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Monday, March 26, 2007

Effective Campaigns and Candidates: Embedding Power in the Virtual and the "Real"

Podcast / downloadable mp3.

I’m going to talk about how to create an aura of power around a person simply by means of their speech, their stories. Let’s embed power in our messages. It’s not as hard as it might seem. Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Michael Bakhtin, Lee Atwater, and Karl Rove will help us.

But, why do it? Who cares about subtly communicating that you’re all about power? Isn’t it better to transmit a message of coolness, truth, celebrity, or some other ethos designed to spur sales? We’re approaching a campaign year and I thought it would be fun to construct my own charismatic candidate, whom I’ll take care not to name after recently vilified characters. How do you groom a candidate for office? Okay, I have to admit I’m fascinated by the spin-generating tactics of the late Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, although I think that Rove is not as interesting as Atwater was. Atwater was a true genius. I won’t go into it now, but I encourage you to research him on the Internet.

Let’s start with “The Trace.” That’s something we’re going to borrow from Jacques Derrida, king of the deconstructivists, whose book, Writing and Difference, gave people a sense of how it might be possible to reinvent meaning. Derrida suggests that each word has a built-in self-destruct mechanism. Touched in the wrong manner (or the “right” manner), the word and all the supposed meanings blow up. For an instant – at the instant you read something – the thing that has been written is amorphous. Meaning has gone somewhere else, and it’s chaotic. So, it’s up to you to rebuild the meaning. But – how do you do so? You follow the clues. Derrida says there’s a trace of something else in every possible word or its meaning configuration.

Our presidential candidate stands on the dias and says something about “Ask not what your country…” and already we’re paying attention to who said it first, and not so much to the person who’s saying the words now.

Derrida suggests that the speaker just blew up his own discourse. The ruptured signifier sets off a chain reaction, meanings that swirl around a center, and an echo of previous words and speeches.

So, the people who look at the presidential candidate now see that there is something that is standing outside the frame, not really referred to in his speech, but alluded to, whether or not he likes it. The referent has been dislocated. This is to say that whatever it was supposed to “mean” is only approachable indirectly. You have to move into it obliquely.

So, the way to speak of power is to build in the language that has been employed elsewhere, and which sets up an amazing echo effect, which, with any luck, will resonate with our presidential candidate.

Here’s how I would assemble a speech to embed the maximum amount of power, and to have a big 300-pound Gorilla of Power hover right outside that frame of reference. With any luck at all, our candidate will be totally Teflon. People will be afraid to touch him. Further, whatever mud is flung won’t stick. It will be deflected by the power hovering just outside. The dislocated referent stands just in front of him and functions as Teflon. Of course, the end result is that our poor candidate will start feeling isolated. After all, no one will be speaking to him. It will just be an oblique exchange between referents and the trace.

Let’s assemble a speech for our guy or female. Let’s include the following:

**snippets of famous speeches
**allusions to literary heroes
**references to famous battles (historical or literary)

If we want to take it further, we can set up an entire economy of meaning. We’ll put him in contexts that communicate power, with all the non-verbal, non-textual signifiers set on “high.” We’ll arrange lighting, colors, backdrops, props, to resonate power.

Is it possible to be too obvious?

Probably, but somehow the more obvious and artless we are, the better. People will see what you’re doing and grasp it within a nano-second. If you’re transparent in your tactics, you’ll seem somehow honest and not deceptive.

Moving on from Derrida, I’d employ some ideas from Roland Barthes and his book, Image, Music, Text. Barthes pointed out that language creates the ability for us to talk about the past, present, and the future at the same time. We almost feel as though we experience the past or the future, even though we know that is impossible. But, we can imagine it and conceptualize the past and the future, thanks to our language.

You’re probably saying, how is that going to help our political candidate?

By creating the maximum amount of resonance with past, present, and future, we will enter into a temporary state of pleasure, which Barthes calls “jouissance.”

A fleeting joy, a platonic moment of unity – these are all possible if our candidate talks about heroes or a mythical character who has attributes that slip back and forth between past, future, and present.

If we’re going to collectively share a consciousness of power, we have to do it by means of language. Again, we’re indebted to a thinker from the past. In this case, we are employing the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin as articulated in Discourse in the Novel. Bakhtin suggests that we can’t even conceive of ourselves without language. Language is necessary to have consciousness – of self, of others.

Like it or not, we have to choose a language. We’re not talking about a language such as English or Russian. In this case, we’re talking about language in its broadest sense – the idea that language is how we know ourselves and how we create a code or an economy that can be shared with others. Language can be of signs and symbols. It can be non-verbal.

If our candidate is going to be successful, we need to make sure he or she communicates in the language of power. Once he or she masters that language, he or she will have consciousness of power. That’s a little scary, if you think about it, because it means that every single thing that that person encounters will be run through the filter of language – in this case, power. It is the “a priori” – the prior knowledge / knowledge structure – that allows meaning to be made.

In this case, the meaning will be all about power. In fact, it is hard to argue that there is anything in that “conversation” BUT power. After all, the "grammar" or the "economy" of our language is power.

We’ve succeeded. We've embedded power in our political candidate's word, speech, or gesture.
Now, all we have to do is name our candidate.

Power Talk: How to do it....

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