording Reality, Desiring the Real (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 6. 13. Linda Williams, “Mirrors Without Memories:  Truth, History, and the New Documentary,” Film Quarterly 46, no. 3 (Spring 1993): 12. 14. Though Trump’s campaign never explicitly affirmed the support he received from white nationalists and neo-​Nazis (rebranded as the “Alt-​Right”), many of these groups considered his election to be a victory for their cause nevertheless. For example, George Hawley identifies the convenient resonances between Trump and the Alt-​Right, even while many leaders of the Alt-​Right have acknowledged that Trump does not share all of their views and is not a leader of the movement in any direct sense of the term. See George Hawley, Making Sense of the Alt-​Right (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017). Many of Trump’s actions in office to date have further affirmed his status as an Alt-​Right ally, including his description of white supremacists as “some very fine people” after their violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. 15. For additional readings on the subject of aesthetics, rhetoric, and American fundamentalism, see Todd M. Brenneman, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), and Paul Maltby, Christian Fundamentalism and the Culture of Disenchantment (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013). 16. As Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow have noted, documentary filmmakers interested in American religious practice have typically mounted their projects as outsiders; it is perhaps unsurprising when such filmmakers ameliorate their intrusion by at least masking their (ideological) presence, trading overt criticism for access,

232 Notes and avoiding whenever possible the kind of explicit antagonism that might lead the participants to defensively filter their actions in the camera’s presence and thereby defeat the purpose of documentary exposure. See Juhasz and Lebow, A Contemporary Companion to Documentary Film (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 337–​40. 17. Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 88. For further discussion of Jesus Camp, see also Donovan O. Schaefer, Religious Affects:  Animality, Evolution, and Power (Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 2015). 18. Heather Hendershot, “Review,” Cineaste 28, no. 2 (Spring 2003), 43–​44. 19. Ibid.,  44. 20. Julia Kristeva, This Incredible Need to Believe, translated by Beverly Bie Brahic (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 7. 21. In Bill Nichols’s overview of the film, he identifies Papantonio’s placement in the documentary and the “serious challenges” he raises to the children’s ministry run by Fischer. However, Nichols appears to dismiss the scenes with Papantonio as separate from the filmmaker’s primary interest: “The filmmakers let the audience decide how to respond to Fischer’s efforts to convert young boys and girls into devout fundamentalists. In fact, they go to some pains not to undercut what she says or to endorse it.” This reading of Jesus Camp, to my mind, overlooks the structural dynamic established between Fischer and Papantonio. While Fischer leads excessive displays of religious devotion, the scenes edited to emphasize their frenetic quality, the scenes with Papantonio are strikingly quiet and subdued by comparison, emphasizing the more contemplative and highly rational domain of the secular critic. See Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, 3rd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017), 41. 22. Kristeva, This Incredible Need to Believe, 12. 23. Donald Moss, At War with the Obvious:  Disruptive Thinking in Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 2018), 9. 24. Ibid.,  10. 25. See Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, translated by Bruce Fink in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006), 75–​81. 26. Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1986/​2005), 53. 27. Todd McGowan’s offers a useful overview and critique of the early applications of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory in film studies in The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007). 28. Barbara Johnson, Persons and Things (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2008),  56–​57. 29. Jacques Lacan, Anxiety. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book X, edited by Jacques-​ Alain Miller, translated by A. R. Price (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), 32. 30. Todd McGowan. Capitalism and Desire:  The Psychic Cost of Free Markets (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 11. 31. Ibid.,  71.

Notes  233 32. William Connolly, Identity/​Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 64. 33. Todd McGowan, Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 244. 34. As Barbara Johnson reminds us, the original bias and the structure of fantasy described by Lacan demonstrate a powerful aesthetic dimension at the core of subjectivity. “Falling in love with a beautiful form,” she notes in her commentary on the mirror stage, “suggests more than emptiness: it suggests a realm of aesthetics. Could it be that the aesthetic and the fantasmatic are related, or at least equally indifferent to the empirical difference between ‘real’ and ‘not real’?” See Johnson, Persons and Things, 49. In other words, the difference between my present experience and the future I aspire to achieve is not a difference I hold consciously. Rather, the difference is productive of the affective yearning that at once propels me into the future and, in this very projection, shapes the sense of self, a me. Understood in this way, the object of desire, whether political or religious, coordinates a network of affective relations whose experience cannot be so easily countered or contradicted by rational argumentation or debate. “When we talk about an object of desire,” Lauren Berlant writes, “we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make possible for us” and “to encounter what is incoherent or enigmatic in our attachments, not as confirmation of our irrationality but as an explanation for our sense of endurance in the object, insofar as proximity to the object means proximity to a cluster of things that the object promises, some of which may be clear to us while others not so much.” Lauren Berlant, “Cruel Optimism,” in The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 93. 35. Heather Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004), 146. 36. Terry Lindvall and Andrew Quicke, Celluloid Sermons: The Emergence of the Christian Film Industry, 1930–​1986 (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 49. 37. For further discussion on the role of technologically driven rhetoric in the Moody Institute films, see Scott Krzych, “Kino Ex Nihilo,” World Picture 2 (Autumn 2009). 38. In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark A. Noll blames the proselytizing impulse of evangelical Christianity for precisely the kind of stunted intellectualism on display in the Moody films. As Noll puts it, “the evangelical ethos is activistic, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian. It allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urgencies of the moment”—​namely, “spreading the gospel” to the unsaved by any means necessary. Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Leicester, UK: Inter-​Varsity Press, 1994), 12. 39. Moon never mentions Darwin or the theory of evolution by name. By avoiding an explicit attack on evolution, Moon could more easily distribute the films to public schools and to the US military, spreading an implicitly creationist message while avoiding political controversy. As Hendershot notes, “Since Moon avoids mentioning evolution or creationism by name, these arguments seem divorced from a wider political world, as if they were simply common sense.” Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus, 157.

234 Notes 40. In their study of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, Susan L Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger, Jr. identify a similar rhetorical conceit: the treatment of creationism as simple and incontrovertible truth, in contrast to the lies perpetrated by secular culture and science. See Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger, Jr., Righting America at the Creation Museum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). 41. Robert Pfaller, On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners, translated by Lisa Rosenblatt, with Charlotte Eckler and Camilla Nielsen (London: Verso, 2014), 75. 42. Ibid.,  75. 43. Ibid.,  90. 44. Ibid.,  93. 45. As Pfaller points out, furthermore, Freud was rash in his dismissal of religious ritual, treating it, as he did, as an act of obsessional neurosis. For Freud, the religiously pious repeat without thinking the ritualistic rites or acts required of them by their priests or religious leaders, often without any knowledge or awareness of the origin of these rituals, especially those that have been passed down over the centuries. Yet, for Pfaller, it is precisely the absence of complete or adequate knowledge by which rituals engage their pleasurable potential. The pleasure of ritual, in other words, is not the ritual’s connection to what it claims to honor—​namely, God—​but rather in how the ritual inevitability misses its supernatural mark and thereby includes the need for repetition within its structure. 46. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 5. 47. Ibid.,  12. 48. See Linda Kintz, Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions that Matter in Right-​ Wing America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997) and Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus. 49. See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin Books, 2006); and Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: McClelland and Stewart, 2007). 50. Paul Eisenstein and Todd McGowan, Rupture:  On the Emergence of the Political (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2012), 42. 51. Bruce Fink, A Clinical Introduction to Freud:  Techniques for Everyday Practice (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017), 255.

Chapter 3 1. Parveen Adams, The Emptiness of the Image:  Psychoanalysis and Sexual Difference (London: Routledge, 1996), 71–​72. 2. Jacques Rancière, Disagreement:  Politics and Philosophy, translated by Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 29. 3. Nico Baumbach, Cinema/​Politics/​Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 43. 4. Davide Panagia, Rancière’s Sentiments (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 10.

Notes  235 5. Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 28. 6. From a psychoanalytic perspective, a cinematic representation, like any act of enunciation, cannot ensure or verify in advance the truth value of what it presumes to represent. More simply put, nothing guarantees the difference between a fictional film and nonfictional one other than an argument made on behalf of the distinction. Both fiction films and documentaries rely on the same mediating apparatus: camera, lighting, sound, pro-​filmic space, and a means of projection or audiovisual display so that what has been recorded may be received eventually by an audience. Both fiction films and documentaries likewise rely on what Michael Renov describes as fictive modes of discourse: the culturally established means of language or expression by which a representation is produced, received, and inevitably left open to interpretation. “No discourse is ever able to say precisely what it wishes to say,” Renov writes, “insofar as the very saying is dependent on language forms which are necessarily figurative and connotatively enmeshed.” Or nothing prevents a documentary’s “creative treatment of actuality” from becoming so creative as to depart from actuality in any conventional sense of the word. Michael Renov, Theorizing Documentary (New York: Routledge, 1993), 10. 7. Carl Plantinga, Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 38. 8. Paul Ward, Documentary: The Margins of Reality (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 8. 9. Plantinga, Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film, 16. 10. For further helpful overviews and critiques of Bordwell and Carroll, among others, see Baumbach, Cinema/​Politics/​Philosophy and Matthew Flisfeder, The Symbolic, the Sublime, and Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Film (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). 11. Plantinga, Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film, 21. 12. Ibid.,  24. 13. Ibid.,  23. 14. Ibid.,  24. 15. Imagine, for a moment, that any of the central conspiratorial claims contained in JFK were true. Such claims would stand at odds with the US government’s otherwise long-​standing insistence that Oswald acted alone. If a conspiracy were enacted by the military industrial complex to kill Kennedy and install a president more likely to escalate the war in Vietnam, as Stone’s film speculates, then such a conspiracy would, by necessity, work assiduously and violently to dissimulate its own existence. A film intent to expose such a conspiracy would face substantial barriers against truth’s discovery and transmission: tampered or destroyed evidence, manipulated or murdered witnesses, character assassination of the filmmaker(s), and so on. A film that exposed an actual assassination and cover-​up would, almost necessarily, depend upon aesthetic excesses and imaginative speculations beyond the usual province of “acceptable” or conventional modes of nonfictional representation as someone like Plantinga defines them. In order to give appearance to that which has been previously suppressed, political speech challenges the very terms and categories by which

236 Notes appearance is normatively defined and thereby rendered available and accessible to experience. 16. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, translated by Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2011), 43. 17. Ibid.,  49. 18. Peter Hallward, “Staging Equality: On Rancière’s Theatocracy,” New Left Review 37 (Jan–​Feb 2006): 117. 19. Harlan Jacobson, “Michael and Me,” Film Comment (Nov–​Dec 1989): 16–​25. 20. Pauline Kael, “Melodrama/​Cartoon/​Mess,” The New Yorker, January 8, 1990, 91. 21. Matthew Bernstein, “Roger and Me: Documentaphobia and Mixed Modes,” Journal of Film and Video 46, no. 1 (Spring 1994), 11. 22. Rancière, Disagreement, 23. 23. Todd McGowan, Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 18. 24. Elisabeth Cowie, Recording Reality, Desiring the Real (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 104. 25. Lacan, Seminar XVII, 24. 26. Ibid.,  81. 27. Slavoj Žižek, “Lacan’s Four Discourses:  A Political Reading,” in Desire of the Analysts: Psychoanalysis and Cultural Criticism, edited by Greg Forter and Paul Allen Miller (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 83. 28. Paul Verhaeghe, Beyond Gender: From Subject to Drive (New York: The Other Press, 2013), 23, 29. Alenka Zupančič, “When Surplus Enjoyment Meets Surplus Value,” in Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis: Reflections on Seminar XVII, edited by Justin Clemens and Russell Grigg (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 160. 30. Jacques Lacan, Écrits: The first complete edition in English, translated by Bruce Fink (New York: Norton), 694. 31. Žižek, “Lacan’s Four Discourses,” 83. 32. Lacan, Seminar XVII, 147–​48. 33. As Todd McGowan argues, the emergence of university discourse, rather than deposing the master, actually makes him less vulnerable to attack by giving him the title and position of expert, a more difficult position to rebel against. McGowan, Enjoying What We Don’t Have, 181. 34. Miles Orvell, “Documentary Film and the Power of Interrogation: American Dream and Roger & Me,” Film Quarterly 48, no. 2 (Winter 1994–​95): 16. 35. Ibid.,  17. 36. Douglas Kellner, Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush-​Cheney Era (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2009), 142. 37. Ibid., 184–​85. 38. Lacan, Seminar XVII, 129. 39. Žižek, “Lacan’s Four Discourses,” 89. 40. Lacan offers an ironic description of the mise en scéne produced by the hysteric’s particular manner of speech, addressed to a Master whose authority she seeks to

Notes  237 unmask precisely by giving the Master too much of what she presumes the Master to desire: “The analyst who listens is able to record many things. With what your average person today can state, if he pays no attention to anything, one can compile the equivalent of a small encyclopedia. This would generate an enormous number of keys, were it to be recorded. Afterward one could even construct a little electronic machine, get one made. And this is moreover the idea that some people can have—​they construct an electronic machine so that the analyst has to pull out a ticket that will give them their answer.” The failure of the “ticket” to provide an answer in the register of truth, of course, will then provide further evidence, for the hysteric, that the Master is lacking. Lacan, Seminar XVII, 35. 41. In Chapter 1, I point to a defining moment in FahrenHype 9/​11, the conservative rebuttal to Fahrenheit 9/​11. In the film, a series of interviews offer too many reasons to dismiss Moore’s critique of George W. Bush’s response to the 9/​11 terrorist attacks. The apparent emphasis to offer any reason to contradict Moore’s account of the event carries a concomitant disinterest, it seems, to offer a coherent argument itself. Rest assured, there are countless reasons to ignore Moore’s argument, the sequence suggests. There is nothing to see here. 42. Relatedly, Jodi Dean locates in the American political conservative rhetoric an embrace of postmodern tactics, such that political debate loses clear lines of demarcation by which to distinguish the positions held or expressed by the major parties. As she notes, “The right-​wing adoption of democratic ideals prevents the left from occupying the position of a political alternative to the right—​if left positions are the same as right ones then the left isn’t an alternative . . . When one’s enemy accept one’s terms, one’s point of critique and resistance is lost, subsumed. The dimension of antagonism (fundamental opposition) vanishes.” Jodi Dean, “Politics Without Politics,” in Reading Rancière, edited by Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp (London: Continuum, 2011), 74. 43. Elisabeth Bronfen, The Knotted Subject:  Hysteria and Its Discontents (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), xi. 44. Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster:  Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, translated by Kristen Ross (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 80. 45. Ibid.,  59. 46. Ibid.,  6. 47. Ibid.,  21. 48. Ibid.,  21–​22. 49. Sigmund Freud, “A Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (1905), volume 7, edited by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press Limited, 1953), 35. 50. Véroniqe Voruz, “A Lacanian Reading of Dora,” in The Later Lacan: An Introduction, edited by Véronique Voruz and Bogdan Wolf (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 176. 51. Bowling for Columbine includes no arguments for increased gun regulation, let alone a repeal of the Second Amendment. Using the 1999 massacre at Columbine High

238 Notes School near Denver, Colorado, perpetrated by two automatic-​gun-​wielding teens, Bowling explores the fetishization of guns in many rural parts of the country, and Moore likewise offers a scathing critique of the National Rifle Association (NRA) for its campaigns against federal regulation of firearms. 52. Rancière, Disagreement, 12. 53. Ibid.,  31. 54. Cowie, Recording Reality, 106. 55. As Kiarina Kordela notes, “In short, the university discourse produces, and is predicated on, the illusion that the function of knowledge is to reveal objective truths rather than to sustain authority—​at the very moment when the function of knowledge for the first time becomes precisely a means for sustaining authority.” Kiarina Kordela, Being, Time, Bios:  Capitalism and Ontology (Albany:  State University of New York Press, 2013), 60. 56. Elisabeth Young-​Bruehl, The Anatomy of Prejudices (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1996), 221.

Chapter 4 1. As David Theo Goldberg has noted, D’Souza has ingratiated himself to the American Right by consistently “rewrit[ing] the history of racism so he can erase reality,” reading race and racism as strictly projections of individual pathology rather than systemic oppression. David Theo Goldberg, Racial Subjects:  Writing on Race in America (New York: Routledge, 2016), 177. 2. Donald Moss, At War with the Obvious:  Disruptive Thinking in Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 2018), 10. 3. José Medina, The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 30. 4. Ibid., 31. 5. Christopher Bollas, The Mystery of Things (London: Routledge, 1999), 1. 6. Jacques Rancière, The Aesthetic Unconscious, translated by Debra Keates and James Swenson (Cambridge: Polity, 2009), 3. 7. In the visual ontology of race, as it is constructed in these films, the depth of relations projected onto Obama’s unconscious provides the films with an apparent justification to return repeatedly to the surface of Obama’s figure and racialized body, in a manner similar to the racist play between depth and surface identified by Alessandra Raengo. As she argues, “Race corporealizes the visual at the same time as it secures its legible surface. Thus, under the medium-​being of race there is a crucial sliding of an hermeneutic practice of surface reading into an ontology of the image whereby the image’s meaning and value is supposedly secured by/​on its surface.” Alessandra Raengo, On the Sleeve of the Visual:  Race as Face Value (Lebanon, NH:  Dartmouth University Press, 2013), 4. 8. See Kalpana Seshadri-​Crooks, Desiring Whiteness:  A Lacanian Analysis of Race (London: Routledge, 2000).

Notes  239 9. Juliet Mitchell, Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 209. 10. Constance Penley, The Future of an Illusion:  Film, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 62. 11. Mitchell, Mad Men and Medusas, 205. 12. Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 2004), 11. 13. Ibid.,  119. 14. Raengo, On the Sleeve of the Visual, 4. 15. Ian Haney-​López, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 58–​59. 16. Ibid. 17. Stephem Mamber, Cinema Verite in America: Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1974), 116. 18. Edgar Morin, “Chronicle of a Film,” in The Documentary Film Reader: History, Theory Criticism, edited by Jonathan Kahana (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 462. 19. Ibid.,  461. 20. Ibid.,  471. 21. Ibid.,  463. 22. For Morin, the most cinéma verité can hope to achieve is a narrow case of psychoanalytic truth:  “This means that there is no given truth that can simply be deftly plucked, without withering it (this is, at most, spontaneity). Truth cannot escape contradictions, since there are truths of the unconscious and truths of the conscious mind; these two truths contradict each other.” Ibid., 471. 23. Tom McDonough sees the on-​screen interventions by Rouch and Morin as similar in kind to the Freudian clinic, where final authority remains firmly in the position of the analyst-​filmmaker: “Here, in their interviewing methods as in the analytic relation, the two apparently separate worlds [of consciousness and unconsciousness] interpenetrated in the cross form of a chiasma joining the subject’s desire to that of Rouch and Morin themselves.” Tom McDonough, “Calling from the Inside: Filmic Topologies of the Everyday,” Grey Room 26 (Winter 2007): 13. 24. William Rothman, Documentary Film Classics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 119. 25. Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1991), 40). 26. Paul Arthur, “Jargons of Authenticity (Three American Moments),” in Theorizing Documentary, edited by Michael Renov (New York: Routledge, 1993), 122. 27. As I go on to argue, the difference between public and private is itself a difference without a concept whose lack of conceptualization appears symptomatically through these attempts at categorical definition. But we might also recognize in these definitions another tendency in documentary studies as identified by Ilona Hongisto, documentary studies has historically emphasized a “paradigm of representation [that] maintains reality as a matter upon which a form of signification is positioned.” From this perspective, reality “is not expressive in itself, but knowable

240 Notes through modalities of representation and signification.” In other words, by emphasizing the contextual schemas that precede and make legible the less-​than-​linear events in the observational film, the representational emphasis by scholars overlooks how the films themselves may exert dialectical pressure on the very categories they are said to instantiate. Ilona Hongisto, Soul of Documentary:  Framing, Expression, Ethics (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015), 16. 28. Pennebaker and Hegedus only followed the campaign for a few weeks, after all. 29. Yet to say, as some have, that the documentary merely trades one performance for another, or that Carville, for instance, plays for the camera as much as any candidate does while in the public eye, overlooks the attentive movement in which the film engages. Critics have routinely raised doubts about the veracity of such observational images, speculating that what we see when we see behind the scenes is as manipulated as any other image crafted by communication professionals intent on selling their candidate to the masses. See, for instance, Shawn J. Parry-​Giles and Trevor Parry-​ Giles, “Meta-​Imaging, The War Room, and the Hyperreality of U.S. Politics,” Journal of Communication 49, no. 1 (1999): 28–​45. 30. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories:  Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 5. 31. Ibid., 112–​13. 32. Ibid., 131–​32. 33. Ibid.,  139. 34. Jonathan Kahana makes a related point about Feed (Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway, 1992), a found-​footage compilation documentary derived primarily from “b-​roll” video footage captured before or after the candidates appear for live television interviews during the 1992 election season. “Rather than searching for an essential or authentic subject of politics,” Kahana writes, “Feed refuses to distinguish the medium of publicity from its subject. Its critique of political spectacle does not rest, in other words, on peeling back the layers of representation to reveal the true character of the political.” Jonathan Kahana, Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 213. 35. Joseph Lowndes, “Barack Obama’s Body: The Presidency, the Body Politic, and the Contest over American National Identity,” Polity 45, no. 4 (October 2013): 493. 36. Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), 44. 37. Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 2004), 6. 38. Teresa Brennan, History After Lacan (London: Routledge, 1993), 10. 39. Brennan, The Transmission of Affect, 42. 40. Brennan, History After Lacan, 12. 41. Ibid.,  92. 42. Teresa Brennan, Exhausting Modernity:  Grounds for a New Economy (London:  Routledge, 2000), 55. 43. Or, as Kelly Oliver describes it in her overview of Brennan’s theory, the notion of “self-​containment is an illusion fed by hallucinations and fantasies that keep us in a destructive cycle of denial and abuse.” Kelly Oliver, “Living a Tension,” in Living

Notes  241 Attention:  On Teresa Brennan, edited by Alice A. Jardine, Shannon Lundeen, and Kelly Oliver (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 14. 44. Christopher Bollas, Hysteria (London: Routledge, 2001), 29. 45. According to the Freudian legacy, psychoanalysis would respond to the hysteric’s perpetuation of trauma by suggesting, or seeming to suggest, that the way to dislodge the hysterical symptom is to make it legible, to give name or description to the scenario by which the individual becomes subject to a social environment beyond her or his control and then acts out accordingly in a revealing spectacle of denial. When, through analysis, the difficult reality is no longer denied but affirmed, mind thereby appears to triumph over the body. As Bollas puts it, the “hysteric will develop a learning disorder of sorts by creating gaps . . . in what he or she knows,” a diagnosis that may seem, at first glance, to call for a similarly pedagogical treatment of the hysterical symptom, one that would fill the epistemological gap with new and enlightening knowledge, leading the hysteric from symptomatic bondage and into psychic freedom. Ibid., 19. 46. Davide Panagia, The Political Life of Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 47. 47. Ibid.,  61.

Chapter 5 1. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos:  Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New  York: Zone Books, 2015), 151–​52. 2. Ibid., 159. 3. Ibid., 155. 4. Ironically, the attorneys for Citizens United relied on arguments made in defense of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/​11 in 2004, when the FEC made a similar charge against the film as a case of corporate-​sponsored political speech. Unlike the cases of conservative mimicry of Moore’s documentary aesthetics discussed in Chapter 3, however, the development of legal arguments, culled from Moore’s own legal case, made its way all the way to the Supreme Court and had immediate, demonstrable, and troubling consequences for the American political system. 5. Jeffrey P. Jones, “Fox & Friends’ Fear Factor: Performing Ideology in Morning Talk,” in How to Watch Television: Media Criticism in Practice, edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell (New York: New York University Press, 2013), 189. 6. Jeffrey P. Jones, “Fox News and the Performance of Ideology,” Cinema Journal 51, no. 4 (Summer 2012): 179. 7. See Eric Boehlert, “You Can’t Teach an Old Attack Dog New Tricks,” Salon.com (July 20, 2004). 8. Fred Slocum and Yueh-​Ting Lee, “Race, Racial Stereotypes, and American Politics,” in The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-​CLIO, 2010), 22. 9. Tali Mendelberg, The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implict Messages, and the Norm of Equality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 9.

242 Notes 10. W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 296. 11. Ibid. 12. Jörg Schweinitz, Film and Stereotype: A Challenge for Cinema and Theory, translated by Laura Schleussner (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 28. 13. Some of the stock image houses and web resources used by Citizens United films include Streamline Films (http://​www.streamlinefilms.com), Wazee Digital (http://​ www.wazeedigital.com), and Pond 5 (https://​www.pond5.com/​sound-​effects/​). 14. Republican consultant and pollster Frank Luntz takes credit for this rhetorical talking point, in which the word “exploration” is substituted for “drilling” in Frank Luntz, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear (New York: Hyperion, 2007), 285. 15. Jones, “Fox & Friends’ Fear Factor,” 188. See also Jones’s discussion of Sarah Palin’s deployment of political performative speech in Jeffrey P. Jones, “Parody, Performativity, and Play,” in A Companion to New Media Dynamics, edited by John Hartley, Jean Burgess, and Axel Bruns (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2013), 396–​406. 16. According to Lauren Berlant, such acts of political performativity have been a hallmark of Republican political rhetoric since the Reagan era. Rather than argue explicitly for a particular vision of democracy that aligns with their ideological commitments, conservative rhetoric takes a more subtle turn: describing as common sense—​and as already existent—​what it might otherwise be forced to argue should be the case. See Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997). 17. Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology, translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 19. 18. Jones, “Fox & Friends’ Fear Factor,” 179. 19. Jay Leyda, Films Beget Films: A Study of the Compilation Film (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 14–​15. 20. Ibid.,  22. 21. As I have already noted and will continue to discuss, producers (or aggregators) of stock footage maximize profits by licensing images that may be used for a wide variety of applications. The same holds true for the appropriation of archival and found footage. Television footage of the planes crashing into the World Trade Towers on 9/​ 11 provides just one telling example. On Fox News throughout the administration of George W. Bush and its “war on terror,” the conservative cable network made incessant recourse to images of the burning and crashing towers; the images typically provided melodramatic justification for Bush’s aggressive foreign policy. By contrast, in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002), footage from 9/​11 is used to a decidedly different end: as what Moore presents as the culminating case of blowback for US involvement in various covert operations during the twentieth century, including the training and support of Osama Bin Laden in fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In this case of contrast between Fox and Moore, the same footage may serve to illustrate two completely different ideas or political positions, invoking two fundamentally different accounts of recent historical events. However, as I argue

Notes  243 throughout this chapter, Citizens United takes the inherent signifying flexibility of archival or stock imagery a step further, transforming virtually any and all images that appear in its documentaries into paradigmatic stereotypes of political speech. 22. Jamie Baron, The Archive Effect:  Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History (London: Routledge, 2014), 39. 23. Ibid. 24. Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 255. 25. Baron, The Archive Effect, 22. 26. Dirk Eitzen, “When Is a Documentary?:  Documentary as a Mode of Reception,” Cinema Journal 35, no. 1 (Autumn 1995): 87. 27. Of course, in the case of Ken Burns, we may also notice an underlying political valence operative in his films. Though the sequence in question coordinates the paradigmatic possibilities of the archival text—​its capacity to express generic truths in a manner similar to written or spoken language—​such an affective, expressive appropriation of the archive may also entail an inherently political ideology, whether the sequence is intentionally politicized or not. Indeed, as Baron notes in her own reading of The Civil War documentary series, the lack of discernible differences or distinctions among the various archival materials, typical of Burns’s style across his large body of work, has led critics to complain about the implicit conservativism in Burns’s documentaries. See Baron, The Archive Effect, 26. 28. Paul Frosh, The Image Factory:  Consumer Culture, Photography and the Visual Content Industry (New York: Berg, 2003), 72. 29. Ibid.,  74. 30. Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neo-​Liberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 22. 31. Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001), 3. 32. Ibid.,  5. 33. Bernard Stiegler, States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century, translated by Daniel Ross (Cambridge: Polity, 2015), 47. 34. Todd McGowan, Capitalism and Desire:  The Psychic Cost of Free Markets (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 225. 35. See Salena Zito, “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally,” The Atlantic, September 23, 2016. 36. Mady Schutzman, The Real Thing: Performance, Hysteria, and Advertising (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), 9. 37. Ibid.,  99. 38. Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). 39. Christian Metz uses similar semiotic terms when he discusses the use of optical transitions in narrative cinema. According to Metz, optical transitions like lap-​ dissolves should be understood syntagmatic procedures. By contrast, my analysis treats such visible transitions as paradigmatic rather than syntagmatic

244 Notes because the appropriation of actual headlines for the purposes of formal transition appropriates historical content and then deploys them in the mode of a formal transition. See Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, translated by Celia Britton, Anwyl Williams, Ben Brewster, and Alfred Guzzetti (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 193–​94. 40. Mark Andrejevic, Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know (New York: Routledge, 2013), 118. 41. See also Micahel Barkun’s discussion of birther and other conspiracies that proliferate online, or what he describes as digital “subculture[s]‌based upon nonfalsfiable beliefs.” Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy:  Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 185. 42. Andrejevic, Infoglut, 119.

Conclusion 1. Johan Farkas and Jannick Schou, Post-​Truth, Fake News and Democracy: Mapping the Politics of Falsehood (New York: Routledge, 2020), 2. 2. Quoted in Lee McIntyre, Post-​Truth (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018), 168. 3. Ibid. 4. Lee McIntyre, Respecting Truth:  Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age (New  York:  Routledge, 2015). 5. Douglas Kellner, “Donald Trump and the Politics of Lying,” in Post-​Truth, Fake News:  Viral Modernity & Higher Education, edited by Michael A. Peters, Sharon Rider, Mats Hyvönen, and Tina Besley (Singapore: Springer, 2018). See also Douglas Kellner, American Nightmare:  Donald Trump, Media Spectacle, and Authoritarian Populism (Rotterdam, UK: Sense Publishers, 2016). 6. Stuart Sim, Post-​Truth, Skepticism, and Power (Gewerbestrasse, Germany: Springer, 2019), 15. 7. Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal:  Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso, 1988), 273. 8. Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (London: Verso, 2018), 23. 9. Ibid., 37.

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Index For the benefit of digital users, indexed terms that span two pages (e.g., 52–53) may, on occasion, appear on only one of those pages. Adams, Parveen, 96 Ahmed, Sara, 178–​79 Andrejevic, Mark, 215–​16 attention. See hysterical discourse: economies of inattention   Baron, Jamie, 202–​3 Barthes, Roland, 199–​200 Black Lives Matter, 50 Bollas, Christopher, 183–​84 Brennan, Teresa, 155, 179–​83 Bronfen, Elisabeth, 42 Brown, Wendy, 189–​90 Butler, Judith, 50   Certeau, Michel de, 32–​33 cinéma verité, 159–​62, 169 Citizens United court case, 189–​91 production company, 190–​93 common sense, 63, 65, 75–​76, 82, 87, 91–​92, 102, 206, 222–​25 Connolly, William, 79–​80 Copjec, Joan, 35–​37, 47 Cowie, Elizabeth, 66–​67, 110–​11 Crary, Jonathan, 207–​8 creationism, 81–​83, 84–​86, 88–​92,  221–​22   Dean, Jodi, 9–​11, 205–​6 direct cinema, 62–​63, 158–​59, 162–​64, 169 See also films, The War Room   Eisenstein, Paul, 87 films 2016: Obama’s America,  143–​52 Agenda: Grinding America Down,  172–​75 Atomic Café, The,  202–​3

Battle for America, 196–​97, 199, 200 Blood in the Face, 61–​65,  67–​68 Chronicles of a Summer,  159–​62 Civil War, The,  203–​4 Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, 162–​63,  166–​67 Dreams from My Real Father,  175–​78 Dust or Destiny,  81–​83 Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, 88 Fahrenheit 9/​11, 33 FahrenHype 9/​11, 33–​34,  126–​30 Fire From the Heartland: The Awakening of the Conservative Woman, 195 Friends of God,  72–​73 Generation Zero, 5–​6,  13–​16 Hell House,  69–​70 Hillary: The Movie, 190–​91,  212–​19 Hope and the Change, The, 184 Inequality for All,  197–​98 I Want Your Money,  156–​57 Jesus Camp,  73–​75 JFK,  100–​2 Manufacturing Dissent,  94–​96 Michael & Me,  135–​38 Michael Moore Hates America,  121–​24 Religulous,  70–​71 Roger & Me, 94–​95,  104–​9 Thin Blue Line, The,  66–​67 War Room, The,  164–​72 We Have the Power: Making America Energy Independent,  195–​96 Yoel, Israel, and the Pashkavils,  60–​61 Fink, Bruce, 48–​49, 91–​92 Fox News, 19–​21, 30–​31, 50–​51, 192–​93, 198–​99,  200–​1 Freud, Sigmund broken kettle logic, 33–​34 hysterical symptoms, 44–​46, 133–​34 

252 Index Gentile, Jill, 45–​46 Gherovici, Patricia, 43–​44, 48–​49   Hall, Stuart, 225 Hendershot, Heather, 69–​70 Hofstadter, Richard, 38 hysterical complaint(s), 20–​22, 23, 35–​36, 41–​42, 48, 91–​92, 118–​19,  224–​25 and critiques of religious fundamentalism, 58–​59, 63–​65, 75 hysterical discourse economies of inattention, 145–​48, 151–​52, 173–​79, 186–​87, 207–​11, 221–​22 policing with noise, 148–​50, 186–​87,  214–​15 presentation without representation, 152–​53,  210 stock footage and paradigmatic rhetoric, 188–​89, 191–​93, 195–​98, 199, 200–​1, 205–​6, 212, 216–​19 See also Lacan: hysterical discourse   Johnson, Barbara, 77 Jones, Jeffrey P., 191–​92, 198–​99,  200–​1   Kristeva, Julia, 70, 75   Lacan, Jacques fantasy, 76–​78, 93, 180–​81 four discourses, 110–​16, 141 hysterical discourse, 21–​22, 41–​42, 119–​20,  125 interpretation,  225–​26 Laclau, Ernesto, 13–​17, 85–​86 Lear, Jonathan, 46–​47 Leyda, Jay, 201–​3 Lilla, Mark, 38–​39   McGowan, Todd, 78–​79, 80, 83–​84, 110, 117,  209–​10 Medina, José, 146–​47, 183 Mitchell, Juliet, 45, 91, 152–​55 Mitchell, W.J.T., 193–​94 Moore, Michael, 25–​26, 29–​30, 33, 63–​65,  67–​68

critical reactions by mainstream film critics, 104–​9,  116–​17 hysterical reactions by conservative critics, 33–​34, 94–​98, 120–​30,  135–​38 Moss, Donald, 75–​76 Mouffe, Chantal, 7–​9, 225–​26   Ngai, Sianne, 166–​68 Nichols, Bill, 66, 69–​70, 99, 162–​63   Obama, Barack, 50–​51, 103–​4 conservative skepticism about, 143–​47,  184–​87 ideological lineage, 148–​52, 172–​75 racist denigration of, 156–​59, 175–​78 Oughourlian, Michel, 65   Panagia, Davide, 186 parody, 30–​32, 49 Pfaller, Robert, 83–​84 Plantinga, Carl, 99–​102 post-​truth, 49,  222–​26   Rancière, Jacques, 52–​53 disagreement, 64 education and ignorance, 130–​33 noise, 11–​12, 98, 109 police, 96–​97,  102–​3 psychoanalysis,  151–​52 Renov, Michael, 66 Robin, Corey, 30–​31, 38–​39 Rose, Jacqueline, 76–​77 Ruti, Mari, 41–​42   Schutzman, Mady, 32–​33, 210, 213–​14 Showalter, Elaine, 40–​41 Stiegler, Bernard, 198–​99   Taylor, Charles, 86 Trump, Donald, 3–​4, 37, 51–​52, 57–​58, 153–​54,  222–​23   Voruz, Véronique, 134–​35   Williams, Linda, 66–​67   Žižek, Slavoj, 112–​13, 122–​23