Politics in An Age of Fantasy: Stephen Duncombe in his own words.

o Stephen Duncombe teaches history and politics of media and culture at the Gallatin School of New York University.

o Assistant Professor, State University of New York, College at Old Westbury, American Studies/Media & Communications. 1994-1999.


o “My politics have long been diametrically opposed to those of the Bush administration, and I’ve had a long career as a left-leaning academic and a progressive political activist” (Duncombe 2006, pg 2)

o Duncombe states that progressives reveal the lies of institutionalized power through investigative media exposure and protest.

The historic March on Washington

The historic March on Washington

o “We influence privileged youth through our relative dominance in the universities” (Duncombe 2006, pg 6-7)

o “If reasoning people have access to the truth, the scales will fall from their eyes and they will see reality as it truly is and, of course, agree with us” (Duncombe 2006, pg 7)

Duncombe and academia.

o Duncombe in his book attempts to highlight the problems with modern Progressive thought. However he does so with an inherent bias that does not consider the ‘other’ opinion nor does he consider any depth of opinion.

o “The left and right have switched roles—the right taking on the mantle of radicalism and progressives waving the flag of conservatism” (Duncombe 2006, pg 3)

Fantasy and the creation of spectacle.

o Guy Debord declared in 1967 “We live in a “society of spectacle”

o Debord states that spectacle is a social relationship between peoples that is mediated by images.

o In a consumer society, social life is not about living but about having; the spectacle uses the image to convey what people need and must have. (Debord 1967)

o “Today’s world is linked by media systems and awash in advertising images; political policies are packaged by public relations experts and celebrity gossip is considered news.” (Duncombe 2006, pg 5)

Stephen Duncombe’s weblog.

Politicising commercial culture.

Casinos can be seen as a form of spectacle.

Casinos can be seen as a form of spectacle.

o Duncombe states that ‘fantasy’ and spectacle are the inspiration of movies, television, pop music, theme parks, strip clubs, casinos and video games.

o No matter what their differences, each form of entertainment constitutes a sort of spectacle that promises to transport the spectator outside their present reality. Complaints about the unreal fantasies of Hollywood and the “lack of representation” in television sitcoms miss the function of entertainment; to escape the here and now, to imagine something different, something better(Duncombe 2006, pg 13)

Video games transport individuals into new realities

Video games transport individuals into new realities

o Duncombe states that the popularity of commercial culture should be respected when considering the modern day political convention.

o “If progressives are to engage, rather than ignore, the phantasmagoric terrain of politics, we need to learn from those who do spectacle best: the architects of Las Vegas, video game designers, advertising’s creative directors, and the producers and editors of celebrity media. This doesn’t mean adopting flashy techniques to help us make sexier advertisements for progressive causes (though this wouldn’t hurt) It means looking deep into the core of these and other examples of popular spectacle to divine exactly what makes them so popular(Duncombe 2006, pg 14)

o Duncombe does not list one example of a video game, film or designer that politicians should supposedly listen to. This is questionable considering his persistence to name drop individuals without actually tackling their arguments.

Is this what spectacle has become based on? If one advocates Duncombe's assertions does politics just become another relationship?

Is this what spectacle has become based on? If one advocates Duncombe does politics merely become another relationship?

The ‘Yes We Can’ music video- a popular example of modern ‘rappers and gangstas’ directly engaging and incorporating politics.

The Enlightenment and Empiricism.

o Duncombe defines Empiricism as a Liberal belief without considering its merits, “the theory that things exist and can be measured independently of those doing the measuring. There are facts to be discovered and truth to be discerned, if only we can separate out the desires of people.” (Duncombe 2008, pg 3)

Are ‘fantasies more important than empirical fact? Is Duncombe lost in a fantasy world?

o Duncombe states “All this [empiricism] is history. Appeals to truth and reality, and faith in rational thought and action, are based in fantasy of the past, or rather, past fantasy” (Duncombe 2006, pg 5)

o Duncombe discusses Galileo Galilei’s writings and concludes that the role of science is to hold human subjectivity in check in order to reveal the objective reality that precedes it. Why then does Duncombe consistently inject his own viewpoint?

o Duncombe sporadically states that politics must be based in fact, not mere tradition or superstition but then seemingly lampoons empiricism.

o Those who put their trust in Enlightenment principles and empiricism today are doomed to political insignificance” (Duncombe 2006, pg 6)

o This is further questionable due to his arguments;

§ Man must be able to reason rationally and with ‘reason’

§ “It was empiricism that broke the Church’s grip on the interpretation of the world” (Duncombe 2008, pg 5)

§ “By challenging the Church on its explanations of the physical world, the empiricists opened up an assault on its political and spiritual power “(Duncombe 2008, pg 5)

Leopold Von Ranke—eliminating subjectivity in history and politics.

  • German historian Leopold Von Ranke, founder of the 18th century Empirical school of thought argued otherwise.
  • “No state has ever existed without a spiritual basis and spiritual content” (Moses 2007)
  • Ranke committed to write history “Wie Es Eightlich Gewen” (How essentially things happen)
  • Ranke affirmed that the untidiness of history should never be tidied.
  • Ranke wrote about Christianity and was motivated by this force. He did not assault the Church as this would have been perceived as subjectivity. He rationalised this by stating:

o History has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages.”(Moses 2007)

Self governance and spiritual protest.

o Duncombe states that “Traditional “common sense held that common people could not govern themselves nor act orderly in the marketplace. Contesting these assumptions cleared the way for new forms of politics and economics.”

Amritsar 1919, a non violent protest turns violent.

Amritsar 1919, a non violent protest turns violent.

Understanding the Narrative

o Hayden White (1928-) is an American philosopher of history most famous for his work ‘Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe’ (1973).

o He is currently professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and professor of comparative literature at Stanford University.

o The medium (the type of narrative) is the integral message of history.

o The past is a text like any literary production

o The present is also a text that affects the subjectivity of the historian

o The history book is a text resulting from interaction between the past and present texts.

o If the past and present are texts and so are video games and films, why does Duncombe affirm that progressives must forget Empiricism? IF History remains a record of Spectacle shouldn’t history be CONTINUED to be studied? Not forgotten in the name of “progressivism”

o“Spectacle is our way of making sense of the world. Truth and power belong to those who tell the better story” (Duncombe 2008, pg 8 )

o Duncombe states that Progressives need to think less about facts and more about how to frame them in a way that makes sense to everyday people.

  • Duncombe refers to the Cognitive linguist George Lakoff who writes about how people “use conceptual categories and metaphors” to make sense of the world.

o Do you think politics should be catered to the everyday? Is populist art realistically the solution to political problems? Or does society require action rather than words? Are image and spectacle more important?

The compelling narrative.

o Duncombe’s argument for narrative is limited.

o “Weaned on endless advertisements, sitcoms and Hollywood movies, we’ve learned to find comfort in compelling narratives and change the channel when confronted with messy facts.” (Duncombe 2006, pg 7)

o Duncombe concludes that religious narratives such as the parables of Christ and the Red Sea; “stripped of their narratives and symbols they would have no power to move their audience, and thus no power at all” (Duncombe 2008, pg 12)

o “Worse spectacle is what the other side does: a recent New York Times article listed one of the core qualities of Fascism as an “appeal to emotion and myth instead of reason”(Duncombe 2008, pg 24)

o Duncombe’s entire argument is based on an appeal to emotion as opposed to ‘traditional reason’. Whether or not this is mere irony due to Duncombe’s aim of upholding ‘Progressivism’, is for the reader to discern.

The alternate vision of the world

o He quotes left leaning evangelical Christian Jim Wallis who argue for “prophetic politics”, a spiritually based politics which transcends pragmatic policy and moves beyond reasoned critique. Building upon the prophetic tradition of religion, Wallis believes that progressives must articulate an alternative vision of the world—that is, a dream of the future” (Duncombe 2006, pg 10)

Political Practice.

o “Democratic theory resides in the coffeehouses and government buildings where enlightened men examine evidence, hold reasoned conversations, and arrive at rational decisions” (Duncombe 2006, pg 10)

o Duncombe quotes Walter Lippman who states that democratic theory has little to do with democratic practice. (Duncombe 2006, pg 8)

o In the same way one could argue that Duncombe’s Progressive theory has little to do with Progressive practice.

o After persistently criticising the modern day usage of empiricism Duncombe questionably states; “political stagecraft must be relentlessly attacked with our arsenal of facts and reasons” (Duncombe 2006, pg 9)

o Duncombe then claims “we learned the wrong lesson”(Duncombe 2006, pg 9)

Facts and reasons become known with empirical thought, a notion that Duncombe seems staunchly opposed to despite his persistence on the importance of reason and rational thought.

o Duncombe concludes that fantasy and spectacle have become the dominant vernacular of today.

o “Reality and fantasy don’t inhabit separate spheres, they coexist and intermingle. Reality needs fantasy to render it desirable, just as fantasy needs reality to make it believable” (Duncombe 2006, pg 10)

Protest and Revolution.

“The old model of protest was simple and staid: march, chant, and listen (to the truth from the leaders) the new protests look nothing like this. With environmental protestors dressed in sea turtle costumes in Seattle, theatrical skits involving the militant jesters of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army in London, and New York, or Ya Basta! In their padded tutti Bianchi (white jumpsuits) in Prague and Genoa, these protestors are infected with a general spirit of spirited anarchy. Declaring that means are as important as ends (if not sometimes troublingly more so), these mass protestors create temporary autonomous zones: a living, breathing, dancing imaginary form of a world turned upside down. It’s more than telling that the organizers of the demonstration that shut down the City of London in 1998 called their protest a “Carnival Against Capitalism” (Duncombe 2008, pg 22-23)

The Clown Army.

The Clown Army.

“We should not conjure up a utopia of pure skies and clean water unless we are serious about massive investment in alternative energy sources.” (Duncombe 2008, pg 18)

A ‘Duncombe’ revolution?

o “Progressives like to study and to know. We like to be right (and then complain that others are not) But being right is not enough—we need to win. And to win we need to act. What follows are observations and suggestions that might guide our actions. I’m inviting readers, wherever they might fall on the progressive political spectrum, from pragmatic liberals to utopian anarchists, street activists to pissed off voters, to join me in imagining a way of moving our dreams into reality. In these pages I do not lay out an ideological line to follow, nor will I prescribe policies to enact, instead this book offers up an alternative political aesthetic for progressives to consider, a theory of dreampolitik they might practice.” (Duncombe 2006, pg 17)

Stephen Duncombe public speaking

Patrick Moore critiquing the Environmental movement


Duncombe. S 2007 ‘Politics in an age of fantasy’ , The New Press, NY

Hitchens. C. 2001 ‘Letters to a Young Centrarian’ Basic books, NY


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