Political analysts should have taken lit theory classes

Political analysts, pundits, and the public are terrible at analyzing events and news reporting. But they wouldn’t be if they rigorously read the news, the way they teach you to in lit classes.

Christian Patterson
2020-02-11
Underground Mall

When you go to college and start your first lit courses, the first thing I learned, and think people should learn in general, is how to analyze texts.

And the best, simplest, most fundamental way to analyze text is by close reading it. In middle school and high school, they (from my experience) don’t teach you how to dissect a piece of writing like they usually do in a college class.

I remember so many kids in high school saying stuff like: “why do we have to read all of this symbolism, the book just means what it means!” Alternately, college lit classes delve into that stuff really deep, as long as it’s based in the text.

I also remember, in both high school and college, students would focus heavily on stuff like the biography of the author, historical context, etc. Basically everything around the text, but not the text itself. This is because that’s an easier, more simple thing to talk about than the text.

If you look at the text itself and only itself, you end up getting more out of it, because you are forced to milk words for their meaning.

Even if you write about, say, biographical connections between an author and a text, it still would help to have a close relationship with the text in and of itself first.

There’s nothing outside the text

The way this relates to political analysis is news media, especially in the US, has similar issues as people who read but haven’t practiced close reading. Political analysis tends to be surface level, it tends to be bogged down in details that don’t elucidate a broader understanding, and it tends to be seen as non-referential, having no deeper meaning, implications, or connections.

I always pull this out, but it’s telling. During the Gulf War, there was a survey to compare media consumption about the Gulf War, and knowledge of what was happening. They found that the more people watched cable news about the the Gulf War the less they knew about it.

This is an anecdote, but it gestures to a much bigger problem: people don’t know how to analyze and criticize news media.

And it shows there are two problems at play, because there are two levels of “interpretation”. First, the media interprets real events and then adds commentary to contextualize their interpretation. Then, the media consumer interprets the event itself in concert with the commentary.

When most people consume news media, they take the commentary, the reporting, to be on the same plane of analysis as the actual event themselves. They read the commentary as graphing perfectly onto the event. Analyzing both the event itself and the news media are fused. There is no event without the commentary.

The issue with this is, when you consume news media, you should conceptualize it like a text with marginalia. The event is the text itself, and the commentary is the marginalia.

But for the US consumer, the marginalia is, at least, part of the text itself. The marginalia is written by the same voice as the text itself. At worst, the marginalia is the text itself.

Or to put it in more concrete terms, the event is the material real thing. But to news media consumers, the report on the event is the thing itself, or if not, the reporting on the event is a replica of the event itself. The event doesn’t exist as a material thing until its cemented into consciousness by the news media.

Instead, news media should be analyzed first as a report of an event. And then second, analyzed as a text itself. You should think, here is a report of the event, and then ask “how is this report of an event, also an event itself?”

The obsession with authorial intent in politics

This is all preliminary thoughts on the matter that basically amount to: we should try to analyze news with more depth, and a critical eye.

We should also keep in mind that news media analyze events with a critical eye – they understand exactly what’s going on. But they also heavily use the news media to advance ideological positions. So the reporting needs to be analyzed itself. Why are they reporting it this way? What is their incentive?

But the more specific issue, and one that you get disabused of in lit classes, is the weird focus on authorial intent in political news media. This fixation is central in news commentary, and yet, it’s not highlighted, so it seems like a bad habit people pick up, rather than something they’re actively trying to do.

Not only is the fixation on authorial intent pervasive, but it’s at a highly rudimentary level. Like the lowest of the lowest level.

For example, so many liberals trust whatever MSNBC says. They’re so fixated on the network speaking to them, that they don’t dissect the text. They know MSNBC is the voice of the DNC, and they trust it because of that, not in spite of it.

People engage in the most surface-level, vulgar version of analyzing authorial intent, where MSNBC = Democrat, Fox = Republican, CNN = “centrist”, RT = Russian propaganda, etc.

But if you interpet authorial dictate on this level, then you will not only believe whatever shit they serve you, but you will take the reporting as a perfect facsimile of real events.

Where the focus on authorial intent is most pernicious is when, as we saw with the Iowa Caucus, everyone insists that when the DNC consistently does things that are unusual, and happen to hurt Sanders’s campaign, it’s all an accident.

This impulse comes from the same impulse of believing the press: “well of course they made a mistake, because of course, they have our best interest.”

Conclusion

The point of all this is if you actually read (and I use “read” broadly to include any consumption of media) the text of what your consuming, it will illuminate things a lot better than relying on authorial intent.

If you watch MSNBC as a die-hard democrat, you think “this is true because it’s what my party wants me to think”. If you watch MSNBC with a sense of media criticism, and a dissecting approach, you will analyze what their saying, why they’re saying it, and how their diction tries to convince you of things.

The most minor of word choices are very effective at conveying ideologically loaded ideas. And you will internalize them if all your focusing on is the perceived authority of who is conveying those ideas.

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