Friday, May 28, 2010

Democracy Part XXI: Images of Rule and the Incarnation of the State in Democractic Societies in the Response to the BP Louisiana Oil Spill

Sometimes the smallest detail provides the greatest insight into the orientation of state officials and the mindset of an administration.  Taken from the home page of the official web site of the American President is the following text and accompanying image:

Taking questions from the press, the President makes clear that he is in charge of the response, that all hands are on deck, and that those responsible will be held accountable.

Oil Spill in the Gulf, The White House, May 27, 2010. 

This reveals a somewhat curious hierarchy of governance relationships: first press, then staff and last the entities against which the mechanics of state will be applied.   

First is the importance of image, of the need to provide evidence of the appearance of being in charge.  The President takes questions from the press--that activity is critical to the governance issue presented.  The President triumphs in this activity--not the resolution of the issues surrounding the oil spill but the domination of the questioning by the press.  As a consequence the President appears to acquire a legitimacy through the image of rule.  Substance is incarnated through gesture.   The ability to satisfy the inquires of the press substitutes or serves as a validation of the legitimacy of the actions to be undertaken in response.  Note also the subtly embedded in the terseness of the text--"the President makes clear that he is in charge of the response."  There is a double meaning here--he is meant to be in control of the response to the press and of the response to the crisis that prompted the engagement with the press.

Second, the need to provide the imagery of authority appropriately exercised is directed not to the people directly but to the press.  The context of the appearance of the exercise of authority is not  entwined with the mechanics of governance but rather with the approval of the press.  That approval--and the collusion/acquiescence of the press in subsequent governmental action, is derived from a successful passage of the test of the examination of the President--not by Congress but by the press.  

Third--the "all hands are on deck" provides the second critical prong of the incarnation of substance through imagery within the body of the President. Just as the imagery of positive interaction with the press is essential for validation, so is the construction of the imagery of the control by the president of his ministers and their underlings.  There is a control parallelism here--the President "is in charge""of responses to the press and is also in control of the apparatus of state.  That control of his government is conveyed deliberately in nautical-control rather than bureaucratic-comitological terms--"all hands are on deck." This is a common understanding in popular culture: "It's a command for everybody who can come and work to do so. . . . . It is also used in case of an emergency or any other time the captain needs all crew persons "front and center", where they can be counted and given commands."  The Phrase Finder (UK).  This construction is one consciously cultivated by the President's ministers for image control in the usual stagings for dramatic  Presidential appearances. "President Barack Obama, on a trip to Venice, Louisiana, the site of intense response efforts to the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, promised 'an all-hands on deck" response to a "massive and possibly unprecedented environmental disaster.'" President Barack Obama promises 'all hands on deck' approach to oil spill response, The Times-Picayune, May 2, 2010.

Fourth, the visual image itself is a source of unintended but revealing outlook.  It is entitled "hero_oil_presser2_PS-0795.jpg".  And so, the hero.  I have spoken before of the very deliberate effort to personalize the executive within the body of this president.  I have suggested the parallels in these efforts to the ancient notions of the incarnation of the nation (and the state apparatus) in the body of the man who holds the presidential crown.  It is clear that this thinking is not now far removed from those charged with the cultivation of the presidential persona.  Larry Catá Backer, Mr. Obama Speaks in Egypt: "Islam is a Part of America"--The Ummah Wahida, and the State in Two Distinct World Orders,  Law at the End of the Day, June 5, 2009.  There is a wonderful overtone that draws form a rich tradition of Christian imagery here as well--not drawn from the post Plague period when the human aspects of Christ (the Passion) became the center of Church imagery, but from the earlier period when the imagery of Majestas Domini (Christ in majesty, emphasizing the divine nature) was more central to Church visual representation.

Lastly, of course, is the element of judgment--"those responsible will be held accountable."  This conflates nicely the images of majestas and judgment--the legitimacy of authority and its exercise against those who have broken the covenant.  The effort suggests a personal judgment--not through the mechanics of a byzantine judicial system, but through application of the active principle embodied in the person of the President himself.  The image that accompanies the text is not mere static majesty but a youthful majesty in action.  The administration incarnate thus demonstrates its power, submitting to questions from the press and thereby demonstrating his control of the response (to the press and to the problem).  The incarnate administration also demonstrates its authority and control over its own house by declaring a mobilization of the apparatus of state to serve to implement the will of the administration embodied in the response.  And finally, that incarnated administration has judged and will employ his ministers to effectuate that judgment in accordance with the customs of the Americans.  For those who follow the relationship between law and power, between the rule of law and the Word personified, there appears to be much material for contemplation in this small, and necessary, gesture.

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