Saturday, September 27, 2008

Life Imitates Art?: The Debate Formats

So last night I was watching the debate responses late on MSNBC when this political analyst came on. I don't remember his name (as I was still half-dead from my week of grad school insanity), but he attributed the more loosened up format of the debates in West Wing affected Jim Lehrer's insistence on McCain and Obama talking to each other. If this is true, a fictional representation may actually have had an effect on this election.

The thing is, as a West Wing fan, I knew the thing looked familiar as I was watching the debate. I knew I'd seen something similar on the show. As someone who's studying stories, particularly fictional ones, from a rhetorical, what-is-its-place-in-society way for my PhD, I found this just delightful. But beyond academics, if it's true, it could be actually quite significant within this already-unusual election.

So much to say. First, the analyst's case for this connection between the fictional and the real debate was compelling: he said that Jim Lehrer had been asked to take part in the fictionalized West Wing debate version a few years back, but turned it down because there was a rule that PBS employees couldn't appear in fiction (and Jim Lehrer himself had written the rule). That he'd talked to Jim Lehrer after the fictional version had aired, and Lehrer had liked the fiction version. We can't know for sure, but yeah, from my viewings of both (I watched that episode again a few months ago), there's a pretty significant echo here between the fictional and the real versions, particularly considering the popularity of the show and the fact that the debate moderator tonight actually had such a close connection with the fictional version.

Anyway, if this connection is true, this is huge. See, West Wing, according to teaser quote on the back of Season 4, is, at least in the eyes of The Buffalo News and those who wanted to put the quote on the season's cover, an "hour-long fantasy about what the White House might be like if honor and intellectual brilliance ever trumped cupidity and mediocrity." So this influential, well-written and award-winning show about what politics might be like may, a few years after its airing, be changing potentiality into actuality, which is pretty mindblowing to think about (though totally familiar ground for narrative theorists such as Walter Fisher).

Case in point:
LAST NIGHT There was much made in the post-debate coverage that Obama relaxed and look at McCain as Lehrer was urging them to, whereas McCain looked uncomfortable with the whole format and never once looked at Obama. And yes, Lehrer's role as the moderator highlighted this difference, as he was the one encouraging direct interaction.

IN WEST WING It was a situation with a youthful but smart Latino Democratic candidate (played by Jimmy Smits) goes up against a much older Republican mavericky candidate (sound familiar?). In the TV show version, both sides loosen up (not encouraged by the moderator but on their own--I think it was actually the Republican candidate who started the thing and insisted on a new debating style, and the Democratic candidate responded well), putting them on much more equal footing and making the audience breathe a sigh of relief as both characters became more likeable.

IN WEST WING, then, both opened up. LAST NIGHT, in the real version, only one of the candidates loosened up.

It makes me wonder, a lot. In a few directions:
  1. Will art make a measurable difference in this election? West Wing was a very popular show, and that episode was only aired a few years ago. I can't have been the only one in the audience with narrative expectations based on the fictional version. Might these comparisons to the show's outcome actually affect in a significant way how the voting public interpreted the outcome of last night's debate? (One wishes someone had started a longitudinal study back at the original airing, so as to ask those people tonight was their reactions were. :) If so, the comparison can only be positive for Obama, it seems, and negative for McCain, which is incredibly relevant at this point in the election cycle.

    It's definitely exciting, in that the world of possibility offered within West Wing offers an antidote to what narrative theorists Bennett and Edelman say happens so often in the narratives crafted by politicians: that "stock political plots ([as opposed to] other, more useful narrative possibilities) construct meanings to counter...ambiguity," resolving "possible points of new understanding into [cut-and-dried] replays of the political dramas of the past." This means that literary representations of truth may have wedged new possibilities for the narrative genres put forth by the political culture of this country, which as Bennet and Edelman argue has difficulty achieving the sort of creativity and possibility offered by great fiction.*

    In other words, solutions that people have dreamed up and put into fiction are able to break into our polarized, highly conventionalized ways of thinking about politics in this country, demanding that candidates act in new ways, in a very literal sense.

    On the other hand, some might be disturbed that a scene in a TV show, in prescribing new ways for politicians to act, might have been able to act as a lobbyist, potentially swaying the course of the election. If you think the show's potentialities are the way candidates should relate to each other in the debate, you're likely to think it's great--if not, probably not so much.

    (By the way, I think Obama won the debate, and I'm perfectly aware that my judgment in that could be influenced by, among other things, the fact that I like the styles of relating offered by West Wing's version of political debating--they rang true to me when I first saw them, which gave me further grounds for the contrast between the two versions to seem particularly striking to me. In fact, if West Wing really had a conceivable influence on this election, I wonder whether it's possible that Obama's style is somewhat more accepted in general during this election because of some of the aspects of the "fantasy political world" West Wing laid before the American public.)

  2. For artists, including myself: Does this raise the stakes on what we do? On the ethics of what we as artists choose to write? How we write it? This case seems to illustrate that our cultural productions have some pretty powerful rhetorical oomph--perhaps even influencing who becomes president of the US. That's some pretty amazing power--something to be taken seriously. I don't think it means that we should be making our fictions heavily ideological, allowing the "shoulds" of the world trump the "what ifs" within our stories, but it certainly makes me think we should at least be asking the right "what ifs"--important "what ifs"--and seriously considering our choices of characters, as well as other ways we might think in the ethical dimension about the persuasive power of the story to influence the world.

  3. For narrative theorists and creative folks of all stripes: Not so much a wondering here as more of a WOW! Look! A pretty significant example that art, and its study, is incredibly important, and that stories are incredibly significant in how they shape our views of the world, and provide a testing ground for proving out how ideas may work in the world. Woohoo!

    On the other hand, though, it concerns me a bit. It makes a strong case for rhetorical and sociological interpretations of art, which is good, but with Santiago Ramos, I'm worried about our reduction of art to ONLY these aspects, so it makes me worry a bit about whether this kind of case could overly encourage that sort of emphasis at the expense of the other equally valid aspects of fiction, especially their aesthetic qualities as well as the ways they help us view people and the human condition in more complex and (often) sympathetic ways.
One final prediction, from a girl studying the rhetoric of conspiracies this semester: Someone in the McCain camp could so easily turn this whole West Wing and the debates thing into a conspiracy theory of some kind. I sincerely doubt that such a thing would be the result of a conspiracy--just shows that Kenneth Burke's idea in "Literature as Equipment for Living" is right--that we use situations in fictional stories to help us understand situations in the real world, as strategies for thinking differently than we are used to thinking.

* Bennett, W.L. and Edelman. L. (1985). Toward a new political narrative. Journal of Communication, 35(4), 158, 162. For more on rhetoric and possibility, see Kirkwood, W. (1992). Narrative and the rhetoric of possibility. Communication monographs, 59(1), 30-47.

Some links to stuff about the West Wing debate episode:
  1. A description of it,
  2. a blog post highlighting the political side of the episode,
  3. a Washington Post article on the effect of the episode
  4. an MSNBC post-episode report
  5. AP article asking why real debates don't work like the episode

1:39 PM:

Really have to stop researching this soon and get back to more immediate stuff, but here's some articles making recent connections between the West Wing election and this campaign from
a Minnesota Public Radio debate article from yesterday and a BBC article from 12 days ago which says Smits' character on the show (and not to be a spoiler for DVD watchers, but Smits's character won the election, by the way) may have influenced Obama's run, and another blog post mapping the similarities and connections.


Jennifer said...

I thought your analysis was great. If art does have any influence on the election, does it matter. Is that worse than being influenced by a commercial? Or our neighbors. The West Wing was one of the smartest and well written series ever on television. And they did a good job of being impartial. Vinick came off looking much better than McCain did last night. Whose fault is that? Obama showed, all on his own, that he is the much better candidate for the office of the President of the United States.

Deborah Leiter said...

Jennifer: Thanks. I do use the words "fictional" and "real" advisedly, since our "real life" narratives so often form in such similar ways to fictional ones. The question of whether we can always tell the line between what is real and what we've socially constructed is a blurry one, which narrative theorists like Bennett and Edelman convincingly argue.

And I think you're right--the status of West Wing as a source of persuasion isn't that different from that of a commercial (or an editorial). I just wonder (with a bit of concern) what would happen if politicians and legislators started arguing about what we put in our fictional representations as much as they argue about what can be put in political commercials.

Rodger Jacobs said...

Let's not forget that Aaron Sorkin staffed "The West Wing" with a lot of writers who were, at some point in their careers, Washington insiders. When they crafted the episode you write of (I must admit to never having watched the show), their knowledge of the process and how it might ideally function was first and foremost in their thoughts. This may not be a case of life imitating but an insider's view of how things should be.

Or something like that.

Deborah Leiter said...

Rodger: Yeah, I agree that it's never just life imitating art or art imitating life; instead it's "art imitating life imitating art." Or, to put it more clearly, authors create art, sometimes with persuasive intent in mind, and at that point if "life imitates it," it's not something shocking so much as an effective rhetorical message.

We just seem to wall fictional representations off in their own box in our society, forgetting that they, too, have rhetorical dimensions that have the power to change our minds. We've spent so much time in fighting the book banners that we forget the power of the opinions expressed in literature are real ones that can have measurable impact on public opinion.

Rodger Jacobs said...

Well, now you're getting to the heart of the debate over the Oprah Winfrey book club. With the power she yields, the ability to get millions of people to read a damn book, one would think she would select titles that could galvanize public opinion on social issues. "If He Hollers, Let Him Go" by Chester Himes would be a good selection, for instance, with all this quiet rumbling about race in the current election. But, no, instead she offers up Steinbeck's "East of Eden" and Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic "The Road", novels that are practically devoid of politics or social ideals. Not much sense in getting folks to read if you're handing them comic books.

Deborah Leiter said...

Rodger: Yes, I agree that that Oprah's book club could and should be much better done. One could do a whole series of books dealing with the issue of feeling marginalized in different kinds of societies, for instance: choose Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev or The Chosen, for instance, about this very other society of Hasidic Judaism, which deals with questions of marginalization within a marginalized society in very different contexts than we're using to thinking about. Or choose a recent YA book called Feed, which deals eloquently with questions of connections between technology and literacy.

There could be many, many paths to making a powerful statement and helping people to understand different types of cultures and key topics, without sacrificing literary quality at all.