Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"You Lose, Asshole," and other elements of democratic discourse.

I very much enjoy some of the research and theorizing that has addressed the issue of democratic discourse. One of my favorite articles to take on this topic is Michael Schudson's (in)famous "Why Conversation is Not the Soul of Democracy," in which he addresses the widespread assumption in communication research that interpersonal communication can be thought of as a necessary component of democratic functioning. This assumption runs through the work of Dewey, Tarde, Katz & Lazarsfeld (imho), Habermas, and many others. Schudson points out to all of us that democracy isn't just a bunch of people talking. Any reasonable definition of a working democracy today must address factors (e.g. information, news, structural elements, and much else) that cannot be found simply in a bunch of folks talkin' about stuff.

Another really great piece that addresses this larger issue is Carolyn Marvin & Pete Simonson's "Voting Alone" piece, where they examine the role of the body (ever undeniable) in democracy, particularly in the U.S. They remark on the seemingly long-gone tradition of treating elections, for example, as a kind of sociable event in the 19th century U.S. Want a functioning democracy? Put some booze, some sex, and some torch-lit rallies into it. That'll get people going. [yes, of course, Marvin & Peterson are aware that torch-lit rallies are also associated with some non-democratic events as well]

Along come my pals Jen Horner & Mark Brewin, taking on this very issue of embodied democratic politics with their new piece in Critical Studies in Media Communication, entitled "The Salt River Ticket, Democratic Discourse, and Nineteenth Century American Politics". In this article, they describe the tradition whereby citizens in the mid 19th century who voted for the winning candidates handed out what were called Salt River Tickets to those who voted for the losing candidates. What were Salt River Tickets, you ask? They were mock tickets to ride on a fictional steam boat up the Salt River (the place where losers went back then). Here's the copy from the Salt River Ticket Horner & Brewin quote in the beginning of the article:
Free ticket to the Saline Spring
For all 'Wooley Heads,' 'Nigger Thieves,' 'Underground R.R. Directors,' and 'Black Republicans.'
Pass the bearer through to Salt River on the Wooley Horse.
FREMONT, Captain; 'JESSIE,' First Mate; GREELY, Pilot; E. DOUGLASS, Mourner; 'ISMS,' Undertaker.
State rooms reserved for the col'd voters of New York
Reed, Gibbons & Co., will be provisioned on 'Wooley offal' and 'Fusion' Hash during the trip in consideration of their distinguished services during the campaign. Lloyd Garrison and Luc. Mott will lead the party to the storm scow 'Disunion.'

So, if you were a supporter of the Democrats, you would have done the following with this ticket:
a) find out who won the elction
b) get really freakin' drunk (Horner & Brewin don't theorize this as a necessary component, but it's easy to imagine it playing a major role)
c) pick up a bunch of Salt River tickets
d) hand these tickets out to the supporters of the Republicans
e) laugh your ass off

After an exhaustive analysis of Salt River Tickets as an example of Bakhtinian carnivalesque, Horner & Brewin conclude that "The ticket established a bond between winner and loser at the same moment it articulated the tensions that the election had introduced within the world of white masculinity" (p. 15). Horner & Brewin maintain a rather complete ambivalence here. I may be getting what they're saying wrong, but I think they admire the degree to which people got fired up about politics with these Salt River Tickets, while also realizing that these things were hardly some kind of 'democracy potion' that helped achieve any of the goals that we associate with democracy. Forms of political communication like the Salt River Ticket, they argue "can serve as useful corrective to the ponderous, guarded style of communication of established media channels and major political parties" (p. 15). They compare this to the blogs of today, noting that we see the same kind of "shrill character," "self-congratulation, disdain for compromise, and narrow-minded worldview" (p. 16) in blogs that could be found in the Salt River Tickets. This seems entirely right. Blogs are used to rehearse already-developed rivalries, to satirize (often with the kind of body-talk and inversion [i.e. fart jokes] that made Rabelais such a big deal), to spew vitriol, and to voice tensions.

Horner & Brewin see how this fits into democracy, and in this their work represents its own corrective to the tendency in communication research to focus too much on 'eat your spinach' journalism, or public sphere theory. Salt River Tickets did not create democracy. But the passions they stirred remain something to consider.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave, you are absolutely right about the "rather complete ambivalence" I myself felt toward the topic. One measure of democratic "health" might be whether people with opposed political beliefs interact at ANY level - myself, I can't imagine teasing somebody because Santorum lost his PA senate seat. I wish I could. Not just because I want to say "in your face!!", but because people of different political persuasions don't generally discuss politics, and I don't have anyone to tease (at least not here in the ivory tower - I need to get out more). But the fun of salt river tickets as they appeared in the 19th c. drew on an entrenched history of racism and cruelty: pretty awful. Onward... Jen

9:04 AM  
Anonymous Michael K. said...

Let me see if I follow you here. Schudson is right that there is too much emphasis on intersubjectivity in democracy studies; but Horner and Brewin are right that there isn't enough of it in contemporary democratic practice? Which of these theses seems more plausible to you? Or, is there a way to resolve the apparent contradiction and assert both?

4:15 PM  

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