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The post-modern meaning of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s victory in California

By Gabriel Ash - posted Tuesday, 28 October 2003

The election of Arnold Schwarzenegger to governor of California is a wonderful and awful example of "democratic politics." The voters of California are fed up with politicians. They ousted a phony professional and replaced him with a professional phony. The voters are angry with the political class; hence the establishment candidate lost. The race was won by an action figure chosen by the establishment and promoted with the money of the political class through the media channels owned by the political class. The voters of California did the right thing when they gave Davis the boot. For electing an action figure, they deserve having their heads shoved into the toilet. Metaphorically speaking, of course, this is exactly what they will get.

Schwarzenegger is literally a walking metaphor. His career as an action movie star was a metaphor of life under America’s "democracy" long before he became governor.

We go to action movies because we feel impotent. The substance of the "action movie" is the hero fighting evil. His muscles (fundamentally his, even when he is a she), intelligence, skills, resourcefulness and character are all brought into play in a meaningful struggle. Being engaged in the struggle for good is what classic republicanism defines as "freedom." This freedom, or rather its faded image, is what we consume, whether in the darkness of the movie theatre or on our couch.


But this is a melancholic consumption. The passively consumed image of freedom is not freedom. Meaningful, self-determined action cannot be consumed; it must be embodied, and that requires a greater investment than simply the price of a ticket. The "action movie" is the wistful dream of the marionettes forever imagining themselves walking without strings.

The opposite of freedom as action is the state of being manipulated. The Schwarzenegger science-fiction film most often mentioned in the context of the California recall, Total Recall, is a meditation on the (non)-opposition between acting and being manipulated: the hero discovers that his cozy, middle-class life is a sham, a manipulated, fake reality, supported by fake memories implanted in his mind by unknown mind controllers. He discovers that his "real self" is a freedom fighter from the working-class colonies on Mars. He becomes an "action hero," fighting the good fight against the controllers of mind and body. But, in the last twist of the plot, he discovers that he was really one of the mind controllers himself, and his moral "action hero" self was also a fake, implanted memory.

Total Recall is a prefiguration of Davis's recall in two ways. It is the story of Schwarzenegger leaving his make-believe world of action heroes and delving into politics, only to "discover," (but didn't he always know it?) that politics, too, is a make-believe world. It is also the story of the California voters who will soon discover that their anger against being manipulated by a shameless political class was shamelessly manipulated by the same political class. But don't they know it already? I suspect most of them do. But they endorse the fake Schwarzenegger over the fake Davis just as the hero of Total Recall chooses his fake identity as rebel. After all, if we can only choose which dream to dream ourselves into, why not at least choose an exciting one?

Schwarzenegger is an "actor", a wonderful term that reconciles within itself the two opposites, both being the source of action and being a performer of actions designed by someone else. But it isn't just that acting is "like" politics, or that politics is "also" manipulation. It isn't just that Schwarzenegger is the latest actor to bring his acting skills to the task of winning elections.

In terminating Davis, Schwarzenegger continues to perform the social function he has always performed. The business of Hollywood is to repackage our longing for self-determination into fantasies that reconcile us to being governed, manipulated. The action movie does this by translating freedom into a game for preposterously oversized muscles and breasts, thus infantilizing the thirst for engagement, reducing it to a longing for a never-never, atavistic masculinity. The anti-social, screw-everybody attitude of the action hero transforms the hero's "moral purpose" into an inconsequential plot device in a narcissistic orgy of "cool." Finally, the post-modern or ironic action movie, such as Total Recall (or Men in Black, etc.), overcomes our saturation with the genre with tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that is merely an excuse for more consumption.

The entertainment industry serves us our longing for freedom as a form of narcissism, conflating the two, erasing the thought of responsible engagement, whispering to us that freedom exists only as a dangerous, anti-social self-indulgence. We can partake in it passively, as viewers and consumers, but woe to us if we "try this at home." Freedom is dangerous; it insinuates to us, and is better left to the big guys, guys like Arnold.


Parallel to that, the political industry represents freedom as dangerous excess that requires the careful filtering through the machine of elections and parties in order to become "responsible" and "mature." Here, too, action is best left to the professionals.

Both the film industry and the political machine translate the desire for freedom into different but equally disempowering forms of representation. The political system represents voters through a machine that sacrifices the meaningful participation of the citizen in the name of the stability of the system. The action movie represents the freedom of the consumer through passive identification with the imaginary action of the hero. In Hollywood, imagination without power; in Sacramento, power without imagination.

The election of Schwarzenegger is a meeting of these skewed opposites, an ironic gesture that matches the postmodern action genre. It is the action of an angry electorate exploding the limits of decorous politics by electing a super-muscled, know-nothing starlet-groper to the post of governor.

It is a desperate attempt to inject politics with freedom, imagination, desire. But it is also a perfect manipulation of a political class saving its power by morphing into, indeed, "acting" up, a revolution. Schwarzenegger, the candidate, won by reconciling the desire for self-determination with the necessity of mass manipulation, just as Schwarzenegger, the action hero, did.

Gabriel Ash encourages your comments:

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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This article was first published in Yellow Times

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About the Author

Gabriel Ash was born in Romania, grew up in Israel and lives in the United States. He is an unabashed "opssimist".

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