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Paratexts as 527s, 527s as Paratexts

August 22nd, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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In earlier posts on paratextual politics, I looked at a snippet from the cast commentary track of the Fellowship of the Ring DVD, and on some of the paratexts that surround Mad Men. Both posts examined identity politics and fictional texts. But what about capital P politics, where the “text” is a candidate, policy, platform, or party?

 

I hope to have more to say about this in future posts, but I’ll begin by discussing 527s and other entities not officially linked to or licensed by candidates as paratexts. Or perhaps the post is about paratexts as 527s.

 

First off, let’s acknowledge the supreme power these have to “author” a text from the paratextual margins. The preeminent case here is the infamous Skiff Boat Veterans For Truth (where “for Truth” = “for utter bullshit”) videos that sank (ha ha. I bet I’m the first one ever to use that pun) John Kerry’s candidacy, if it was ever truly afloat that is.

 

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It was masterful in its evil: the Democrats were running against an incumbent president who was trying ever so hard to author himself as a strong, kick-ass, cowboy president who would take no shit from those lesser countries of the world (by which he meant Everyone Else), but the Dems’ candidate was a decorated war hero, whereas Bush had maneuvered his way out of serving in Vietnam. Kerry had more claim to being the dude not to mess with, then, right? Clearly the Republicans and their supporters needed to deal with this, by protecting their branding of Bush and the Republicans, but also by intervening in the authoring/branding of Kerry and the Dems.

 

Here, to make what might seem an obvious point, I consider each candidate a text. I’m not even sure politicians have an authentic self by the time they run for President – you’d think that would’ve been beaten out of them long ago, on one level, but on another level, we’re all texts that we and others write. And an election is about a competition between texts, and which the electorate will pick. Of course, it’s an especially intricate competition of texts, too, since the larger über-Text that looms behind those texts is The Nation, and the electorate is also choosing who will be the primary recognized author of that text for the next few years.

 

And just as texts are written by those who are recognized by many as authors, they are written at the paratextual margins too. Unless we are utterly naïve, for instance, we know that Bush alone doesn’t author Bush, nor does Kerry alone author Kerry. Moving a small step out, just as those of us who know something about Hollywood know that the director and screenwriter are joined as authors by a whole host of other cast and crew members, so too do advisors, speechwriters, and members of one’s party author the candidate text. Then, just as a film’s promo team market and (re?)create a text for the public, one’s campaign staff plays a role in paratextually defining who and what a candidate “is” (scare quotes used since it isn’t who they are authentically, but who they are declared to be). So far we’re still talking about the people the candidate nominally controls.

 

Beyond those folk, there are then those who are trying to author the candidate relatively, namely those working to author the other candidate. Bush’s guys know that to say “Bush is X,” they may need first to define Kerry as “not-X,” and vice-versa. There are still parallels in Hollywood, as sometimes promos proudly oppose this text or genre to that text or genre, though the clearer parallels come in advertising where Brand X needs to establish itself sometimes by authoring Brand Y. See the famous Mac ads, for instance, in which Mac felt the need to author PCs to author themselves effectively.

 

 

Beyond those folk are all those who have any access to media and have something else to say about the candidate. In many ways, a campaign is in large part a massive battle for authorship, and though winning that battle doesn’t promise one victory in the polls, keeping power over the authorship of one’s text would seem to be remarkably important, right?

 

Yes and no. Granted, there are many would-be authors of my text as candidate who I don’t want to have any power: I want them to shut up, I want them to be discredited, and I want my own authoring to shout down theirs. But some authors who have no nominal relationship with my campaign, and hence who I don’t control in any clear way, can still be of great utility to me.

 

Going back to the Swift Boat Veterans, their allegation – that Kerry was a coward and a traitor – would seem too volatile for the Bush campaign to have made itself with any regularity. Not only would the Vietnam-avoiding Bush have risked public approbation if he tried to compare someone who at the very least was on the swift boat, but he would also have risked seeming like a “negative campaigner” (oddly, every candidate likes to say they’re not one of these, even though every candidate is). Meanwhile, though, he could and did capitalize upon the paratextual authoring.

 

For another example, we could turn to the 2008 campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama. Obama’s candidacy brought the racist religious zealots of America out in full force, and with the Internet, YouTube, and social media allowing them even more impact on a campaign, their power as paratextual authors increased significantly. A key narrative that surrounded Obama, thanks to these folks, was that he was the Anti Christ. It still saddens me to live in a country in which there are honestly people who take that shit seriously, and in which that wouldn’t be laughed away as much as if someone said Obama was the reincarnation of Cleopatra. But, hey, that’s where we are. And while McCain clearly couldn’t risk reiterating those comments or being in any way officially attached to them, precisely because he presumably wanted some votes from people who don’t have racism and religious zealotry flowing through their veins like alcohol in Lindsay Lohan’s system, he could and did capitalize on the existence of these paratextual authors.

 

 

More so, he could slyly nod to them, and – in political terms – dog whistle to them occasionally. Along those lines, this infamous ad was often spoken of as doing just that. While nominally it’s an ad that mocks Obama’s sense of self-importance, the use of Biblical rhetoric clearly taps into and invites a religious reading, and at the very least posits Obama as setting himself up as a false idol. I think it would be outlandish to say that this ad alleges Obama is the Anti Christ or simply not Christian, but it does a pretty masterful job of walking around that allegation and encouraging some furtive glances in that direction. To me, then, it reads as an obvious acknowledgment that the McCain campaign was happy to have those Anti Christ stories and pictures and videos and websites around, and wasn’t beyond nodding and winking at them.

 

If our interest is in campaign politics, the above suggests to me that we could do a better job of tracking how these various narratives and authors are connected, how they endorse one another, and so forth.

 

But since I’ve used the language of text and paratext, we could also back away from campaigns and capital P politics altogether to find a conclusion about how paratexts can work. Some “official,” recognized authors of texts, for instance, can’t be seen to be saying that their text is something … but they’re only too happy to have someone else say it. So if we’re going to examine the politics that paratexts give to texts, this would seem to require that we check for such situations, wherein paratexts are used as are 527s to propose readings, to float and to sink boats, to plant seeds. Media studies have at times too often been fond of a grand Empire vs. Rebel Alliance style battle between producers and audiences, but paratextual politics demand that we see the more devious ways in which various authors or producers with various stakes use paratexts to position texts publicly even before “audiences” get a crack at them.

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