An Evaluation of Melodramatic Political Discourse

Due to rise of easily consumable media and rapid transmission of information through visual media we are constantly exposed to horrific events around the world and often this is the sole way we experience these events. Elisabeth Anker argues our desire to understand and find meaning in these events leads us to utilizing a melodramatic political discourse that uses Nietzsche’s venomous eye as a conceptual framework. I argue that her conception of melodramatic political discourse ignores its function of incorporating unprecedented events into our liberal democratic discourse and the benefit this provides.

Anker divides “The Venomous Eye” into two parts. First, she explicates the genre conventions of melodramatic political discourse and then she examines Fox News coverage of the 9/11 attack. Anker states that “melodramatic political discourse has a distinctive set of characteristics that give it recognizable integrity” (31). These characteristics are broken down by Anker into five conventions. First, Anker argues that melodramatic political discourse is a moral economy of good and evil where evil defines the good. She uses the Nietzschean concept of ressentiment where goodness is produced after the naming of evil by the victim and good is defined as the named evil’s opposite. This makes melodramatic discourse very useful for dealing with and incorporating events that fall outside of our present frameworks of meaning by allowing us to label these horrific events as evil and begin to define and situate our position and response to these events.

In the melodrama of terrorism specifically, the good is defined by the terrorist attack and this can have some dangerous implications. In melodramatic political discourse the victim-hero is the good, the villain is the bad, and “America becomes a virtuous nation through the harm it suffers” (33). The political violence arises when certain injuries are not included in this moral economy because they are not easily ascribed to a villain. These injuries are quite often social or structural injuries such as racism, sexism, or classism. Yet it is difficult to avoid melodramatic discourse even with these drawbacks because it allows citizens to put “an experience of powerlessness [i.e. a terrorist attack] into a comprehensible narrative form” (35). Anker describes a strategy of power that assumes the victory of freedom, however in taking on this teleology of freedom neither the individual or the state can “successfully pursue freedom without first experiencing victimization” (38) which leads to a circumscribed discourse of justice.

Anker focuses primarily on melodramatic discourse as a type of discourse that circulates in response to the desire impose a meaningful framework on an unprecedented crisis. She analyzes how this discourse is propagated in a thorough analysis of the Fox News coverage of the 9/11 attacks. She clearly demonstrates how melodramatic political discourse is prevalent and how this kind of discourse framework can lead to exclusion from discourses of justice and lead to the inability to claim pursuit of freedom without experiencing some sort of victimization. However, Anker does not consider that her analysis of the impact of melodramatic discourse is confined to a temporally limited scope nor does she give proper consideration to any countervailing forces contra the exclusion effected by this type of discourse. She paints a biased picture of melodramatic discourse which focuses on its negative impact while ignoring the possibility of its positive impact.

To begin my reanalysis, I will start with the positives that Anker touches upon briefly but does not fully consider. First melodramatic discourse puts “the experience of powerlessness into a comprehensible narrative form” (35). This is not a negligible effect. It is the first step in dealing and coping with an unprecedented crisis in a positive manner that reinforces our liberal democratic principles.  Introducing an albeit limited framework allows us to advance a concept into discourse where it can then be affected and influenced by other types of discourse. While this framework does initially introduce a reductionist framework of good and evil the germs are in place for a positive impact. Returning to the Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment, Anker states that it “performs a mode of critique that aims to wrest control from crises of impotence and injury by reclaiming the capacity to experience power” (36). Melodramatic political discourse includes this critical germ and assimilates a horrific event through a binary of good and evil where emphasis is placed on “the heroic overcoming of injustice and suffering through the rapid accretion of power and eradication of evil” (36). This initial assimilation into discourse as Anker describes it is accurate, however Anker assumes that once the event is assimilated into discourse through this framework it exists in a vacuum. This ignores two forces that are acting on the melodramatic discourse framework.

First, the event is assimilated by a critical conception of injustice that is driven by a normative image of good overcoming injustice. While this binary can initially effect political violence through exclusion it does not remain in this exclusionary state due to its inherent instability. It is being acted upon by both internal and external forces that modify the discourse framework of the event. Internally, this framework is unstable due the critical nature of the discourse framework. The moral economy of good and evil will submit to a critical germ that will engage and challenge. Even though the idea of injustice can be misappropriated to a variety of ends a critical discourse framework will continue to evolve to be more responsive and inclusive to other types of injustice. This process will undermine melodramatic discourse as the primary interpretation of a horrific event.

Externally when melodramatic discourse is introduced in response to a crisis it allows the event to be relayed into our liberal democratic discourse that circulates and interacts. This discourse will begin to engage with the melodramatic understanding of the event, modifying and changing it by pointing out its flaws and limitations. When melodramatic discourse is introduced as a framework for meaning it seeks to be all encompassing but in this dialogic process it comes to have its limitations defined through engaging with other discourse before eventually being entirely incorporated into a liberal discourse framework. Then the melodramatic discourse framework of an event dissolves entirely leaving the unprecedented crisis absorbed into the national consciousness as a terrible act of injustice that redoubles our commitment to democratic principles.  

Melodramatic discourse does not simply create a permanent stable binary that imposes itself on all discourse. Rather it takes a temporally limited priority over other discourse frameworks as the unprecedented crisis is assimilated and then it evolves in response to internal and external forces until it eventually dissolves all together. Melodramatic political discourse is a translating discourse that allows us to assimilate appalling events into our liberal democratic discourse which permits us to properly deliberate about the event in a democratic fashion rather than having the crisis act as the fuel for a nationalistic fervor that takes us beyond democracy to fascism and totalitarianism. Anker fears that melodramatic political discourse will give a moral mandate to the violence that the United States will inflict on others (64) circumventing critical discursive procedures. However, I believe this is too cynical an interpretation of the way discursive ideas engage and interact. Melodramatic political discourse is subject to both internal and external pressures that push it in the direction of eventual absorption into liberal political discourse. This process of assimilation is positive in that it strengthens a community’s commitment to liberal democratic principles by positively integrating unprecedented crises into democratic discourse. This fact however does not offer a blanket justification of the political violence and exclusion that is effected throughout this process of assimilation but rather it shows that the negative effects of melodramatic discourse are limited in their impact due to the discourse’s inherent instability in a liberal context.

This issue of needing to incorporate horrific events through meaningful frameworks into our discourse is one that ought to occur with the minimum of political violence. The current incorporation method of melodramatic political discourse, while effective over time, does effect violence on citizens through exclusion of other forms of political injury and crisis, and the need for a better method of incorporation is apparent. My reanalysis of Anker shows that while her serious pessimism about the ill effects of melodramatic discourse is undue there is still harm that occurs because of melodramatic discourse. This harm needs to be actively guarded against as we incorporate unprecedented crises and as discourse participants we need to be aware of the possibilities of exclusion and limit them as much as possible by actively destabilizing melodramatic political discourse as it is introduced.

 

Anker, Elisabeth R. “The Venomous Eye.” Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 29–64

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