Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Towards A New Aesthetics Of Democracy

Last November Ackbar Abbas at Visual Democracy: Image Circulation and Political Culture (Northwestern University) read a paper titled 'Disappointing Vision: Hong Kong Cinema and Democracy.' In this he detailed a movement in Hong Kong cinema where aesthetic strategies are being employed that defeat or deny the usual expectations of Western audiences. In an action film members of the triads infiltrate the police and members of the police infiltrate the triads until it becomes increasingly impossible to tell who is good and who is bad. Everyone is corrupted and ultimately the hero dies. In a love story, the two protagonists yearn for each other but for a number of reasons, many of them mundane, never are able to consummate their desire and they remain in unfulfilled longing throughout. The film ends as it began, with both of them separate and alone. They can see each other,but can never bridge the gap.

At the heart of this cinematic work is a break down of Western aesthetics which typically involve a formal resolution and predictable narrative arc in which audiences get to experience a happy ending, or if not that, at least a cathartic cry. In either case, the end involves a kind of release. In these films those Western expectations are replaced with disappointment, ambiguity and lack of fulfillment. I had the good fortune to sit next to Abbas at dinner the night that he read his paper and to carry on the conversation further. His central premise is that any aesthetic depiction of democracy must include an element of disappointment, for no plural society can meet all the needs of all the people all the time. Now having watched many months of presidential primaries continually played out across the media, his paper keeps coming back in its immediate relevance.

Our current aesthetic strategies in depicting democratic life, with their resolved story lines, tight plots and lush, internally consistent visuals reinforce the idea that in the American Dream, you can have everything that you want. While this might be true for a very few select individuals, for the vast majority of us the reality is the exact opposite. The cost of democracy is compromise. In a pluralistic society no one, or at least very, very few, can have everything that they want. As long as there is room for diversity within the electorate, then the elements in opposition must always come into conflict and the resolution is found in compromise. A true aesthetic of democracy must be one that embraces disappointment within its formal structures.

In the United States, democracy is played out in a competition of competing narratives in which each tries to assert its supremacy over the others and claim its position as the uber-narrative. This betrays the more mundane practice of democracy in which the politics are most frequently worked out in compromise, not in supremacy. And compromise always involves a sense of loss. Each compromise is a reminder that the complete story is not resolved. Our story can't be everybody's story. We most often can't have everything we want and must settle for something short of it.

Our government is set up to guarantee that this is the case. The founders of the constitution wrote the balances of power into place so that no single agency should be able to take complete control of the narrative. In a true democracy each individual voice should have equal value and should have equal place in the public square. We obviously fall short of this goal and it would impossible to completely explore why here. But I would offer that part of the failing is in our aesthetic understanding of the American Dream. So long as that image of the American Dream is depicted in grand, glorious, unified terms, there can be only one narrative that rules the show, and so each of the stories must compete in public, not just to be heard, but for their very survival. It is a sort of aesthetic cage match in which the promised prize is the imposition of your narrative onto the entire country.

Abbas is from Hong Kong and is writing about Hong Kong cinema which is set against the background of centuries of Buddhism in which good and evil are contained within the same aesthetic structure. In the West, cultural and religious practices have developed narratives in which good and evil are in a death struggle where there can be only one victor. This binary belief system is played out in American politics with the demonization of the Other. So long as we see our political opponents as evil, then we must play out this struggle, moving towards domination and annihilation of the opponent. An aesthetic of democracy in which the end is always happy, the story is resolved and consistent, and the visuals are beautiful and strong can never bring us to accept that we will always be headed for compromise. This aesthetic pushes us towards the battle not to the bargaining table.

Aesthetic innovations in the west further entrench us in this position. Notions of single point perspective and a singular view point have been embedded in the skeleton of western aesthetics since the Renaissance. With development of the single perspective came the experience of seeing the world consistently from one single position. Previously, multiple perspectives could exist in a single picture plane, but with single point perspective comes an aesthetic resolution in which all other perspectives are excluded. The political consequences of this are significant, for if we can only picture our world through a single lens, how can we possibly come up with the room necessary for the plurality of perspectives needed to depict contemporary culture?

Of all the Western democracies, the United States is the largest, most diverse and most conflicted. We need new aesthetic structures that include disappointment, compromise, failure, and lack of resolution if we are to picture a country in which we are a plurality struggling to exist under a single governing body. Without the aesthetic vehicle for picturing the frequency and normalcy of these less desirable outcomes, which are likely if not inevitable, the perception of democracy is somewhat distorted. We are saying that we are a plurality while we depict ourselves as homogeneous and triumphant. The homogeneity isn't in the subject matter. Certainly photographs of diverse groups of people are so common now that they are banal. What is universal is the underlying aesthetic of the vision--grand colorful visuals that reinforce power and clarity. While the subjects depicted may be diverse, they are all depicted through the same lens, and the way of seeing is singularly homogeneous and defeating to a democratic vision of pluralism.

No comments: