The Political Ridiculous: On the Aesthetics of Politics

by    /  June 4, 2019  / Comments Off on The Political Ridiculous: On the Aesthetics of Politics

photo by Simone Marinho

When we see the actions of certain characters in various positions of political power, a feeling of perplexity arises in us. This feeling is transformed into a kind of “universal shame” on the part of citizens who feel responsible and concerned about democracy. Meanwhile, those who occupy the positions of representation feel no shame at all. It is as if democracy has been reduced to a communal sharing of the shame we have on behalf of our representatives.

Silvio Berlusconi caused that kind of feeling in Italy. Yet somehow the excesses he committed seem less absurd today when we watch scenes played out by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro.  People from around the world wonder how Trump could have become president, considering his corruption and lies. Many Americans are ashamed by his actions. But he, of course, shows no similar feelings.

Jair Bolsonaro may be even more ridiculous than Trump. Bolsonaro managed to win the election in 2018 despite a career spent saying outlandish statements. He once said, for instance, “A policeman who doesn’t kill, isn’t a policeman.” And another time, he said, “I would be incapable of loving a homosexual son.” During his campaign, he deliberately spread fake news through WhatsApp. He refused to participate in debates. Amidst scenes and speeches full of ignorance and prejudice he was still elected. And he continues to resort to ridiculousness to rule, surrounding himself with characters who act as equally ridiculous, including ministers who believe that the earth is flat and one minister who once said she met Jesus in a guava tree.

The Brazilian president spends his time practicing a kind of psychological terrorism, seeking daily to shock and impress everyone. As he governs through Twitter and social media, the scenario in reality is one of cancelled fundamental rights and increased rates of violence, hunger, and unemployment in ways we have not seen for many years. People increasingly reject Bolsonaro’s repugnant policies, but the mystification, by which he gained his power, continues today.

In a global context, Brazil is a laboratory for the extreme right, testing ways to reach the body politic and to leverage economic power. This project knows the fragility of democracies and does not tire of abusing it. Therefore, we must carefully analyze what has been happening in countries such as Brazil and the United States. We know that these exaggerated performances are characteristic of exhibitionist tyrants and that all authoritarianism requires some level of theatricality. But we also know that in democratic regimes, in which people should have the best chance to advocate for themselves, masses of voters choose the worst and most pathetic politicians. Because this theatrical production of ridiculousness is the means by which voters are manipulated into cynicism, there’s need for greater analysis.

In 2017, I used this idea of the “Political Ridiculous” as the framing for my book Ridículo Político in which I warned of the danger of Bolsonaro when no one was able to believe that he could evolve from an insignificant parliamentarian into our nation’s president. I understand by “political ridiculousness” a mutation in the current political culture. This mutation is complex, but it occurs especially in the aesthetic field of political existence. In other words, it means that the theatrical dimension — of images, of the spectacular, of public rallies — counts now more than ever. Such theatrics suffer from a distortion linked to the concomitant infantization of society. Ignorance and ridiculousness generate a strange empathy and become significant political capital.

Politics always implies a scenario, a backdrop; it implies the way in which costumes, speech, and gestures of the political actors develop within scenes. It is a phenomenon of the so-called “society of the spectacle” in which politics becomes reduced to propaganda. But there is an even deeper aspect. The cultural industry of politics specializes in managing sensations and controlling mentalities and sensibilities. And now this industry has begun to bet on the empathy generated by the Political Ridiculous.

The Political Ridiculous is the scene in which pathetic and ignorant actors take the lead and qualify to exercise power when many do not take politics seriously. These politicians say they are not politicians, and many citizens fall into the trap of voting and supporting without realizing the self-contradiction within these characters who say they do not do what they do. But they cannot understand why they are victims of a cynical strategy.

If we want to understand politics today, we need to understand how these characters have built their position as protagonists. While Trump built an image of success in business, Bolsonaro was practically unknown to most Brazilians. For nearly 30 years he was an unproductive congressman without any importance in the political scene. But he knew how to be cynical — and how to capitalize on the ridiculous. Suddenly, he began to appear in the public consciousness. He grabbed headlines after he carried out homophobic attacks against a gay congressman (who is today lives in exile in Europe). Later, his misogynistic attacks directed at a congresswoman — saying that “I wouldn’t rape her because she was very ugly” — somehow made him more famous. Condemned by some, followed by others, he gained space and presence in the press, and that was all he needed to go further.

Marcia Tiburi is a Brazilian writer and activist,  popular for her pro-democracy and pro-feminist work. She is well known for her prescient voice of warning against the rise of far-right authoritarianism and fascism. Since completing her three-month residency with the City of Asylum, she has gone on to continue her exile, living without a permanent address. To learn about Tiburi’s story of exile, read her interview with Maya Best


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