Friday, September 12, 2008

Virtually Sarah Palin

Much energy on behalf of Democratic operatives and liberal bloggers has gone into the effort to discover and make public "the real Sarah Palin."  What this effort has failed to understand is that the real Sarah Palin is virtual: Sarah Palin is the first virtual candidate for the vice-presidency.

The search for the real Sarah Palin has operated on a variety of different fronts, in every case with the aim of making the American public aware of Palin's true positions on domestic, local, national, and international issues.  Networked, print, and televisual media have spent the past two weeks engaged in the enterprise of exposing contradictions and inconsistencies between her past positions and her campaign stump speech.  Scores of investigators have devoted themselves to digging up dirt from her personal life that would challenge the "hockey mom" narrative of a socially conservative mother of five turned governor of the largest state in the nation.  

Unsurprisingly, in light of the media anonymity in which the first-term governor of Alaska has lived and governed,  all of these efforts have born fruit.  The media has presented us with "Troopergate," the ethics probe into Governor Palin's alleged firing of a state employee for failing to fire her ex-brother-in-law, an Alaska state trooper.  We've learned that the repeated assertion in Palin's and John McCain's stump speeches that Palin opposes earmarks, particularly the infamous "bridge to nowhere" is a lie--Palin campaigned in support of the bridge and took the over $200 million of earmark money designated for the bridge and spent it on other Alaska projects.  The media has exposed Palin's questionable decision to claim "per diem" travel money for choosing to live at home rather than in the governor's residence in Juneau.  And we've heard numerous allegations about Palin and her family: that Palin's daughter is the real mother of Trig Palin; that Sarah Palin had an affair with her husband's business partner; that Track Palin, her 18-year-old son who has been lionized for his decision to join the military and his deployment to Iraq, is a drug-addicted thug, whose Oxycontin abuse was but one of the reasons his parents pressured him to enlist.  And the list of verified and alleged facts and contradictions goes on.

But all of these efforts to uncover the real Sarah Palin miss the point.  Palin is a virtual candidate, whose role in the campaign is to generate support for and increase the intensity of the McCain campaign by providing a source of potentiality and possibility onto which voters and the media can project their own beliefs and desires.  This virtual candidacy works by intensifying the affect of both McCain and Obama supporters, for whom the reality of Sarah Palin means and feels quite differently, and mobilizes and amplifies different premediated networks of practices, behaviors, and beliefs.  

This virtuality is epitomized in the brilliant way in which the McCain campaign has introduced Sarah Palin to the American media public.  For the first two weeks after the announcement of her selection she has been off-limits to the media, who have been prevented from interviewing her, from trying to determine what she really thinks, what her real capabilities are, how she thinks.  The McCain campaign has made her available through the narrative of the Republican Convention and through her joint campaign appearances with McCain, where she has repeated a series of lines drawn from or based upon her acceptance speech.  Both mainstream and participatory media have had to define her through her mediated traces on print, televisual, and networked media--videos, newspaper and magazine articles, political records, and so forth. A viral email from Ann Kilkenny, an Alaskan neighbor of Palin, epitomizes the way in which the search for the real Sarah Palin has proceeded.

After two weeks, however, Palin has finally been allowed to be interviewed by Charles Gibson, the ABC News anchor.  After the first night of a multi-part interview, the news about the real Sarah Palin is that she doesn't know what the Bush Doctrine is (the declaration in September 2002 that the US has the right to engage in preemptive warfare) and that she is equivocating about her earlier proclamation that global warming was not the result of human causes. Although in subsequent interviews it is likely that we will learn more about "the real Sarah Palin," the McCain campaign has staged these interviews to allow them to continue to mobilize the virtual Palin.  

Look at the interview structure, which is scheduled to take place over two days at different Alaskan locations.  On the first day Gibson interviewed Palin in two locations, sitting down inside somewhere and walking outdoors near a section of the Alaskan oil pipeline. Why these two different sites?  So that the McCain campaign can benefit from two different manifestations of the virtual Palin to determine how to deploy her in future media events, to allow different elements of their supporters to realize different aspects of Palin's virtuality.  This virtuality, it is important to emphasize has affective and bodily affordances.  How does Palin impact viewers while sitting across from Gibson, with her business skirt lying across her crossed legs above the knees?   What is the effect of her strolling with Gibson, showing him the technologized Alaskan landscape like a landed woman showing off her estate?  And of course, these different settings provide different video formats to be remediated in different media formations--on the campaign website, on TV ads, on networked print, televisual, and networked news. Furthermore, the multi-day format gives the McCain/Palin campaign the chance to recalibrate her message both in terms of its content and in terms of its affective qualities.  The ABC interview should not be understood as the first opportunity for the media to present the public with the real Sarah Palin, but rather the latest opportunity for the premediation of the virtual Sarah Palin.  This interview is less about what Palin has done or said, about what Palin knows, than it is about how Palin will be remediated by the McCain campaign and the media themselves in the less than two month before the 2008 election.

In focusing on what Palin really thinks or knows or believes or has done (on Sunday, CNN will present Joe Biden and Sarah Palin "revealed"), the media will continue to fail to recognize the way in which what she brings to the McCain campaign is her virtuality, not her reality, and that the search for the real Sarah Palin will do little or nothing to reduce the intensity of support that she brings to the Republican ticket.  The same is true of the Obama campaign.  Rather than continue to deploy their considerable resources on uncovering and exposing the real Sarah Palin, the Obama campaign needs to figure out how to reduce or redirect the affective intensity that the virtual Sarah Palin has brought to the presidential race, which can only be done by recognizing that it is precisely this virtuality that has brought Obama himself to the position he is in.  

To spend time responding or reacting to what Palin has said is to misunderstand what she brings to the McCain campaign, is like trying to catch a sunbeam or a soap bubble  The election of 2008, more intensively than any prior presidential election, hinges on the respective campaigns' abilities to premediate their candidates' (and the American people's) potentialities and virtuality rather than to present the most convincing case about the candidates' solutions to the realities of the global geopolitical situation that faces us today.  Or more precisely, the result hinges on convincing the public of the potentiality of the candidates to deal with the realities of the situation in which we find ourselves.  

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