Finally, after spending August through now in the delightful company of Scott Walker, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, and Bernie Sanders, a new hope appears on the horizon. Actually, I picked three more Republicans to try to balance the field. Ladies and gents, please give a warm welcome to Senators Cruz and Paul.
No thanks to Huckabee’s book for not showing up yet.
For a while this week, though, Cruz was accidentally placed on my shelf so that this picture looked down at my desk.
Maybe I can be forgiven for feeling a bit self-conscious, a lot claustrophobic, and a bit disoriented. Something about this portrait is quite surreal.
This is something of a running trend. The other campaign books so far are almost all fronted with portraits. These fall into a few basic categories:
1: The Friendly-and-Approachable
2: The Tough-but-Approachable
3: The Visionary
And then there’s Jeb, bless him.
Obviously, this is a small sample size of a small set, but a template appears. The candidate embodies a certain kind of personality, or tone. Sometimes this matches up well with the personality in the book. For instance, I’ve talked before about how Scott Walker portrays himself as a powerful, individual, managerial leader, and his picture on the cover of Unintimidated reflects that: legs apart, hands on upper thighs, a bold red tie, a relaxed grin. It’s a deeply dominant posture. By contrast, although I can’t speak for the book yet, it’s interesting that Ted Cruz is the only candidate of the bunch dressed casually. He slouches toward the camera, in his plaid and his leather, his arms crossed over his body. As the norm is definitely the power suit, this is a studied departure from it, and perhaps a self-conscious attempt to bolster Cruz’s shaky ‘outsider’ credentials. Lastly, Bush does not appear on his cover at all: rather, he shares equal billing with his co-author and leaves the cover for a stylized, ominous angle of Lady Liberty. This ties well with the tone of Immigration Wars: while Bush’s personal story plays a small part in the introduction, his experience with immigration policy is a background presence.
Although I’m mainly reading for the content of these books, laying them all out is a needed reminder that they are also a very material thing. The saturation of the visual on the television media circuit is obvious, but there is a visual component here as well, and a sense of tangibility, of the production of something concrete, something you use, as opposed to passively consume. Having a piece of a candidate to hold, to sit on a bookshelf eyeing you, does make them into more of a real person. I catch myself referring to the books with human pronouns. “Here, hold Jeb for a moment, will you?” “I’m surprised Huckabee hasn’t arrived yet.” “I don’t know if I can be bothered to carry Hillary today.” It’s disconcerting when I catch it.
For a former anthropologist, the best way to describe it is through a widely-recognized phenomenon known as distributed personhood: the process by which something of one’s person-ness can become part of or dwell in an object through association. Sometimes the association is with creation: designer clothing is associated with the person behind the label, although conversely dissociated from the person who actually sewed the piece. But often the association is with power: Alfred Gell describes how art, especially royal portraiture, can act as a stand-in, a constant visual reminder of he under whose aegis society happens. The point is that by association with an object, a person may be present in many places, and may be salient (an actual, physical presence), to many people. For a candidate trying to woo a nation of three hundred and nineteen million, the benefits are obvious.
There are two components to distributed personhood in terms of presidential campaign books: the creation of a relationship and its maintenance. The former has become apparent through repetition. In order to get a political book, I need to take stock of the field, build spreadsheets, investigate prices. Then I have to spend money to order it, or time, effort, and money to go buy it from a physical bookstore. I have to carry it around with me on my commute, take minutes and hours to read it, underline and annotate it. Even though the voice reading aloud in my head is mine, the colloquialisms and cadences are the candidate’s. All of this is a process of engagement: I am financially and personally invested in this book, I have physically, emotionally, and intellectually engaged with it. It’s not a personal relationship. But it represents a pathway for me to develop something with a candidate.
The second is also a process of small repeated things.* Every time I pass my desk, I run my eyes over the little row of candidates’ books. Through the days (and weeks) of reading a book, I can’t count the number of times I look at its cover–on which is emblazoned the candidate, looking approachable, friendly, tough, visionary, masculine, whatever. The candidate is literally a presence in my life, in my home, when the TV is turned off and the computer is closed. And I brought them here, I made the first move. In a reversal of much political media, instead of me sitting in front of a tv or lazily clicking around online, this relationship exists entirely out of my agency.
This is a kind of engagement that quite simply doesn’t happen anywhere but a book. I think this is an important point to be made in this project. It’s tempting to lump the whole media together, and god knows social media gets an enormous spotlight in the context of campaigning. However, they definitely don’t all function in the same way, and types of engagement can form entirely different relationships with voters. In a race so focused on the personal, it’s the ability to create that personal relationship that makes the campaign book powerful.
I still have more to say and think about on the last batch, including some thoughts on why Jeb is the most unique and least terrifying or annoying of the pack, why Hillary Clinton and Ben Carson appear to have the same strategy on imperialism, and how Walker and Bush seem to be aiming for the GOP nomination instead of the presidency in their books. However, onward into the depths of the GOP field.
*For more anthropological geekery, this is also a textbook demonstration of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, and is also much more complicated. My ability to buy these books, the schedules of my life that involve returning to a desk as often as I do, my enjoyment of reading, my particular engagement with politics, are all colored by my classed upbringing and education. I’ve made the point with Walker that the ‘we’ of his book seems largely middle-class white; the point is more broadly that engagement with a particular species of media is aimed at the demographics who consume it. This shouldn’t be a footnote, and I will address it more fully later.