Uh, Uh, Uh, Uh, Uh, Uh, Uh (On Affect and the Presidential Election)

by on Oct.24, 2012

Dear fellow over-educated effete lefty election addicts, now that the Presidential debates are over, you may have noticed a curiously nihilistic tone of the pundit responses. After each debate, the adjudication of the debates’ victor and loser had less to do with any actual policy difference between the two candidates, than about stranger and more shamanic: the candidates’ affect.

By this I mean not the old Cartesian saw that electoral politics is all horse race, no policy, but that presidential politics is the genre of melodramatic performance, a documentation of the more mundane and charismatic surfaces of the body. Characters distinguish themselves via distinctive mannerisms, the press leaning forward to transcribe every blink and grimace, every mark and noise. Think of Nixon’s perspiration and the famous Esquire cover featuring Tricky Dick getting lipstick applied, the now incorrect proverb that the tallest Presidential candidate wins, the misogynistic tracking of Hillary’s hairstyles in the ‘90s, Howard Dean’s career-ending screech, John Edwards’s bouffant, and Sarah Palin’s hostess-like winks at the camera. Precisely because electoral politics is so stage-managed, we read these debates (funded and controlled, as they are by an organization funded by the two parties) as a way of mediating the true Presidential selves between their campaign machines and us, the studio audience. Unlike campaign commercials, which present President as product–improvisational sparring, Biden’s gaffes, and uncovered misstatements like Romney’s 47% video, these things show us the symptoms that hide under the veneer of the utterly controlled body. They suggest the President not as self, but as a body that cannot help but be human, a body that one can have a beer with. We may amend Tip O’Neill’s dictum and say that all politics is surface. Or to paraphrase one poet, politics is a body that is always deep, but deepest at its surface.

As the candidates’ bodies were scanned by millions of global eyes, eagerly hunched before Twitter, they were assessed as to whether they in fact “look Presidential” (whatever that means). In “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins,” Eve Sedgwick talks about the crude yet oddly curious biological essentialism of a doctor named Tomkins, who notes the density of neural firing and suggests that this bodily affect can be read backwards into different emotions–like laughter, joy, fear, and interest. We might view these debates as operating in a similar vein for the body politic: the candidates emit bodily affect, which is then interpreted outwards as the spikes and valleys of network news undecided voters trendlines. We assess blinks, grimaces, eye contact, hand gestures, postures, spasms, interruptions. These gestures–Biden’s carnivalesque interruptions, his uncontrollable and excessive body, Paul Ryan’s water-drinking and oversized coat, Romney’s blinking and his adoring dachshund gazes, Obama’s inability to be aggressive (lest he be seen as an Angry Black Man)–are divined as omens about power. In fact, both the Daily Beast and the New York Times even went so far as to hire body language experts. The paradoxically mechanizing commentary reads like Kraftwerk writing the play-by-play to a Pokemon battle:

“Obama shows an endearing HEAD-TILT-SIDE to Romney’s vertically held head.”

“Obama uses COMPRESSED-LIPS cue. Disagrees.”

“Romney shows Dan Quayle’s ADAMS-APPLE-JUMP as Obama talks about Obamacare. Fear.”

I’d like to declare that I am heretofore embarking on a Conceptual Poetics project in which I hire a body language expert to follow me around for a week, endlessly transcribing descriptions like “Chen CHEWS a bagel while perspiring. Ennui.”

After the first debate, someone created this Youtube Supercut of all of Obama’s hesitations during the first debate, a video titled ‘Uh.’ This tick of Obama’s has oddly become the only consistent affect across various comedians’ impressions of him and in fact the lack of bodily presence of both candidates has been somewhat of a problem for impressionists.

“I think Obama is a lot tougher,” [Saturday Night Live writer Jim] Downey said. “What helps us is people who are goofy or have some loose threads.” Downey sees the president as something like a European jewel thief in a 1950’s heist movie: “He’s just so smooth. There are no toeholds to grab onto.” Romney isn’t much easier to mock. “He’s perfectly well-spoken. It’s not that he’s inarticulate. He can be a little clueless. He’s a guy who’s an awkward first date.”

The candidates’ imperviousness to imitation suggests one thing that most debate coverage missed: part of the electoral challenge is that both Obama and Romney are competent, pragmatist technocrats, both efficient without possessing the conviction to be effective, and both totally disconnected from their bodies. Both narcissist white-collar service professionals educated at Harvard Law School and surrounded by advisers from high finance, Romney and Obama are incorporeal candidates, the shapeshifting ghosts of transnational flows of capital. (Doug Henwood recently commented that Romney believes in money, Obama believes in nothing.) When Clint Eastwood and the New Yorker depicted Obama as an empty chair, they were onto something: the distant, nebulous, decentralized world of his policies, a swarm of drone attacks rather than large Navy fleets. This is why Romney needed to be “humanized”: he is the 21st century finance professional par excellence, an ends-vs-means-assessing automaton who believes he has no ideology other than money. Consider his gaffe about women in binders: on its face, aside from being untrue, Romney’s assertion that he reviewed a binder full of qualified applicants is actually a fairly model process for diversity hires, which is why it originally proposed by the Dems. The reason it was a gaffe is because Romney’s phrasing suggested that he himself knew so few qualified women that they could only be data–in other words, he had exorcised them from their bodies.

Let us return to the audience for these bodies: the so-called low-information undecided voter, essentially the citizen before citizenship, the voter at the most base, animal level and therefore most susceptible to base shows of bodily strength and power. I would argue that these voters are what Zizek called “the subject supposed to believe.” What is important is not whether or not we ourselves believe something, but that elsewhere, there is still the proper still-ideological person (the subject supposed to believe) who does believe it, like the nun in Delillo’s White Noise who claims her only role is to believe so the rest of us can stop believing or the electronic monk in Douglas Adams who believes for us, just as a VCR watches shows for us. Because these voters are the only voters who matter in the Presidential electoral calculus, the only role of the pundit or the quant is not to critique the candidates’ policies, but to intuit the leanings of these inaccessible bodies in places like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida. Actual political debate is forever deferred and replaced with a secondhand observation of opinion. Because these undecided swing state voters are the only voters are the only citizens who are really allowed to have political impact, there is a way where they are the only people who are allowed to have political beliefs.


1. Rather fittingly, few humans have ever called Mitt Romney handsome, but it has been proven via scientific study.

2. DAVID BROMWICH on Paul Ryan’s self-presentation.  “Where Obama projected the calm consciousness of a grave but unnamed mission, Ryan’s self-love is more recognisably American-boyish. He radiates ambition, healthy ambition, as if ambition were one of those permitted substances you could take at the gym to enhance performance. He has a lean and hungry look even when he smiles; and a relentless eagerness also, which will wear on people over time. His constant demeanour is cocksure; his face never registers reflection. Listening to other people is a formality, for Ryan, to be endured before he springs his answers. And how the answers pour out! There is an attractive, efficient speed in the way he works, but also a kind of deadness. And the deadness is there in his eyes – the hard eyes of the self-fulfilled and self-justified, clean of mind and clean of body, a whole mental mansion trip-wired against invasion by entities seeking pity and bearing excuses.”

3. A more affect theory take on Clint Eastwood at the RNC.

4. A passage from Sergio De La Pava’s experimental novel, A NAKED SINGULARITY: (on identification numbers for defendants in a court house)

“The numbers then attached to a body, one that by then had traversed the entirety of a creaking assembly line, and as a result the body staed in.

[bod-y (bðd’ē) n., pl. –ies. 9. CJS. Inarguably odious term by N.Y.C. Department of Correction and other court personnel to denote incarcerated criminal defendant: There are three hundred bodies in the system so we should be busy. He’s bringing the next batch of bodies down, I’ll let you know if your guy’s one of them.]”

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Ken, YES, thank you for this. If I hadn’t stayed up all night burning out my neurons reading election “news”, I would write a linked post about all these male bodies vs the spectres of fetuses vs the spectres of rape vs the spectres of God. As this rape thing keeps coming up and up it seems like a ‘tell’ too– rape is the most coercive of gendered interactions, and it’s like these conservative politicians keep ADMITTING that this is the kind of gender imbalance/coersion that they are in fact wishing to preserve– they know that all this coersion is a kind of rape, and they keep letting that knowledge spill from their lips.