We entering an age of the Total Event, an age in which, occasionally but irregularly, we are sucked into political conjunctures that, for a time, envelop political discourse in a fashion that is novel and carries with it new or newish questions and issues.
Now, I am aware that this is not a good start for a politics blog. The terrain of political commentary is strewn with exaggerated and erroneous claims of newness, of moments that ‘change the world’. It is also an occupational hazard for political pundits to slip into epochal imageries of things never being the same again. For more conservatively-minded thinkers, moral panic can easily creep in to big picture visions of change. And, conversely, for those who might self-identify as ‘radical’ might well be tempted to stretch the import of a crisis, a victory, or a defeat.
But, politics is perhaps better characterised as change, the magnitude and effect of which is not immediately knowable from the features of the change itself. Politics is not science in which values of some change can be fed into a calculation of its effects, like velocity and impact. This is because in politics cause and effect are difficult to separate, because the impact of an event is in good part something constructed in real time and also in part subject to accident and all sorts of human subjectivities and guesswork. There also exist important continuities – sinews or structures – that ‘underdetermine’ political events, not matter how radical they might be. The basic point here is that the practices of politics are both defined by the possibility of radical change and the understanding that by-and-large this possibility is slender.
With this caveat in mind, I would like to suggest that there is something new and recent in the public discourses of politics, even if I make no claim that everything is changed or the future will never resemble the past.
Introducing the Total Event
So, what do I mean by a Total Event? Here are its distinguishing features.
It is an event. Not a process, a change, or an interval. Events are temporal ‘spikes’ that last a short time – perhaps even a few hours. Events are framed as such in part through political discourse. An event establishes political time in reference to ‘before’ and ‘after’. It is not that the reality of politics has changed entirely; it is that something big has happened which is understood by many people to have changed entirely.
The Total Event is unexpected. It is not perceived as the culmination of a process. It might have been possible but it was perceived as improbable. The core driver of the Total Event is shock. This sensibility is what allows the Total Event to seem in some way as removed from longer-running processes. The Total Event is WTF?!?
The Total Event is one that has a very broad-ranging and uncontrollable event horizon. It is not a surprise bye-election result or the death of a well-loved but retired politician. It is an event that seems to generate very quickly expanding ‘ripples’ that wash over all manner of political groups, issues, and processes. It is ‘total’ in the sense that it is for a time hard to escape if you are interested in politics. For some time, the Total Event is politics.
There have been many totalising events of the kind sketched above. Indeed, although many have considered 2016 as an exceptional year for Events, one can pick out all sorts of other contenders. What makes the Total Event more distinct than simply a ‘busy year’ is its prolixity. And, this is enabled by the explosion in social media.
The Total Event takes place within a nebulous, vibrant, and unconstrained political cyberspace in which the Event is both mediated and unmediated; definitive and unspecific. It is mediated in the sense that it is relayed to high numbers of people via others who ‘make it theirs’; make it a resource for their own messaging. It is unmediated in the sense that there is no centralisation, legitimation, editing, or curating in this mediation. The Total Event is definitive in the sense that it defines the beginning and the end of an age: it is an historic bookend not a bookmark. But it is unspecific in that the means and meaning through which it is definitive are radically open and multifarious.
To illustrate, let’s take another eventful year: 1968. This was perhaps the most significant year in world history for me because it was when I was born. But, outside of this most epochal event, there was the Czechoslovakian revolution, the Tet Offensive, social rebellions in Paris, and the assassination of Martin Luther King. In some cultural studies of globalisation, 1968 was the beginning of the age of global media, social movements, and changing global orders. But, each of these ‘Big Events’ was not ‘total’ because its dissemination and the discourses generated by them were far more institutionalised around governments, a fairly tightly-controlled media, and a more constrained intellectual set who spoke about politics. Global and epochal as these events were, politically, they were events set into robust institutional settings that framed their meanings.
The Total Event has the accoutrements of the Big Event but is magnified by a social media that is impossible to map or understand. It has a long tail. Every Total Event provides grist to conspiracy theory mills. Every Total Event generates personalised and affective reactions in which, it seems, ‘how I feel’ about the Event is a legitimate serving for political discussion. The internet has generated a growth in political organisations, each of which will contribute to the construction of the Total Event. Imagery is endless: smartphone, archival, forged, stolen, shared. The motif of the Total Event is the hashtag: dynamically connective and ultimately meaningless.
The heavy mediatisation of the Total Event is not incidental, it is intrinsic. Total Events are powerful aesthetic vehicles, strongly connected to affect. The politics of the Total Event is strikingly emotional: shock, offence, dismay, anger… Because the Total Event is one defined by powerful aesthetic content, it tends to be focussed on a single person or moment that is easily condensed into a ‘punch’ of imagery. Some very important events fail to become Total Events because they are, to put it plainly, ‘boring’. The Global Economic Crisis of 2008 is one such example: a massive global event without a mise en scene, a protagonist, antagonist, dramaturgy. It was ‘complex’ and lacked imagery. The creation of the Bretton Woods Institutions, or the collapse of the Dollar-Gold standard changed the world in myriad and profound ways but, like the global economic crisis of 2008, they do not have the aesthetic and emotional vectors to make to Total Event. The ‘Volcker shock’ triggered the global debt crisis in poor countries pushing millions into penury, but it was a shock in interest rates, not Facebook timeline confessionals.
So, one might define the Total Event as an event which both radically changes the ordinary flow of political life and has an impact across a wide range of political issues and concerns. It is dynamically expansive, quintessentially hyperbolic, infusing itself into discussions of a diverse set of concerns. It does so through an indifference to evidence, authority, or boundaries between one thing and another. And, it is both the driver and beneficiary of a social media in which the political is the personal. It is drama with simple messages, heavily moralised and eager to simplify.
A funny old year
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 were the most-watched event in world history. It was not long after the initial horror of the attacks that social scientists started talking about the ‘spectacular’ aspects of the event. It was, for a time, the fearful wallpaper of political life. Political statements were focussed on security and terror – those mutually affirming twin concepts. The media propounded imagery of collapsing buildings as if a certain kind of reality had crashed to the ground. And, an emerging social media was saturated in responses to the atrocity. ‘Nine eleven’ was perhaps the protean Total Event: not at the time sufficiently embedded in the social media which was itself, we now know, only just getting going.
Fifteen years later and conditions are different. 2016 has been a busy year. There have been two contenders for Total Event: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Both have been ‘shocking’; both have generated saturation discourse; both have rippled out into a wide range of political considerations; both have gone viral; both have generated a palpable emotive discourse within social media; both have become almost illegible as coherent totalities under the burgeoning, individualised, expressive, and identitarian contributions that they have activated.
There has been an incalculable amount of political discourse and it has often been polarised, weakly grounded in evidence, based in identity politics, expressed through emotional confession or declaration, or mimetic – a word popularised in cultural and political studies in the 1980s and now used in its shorthand to describe the major vehicle of symbolic affect: the meme. An expansive repetition of imagery, say, about Trump’s weird face or Farage’s face morphing into Hitler’s and so on. And so on. Additionally, a lot of stark shock and hatred about others is expressed, often racialised but also filtered through hatred of poor people. As ever, conspiracies emerge, feeding as they do on perceived cataclysm, retrofitting it into covert plan. With many blogs, one more or less knows what will be said because the Total Event fits into an existing perspective. Everyone can have a say concering the Total Event because it is so massive and fungible, not unlike the 1950s film The Blob. Everyone can use Brexit to express the sentiment or perspective they had before Brexit. Make your best guesses which bits of the blob are worth reading but expect that anything you read with be attacked by others in comments sections in ways that show no respect for proportionality, evidence or procedure of debate. The Total Event does not announce the death of the author, it announces the death of authorship and authority.
Furthermore, by quirk of history, these two Total Events reveal in especially bold relief how untied and wild their politics can be. This because, although there have been great excrescences of commentary, prediction, polemic, and repetition, neither of the events has actually happened. The British Government has not enacted Article 50, and Trump is President-elect until early 2017. In this sense, the events themselves have not yet fully ‘happened’. Is it not remarkable that this plain historical linearity seems to have troubled the Total Event so little?