Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch
cbertsch

Political Morphology: Part I of III

In 1992, the last time a Democrat was elected President of the United States after years of Republican control of the White House, the hottest special effect in filmmaking was called "morphing", the use of high-end computer graphics to make one item seamlessly transform into another. Terminator 2: Judgement Day represented its biggest box-office success. But it was in Michael Jackson's music video for "Black or White," debuted that same year in a relentlessly hyped network television premiere, that the technology's political implications were most starkly illuminated. The image of one face dissolving into another, blurring racial distinctions to the point where they appeared irrelevant, showcased the promise of a brave new world in which surfaces, their mutability made clear, no longer mattered.

When Time magazine published a special issue the following year in which similar technology was self-consciously deployed, not to dazzle us with a series of metamorphoses, but to help us imagine the end to which they might be leading, the logic behind the Michael Jackson video -- as well as the singer's own career, many would add -- was laid bare with breathtaking clarity:

Although this vision of technological miscegenation does not undo prejudices surrounding the literal sort, it certainly calls their basis into question. As my friend Ron Alcalay ably argued in his discussion of the "Black or White" video in a 1995 piece for Bad Subjects, the reminder that color is only skin deep that such morphing and merging conveys might itself appear to be superficial. But that doesn't mean that it is insignificant. "This is not bad, this is not dangerous; in fact, it's lots of fun, perhaps even therapeutic for a bigot who might ordinarily change the channel when images of racial others invade her home."

At the same time, it's hard not see the apparent breakthroughs that went hand in hand with the 1992 Presidential campaign and the early days of Bill Clinton's Presidency as a prelude to 1994. The backlash against his Administration and the hopes it unleashed, which was led by right-wing media personalities like Rush Limbaugh, was surely a backlash against the promise of morphing as well. The outrage they stoked over Clinton's initial pledge to redress the plight of gays in the military and his wife's attempt to develop a universal heathcare initiative was an outrage built on the foundation of several years of university-centered conservative resistance to "political correctness" and cultural theories that promoted fluidity, hybridity and heterogeneity in contrast to the fixities of yore. Nor was it a surprise that conservative complaints about excessive tolerance in popular culture -- think of Dan Qualye's attack on the character Murphy Brown's desire to have a child without having a husband -- translated into a critique of the Democrats' excessive permissiveness, whether in cultural or financial matters.
Tags: history, media, politics, theory
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