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Beatriz Sarlo on Politics in Argentina

Change in Politics

While it's not possible to dream of a nostalgic return to the forms of politics that existed prior to the mass-mediatized cultural revolution, it's difficult to accept that politics is only built within the framework that the media impose. One can imagine changes in the politics of the media. Without a doubt, not all TV news is as unanimously bad as it is in Argentina; not all television correspondents have to be sensationalist agitators. There is no destiny inscribed in television from which it is impossible to escape.

The identity of politicians is not fashioned only in the media. We can hope that politicians will remain true to their calling: expressing a will broader than their own even while working to form that will. Today politics needs the properly intellectual moment as well as the mediatized one. It needs ideas as well as images. The aesthetic of audio-visual media tends to expel those discourses that have an argumentative logic of an intellectual cast. This conflict is part of a relationship that has already been deeply engrained and--what is worse--has been accepted by intellectuals and politicians alike.

With few exceptions, politicians, intellectuals and newscasters take a "descriptive" and neutral position with respect to the consequences of the mass-mediatized hegemony of the symbolic dimension of the social world. Some argue that television doesn't matter because the public recodes television messages and produces new meanings. They forget, however, that the public's freedom to construct those hypothetical new meanings is limited because people must work with the materials that television offers them. Naturally, the intellectual defenders of this position don't propose major changes in the use of the media, nor do they worry that the private interests of media owners are the true shapers of public opinion.

Opposite this position, which is characterized by its optimism with respect to the products of the capitalist marketplace, one can place perspectives of critique and reform. Intellectuals--especially Left intellectuals--can play a decisive role in producing new ideas about how the media can be used in a democratic, reflexive, imaginative and transparent manner. Certainly, these new ideas would confront an enormously concentrated power. New ideological-cultural perspectives can, however, find a reasonable echo in the media precisely because the media are obliged to incorporate everything that has some public significance.

Sarlo, Beatriz. "Argentina under Menem: the Aesthetics of Domination." NACLA Report on the Americas, v28, n2 (Sept-Oct 1994): 33



The Military Pardon in Argentina

The trial and conviction of those responsible for unleashing the most ferocious repression that Argentina has ever known was a tremendously important moment in the restoration of an ideal of justice, and in the construction of a public memory of the events of the dictatorship. But the abrupt interruption of the hundreds of trials and, above all, the pardon of military officers who had been convicted and were in jail, placed the subject of human rights violations in a past that Menem wanted to put behind him. He thus initiated an operation of "forgetting" which benefited the military. On the one hand, this closure imposed by the government--which broke with any idea of justice--helped solve the problem of instability in military-state relations. But, on the other, it dulled the memory of what had occurred in the last decade. The military pardon closed a subject that is not only juridical or political, but that is decisively moral and cultural.

Sarlo, Beatriz. "Argentina under Menem: the Aesthetics of Domination." NACLA Report on the Americas, v28, n2 (Sept-Oct 1994): 33



President Menem

In a country with a strong presidency like Argentina, the head of state plays a decisive role in setting the tone of public life. Menem's style is perfectly mass-mediatized: he disdains ideas; he tends to shut off more complex questions; he follows recipes for a simple solution; he disdains the deliberative and discursive forms of policy-making; and he cynically rejects those values, found in the Peronist tradition, which are grounded in the ideal of a just society. This style has an important weight in the present cultural-political conjuncture.

The consequences are serious because today, only deliberative policy-making, the independence of the three branches of government, and the full functioning of political institutions can counter a presidential will perfectly aligned with the interests of the powerful. By means of mass-mediatized morals, aesthetics and culture, the base-line values of a just, equal and cooperative society have been replaced by a market Darwinism that has left profound marks in a new individualist, anti-cooperative culture.

Sarlo, Beatriz. "Argentina under Menem: the Aesthetics of Domination." NACLA Report on the Americas, v28, n2 (Sept-Oct 1994): 33



Television and Political Culture

One feature of the current clash between politics and society is the weakening of public culture. As political discussion, parliamentary representation and other forms of collective participation have become less relevant, the mass media--especially television--have come to occupy a decisive place in the construction of the public sphere.

Today it is impossible to think of politics without television. This feature, common throughout the West, has distinct manifestations and consequences in Argentina where an educational crisis and a rising rate of illiteracy converge with an audiovisual hegemony over the symbolic dimension of social life. This process is spearheaded by privately owned television channels that choose their strategies according to the laws of profit maximization. A strong counterweight to private capitalism does not exist in Argentine television: the lone state channel is in the iron grip of the government, and no large public channel exists at all. Today the market completely defines the character, aesthetic and ideology of the audiovisual sphere.

Politics and political culture are formed in a televised space that responds only to the shifts and interests of the capitalist market of symbolic goods, without counterweights or balances. The public sphere has been mass-mediatized, and the political scene is increasingly an electronic one. Mass-mediatized politics pays tribute to the image of a common culture that unites actors whose symbolic and material power are very different. This may assure a minimum of cultural cohesion, but not the type of cohesion that reflects a true sense of community.

Mass-media discourse compacts society, projecting an image of a unified cultural scene, a common place where oppositions dissolve into a polyglotism of many voices which are never necessarily speaking to one another. It's not that media are more democratic; it's simply that they need to incorporate all the discourses in order to present a universal sphere. Politics defers to the media aesthetic. It accepts the media as representative of the universal. And it frequently adopts the formal and rhetorical limits that the media impose: speed, variety, volubility--qualities that often call to mind the emergence of a political show or a U.S.-style sound bite.

Persuaded of the importance of the media in the construction of the public sphere, politicians accept the assumption that the discussion of ideas, the great debates, complicated postulates, and the presentation of sophisticated positions are "anti-television." They cultivate a media image based upon the reduction of the complexity of their message, and in the illusion of closeness and familiarity: "We are the same as you; we represent you at the same time as we mingle with television celebrities. We represent the people in that which the people have closest at hand: the television set in their living room or their kitchen." The mass-mediatized operation thus concludes in a poverty of meanings, in a thinning of the growing complexity of problems, and in a visual flow where the "now" is built on top of oblivion. To exist, politicians--classic mediators between the citizenry and institutions--need television to be the Great Universal Mediator. They are captives of the mass media.

The mass-mediatization of politics is an almost irresistible phenomenon. Policy is built by the newscasters; television news sets the order of the day. Trustworthiness is taken away from political leaders; it is now administered by the heads of the mass media. The culture of discussion has been superseded by a political simulacrum which does not thrive in political institutions, and feels more at home in the realm of television. Politics in the mass media is subordinated to the laws that regulate the audiovisual flow: high impact, large quantities of undifferentiated visual information, and arbitrary and binary syntax that is better suited to a matinee melodrama than to the public arena.

Sarlo, Beatriz. "Argentina under Menem: the Aesthetics of Domination." NACLA Report on the Americas, v28, n2 (Sept-Oct 1994): 33



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