"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

Spectatorship vs Participation (Romancing the Lookey-Loos)

Here's a great and lengthy quote from Air Guitar, an essay entitled Romancing the Lookey-Loos which starts off with a moment of Waylon Jennings on tour, and goes on to explore the difference between spectators and participants in Art.

It's quite a brilliant essay, and which I think it cuts to the quick of what my shit is all about in both art and in politics:

[Spectators] were non-participants, people who did not live the life -- people with no real passion for what was going on on. They were just looking. They paid their dollar at the door, but they contributed nothing to the occasion -- afforded no confirmation or denial that you could work with or around or against.

With spectators, as Waylon put it, it's a one-way deal, and in the whole idea was not to be one of them... Even so, [growing up] it wasn't something we discussed of even though about, since the possibility of any of us spectating or being spectated was fairly remote. It is, however, something worth thinking about today, since, with the professionalization of the art world, and the dissolution of the underground cultures that once fed into it, the distinction between spectators and participants is dissolving as well.

This distinction is critical to the practice of art in a democracy, however, because spectators invariably align themselves with authority. They have neither the time nor the inclination to make decisions. They just love the winning side -- the side with the chic building, the gaudy doctorates, and the star-studded cast. They seek out spectacles whose value is confirmed by the normative blessing of institutions and corporations. In these venues, they derive sanctioned pleasure or virtue from an accredited source, and this makes them feel secure, more a part of things. Participants on the other hand, do not like this feeling. They lose interest at the moment of accreditation, always assuming there is something better out there, something brighter and more desirable, something more in tune with their own agendas. And they maybe wrong, of course. The truth may indeed reside in the vision of full professors and corporate moguls, but true participants persist in not believing this. They continue looking.

Thus, while spectators must be lured, participants just appear, looking for that new thing -- the thing they always wanted to see -- or the old thing that might be seen anew -- and having seen it, they seek to invest that thing with new value. They do this simply by _showing up_; they do it with their body language and casual conversation, with their written commentary, if they are so inclined, and their disposable income, if it falls to hand. Because participants, unlike spectators, do not covertly hate the things they desire. Participants want their views to prevail, so they lobby for the embodiment of what they lack.

He then goes on to talk about how this works specifically in art, that outside of the "hegemony of corporate and institutional consensus" culture flourishes wherever producers would rather "socialize their work among their peers, horizontally, at the risk of Daddy's ire, than institutionalize it, vertically, in the hopes of Daddy's largesse."


In recent decades, however, changes in American institutional life have made this scenario exponentially more difficult to pursue. First, Richard Nixon's expansion of the National Endowment for the Arts in the nineteen seventies has, over the years, effectively transformed the institutional art world into a government-regulated industry dedicated to maintaining a strict consensus of virtue. Second, the extended adolescence imposed on art students by lengthy tenures in graduate schools has effectively isolated them from the peers among whom they might discover their true, new constituencies. Third, the massive consequences of _Frampton Comes Alive_ in the record industry and _Star Wars_ in the movie industry have instituted a reign of consensus in the world of commercial entertainment, as well -- as quest for a consensus of desire, dedicated to producing "blockbusters" that please everyone, every time.

Basically his point in this, and other, essays is that the institutionalization of culture, though corporate consolidation and/or the academy, has profound implications within a democracy. It's a persuasive case, and I would argue that there are direct parallels with politics.

There was a time when I felt that the internet was really changing this, but lately I'm not so sure. It's had an effect, but most of my wave has been absorbed and institutionalized. We've widened the circle of participation marginally, created a more diverse set of voices and sources of funding, etc, but have not appreciably changed the nature of the game.

The fact that this election cycle has been, with the exception of Ron Paul's gadfly campaign, on more or less total lockdown, suggests that "the internet" in and of itself is not really going to be a change agent for American politics. This shouldn't be a surprise to me, really. The web creates certain opportunities, but it doesn't "do" anything on its own.

By contrast, in the realm of cultural production -- music, tv, writing, etc -- the internet (or as farsheed points out in the comments, people's use of it) is most definitely continuing to drive major changes, and it may even start to crack up some of the Ivory Tower, which would be nice. The national political establishment, however, remains thusfar inured to the radically democratizing -effects- opportunities of the interwebs.


Interesting points. I would have to agree that changes in technology don't necessarily correspond to changes in culture or politics, or even social trends. People are people, and the technology opens up doors. But that doesn't mean they'll walk through them. There is a Rumi quote hiding in there somewhere.

I do think that the "participants" will walk through those doors, and will make significant changes in the long run. We've just got to put our faith in the people using the technology instead of the technology itself and hope for the best.

Hope things are goin well out there!

That's an excellent specific point, and one that bears repeating. We should all aspire to be dervishes in our own rite.

Hope things are going well w/you too!