Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Reality TV Trumps Politics




Lynne Joyrich,
Professor and Chair, Department of Modern Culture and Media, Brown University



Since the early morning of November 9, 2016, when, against almost all expectations and seemingly all logic, Donald Trump was declared the winner of the U.S. presidential election, it has been repeatedly said that the media "failed" the American public.[i] It is true that the great majority of news reporters and political analysts did not predict this result, and thus the more than 71 million television viewers who witnessed Trump's surprising win had good reason to be stunned and shocked.


As not only a television studies scholar but an avid television viewer, I was among those stunned viewers—but while, in a sense, I was shocked, I was not surprised. That is because this election was not at all operating within the logic of previous ones or with what we typically think of as political discourse: a discourse presumably centered on platforms, policy, and arguments for how to achieve certain goals. Instead, it operated fully through a media logic—through, precisely, the "reality televisualization" of political formations[ii]


In that sense, then, the media did not "fail." Rather, the media fully succeeded in producing a particular effect, even if those working in the media didn't quite realize this (and perhaps still haven't). This was not a simple instrumental effect (as in a "hypodermic needle" model of media impact). Instead, it is a kind of televisual epistemology and a televisual affect intertwined, a meshing of modes of thinking and modes of feeling, which has become the "medium" in which our politics now exist (with "medium" here not only referring to a media technology but also used in the scientific sense of the substance in which something lives and is "cultured" and even gesturing toward the occult reference to emanating and auratic sensations and communications).


Within this medium logic of reality televisualization, arguments and proofs don't matter, policy positions and reasoned discourse don't matter, a sense of division between truth and fantasy, real and unreal, and action and appearance doesn't matter. What matters for a candidate is what matters for a "contestant" on reality TV: constructing oneself as a strongly profiled persona—a kind of branded, celebrified image ("Winner!")—while also communicating clearly defined personae for one's opponents ("Lyin' Ted" or "Crooked Hillary"). What works in this reality TV formation, in other words, is the production and enactment of a particular type of personality: a media personality or brand that is able to "survive" on the island or avoid getting "fired," one that can "make it work," to come back and perform the next night instead of getting voted off. This is precisely the staple reality televisual personality, who shows that he or she is able to manage risks and rewards, to balance alliances and betrayals, to "lip-sync for your life," to act out in ways that read as both strategic and authentic—or, as Trump himself put it: to engage in "truthful hyperbole."[iii] By presenting just such a persona, Trump established himself as "the idol," "the voice," "the sole survivor," making it to the end of the "amazing race,"[iv] and garnering votes from an audience used to being asked to make its choice. 



This particular kind of construction of media personality is what, in performance and star studies, is called "personification."[v] Personification involves projecting a persona (both performing the self and "realizing" the performance) in which subject and role, private person and public image, ordinary individual and extraordinary representative become, paradoxically, both equated and equivocated: each acts as alibi for the another or maybe, more accurately, as mutual guarantees (like a product guarantee). The reality television celebrity can thus stand, all at once, for him/herself as subject, for the brand image, and for all the people invited to identify with and "feel" that brand; the persona becomes effective and affective (marked as authentic despite, or even because of, the artifice of invention) through the attachments that connect the personality to his/her public.



A focus on this enhanced persona yields, in other words, a kind of tribal individualism and an individualist tribalism. The loaded term "tribal" comes from reality television itself (where it has been used to divide contestants into and designate teams, with which we, as viewers, are encouraged to affiliate, much like by claiming ourselves on, say, "Team Bethenny" or "Team Kelly" [Real Housewives of New York], "Team Ronnie or Team Situation" [Jersey Shore], Team Jon or Team Kate [Jon & Kate Plus 8]). But the notion of a "tribal individualism"/"individualist tribalism" also perfectly describes Trump's populist nationalism, in which perceived individual success binds his affiliated group together rather than separating them (even with the enormous "real" differences between Trump and his constituents). This is a televisual logic, as television is located at exactly the borders of public and private, individual and social, sameness and strangeness, the everyday and the exceptional, the popular and the particular, the banal and the noteworthy, the fantastic and the real.[vi]


Given Trump's remarkable televisual instincts in manipulating those categories and the media persona he created for himself, his success was not that surprising from a Television Studies perspective. Deciding how to respond to the election is harder. Should those who oppose Trump simply and equally move toward reality televisualization? Should we give up on other modes of political discourse, on critical thinking, and on civic engagement, instead only to operate via the processes of branded and celebrified entertainment? This is not a trend we should embrace, and yet we need to realize that politics aren't operating according to old logics any more. We thus need to engage with media epistemologies and affects, with what Walter Benjamin called "aura" (here, the kind of media-produced aura that he linked to commodity and celebrity culture).[vii] While we certainly can't cede political debate, we can no longer just make arguments. We need also to make felt connections—even ones that may start off feeling forced or "fake" (like, arguably, all reality TV does) but that become, through our involvement itself, a new kind of "real" (real affinity, real participation). In that way, we might at least begin to produce a different kind of "mediation"— an intercession and intervention—in our media-defined politics and culture.

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[i] As just some examples, see Eric Boehlert, "The Media Failed Americans This Election Season," The Huffington Post (November 7, 2016); Rachel Oldroyd, "Donald Trump and the media's 'epic fail,'" The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (November 9, 2016); Matthew Ingram, "Donald Trump: Why the Media Failed to Predict a Trump Victory," Fortune (November 9, 2016); Steve Chapman, "Trump and the media 'failure,'" Chicago Tribune (November 11, 2016); Brian Stelter, "How the Media Failed During the Election" CNN (November 13, 2016); Michael Massing, "How the media failed—again," Los Angeles Times‎ (November 18, 2016); Jeffrey M. McCall, "News media failed the public in 2016 election," The Banner-Graphic (November 17, 2016); and Shellie Karabell, "How and Why the Media Failed the Public," Forbes (November 20, 2016).

[ii] This is a logic that his been building in influence since the presidency of John F. Kennedy (often called the first "television president"), through Ronald Reagan (who, of course, was a film and television actor before becoming president), up to the media-savvy Barack Obama, and now beyond. And, of course, it is not just television that is influential. While my focus in this piece is on the relation between politics and TV, to account fully for the impact of the media on this election and on political discourse more broadly, one would certainly also need to analyze the key role played by digital and social media (in everything from the prevalence of "viral" "fake news" on social media sites to Trump's own use of Twitter) as these converged with television in producing a particular media/political formation.

[iii] "The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion." Donald Trump and Tony Schwartz, Trump: The Art of the Deal (New York: Random House, 1987), p. 58. The fact (as claimed by Schwartz) that the notion of "truthful hyperbole" was developed by Tony Schwartz, not Trump himself, only furthers my argument about the mediatized construction of a persona in which the opposition between "artifice" and "authenticity" no longer holds. See Janet Mayer, "Donald Trump's Ghostwriter Tells All," The New Yorker, July 25, 2016, .

[iv] Reality shows referenced above include Survivor, The Apprentice, Project Runway, American Idol, RuPaul's Drag Race, The Voice, and The Amazing Race, among many other similarly structured programs.

[v] I take this term from Barry King, who differentiates between the work of a "star" and the work of an "actor" on the basis of what he calls "personification" vs. "impersonation." See Barry King, "Stardom as an Occupation," in The Hollywood Film Industry, ed. Paul Kerr (London: Routledge, 1986): 154-84 and Barry King,"Articulating Stardom," in Stardom: Industry of Desire, ed. Christine Gledhill (London: Routledge, 1991), 167–82.

[vi] The various implications of TV operating at these intersections has been the focus of much of my work. See, for example, Lynne Joyrich, "Epistemology of the Console," Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics, ed. Glyn Davis and Gary Needham (New York: Routledge, 2009), 15-47; Lynne Joyrich, "The Magic of Television: Thinking Through Magical Realism in Recent TV," Transformative Works and Culture 3 (2009), http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2009.0165; Lynne Joyrich, "Queer Television Studies: Currents, Flows, and (Main)Streams," Cinema Journal 53.2 (Winter 2014), 133-139; and Lynne Joyrich, "Tubular Vision: The Ins and Outs of Television Studies," New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, second edition, ed. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Anna Watkins Fisher, and Thomas Keenan (New York: Routledge, 2015), 649-664.

[vii] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," translated by Harry Zohn from the 1935 essay, in Illuminations,
 ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 217-51.Harry Zohn from the 1935 essay, in Illuminations,
 ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 217-51.

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