“Today’s presidential contenders run not just against one another, but also against presidents past as they endure in the pantheon of the mind’s eye.” – Fred I. Greenstein. The Antioch Review.
Greenstein’s quote highlights a central aspect in the fundamentally philological nature of the American president represented on the television show The West Wing. By examining the ways in which textuality, history and representation interact in the mind’s eye of the viewing public, we find that much of the appeal of President Josiah Bartlet stems from his relation to America’s textual past. Key aspects of textuality can be usefully mapped in his representation by borrowing the description of the public intellectual laid out by writer/reporter Michael Ignatief . What I will show is that the public intellectual that Ignatief mourns, now has at least one new voice within a simulation that operates as a digital remediation  of the textual past. American Presidents carries a unique relation to the textual in their duties to the American Constitution, one of the founding documents of the American people. This document is at once historical and textual. By becoming a living archive to the country’s past and future, the president is an inherently philological creature. In order to explore these assertions I will take a moment to foreground my method.
Over the last several years, certain humanist scholars have adopted a set of conventions that use a combination of rigorous textual study and socio-historical research. Originally dwarfed by its more famous siblings the New Historicism and Cultural Materialism, the New Philology is an attempt to give definition to the inherently interdisciplinary work that is being conducted by these researchers and academics. This work, which has come to be associated with a conservative response to the allegedly vagaries of leftist theory, seeks comfort in a return to the well-known grounds of canon-driven pedagogy. I would like to argue that in terms of the often intricate cultural manipulations that accompany popular presentation of America’s founding documents, a reconfigured approach borrowing from the New Philology can offer a useful set of guidelines for engaging this topic.
By focusing on a unifying artifact, the people of the United States are able to find a meeting place for debate. Participating in the reading, interpreting and modifying of the recorded words of the country’s founders makes philologists of us all. By collapsing this communicative exploration into a compressed space, Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing’s creator) is able to deliver a president that is an embodiment of his country’s primary principles. The public intellectual then is no longer outside looking in, but is inscribed in both documentary and digital representation in such away that he is an outsider operating on the inside.
I would like to begin my examination of this phenomenon by briefly sketching one notion of the outsider as public intellectual. After developing this idea in terms of the trope of the New Philology, I will move in the second half of my paper to examine the hypertextual nature of The West Wing. This construction, I will argue, is intricately bound up in the marketing of a new epistemology that is targeted at the Baby Boom generation.
In 1996, Michael Ignatief delivered a series of public lectures called The Illuminati on the BBC that he later updated for broadcast on the CBC . For the rebroadcast in the year 2000, Ignatief provided an interview and commentary that focused on three points. He first argued that great thinkers of the twentieth-century featured in the show were in some sense defined by being outside of the system; as such, they were generalists who in Edward Said’s terms “spoke truth to power.” [5 ] Secondly, he suggested that this group that began with Voltaire and ended with Sartre had not been replaced. Finally, he asserted that there is a growing desire to see the return of the public intellectual.
For Ignatief, the public intellectual acts as a check on the given political power structure and brings forward new sets of ideas of importance to the general populace. This he calls establishing the tone of debate in society. Famous examples are Emile Zola’s involvement in the Dreyfus affair and later the position of intellectuals in France during the May 1968 actions . For Ignatief, the leading light in this line of intellectuals was Jean-Paul Sartre. With Sartre gone, there is an incredible lack in our intellectual and public lives.
Though I am interested in examining the idea of the public intellectual presented by Ignatief, I would like to quickly note that his field of vision seems tainted by a predilection toward continental Europe. While it might be hard to imagine 100,000 people attending the funeral of Noam Chomsky or bell hooks, as they did for Sartre, it would not be beyond the realm of belief to suggest that these people and others like them may indeed be considered public intellectuals. Ignatief, ever the purveyor of cultural capital , seems to mourn a certain form of the public intellectual that is intrinsically tied to certain strains of European modernism.
Leaving this aside for the moment, the notion of the public intellectual in these terms involves a position that is distinct from prevailing political discourse. During the period that Ignatief focuses on, the role takes on a quintessentially individualist flavour. The outside voice was contingent upon the ultimate separateness and ontological integrity of the speaker. In the current American context, this would mean that people like Bill Buckley and Ralph Nader would not qualify for consideration, because of their overt ties to the central field of conversation, Buckley in the media, and Nader in the political sphere.
In order to qualify as an independent thinker, Ignatief suggests that candidates must follow three rules. They must position themselves outside, they must be hyper-informed and they must rigorously cultivate a higher than average intelligence. This done, the individual earns the right to speak for the masses. The public intellectual then asks questions that the citizenry cannot imagine for themselves. In Ignatief’s terms, these “Illuminati” have a mandate to exercise a little cognitive hubris; they have a greater right than most to speak and be heard.
For this public intellectual, mediation is key. Ignatief points to the thousands of listeners that tuned in to the BBC in the early part of the twentieth-century to listen to complex lectures delivered by logical positivist Isiah Berlin . Here he argues that there is a dearth of challenging discourse in our contemporary society leaving us in a deep state of cultural lack. Holding his apparent biases to one side, Ignatief makes an interesting point here when he speaks of a desire for critical rather than ideological discussion. I believe that by leaving current topics of debate open within the person of The West Wing’s president, Aaron Sorkin is able to capitalize on the desire for critical complexity detailed by Ignatief. This complexity, in keeping with Ignatief’s ilk is that most standard form, the liberal democratic mid-point. Thus by presenting a show highlighting a bipartisanship that current governments espouse but elide, NBC provides what America truly lacks – an operative democracy.
In the American cultural context, the manifestation of this desire for complexity exhibits three prominent trends. Firstly, there is a supposition that audiences do not always want complex issues resolved into categorical absolutes. In specific political terms, this links to the idea that there is a desire for non-partisan debate over key issues. Secondly, any debate in the American context involves a need to deal in some way with nationalist history. The way in which the country began speaks directly to its developing social matrix. Thus, a living history must play a role in any new debate. Finally, there is a fundamentally textual element buried in this desire. This final aspect relates directly to the writing, signing, interpretation and emendation of the American Constitution.
This then is a de facto philological state of desire. What remains in the wake of this supposed crisis of belief is a respect for the country’s originary document. Coupled with this is a certain engagement with the underlying intentions of the authors. This blending of form and content set in contextual relief parallels what Randolph Starn described (though in a different context) as “The New Erudition”. This form of research is what then came to be known as “The New Philology.” Practitioners of this methodology are supposed to make rigorous examination of every aspect of the text that they are studying — from its physical construction to the varying intentions of later editors who contribute to the document’s continued existence and growth. Through this research new trajectories of discourse emerge that are directly influenced by their textual heritage. Most importantly, as long as the documents survive and can be consulted, they ensure the existence of the state. Separating the documents out and making them the purview of the select further solidifies their onto-theological power.
With an eye towards this robust practice of interdisciplinary research, we find part of the reason for the popularity of The West Wing in general and President Bartlet in particular. Whether he is looking for last minute gifts in a bookstore or lying in bed attended by his staff, papers and books continually surround this president. He demonstrates his knowledge of classical texts in episodes such as In Excelsis Deo where he offers commentary on the volumes found in the rare bookshop. This in-depth textual as well as historical knowledge creates the picture of a philological president, one well equipped to work with America’s central documents.
His classically grounded intellectualism provides him with two of the qualifications to make Ignatief’s list. He is hyper-informed and he has and does work to make himself intelligent. That he is also in sense an outsider is a consistent point in the show. In the now famous flashback scenes that began the second season’s episodes, he is repeatedly described as a non-partisan, non-political academic.
Moving outside the world of the television drama for a moment and into the alternately real world of television news, we hear a great deal about a general public disenchantment with politics. If we take as our guide, the idea that the public is experiencing a real need for a more complex dialogue (read an affirmation of an Ignatief-like desire), we may suppose that it is not the field of political ideas that has lost the attention of the public. It may be that the swirl of shifting topics that pollsters and pundits focus on does engage the people. The source of the disenchantment in this scenario would be the commentary or mediation itself. That is, people may be tired of who is speaking, and how it is being offered. This provides one explanation of why a television drama that presents the current issues in a new fashion appeals to critics and the public. Thus, Sorkin and his crew are able to play to public interest by returning to the basis of public debate. In philological terms, Sorkin is emphasizing a greater level of access to the arena of debate surrounding the constitution by problematizing issues and leaving them fundamentally unresolved. In what is a distinctly plural sense, debate over the document and its issues tends to break across interpretations of meaning and never over the viability of the text qua text.
With the oft-fetishized loss of meaning of the postmodern, post-industrial and post-information age, there is often a call to find a cultural meeting place. Very few such points offer so much in terms of pedigree as does the founding American document. By borrowing some of the power of this tradition, Sorkin is able to embed the constitution within his representation of the president. Doing this allows not only for a specific critique of American politics, it offers America a new public intellectual.
To maintain Jed Bartlet as a public intellectual we need to look with a few different perspectives at his character. He is outside of power because he splits on key issues such as abortion and the death penalty. This shows him more as an embodiment of the complexity of the issue, not as a proponent of one side. He is an expert on the history and interpretation of documents as we are continually reminded by his interaction with texts and narrative. Further, he holds a PhD in economics and is according to episode two (Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc), a Nobel laureate. In that same episode he plays at classical scholarship when he quizzes the staff on the meaning of the phrase from which the episode gets its name, finally giving his own definition of the famous logical fallacy. Deepening his philological lineage is his suggestion in episode twenty-two (entitled What Kind of Day it Has Been) that his great, great, great grandfather was an original signatory of the Declaration of Independence. His continual link with Americas’ a priori textual conditions run throughout his family history. We are told that the Bartlet family founded New Hampshire, now the site of the country’s most famous presidential primary.
The contemporary backdrop for the acceptance of Bartlet is as important as its historical counterpart. Much has been made of the loss of faith in and respect for public office. Growing lists of “insider” books that attempt to reestablish an interest in the political life attest to this fact. Books such as Joe Lieberman’s In Praise of Public Life and David Gergen’s Eye Witness to Power are two among many examples. If we accept that political interest and/or faith have fallen, how can we explain the draw created by the machinations of a simulated White House?
Part of the answer lies in character development. To whatever degree Jed Bartlet is a constructed president; he is by no means an antiseptic or one-dimensional character. He does not replicate the standard positions of one or another party position. Moreover, he is almost painfully human. As a character, he acts as a functional archive for the living records of American political discourse. He speaks rapturously of his dreams of public debate and great conversations. In formalist terms, this provides room for identification; in the philological sense, it shows someone ideally suited to historical stewardship. This does not necessarily entail notions of a utopian resolution of the two-party system in a Hegelian synthesis, but instead provides a representation of the pressing political issues of the day that has at its heart feelings of nostalgia for a lost system of democracy.
Again, the issues are not resolved into ideological positions but are guaranteed by the character. Two of the best examples of this type of unresolved complexity in the President are his aforementioned positions on the death penalty and a on woman’s right to choose, both of which are prohibited by the Catholic faith, which he actively practices. Even the characters around the President offer examples of this plurality, perhaps the most compelling being Leo the recovering addict Chief of Staff who is spearheading drug legislation. Bartlet and his crew stand out from messages related to political disenchantment and instead give form to the complexity of issues that are of interest to the viewing public.
The nature of this unresolved complexity in Bartlet tends to highlight issues that cut across party lines. This does not mean that the show is without its obvious biases. What Sorkin taps into in order to sell his show, is a desire in a certain sector of the public to be treated as active thinkers. This is a direct rebellion against absolutist sound bites purporting to tell the truth. The West Wing offers a public intellectual who counterpoises the representation of the actual or real president. Jed Bartlet as president preserves the complexity of the issues, a respect for intelligent debate and a commitment to the American Constitution. Bartlet as public intellectual operates outside of a certain form of discourse that allows for the comparison with Ignatief’s notion of the outside. That Bartlet’s position is from within the genre of television drama creates parallels with and distinctions from his public intellectual forbearers. Sartre made many of his political comments in the popular press and in novel form. Still, some might be troubled by the different states of reality inhabited by the flesh and blood Sartre and Sorkin’s political avatar.
Before I move on to an examination of the use of hypertextuality and the manipulation of a supposed hi-tech threat, I would like to quickly revisit the textual and philological aspects of power that feed President Bartlet and show how these elements lead to the notion of Bartlet as a living archive of American history. Some years ago, Brian Stock published a book called The Implications of Literacy. In it, he detailed the growth of a society, in this case early English society, around its documents. Citizens’ lives, Stock argues, structure themselves around their documents. It is my contention that the American constitution acts as a central document in what Stock calls a textual community. While many of the people in the community have never seen the actual document, its existence is of utmost importance to their lives. In the American context, The Constitution stands as a democratic meeting place for the opinions of its citizenry. In much the same way that the New Philologists fled literary theory for the monastic life of manuscript studies, viewers of NBC’s hit show are attempting to return to the promises of their documentary past.
We must ask, “how could an American not identify with a document that gives them their identity as Americans?” Whether by inclusion or exclusion, The Constitution has helped to shape the citizenry in American history. A philological president knows this, because they know the document, they know its interpretation, its history and its cultural impact. Inside the mis-en-scène of The West Wing, Jed Bartlet is this type of president. Outside it, he is a public intellectual speaking one type of truth to power.
I began this section with a quote that references the president’s position in history. “Today’s presidential contenders,” says Fred Greenstein, “run not just against one another, but also against presidents past as they endure in the pantheon of the mind’s eye.” Becoming president alters this relationship. Once in office, each move that a president makes interacts with a long record that stretches back to the founding fathers. This is no longer a running against in Greenstein’s terms, but running-with.
The president lives a life that is immanent history, a life that writes into both the past and the future. When William Jefferson Clinton emphasizes his middle name, it is out of recognition of history, but it also reminds us of the future that Thomas Jefferson was able to shape. We see examples of this interactive history on The West Wing when the staff and president read the 100-year history book that compares changes over the last century. In the episode, Josh’s assistant Donna reminds him (after he upbraids her for a report containing a text by James Madison that he says resembles a “social studies paper”) that it is the text from James Madison, more than current research, that will help him with his legislative agenda. In these contexts, history is less a field of commentary on a series of past events, but a living and growing archive.
Jacques Derrida reminds us that archives are as much about the future as the past. The presidential archive, whether in the living body of the sitting president, or in the history of their time in office, is an active corpus linked to originary documents. The textual nature of this archive secures those documents. It is reinforced by the creation of presidential libraries, which become material reminders of the essentially philological nature of the office.
The documents and their greater archive involve a developing history of the American Presidency and a designated meeting place of the American people. Though these aspects often go unarticulated, they are what allow The Constitution to be a virtual catalyst for debate on issues ranging from slavery, to abortion and capital punishment. Though the document reads in many ways, its socio-historical position entails an underlying guarantee of some form of permanence. It is from the power of this permanence, that Aaron Sorkin borrows to define his President. Thus, Bartlet becomes a literal instantiation of identity politics.
I would emphasize then that part of what attracts viewers to The West Wing is its offer of a new political space. Add to this a media avatar that moves beyond the electronic into the visceral by speaking truth not only to mediated power but by directly addressing an insufficiently addressed desire. Bartlet is a public intellectual in digital form. By maintaining the undecidability of political debate within his character, he represents a form of democracy that respects citizens’ right to make up their own minds. He does this is through an embodiment of the appreciation of text, context and access. In the end, Josiah Bartlet speaks truth to power by revivifying America’s textual past. That this space only exists for most of us along thin lines of coaxial cable only really matters during the commercial break.
Now I would like to focus more on the space that operates on the show. Specifically I want to approach The West Wing as an instance of Hypertextual Television that uses a spatial rhetoric to create and then manipulate a particular form of desire in viewers.
I want to begin this segment by referring to Ted Nelson’s definition of the term he coined. “Hypertext,” says Nelson, is “a body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper.” Nelson’s 1965 definition is simple and direct. What it does not capture is the affective quality that the word hypertext has since incurred. Digital technology has increasingly come to equate the hypertextual with notions of the atemporal and non-spatial, as if hypertextual somehow meant hyperreal. Atemporal because, hypertext connotes a special case involving not only Nelson’s complex interconnections, but also an implementation of perceptual simultaneity. These techno-cultural gestures suggest a pace of life that is increasing exponentially and involves assertions that the population is under stress as a result.
Expanding this to a discussion of hypertextual television, I would draw attention to the term remediation coined by theorists Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. These two describe their concept as relating “the ways in which new digital media refashion or remediate older visual and verbal forms.” In a 1999 book named for the principle, the two argue that this remediation can take place in two directions – from older to newer or the obverse. My interest for this paper focuses on the influences of the web back onto television. Useful examples of this influence are found in the variety of rolling stock tickers, weather updates and bulleted information lists on news broadcasts such as CNN, CNBC, and the appropriately titled CTV News Net.
These programs foreground a world where we must multitask in order to keep up with the pace of information. Further, it is not enough to be able to work on a variety of projects in close proximity, to replicate the complexity of Nelson’s hypertext, rather we must participate in a simultaneity of representation. This nature of information consumption is usefully encapsulated in Fredric Jameson’s “‘intentionally paradoxical” formulation that in the postmodern “difference relates.” Jameson offers as examples the work of installation artist Nam June Paik featuring stacked televisions each demanding attention and David Bowie’s character Thomas Jerome Newton who watches 57 televisions at once in the film The Man who Fell to Earth.
I would like to suggest that NBC’s hit show The West Wing offers an example of one way in which this new form of hypertextual television imbricates contemporary culture and recalls Jameson’s work, but stops short of requiring his solution in the heuristic of cognitive mapping. This is a direct result of the show’s use of a two-tiered release. This release pulls the audience back from having to realize the full tension at the heart of a schizophrenic postmodern world.
Following the tradition of shows like Law and Order and ER, The West Wing capitalizes on the public’s fascination with its own response to an ever-quickening world. Using ripped-from-the-headlines themes, these shows are able to build upon our obsession with real-time representations of ourselves. Entailed in this is a new form of critique playing off valences of power at work in the social spaces represented.
Following Althusser, we could say that these shows are ideological state apparatuses that glamourize repressive state apparatuses. That is, they are mainstream institutional shows that provide a message that officials are working hard, and that while they may make the occasional mistake, in the end, they have our best interest at heart. Moreover, they pose an argument that what is really needed is more money and more support for the bureaucracy. More money to fight the threat of disease, more money to fund Guiliani’s police force, and more money to support whatever the American government decides is in the global interest. Finally, in each program there is a mood of capitulation developed as we see the show’s key characters settling for small changes and minimal triumphs in a complicated world. This strategy takes place in a number of ways on The West Wing. The one I would like to focus on involves its rhetorical use of space.
Perhaps The West Wing’s most famous formal aspect is its use of the “walk-and-talk” (also now known as the peda-conference). In this hypertextual dance, individuals walk through the halls of the West Wing, sometimes three and four abreast, briskly speaking about crucial issues in domestic and foreign policy, sprinkling their conversations with essential narrative elements and office gossip. Participants join and leave the walk-and-talk staying only long enough to emit their sound bite. The camera shows them breaking off and joining new groups while continuing the smooth, breakneck pace of governance. In the backdrop, we see televisions tuned to CSPAN and CNN-like stations. Every desktop has a flat screen computer open and powered up. Notably we rarely see a screensaver, a marker exposing workstations that have stopped interfacing for an almost obscene 15-minute period (the average time it takes for the default screen savers to start).
The walk-and-talk is complimented by quick scene changes that maintain a number of subplots. One effect of this is to emphasize the speed at which the government works and to accentuate the notion of simultaneity. The message is – if you do not move quickly you will be left behind.
We have to ask – who could move this quickly or this well – these characters are witty, attractive and hyper-intelligent. Moreover they have purpose – they believe – strongly – in something. This seemingly ex nihilo belief helps to diffuse the tension that the show builds around technology and politics. As such, it is central to what makes the show so appealing to its audience.
The show uses a fully functioning White House that is in fact a good deal more spacious and better equipped (at least on the surface) than its real life counterpart. The actual West Wing with its cramped hallways and antiquated technology could not support the same techno-cultural motif that Aaron Sorkin’s virtual wing does.
Once set in motion, action is captured on a steady cam. This device is a wearable camera equipped with a counterweight that allows the operator to be mobile while the view from the lens remains perfectly still. This counterweight stands in for what is perhaps most marketable about the show. This small piece of equalizing technology reaches out to the viewing public and says everything is okay. The office may be moving fast, and the political issues may be complicated, but you are stable.
On The West Wing this mechanical counterweight has a cultural compliment of equal if not greater force.
This force is perhaps best illustrated in the show’s pilot episode, which aired September 22, 1999. The show begins by taking us through a series of scenes that introduce us to the main characters. These are uber-Democrat and Chief of Staff Leo McGrady, CJ Craig the White House press secretary who, like all women in the show, is intelligent, well spoken and almost entirely defined by her dating life, Toby Zeigler the communications director and New York intellectual extraordinaire, and Josh Lyman the Fulbright scholar deputy chief of staff. In one of the main shots of the first act we see Josh asleep at his desk. We learn that he misspoke the day before on the fictional show Capital Beat calling religious right-winger Mary Marsh a worshipper of a corrupt God that is currently under investigation for tax fraud.
Finally, we meet Sam Seaborn – the clean cut Princeton Man with a name and persona somehow managing to be whiter than Theodore Cleaver. Sam, a tribute to the DNC, is in bed with a prostitute who is smoking pot. Though he does not yet know she is a prostitute, he will respond to that news in the same way he does to her offer of the joint, by immediately distancing himself while insisting that he makes no judgment in doing so.
The device by which all of these introductions occur is a series of simultaneous pager messages announcing, “POTUS has been in a bicycle accident.” We hear this strange word in each sequence until Sam’s companion remarks on his friend’s “strange name.” Sam informs her “he’s not my friend, he’s my boss, and it’s not his name, it’s his title – President of the United States.” Cue theme music and a shot of a rippling American flag veiling the White House.
Thereafter, through numerous walk-and-talks and information updates the show builds tension around a perception of a busily working White House . The story culminates in a meeting between Mary Marsh and the Christian right on one side of a room with Toby, CJ and Josh on the other. The camera occupies the space between.
This meeting is arranged to allow Josh to apologize. It quickly goes sour when Toby accuses Marsh of anti-Semitism. In an attempt to salvage the meeting, one of the members of the Christian right brings up a point his group is interested in lobbying. In so doing he references the first commandment, which he incorrectly gives (surprising for a minister) as honour thy mother and father. When Toby challenges him the irate minister screams, “Well what is the first commandment then?”
“I am the Lord your God. Thou shall worship no other god before me.” Uttering this line President Jedidiah Bartlet enters the room, the episode and the series. From this point, forward it is apparent that the true counterweight to the commotion in the White House is embodied in this president.
There is no mistaking the form of domestic calm that is affected by this entrance. The tones surrounding Josh’s misbehavior resolve into a “wait till your father gets home” motif that Bartlet is quick to satisfy. He kicks the right-wing fanatics out of the building and lovingly chastises the staffers who head to their offices. On his way out, the ill-behaved Josh is called back and told firmly “don’t ever do it again.”
The air of domesticity that Bartlet brings to the White House develops in subsequent episodes. One example is provided in the episode Mandatory Minimums. Here we find the president late at night, propped up in the family bed surrounded by books and papers listening to what each of his staffers has accomplished that day. The characters line up at the foot of his bed, each waiting their turn to share what they have done that day. He compliments them on a job well done, imports some wise advice, and bids them goodnight. This imposed domestic space offers a form of calm against the unsettling aspects of current politics.
So, who watches The West Wing? Ratings show that the US audience splits evenly across Republican and Democratic lines. The unifying factor seems to be their income. The West Wing is the number one show in households making more than $100,000 a year. This may have many causes; one of these must be the show’s glorification of a tier-1 university mindset. After all, the president, however saccharine, is a Nobel laureate economist who quotes Latin and Classic Literature to the staff.
Also important is a form of pluralism embodied in Sorkin’s commander-in-chief. He splits on all-important issues – he is anti-abortion, but won’t legislate against it, he feels strange having dinner alone with a man, but is not opposed to gay marriage, he is a free-market economist, but is not averse to quoting Chairman Mao. It seems that Bartlet acts as a repository for the desire for meaning, any meaning, in order to hold out against a perceived relativism in the current socio-political sphere.
The result is that whether asses or elephants, it’s any patriarch in a storm.
If Bartlet is a dominant force in the mediated world of NBC’s The West Wing, his power does not stop there. During the recent US election, the cast appeared in character lobbying for the Gore/Lieberman ticket. On the Tonight Show when Jay Leno asked guest Martin Sheen (who plays Bartlet) where The West Wing got such great scripts, the actor waffled for a moment until Al Gore walked on stage, looking as natural there as anywhere, handing Sheen a script and saying “here, it’s ready.”
The height of this form of campaigning came when Sheen gave a speech at a California treatment centre saying that George W. Bush was a “White Knuckled-Drunk” who could fall apart at a crucial moment because he had never sought proper treatment for his alcoholism. In this powerful message, Sheen blurs his special Hollywood knowledge of the twelve steps with his cultural experience as television’s favourite president.
In fact, the ties between the White House and the show are quite close. The program has advisors from both the Democratic and Republican parties on staff. Clinton wunderkind George Stephanopoulos recently did a morning news broadcast from the set, reporting first on architectural similarities and then moving on to contemporary political issues. Testifying to the legitimacy of the show, a number of American schools now use taped episodes to teach civics classes.
Given that this political message is so successful, it may be worthwhile to ask just what the message is. Part of the show’s motive seems to involve an attempt to find a new political mythology in order to stabilize America’s notion of self. This tension surrounding the preserving of ontological integrity comes at a time when the country is particularly obsessed with its own potential for decay. Decay from a diffusion brought on by data glut and the threats of diffusion entailed in globalization. The message offers a matrix of beliefs meant to ensure the viewer that the American identity is still firmly in place and can move onward and outward without risking dissolution.
Marshaled to this nationalist cause is a tension created around an implied epistemological shift between a population trained to focus on a form of Kantian successive perceptions, and a new group capable of running many processes at once, calling to mind those anxiety causing implied watchers found in Paik and Bowie and critiqued by Jameson. It is not necessary to assume that this shift is in any sense real in terms of the blood and guts operations of synapses. However, I would ask whether there now exists a cultural perception of rivalry between the focused mind of grand mal modernism and a new postmodern brain capable of monitoring the NASDAQ, the weather and the Summit of the Americas simultaneously.
The West Wing maximizes this tension by collapsing the worries of information overload into the complications of current political issues. Thus, both form and content join in what Jameson calls an “overt stress of decentring.” But rather than being left in this state of befuddlement the viewer is quickly reoriented by a steadied gaze fixed on a president who imposes an ideal domestic space in the White House. Within this space, the grand familia is capable of interpreting all incoming information and resolving the issues into what amounts to a Rawlsian view of American politics – that is, one founded upon notions of tolerance, fiscal responsibility through fairness and a distinct notion of social justice.
Specifically then, I believe that the resolution of this tension capitalizes on a manipulated frenzy at the nexus of the global and the hypertextual, and their concomitant challenges to our notions of space, and offers a form of non-resolution based on a supposition of the freedom of exchange of discourse. This is made more palatable by employing the language and images of the aforementioned ideal American domestic space. Returning to the notion of remediation for a moment, The West Wing further develops this split between the frenetic world of multimedia communications and the more focused thought of Jed, Leo and Toby, by continually portraying them holding material examples of texts. This has the effect of imparting a message to the concerned viewer that the old answers are still the best answers – though you should probably buy a new laptop as well.
The excess of information defines the new media marketplace in which the show trades – the hypertextual substrata carry a message of the loss of meaning delivered at blistering speed. To this, the show counterpoises an overt textuality cum linearity, embodied in a liberal democratic brand of patriarchal domesticity. As I pointed out above, the inherent textuality involved in this process develops an essentially philological American president, who embodies The Constitution, offers historical interaction with their forbearers, and finally realizes an architectonic apotheosis as presidential library.
The message the show imparts is of particular interest in terms of its audience. The West Wing’s demographic is highly educated. They are also the target audience for the news channels whose programming features the new koyanasqatsi approach to media. They are the fastest growing group of Internet users, and may be particularly ripe to the show’s message because of high-tech product marketing focused directly on them. This power carries over to the political when we realize that this group lobbies in greater numbers; votes in greater numbers, and that when they vote more of their votes are actually counted by election officials.
To say that the show appeals only to a targeted nostalgia though would be too simple. There are clear indications that The West Wing is trying to offer something new. The show has discussed gay rights, race reparations, policy on Cuba, soft money, Puerto Rican statehood and the fact that the real drug problem, like the media problem the show foregrounds, is in a large part an American creation. Moreover, it features a president who can actually speak, who reads and knows Latin – a little bourgeois I know, but this audience has seemed to prefer a politician who can do The West Wing walk-and-talk to one who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
Yet, if The West Wing gains from its remediation it also incurs some of the same costs that these policies did the first time around. It is at heart a show that promises that the Ivy League will save us. Everyone other than the White male elite is clearly subservient and is treated with that special concerned condescension that certain factions of the centre-left have honed to a fine art.
Shows like Law and Order and The West Wing allow us to believe that we have a better idea of the complexities of our world – or at least of America’s world. But, and this is an important question — is the democracy of these shows the democracy of real America? Whatever its relation to the actual, the show seems to posit a new ideal.
Whether or not ideals themselves are dangerous, we should ask if The West Wing’s particular form of idealism is useful. I would like to make a gesture towards one possible answer.
In our current context it seems that a strong element in the American population has an un-addressed desire to believe in something politically positive in order to set goals for the future. This is the path now marked by popular books like Joe Lieberman’s In Praise of Public Life and David Gergen’s Eyewitness to Power. This seems to be an attempt at a post-ideological pluralism (which bears some relation to what some refer to as the New Way), which poses complexity as a motivation both for action and for complicity.
In this formulation, the public is shown a form of political exchange that prides itself on capitulation to an unseen and relentless chaos. What this perhaps elides is the actual nature of contemporary conflict resolution. As the United States increases its reliance on contract law and the judiciary both at home and abroad, it may be misguided to commit too much energy to glorified notions of participatory democracy. This said it is an extremely efficient way to market the United States’ number one global export — a normative form of democratic rule based on property law.
This product when packaged for NBC’s The West Wing offers a remedy for the symptoms of postmodernity based on a transcendent form of the “willing suspension of disbelief” that reaches beyond coaxial cable into our everyday lives. In what amounts to a programmatic de Certeauian recitation, this may just be believing in believing, but that’s a hell of a lot more comforting than what’s on CNN.
Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.
Certeau, Michel De. “Believing and Making People Believe.” In, The Certeau Reader. Graham Ward, Ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
Gergen, David. Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Greenstein, Fred. “The Presidency of My Mind’s Eye.” Antioch Review. Fall 2000, Vol. 58 Issue 4, p.8.
Guillory, John. Cultural Capitol: the Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Hollywood Reporter. Web & Television Ratings. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hollywoodreporter/television/index.jsp Accessed, November 2000.
Ignatief, Michael. The Illuminati. 5 Part Radio Broadcast. Information online at: http://www.radio.cbc.ca/programs/ideas/ideas.html. Accessed October 30, 2001.
—. Isiah Berlin: A Life. Toronto: Viking, 1998.
Jacoby, Russell. Dogmatic Wisdom: How the Culture Wars Divert Education and Distract America. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
—. The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
—. Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. New York: Basic Books, 1987.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Johson, Martin Philip. The Dreyfus Affair: Honour and Politics in the Belle …poque. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
Lieberman Joseph, I. With D’Orso, Michael. In Praise of Public Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Nation, The. The Future of the Public Intellectual: A Forum. http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20010212&s=forum. Accessed, October 30, 2001. (Originally Published, February 12, 2001)
Nelson, Ted. Home page: http://www.sfc.keio.ac.jp/~ted/. Accessed, October 30, 2001.
Patterson, Lee. Negotiating the Past: The Historical Understanding of Medieval Literature. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
Rawls, John. Political Liberalism: The John Dewey Essays in Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, 1996.
—. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Reader, Keith and Wadia, Khursheed. The May 1968 Events in France: Reproductions and Interpretations. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Said, Edward. Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Starn, Randolph. “The New Erudition.” Representations: Special Issue. Fall, 1996. 56: 1-15.
Stock, Brian. The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.
My selection of Ignatief’s general description of the public intellectual relies on his position as a journalist, policy maker, novelist and academic. Further, his brand of liberalism dovetails nicely with that of Aaron Sorkin, whose work I examine. Ignatief’s position ties directly to a perception of an unaddressed desire in the public sphere that is seen in part as the academy’s failure to engage the public. Debates about the role of the public intellectual in Western society have reached a furor over the past few years. In particular, Russell Jacoby’s books (see works cited) have tracked the fall of the public intellectual and that figure’s failure to mount any real radical agenda, relying instead on hollow platitudes. A recent forum in The Nation addressed these issues while allowing Jacoby to engage with several other writer/academics of note. What all of these positions share in common is the notion that we must return to something that we have lost. For my purposes, I am only interested in Ignatief’s brand of liberalism and its commitment to a form of pluralism that I believe is used as a very effective marketing tool on The West Wing.
Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin first developed the concept of remediation in a book by the same name. Bolter and Grusin define the term as, “the ways in which new digital media refashion or “remediate” older visual and verbal forms – for example, how the World Wide Web refashions graphic design, printing, radio, film, and television.” (http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/~bolter/remediation/index.html)
The New Philology as a school is most commonly associated with the work of Yale professors Howard Bloch and Lee Patterson. In particular, see, Bloch, Howard, “New Philology and Old French,” Speculum 64 (1990): 38-58, and Patterson, Lee. Negotiating the Past: The Historical Understanding of Medieval Literature. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
Said, 85-102. Said has long been a proponent of a more active role for the intellectual in contemporary politics. Still the best example of his general position on these issues is to be found in the book, Representations of the Intellectual. That text, which is a collection of lectures, features a fifth section specifically titled “Speaking Truth to Power,” that argues for a level of responsibility on the part of academics who are seen to posses a privileged speaking position.
Zola’s famed essay “J’accuse” charged the Catholic Church and contemporary press with anti-Semitism in its pursuit of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who stood accused of selling military secrets. Zola’s publication led to his own conviction for libel after a much-celebrated trial. There has been a great deal of writing on the subject, the recent The Dreyfus Affair: Honour and Politics in the Belle …poque, by Martin Johnson is among the best. The May 1968 actions are of similar fame and interest and are addressed in a number of books, one of the best being The May 1968 Events in France: Reproductions and Interpretations, by Keith Reader and Khursheed Wadia.
The notion of cultural capital stems from the ideas first addressed by John Guillory in his 1993 book, Cultural Capital and the Problem of Literary Canon Formation. In the introduction to that book, Guillory presents what he perceives as an attempt by the academy to drive up the value of its work through an imposed scarcity that results from controlling the means of cultural production.
It should be noted that Ignatief was a good friend of Berlin and wrote his biography in 1998. Berlin, is perhaps best remembered now as a political philosopher in the liberal tradition, rather than for his early work with the logical positivists.
Starn edited a special edition of the journal Representations (perhaps the central journal of American New Historicism) devoted to “The New Erudition.” The edition examines a number of approaches involving various forms of historical and historicist scholarship. (1-15).
Both Lieberman and Gergen are Washington insiders whose books respond to what they see as a need to reengage the American population with their systems of government.
Episode entitled “Let Bartlet be Bartlet,” Aired April 26, 2000.
See note above.
Althusser’s well known work on Ideological and Repressive State Apparatuses is found in the book Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Briefly, Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) are cultural machinations that placate a population and persuade them to believe in the existing power structures. Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs) are the physical means of control that the state uses, such as the police, military, hospitals, etc. For my purposes, it is not necessary to follow all of the structural Marxist position that Althusser developed, but rather to point out and query the cultural and political environment that has given rise to a flood of television shows that are is essence ISAs that use RSAs as subject matters. A few examples are ER, Law & Order, The Agency, Third Watch, Boston Public and of course The West Wing.
Aired May 3, 2000.
For details on show demographics see: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hollywoodreporter/television/index.jsp
The Tonight Show, Aired October 31, 2000.
Sheen allegedly said this in a speech in a California treatment center. The story was picked up and reported by the Associated Press on November 13, 2000.
Good Morning America, ABC. Aired March 1, 2001.
 Rawls’ particular version of “justice as fairness” was perhaps the most influential argument in American liberalism during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. He first developed the ideas in A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. He has continued to defend the ideas to the current day – see for example Political Liberalism, published in 1993 and updated in 1996.
In “Believing and Making People Believe,” De Certeau argues that we live in a narrated society that is rendered so by the three-tiered assault of narration, quotation and recitation that amount to an enforced belief. (De Certeau 125)