Feature 06.26.2024 5 minutes

TV Is Always Progressive

Silhouetted person with headphones watching large tv screen

A response to Spencer Klavan on conservative art.

Editors’ Note

Originally published at Mary Harrington’s Substack, Feminism Against Progress, this piece is republished here with permission.

The always funny and incisive Spencer Klavan wrote a salvo recently at The American Mind on the perennial problem of “conservative art,” in which he argues that this body of work has a cringe problem—in no small part because conservatives have terrible taste.

He’s right. But it’s not just that: there’s also a bigger structural problem. Klavan says “art,” but in much of the essay the material to which he refers are the products of mass-market consumer pop culture: TV sitcoms, cinema, and so on. And the problem for “conservative” versions of such media are that they are doomed from the outset, for the media they rely on to propagate is progressive by definition.

Late in his life, in 1970, the often perspicacious (though also somewhat, er, problematic) jurist Carl Schmitt wrote On The TV Democracy. It’s a short reflection on the relation between industrial exploitation, “the aggressiveness of progress,” and our modes of political representation. It revisits a theme Schmitt touched on much earlier, in The Concept of the Political, concerning what happens to public life in a world where friend and enemy have been abolished: the replacement of politics by entertainment.

In this later essay Schmitt argues that modern managerial technocracy, which is to say progressivism in its most naked form, pursues a mode of governance that aims to transcend friend and enemy. In doing so, he argues, this mode of post-political governance seeks to replace “representation” in the sense of speaking for distinct groups, with a kind of universal “representation” via a “daily, permanent plebiscite” in the form of TV and radio “representation.”

If Schmitt is right, then to the extent that we embrace mass broadcast media we’re acceding to this project: one whose end goal is cauterizing the political as such, in favor of a universal, neutralized, post-political governance. And if conservatives see themselves as opponents of this project, then, they can’t expect TV to be their friend. A format whose raison d’être is mass broadcast is, by its very form, a delivery-mechanism for “TV democracy,” which is to say representation reduced to entertainment.

To put it another way: no matter what the proposed content of your “art,” if the art itself contributes to “representation” within Schmitt’s “TV democracy,” you have acceded to the premises of technocracy—and, with it, to the onward march of “progress” on technocratic terms. Following this logic, the reason conservative art is cringe is not just because conservatives have terrible taste, but because the medium itself is working against them. Trying to make conservative TV shows is a paradoxical attempt to make the content of structurally progressive media such as TV and cinema convey the precise opposite of the message communicated by its form. The effect is at best ironic, more often embarrassing and always futile.

But Schmitt also surely could not have anticipated how this order would in the very moment of its realization also produce its own counterpoint—the transition from TV to digital. Klavan is right, in the same essay, to note that the exception to the entertainment rule is the internet. Importantly, this isn’t a mass medium in quite the same way as TV, radio, and cinema. Its message is very different—as is its scope for retrieving those forms of premodern representation that “TV democracy” went such a long way to eviscerating.

Online, what you get isn’t one-to-many broadcast “representation” as on TV, but something in at least some respects much more decentralized. I’m not utopian about this: contra Arab Spring fantasies, in practice what it seems often to do is sever political engagement from political agency. Much of what takes place on large social media platforms amounts to siphoning engagement into just the kind of permanent plebiscite that Schmitt describes, “representing” everyone all the time while radically freeing post-democratic managerialism to do its thing whatever people say they voted for.

But that’s not everything this medium produces. It doesn’t just generate radical, representative passivity, but also new forms of collective agency. This isn’t exactly democracy, but what I’ve described as a kind of para-parliamentary political hacking, that enables under-represented subsets of the polity to be heard, even against the wishes of the permanent bureaucracy.

It’s not clear to me yet what relation this bears to formal politics, or whether its most adept engineers can develop it beyond a pressure valve. Philip Pilkington has also recently and convincingly argued that the battle lines are now clearly drawn, between this form of swarm populism and the entrenched and well-resourced existing system of swarm finance: the collective that took down Liz Truss and has already warned that it stands ready to take down Marine Le Pen.

However this contest plays out, though, it’s eminently clear though that a whole new ecosystem of creative enterprises is already flourishing on this terrain, and in conjunction with its aims: an emergent and dynamic space embracing formats and narrative forms that bear no relationship either to those of the classical liberal (which is to say print) era, or those of mass broadcast TV.

But, it scarcely bears repeating, its output doesn’t include structurally progressive mass-communication forms such as TV and cinema. And this is simply because if you formulate your goal as “conservative art” within the modernist frame, you’ve already conceded defeat. By contrast, if by “art” you understand (as I do) a fusion of moral, aesthetic, and political impulses within a broader project of post-democratic representation, I’d argue that the only creative forms showing any signs of life today are coming—well, perhaps not from “conservatism” exactly. But they’re certainly coming from the Right.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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