Performances of the iconicized political leaders
‘You are beautiful, but you are empty…'
– Little prince to identical roses in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s
The Little Prince.
The show of signs
The performance of any worldly leader depends on a continuous production of signs – worldly 'signs' that constitute a worldly 'show', claims Gilles Delueze, the French philosopher. Leaders around the world – wherever they may be – thrive on the unconditional attention from their admirers, hence the need for the production of signs directed to inexorable public consumption.
The admiration that the leaders command assumes many forms, often oscillating between deification/iconization and plain appreciation. It is strengthened through imbibing the image/representation in public consciousness in the absence of the context or reality in which the image had been produced in the first place. It is essential for such an image to work as a decontextualized sign to become a 'central trope' in the national psyche; and, additionally, it is by sidestepping the unsavoury historical truths that all kinds of national signs and symbols are circulated to elicit public interest.
Further along this line, an image turns into an absolute sign by completely voiding itself of the references to history or reality we tend to construct. The Nazi Swastika is a testimony to such arbitrary voidance. Thus, the imagined space – where images and signs become a mainstay, turning into an essential fodder for public imagination – emerges as a 'nation' complete with its own set of readings through which one develops a sense of belonging. Within this seemingly timeless continuum of nationist narrative the production of signs equals the production of a nation.
The dead leaders enjoy an afterlife (of a secular kind, of course) as the disappearance of the bodies/personalities sometimes renders the signs more potent – even sacred to a degree in some instances. One such continuing myth-sign is that of Gandhi. The image of Gandhi working at his charka – the mini-handloom representing Indianness in its 'consecrated' local model – had been, and still is, a formidable influence upon the natoinist narrative that motors the politics of that vast geography. Though his life was based on a pseudo-aesthetical mode of living and the seminal acts of non-violence, Ghandi finally rests as nothing but a sign on the landscape of nationist narrative.
After India's independence the chakra has gone on to become a national symbol occupying the center of the national flag, though the actual man – whom the British ruling elite often mythologized as the naked fakir – remains unrepresented. In the semantic landscape of patriotism the chakra stands proof to the forgetfulness of the Gandhian ethos that afflicts a vast majority. The leader once known for his advocacy of a deshi lifestyle lives on in the shape of a sign amidst the chaos of global finance/technology-driven development and its concurrent life-death matrices (how one dies is also linked to, if not determined by, the existing global financial grid. One must take into account the medicalization of the body and preemption of war zones to reconstruct Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and many other regions across the world).
Ghandi, if truth be revealed, no longer inspires passion for what is local in contemporary India. Thus, the symbol of Ghandi is a frozen one – though it efficaciously persists as a symbol of national pride while the principles that once guided some of the most effective political resistance movements initiated by Ghandi have simply lost traction in mainstream politics. In the new market-driven milieu India clings on to its past symbols as if to freight a self-censured, asymmetrical message to its citizenry as well as to the world.
The battle of images
On entering the mediascape, one immediately wakes up to the battle centering on building of images and transgression of spaces to promote one idea, ideology or personality over the other. Once we understand '…the media's presentation of politics in the United States as well as in many other countries – as “show-biz” based on battles of images, conflicts between characters, polls and marketing, all typical frenzies of a journalism that is increasingly commercial in its outlook…,'1 we are able to discern how conventional campaigning has been replaced by the emergence of the new advertising techniques and technologies.
Mediatization, says experts, has become 'a phenomenon that is common to the political systems of almost all democratic countries, where it has taken different shapes…'.2 So, when the battle is raised on psychogeographies made up of newspapers and social media, it follows a logic of communication in line with the 'spectacularization' which is part and parcel of any form of technologized communication.
Thus, the dead leaders who jostle for space in the public domain in a country like Bangladesh live an afterlife as spectacles released to ensure and perpetuate a partisan position which although, have mutated in reality, remains the same in the rhetoric of the adherents.
Signs live on
There are signs that evaporate in time: as one observes in the case of Ziaur Rahman who appeared during many of his canal-digging sprees in the late 1970s Bangladesh in an undershirt with a spade in hand. The image simply never made inroads into the collective psyche of the people, though a large section saw him, and still does, as a 'rescuer' from the postindependent pandemonium. But they never gave in to Zia's populist antics. Rather, the sign that lives on is that of a self-righteous ruler manifested in the stately portraitures that often adorn the posters and pamphlets of his political outfit.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman, on the other hand, seems to enjoy a perpetuated 'show' of the sign that freezes him as 'the leader' of the emerging nation at the historical gathering at Suhrawardi Udyan in Dhaka, March 7, 1971. All other images and facts have lost out to the image-sign that still continues to captivate public imagination after so many years. The index finger-wielding Mujib is still a peremptory image.
The populist figure in a simple garb in the person of Bhashani, the Maulana, simply could not be marketed to the urban educated minority the way Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in black vest and white panjabi became the image of hope and emancipation in the pre-independence years leading to the liberation war. The actual performance at the Suhrawardi Udyan has proven to be the most enduring sign-producing event – serving as a constant referent in the framework of Bengali nationalism.
Body as a reservoir of history or signs
It is the body that acts out the thought, and by doing so it resurrects the past. Involuntary memories are 'body memories' – which are easily activated through signs. All kinds of signs that are circulated to perpetuate a leader's legacy or even to sell a product, lead to triggering off the body or muscle memory. A sign, writes Stefan Beyst, ‘is a sensory configuration that functions as a substitute for something else – an object, an idea, a state of affairs, and so on – which is the referent or the meaning.’ He goes on to establish that while an image refers to the real, a sign simply generates meaning through allusion to the referent.3 Still, at times, an image or a sign simply fails to reach outside its own self-contained meaning – which the gatekeepers of meaning usually impose on it.
Therefore, the semiosis of nationalist politics, or any other politics for that matter, depends upon the continued generation of meaning through the production of signs. The process is only rendered meaningless when the signs are generated without keeping in mind that behind them there is a referent, an event, or even a multiplicity of events, or more importantly, an ethos as the fountainhead of all kinds of texts and images.
Stefan Beyst also adds that, 'What is pleasurable is not always present here and now: it has gone by, has still to occur, is elsewhere, or does simply not exist,'4 to make clear that the signs that pleases the masses have stories and events behind them. If those stories and events are removed what remains is a vacuous sign which refers only to itself, thereby becoming an absolute sign through which we are dislodged from our reality. These are the signs that may help collapse our world into emblems, as is often the case of politics based on nationalism and ideologies that serve as plain metanarratives.
- Gianpierto Mazzonoleni and Winfried Schulz, Mediatization of Politics: A Challenge for Democracy, The Political Communication Reader, ed Ralf Negrine and James Stayner, Routledge 2007, p 33.
- Stefan Beyst, Mimesis and Semiosis: An Inquiry into the Relation between Image and Sign,at http://d-sites.net/english/mimesissemiosis.htm, accessed on 12 September, 2013.