The Spectacle of Presidential Power: 

Televised Lethal Injections


Susan Smith Nash





I'm totally sick of traditional spectacles of power (man on the steps of the Capitol, man being driving in a chauffeured Mercedes limousine, man with American Express platinum card, man with large house & polo ponies). 


I'm not sorry they have been supplanted by spectacles of Baudelairean extremes.  It's Michel Foucault's sado-masochistically based notion of the "limit-experience" made raw and real by the exigencies of "sweeps week" and flagging advertising if the ratings aren't high enough.  Television is good.  We all know that by now.  After all, it's been 50 years.  Don't ask, don't tell.


Is it any accident that a President’s approval rating can soar as high as 80% after a great Shame & Triumph Spectacle of the State of the Union address immediately on the heels of Monica-pushed impeachment proceedings?


Something has changed in this land of green corn and waving wheat and buffalo nickels.  We (American residents & citizens) no longer demand guidance and dignity from an American president. 


We demand power. 

And what is power? 


Power is visibility, image, penetration.  Power is the frisson of watching a confession any other sign of someone else's pain.  In the new media world, where fashion and ratings equal the spectacle of power, we see a new kind of presidential "presence" emerge. 


Could our President have gone with a camera crew to a walkup apartment in NY Upper West side to rescue a 700-lb man too depressed to stop his suicide-by-Twinkies routine, and too massive to fit through the doorframe?  Could President Clinton have directed the construction crews to cut out a big hunk of wall & wheel him out to a motorized launching pad waiting in the wings?  The answer is a resounding "YES!" 


It's a rescue spectacle and rescue spectacles connote power.  (And so we see the God-like presence swoop down and pluck the wretch from his fetid yet anonymous hell.) 


The other important presidential spectacle is the antithesis of rescue -- it is the vengeance or the justice spectacle.  The justice spectacle used to be popular during the Wild West days (lynchings, hanging judges, scalps hanging from belts), but it got to be too difficult to gather an all-approbatory crowd for stringing up a horsethief who is squealing for mercy and kicking the air until he twitches to a sickening halt.  The justice spectacle became passé.  It became more satisfying to watch mushroom clouds billow across American television screens and fighter jets in formation at the close of a public television viewing day.  President Bush silhouetted by the "rockets red glare" of Desert Storm was an example of effective presidential rhetorics / spectacles of power. 


A perplexing question:  Why doesn’t the Desert Storm spectacle work in Year 2000?  Operation Desert Fox turned into an anti-spectacle.  Why?  Perhaps it is because we live in a day and age when Media Spectacle has to be a fashion statement as well as a series of visual clichés.  Fashion changes.  We have to change colors, players, models, and designers.  Change the bombs and the chemicals, too.  Napalm is out of fashion.  Nerve gas, too.  Now we have access & Internet.  That changes things.


What's the next Presidential Power Spectacle? 

A presidential rescue spectacle? 



Not exactly.  We have to look for a hybrid.  It comes in the form of a syringe and a gurney with straps.  What is it's name?  Lethal Injection.  Now. Let's put some spin on it.  Imagine the president shadowed by the scene of a televised lethal injection. He did not push the button -- he let the henchman do that.  Instead, he speaks of his sadness and regret.  He is sorry.  The victims families are sorry.  Society is sorry.  But nothing could be done.  It had to be done.  We are all sorry for the painful world we live in that has to deal out such hideous justice.  We are sorry that we have to watch.  We are sorry, says the President.  "I regret … blah blah blah" says the President.  The victim's family weeps.  The killer's family is not there.  And it's televised. Every last twitch.


"We all regret…" continues the President in a smooth Southern drawl.  He looks sad.  He is acting.  We all know it.  We like it that he is acting.  "I regret… blah blah blah."


The viewer regrets nothing.  The viewer grooves on the horror & the pain.  It is Longinus' SUBLIME in a millennial-blend synthetic dress, cut for the occasion.  Edmund Burke would understand. 


There are certain people we must expunge from our consciousnesses.  The poor (because we fear and hate the poor; hence we blame them for being poor), emotionally disturbed (because we hate the ones who are creative, edgy, even "mad"), terrorist (because we hate cowards who sneak their destruction into Ryder trucks or lunch boxes; we prefer the suicidal blaze-of-glory underdogs and/or "eccentric" millionaires a la DuPont) or anarchist must be plucked from our midst, extirpated from our national soils.  So, the poor, artistic, crazy, Attention-Deficit-Disordered terrorist deserves to become a living cinema-verité COPS episode in order to maintain "stability" and enforce the Bentham or Foucault-style panopticon. 


If  you're weird or different, you get Lethal Injection, baby.


If you step outside the boundaries of polite society, if you're an artist and you refuse to make art that is "pretty" or "clean" or "decent" or even "beautiful" you get punished.  You become a part of the newest variation of the justice spectacle. 


You say to me:  "Oh my GOD, now I've internalized a fear of reprisal!" 


Good, now you get it!  That's the basis of the Power Spectacle anyway??


Question:  Who is actually being lethally injected?  The criminal or the public?


Answer:  Both.


You knew it all along.  That's why you played in the first place.

& so we keep on playing & playing & playing ... and the battery just never runs out.


(Many thanks to Double Lucy, where an earlier version first appeared.)