Canadian philosopher Brian Massumi once argued that despite being a dull-witted, inept speaker, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan used a series of jerky and erratic gestures to produce a feeling of excited confusion amongst voters. His supporters could feel Reagan’s leadership through his rapid movement, assertive voice and confidence, turning a bad actor and seemingly unqualified candidate into the “Great Communicator” and two-term president.
Like Massumi’s description of Reagan, the remarkable power of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is derived from his ability to manipulate what’s called “human affect,” producing powerful feelings of awe and bewilderment as he bounces in and out of our lives through his sensational media appearances. While “emotions” like sadness, happiness or anger are social and can be recognized in the world, “affects” are sets of bodily movements or vibrations that are felt before they are registered or identified.
The affective brilliance of Trump lies precisely in the fact that his message is communicable simply through his presence. What comes out of Trump’s mouth barely seems to matter anymore — his disjointed sentences, made-up words, fictitious facts, contradictions, lies, and interruptions make about as much sense with the screen on mute.
Yet, in the cluttered mess of Trump’s speeches, something else is happening. Rather than paying attention to his words, we are getting an immediate sense of a man who is big, perhaps even larger than life. He doesn’t strike us as particularly intelligent. As a matter of fact, he seems quite stupid — yet somehow he is running for president with millions of followers.
He is a racist, but insists that he is loved by “The Blacks” and “The Latinos.” He has openly confessed to being a sex offender, yet insists that he is loved and respected by all women. The distinctions between good and evil, truth and lies, evaporate, and voters are left with the throbbing feeling that the man flailing around and yelling on their television screen may somehow be able to make things better.
It’s no secret that a politician’s politics no longer fully account their success. Blinded by a constant bombardment of information, we have come to make sense of the world by way of “affect,” by trying to feel our way through the vast and ruinous expanses of unstable information that saturate our environment. Cutting. Zapping. Interrupting.
These are the motions that produce feelings of attachment and warmth in the cold world of the postmodern info-blitz. Voices of reason and logical argumentation are drowned out by the cacophony of it all, creating a paradox in which B-actors, media moguls, reality TV personalities, and even the Terminator himself are better equipped for politics than the figures we formerly knew as politicians.
Remember when the city of Toronto elected Rob Ford as its mayor? Remember when the nation of Italy elected Silvio Berlusconi as its Prime Minister? Four times? Why is it that qualified candidates often seem to finish last in politics?
In the enlightening 200th episode of The Simpsons, “Trash of the Titans,” the family’s lovably idiotic patriarch Homer decides to run against the town’s highly qualified Sanitation Commissioner. At first things start off disastrously — obnoxious and stupid, Homer is incapable of earning so much as the votes of his close friends.
Yet, after coming up with a catchy slogan for his campaign, Homer begins to override the public’s intellectual and emotional responses with the same series of erratic, jerky gestures Massumi cites in Reagan. In a series of public appearances, Homer establishes an affectively compelling political persona by miming the labourious gestures of garbage disposal, making outlandish statements about his opponent, unfeasible promises and instilling patriotic fear amongst Springfield’s citizens.
In response, Homer’s opponent offers the crowd an ultimatum: to vote for him if they want an experienced public servant, or to vote for the “sleazy lunatic” running against him. You can probably guess what follows. The sleazy lunatic wins in a landslide, ultimately destroying the entire town of Springfield in his first month.
“Trash of the Titans” offers a shockingly apt lesson in postmodern politics — namely that our attractions to the affective impulses given off by politicians can lead to toxic situations.
Yet, the real brilliance of the episode lies in the fact that it manages to avoid the crucial mistake made over and over by the left in such instances. Rather than resorting to belittling and alienating gestures such as blaming Springfield’s voters for their ignorance, false consciousness or poor conditions of life, the show demonstrates the persuasiveness of affect in mobilizing political action. Moreover, the show demonstrates that affect can override ideology. In a trance-like state of affective attraction, nobody stops to question Homer’s ridiculous promises until the damage is already done.
Rather than continuing to see the growing rise of right-wing populism as an ideological concern and subsequently blaming voters for their capitulation to problematic belief systems, I suggest we might benefit from working toward making leftist politics more affectively compelling.
This is a difficult task for the left, which cannot resort to making unrealistic claims and provocative statements using minority scapegoats to create illusions of populism and change in times of crisis. Yet, even if the “master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” I suggest that maybe, just maybe, the master’s tools can be repurposed into something capable of even greater change. A feeling, perhaps.
Unlike the ending of The Simpsons episode in which the entire town is relocated to a nearby destination, real cities and countries can’t be relocated when they turn into garbage dumps. And the disposal system of political trash is a tedious process that stinks up the place for years before it’s clean again. Remember that.
Alican Koc is a writer, researcher and musician based in Toronto. Studying affect, subcultural aesthetics, and popular culture, he recently received his Master of Arts at the University of Toronto.
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