In 2001-2002, Great Britain, the birthplace of modern democracy, gave the world another institution grounded on the popular vote: the television show “Pop Idol,” which allowed audience members to vote on their favorite amateur singer. Although “Pop Idol” was suspended after its second season, it nevertheless spawned wildly successful imitations throughout the globe, including the US (2002), Australia (2003), Canada (2003), and China (2005), among many others.
Where ever they go, “Pop Idol” spin-offs inevitably inspire comparisons with the democratic process—a phenomenon frequently referred to as “Idol Democracy.” For instance, the press quickly noted that more votes were in “American Idol’s” season finale this past March than have been cast for any single candidate in any US presidential election (Ronald Reagan came closest, in 1984, with 54.4 million). Similarly, when 400 million viewers watched (and 8 million text message votes were cast in) the August 27th finale of the second season of China’s spin-off, “Super Girl” (超级女声), both Chinese and foreign pundits were quick to ask whether this might herald the beginning of a true democratic reform. (For instance, the Economist reported that “A front-page headline last week in the state-run [English-language] Beijing Today put the question with astonishing frankness: “Is Super Girl a Force for Democracy?” [see also here and here). Finally, one of the most intriguing examples of a marriage of “Idol” voting and democracy can perhaps be found in the 2004 British ITV show “Vote for Me,” which used a “Pop Idol” approach to select 10 potential parliamentary candidates.
Although the implications of this sort of Idol-inspired “dial-in democracy” are not without interest, I will focus here instead on the way in which the “Pop Idol” shows underscore two other, somewhat more troubling, facets of modern democracies.
First of all, the emphasis in the “Idol” shows is not merely on the process of selection, but equally importantly on the parallel process of elimination and exclusion. While the selection of elected representatives within a democracy usually also involves an process of rejection (of those candidates who were not selected), more significant is the fundamental process of exclusion on which the democratic process is necessarily grounded. Most obviously, voting rights are limited to citizens, and the bounds of citizenship are tightly policed, both internally, with the exclusion of criminals, minors, etc.; as well as externally, with the exclusion of non-citizens and undocumented aliens. (Not to mention the necessary exclusion, as Jodi implies, of rival models of what form democracy itself might take).
Second, the emphasis, in the “Idol” shows and their brethren, on the disappointment and frustrations of the rejected contestants, mirrors quite precisely the emphasis on feelings of injury and exclusion which underlie many forms of contemporary identity politics. As Wendy Brown argues in States of Injury,
Politicized identity emerges and obtains it unifying coherence through the politicization of exclusion from an ostensible universal, as a protest against exclusion: a protest premised on the fiction of an inclusive/universal community, a protest that thus reinstalls the humanist ideal—and a specific white, middle-class, masculinist expression of this ideal—insofar as it premised itself upon exclusion from it. One of Brown’s central arguments in Injury involves a critique of the way in which minority groups’ struggles to regain certain rights can have the effect of ultimately constraining the limits of the identities which those groups are trying to affirm (as well as sanctioning the role of the Law in adjudicating those rights).
More specifically, Brown argues that what we find at work here is a process of Nietzschean ressentiment, or a morality based on a codification of imaginary revenge which substitutes for direct resistance to an oppressive power:
Developing a righteous critique of power from the perspective of the injured, it [a politics of ressentiment] delimits a specific site of blame for suffering by constituting sovereign subjects and events as responsible for the “injury” of social subordination. It fixes the identities of injured and the injuring as social positions, and codifies as well the meanings of their action as against all possibilities of indeterminacy, ambiguity, and struggle for resignification or repositioning.
Rather than being overcome, therefore, the injuries which these subordinated groups are protesting instead may come to define them (which is part of the reason, for instance, why many women attempt to distance themselves from the narrow political goals and normative identities implicit in many feminist movements).
However, Brown’s reliance on a theory of ressentiment to make this critique introduces a potential paradox, insofar as any theory of ressentiment, as Fredric Jameson reminds us in Political Unconscious, is necessarily recursive:
What is most striking about the theory of ressentiment is its unavoidably autoreferential structure. . . . [The] theory of ressentiment, wherever it appears, will always itself be the expression and the production of ressentiment.
That is to say, insofar as ressentiment describes a morality grounded on imaginary revenge against a superior force, a theory of ressentiment can be seen as precisely an example of such theoretical morality, wherein the “superior force” is none other than an earlier ressentiment-based morality which has subsequently become hegemonic and oppressive (like Christianity, for instance).
Although Brown’s argument is too specific and nuanced to lend itself to a simple inversion (e.g., to allow us to posit that Brown’s theory is itself a form of ressentiment against the oppressive power of identity politics….), this inherent invertability of Nietzsche’s model does, nevertheless, underscore an important tension within Brown’s writing.
This tension can be most clearly observed if we consider the figure of Socrates, whom Nietzsche identifies, in Twilight of the Idols, as perhaps the quintessential dialectician of ressentiment: “Does he, as one oppressed, enjoy his own ferocity in the knife-thrusts of his syllogisms? Does he avenge himself on the noble people whom he fascinates?”
In States of Injury (1995), Brown notes that “Socrates becomes Nietzsche’s prime example of (plebeian) ressentiment—“One chooses dialectic only when one has no other means…. Is dialectic only a form of revenge for Socrates?” Here, Brown is specifically pointing to Socrates’ attempt to assert a space for his theorizing outside the boundaries of conventional power—a quality which she argues is intrinsic to Nietzschean ressentiment:
In Nietzsche’s telling , the supreme strategy of morality based on ressentiment –the source of its triumph over two thousand years—is denial that it has an involvement with power, that it contains a will to power or seeks to (pre)dominate….
Instead of following Socrates’ model, Brown argues that feminists (and other progressive groups) must reject this myth of morality’s independence from power, and asks rhetorically, “What would be required for us to live and work politically without such myths, without claiming that our knowledge is uncorrupted by a will to power, without insisting that out truths are less partial and more moral than ‘theirs?’”
Ten years later, Brown returns to the figure of Socrates in Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (2005), where she now speaks approvingly of the Socrates’ separation of critique from politics:
Reconceived by Socrates as a philosophical activity both deriving from and producing individual virtue, even critique that involved discerning the nature of political justice was hived off from the political-juridical domain…. Thus critique loses its jurisprudential and political status and comes to be constituted as viable only at a certain remove from political life. Paradoxically, Socrates depicts critique both as inherently marginalized and neutered by politics if it refuses this remove, and yet as politically potent if it can ascertain the right degree of remove.
Although this discussion is embedded within Brown’s larger criticism of “contemporary characterizations of critique as disinterested, distanced, negating, or academic,” she nevertheless appears to support Socrates’ attempt to locate critique at a “right degree of remove” from politics.
What, then, is the relationship Brown’s critique of Socrates’ “myth” of morality’s independence from power as an illustration of Nietzschean resssentiment, on the one hand, and her subsequent apparent approval of Socrates’ attempt to locate critique at a “right degree of remove” from politics, on the other? At issue, perhaps, is a distinction between a focus on abstract knowledge, and localized critique, or between abstract power and specific political-juridical structures. Nevertheless, the tension between these two formulations would also appear to underscore an inherent contingency in the relationship between power and critique, together with the role of ressentiment in mediating between the two.
These questions of morality’s relationship to power, and the paradoxical nature of ressentiment, together the logic of exclusion on which it is grounded, are foregrounded particularly clearly in the line of reality shows which itself helped spawn the “Pop Idol” phenomenon: “Survivor”—which debuted in Sweden under the name “Expedition Robinson” in 1997, but spread virally to media markets throughout the world.
As it well-known, the basic premise of “Survivor” is that 16 or more contestants are placed in some remote location, divided (initially) into two competing “tribes,” instructed to perform challenging tasks, and at the end of each episode one contestant is voted off the show by secret ballot. The process of elimination is particularly pernicious because it has the contestants themselves eliminate one of their own peers (indeed, in the inaugural season of the original Swedish show, the first contestant to be eliminated committed suicide shortly afterwards).
The sinister beauty of the show, however, is that the final winner is selected by a pool of contestants who have been voted off most recently. Therefore, in order to succeed, contestants must not only maneuver to have their peers help vote off their strongest opponents, but furthermore to do so in such a way that, at the time of the final vote, they can capitalize on the sense of injury and ressentiment of those who have already been eliminated.
The classic example of how to walk this line can be found in the figure of the corporate trainer Richard Hatch, the winner of the inaugural (2000) US version. Hatch very aggressively formed coalitions with other contestants, skillfully arranging to have his most dangerous rivals eliminated early. When it came down to him and his last competitor, Kelly Wiglesworth, however, Hatch’s speech to the last seven contestants to be eliminated essentially asked for their vote on the grounds that his actions had been predicated on strategy, rather than morality :
I don't think you really know who I am. I certainly had a strategy and I came to play the game. For me, instead of who's the better person, it is really about who played the game better…. My approach to the game has been one of strategy. It certainly didn't turn out according to plan. ... But I was playing a game. I wouldn't change anything that I did and I trust you will respect what I did to play the game….
This speech is deservedly famous, as it adroitly transposes the excluded contestants’ feeling of frustration and resentment into a tool for Hatch’s own purposes, and effectively elides any distinction between tactics and ethics (an elision which, Brown argues in Edgework, is also characteristic of neoliberalism, as it “submits every aspect of political and social life to economic calculation…”). Indeed, as Hatch himself concludes (with no apparent irony):
I think I played as ethically as is humanly possible.
(Cross-posted at Long Sunday)