Politics as theatre? More!

Chris Dillow complains that too many journalists treat politics as theatre.

This reminded me of a book. I recently found my copy of J.G. Ballard’s A User’s Guide to the Millennium, his collected essays and criticism, after moving churned it up to the top of my library. A major theme of these writings, especially the essays that appeared in the early 1990s in the Independent on Sunday and the Sunday Times, is precisely the importance of taking the unserious seriously – the theatrical and performative elements of public life, the cultural forms critics don’t bother with. An earlier raft of essays, from 1962 to the late 1970s, sets out the agenda for what became the New Wave of science fiction, in many ways importing the insights of the post-structuralists and post-modernists into the genre. As such, the two themes are closely related.

If we did take the theatre of politics – its rituals, style tropes, and techniques – with due seriousness we’d probably be reading something like this. After all, critics have a sophisticated intellectual apparatus available to help them dismantle the fictions film-makers and authors construct. However, the Ballard essays are also a reminder of what we have lost.

By the time he was regularly being commissioned by the Sundays, one particular media war was already over – the prestige of the news pages had passed to TV and the action had moved onto the colour supplement, which provided the scope to create on a large scale. At the Tate’s Don McCullin retrospective, I was astonished to see that when the Sunday Times commissioned him to photograph the Biafran War, it hired none other than Chinua Achuebe to write the accompanying articles, an almost papal mobilization of talent. The bylines in User’s Guide are a reminder of this – the papers (the Sindy, the Sunday Times, and to a lesser extent the Telegraph) that invested the most were the ones who commissioned these pieces.

This wasn’t, however, the last word. There was a cheaper way to keep the ads apart, and the doctrine that politics was mere theatre suited it perfectly. That was the rise of the columnists and the evolution of the hot take. The lessons that a large element of public life was ritual, and that much of what was presented as fact was narrative, were repackaged as statements that in that case, anything went so long as it was entertaining. The editor, in this model, became the manager of a portfolio of opportunities to achieve outrage. Shorter and cheaper formats made for greater diversification and a better per-issue chance of hitting the jackpot. In many ways, the opinion pages and the surprisingly revived magazines like the Spectator had already internalized what are thought to be very modern response-optimizing practices long before the Internet advertising industry created the response metrics that now underly them. This is why they, not the real newspapers, prosper today.

This is an important point in User’s Guide. The glossy stock and suave prose of the big supplements now seems ancient, but the era these were written in is still ours. The fascination with TV seems dated, but then:

But how could a man so intellectually third-rate, an empty stage-set of a personality across which moved cartoon figures, dragon ladies and demons of the evil empire, ever have become president of the world’s most powerful nation? Was the image everything now, and who would be next – Colonel Sanders, Jimmy Osmond, Donald Duck? Is the USA so strong and so soundly constituted, so effectively ruled by its great bureaucracies, that politics and the presidency are an entertaining irrelevancy?
Boris Johnson was recruited by the Telegraph‘s insufficiently repentant editor Max Hastings at the same time as he commissioned Ballard. It was also, of course, already the era of Donald Trump, and we’re all living through an experiment in answering Ballard’s second question.

The big change, though, is that when Trump reaches for his greasy tweeting-iron churning with God knows how many different viruses, rather than changing the channel, he changes the news. Rather than the media imposing its preferences on us, the multiplying feedback infrastructure created since User’s Guide was written permits us to impose our preferences on it, and therefore on others. That in itself is something Ballard might have invented (in some of the essays he comes close to predicting it) and something whose consequences we couldn’t study seriously enough.

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