Stephen Duncombe: Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in An Age of Fantasy

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Dunscombe, Stephen. "Politics in An Age of Fantasy." In Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in An Age of Fantasy, 1-27. London: The New Press, 2007.

Key Words: dreampolitik, affect with effect, persuasion, reality-based paradigm, empiricism, Enlightenment ideals, political insignificance, spectacular vernacular, reality and fantasy as co-existent Other Words: service economy, scripts, popular emotionality, fantasy, fantasmagoric terrain of politics, dreamscape, mythmaking, dreaming, winning, risks, making a convincing case, progressives, conservatives,


  • The book begins with a provocative anecdote, sourced from New York Times Magazine. The story explores the casualty of truth in the Bush admin. Ron Suskind recounts:
The aide [to the Bush administration] said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based paradigm," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about Enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create reality. And while you are studying that reality--judiciously, as you will--we'll act again creating other realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to study what you will."(1-2)
  • This account, observes Dunscombe, left him feeling excited, inspired and jealous.
  • There's been a switch in roles: Historically, it was progressives who were dreaming (witness: Martin Luther King's "I have a dream") but the tables have turned. = While conservatives are persuading through spectacles, progressives are stuck on Enlightenment ideals, including reason and empiricism (the result: progressives are studying and exposing reality while conservatives are making it)
  • There's good reason for progressives to be stuck on reason and rationality. Consider the Enlightenment's debunking of magic, mystery and manipulation associated with religion and superstition
  • The problem: the world is much changed in the wake of advertising, with its use of stories, sensations and symbols in ways that recall religion - More importantly, argues Dunscombe, these deployments are tapping in to popular dreams and desires that, to put it simply, cannot be reasoned away...in part because humans are, on some level, irrational.
  • More performances are scripted through the service economy = It's about delivering something: an experience (?)
  • What progressives do well: We're good at unmasking institutionalized power via investigative reporting and media coverage. We're less effective in turning the message "revealed" by these texts into affect with effect. We need to model alternatives.
  • Three approaches: (1) progressives disdain conservatives' use of spectacle on the grounds it's manipulative, distracting, etc. (2) progressives chuck their ideals and nihilistically embrace spectacle (3) progressives critically adopt spectacle as a vehicle for (a) engaging popular emotionality (dreams and desires) as well as (b) staging what Dunscombe calls temporary autonomous zones: sites/situations where alternative ways of being are modeled
  • Dunscombe is quick to clarify his project does not prescribe to the post-modern cant there's no real, only perception. Rather, he's concerned with the telling of this reality.

For years progressives have comforted themselves with age-old biblical adages that the "truth will out" or "the truth shall make you free," but waiting around for the truth to set you free is lazy politics. The truth does not reveal itself by virtue of being the truth: it must be told, and we need to learn how to tell the truth more effectively. It must have stories woven around it, works of art made about it; it must be communicated in new ways and marketed so that it sells. It must be embedded in an experience that connects with people's dreams and desires, that resonates with the symbols and myths they find meaningful. The argument here is not for a progressive movement that lies outright, but rather for a propaganda of the truth. As William James once wrote: "Truth happens to an idea". (20)



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comments:

Critique: Are forms, such as spectacle, really as ideologically neutral as Dunscombe describes? If, as he proposes, it's about "doing desire" more ethically than conservatives, how might these spectacles be enacted in ways that make them resistant to cooption, or is this no longer a concern? (MB: October 26, 2009)

It may so be argued that the staging of an alternative reality might alternatively distract from real material conditions thus doing more harm than good (MB: October, 26, 2009)

Observations: Dumscombe references the performance paradigm through his usage of "scripting"--this might be usefully elaborated through Jon MacKenzie's work on technological, dramatic and work performance in Perform or Else. (MB: October 26, 2009)

There's a connection between Dunscombe's sense that people are, on some level, irrational, and John Law's concerns around what he calls common-sense Euro-American realism; namely, its failure to account for that which cannot be assimilated using rational methods. Both approaches engage what has historically been othered' both propose ways of accommodating this difference...Indeed, both authors are concerned with the difference (to reference Law) between "how reality is and how it gets organized". So, a concern with representation and how it references/enacts lived experience is common to both. (MB: October 26, 2009)