Metaprotesting and the Stewart/Colbert Event

by Rob Horning

27 October 2010

Are Colbert and Stewart exacerbating disillusionment, as so much media coverage tends to, or are they trying to genuinely moderate it and get us to appreciate democratic institutions, including peaceable assembly?

It appears as though I will be in D.C. for the big comedy event being hosted by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. I don’t know anything about it other than it’s happening and that it is supposed to be in praise of moderation, which, as Scott McLemee points out, is a pretty useless aim for a protest: “the anti-ideological spirit of the event is a dead end. The attitude that it’s better to stay cool and amused than to risk making arguments or expressing too much ardor—this is not civility. It’s timidity.” Obviously this won’t be anything like the protests in France or the head stomping in Kentucky. It seems like a naive protest against the very need for protests, against the necessary existence of politics. Basically a futile protest against human fraility.
I’m not sure why so many people are interested in attending this event—perhaps the perception is that it will be a Woodstock-like event encapsulating a shared generational moment, an event whose sole function is to be something that later you can say you were at it. But maybe it will turn out to be an Event beyond ontology, the “gap between two heterogeneous multiplicities.”

I’m only partially joking in invoking Badiou, who has written frequently (and cryptically) about political protest and goes so far as to declare that militant politics is one of the four (why only four?) “truth procedures” that yield subjectivity. He has advocated a “poltics without party”—which is not far from what Stewbert claims to advocate. Badiou argues that a true political event forces “assigning a visible measure to the excessive power of the State,” which under ordinary circumstances remains invisible and is why, for example, we put up with corruption and “politics as usual” despite constantly complaining about it, and why we vote for the least bad option instead of rioting in the streets for different options. Indifference, this pre-emptive sense of defeat many people have in the face of politics, is the effect of power.

Stewart and Colbert are arguably trying to use a paradox to short-circuit this indifference, reveal the State in its power and end the “errancy” of our perceptions of it, to use Badiou’s terms. Once the power is revealed, however, the smooth functioning of its power is interrupted.

The apathy of non-political time is maintained by the State’s not being at a distance, because the measure of its power is errant. We are captives of its unassignable errancy. The political is the interruption of this errancy, it is the demonstration of a measure of State power. It is in this sense that the political is “liberty.” The State is in effect a bondage without measure of the parts of the situation, a bondage of which the secret is precisely the errancy of the excess power, its absence of measure. Liberty is here to set a distance from the State, through the collective fixation of a measure of excess. And if the excess is measured, it is because the collective can measure it.

Bringing a large group of like-minded people together is bound to be good for sending a “message” of some sort, and there will be no shortage of Rorschach readings after the fact. But regardless of the announced intent, it seems like the purpose of getting aloof fans of a TV show to make the highly inconvenient gesture of showing up somewhere is to habituate them to the effort of protest, to radicalize them to some degree, to make them feel the intoxicating, potentially disinhibiting energy of massification. It calls forth a collective identity and reveals the subjectivity possible beyond the limits of individual identity. Whether that is a good thing, or even registers as something different from the awareness of being part of a large TV audience, remains to be seen.

Addendum: Here’s some bonus material from the Paxton essay about fascism I mentioned yesterday. “Programs are so easily sacrificed to expediency in fascist practice that, at one point, I was tempted to reduce the role of ideology in fascism to a simple functionalism: fascists propose anything that serves to attract a crowd, solidify a mass following, or reassure their elite accomplices.” Interesting to consider in relation to a nonideological event touted by the so-called cognitive elite. On the other hand, “Fascism can appear wherever democracy is sufficiently implanted to have aroused disillusion.” Are Colbert and Stewart exacerbating disillusionment, as so much media coverage tends to, or are they trying to genuinely moderate it and get us to appreciate democratic institutions, including peaceable assembly?

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