The Politics Of The Word And The Politics Of The Eye

Stephen Turner wrote in 2003:

* Weltanschauung is a term that best fits commonalities of opinion and belief that are the product of words, and particularly printed words, and even more particularly, printed words used in connection with a particular set of social technologies. Weltanschauungen are a product of the information technology of the 19th century, particularly of newspapers, a technology marked by its lack of reliance on images, and therefore on seeing.

Contemporary politics, however, is a politics of the eye. The politics of the eye is different from the politics of the word: images work in different ways than words; they make claims on our primordial sense of solidarity that words do not make. Our own political world is increasingly a world of images, or more broadly of virtual experiences, often partly constituted by images. I give some examples of this, suggest some ways in which the politics of the word and the eye interact, and, rather than to propose a theory of the eye, plead for the irreducibility of the eye to the word, and reject attempts to ‘theorize the eye’ as a new ideological formation or worldview.

* ‘If the embryo is held to be a fetus, then it becomes socially permissible for women to subordinate their reproductive roles to other roles, particularly in the paid labor force’; holding an embryo to be a person ‘is to make a social statement that pregnancy is valuable and that women should subordinate other parts of their lives to that central aspect of their social and biological selves’ (1984: 8). A decision about the status of the embryo ‘enhances the resources held by one group and devalues the resources held by the other’.

* A worldview is erected on a base of interest. The interests, however, are not material interests, but are ‘deeper, broader, and more subtle. People see in the abortion issue a simultaneously pragmatic, symbolic, and emotional representation of states of social reality – states that they find reassuring or threatening’ (Luker, 1984: 7). Different people find different things reassuring or threatening, and the interests in this dispute are essentially in seeing their lives valued. Thus people with different kinds of lives are differentially threatened or reassured by different beliefs about the status of embryos. Their interest is in a belief that validates them, reassures them about the kinds of lives they have chosen…

* The totalitarians, as Carl Schmitt so nicely pointed out, caused trouble for parliamentary democracy while they were still ‘parties’ competing in a nominally liberal political system because they created a world in which a totalizing social experience was supplied by a party. Everything from automobile clubs to childcare was available in party-specific forms. These efforts were designed to protect party members from intellectual contamination. The striking similarity to the present is in the reemergence of what might be called viewpoint-specific social institutions of this kind in common with niche politics: gay traffic violation schools in California and feminist daycare facilities. But these are hardly comparable. The social insulation of niche identities is incomplete; the attempt to provide a comprehensive account of the world and its events is feeble. Instead, a comfort zone is enforced, and a slant on salient issues is precariously constructed.

Party papers were unable to make a transition to the postwar period in Europe without making very substantial concessions to the machinery of the production of world events, events which were the product of state actions which were themselves increasingly didactic, actions designed to serve as ideological object lessons. States thus usurped the ideological functions of parties and newspapers, but by replacing acts needing interpretation with acts that carried their own interpretations. But state action was typically accompanied by images that gave the lie to the intended meanings. The sheer availability of images of burning Buddhist monks in Vietnam, for example, made it impossible for defenders of the war to give a convincing interpretation of the events of Vietnam. The power of images has a technological base, closely related first to the rise of photojournalism and second to the rise of television. The availability of these media proved to be a powerful equalizer in a sense that the opponents of a dominant mode of representation need only to produce an arresting image to undermine interpretation. The production of ideology or worldviews is curiously weak in the face of these images. Anything that requires talk, concentration, belief, and so forth as both fascist and communist ideology did, and which their paler imitations in the Cold War period also did, cannot compete cognitively with the sheer visual impact of a tank running down a Chinese student in Tian an Men Square or a monk immolating himself. These images, however, do very little to create ideologies, much less worldviews.

* The movement in the United States for the protection of legalized abortion has concerned itself with the suppression of images of fetuses, knowing that the images are a potentially powerful means of undermining its own accounts of such questions as when does life start. Yet images are not merely corrosive of ideology. They are in a complex way a surrogate for ideology. It would be too reductive to say that the ideology of a Clinton or Thatcher was constructed on visual images and visual expressions woven together to provide justification for policies, a set of definitions of enemies and victims, and so forth. Visual images obviously are only part of the story. But it is less implausible to suggest that the constructions that politicians and ideologists provide in an age of visualization (and perhaps more importantly of emotional immediacy) are driven by the images (and the demand for emotional immediacy that the images provide).

* Statecraft is essentially constrained by these images; worldviews are rendered fragile by them. The show trials of Stalin, one suspects, could not have taken place on television. The ordinary humanity of the individuals involved could be made to vanish in print; seeing the faces of the victims would have sufficed to delegitimate the process. Even Milosevic can appear as a sympathetic person, and indeed has come to seem more complex and perhaps even to seem justified as a result of his televised trial.

* The problem for would-be hegemonic worldviews is this uncontrollability of images and the potential that images have for disrupting and undermining the sympathies and dissympathies on which worldviews in some sense rest. Images do not always work in predictable ways when they engage our sympathies, and they do not always engage our sympathies in a single direction. The repeated picturing of the horrors of the Oklahoma City bombing represent an image that could have gone either way. It broke against the militia movement and the mentality it represented, allowing them to be stigmatized, just as the very compelling, images of the government destroying the Koresh complex failed to produce sympathy for the authorities. All these failures result from the uncontrollability of images, the uncontrollability that needs to be understood at the level of the emotional roots of solidarity. The politics of the eye produces its own characteristic forms of solidarity and its own novel political possibilities, because it produces new possibilities of solidarity.

* The kinds of thin ideologies that it is possible to construct today are dependent on these vividly emotional contents, particularly of suffering and victimhood and the capacities of empathetic identification that are invoked by these images.

* All politics, all worldviews, have an emotional, solidaristic core. The emotional core is often, in a sense of injury, a sense of justice denied, a sense of right, an agonistic sense. Rudolph von Ihering taught this lesson many years ago in his greatly influential 19th century work The Struggle for Law (1915). The motive force for the evolution of law was in the recognition of injury and the consequent demand for rights to protect against the injury. This is a model with limitations, but fundamentally useful, in that the process of formulating demands of recognition begins at an inchoate and emotionally chaotic level in which contradictions, such as contradictions between explicit ruling doctrine and felt realities, are most strongly felt. Obviously the pinch of these contradictions happens at a particular point, most strongly in the experiences of a particular marginalized group whose response to the order may well be largely visceral and unintellectualized.

Gradually these hurts acquire ideologists. The technology of the word is spread by them to others whose sympathies could be engaged. Solidarity, beyond the solidarity of the face-to-face world, was closely bound up with ideology, or with shared identities that depended on print. It is no accident that modern nationalism followed print and is characteristically associated with national literatures. There is no sharp line between the literary and visual production of sympathy and solidarity. The production of sympathy itself is often a matter of the creation of intermediate images, images or ideas that do something to transcend the gap between those with whom we have face-to-face and intimate relations and those we do not.

Its very effectiveness works against it as a political weapon, simply because the demands that it places on our sympathies are so varied, unrelenting, and contradictory. Yet this I think is the key to the present state of the emotional core of politics. What is difficult to grasp is the existential situation of functioning in a world in which constant and contradictory demands are placed on one’s sympathy. But one can identify some features of this situation. The first is that the person subjected to these varied solidaristic appeals becomes a consumer rather than a simple ‘sharer’ of worldviews.

In the United States, it was traditional for candidates to eat ethnic food, wear bits of ethnic costume, and the like. Clinton, in contrast, told the people he spoke to that he felt their pain – not a mere generalized pain, but the specific pain of a form of shared experience of victimization. This is telling. The virtual recreation of experience, of sympathetic identification, is extraordinarily effective with experiences of injustice and victimhood. The Anita Hill testimony, for example, brought forth a complex response – a thin sense of solidaristic identity over sexist workplace slights which the male Senatorial questioners of Hill ‘did not get’, in the language of the time, but also a thicker, more nuanced sense of identity among black males, many of whom saw Hill along with those who testified in support of her as representative of the traditional enemies of black males, something that the women’s movement did not get.’

* The politics of the word provides very little comfort against the flood of images demanding our sympathies. Ideological politics seems phoney, inadequate, and emotionally dishonest. The production of ideology or of ‘word’ politics can adapt to the demands of this market, but typically survives by marketing to niches…

* The politics of the eye is a solvent of worldviews. It is also an engine of tolerance, tolerance dictated by the sympathetic pull of the various images that arise in the flood of images constitutes the politics of the eye.

* The visual representations of the act itself [9-11] were also widely distributed in the Islamic world, and produced, or illuminated, a kind of thin, nonideological solidarity. Spontaneous demonstrations with the demonstrators holding up reproductions of Bin Laden’s image took place, and T-shirts were sold with his picture. The ideological unreadability of this solidarity was its most striking feature. Although there is a large and confusing Islamist literature, and Bin Laden was an ideologist of the return to the Caliphate, this had little or no connection to the sense of solidarity in the Islamic world. The solidaristic sense was based on a much more visual sense of revenge, outrage, and pride at having bloodied the nose of those who had failed to give Islam the deference it was due.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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