Michael Grasso / February 12, 2020
Over the past year of the seemingly interminable 2020 presidential campaign in the United States, the public political history of Senator Bernie Sanders has been fêted and castigated from both sides of the political aisle. An avowed democratic socialist throughout his life and political career, Sanders has taken the side of some very unpopular movements and causes during his time as an activist and Mayor of Burlington, Vermont before coming to Washington as an independent Congressman in 1991. But throughout his career in local and state-level politics, Sanders consistently possessed an ambivalent-yet-canny sense of the utility and power of mass media to shape the political conversation in America and to educate and raise the consciousness of the American working class. In Sanders’s love-hate relationship with broadcast television, we see a microcosm of a generation of activists’ ambivalence with the power of both corporate authority and American hegemony as embodied and reinforced by television. Our image of Sanders’s decidedly more radical political past is shaped by his appearances on, uses of, and critiques of mass media, film, and television. And Sanders’s clever détournement of these media during a deeply transitional period in the American media landscape—the 1970s and 1980s—makes him potentially America’s first hauntological President.
Some definitions are probably in order. Marxist philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term “hauntology” in his 1993 book Specters of Marx, based on a series of lectures in which Derrida was asked to address the question “Whither Marxism” in the aftermath of the end of the USSR and Soviet bloc. Derrida returns to Marx and Engels’ vivid use of gothic imagery from the very first lines of The Communist Manifesto (“a specter is haunting Europe”) to explicate upon the “death” of international communism. Hauntings are warnings, Derrida implies, as he examines Marx’s well-attested love of Shakespeare and specifically how Hamlet’s father’s ghost embodies an historical warning from a vanished, better past. Derrida views Hamlet’s blind faith in following his father’s ghost, the ghost’s warning that “something [is] rotten in the state of Denmark,” and the so-called “victory” of liberal democracy and death of communism as elements of this schema of “hauntology.” If communism is dead, it can return from its grave; moreover, a specter cannot be killed, it can only return to its haunt again and again. “Repetition and first time, but also repetition and last time, since the singularity of any first time, makes of it also a last time. Each time it is the event itself, a first time is a last time. Altogether other. Staging for the end of history. Let us call it a hauntology.” This evocation of the paradox of simultaneous existence and non-existence, beginning and ending, is sealed with a pun: “hauntology” is a near-homonym for “ontology.”
Derrida’s admittedly cryptic and quasi-mystical evocation of ghosts, eternal return, and teleology/eschatology as they relate to the end of the Cold War, paired with the seeming eternal stability and final victory of liberal capitalism, deeply fascinated (and, in his words, “frustrated”) British cultural critic Mark Fisher, whose work I have previously reviewed in great detail. In his own formulation of “hauntology” from his 2014 Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures, Fisher offers a more solid definition of the term in a very specific cultural and artistic (as opposed to Derrida’s specifically political and ontological) context:
When it was applied to music culture—in my own writing, and in that of other critics such as Simon Reynolds and Joseph Stannard—hauntology first of all named a confluence of artists… What they shared was not a sound so much as a sensibility, an existential orientation… suffused with an overwhelming melancholy; and they were preoccupied with the way in which technology materialised music memory—hence a fascination with television, vinyl records, audiotape, and with the sounds of these technologies breaking down.
For those of us in the increasingly accurately named, all-but-forgotten Generation X, watching the analog media of our childhood crackle and fade away on a new plane—the forever-archive of cyberspace—offers a combination of poignancy and lost opportunity. Fisher acknowledges in the opening essay from Ghosts of My Life, “Lost Futures,” that both Derrida and Jean Baudrillard saw before their deaths how the new media landscape was beginning to destroy history—how it had “radically contracted space and time,” in Fisher’s words—and was leaving us in an eternal neoliberal present where nostalgia and remember-whenning are strip-mined, commodified, and drained of their political possibility. Fisher identifies the synthesis within hauntological music—that it paradoxically contains both the past and the future—as crucial in hauntology’s startling political effect for those who grew up in an era of “popular modernism.” In reifying an extinct medium’s aesthetics (the crackle of vinyl, the faded colors of Polaroid film, the warp of an audiocassette) in a contemporary context, hauntology summons the ghost of the (at the time largely occulted) political struggle of the 1970s, of a hidden fight between a decaying Western social democracy and the oncoming libidinal freight train of globalist neoliberalism. Fisher notes the writing of Jeremy Gilbert, who said, “Almost everything I was afraid of happening over the past 30 years has happened. Everything my political mentors warned might happen… has turned out just as badly as they said it would. And yet I don’t wish I was living 40 years ago. The point seems to be: this is the world we were all afraid of; but it’s also sort of the world we wanted.” In Fisher’s mourning of a world where popular modernism diverted us from this inevitability of the end of history and an end to class struggle, he very clearly sees the dream that was taken from us: “But we shouldn’t have to choose between, say, the internet and social security. One way of thinking about hauntology is that its lost futures do not force such false choices; instead, what haunts is the spectre of a world in which all the marvels of communicative technology could be combined with a sense of solidarity much stronger than anything social democracy could muster.” This, I would argue, is the appeal of Bernie Sanders, trapped in the amber of public television and public access videotape from the 1980s, to the American hauntologist.
One clearly sees the dialectical synthesis between Derrida’s political-ontological formulation of hauntology and Fisher’s cultural one in what’s become one of the most famous pieces of Bernie video from the 1980s: the grainy videotape account of Mayor Bernie and his fellow Burlingtonians in the Soviet Union in June of 1988. As Gorbachev’s perestroika began to break down the physical and cultural barriers between East and West, a concomitant collapse of the Soviet Union, thanks to generations of American sabotage, mass murder, and assassination, was occurring. Mayor Sanders’s trip was occurring as the Baltic republics, victims of Stalinist/Soviet oppression and annexation since World War II, were beginning to rebel against Moscow, kicking off the end of the Cold War and the USSR itself. Bernie and his traveling companions traveled to Russia to establish a sister city in Yaroslavl (it was also a de facto “honeymoon” for Mayor Sanders and his new wife Jane). The American contingent, in their final days in Yaroslavl, participated in a traditional series of Russian activities at a workers’ recreational facility attached to an oil refinery—hot and cold saunas, then dinner, toasts, and shared songs late into the night. Sanders noted that two of the women on his trip saw that both Americans and Soviets were dissatisfied with elements of their societies, and the conclusion the Americans came to was, “Let’s take the strengths of both systems. Let’s learn from each other.” In their “congenial” reception in Moscow and Yaroslavl, in Bernie and the Burlingtonians’ singing of American socialist folk songs at a traditional Russian toast, we see the possibility of yet another lost future, one of brotherhood between a possible post-Reagan America and a resurgent, revitalized, and most importantly no-longer-Stalinist Soviet Union, a lost future captured forever on videotape and viewable endlessly in our own nether-realm after the end of history itself. 1980s Mayor Bernie—and Woody Guthrie, and Vladimir Lenin—are the ghosts haunting the parapets of our Castle Elsinore.
In postulating Bernie Sanders as the possible first hauntological President, we need to examine his entire life story around media, television, and their political uses. From the very beginning of his political activism, as part of the civil rights movement in the early ’60s, there was an awareness of the visuals around protest and civil disobedience, a leveraging of the new global mass media to effect sea changes in public opinion. As Bernie’s participation in direct action around improving the rights of African-Americans demonstrates, the movement organized by fellow democratic socialist Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that, while the new mass medium of television was used primarily to rehabilitate the existing hegemonic order, it could also be used to appeal to the better angels of white Americans’ nature. In spectacular events like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the Freedom Riders program, King and his hundreds of thousands of individual voices put forth a vision of an America unriven by racial strife—while simultaneously and dialectically forcing white America to vividly confront its own complicity in the centuries-old historical evil of white terrorism. Bernie’s 2020 campaign often uses an image of a young Sanders being dragged by cops at a protest in 1963 on the South Side of Chicago as a concrete portrayal of his more than half-century of activism and civil disobedience; it’s tremendously effective as a piece of media from a forgotten past many white Americans would prefer to forget. More ghosts, more haunting.
Bernie continued with organizing after graduating from the University of Chicago, but drifted from job to job, from Chicago to New York City and, eventually, like many members of the counterculture, out to the country of Vermont, unable to find a place or a job he felt comfortable with inside the dominant culture. His early 1970s political career with the Liberty Union Party prepared him for his eventual foray into politics in the ’80s, but his quixotic runs for governor and Senate left him jobless by 1977. It was at this time that sometime activist, carpenter, and third-party candidate Bernard Sanders decided it was time for him to be an educator.
In 1977, Sanders left his role as the Liberty Union Party’s perennial candidate and founded the Vermont-based American People’s Historical Society, a producer of filmstrips and educational media that focused on local Vermont and New England history. Its first releases are of a more traditional pedagogical and ideological bent for use in public schools: tales of the American Revolution and Vermont’s Presidents. But it was clear that Sanders sought to expand the horizons of students beyond these usual narrow educational avenues; filmstrips would soon include productions on New England women and the Amistad slave rebellion. The filmstrip itself is a powerful nostalgic symbol for those who attended American public schools between the 1960s and the 1980s. Offered to schools because of cheaper cost as compared to educational films on actual threaded film, they were an economical and practical medium that lacked the dynamism and excitement of actual film; one could easily consider them a socialist technological compromise. The tropes of the medium (warbly soundtrack, the trademark “beep” meant to remind the teacher or AV club member to advance the filmstrip) still live on, strongly, in the memories of late Boomers and Generation X-ers. But it was the APHS’s dramatic shift in 1979 to covering an explicitly socialist topic, the career of American labor organizer, socialist politician, political prisoner, and Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, that marked Sanders’s commitment to producing media that was an alternative to the predominant political and historical pedagogical discourse in American schools. In his announcement of the new line of video cassettes (which would of course soon supplant the filmstrip in schools) dedicated to “The Other Side of American History,” Sanders notes that the APHS wanted to present an educational account of “people and ideas that the major profit oriented manufacturers of audio-visual material will not cover because of economic and political reasons.”
Sanders was long aware that conventional education (and media) had a hegemonic role to play in American society. Nowhere is this distaste for “profit oriented manufacturers of audio-visual material” clearer than in a Sanders opinion column from alternative publication The Vermont Vanguard Press in February 1979, titled “Social Control and the Tube.” Sanders wrote columns for left-wing publications throughout the 1970s, using the alternative media available at the time to spread unorthodox political ideas. In “Social Control and the Tube,” Sanders takes aim at broadcast television with fiery invective, calling the television’s role in American lives no better than “heroin” or “alcohol,” a numbing “escapist mechanism which allows people to ‘space out’ and avoid the pain and conflict of their lives—and the causes of those problems.” The monstrous chimera of television, which not only seeks to numb but also to assure corporate profits (through television advertising) and social control (through the limited range of acceptable political views seen on news and opinion programming) fulfills a centrally hegemonic role in America at the end of the 1970s, arguably the peak of broadcast television’s power before the coming of cable television. Television programs under capitalism can never be of good quality, Sanders asserts, because if they do increase in quality, the commercials will look ridiculous by comparison. What is Sanders’s solution for this monolith which hovers over the American body politic, turning viewers into consumerist morons and zombies? A release of the airwaves back into public hands from the grasping greed of the television networks and their corporate sponsors:
The potential of television, democratically owned and controlled by the people, is literally beyond comprehension because it is such a relatively new medium and we have no experience with it under democratic control. At the least, with the present state of technology, we could have a choice of dozens of channels of commercial-free TV.
At the moment serious writers are, by and large, not allowed to write for commercial television for fear they might produce something that is true and hence, upsetting to the owners of the media. Under democratic control people with all kinds of views could make their presentations, and serious artists would be encouraged to produce work for the tube.
Is this dream of a socially-conscious, democratically-controlled television in America merely the naive wish of a late-’70s socialist crank? Perhaps. Views like these about television have been pilloried and parodied again and again in pop culture (notably, on television) in the person of the character who is “too much of an intellectual to own a TV.” Still, Sanders respects the potential of the medium in the hands of the people. And one of the only existing venues in America at the end of the ’70s where a citizen could possibly participate in the medium as a citizen (apart from local TV stations) was through the Great Society experiment which, by the end of the 1970s, was beamed into millions of American homes and thousands of American nurseries and classrooms with a mission to educate, inform, and entertain the public in much the way Sanders details: the Public Broadcasting System.
(Above: audio version of Bernie Sanders’s documentary on Eugene V. Debs; courtesy Jacobin)
Other nations, like the United Kingdom, had long had governmental control of radio and television broadcasting. In America, a patchwork of disorganized local, nominally-public educational television stations had formed the PBS in 1970, changing the television landscape. Sanders sought the imprimatur of his local Vermont PBS affiliate, Vermont Educational Television (still known locally as ETV) in 1979 to broadcast his APHS video on Eugene Debs. ETV refused. Sanders subsequently gathered a citizen group to act as a watchdog for ETV’s programming, Concerned Citizens on ETV, to protest this refusal. Sanders was certain that ETV’s refusal was for the same political reasons he outlined in his APHS brochure and Vermont Vanguard Press piece; despite PBS affiliates’ nominal public funding, they were also by 1979 more and more dependent on private endowments and even corporate funding (Exxon, for example, was a longtime underwriter for a number of PBS series). The establishment of Concerned Citizens on ETV led to an eventual citizen council on programming at ETV; Sanders even appeared on ETV in 1980, before his election to the office of Mayor of Burlington, to introduce documentary segments on poor Vermonters living in the inner city, on Vermont’s Indian tribes, on working women, and the functionally illiterate. In his introduction, Sanders, sitting on an empty soundstage featuring an ETV video camera and a television monitor showing color bars, explicitly states—on ETV airwaves!—that the programming of ETV and PBS has not been serving the working class and poor population of Vermont up to this point: “We’re going to briefly discuss Vermont Educational Television—this station—and strongly suggest that Vermont ETV undergo a major transformation so that it begins to become relevant to the low-income and working people of this state who constitute the vast majority of our population but who presently watch ETV very rarely.” For a network in PBS whose high-toned programming included opera and stage plays, trying to make ETV into a true proletarian television station, democratically-controlled, was a fulfillment of Sanders’s beliefs as expressed in “Social Control and the Tube.”
After years of failure with the Liberty Union Party trying to achieve state-wide office, Sanders was elected Mayor of Burlington in 1981, shocking the staid Vermont political (and national media) establishment and surprising many political commentators to the point of public embarrassment. While in office, Sanders didn’t leave behind the idea of using broadcasting to both communicate his ideas and empower the working class. With the 1980s, a new form of public broadcasting was becoming popular throughout many cities and towns in the United States: cable public access. In the embryonic days of cable television, FCC regulations stated that all cable television systems with 3,500 or more subscribers would be required to host programs of local interest: in broadcasting terminology, for “public, educational, or governmental use” (PEG). Throughout the 1970s, as local cable systems grew their infrastructure with cameras and sets to host programs and broadcasts of interest to locals in individual towns, governmental requirements waxed and waned as the nascent cable industry fought back against the FCC provisions. In 1984, a compromise legislation was achieved (with the help of Barry Goldwater of all people), not requiring PEG programming at local cable systems but assuring that local authorities could mandate it for their local cable franchises outside of the interference of the federal government. Mayor Sanders used his local Burlington cable TV station, Channel 15, as a platform for his overall political program: to give the people of Burlington a voice in front of their fellow citizens.
“Bernie Speaks to the Community” began on December 3, 1986 with a half-hour introduction to and interview with Bernie Sanders, now mayor for over five years, and the issues facing Burlington at the time. For the next two years, Sanders would shift into the role of host and programmer, introducing Burlington cable viewers to a dizzying array of issues and individuals, from taxes to police funding, from local arts and cultural events to nuclear power, from women’s and Native American issues to education and children’s issues. The show often takes the form of a bog-standard public affairs show, but it really shines when Bernie introduces ordinary citizens, engages in a conversation with them, and lets them do the talking. Most observers were likely introduced to “Bernie Speaks” by this piece in Politico, which presents the program as a series of possible contemporary political liabilities for Bernie, focusing on issues of international socialist import which Sanders continued to pursue as Mayor, such as improving relations with the Soviet Union and protesting against the U.S.-backed Contra atrocities in Nicaragua. Over the brief history of “Bernie Speaks” we can see an evolution occur in Bernie’s political demeanor: from an activist whose blunt affect and approach to politics was frequently direct and uncompromising to a politician with a deft human touch and an ordinary everyday schlub-ness (Bernie is almost always seen in a sweater vest that can’t help but recall Fred Rogers’s studied casualness) that makes him an effective human face for the alien idea (to many Vermonters and Americans) of democratic socialism. In many ways, “Bernie Speaks” had accomplished the dream he outlined in his “Social Control” essay: it turned local television, in some small way, into a democratic and interactive medium from the instrument of control it was on the national level.
Probably the most well-known and well-trafficked memes from Bernie’s local cable access show involve his interaction with the social and built landscape of the 1980s that those of us who were alive then remember so well. The episode where Bernie decides to talk to ordinary citizens at the Burlington Square Mall is, to the eyes of the typical Generation X-er, positively haunting. The architecture of the mall can’t help but evoke memories of similar shopping centers all across America in viewers of a certain age. It’s also clear by looking at the quality of the video throughout the run of “Bernie Speaks” that the Channel 15 crew is using camcorders that are barely better than consumer-grade models available in the mid-1980s, adding yet another layer of nostalgic hauntology to the series. And in Bernie’s conversations with high school students, security guards, Vermonters disappointed in Jesse Jackson’s poor showing on Super Tuesday in 1988, and probably most famously, a pair of young goth-punks who treat Bernie with a combination of bemused respect and surprisingly astute political engagement (they tell Bernie “to heck with society… I don’t like the way society is run, it’s a cop-out, everybody’s plastic…”), we see a politician whose sincerity (and whose own life experience in choosing to opt out of what society had expected of him) echoes across multiple generations, to those on the political fringe or those traditionally excluded from the political process. In the 2020 campaign, Bernie’s strategy has centered the slogan “Not me, us” and has used interviews nearly identical to those in “Bernie Speaks,” with Sanders handing the microphone to town hall attendees to tell their stories of six-figure hospital bills, of economic and social injustice, of a society whose ability and desire to take care of its most vulnerable members has corroded to its very bones.
The mainstream media aligned with both major parties has viewed the media history of Bernie Sanders as a goldmine for hit pieces, a 50-plus year documentation of the biography of a worthless Communist layabout, someone clearly who was on the wrong side of America’s great late-20th century conflict, the Cold War. A closer look and understanding of Bernie Sanders’s history in print and on the airwaves, however, says something different. It offers a parallel history of the dominant American political and media narrative of the 20th century. Through citizen and alternative media, Bernard Sanders built a life in activism, a political career, and a broad-based left-wing political movement. Through those same citizen and alternative media, Bernard Sanders leaves behind an afterimage full of ghosts of a better and different world, one where control was wrested from the incomprehensible behemoths of mainstream media and politics that have steered our nation’s history since the end of World War II. The ghost of ’80s Bernie appears before us in analog, on the warmth and familiarity of cable access videotape, from a strange alternative past that paradoxically offers us a bolder, better future. Bernie’s words and image, from Burlington to Yaroslavl, may haunt us, but the movement he remained faithful to—during the most broadly reactionary period in American history—is alive again: “repetition and first time, but also repetition and last time.” As Mark Fisher said, hauntology offers us the spectre of a different world. Bernie at the mall, Bernie in the Soviet Union, Bernie on video on an empty set in a PBS affiliate: these are not merely flickering images of a dead timeline, forever inaccessible to us. We don’t have to settle for a hollow, repackaged and reconstituted kitsch nostalgia for socialism, for a “left melancholy,” for the end of history and a haunted political landscape bereft of alternatives. While Bernie’s ghost still wanders the food courts of the mall, he yet emerges, large and real as life, no longer on warbling videotape or going school-to-school in Vermont pitching crackly filmstrips to our childhood selves. He is an historical force, part of a movement dedicated to workers’ solidarity. He is on the ballot in a state near you in the coming weeks and months. He is the past inside the present.
This piece is dedicated to Mary Sweeney.