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November 29, 2008

Skirts and Signifiers

At the risk of offending the reader, I would like to share the contents of a dream I recently had: McCain had won the election and was being sworn in, and Sarah Palin and her husband were sitting near the podium and gazing adoringly at McCain. As McCain started to speak, Palin turned her head and looked out at the assembled crowd on the Mall, smiled, and slowly hitched up her skirt to reveal...well, it was very "Basic Instinct".

Yes, yes, creepy, and symbolic - - and it got me thinking about human symbols and hollow meaning. And about Sarah Palin as kitsch.

When Palin was led onto the national stage, I was in we-are-not-amused-Toronto, Canada. When Palin was led offstage (literally, by Governor Rick Perry of Texas, at the Republican Governors Conference), I was in we-friggin'-love-guns-and-hate-Government-Rachel, Nevada. There is not much to Rachel, but what is there is pungent. This tiny town in the Nevada desert borders the boundary line of Area 51 (they have maps) and the only bar in Rachel has walls hung with photos of UFOs (they have been seen) and art about the connection between alien life and dolphins (they know things).

The refrigerator cabinet behind the bar is covered with anti-Clinton, anti-Government, pro-gun, pro-Bush bumper stickers. While there, we were advised by the barkeep that although my husband and I were feeling sick, we ought not to get flu shots, because the government makes those shots and who knows whats really in them? Over breakfast, a local patron exclaimed that the bailout was a crock and those government people should have just given each and every one of us $100,000 to do whatever we damn well liked. One got the sense that anything outside of Rachel was just not to be trusted, or possibly not even real, as defined by Rachel-ites. I felt like I was in the pub scene in "American Werewolf in London" and at any moment someone was going to quietly advise us to stay off the moors.

What I realized later was that Rachel was, like Palin, a pure melodramatic entity. And the sense of personal dislocation I felt there was similar to the sense of confusion I felt anytime I heard Palin make a speech...it was as if the drama of the inner life of these citizens, or of Palin herself, supersede that of all others, and of any other experience of reality at any time in history.

In Peter Brooks' excellent book The Melodramatic Imagination (on the evolution of melodrama in modern literature and theater) he explains that as "the modern politics of created charisma - - inevitably a politics of personality - - and self-conscious enactments must imply, we are within a system of melodramatic struggle, where virtue and evil are fully personalized. Rarely can there be the suggestion of illumination and reconciliation in terms of a higher order of synthesis. It is indeed struggle alone that matters: the modern political leader is obliged to posit continuous battle with an enemy." Which is exactly how I imagine McCain and Palin perceive of themselves (and in contrast to the no-drama-Obama meme) not just on the campaign trail, but all the time, even when they are just sitting at the bar talking about...the flu.

Certainly Palin's loyal fans and event attendees perceive of themselves as being in an ongoing battle against socialist-terrorist-abortion-loving-communists. And, since it is being in the struggle that matters, they did not seem engaged in reconciling contradictions or even disparate ideas through any form of synthesis. What they know is what there is to know, and it is true because they have personally felt it to be true. The scope of their beliefs is encompassed in transcendent personal experience. Palin has said as much about her faith, and about leaving future decisions about her political life in her (not the, not ours, not yours) creator's hands. And this brings me back to the idea of kitsch and how what we have all just lived through on the political stage seems to me to have been a struggle between the value of the real and the value of the sentimental.

To my mind, enacted melodrama is the cousin of visual kitsch. Art that is kitsch has been described variously as sentimentalized, common, tacky, crass, eminently marketable work that is not ironic, and does not promote analytical thought. Kitsch allows personalized virtue to be presented in a pure visual form.

Kitsch is self-defining and self-completing; it is a kind of marker in visual history that is not in dialogue with any other creative expression. Though she was silent in my dream, verbally Sarah Palin is certainly melodramatic. And visually (consistently) she is a self-contained marker of an ideal of male-defined, outwardly virtuous femininity, in high heels and skirts. And possibly not much else.