“A Politics about Performing Dreams”: An Interview with Stephen Duncombe

DREAM: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy by Stephen Duncombe

Stephen Duncombe is a long-time activist and a professor of at the Gallatin School at New York University.  His new book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy urges progressives to tap into popular fantasies and desires and to develop a politics that imagines and embodies a better world rather than simply “speaking truth.”  To clarify his point, he enlists a wildly eclectic group — everything from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Las Vegas to Cindy Sheehan and the Billionaires for Bush.  I interviewed him over email.

Dream is unusual as a fusion of ideas drawn from activism and from academic theory.  Can you talk a little about your background as an activist and what actions and ideas inspired Dream?

I’ve been an activist since I was 18 and organized a campaign to try and get the State University of New York to divest its South African investments.  I also grew up in an activist household: my father was a Civil Rights activist in the 1950s and 60s.  In fact, an ACLU lawsuit revealed that the phone in my house was tapped by the FBI.  (One can only imagine what banal conversation they listened to as I talked to my friends about play dates).

Even though I grew up in a political household, my own political awakening happened through my immersion in the punk rock scene of the late 70s and early 80s.  This really shaped my understanding of politics as it convinced me of the importance of vibrant culture and expression in political activity.

Dream came out of a lot of conversations and demonstrations, or rather a lot of conversations about demonstrations.  As I said, I’ve been doing politics since I was a teenager and I’m now just 40 — that’s a lot of meetings and demonstrations I’ve gone to.  Most were deadly dull: sit around and talk, then go out and march, chant a bit, then listen to other people talk, then sit down and get arrested.  For a movement ostensibly about people power I found a lot of Left meetings and demonstrations pretty disempowering.

And I wasn’t the only one.  In the late 1990s I co-founded the Lower East Side Collective, a community activist group, and was an organizer with the international direct action group, Reclaim the Streets.  Both these groups were filled with activists who were hungry for a different sort of Left politics.  A politics that was creative, imaginative, and fun. A  politics that prefigured the world we wanted to bring into being.  A politics about performing dreams.

You begin with the remark that Ron Suskind drew out of a Bush administration figure, which I’m sure many progressives recall: the derision of the “reality-based” community as opposed to those in the Bush administration who “create reality.”  You suggest that progressives drew the wrong conclusions from this remark.  Explain.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been, but I was still shocked by the number of progressives who considered the Bush administration’s admission that they strove to “create reality” evidence of their dangerous insanity.  Isn’t this what progressives are supposed to be doing: creating reality?  What were the movements for democracy, socialism, anarchism, civil rights, feminism, and queer rights if not attempts to “make reality”?  After all, who’s remembered for “I have a dream?”  Somehow the Left had gotten to the place where it was defending reality and leaving the dreaming up to the neo-cons.  The lesson we should have drawn from this quote was that we had better get busy with some reality creating ourselves.

You don’t simply advocate that progressives learn from popular culture; you focus on aspects of it that progressives are likely to find appalling — Las Vegas, the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, celebrity gossip, a commercial for McDonald’s.  What can we learn from them?  What would you say to progressives who would claim that they demonstrate little more than that capitalism unleashes a drive toward the lowest common denominators of sex, violence, addiction, instant gratification?

I purposely picked examples of commercial culture that most progressives (including myself) find appalling.  But I also used these examples because they are very popular.  And if progressive politics are ever to be popular, then we have to learn how to speak to — some of — the popular desires and fantasies now given expression in things like Las Vegas and video games.  Some desires can not and should not be addressed — the violence and misogyny of many video games for instance, but some should: the joy in mastery and the freedom to explore that video games offer players.

A century ago William James gave a speech on the “Moral Equivalent of War.”  James, who was a pacifist, argued that unless pacifists recognized that war spoke to legitimate, and even admirable, desires like honor, community, and sacrifice, and then fashioned some sort of anti-war outlet for these desires, pacifism would have no popular appeal.  That essay, which I read with a War Resisters League reading group nearly twenty years ago, stuck with me.  What I’m arguing for is much the same thing as James: a progressive equivalent to commercial culture.

Because we live in a democracy and because progressives (should) believe in a system that speaks for and to the people, we need to pay a lot of attention to popular culture.  This doesn’t mean we should embrace a faux populism and throw on our NASCAR hats, but it does means respecting and learning from popular culture . . . and then fashioning progressive political equivalents.

The concept of “spectacle” is at the heart of Dream.  For most left thinkers, it is a very negative term.  If I remember my Debord, he calls it something like “capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images.”  The book Afflicted Powers, which sought to revive Situationist thought, also uses it negatively (and condemns the entirety of the popular culture industries).  Yet you call for an ethical spectacle.  Explain.

It’s our experience with spectacles we don’t like — Nazi rallies, Bush landing in a flight suit on the USS Lincoln, or Entertainment Tonight — that, understandably, leads us to  reject spectacle writ large.  This is a mistake.  If we simply reject spectacle outright we deed a major means of expression — one that is increasingly ubiquitous in our world — over to the other side.

Besides, all politics is spectacle — just some of it is bad spectacle.  Marches, rallies, press conferences are spectacles — even tabling for a cause is spectacle.  We need to recognize these things as spectacle and give spectacle serious thought in order to, one, make our spectacles more effective and, two, and more important, do spectacle ethically — open, transparent, participatory, revealing the real — instead of merely copying what the other side does.

But I think there’s another reason that the Left looks askance at spectacle.  We are creatures of the Enlightenment and have a deep abiding faith that politics should be about reason and rationality.  And maybe it should, but it isn’t: it’s about dreams and desires.  Reason and desire, rationality and fantasy don’t have to be odds with one another, but they will be unless we figure out to marry the two sides.  This is what I try to do with my ethical spectacle.

As for Debord: What I call ethical spectacle he called “Situations,” so we’re actually not that far apart.

Can you expand a bit on what you mean by an “ethical spectacle”?

By ethical spectacle I mean a spectacle that adheres to principles that most progressives hold to: democracy, egalitarianism, community, a belief that the future can be better than the present, and, perhaps ironically, a fealty to reality.

In Dream I identify a number of characteristics of an ethical spectacle.  In brief, these progressive spectacles need to be participatory, that is, they have to count on the participation of people, not merely their spectatorship.  Following from this, the ethical spectacle needs to be open to the direction that these participants may take it.  It also needs to be transparent.  In other words it must be a spectacle that people know is a spectacle and that is not mistaken for reality.  Progressive spectacle must also be rooted in the real: a performance of reality rather than its replacement, and it must be tied to real, material results.  Finally, and this is a bit more complicated, the ethical spectacle should represent a dream — something that we know isn’t real but that motivates us nonetheless.

You suggest that progressives lack a vision, a clear (or even fuzzy) alternative to the present arrangement.  Yet arguably more people than ever before are at work developing models of market or participatory socialism, not to mention more modest proposals about health care, social security, child-rearing, etc.  What do you think accounts for this disconnect?

I think you are absolutely correct — but unfortunately most of these dreamers aren’t working as hard on their presentation.  It’s that old Enlightenment faith that if the truth is told it will be self-revelatory; the scales will fall from the people’s eyes and they will agree with us.  Now that‘s a fantasy.  Truth needs to be told and sold, it needs to be yelled from the mountaintops.  It needs to be performed — and that brings us back to the ethical spectacle.

One concern about the activism you champion in Dream.  Most of what you describe is produced by small groups that appear to be a hybrid of artists and activists.  But it seems likely that, to produce far ranging transformations, movements of tens of thousands, if not millions of people will be necessary.  What is the relation between the former and the latter?

I believe that this — presently marginal — way of seeing and doing politics has great promise for more mainstream appeal.  Look at how many people go to Las Vegas, read celebrity magazines, play video games, and so on.  This is an immense pool of fantasy and desire waiting to be tapped into.

We saw the beginnings of how the Left could tap into this in the massive anti-globalization protests, like those in Seattle, which were more akin to carnivals than traditional march and chant protests; coming from a different angle you can see the immense popularity of groups like MoveOn which tap into peoples desires to directly (albeit virtually) participate in politics.

From the 1930s to the 80s the far Right was marginalized; “we were wandering in the desert” as Karl Rove put it.  In that desert those marginal activists dreamed wild dreams; they were not satisfied with accepting reality, they wanted to create it.  It’s only when the Republican Party started to listen to these marginal, small groups that Republicans came to power.  Maybe the Democrats need to do the same thing.

Steven Sherman is a sociologist who lives in Carrboro, North Carolina.   He maintains the website lefteyeonbooks.org.  He can be reached at threehegemons@hotmail.com.

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